Internal Roman Unity
In 510 BC, Rome rebelled against the King Tarquinius, the Etruscan king, in an attempt to win independence for itself, but was captured by Lars Porsenna, who occupied it instead of returning the throne to Tarquinius. This was not a popular revolution in the “people-power” style of the Russian, Chinese or French revolutions - in which the masses’ resentment of the rulers resulted in the change - as it was led not by the proletariat (plebeians in Roman terms), but by the patricians (aristocracy).
Despite their defeat, they continued in defiance, enticing the other cities in Latium to join them in rebellion. Four years later, the combined Latin forces defeated the Etruscans, breaking their dominion and winning independence for the whole Latin League. However, this unity was short-lived, as Rome, being the largest city in the League, tried to assume leadership, making treaties with Carthage which unilaterally extended its territory into large portions of the surrounding countryside. These claims were disputed, in much the same way as the Spratly Islands are now a source of contention, or the oil fields off East Timor that are claimed by both itself and Australia.
This territorial dispute sparked off a new war, with Rome struggling against her former allies, meeting in battle. The outcome was contentious, as the Romans pronounced themselves the victors, but in the light of history, it might have merely ended in stalemate. Truce was declared in 493 B.C., either due to the Latin League being cowed by Roman military strength, or because they needed to unite against the Italian hill tribes.
Rome was never a “democracy”, as power was concentrated into the hands of the aristocrats, who filled the senate. In much the same way as Venice in the 16th Century, real power was concentrated into the hands of a few select families, under the pretence of remaining an Aristocratic Republic. The plebeians did have an assembly, the comitia centuriata, but its decisions were ultimately made by the nobles. The commoners suffered under this system, powerless and disenfranchised, with the nobility having the authority to enslave them if debts were unpaid.
This vastly unequal sharing of wealth and power led to the “Conflict of the Orders”, in which the plebeians aligned themselves against patricians, perhaps inspired by tales of democracy and revolution in Greece. Despite lacking funds and weaponry, they had a powerful advantage – strength in numbers. Hence, they were able to hold the patricians to ransom, by refusing to fight in the wars against external forces that Rome was involved in. The aristocrats soon realised they could not deal with both the threat of civil war and external aggression, relenting and granting the commoners rights.
One of the most significant changes was the election of tribunes, who acted as the voices of the people, with the power of veto over the consuls’ (the Roman equivalent of a king, or prime minister) decisions. Having this means of curbing the power of the patricians was enough for the people, perhaps indicating that they were only demanding some form of protection, and the rebellion was not due to complete disillusionment with the patricians’ leadership.
Another beneficial change was the establishment of a code of written laws, the predecessor to modern-day European constitutions, in order to have a system of justice, preventing arbitrary abuse of power by the consuls. The “Twelve Tables”, the famous Roman law, showed great enlightenment in some of the changes it laid down, as now, death sentences were only to be issued by the law courts, with an appeal system in place to prevent abuse. Curbs to the charging of interest were put in place, and it even had the sophistication to distinguish between premeditated murder and unintentional homicide. This is widely regarded as the ancestor to the European legal system, in which everyone is equal before the law, and has a right to be tried equally, so “justice” is fairly meted out, and the law applies to both patricians and plebeians.