As the Roman generals placed more reliance on a blockade than on an assault, they began to build huts for winter quarters, a novelty to the Roman soldier. Their plan was to keep up the war through the winter.
The tribunes of the plebs had for a long time been unable to find any pretext for creating a revolt.
When, however, news of this was brought to Rome, they dashed off to the Assembly and produced great excitement by declaring that this was the reason why it had been settled to pay the troops. They, the tribunes, had not been blind to the fact that this gift from their adversaries would prove to be tainted with poison.
The liberties of the plebs had been bartered away, their able-bodied men had been permanently sent away, banished from the City and the State, without any regard to winter or indeed to any season of the year, or to the possibility of their visiting their homes or looking after their property. What did they think was the reason for this continuous campaigning?
They would most assuredly find it to be nothing else but the fear that if a large body of these men, who formed the whole strength of the plebs, were present, it would be possible to discuss reforms in favour of the plebeians. Besides, they were suffering much more hardship and oppression than the Veientines, for these passed the winter under their own roofs in a city protected by its magnificent walls and the natural strength of its position, whilst the Romans, amidst labour and toil, buried in frost and snow, were roughing it patiently under their skin-covered tents, and could not lay aside their arms even in the season of winter, when there is a respite from all wars, whether by land or sea.
This form of slavery, making military service perpetual, was never imposed either by the kings, or by the consuls who were so domineering before the institution of the tribuneship, or during the stern rule of the Dictator, or by the unscrupulous decemvirs —it was the consular tribunes who were exercising this regal despotism over the Roman plebs.
What would these men have done had they been consuls or Dictators, seeing that they have made their proconsular authority, which is only a shadow of the other, so outrageously cruel? But the commons had got what they had deserved.
Amongst all the eight consular tribunes not a single plebeian had found a place. Hitherto, with their utmost efforts, the patricians had usually filled only three places at a time; now a team of eight were bent on maintaining their power. Even in such a crowd not a single plebeian could get a footing, to warn his colleagues, if he could do nothing else, that those who were serving as soldiers were free men, their own fellow-citizens, and not slaves, and that they ought to be brought back, at all events in the winter, to their houses and their homes, and during some part of the year visit their parents and wives and children, and exercise their rights as free citizens in electing the magistrates.
Whilst indulging in declamations of this sort, they found an opponent who was quite a match for them in Appius Claudius.
He had from early manhood taken his part in the contests with the plebs, and as stated above, had some years previously recommended the senate to break down the power of the tribunes by securing the intervention of their colleagues. He was not only a man of ready and versatile mind, but by this time an experienced debater.
He delivered the following speech on this occasion: —
‘If, Quirites, there has ever been any doubt as to whether it was in your interest or their own that the tribunes have always been the advocates of sedition, I feel quite certain that this year all doubt has ceased to exist. Whilst I rejoice that an end has at last been put to a long-standing delusion, I congratulate you, and on your behalf the whole State, that its removal has been effected just at the time when your circumstances are most prosperous.
Is there any one who doubts that whatever wrongs you may have at any time suffered, they never annoyed and provoked the tribunes so much as the generous treatment of the plebs by the senate, in establishing the system of pay for the soldiers?
What else do you suppose it was that they were afraid of at that time, and would today gladly upset, except the harmony of the two orders, which they look upon as most of all calculated to destroy their power? They are, really, like so many quack doctors looking for work, always anxious to find some diseased spot in the republic that there may be something which you can call them in to cure.’ Then, turning to the tribunes, ‘Are you defending or attacking the plebs? Are you trying to injure the men on service or are you pleading their cause?
Or perhaps this is what you are saying, ‘Whatever the senate does, whether in the interest of the plebs or against them, we object to.’
Just as masters forbid strangers to hold any communication with their slaves, and think it right that they should abstain from showing them either kindness or unkindness, so you interdict the patricians from all dealings with the plebs, lest we should appeal to their feelings by our graciousness and generosity and secure their loyalty and obedience. How much more dutiful it would have been in you, if you had had a spark —I will not say of patriotism, but —of common humanity, to have viewed with favour, and as far as in you lay, to have fostered the kindly feelings of the patricians and the grateful goodwill of the plebeians!
And if this harmony should prove to be lasting, who would not be bold enough to guarantee that this empire will in a short time be the greatest among the neighbouring States?’