Young Folks' History of Rome HTML version

8. Menenius Agrippa's Fable, B.C. 494
A great deal of the history of Rome consists of struggles between the patricians and
plebeians. In those early days the plebeians were often poor, and when they wanted to
improve their lands they had to borrow money from the patricians, who not only had
larger lands, but, as they were the officers in war, got a larger share of the spoil. The
Roman law was hard on a man in debt. His lands might be seized, he might be thrown
into prison or sold into slavery with his wife and children, or, if the creditors liked, be cut
to pieces so that each might take his share.
One of these debtors, a man who was famous for bravery as a centurion, broke out of his
prison and ran into the Forum, all in rags and with chains still hanging to his hands and
feet, showing them to his fellow-citizens, and asking if this was just usage of a man who
had done no crime. They were very angry, and the more because one of the consuls,
Appius Claudius, was known to be very harsh, proud and cruel, as indeed were all his
family. The Volscians, a tribe often at war with them, broke into their land at the same
time, and the Romans were called to arms, but the plebeians refused to march until their
wrongs were redressed. On this the other consul, Servilius, promised that a law should be
made against keeping citizens in prison for debt or making slaves of their children; and
thereupon the army assembled, marched against the enemy, and defeated them, giving up
all the spoil to his troops. But the senate, when the danger was over, would not keep its
promises, and even appointed a Dictator to put the plebeians down. Thereupon they
assembled outside the walls in a strong force, and were going to attack the patricians,
when the wise old Menenius Agrippa was sent out to try to pacify them. He told them a
fable, namely, that once upon a time all the limbs of a man's body became disgusted with
the service they had to render to the belly. The feet and legs carried it about, the hands
worked for it and carried food to it, the mouth ate for it, and so on. They thought it hard
thus all to toil for it, and agreed to do nothing for it—neither to carry it about, clothe it,
nor feed it. But soon all found themselves growing weak and starved, and were obliged to
own that all would perish together unless they went on waiting on this seemingly useless
belly. So Agrippa told them that all ranks and states depended on one another, and unless
all worked together all must be confusion and go to decay. The fable seems to have
convinced both rich and poor; the debtors were set free and the debts forgiven. And
though the laws about debts do not seem to have been changed, another law was made
which gave the plebeians tribunes in peace as well as war. These tribunes were always to
be plebeians, chosen by their own fellows. No one was allowed to hurt them during their
year of office, on pain of being declared accursed and losing his property; and they had
the power of stopping any decision of the senate by saying solemnly, Veto, I forbid. They
were called tribunes of the people, while the officers in war were called military tribunes;
and as it was on the Mons Sacer, or Sacred Mount, that this was settled, these laws were
called the Leges Sacrariæ. An altar to the Thundering Jupiter was built to consecrate
them: and, in gratitude for his management, Menenius Agrippa was highly honored all
his life, and at his death had a public funeral.
But the struggles of the plebeians against the patricians were not by any means over. The
Roman land—Agri (acre), it was called—had at first been divided in equal shares—at
least so it was said—but as belonging to the state all the time, and only held by the
occupier. As time went on, some persons of course gathered more into their own hands,
and others of spendthrift or unfortunate families became destitute. Then there was an
outcry that, as the lands belonged to the whole state, it ought to take them all back and
divide them again more equally: but the patricians naturally regarded themselves as the
owners, and would not hear of this scheme, which we shall hear of again and again by the