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Restoring Libertas: The Plebeian Class Advantage over the Patricians in Livy’s Account of the Second Decemvirate (AUC 3.36-55)

David West

Boston University

In this paper, I argue that Livy’s narrative of the second decemvirate and its fall (AUC 3.36-55) advances the idea that the plebeians as a social group are more capable of restoring libertas to the state as a whole due to such qualities as unity of sentiment and the power inherent in sheer numbers.  By contrast, the character of the patricians as a class that displays a marked tendency to internal factionalism renders them incapable of taking action to restore even their own libertas.  At the same time, since the potential of the plebeians as a group to restore libertas is ultimately realized through active encouragement of rebellion by the patricians Valerius and Horatius followed by their mediation with the senate, Livy’s narrative reveals the necessity of courageous and prudent patrician leadership to curb the natural excesses of both social groups.

The traditional emphasis in Livy scholarship on individual exempla (e.g. Walsh 1961, Chaplin 2000) has inclined scholars to neglect the importance Livy assigns to social groups in the episode of the decemvirate.  Accordingly, scholars have focused on the negative exemplum of Appius Claudius, a patrician with a tyrannical nature (Dunkle 1971, Vasaly 2015), who poses as a popularis in order to deprive the state of libertas (Seager 1977).  While scholars have noted the role of patricians and plebeians in the state’s loss of libertas due to their mutual desire to eliminate each other’s influence (Ogilvie 1965, Hammer 2014), they have not examined the responsibility of these two groups for the state’s continuation in a state of slavery or its restoration to liberty.  Other studies of the passage have delineated the differences in the content of libertas for the two classes (Wirszubski 1950, Fantham 2005, Arena 2012, Vasaly 2015) and the significance of the Verginia episode (Ogilvie 1965, Joshel 1992, Moore 1993, Feldherr 1998).

The patrician senators’ inherent tendency towards factionalism prevents them from uniting against the decemvirs.  One faction, the patrician youth, is presented as the natural ally of the tyrannical decemvirs and benefits from the violent despoliation of the plebs (3.37.6-8; cf. 3.50.1), just as it had previously supported the restoration of Tarquin the Proud (2.3-2.4; cf. Eyben 1993, Kalnin-Maggiori 2004).  A second faction consists of decemviral family connections, exemplified by Cornelius, who shrewdly blocks attempts by Valerius, Horatius, and C. Claudius to create a senatorial consensus against the regime (3.40.8, 3.41.4).  A third group, leading patricians, are willing to endure decemviral rule indefinitely because they remain immune from personal injury (3.36.7) and hope the plebs’ suffering will dispose them to desire the consulship again (3.37.2-3), vainly expecting the decemvirs to resign voluntarily (3.41.5-6; cf. 3.51.13).

The plebs prove a more formidable opponent to the decemviral tyranny due to the unity of sentiment arising from a sense of solidarity in the experience of harsh treatment (3.36.7; 3.37.6-8; 3.50.2-3, 10-11) and thanks to the superior physical force of their numbers that breaks the power of Appius’ lictors (3.49.4) and eventually, through mutiny (3.50.12-13, 3.51.7) and secession (3.52.1-4), pressures the patricians into demanding the resignation of the decemvirs (3.52.5-10).  Furthermore, the plebs’ status as a greater ally of liberty is revealed by their susceptibility to the patrician leadership of Valerius and Horatius that enables the realization of their potential power inherent in numbers.  These exceptional patricians make good on their original threats to engage the power of the plebs against the decemvirs (3.39.2, 6) by joining the crowd in protecting Verginius from the lictors of Appius (3.49.3-5) and refusing to undertake an embassy to the people unless the decemvirs resign (3.51.12).  Their support for the plebs sets them apart from the rest of their class in political foresight and fair-mindedness, qualities also displayed in their sponsorship of various “popular” measures during their consulship that did the patricians no wrong (despite patrician complaints to the contrary, 3.55.1-2) and in restraining the plebs from indulging in violence against the decemvirs (3.53.5-10).

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Political and Social Relations

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