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Tragedy related to Law of the Twelve Tables

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Romanino, Death of Virginia
Romanino, Death of Virginia

The Law of the Twelve Tables, in ancient communications, appears as a plebeian victory over an aristocracy. However, not everyone knows that, according to sources, their creation was associated with dramatic events and a private tragedy.

In the middle of the 5th century BCE plebeians – the underprivileged layer – began demanding from patricians that they make public the laws of Rome and finally the arbitrariness of the aristocracy ended. In 451 BCE, as a concession, the offices were suspended and a privileged group of 10 men (decemviri) was appointed to collect all rights and publish them.

During the first year, only 10 boards were published, which required the appointment of another team of “experts” for the next year. This time, however, members of the decemvirate turned out to be more conservative and released 2 more boards, including a provision, was found prohibiting the marriage of patricians with plebeians. As it turned out, the written law, which was supposed to unite, ultimately separated both social strata from each other even more. Cicero himself 400 years later described such a law as “extremely inhuman”.

The plebeians began to see similarities between the hated last king of Rome – Tarquinius Superbus, and republican decemvirs. They were even called “ten Tarquiniuses”. What’s more, one of the board members – Appiusz Claudius, great-great-grandfather of the famous constructor Via Appia – decided to win the heart of plebeian virgin Virginia1, who was already engaged. To necessarily misappropriate her, he bribed one of his clients so that he would testify that Virginia was, in fact, a slave and was stolen from him by her father. Appius was to issue a verdict in this case, of course in favour of the client. Faced with such a fatal sentence, the girl’s father – Lucius Virginius – was to take a butcher knife and blow his daughter, saying: “In this manner, my child, the only one in my power, do I secure your liberty”.

After the trial, the father exposed the girl’s body to public view and gave a fiery speech. An excited and agitated crowd stirred up a rebellion that removed decemvirs and restored order. The Law of the Twelve Tables was enacted, except for the infamous provision forbidding mixed marriages.

  1. Name comes from virgo, meaning "virgin".
  • Beard Mary, SPQR. Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2016

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