Although Rome, according to tradition, shed its monarchy around 509 BCE to become a republic, it took the Romans a long time to work out the power structure of their new society. No doubt, the fledgling republic was first ruled by an aristocratic oligarchy, probably from both patrician and non-patrician powerful families. After the monarchy was outed, the new oligarch leaders apparently became tyrannical in government practices such as land-distribution and debt policies, which caused anger between the wealthy and the poor. The first great crisis between the well-to-do leaders and the struggling commoners was said to have occurred in 494 BCE, when the debtors and the oppressed of Rome reportedly abandoned the city and decided to form their own government. This so-called Secession of the Plebs was a major step in the foundation of the Plebeian identity, and the office of tribune is dated by tradition to that time.
Such an exodus of people would always cause concern for a government, but the oligarchs of Rome were at the time particularly urgent to regain the cooperation of the commoners. One reason for their sense of urgency was that Rome began to increasingly feel the encroachment of the Volscians and Aequians toward the end of the 490s BCE. With foreign raids increasing, Rome needed to make sure its military remained in a functioning state, which was difficult when much of the city-state’s light infantry manpower was in mutiny during the Secession of the Plebs.
Rome’s leading class reportedly sent a certain likable, smooth-talking spokesman named Menenius Agrippa to negotiate with the commoners. He was apparently a wealthy non-patrician who was a member of the oligarchy, but also had friends among the poor. Menenius joined the commoners on their hill and opened up his negotiations by telling a simple fable.
Once upon a time, claimed Menenius, in the most primitive times of the distant past, the different limbs and organs of the human body had minds of their own. The arms, legs, teeth, mouth, stomach, so on and so forth, controlled their own actions and possessed their own thoughts and feelings. The different pieces of this primordial body coexisted for a time, but, before long, certain individual parts began to notice a troubling trend. The feet and legs walked to food; the hands and arms gathered the food; the teeth and mouth ate the food—the stomach, however, did nothing but take what all the other parts of the body worked so hard to provide.
One day, claimed Menenius, the different laboring sections of the body decided that they would no longer put up with the stomach’s greed. After plotting together, the legs and feet quit walking; the arms and hands stopped gathering; the teeth and mouth stopped eating and swallowing. Thus, all the other parts of the body besieged the stomach and cut it off from its food supply. As the siege went on, however, odd things began to happen—the legs grew sluggish, the arms began to weaken, and the primordial body, as a whole, began to deteriorate and become emaciated. Before the allied limbs and organs realized their mistake, the whole body withered away and died from starvation. So ended the fable.
After hearing Menenius’ story, the commoners on the hill reportedly saw the existential threat that their revolt posed to Rome, and they agreed to enter into negotiations for a solution. According to the Roman historian Livy (c. 59 BCE – 17 CE), this Secession of the Plebs was brought to a close when the oligarchs of the republic agreed to recognize the tribunes as representatives of the commoners. Yet, this was merely a working relationship, and it would take many more years for the oligarchs to start respecting the power, much less the legal proposals, of the tribunes.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of a fable from “The fables of Æsop, selected, told anew and their history traced” (1894), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.