The class struggle in the Roman Republic

The overthrow of the Decemvirate

The internal commotions and civil strife caused by the quarrels of patricians and plebeians were followed by a temporary truce. But this broke down again when the college of tribunes attempted to check the power of the consuls by restricting their right to punish plebeians. The patricians were alarmed at what they regarded as an attempt to undermine their hereditary rights, and a long and bitter struggle began.

In the year 452 BC a compromise was reached when a commission of ten men, called decemvirs, constituting the decemvirate, was chosen to write up a code of law defining the principles of Roman administration. During the decemvirate’s term in office, all other magistracies would be suspended, and their decisions were not subject to appeal. Originally, all the decemvirs were patricians.

A concession was made when, in the year 450 BC, several plebeians were appointed to the new decemvirate, but this solved nothing, since the patricians still dominated. The peasantry was being ruined by constant wars with the neighbouring nations. Compelled to make good their losses by borrowing money from patrician creditors, they were liable to become bondsmen if they defaulted on their repayments. None of the problems were addressed by the decemvirate, which became increasingly violent and tyrannical. To make matters worse, when its term of office expired, its members refused to leave office or permit successors to take office.

The conduct of the decemvirs had brought matters to the verge of civil war, and finally provoked an uprising in 449 BC. At first the ruling class resorted to the old trick of prevarication. But when the common soldiers saw that the endless discussions of their problems were getting nowhere, they decided to take drastic action. Led by an ex-tribune called Marcus Duellius, they simply left the City and moved to the Sacred Mount, and the whole of the civilian population followed them. They said that they would only return on condition of being protected by tribunes of their own. The scene is vividly conveyed in the words of Livy.

“The plebeian civilians followed the army; no one whose age allowed him to go hung back. Their wives and children followed them, asking in piteous tones, to whom would they leave them in a City where neither modesty nor liberty were respected? The unwonted solitude gave a dreary and deserted look to every part of Rome; in the Forum there were only a few of the older patricians, and when the senate was in session it was wholly deserted. The angry citizens taunted the magistrates, asking them: ‘Are you going to administer justice to walls and roofs?’.”

It was an incredible situation. A city that shortly before had been bustling with vibrant life stood empty, its streets as silent as a desert. One can envisage a factory without capitalists, but never a factory without workers. The same was true in ancient Roman society. The ruling class was suddenly seized by panic. Faced with the prospect of losing the people who did all the work in peacetime and all the fighting in the wars, the decemvirate backed away. It is always the same story: faced with losing everything, the ruling class will always be prepared to give something. This threat tore concessions from the ruling class, which attempted to defuse the conflict by compromise.

At last the decemvirs gave way, overwhelmed by the unanimous opposition. They said that since it was the general wish, they would submit to the authority of the senate. “All they asked for was that they might be protected against the popular rage; they warned the senate against the plebs becoming by their death habituated to inflicting punishment on the patricians.” (Livy, 3.52) As always the concessions of the ruling class were dictated by fear.

The people regained the right to elect their tribunes. This caused panic among the patricians. Livy writes: “Great alarm seized the patricians; the looks of the tribunes were now as menacing as those of the decemvirs had been.” The tribunes did take action against some of the most hated patricians, such as Appius Claudius, a particularly extreme reactionary who led the opposition to the Publilian law. When he took the field against the Volsci, his soldiers would not fight, and he had every tenth man in his legions put to death. For these acts he was brought to trial by the tribunes M. Duillius and C. Sicinius. Seeing that conviction was certain, he committed suicide.

However, the ruling class need not have worried. Most of the people’s tribunes were like our modern reformists, as the following words of Duillius show quite well:

“M. Duillius the tribune imposed a salutary check upon their excessive exercise of authority. ‘We have gone,’ he said, ‘far enough in the assertion of our liberty and the punishment of our opponents, so for this year I will allow no man to be brought to trial or cast into prison. I disapprove of old crimes, long forgotten, being raked up, now that the recent ones have been atoned for by the punishment of the decemvirs. The unceasing care which both the consuls are taking to protect your liberties is a guarantee that nothing will be done which will call for the power of the tribunes.’"

To which Livy adds: “This spirit of moderation shown by the tribune relieved the fears of the patricians, but it also intensified their resentment against the consuls, for they seemed to be so wholly devoted to the plebs, that the safety and liberty of the patricians were a matter of more immediate concern to the plebeian than they were to the patrician magistrates.” (Livy, 3.59)

These lines might have been written yesterday! They accurately convey the conduct and psychology of the kind of individuals who, while trying to mediate between irreconcilable class interests, invariably abandon the struggle for the interests of the poor and oppressed and assume responsibility for defending the interests of the rich and powerful.

The Temple of Concord

As a concession to the plebs (that is, to the wealthy plebs – the Roman capitalists), it was agreed that in future, one of the two consuls would always be a plebeian. By 351 the Censorship was also opened to plebeians, and later it was agreed that a censor must always be a plebeian. This meant that the patricians had understood that in order to keep the masses in check, it was necessary to buy off their leaders by giving some of them access to positions of power. About this time a new temple was established at Rome – the Temple of Concord. A kind of concord had indeed been established in Rome, but not between rich and poor. As Michael Grant points out:

“The effect of these changes was to create a new ruling class, no longer an entirely patrician aristocracy but a nobility consisting of those men, patricians and plebeian alike, whose ancestors had included consuls or censors or dictators – which is what the term ‘noble’ came to mean. And within the next century plebeian clans such as the Marcii and Decii and Curii, in addition to those who had come from Tusculum and elsewhere, succeeded in establishing themselves among the leaders of this new oligarchy of nobles.” (M. Grant, History of Rome, p. 68)

Throughout the history of the Republic there were many attempts to carry out an agrarian reform and alleviate the plight of debtors. The tribunes Linius and Sextus tried to pass a law whereby the interest that a debtor had already paid should be deducted from the amount of debt he still owed. Even so, they moderated this demand by adding that, in order not to cause too much distress to the creditors, the balance must be repaid in annual instalments in a period not greater than three years. Nevertheless, it is clear that this was completely ineffective, since we hear of no fewer than four new proposals to relieve debt hardship over the next 50 years. Linius and Sextus also attempted to limit the amount of land that could be owned by one person. This was intended to satisfy the land hunger of the poor. But, like the measures on debt, it soon became a dead letter.

Michael Grant neatly sums up the whole process:

“In the first place, whatever means Hortensius may have taken to clear up the debt situation did not prove permanently effective, any more than the enactments that had gone before them; so that democracy in the economic and social fields was still out of the question. Secondly, the plebeian council, though it could, on occasion, be swayed by agitators opposed to the establishment, was normally controlled by its richest members, just as thoroughly as the national Assembly was. And thirdly, the council’s guiding spirits, the tribunes of the people, who possessed the power of vetoing the actions of all Roman magistrates, were cleverly won over by the other side. This happened by gradual stages. First (the dates are uncertain) they were allowed to sit in the Senate and listen to debates. Next, they received the right to put motions to the Senate. And finally – and this had happened before the end of the century – they were even authorized to convene the Senate and preside over its sessions. None of this was unacceptable to the tribunes themselves, for they were often men who wanted to pursue official careers: as they were finally in a position to do, now that Rome possessed a dominant nobility composed of plebeians as well as patricians.

“If things had gone the other way, and the tribunes of the people had continued to develop their formal powers of obstruction, the whole machinery of government might well have been paralyzed, and that, at least, was a result which this hampering of their obstructive capacity prevented. Yet, from the standpoint of the oppressed proletarians, this transformation of the tribunes from protesters into henchmen of the government signified that the struggle between the orders, though won in the formal sense, had in other and more important respects been lost. It proved harder for the poor, henceforward, to find champions; for the new sort of pro-government tribunes placed their vetoes at the disposal of the Senate instead – and the Senate was glad to use them for its own purposes, not only to keep their fellow plebeians down, but to prevent ambitious state officials from getting out of hand.” (M. Grant, History of Rome, pp. 71-2)

The Gauls sack Rome

The Roman state was born out of war, and was in an almost perpetual state of war with the neighbouring tribes. The struggle with tribes like the Volsci, the Aequi and the Sabines were a matter of national survival for Rome. The wars against these peoples gave the Roman citizen’s army a great deal of experience. It perfected its tactics. A new spirit was engendered in the Roman people, a spirit hardened by the trials and tribulations of war. The traditional Roman virtues: valour, discipline and submission to the state, thus reflects the real conditions in which Rome was forged.

From the first conflicts with more backward Latin tribes, Rome was preparing for greater things. The later wars were waged against more advanced, civilized nations, such as the Etruscan colony of Veii. It was in this war that Camillus first compelled the Romans to accept continuous military service. Previously, the peasant soldiers had been allowed to interrupt their military service for harvesting. Now Camillus ended this tradition, substituting it for pay. The campaign was successful, and marks a turning point. For the first time, the soldiers of Rome had conquered a great Etruscan city state.

These conquests prepared the way for the inexorable expansion of Rome. The defeat of Veii removed an important obstacle in the path of this expansion. Overnight, it almost doubled the territory of Rome. Land in the newly-conquered lands, linked by the excellent Etruscan road system, could be given to the Roman citizen-farmer/soldier as individual allotments. This system of obtaining land through conquest was a very important element in the history of the Roman Republic, but the biggest question of all was: who would get control of this conquered land. It proved to be the central question of the entire history of the Republic.

However, in 387 BC the seemingly inexorable advance of Roman arms received a sudden and shocking reverse. This was a period of huge migrations of the peoples, mainly the Celtic and Germanic peoples, moving inexorably from east to west in search of new lands to settle. These mass migrations, which transformed the face of Europe forever, only ended in the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. By the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the migration of the Celtic-speaking peoples was in full swing. They moved in huge numbers out of Central Europe as far as Spain and Britain. They occupied what is now France and gave it its name: Gaul.

From there in the fifth century they gradually spread across the Alps and drove out the Etruscans who were settled there. From this time on the North of Italy was called “Gaul this side of the Alps” (Cisalpine Gaul). The Gauls who occupied the valley of the Po had developed the art of war to the point where they possessed a formidable military machine. They had the first cavalry to use iron horse shoes and their infantry was skilled in the use of finely-tempered slashing broad-swords. Few could resist the mass onslaught of these ferocious warriors, their bodies painted and tattooed, who decorated their horses with the skulls of fallen enemies. To make their attack more terrifying, they accompanied the charge with a deafening cacophony of trumpets and war-cries that struck terror into the hearts of the most hardened Roman soldiers.

In the late fourth century BC, one group of Gauls drove southwards from the Po Valley into the Italian Peninsula in the direction of Rome. At a distance of only eleven miles from the city they were met by an army of ten to fifteen thousand Romans – the largest force Rome had ever put into the field. What followed was the greatest catastrophe in Roman history. The Roman phalanx of heavily-armed spear-carrying troops was overwhelmed by the faster-moving Gaulish cavalry and infantry, which rushed on them with an unstoppable impulse, shouting their terrifying war-cries. The Roman ranks were shattered and the army routed. Most of its soldiers plunged into a nearby river in a desperate attempt to save themselves and were drowned. Rome was left defenceless in the face of the enemy.

The Gauls entered the City and camped in the streets of Rome. Meeting no opposition, they murdered, plundered and burned, although they lacked the siege weapons to take the Capitol. Even today, traces of the devastation can be seen in the edges of the Forum, in a layer of burnt debris, broken tiles and carbonized wood and clay. The Gauls finally got tired of besieging the Capitol, and were eventually persuaded by bribery to leave the City, for which, in any case, they had no use. But the memory of this horrifying experience remained to haunt the Romans long after the events had receded into that misty area of consciousness where historic memory becomes blurred by myth and legend.

The Roman historians have left us the story that the terrified Romans emptied their temples of gold to pay the Gauls to leave the City. The gold was brought to the place appointed by the Gauls, and when the weights proved not to be equal to the amount that the Romans had with them, the Gaulish leader Brennus threw his sword onto the other scale, uttering the chilling words: "Væ victis"—"Woe to the conquered." This story may or not be founded on fact, but it left a strong imprint on the national psychology of the Romans forever, and in particular coloured their attitude to the people of Gaul, who later learned the true horror behind the words that Roman legend attributes to Brennus.

The Samnite wars

Despite this setback, Rome soon revived and continued its march to domination, extending its sphere of influence into the fertile plains of Campania. This brought them into conflict with one of the most warlike of all the Latin peoples and dragged Rome into the longest and bitterest wars in its history. The Samnites were peasants and herdsmen, living in the barren limestone uplands of the Apennines in central Italy. They were barbarians at a stage of social and economic development not unlike the one that characterized Rome in its initial stages. As happened with the Gauls and many other barbarian tribes in antiquity, pressure of population and the lack of agricultural land to feed it brought about a mass migration.

The result was a headlong collision with Rome, which was strengthening its position on Campania, now threatened by a wholesale Samnite invasion. The Romans constructed the Appian Road for the purpose of transporting large numbers of troops towards the theatre of military operations. However, the Samnites proved to be tough opponents and Rome suffered more than one costly defeat in the course of three separate wars. The first lasted from 343 to 341 BC. The Second (or Great) Samnite War lasted from 326 to 304 BC. And the third war lasted from 298 to 290 BC. This represented a titanic effort that seriously drained the resources of Rome. The second war alone lasted twenty years and in the first half of the war Rome suffered serious defeats, but the second half saw Rome's recovery, reorganization, and ultimate victory.

This was not a defensive war for Rome, which for the first time found itself involved with the powerful and wealthy Greek city states of southern Italy. They had appealed to Rome for help against the Samnites. Victory in this costly war made Rome the master of the whole of Italy except for Sicily. The final defeat of the Samnites therefore decided the fate of Italy and changed world history. It also gave a powerful impulse to the class struggle in Roman society.

Class contradictions in Rome

As the territory of Rome enlarged by conquest, there was a considerable increase in population. This was achieved partly through immigration, partly through the addition of inhabitants of the subjugated tribes (mainly from the Latin districts). But since all these new citizens stood outside the old gentes, curiae, and tribes, they formed no part of the Populus Romanus, the Roman people. Although they were personally free, could own property in land, and had to pay taxes and do military service, they could not hold any office, nor take part in the assembly of the curiae. More importantly, they were not allowed to have any share in the distribution of conquered state lands. In this way there emerged an oppressed class that was excluded from all public rights.

As we have seen, the first period of the Roman Republic was characterized by a continuous expansion that established the hegemony of Rome in all Italy after the victory over the Samnites. After the long wars of defence against neighbouring Latin tribes and marauding Gauls, the Romans passed over to wars of offence and conquest. In the process, the Roman army had been transformed. It was far bigger than before, consisting of two legions. Michael Grant describes this:

“Each legion was a masterpiece of organization, more mobile than the Greek phalanx which had served as the original model because a legion contained an articulated group of thirty smaller units (maniples), each of which could manoeuvre and fight separately on its own, in rough mountainous country as well as on the plains, either in serried ranks or open order, thus combining compactness with flexibility.” (Michael Grant, The History of Rome, p.54.)

The Romans perfected a kind of warfare that was well suited to the peculiarities of a citizen’s army: the disciplined legions, fighting with the throwing spear and the short sword created a formidable military machine that swept all before it. These new weapons were probably introduced during the Samnite wars. They completely changed the nature of warfare. The withering hail of javelins, followed by a charge and the employment of the short stabbing sword wielded from behind a solid barrier of shields has been likened to the combination of the musket and bayonet in 18th century warfare. No other army could withstand it.

The main factor that ensured the success of Roman arms was the free peasantry that formed the backbone of the Republic and its army. Under the early gens system, land was held in common by the gens itself. But with the break-up of the gentes, and the emergence of private property of the land, a class of free small peasants was created. Alongside the class of small peasants (assidui) there was the poorest layer of society, the proletarii – the “producers of children”. But it was the class of small proprietors that supplied the troops for military service. The Roman peasant was a free citizen who had something to fight for. He had the right to bear arms and the duty of military service. The very word for the people comes from the Latin populus, which originally meant “a body of warriors”, and is related to the word populari, to devastate, and popa, a butcher.

The plebs had a strong card to play: they constituted the majority of the army. On more than one occasion the plebs turned this weapon against them by refusing to fight or sabotaging recruitment. Livy notes that the Roman commanders in the field were sometimes more afraid of their own men than they were of the enemy. This brings to mind the words of the Duke of Wellington when passing review of his troops on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, when he commented to a fellow officer: “I don’t know what effect they will have on the enemy, but by God they frighten me!”

On the eve of the war with Veii, it is reported that the tribunes were stirring up discontent in the army:

“This disaffection amongst the plebs was fanned by their tribunes, who were continually giving out that the most serious war was the one going on between the senate and the plebs, who were purposely harassed by war and exposed to be butchered by the enemy and kept as it were in banishment far from their homes lest the quiet of city life might awaken memories of their liberties and lead them to discuss schemes for distributing the State lands amongst colonists and securing a free exercise of their franchise. They got hold of the veterans, counted up each man's campaigns and wounds and scars, and asked what blood was still left in him which could be shed for the State. By raising these topics in public speeches and private conversations they produced amongst the plebeians a feeling of opposition to the projected war.” (Livy: 4:58)

Livy thus attributes the mutinous mood in the army to the agitation of the tribunes. But it is more likely that the discontent was already present, and the tribunes were merely giving it a voice: a sufficiently serious crime from the standpoint of the Senate. Again, the crafty patricians took the necessary measures to pacify the plebs. The Roman generals were careful to allow the soldiers to plunder the town of Anxur, where 2500 prisoners were taken:

“Fabius would not allow his men to touch the other spoils of war until the arrival of his colleagues, for those armies too had taken their part in the capture of Anxur, since they had prevented the Volscians from coming to its relief. On their arrival the three armies sacked the town, which, owing to its long-continued prosperity, contained much wealth. This generosity on the part of the generals was the first step towards the reconciliation of the plebs and the senate. This was followed by a boon which the senate, at a most opportune moment, conferred on the plebeians. Before the question was mooted either by the plebs or their tribunes, the senate decreed that the soldiery should receive pay from the public treasury. Previously, each man had served at his own expense.” (Livy, 4:59, my emphasis, AW)

Livy describes the scenes of rejoicing at the unexpected “generosity” of the Senate, which was preparing for war with the powerful Etruscan city state of Veii, and needed to avoid a conflict with the soldiers:

“Nothing, it is recorded, was ever welcomed by the plebs with such delight; they crowded round the Senate-house, grasped the hands of the senators as they came out, acknowledged that they were rightly called ‘Fathers,’ and declared that after what they had done no one would ever spare his person or his blood, as long as any strength remained, for so generous a country. They saw with pleasure that their private property at all events would rest undisturbed at such times as they were impressed and actively employed in the public service, and the fact of the boon being spontaneously offered, without any demand on the part of their tribunes, increased their happiness and gratitude immensely. The only people who did not share the general feeling of joy and goodwill were the tribunes of the plebs. They asserted that the arrangement would not turn out such a pleasant thing for the senate or such a benefit to the whole community as they supposed. The policy was more attractive at first sight than it would prove in actual practice. From what source, they asked, could the money be raised; except by imposing a tax on the people? They were generous at other people's expense.” (Livy, 4:60)

The concerns of the tribunes were well founded. The Senate did impose a tax, and the tribunes publicly announced that they would defend anybody who refused to pay it. Livy records that the Senate emptied the treasury of bronze coins to keep the army happy, an aim which they succeeded in achieving – for the time being.

The ruling class understood the need to ensure that Rome’s plebeian soldiers would continue to fight. Appius Claudius, known as “Caecus”, “the Blind” – which he was in his old age – was a patrician who became Censor in 312 BC. His main aim appeared to have been to improve the position of discharged soldiers, who by this time were increasingly landless peasants flocking to Rome. No reformer had ever before taken up the cause of the Roman proletariat. His intentions may have been motivated by genuine concern, but more likely his main aim was to avoid disturbances in the Capital. These measures, however timid, irritated the Senate, which took steps to undermine and sabotage them.

The third and last Samnite war began in 298 and lasted for eight years. This ferocious conflict ended in victory but also in financial exhaustion. The plebeians of middle rank who spent years fighting in the army had returned home to find themselves ruined. The influx of cheap grain from the conquered lands undermined them. So, despite all the laws passed to protect them, a large number of small peasants fell into debt. A new period of instability ensued.

Within the community from the very beginning there were the elements of class contradiction. But the rapid increase of inequality and the encroachments on the rights of the plebs by the wealthy patricians placed a growing strain on the social cohesion of the Republic. The wealthy classes encroached on the common lands and oppressed the plebs in different ways, causing rising tension between the classes. The constant need to defend the Roman state against external enemies provided the Patricians with an invaluable instrument whereby to keep the plebs in check, as Hegel points out:

“In the first predatory period of the state, every citizen was necessarily a soldier, for the state was based on war; this burden was oppressive, since every citizen was obliged to maintain himself in the field. This circumstance, therefore, gave rise to the contracting of enormous debts – the Patricians becoming the creditors of the Plebeians. With the introduction of laws, this arbitrary relation necessarily ceased; but only gradually, for the Patricians were far from being immediately inclined to release the plebs from the cliental relation; they rather strove to render it permanent. The laws of the Twelve Tables still contained much that was undefined; very much was still left to the arbitrary will of the judge – the Patricians alone being judges; the antithesis, therefore, between Patricians and Plebeians, continues till a much later period. Only by degrees do the Plebeians scale all the heights of official station, and attain those privileges which formerly belonged to the Patricians alone.” (Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, p.286.)

Here the inner workings of every state in history are laid bare, exposing the organized violence and class oppression that lies beneath the thin veneer of “impartiality” and “justice” that is expressed in the Majesty of the Law, and serves as a fig-leaf to obscure the crude reality of the state as an organ for the oppression of one class over another:

“In order to obtain a nearer view of this Spirit, we must not merely keep in view the actions of Roman heroes, confronting the enemy as soldiers or generals, or appearing as ambassadors – since in these cases they belong, with their whole mind and thought, only to the state and its mandate, without hesitation or yielding – but pay particular attention also to the conduct of the plebs in times of revolt against the patricians. How often in insurrection and in anarchical disorder was the plebs brought back into a state of tranquillity by a mere form, and cheated of the fulfilment of its demands, righteous or unrighteous! How often was a Dictator, e.g., chosen by the senate, when there was neither war nor danger from an enemy, in order to get the plebeians into the army, and to bind them to strict obedience by the military oath!” (Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, p.288)

The campaign for land reform was repeatedly interrupted by the threat of foreign invasion. The patricians made good use of the external threat to defuse the class struggle. How well the old Idealist Hegel understood the workings of class society! And how brilliantly he exposed the tactics with which the rulers of the State make use of the “external enemy” to fool the masses and whip up patriotic sentiment in order to divert their attention from the self-evident fact that their worst enemies are at home.