Matters at home drifted back to their old state; the successes in the war forthwith evoked disorders in the City. Gaius Terentilius Harsa was a tribune of the plebs that year.
Thinking that the absence of the consuls afforded a good opportunity for tribunitian agitation, he spent several days in haranguing the plebeians on the overbearing arrogance of the patricians.
In particular he inveighed against the authority of the consuls as excessive and intolerable in a free commonwealth, for whilst in name it was less invidious, in reality it was almost more harsh and oppressive than that of the kings had been, for now, he said, they
had two masters instead of one, with uncontrolled, unlimited powers, who, with nothing to curb their licence, directed all the threats and penalties of the laws against the plebeians.
To prevent this unfettered tyranny from lasting for ever, he said he would propose an enactment that a commission of five should be appointed to draw up in writing the laws which regulated the power of the consuls. Whatever jurisdiction over themselves the people gave the consul, that and that only was he to exercise; he was not to regard his own licence and caprice as law.
When this measure was promulgated, the patricians were apprehensive lest in the absence of the consuls they might have to accept the yoke. A meeting of the senate was convened by Q. Fabius, the prefect of the City. He made such a violent attack upon the proposed law and its author, that the threats and intimidation could not have been greater even if the two consuls had been standing by the tribune, threatening his life.
He accused him of plotting treason, of seizing a favourable moment for compassing the ruin of the commonwealth. ‘Had the gods,’ he continued, ‘given us a tribune like him last year, during the pestilence and the war, nothing could have stopped him.
After the death of the two consuls, whilst the State was lying prostrate, he would have passed laws, amid the universal confusion, to deprive the commonwealth of the power of the consuls, he would have led the Volscians and Aequi in an attack on the City.
Why, surely it is open to him to impeach the consuls for whatever tyranny or cruelty they may have been guilty of towards any citizen, to bring them to trial before those very judges, one of whom had been their victim.
His action was making —not the authority of the consuls, but —the power of the tribunes odious and intolerable, and after being exercised peaceably and in harmony with the patricians, that power was now reverting to its old evil practices.’ As to Terentilius, he would not dissuade him from continuing as he began.
‘As to you,’ said Fabius, ‘the other tribunes, we beg you to reflect that in the first instance your power was conferred upon you for the assistance of individual citizens, not for the ruin of all; you have been elected as the tribunes of the plebs, not as the enemies of the patricians. To us it is distressing, to you it is a source of odium that the commonwealth should be thus attacked while it is without its head.
You will not impair your rights, but you will lessen the odium felt against you if you arrange with your colleague to have the whole matter adjourned till the arrival of the consuls. Even the Aequi and Volscians, after the consuls had been carried off by the epidemic last year, did not harass us with a cruel and ruthless war.’
The tribunes came to an understanding with Terentilius and the proceedings were ostensibly adjourned, but, as a matter of fact, abandoned. The consuls were immediately summoned home.