(ROME STAGGERS to EMPIRE – continued)

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More Concessions and Written Law – the Twelve Tables

Having won concessions from the aristocrats, commoners wanted more. They went on strike again, this time demanding freedom from arbitrary punishment and other abuses. The strike stopped work on farms and in shops, and to appease the commoners the Senate gave tribunes the power to veto any laws passed by the Senate.

Although officially limited to vetoing laws, the tribunes began initiating legislation. A law in 471 created an assembly of commoners, the Comitia Plebis, presided over by tribunes, creating a greater connection between commoners and tribunes. And tribunes were to share authority with the consuls on the field of battle.

By 450, commoner tribunes were serving as military commanders in place of a consul – the Senate wanting perhaps to take advantage of men with extraordinary military talent. Also by 450, the number of tribunes had been increased to ten.

The Twelve Tables

Twelve Tables

A military assembly (Comitia Centuriata) was created, consisting of both commoners and aristocrats. This assembly was presided over by the consuls. It met to consider the names of aristocrats who would be candidates for the positions of consul, to elect the consuls, to enact legislation, to listen to appeals of those convicted of capital crimes, and to decide whether Rome should go to war.

Bureaucracy was extended. To relieve the consuls of the duty of taking the census, the office of censor was created. There were to be two censors. The census was needed for the collection of taxes and in organizing military duties. The censors learned of the extent of a man's property so that men who could afford it would be obliged to equip themselves with the better and more complete armor of the hoplite warrior. Or, if the census determined that someone could afford the required horse and equipment, he was liable for service as a cavalryman. And commoner cavalrymen were recognized by the Senate as a new class, called the Equites.

To the executive branch of government (the consuls) and the legislative branch (the Senate) a third branch of government was created: the judiciary. This had been urged by the commoners, who wanted laws to apply to them and aristocrats equally. An officer of the law, called the Praetor, was put in charge of the judiciary. He was to be elected annually by the military assembly, and it was hoped that he would exercise judgments independent from politics. But jury duty was to remain exclusively for aristocrats. Only aristocrats had sufficient leisure time for such service, and it was believed that as jurors they would strive to maintain their reputations as men of honor by judging on the evidence presented them.

To avoid arbitrary decisions concerning the law, plebeians demanded that laws be put into writing, and this resulted in the creation of what became known as the Twelve Tables, laws written on twelve bronze tablets. These laws were to be open to legislative change, to embody both precedence and experience. Up to this time Roman laws had been unwritten and connected with religious lore, with aristocrats believing that only they had sufficent understanding of the mysteries of religious lore.

Punishments for breaking the laws expressed in the Twelve Tables were harsh, conforming to strong commitments to virtue. Anyone convicted of slander was to be clubbed to death; a thief was to be flogged, unless he was a slave, in which case he was to be executed by being thrown off Tarpeian Rock on that small rise called Capitoline Hill; someone convicted of defrauding a client was to be executed; perjury was a capital crime; death was the punishment for a judge who accepted a bribe or for anybody who connived with the enemy or delivered a Roman citizen to an enemy. The death sentence, however, may have been rarely carried out. In place of executing someone, the Romans might demolish his house and allow him to go into permanent exile. But for an offense against the gods, the Romans, an intensely religious people, showed little mercy. Vestal Virgins, whose job it was to maintain the sacred fire in the Temple of Vesta, were usually buried alive if convicted of being unchaste.

Roman law recognized the supreme authority of the father within his family. A father could sell his son or daughter into slavery. He could have a rebellious son put to death or, as the Romans put it, sacrificed to the gods. A daughter was her father's property, sold in marriage to whomever he pleased. He could also tell his son whom to marry and when to divorce. Roman law also reflected a Roman harshness toward physical weakness: the dreadfully deformed were quickly put to death shortly after birth, and parents could kill their infant if at least five neighbors consented.

One of the earliest adjustments to the new written laws came in 442 when a tribune introduced legislation against what had been a standing prohibition against marriage between commoners and aristocrats. Aristocrats had been concerned about the purity of their blood – a superstition as old as Egypt's pharaohs 2,000 or so years before, who married their sons and daughters to each other to prevent blood contamination. Speaking before the Senate against this legislation a consul described it as a rebellion against the laws of heaven. He accused the tribune of scheming to obscure or confuse family rank, leaving nothing "pure and uncontaminated." The tribune spoke of the humble origins of the aristocracy's ancestors and claimed that their nobility was not a right of birth or blood but a co-optation. How much this argument convinced the senators is difficult to determine. But in one respect the law against marriage between commoners and aristocrats was impacted by a practical matter: commoner families headed by vigorous entrepreneurs had accumulated wealth, and aristocrats from poorer families had an interest in marrying into these more wealthy families. After much arguing, the law was repealed.


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