The fifteenth of May arrived, the decemvirs' term of office expired, but no new magistrates were appointed. Though now only private citizens, the decemvirs came forward as determined as ever to enforce their authority and retain all the emblems of power.
It was now in truth undisguised monarchy. Liberty was looked upon as for ever lost, none stood forth to vindicate it, nor did it seem likely that any one would do so.
Not only had the people sunk into despondency themselves but they were beginning to be despised by their neighbours, who scorned the idea of sovereign power existing where there was no liberty.
The Sabines made an incursion into Roman territory in great force, and carrying their ravages far and wide, drove away an immense quantity of men and cattle to Eretum, where they collected their scattered forces and encamped in the hope that the distracted state of Rome
would prevent an army from being raised. Not only the messengers who brought the information but the country people who were flying into the City created a panic.
The decemvirs, hated alike by the senate and the plebs, were left without any support, and whilst they were consulting as to the necessary measures, Fortune added a fresh cause of alarm.
The Aequi, advancing in a different direction, had entrenched themselves on Algidus, and from there were making predatory incursions into the territory of Tusculum
. The news was brought by envoys from Tusculum who implored assistance. The panic created unnerved the decemvirs, and seeing the City encompassed by two separate wars they were driven to consult the senate.
They gave orders for the senators to be summoned, quite realising what a storm of indignant resentment was awaiting them, and that they would be held solely responsible for the wasted territory and the threatening dangers.
This, they expected, would lead to an attempt to deprive them of office, unless they offered a unanimous resistance, and by a sharp exercise of authority on a few of the most daring spirits repress the attempts of the others.
When the voice of the crier was heard in the Forum calling the patricians to the Senate-house to meet the decemvirs, the novelty of it, after so long a suspension of the meetings of the senate, filled the plebeians with astonishment. ‘What,’ they asked, ‘has happened to revive a practice so long disused? We ought to be grateful to the enemy who are menacing us with war, for causing anything to happen which belongs to the usage of a free State.’
They looked in every part of the Forum for a senator, but seldom was one recognised; then they contemplated the Senate-house and the solitude round the decemvirs.
The latter put it down to the universal hatred felt for their authority, the plebeians explained it by saying that the senators did not meet because private citizens had not the right to summon them. If the plebs made common cause with the senate, those who were bent on recovering their liberty would have men to lead them, and as the senators when summoned would not assemble, so the plebs must refuse to be enrolled for service. Thus the plebeians expressed their opinions.
As to the senators, there was hardly a single member of the order in the Forum, and very few in the City.
Disgusted with the state of matters they had retired to their country homes and were attending to their own affairs, having lost all interest in those of the State. They felt that the more they kept away from any meeting and intercourse with their tyrannical masters the safer would it be for them.
As, on being summoned, they did not come, the ushers were despatched to their houses to exact the penalties for non-attendance and to ascertain whether they absented themselves of set purpose. They took back word that the senate was in the country. This was less unpleasant for the decemvirs than if they had been in the City and had refused to recognise their authority.
Orders were issued for all to be summoned for the following day. They assembled in greater numbers than they themselves expected. This led the plebeians to think that their liberty had been betrayed by the senate, since they had obeyed men whose term of office had expired and who, apart from the force at their disposal,1
were only private citizens; thus recognising their right to convene the senate.