Tag Archives: Plebs

Good and bad polytheists (part 5): Potitus & Barbatus, and Appius Claudius Crassus


roman_eagle_design_by_erebus74-d4t2bly[1]Lucius Valerius Potitus and Marcus Horatius Barbatus were two senators who distinguished themselves during the troublesome time of the Decemviri as well as the secession of the Plebeians in 449 BCE. Conflicts between the aristocratic senate and the common citizens of Rome had increased since the overthrow of the monarchy in 509 BCE, and in time the bad blood in the state made the Plebeians (or common citizens) secede, or break away, in 494 BCE. Although the troubles ended when the senate conceded some power by the formation of the office of Tribune of the Plebeians, with inviolable privileges, new disturbances began to brew about forty years later. Because Rome was not in a condition for civil broils during a time of war with its neighbors, it was determined by the senate to appoint a special committee of 10 men to establish a code of laws that would prevent future disagreement at home. These men, who were all senators, were called the decemviri, and were given extraordinary powers for each term in office, which lasted one year. However, upon the end of their second term in 450 BCE, they remained in office by force and suspended indefinitely the office of Plebian Tribune as well as the Plebian right to appeal.

When petitions failed, the Plebeians repeated their action 50 years before by withdrawing to the sacred mountain of Rome and declaring secession. The senate sided with the people and accused the decemviri of restoring the tyranny of the old kingdom. It is here that Potitus and Barbatus first served their homeland by negotiating with the people on the sacred mountain, having been entrusted by the senate with that task. They had also stood up to protect an innocent man from unjust persecution by the decemviri earlier, one of the causes of the revolt (see below). By this means, with an alliance of the senate and the people, the decemviri was abolished and persecuted. For their honest service on the side of justice, Potitus and Barbatus, whose namesakes had also participated in the overthrow of the monarchy, were elected consuls. During their year in office, they further contributed to the cause of good order and justice by passing a series of laws that solemnly secured the old rights and magistracy of the Plebeians. To punish dissent, they enacted that the heads of those who violated these laws would be sacrificed to Jupiter, and their property sold for the benefit of the temple of the Gods Ceres, Liber and Libera. Furthermore, those who deliberately prevented the people from electing tribunes and magistrates were to be scourged and beheaded. These accomplishments of Potitus and Barbatus not only led to justice and harmony in the state for many generations, but also to a greater respect and reverence for the laws, which were indeed an essential component of religion.



95620-004-4AE21086[1]This is the senator who was the most notorious member of the decemviri, and afterwards their ringleader. During his term as consul in 451 BCE, it was determined by the senate to establish a committee of ten men to examine how Roman laws could be modelled to the laws of Greece, which had been brought back from a legal inquiry three years before. During their first year and term, the decemviri gained the approval of the senate and people by their establishment of the Twelve Tables, the code of Rome. However, it was expected of these men to resign at the end of their terms and give way to others in the next election. Because there were fears of his already apparent ambition, Crassus was given the friendly privilege, by his colleagues, of choosing the members of the next committee. But instead of resigning, he elected himself and nine others whose views matched with his own, and proceeded to make the lictors, originally guards of the state and laws, tools to maintain his power. His lictors entered the city of Rome with axes attached to their fasces, a privilege only given to dictators; by this means, he suppressed anyone who dared offend the dignity of his committee with persecution or execution. Furthermore, upon the end of their second term, the decemviri, by Crassus’ direction, remained in office by force. The senate, which had hoped that its reputation in the eyes of the common people would improve by the decemviri, now became ashamed and indignant, and even more so when they saw signs of the old tyranny returning upon their own heads too.

As if these violations were not enough, Crassus aggravated his injustice with two despicable crimes. First, a soldier by the name of Lucius Siccius was secretly murdered on his orders, after the man had called for all soldiers to avoid military service until the decemviri were replaced. His death was blamed on an ambush by an enemy, but this was soon exposed as a lie. Secondly, after Crassus took a fancy to Verginia, the beautiful young daughter of an accomplished centurion (Lucius Verginius) who had left on a campaign with the army, he ordered one of his assistants, Marcus Claudius, to declare her a slave of his. Although Verginia was already betrothed to Lucius Icilius, a former Tribune of Plebeians, Marcus Claudius boldly abducted her while she was going to school. A crowd gathered in the forum, or marketplace of the city, declaring that Verginia was not a slave, and then they pleaded the decemviri for justice, not knowing the outrage had originally come from that same committee. It was agreed that Verginius would be recalled from his campaign, but Crassus tried to delay it by intercepting the messengers. When this trick did not succeed, and when Icilius threatened the decemviri with sedition, Verginia was allowed to return to her house, but here the pride of the decemviri was too wounded to give way to justice. Thus, when a crowd had gathered in the forum around Lucius Verginius to support him against Marcus Claudius, Crassus sent lictors who accused the crowd of sedition. The crowd dispersed and declared secession on the sacred mountain, and Verginius, fearing for his daughter to be violated, begged of Crassus to question her himself. As soon as he met with her, near the shrine of Venus Cloacina, knowing that he would have no power to save her from dishonor, he stabbed her. Crassus had anticipated this action, and he quickly sent lictors to arrest Verginius and Icilius, but they were prevented by the senators Potitus and Barbatus, and later joined with a crowd that returned to attack the lictors. After some time, following the war with the Aequi and the Sabines, the decemviri were brought to trial. Eight of them were exiled, another was excecuted, and Crassus committed suicide, adding to his dishonor rather than lessening it, since it would have been the best possible death for him to let his blood be shed in a sacrifice to the laws and Gods he had violated many times.