Innovation of Tribunes and the 12 Tables


Powerless Plebeians 


The Original 10 Decemvirs

Twelve Tables

The Twelve Tables

Twelve Tables

Although the Founders and Polybius greatly admired the balance of power in Rome's constitution, the city would always fear tyrannical rulers who neglected the liberty of plebeians. Furthermore, Rome's power had grown mightily as a result of Rome's near invincibility in battle, led by the voluntary service of the plebeians.

When new consuls, Aulus Verginius and Titus Vetusias, called for volunteer soldiers in 494 BC, the plebs refused. "Unless the state gave a guarantee, they would never get a single soldier" (Livy, 117). Faced with the oncoming threat of invading tribes outside of Rome, the senate moved to suspend the consuls from authority and appoint a wartime Dictator to conduct commands of the military. Sunken in debt, the plebs enlistened under dictator, Manius Valerius. "The consuls and senior senators were anxious that an office of such formidable power be entrusted to a man of humane temperment" (Livy, 119). Luckily for the plebs, Valerius "urged harmony," and resigned his position after "peace was secured abroad," while accusing patricians of "obstructing" domestic peace (Livy, 121). 

A precedent for peaceful protest and assembly was then set by plebeians when they all seceded the city and forced the hand of the senators. The urge of the people to have a representative voice in governance prevailed, as the senate created the "tribunate," who would be elected from the plebeian populace, and would carry veto power against the senate (Livy, 123). 

In 451 BC, power momentarily shifted in Rome's executive from two consuls to ten "decemvirs" (Livy, 202). Three of the ten appointed decemvirs had "traveled to Athens in the belief that their knowledge of foreign laws would be useful in establishing new laws" (Livy, 203).

The decemvirs consulted the public and established The Twelve Tables to secure the liberties of the public in the Comitia Centuriata. The plebs, so pleased by the cooperation of the decemvirs, said they "hated the name of consul just as much as that of king" and did not seek the return of tribunican help because they trusted the wisdom of the decemvirs (Livy, 205).

When the term of the original decemvirs ended, the newly appointed ten, led by notorious hater of plebs, Appius Claudius, took a stark shift in terms of treatment of plebeian liberty. The decemvirs removed plebeian "Right of appeal" and agreed to remove the right of vetoing each other, beginning to act like ten individual kings. Tyrannical behavior of the decemvirs continued until the Plebeians retreated to the Sacred Mount and the right of appeal, as well as the position of consuls and tribunes was reinstated. When new consuls took over in 449 BC, "The Twelve Tables were set up in bronze in public" for all to see and never to forget (Livy, 233). 

Rome showed the Founding Fathers that checks and balances on authority would never fully guarantee that liberties could be preserved without virtuous and courageous leaders. Whereas the Greek states of Athens and Sparta lacked central authority, becoming despotic through public anarchy, Rome had the ability to isolate its lower classes by neglecting their individual freedoms.

Thomas Jefferson, while not present at the Constitutional Convention, is said to have sent copies of Polybius' Histories to help the thinkers "study ancient confedercies for what they might reveal about the tendencies of federal systems" (Richard, 95). The Twelve Tables, like the Bill of Rights in America, gave citizens assurance of codified laws that could not be overruled by a tyrant.