As chance would have it, Cnaeus Trebonius was tribune of the plebs that year, and he came forward as a champion of the Trebonian Law, as a duty apparently to his family and the name he bore.
He declared in excited tones that the position which the senate had assailed, though they had been repulsed in their first attack, had been at last carried by the consular tribunes. The Trebonian Law had been set aside and the tribunes of the plebs had not been elected by the vote of the people, but co-opted at the command of the patricians, matters had now come to
this pass, that they must have either patricians or the hangers-on to patricians as tribunes of the plebs.
The Sacred Laws were being wrested from them, the power and authority of their tribunes was being torn away. This, he contended, was done through the craft and cunning of the patricians and the treacherous villainy of his colleagues.
The flame of popular indignation was now beginning to scorch not only the senate, but even the tribunes of the plebs, co-opted and co-opters alike, when three members of the tribunitian college —P. Curatius, M. Metilius, and M. Minucius —trembling for their own safety, instituted proceedings against Sergius and Verginius, the consular tribunes of the preceding year.
By fixing a day for their trial, they diverted from themselves on to these men the rage and resentment of the plebs. They reminded the people that those who had felt the burden of the levy, the war-tax, and the long duration of the war, those who were distressed at the defeat sustained at Veii, those whose homes were in mourning for
the loss of children, brothers, and relations, had every one of them the right and the power to visit upon two guilty heads their own personal grief and that of the whole State.
The responsibility for all their misfortunes rested on Sergius and Verginius; this was not more clearly proved by the prosecutor than admitted by the defendants, for whilst both were guilty, each threw the blame on the other, Verginius denouncing the flight of Sergius, and Sergius the treachery of Verginius.
They had behaved with such incredible madness that it was in all probability a concerted plan earned out with the general connivance of the patricians.
These men had previously given the Veientines an opening for firing the siege works, now they had betrayed the army and delivered a Roman camp up to the Faliscans. Everything was being done to compel their young men to grow old at Veii, and to make it impossible for their tribunes to secure the support of a full Assembly in
the City either in their resistance to the concerted action of the senate, or for their proposals regarding the distribution of land and other measures in the interest of the plebs.
Judgment had already been passed upon the accused by the senate, the Roman people, and their own colleagues, for it was a vote of the senate which removed them from office, it was their own colleagues who upon their refusal to resign, compelled them to do so by the threat of a Dictator, whilst it was the people who had elected consular tribunes to enter upon office, not on the usual day, December 13, but immediately after their election, on October 1, for the republic could no longer be safe if these men remained in office.
And yet, shattered as they were by so many adverse verdicts, and condemned beforehand, they were presenting themselves for trial, and fancying that they had purged their offence and suffered an adequate punishment because they had been relegated to private life two months before the time.
They did not understand that this was not the infliction of a penalty, but simply the depriving them of power to do further mischief, since their colleagues also had to resign, and they, at all events, had committed no offence.
The tribunes continued. ‘Recall the feelings, Quirites, with which you heard of the disaster which we sustained and watched the army staggering through the gates, panic-stricken fugitives, covered with wounds, accusing not Fortune or any of the gods, but these generals of theirs.
We are confident that there is not a man in this Assembly who did not on that day call down curses on the persons and homes and fortunes of L. Verginius and Manius Sergius.
It would be utterly inconsistent for you not to use your power, when it is your right and duty to do so, against the men on whom each of you has called down the wrath of heaven. The gods never lay hands themselves on the guilty; it is enough when they arm the injured with the opportunity for vengeance.’