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Translated by Rev. Canon Roberts
Book II Chapter 23: The Volscian War and The First Secession of the Plebs.[495 BC]
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But a war with the Volscians was imminent, and the State was torn with internal dissensions; the patricians and the plebeians were bitterly hostile to one another, owing mainly to the desperate condition of the debtors. They loudly complained that whilst fighting in the field for liberty and empire they were oppressed and enslaved by their fellow-citizens at home; their freedom was more secure in war than in peace, safer amongst the enemy than amongst their own people. The discontent, which was becoming of itself continually more embittered, was still further inflamed by the signal misfortunes of one individual. |
An old man, bearing visible proofs of all the evils he had suffered, suddenly appeared in the Forum. His clothing was covered with filth, his personal appearance was made still more loathsome by a corpse-like pallor and emaciation, his unkempt beard and hair made him look like a savage. In spite of this disfigurement he was recognised by the pitying bystanders; they said that he had been a centurion, and mentioned other military distinctions he possessed. He bared his breast and showed the scars which witnessed to many fights in which he had borne an honourable part. The crowd had now almost grown to the dimensions of an Assembly of the people. He was asked, "Whence came that garb, whence that disfigurement?" He stated that whilst serving in the Sabine war he had not only lost the produce of his land through the depredations of the enemy, but his farm had been burnt, all his property plundered, his cattle driven away, the war-tax demanded when he was least able to pay it, and he had got into debt. This debt had been vastly increased through usury and had stripped him first of his father's and grandfather's farm, then of his other property, and at last like a pestilence had reached his person. He had been carried off by his creditor, not into slavery only, but into an underground workshop, a living death. Then he showed his back scored with recent marks of the lash.
On seeing and hearing all this a great outcry arose; the excitement was not confined to the Forum, it spread every where throughout the City. Men who were in bondage for debt and those who had been released rushed from all sides into the public streets and invoked "the protection of the Quirites." (1) Every one was eager to join the malcontents, numerous bodies ran shouting through all the streets to the Forum. Those of the senators who happened to be in the Forum and fell in with the mob were in great danger of their lives. Open violence would have been resorted to, had not the consuls, Publius Servilius and Appius Claudius, promptly intervened to quell the outbreak.
A very small number of senators, who happened to be available, were got together by the consuls, the rest were afraid to go even to the Forum, much more to the Senate-house. No business could be transacted owing to the requisite number not being present. The people began to think that they were being played with and put off, that the absent senators were not kept away by accident or by fear, but in order to prevent any redress of their grievances, and that the consuls themselves were shuffling and laughing at their misery. Matters were reaching the point at which not even the majesty of the consuls could keep the enraged people in check, when the absentees, uncertain whether they ran the greater risk by staying away or coming, at last entered the Senate-house. The House was now full, and a division of opinion showed itself not only amongst the senators but even between the two consuls. Appius, a man of passionate temperament, was of opinion that the matter ought to be settled by a display of authority on the part of the consuls; if one or two were brought up for trial, the rest would calm down. Servilius, more inclined to gentle measures, thought that when men's passions are aroused it was safer and easier to bend them than to break them.
(1): The formula in which a man appealed to his fellow-citizens for help.