Sp. Ca'ssius Viscelli'nus
celebrated as the author of the first agrarian law at Rome, to which he fell a martyr.
He was thrice consul and twice triumphed. His first consulship was in B. C. 502, in the eighth year of the republic, when he had Opiter Virginius Tricostus as a colleague.
According to Dionysius (5.49
) Cassius carried on war against the Sabines, whom he defeated with such great loss near Cures, that they were obliged to sue for peace, and surrender to the Romans a large portion of their land. Cassius in consequence obtained a triumph on his return to Rome, which is confirmed by the Capitoline Fasti. Livy, on the other hand, says (2.17) nothing about a war with the Sabines, but relates that the two consuls carried on war against the Aurunci, and took Pometia.
But as the war against the Aurunci aud the capture of Pometia is repeated by Livy (2.22
) under B. C. 495, these events ought probably to be placed in the latter year, in accordance with Dionysius (6.29
In the following year, B. C. 501, Cassius was appointed first magister equitum to the first dictator, T. Larcius Flavus; but in some authorities a different year is given for the first dictatorship.
After the battle of the lake Regillus in B. C. 498 or 496, Cassius is said to have urged in the senate the destruction of the Latin towns. (Liv. 2.18
; Dionys. A. R. 5.75
.) In B. C. 493 he was consul a second time with Postumus Cominius Auruncus; and they entered upon their consulship during the secession of the plebeians to the Sacred Mount.
The second consulship of Cassius is memorable by the league which he formed with the Latins.
As soon as the plebeians had become reconciled to the patricians, and had returned to Rome, Cominius marched against the Volscians, while his colleague remained at Rome to ratify the league with the Latins.
According to Niebuhr the campaign of Cominius against the Volscians is only an inference adopted by Livy from the absence of the consul, who, he supposes, had left Rome in order to take the oath to the treaty among the Latins.
In the same year Cassius consecrated the temple of Ceres, Bacchus, and Proserpine, which the dictator A. Postumius Albus had vowed in B. C. 498. (Liv. 2.33
; Cic. de Rep.
2.33, pro Balb.
23; Dionys. A. R. 6.49
; respecting the league with the Latius, see Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome,
vol. ii. p. 38, foll.)
In B. C. 486 Cassius was consul a third time with Proculus Virginius Tricostus Rutilus.
He marched against the Volscians and Hernicans, but no battle took place as the enemy sued for a peace. Notwithstanding he obtained a triumph over these people on his return to Rome, which is recorded in the triumphal Fasti. Whether he really marched against these people or not, may be doubted; but that he formed a league with the Hernicans, admits of no question.
By his league with the Latins in his second consulship, and with the Hernicans in his third, he had again formed that confederacy to which Rome owed her power under the later kings. Livy says (2.41) that Cassius deprived the Hernicans of two thirds of their land ; but this is a complete misconception.
It is much more probable that by this treaty the Hernicans were placed on equal terms with the Romans and the Latins, and that each of the three nations was entitled to a third part of the lands conquered in war by their mutual arms.
After the treaty with the Hernicans Cassius proposed his celebrated agrarian law.
The account of this law given by Dionysius cannot be safely trusted : according to Niebuhr it betrays distinct marks of a writer of the second half of the seventh century of the city, and is compiled with great ignorance of the ancient times.
The law must have been simply a restoration of the old law of Servius Tullius, and must have directed that the portion of the patricians in the public land should be strictly defined, that the remainder should be divided among the plebeians, and that the tithe should again be levied from the lands possessed by the patricians.
The patricians, headed by the other consul, Virginius, made the most vehement opposition to the law; but it seems almost certain that it was legally passed, though never carried into execution.
It must be recollected that the comitia of the tribes had no share in the legislature till the time of the Publilian law, and that the tribunes before the latter time had no power to bring forward a law of any kind : consequently, when we read of their agrarian law, as we do almost every year down to the time of the decemvirs, it must refer to a law which had been already enacted, but never carried into execution.
In the following year, B. C. 485, Cassius was brought to trial on the charge of aiming at regal power, and was put to death.
The manner of his trial and the nature of his death are differently stated in the ancient writers; but there can be little doubt that he was accused before the assembly of the curies by the quaestores parricidii, K. Fabius and L. Valerius, and was sentenced to death by his fellow patricians, who regarded him as a traitor to their order. Like other state criminals, he was scourged and beheaded. His house was razed to the ground, and the spot where it stood in front of the temple of Tellus was left waste.
A brazen statue of Ceres was erected in her temple, with an inscription recording that it was dedicated out of the fortune of Cassius (ex Cassiana familia datum
.) Dionysius stated that Cassius was hurled from the Tarpeian rock, which mistake arose from his strange supposition, which was also shared by Livy, that Cassius was condemned by the assembly of the tribes. Other accounts related that Cassius was condemned by his own father, which statement probably arose, as Niebuhr has suggested, from a desire to soften down the glaring injustice of the deed; while other writers again, who thought it impossible that a man who had been thrice consul and had twice triumphed, should still be in his father's power, restricted the father's judgment to his declaring that he considered his son guilty. (Liv. 1.43
; Dionys. A. R. 8.68
; Cic. de Rep.
2.27, 35, Philipp.
8, 11, pro Dom.
38 ; V. Max. 6.3.1
; Plin. Nat. 34.6. s. 14
.) Whether Cassius was really guilty or not, cannot be determined with certainty. All the ancient writers, with one exception, speak of his guilt as an universally admitted fact; and the statement of Dio Cassius (Exc. de Sentent.
19, p. 150, ed. Mai) that he was innocent, and was condemned to death out of malice, must be regarded as simply the expression of Dion's own opinion, and not as a statement for which the writer had met with any evidence. So strong in antiquity was the belief in his guilt, that the censors of B. C. 159 melted down his statue, which was erected on the spot in front of his house, and which must have been set up there by one of his descendants, for it is impossible to believe that the quaestors would have spared it, if it had been erected, as Pliny states (l.c.
), by Cassius himself. On the other hand, such a general belief is no proof of his guilt; and it is far more probable that the patricians invented the accusation for the purpose of getting rid of a dangerous opponent ; and as they were both the accusers and the judges, the condemnation of Cassius followed as a matter of course. Dionysius relates (8.80) that Cassius left behind him three sons, whose lives were spared by the senate, although many were anxious that the whole race should be exterminated. The Cassii mentioned at a later time were all plebeians.
The sons may have been expelled by the patricians from their order, or they or their descendants may themselves have voluntarily passed over to the plebeians, because the patricians had shed the blood of their father or ancestor. (Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome,
vol. ii. p. 166, &c., Lectures on the History of Rome,
p. 189, foll., ed. Schmitz, 1848.)