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Chapter 5


Each rules his race, his neighbour not his care, Heedless of others, to his own severe.--Homer.


[As this chapter is principally designed for advanced students, it has not been thought necessary to add questions for examination.]


The contests respecting agrarian laws occupy so large a space in Roman history, and are so liable to be misunderstood, that it is necessary to explain their origin at some length. According to an almost universal custom, the right of conquest was supposed to involve the property of the land. Thus the Normans who assisted William I. were supposed to have obtained a right to the possessions of the Saxons; and in a later age, the Irish princes, whose estates were not confirmed by a direct grant from the English crown, were exposed to forfeiture when legally summoned to prove their titles. The extensive acquisitions made by the Romans, were either formed into extensive national domains, or divided into small lots among the poorer classes. The usufruct of the domains was monopolized by the patricians who rented them from the state; the smaller lots were assigned to the plebeians, subject to a tax called tribute, but not to rent. An agrarian law was a proposal to make an assignment of portions of the public lands to the people, and to limit the quantity of national land that could be farmed by any particular patrician.[1] Such a law may have been frequently impolitic, because it may have disturbed ancient possessions, but it could never have been unjust; for the property of the land was absolutely fixed in the state. The lands held by the patricians, being divided into extensive tracts, were principally used for pasturage; the small lots assigned to the plebeians were, of necessity, devoted to agriculture. Hence arose the first great cause of hostility between the two orders; the patricians were naturally eager to extend their possessions in the public domains, which enabled them to provide for their numerous clients, and in remote districts they frequently wrested the estates from the free proprietors in their neighbourhood; the plebeians, on the other hand, deemed that they had the best right to the land purchased by their blood, and saw with just indignation, the fruits of victory monopolized by a single order in the state. The tribute paid by the plebeians increased this hardship, for it was a land-tax levied on estates, and consequently fell most heavily on the smaller proprietors; indeed, in many cases, the possessors of the national domains paid nothing.

From all this it is evident that an agrarian law only removed tenants who held from the state at will, and did not in any case interfere with the sacred right of property; but it is also plain that such a change must have been frequently inconvenient to the individual in possession. It also appears, that had not agrarian laws been introduced, the great body of the plebeians would have become the clients of the patricians, and the form of government would have been a complete oligarchy.

The chief means to which the Romans, even from the earliest ages, had recourse for securing their conquests, and at the same time relieving the poorer classes of citizens, was the establishment of colonies in the conquered states. The new citizens formed a kind of garrison, and were held together by a constitution formed on the model of the parent state. From what has been said above, it is evident that a law for sending out a colony was virtually an agrarian law, since lands were invariably assigned to those who were thus induced to abandon their homes.

The relations between Rome and the subject cities in Italy were very various. Some, called _municipia_, were placed in full possession of the rights of Roman citizens, but could not in all cases vote in the comitia. The privileges of the colonies were more restricted, for they were absolutely excluded from the Roman comitia and magistracies. The federative[2] states enjoyed their own constitutions, but were bound to supply the Romans with tribute and auxiliary forces. Finally, the subject states were deprived of their internal constitutions, and were governed by annual prefects chosen in Rome.

Before discussing the subject of the Roman constitution, we must observe that it was, like our own, gradually formed by practice; there was no single written code like those of Athens and Sparta, but changes were made whenever they were required by circumstances; before the plebeians obtained an equality of civil rights, the state neither commanded respect abroad, nor enjoyed tranquillity at home. The patricians sacrificed their own real advantages, as well as the interests of their country, to maintain an ascendancy as injurious to themselves, as it was unjust to the other citizens. But no sooner had the agrarian laws established a more equitable distribution of property, and other popular laws opened the magistracy to merit without distinction of rank, than the city rose to empire with unexampled rapidity.



[1] The Licinian law provided that no one should rent at a time more than 500 acres of public land.

[2] The league by which the Latin states were bound (jus Latii) was more favourable than that granted to the other Italians (jus Italicum.)

Oliver Goldsmith