The power of the tribunes and the liberties of the plebs were now on a secure basis. The next step was taken by the tribunes, who thought the time had come when they might safely proceed against individuals.
They selected Verginius to take up the first prosecution, which was that of Appius. When the day had been fixed, and Appius had come down to the Forum with a bodyguard of young patricians, the sight of him and his satellites reminded all present of the power he had used so vilely.
Verginius began: ‘Oratory was invented for doubtful cases. I will not, therefore, waste time by a long indictment before you of the man from whose cruelty you have vindicated yourselves by force of arms, nor will I allow him to add to his other crimes an impudent defence.
So I will pass over, Appius Claudius, all the wicked and impious things that you had the audacity to do, one after another, for the last two years. One charge only will I bring against you, that contrary to law you have adjudged a free person to be a slave, and unless you name an umpire before whom you can prove your innocence,1
I shall order you to be taken to prison.’
Appius had nothing to hope for in the protection of the tribunes or the verdict of the people. Nevertheless he called upon the tribunes, and when none intervened to stay proceedings and he was seized by the apparitor, he said, ‘I appeal.’
This single word, the protection of liberty, uttered by those lips which had so lately judicially deprived a person of her freedom, produced a general silence.
Then the people remarked to one another that there were gods after all who did not neglect the affairs of men; arrogance and cruelty were visited by punishments which, though lingering, were not light;
that man was appealing who had taken away the power of appeal; that man was imploring the protection of the people who had trampled underfoot all their rights; he was losing his own liberty and being carried off to prison who had sentenced a free person to slavery. Amidst the murmur of the Assembly the voice of Appius himself was heard imploring ‘the protection of the Roman people.’
He began by enumerating the services of his ancestors to the State, both at home and in the field; his own unfortunate devotion to the plebs, which had led him to resign his consulship in order to enact equal laws for all, giving thereby the greatest offence to the patricians; his laws which were still in force, though their author was being carried to prison.
As to his own personal conduct and his good and evil deeds, however, he would bring them to the test when he had the opportunity of pleading his cause. For the present he claimed the common right of a Roman citizen to be allowed to plead on the appointed day and submit himself to the judgment of the Roman people.
He was not so apprehensive of the general feeling against him as to abandon all hope in the impartiality and sympathy of his fellow-citizens.
If he was to be taken to prison before his case was heard, he would once more appeal to the tribunes, and warn them not to copy the example of those whom they hated. If they admitted that they were bound by the same agreement to abolish the right of appeal which they accused the decemvirs of having formed, then he would appeal to the people and invoke the laws which both consuls and tribunes had enacted that very year to protect that right.
For if before the case is heard and judgment given there is no power of appeal, who would appeal? What plebeian, even the humblest, would find protection in the laws, if Appius Claudius could not? His case would show whether it was tyranny or freedom that was conferred by the new laws, and whether the right of challenge and appeal against the injustice of magistrates was only displayed in empty words or was actually granted.