XI.15 How in the flourishing state of the republic, Rome suddenly lost her freedom

In the heat of the dis­pu­tes bet­ween patri­cians and ple­beians, the lat­ter asked that fixed laws be made so that judg­ments would no lon­ger be the effect of a capri­cious will or an arbi­trary power. After leng­thy resis­tance, the senate acquies­ced. Decemvirs were named to draw up these laws. It was thought they should be gran­ted broad power, because they had to give laws to par­ties that were all but incom­pa­ti­ble. The nomi­na­tion of all magis­tra­tes was sus­pen­ded, and in the comi­tia they were elec­ted the sole admi­nis­tra­tors of the repu­blic. They found them­sel­ves inves­ted with the autho­rity of both consuls and tri­bu­nes. One of these gave them the right to assem­ble the senate, the other the right to assem­ble the peo­ple. But they convo­ked nei­ther the senate nor the peo­ple. Ten men alone in the repu­blic had the entire legis­la­tive autho­rity, the entire exe­cu­tive autho­rity, and the entire judg­men­tal autho­rity. Rome found her­self sub­jec­ted to a tyranny as cruel as Tarquin’s. When Tarquin prac­ti­ced his haras­se­ments, Rome was indi­gnant at the power he had usur­ped ; when the decem­virs prac­ti­ced theirs, Rome was dumb­foun­ded at the power she had confer­red.

But what was this sys­tem of tyranny, pro­du­ced by men who had obtai­ned poli­ti­cal and mili­tary power only by their know­ledge of civil affairs, and who in the cir­cum­stan­ces of those times nee­ded the cowar­dice of citi­zens inter­nally, to let them­sel­ves be gover­ned, and their cou­rage exter­nally to defend them ?

The spec­ta­cle of the death of Virginia, sacri­fi­ced by her father to modesty and free­dom, made the autho­rity of the decem­virs eva­po­rate. Everyone found him­self free, because eve­ryone was offen­ded ; eve­ry­body became a citi­zen, because eve­ry­body became a father. The senate and the peo­ple reco­ve­red a free­dom that had been entrus­ted to foo­lish tyrants.

More than others, the Roman peo­ple got arou­sed by spec­ta­cles. The spec­ta­cle of Lucretia’s bloody body put an end to royalty.1 The deb­tor who appea­red in the square cove­red with sores chan­ged the form of the repu­blic.2 The sight of Virginia for­ced out the decem­virs. In order to condemn Manlius, the capi­tol had to be hid­den from the peo­ple’s view.3 Cæsar’s bloody robe retur­ned Rome to ser­vi­tude.4

[This story of Virginia (451 BCE) is told by Livy in Ab urba condita, Book III, ch. 44–58 ; the comparison with the death of Lucretia (circa 509 BCE) is Livy’s.]

[Livy, II, 23]

[Because Manlius had saved the capitol (Livy, ibid., VI, 20).]

[I.e., it precipitated the end of the republic, because of the violence unleashed at his funeral.]