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The Romans

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Chapter 1 of The Law of Civilization and Decay: An Essay on History
Second Edition
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1896

When the Romans first emerged from the mist of fable, they were already a race of land-owners who held their property in severalty, and, as the right of alienation was established, the formation of relatively large estates had begun. The ordinary family, however, held, perhaps, twelve acres, and, as the land was arable, and the staple grain, it supported a dense rural population. The husbandmen who tilled this land were of the martial type, and, probably for that reason, though supremely gifted as administrators and soldiers, were ill-fitted to endure the strain of the unrestricted economic competition of a centralized society. Consequently their conquests had hardly consolidated before decay set in, a decay whose causes may be traced back until they are lost in the dawn of history.

The Latins had little economic versatility; they lacked the instinct of the Greeks for commerce, or of the Syrians and Hindus for manufactures. They were essentially land-owners, and, when endowed with the acquisitive faculty, usurers. The latter early developed into a distinct species, at once more subtle of intellect and more tenacious of life than the farmers, and on the disparity between these two types of men, the fate of all subsequent civilization has hinged. At a remote antiquity Roman society divided into creditors and debtors; as it consolidated, the power of the former increased, thus intensifying the pressure on the weak, until, when centralization culminated under the Caesars, reproduction slackened, disintegration set in, and, after some centuries of decline, the Middle Ages began.

The history of the monarchy must probably always remain a matter of conjecture, but it seems reasonably certain that the expulsion of the Tarquins was the victory of an hereditary moneyed caste, which succeeded in concentrating the functions of government in a practically self-perpetuating body drawn from their own order.[1] Niebuhr has demonstrated, in one of his most striking chapters, that usury was originally a patrician privilege; and some of the fiercest struggles of the early republic seem to have been decided against the oligarchy by wealthy plebeians, who were determined to break down the monopoly in money-lending. At all events, the conditions of life evidently favored the growth of the instinct which causes its possessor to suck the vitality of the economically weak; and Macaulay, in the preface to Virginia has given so vivid a picture of the dominant class, that one passage at least should be read entire.

The ruling class in Rome was a moneyed class; and it made and administered the laws with a view solely to its own interest. Thus the relation between lender and borrower was mixed up with the relation between sovereign and subject. The great men held a large portion of the community in dependence by means of advances at enormous usury. The law of debt, framed by creditors, and for the protection of creditors, was the most horrible that has ever been known among men. The liberty, and even the life, of the insolvent were at the mercy of the patrician money-lenders. Children often became slaves in consequence of the misfortunes of their parents. The debtor was imprisoned, not in a public gaol under the care of impartial public functionaries, but in a private workhouse belonging to the creditor. Frightful stories were told respecting these dungeons.[2]

But a prisoner is an expense, and the patricians wanted money. Their problem was to exhaust the productive power of the debtor before selling him, and, as slaves have less energy than freemen, a system was devised by which the plebeians were left on their land, and stimulated to labor by the hope of redeeming themselves and their children from servitude. Niebuhr has explained at length how this was done.

For money weighed out a person could pledge himself, his family, and all that belonged to him. In this condition he became nexus, and remained in possession of his property until breach of condition, when the creditor could proceed by summary process.[3] Such a contract satisfied the requirements, and the usurers had then only to invent a judgment for debt severe enough to force the debtor to become fuxtis when the alternative was offered him. This presented no difficulty. When an action was begun the defendant had thirty days of grace, and was then arrested and brought before the praetor. If he could neither pay nor find security, he was fettered with irons weighing not less than fifteen pounds, and taken home by the plaintiff. There he was allowed a pound of corn a day, and given sixty days in which to settle. If he failed, he was taken again before the praetor and sentenced. Under this sentence he might be sold or executed, and, where there were several plaintiffs, they might cut him up among them, nor was any individual liable for carving more than his share.[4] A man so sentenced involved his descendants, and therefore, rather than submit, the whole debtor class became nexi, toiling for ever to fulfill contracts quite beyond their strength, and year by year sinking more hopelessly into debt, for ordinarily the accumulated interest soon raised “the principal to many times its original amount.”[5] Niebuhr has thus summed up the economic situation:

To understand the condition of the plebeian debtors, let the reader, if he is a man of business, imagine that the whole of the private debts in a given country were turned into bills at a year, bearing interest at twenty percent or more; and that the non-payment of them were followed on summary process by imprisonment, and by the transfer of the debtor’s whole property to his creditor, even though it exceeded what he owed. We do not need those further circumstances, which are incompatible with our manners, the personal slavery of the debtor and of his children, to form an estimate of the fearful condition of the unfortunate plebeians.[6]

 Thus the usurer first exhausted a family and then sold it; and as his class fed on insolvency and controlled legislation, the laws were as ingeniously contrived for creating debt, as for making it profitable when contracted. One characteristic device was the power given the magistrate of fining for “offences against order.” Under this head men might include any accusations they pleased, and by the higher grades in the scale of fines they might accomplish whatever they desired.”[7] As the capitalists owned the courts and administered justice, they had the means at hand of mining any plebeian whose property was tempting. Nevertheless, the stronghold of usury lay in the fiscal system, which down to the fall of the Empire was an engine for working bankruptcy. Rome’s policy was to farm the taxes; that is to say, after assessment, to sell them to a publican, who collected what he could. The business was profitable in proportion as it was extortionate, and the country was subjected to a levy unregulated by law, and conducted to enrich speculators. “Ubi publicanus est,” said Livy, quoting the Senate, “ibi aut jus publicum vanum, aut libertatem sociis nullam esse.”[8]

Usury was the cream of this business. The custom was to lend to defaulters at such high rates of interest that insolvency was nearly certain to follow; then the people were taken on execution, and slave-hunting formed a regular branch of the revenue service. In Cicero’s time whole provinces of Asia Minor were stripped bare by the traffic. The effect upon the Latin society of the fourth century before Christ was singularly destructive. Italy was filled with petty states in chronic war, the troops were an unpaid militia, which comprised the whole able-bodied population, and though the farms yielded enough for the family in good times, when the males were with the legions labor was certain to be lacking. The campaigns therefore brought want, and with want came the inability to pay taxes.

As late as the Punic War, Regulus asked to be relieved from his command, because the death of his slave and the incompetence of his hired man left his fields uncared for; and if a general and a consul were pinched by absence, the case of the men in the ranks can be imagined. Even in victory the lot of the common soldier was hard enough, for, beside the chance of wounds and disease, there was the certain loss of time, for which no compensation was made. Though the plebeians formed the whole infantry of the line, they received no part of the conquered lands, and even the plunder was taken from them, and appropriated by the patricians to their private use.[9] In defeat, the open country was overrun, the cattle were driven off or slaughtered, the fruit trees cut down, the crops laid waste, and the houses burned. In speaking of the Gallic invasion, Niebuhr has pointed out that the ravaging of the enemy, and the new taxes laid to rebuild the ruined public works, led to general insolvency.[10]

Such conditions fostered the rapid propagation of distinct types of mind, and at a very early period Romans had been bred destitute of the martial instinct, but more crafty and more tenacious of life than the soldier. These were the men who conceived and enforced the usury laws, and who held to personal pledges as the dearest privilege of their order; nor does Livy attempt to disguise the fact ‘‘that every patrician house was a gaol for debtors; and that in seasons of great distress, after every sitting of the courts, herds of sentenced slaves were led away in chains to the houses of the nobles.”[11]

Of this redoubtable type the Claudian family was a famous specimen, and the picture which has been drawn by Macaulay of the great usurer, Appius Claudius, the decemvir, is so brilliant that it cannot be omitted.

Appius Claudius Crassus . . . was descended from a long line of ancestors distinguished by their haughty demeanor, and by the inflexibility with which they had withstood all the demands of the plebeian order. While the political conduct and the deportment of the Claudian nobles drew upon them the fiercest public. hatred, they were accused of wanting, if any credit is due to the early history of Rome, a class of qualities which, in a military common wealth, is sufficient to cover a multitude of offences. The chiefs of the family appear to have been eloquent, versed in civil business, and learned after the fashion of their age; but in war they were not distinguished by skill or valor. Some of them, as if conscious where their weakness lay, had, when filling the highest magistracies, taken internal administration as their department of public business, and left the military command to their colleagues. One of them had been entrusted with an army, and had failed ignominiously. None of them had been honored with a triumph. . . .

His grandfather, called, like himself, Appius Claudius, had left a name as much detested as that of Sextus Tarquinius. This elder Appius had been consul more than seventy years before the introduction of the Licinian Laws. By availing himself of a singular crisis in public feeling, he had obtained the consent of the commons to the abolition of the tribuneship, and had been the chief of that Council of Ten to which the whole direction of the State had been committed. In a few months his administration had become universally odious. It had been swept away by an irresistible outbreak of popular fury; and its memory was still held in abhorrence by the whole city. The immediate cause of the downfall of this execrable government was said to have been an attempt made by Appius Claudius upon the chastity of a beautiful young girl of humble birth. The story ran that the Decemvir, unable to succeed by bribes and solicitations, resorted to an outrageous act of tyranny. A vile dependant of the Claudian house laid claim to the damsel as his slave. The cause was brought before the tribunal of Appius. The wicked magistrate, in defiance of the clearest proofs, gave judgment for the claimant. But the girl’s father, a brave soldier, saved her from servitude and dishonor by stabbing her to the heart in the sight of the whole Forum. That blow was the signal for a general explosion. Camp and city rose at once; the Ten were pulled down; the tribuneship was re-established; and Appius escaped the hands of the executioner only by a voluntary death.[12]

Virginia was slain in 449 B.C., just in the midst of the long convulsion which began with the secession to the Mons Sacer, and ended with the Licinian Laws. During this century and a quarter, usury drained the Roman vitality low. Niebuhr was doubt less right in his conjecture that the mutinous legions were filled with nexi to whom the continuance of the existing status meant slavery, and Mommsen also pointed out that the convulsions of the third and fourth centuries, in which it seemed as though Roman society must disintegrate, were caused by “the insolvency of the middle class of land-holders.”[13]

Had Italy been more tranquil, it is not inconceivable that the small farmers might even then have sank into the serfdom which awaited them under the Empire, for in peace the patricians might have been able to repress insurrection with their clients; but the accumulation of capital had hardly begun, and several centuries were to elapse before money was to take its ultimate form in a standing army. Meanwhile, troops were needed almost every year to defend the city; and, as the legions were a militia, they were the enemy and not the instrument of wealth. Until the organization of a permanent paid police they were, however, the highest expression of force, and, when opposed to them, the moneyed oligarchy was helpless, as was proved by the secession to the Mons Sacer. The storm gathered slowly. The rural population was ground down under the usury laws, and in 495 B.C. the farmers refused to respond to the levy. The consul Publius Servilius had to suspend prosecutions for debt and to liberate debtors in prison; but at the end of the campaign the promises he had made in the moment of danger were repudiated by Appius Claudius, who rigorously enforced the usury legislation, and who was, for the time, too strong to be opposed.

That year the men submitted, but the next the legions had again to be embodied; they again returned victorious; their demands were again rejected; and then, instead of disbanding, they marched in martial array into the district of Crustumeria, and occupied the hill which ever after was called the Sacred Mount.[14] Resistance was not even attempted; and precisely the same surrender was repeated in 449. When Virginius stabbed his daughter, he fled to the camp, and his comrades seized the standards and marched for Rome. The Senate yielded at once, decreed the abolition of the Decemvirate, and the triumphant cohorts, drawn up upon the Aventine, chose their tribunes.

Finally, in the last great struggle, when Camillus was made dictator to coerce the people, he found himself impotent. The moneyed oligarchy collapsed when confronted with an armed force; and Camillus, reduced to act as mediator, vowed a temple to Concord, on the passage of the Licinian Laws.[15] The Licinian Laws provided for a partial liquidation, and also for an increase of the means of the debtor class by redistribution of the public land. This land had been seized in war, and had been monopolized by the patricians without any particular legal right. Licinius obtained a statute by which back payments of interest should be applied to extinguishing the principal of debts, and balances then remaining due should be liquidated in three annual installments. He also limited the quantity of the public domain which could be held by any individual, and directed that the residue which remained after the reduction of all estates to that standard should be distributed in five-acre lots.

Pyrrhus saw with a soldier’s eye that Rome’s strength did not lie in her generals, who were frequently his inferiors, but in her farmers, whom he could not crush by defeat, and this was the class which was favored by the Licinian Laws. They multiplied greatly when the usurers capitulated, and, as Macaulay remarked, the effect of the reform was ‘‘singularly happy and glorious.” It was indeed no less than the conquest of Italy. Rome, “while the disabilities of the plebeians continued . . . was scarcely able to maintain her ground against the Volscians and Hemicans. When those disabilities were removed, she rapidly became more than a match for Carthage and Macedon.”[16]

But nature’s very bounty to the Roman husbandman and soldier proved his ruin. Patient of suffering, enduring of fatigue, wise in council, fierce in war, he routed all who opposed him; and yet the vigorous mind and the robust frame which made him victorious in battle, were his weakness when at peace. He needed costly nutriment, and when brought into free economic competition with Africans and Asiatics, he starved. Such competition resulted directly from foreign conquests, and came rapidly when Italy had consolidated, and the Italians began to extend their power over other races. Nearly five centuries intervened between the foundation of the city and the defeat of Pyrrhus, but within little more than two hundred years from the victory of Beneventum. Rome was mistress of the world.

Indeed, beyond the peninsula, there was not much, save Carthage, to stop the march of the legions. After the death of Alexander, in 323 B.C., Greece fell into decline, and by 200 B.C., when Rome attacked Macedon, she was in decrepitude. The population of Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt was not martial, and had never been able to cope in battle with the western races; while Spain and Gaul, though inhabited by fierce and hardy tribes, lacked cohesion, and could not withstand the onset of organized and disciplined troops. Distance, therefore, rather than hostile military force, fixed the limit of the ancient centralization, for the Romans were not maritime, and consequently failed to absorb India or discover America. Thus their relatively imperfect movement made the most material difference between the ancient and modern economic system.

By conquest the countries inhabited by races of a low vitality and great tenacity of life were opened both for trade and slaving, and their cheap labor exterminated the husbandmen of Italy. Particularly after the annexation of Asia Minor this labor overran Sicily, and the cultivation of the cereals by the natives became impossible when the island had been parceled out into great estates stocked by capitalists with eastern slaves who, at Rome, undersold all competitors. During the second century the precious metals poured into Latium in a flood, great fortunes were amassed and invested in land, and the Asiatic provinces of the Empire were swept of their men in order to make these investments pay. No data remain by which to estimate, even approximately, the size of this involuntary migration, but it must have reached enormous numbers, for sixty thousand captives were the common booty of a campaign, and after provinces were annexed they were depopulated by the publicans.

The best field hands came from the regions where poverty had always been extreme, and where, for countless generations, men had been inured to toil on scanty food. Districts like Bithynia and Syria, where slaves could be bought for little or nothing, had always been tilled by races far more tenacious of life than any Europeans. After Lucullus plundered Pontus, a slave brought only four drachmae, or, perhaps, seventy cents.[17] On the other hand, competition grew sharper among the Italians themselves. As capital accumulated in the hands of the strongest, the poor grew poorer, and pauperism spread. As early as the Marsian War, in 90 B.C., Lucius Marcius Philippus estimated that there were only two thousand wealthy families among the burgesses. In about three hundred years nature had culled a pure plutocracy from what had been originally an essentially martial race.

The primitive Roman was a high order of husbandman, who could only when well fed flourish and multiply. He was adapted to that stage of society when the remnants of caste gave a certain fixity of tenure to the farmer, and when prices were maintained by the cost of communication with foreign countries. As the world centralized, through conquest, these barriers were swept away. Economic competition became free, land tended to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands, and this land was worked by eastern slaves, who reduced the wages of labor to the lowest point at which the human being can survive.

The effect was to split society in halves, the basis being servile, and the freemen being separated into a series of classes, according to the economic power of the mind. Wealth formed the title to nobility of the great oligarchy which thus came to constitute the core of the Empire. At the head stood the senators, whose rank was hereditary unless they lost their property, for to be a senator a man had to be rich. Augustus fixed $48,000 as the minimum of the senatorial fortune, and made up the deficiency to certain favored families,[18] but Tiberius summarily ejected spendthrifts.[19] All Latin literature is redolent of money. Tacitus, with an opulent connection, never failed to speak with disdain of the base-born, or, in other words, of the less prosperous. “Poppaeus Sabinus, a man of humble birth,” raised to position by the caprice of two emperors;[20] “Cassius Severus, a man of mean extraction”;[21] and, in the poetry of antiquity, there are few more famous lines than those in which Juvenal has described the burden of poverty:

Haud facile emergunt, quorum virtutibus obstat
Res angusta domi.[22]

Perhaps no modern writer has been so imbued with the spirit of the later Empire as Fustel de Coulanges, and on this subject he has been emphatic. Not only were the Romans not democratic, but at no period of her history did Rome love equality. In the Republic rank was determined by wealth. The census was the basis of the social system. Every citizen had to declare his fortune before a magistrate, and his grade was then assigned him. “Poverty and wealth established the legal differences between men.”

The first line of demarcation lay between those who owned land and those who did not. The former were assidui: householders rooted in the soil. The latter were proletarians. The proletarians were equal in their poverty; but the assidui were unequal in their wealth, and were consequently divided into five classes. Among these categories all was unequal—taxes, military service, and political rights. They did not mix together.

If one transports oneself to the last century of the Republic . . . one finds there an aristocracy as strongly consolidated as the ancient patrician. . . . At the summit came the senatorial order. To belong to it the first condition was to possess a great fortune. . . . The Roman mind did not understand that a poor man could belong to the aristocracy, or that a rich man was not part of it.[23]

Archaic customs lingered late in Rome, for the city was not a center of commercial exchanges; and long after the death of Alexander, when Greece passed its meridian, the Republic kept its copper coinage. Regulus farmed his field with a single slave and a hired servant, and there was, in truth, nothing extraordinary in the famous meeting with Cincinnatus at the plough, although such simplicity astonished a contemporary of Augustus. Advancing centralization swept away these ancient customs, a centralization whose march is, perhaps, as sharply marked by the migration of vagrants to the cities, as by any single phenomenon. Vagrant paupers formed the proletariat for whose relief the “Frumentariae Leges” were framed; and yet, though poor-laws in some form are considered a necessity in modern times, few institutions of antiquity have been more severely criticized than those regulating charity. From the time of Cato downward, the tendency has been to maintain that at Rome demagogues fed the rabble at the cost of the lives of the free-holders.

Probably the exact converse is the truth; the public gifts of food appear to have been the effect of the ruin of agriculture, and not its cause. After the Italian husbandmen had been made insolvent by the competition of races of lower vitality, they flocked starving to the capital, but it was only reluctantly that the great speculators in grain, who controlled the Senate, admitted the necessity of granting State aid to the class whom they had destroyed.

Long before the Punic Wars the Carthaginians had farmed Sicily on capitalistic principles; that is to say, they had stocked domains with slaves, and had traded on the basis of large sales and narrow profits. The Romans when they annexed the island only carried out this system to its logical end. Having all Asia Minor to draw upon for labor, they deliberately starved and overworked their field-hands, since it was cheaper to buy others than to lose command of the market. The familiar story of the outbreak of the Servile War, about 134 B.C., shows how far the contemporaries of the Sicilian speculators believed them capable of going.

Damophilus, an opulent Sicilian landlord, being one day implored by his slaves to have pity on their nakedness and misery, indignantly demanded why they went hungry and cold, with arms in their hands, and the country before them. Then he bound them to stakes and flayed them with the lash.[24]

The reduction of Syracuse by Marcellus broke the Carthaginian power in the island, and, after the fall of Agrigentum in 210 BC, the pacification of the country went on rapidly. Probably from the outset, even in the matter of transportation, the provinces of the mainland were at a disadvantage because of the cheapness of sea freights, but at all events the opening of the Sicilian grain trade had an immediate and disastrous effect on Italy. The migration of vagrants to Rome began forthwith, and within seven years, 203 B.C., a public distribution of wheat took place, probably by the advice of Scipio. Nevertheless the charity was private and not gratuitous. On the contrary, a charge of four sesterces, or seventeen cents the bushel, was made, apparently near half the market rate, a price pretty regularly maintained on such occasions down to the Empire. This interval comprehended the whole period of the Sicilian supremacy in the corn trade, for in 30 BC. Egypt was annexed by Augustus.

The distress which followed upon free trade with Egypt finally broke down the resistance of the rich to gratuitous relief for the poor. Previously the opposition to State aid had been so stubborn that until 123 BC no legal provision whatever was made for paupers; and yet the account left by Polybius of the condition of Lombardy toward the middle of the second century shows the complete wreck of agriculture.

 The yield of corn in this district is so abundant that wheat is often sold at four obols a Sicilian medimnus [about seven cents and a quarter, or a little less than two sesterces], barley at two, or a metretes of wine for an equal measure of barley. . . . The cheapness and abundance of all articles of food may also be clearly shown from the fact that travelers in these parts, when stopping at inns, do not bargain for particular articles, but simply ask what the charge is per head for board. And for the most part the innkeepers are content with half an as (about half a cent) a day.[25]

These prices indicate a lack of demand so complete, that the debtors among the peasantry must have been ruined, and yet tax-payers remained obdurate. Gratuitous distributions were tried in 58 B.C. by the Lex Clodia, but soon abandoned as costly, and Caesar applied himself to reducing the outlay on the needy. He hoped to reach his end by cutting down the number of grain-receivers one-half, by providing that no grain should be given away except on presentation of a ticket, and by ordering that the number of ticketholders should not be increased. The law of nature prevailed against him, for the absorption of Egypt in the economic system of the Empire, marked, in the words of Mommsen “the end of the old and the beginning of a new epoch.”[26]

Among the races which have survived through ages upon scanty nutriment, none have, perhaps, excelled the Egyptian fellah. Even in the East no peasantry has probably been so continuously over-worked, so under-paid, and so taxed.

If it is the aim of the State to work out the utmost possible amount from its territory, in the Old World the Lagids were absolutely the masters of statecraft. In particular they were in this sphere the instructors and the models of the Caesars[27]

In the first century Egypt was, as it still is, preeminently a land of cheap labor; but it was also something more. The valley of the Nile, enriched by the overflow of the river, returned an hundredfold, without manure; and this wonderful district was administered, not like an ordinary province, but like a private farm belonging to the citizens of Rome. The emperor reserved it to himself. How large a revenue he drew from it is immaterial; it suffices that one-third of all the grain consumed in the capital came from thence. According to Athenaeus, some of the grain ships in use were about 420 feet long by 57 broad, or nearly the size of a modern steamer in the Atlantic trade.[28] From the beginning of the Christian era, therefore, the wages of the Egyptian fellah regulated the price of the cereals within the limits where trade was made free by Roman consolidation, and it From the beginning of the Christian era, therefore, the wages of the Egyptian fellah regulated the price of the cereals within the limits where trade was made free by Roman consolidation, and it is safe to say that, thenceforward, such of the highly nourished races as were constrained to sustain this competition, were doomed to perish. It is even extremely doubtful whether the distributions of grain by the government materially accelerated the march of the decay. Spain should have been far enough removed from the centre of exchanges to have had a certain local market of her own, and yet Martial, writing about 100 A.D., described the Spanish husbandman eating and drinking the produce he could not sell, and receiving but four sesterces the bushel for his wheat, which was the price paid by paupers in the time of Cicero.[29]

Thus by economic necessity great estates were formed in the hands of the economically strong. As the value of cereals fell, arable land passed into vineyards or pasture, and, the provinces being unable to sustain their old population, eviction went on with gigantic strides. Had the Romans possessed the versatility to enable them to turn to industry, factories might have afforded a temporary shelter to this surplus labor, but manufactures were monopolized by the East; therefore the beggared peasantry were either enslaved for debt, or wandered as penniless paupers to the cities, where gradually their numbers so increased as to enable them to extort a gratuitous dole. Indeed, during the third century, their condition fell so low that they were unable even to cook the food freely given them, and Aurelian had their bread baked at public ovens.[30]

As centralization advanced with the acceleration of human movement, force expressed itself more and more exclusively through money, and the channel in which money chose to flow was in investments in land. The social system fostered the growth of large estates. The Romans always had an inordinate respect for the landed magnate, and a contempt for the tradesman. Industry was reputed a servile occupation, and, under the Republic, the citizen who performed manual labor was almost deprived of political rights. Even commerce was thought so unworthy of the aristocracy that it was forbidden to senators. “The soil was always, in this Roman society, the principal source and, above all, the only measure of wealth.”

A law of Tiberius obliged capitalists to invest two-thirds of their property in land. Trajan not only exacted of aspirants to office that they should be rich, but that they should place at least one-third of their fortune in Italian real estate; and, down to the end of the Empire, the senatorial class “was at the same time the class of great landed proprietors.”[31]

The more property consolidated, the more resistless the momentum of capital became. Under the Empire small properties grew steadily rarer, and the fewer they were, the greater the disadvantage at which their owners stood. The small farmer could hardly sustain himself in competition with the great landlord. The grand domain of the capitalist was not only provided with a full complement of laborers, vine-dressers, and shepherds, but with the necessary artisans. The poor farmer depended on his rich neighbor even for his tools. “He was what a workman would be to-day who, amidst great factories, worked alone.”[32] He bought dearer and sold cheaper, his margin of profit steadily shrunk; at last he was reduced to a bare subsistence in good years, and the first bad harvest left him bankrupt.

The Roman husbandman and soldier was doomed, for nature had turned against him; the task of history is but to ascertain his fate, and trace the fortunes of his country after he had gone.

Of the evicted, many certainly drifted to the cities and lived upon charity, forming the proletariat, a class alike despised and lost to self-respect: some were sold into slavery, others starved; but when all deductions have been made, a surplus is left to be accounted for, and there is reason to suppose that these stayed on their farms as tenants to the purchasers.

In the first century such tenancies were common. The lessee remained a freeman, under no subjection to his landlord, provided he paid his rent; but in case of default the law was rigorous. Everything upon the land was liable as a pledge, and the tenant himself was held in pawn unless he could give security for what he owed. In case, therefore, of prolonged agricultural depression, all that was left of the ancient rural population could hardly fail to pass into the condition of serfs, bound to the land by debts beyond the possibility of payment.

That such a depression actually occurred, and that it extended through several centuries, is certain. Nor is it possible that its only cause was Egyptian competition, for had it been so, an equilibrium would have been reached when the African exchanges had been adjusted, whereas a continuous decline of prices went on until long after the fall of the Western Empire. The only other possible explanation of the phenomenon is that a contraction of the currency began soon after the death of Augustus, and continued without much interruption down to Charlemagne. Between the fall of Carthage and the birth of Christ, the Romans plundered the richest portions of the world west of the Indus; in the second century, North Africa, Macedon, Spain and parts of Greece and Asia Minor; in the first, Athens, Cappadocia, Syria, Gaul, and Egypt. These countries yielded an enormous mass of treasure, which was brought to Rome as spoil of war, but which was not fixed there by commercial exchanges, and which continually tended to flow back to the natural centers of trade. Therefore, when  conquests ceased, the sources of new bullion dried up, and the quantity held in Italy diminished as the balance of trade grew more and more unfavorable.

Under Augustus the precious metals were plenty and cheap, and the prices of commodities were correspondingly high; but a full generation had hardly passed before a dearth began to be felt, which manifested itself in a debasement of the coinage, the surest sign of an appreciation of the currency.

Speaking generally, the manufactures and the more costly products of antiquity came from countries to the east of the Adriatic, while the West was mainly agricultural; and nothing is better established than that luxuries were dear under the Empire, and food cheap.[33] Therefore exchanges were unfavorable to the capital from the outset; the exports did not cover the imports, and each year a deficit had to be made good in specie.

The Romans perfectly understood the situation, and this adverse balance caused them much uneasiness. Tiberius dwelt upon it in a letter to the Senate as early as 22 A.D. In that year the aediles brought forward proposals for certain sumptuary reforms, and the Senate, probably to rid itself of a delicate question, referred the matter to the executive. Most of the emperor’s reply is interesting, but there is one particularly noteworthy paragraph:

If a reform is in truth intended, where must it begin? and how am I to restore the simplicity of ancient times? . . . How shall we reform the taste for dress? . . . How are we to deal with the peculiar articles of female vanity, and, in particular, with that rage for jewels and precious trinkets, which drains the Empire of its wealth, and sends, in exchange for baubles, the money of the Commonwealth to foreign nations, and even to the enemies of Rome?[34]

Half a century later matters were, apparently, worse, for Pliny more than once returned to the subject. In the twelfth book of his Natural History, after enumerating the many well-known spices, perfumes, drugs, and gems, which have always made the Eastern trade of such surpassing value, he estimated that at the most moderate computation 100,000,000 sesterces, or about $4,000,000 in coin, were annually exported to Arabia and India alone; and at a time when silk was worth its weight in gold, the estimate certainly does not seem excessive. He added, “So dear do pleasures and women cost us.”[35]

The drain to Egypt and the Asiatic provinces could hardly have been much less serious. Adrian almost seems to have been jealous of the former, for in his letter to Servianus, after having criticized the people, he remarked that it was also a rich and productive country “in which no one was idle,” and in which glass, paper and linen were manufactured.[36] The Syrians were both industrial and commercial Tyre, for example, worked the raw silk of China, dyed and exported it. The glass of Tyre and Sidon was famous; the local aristocracy were merchants and manufacturers, “and, as later the riches acquired in the East flowed to Genoa and Venice, so then the commercial gains of the West flowed back to Tyre and Apamea.”[37]

Within about sixty years from the final consolidation of the Empire under Augustus, this continuous efflux of the precious metals began to cause the currency to contract, and prices to fall; and the first effect of shrinking values appears to have been a financial crisis in 33 A.D. Probably the diminution in the worth of commodities relatively to money, had already made it difficult for debtors to meet their liabilities, for Tacitus has prefaced his story by pointing out that usury had always been a scourge of Rome, and that just previous to the panic an agitation against the money-lenders had begun with a view to enforcing the law regarding interest. As most of the senators were deep in usury they applied for protection to Tiberius, who granted what amounted to a stay of proceedings, and then, as soon as the capitalists felt themselves safe, they proceeded to take their revenge. Loans were called, accommodation refused, and mortgagors were ruthlessly sold out. “There was great scarcity of money . . . and, on account of sales on execution, coin accumulated in the imperial, or the public treasury. Upon this the Senate ordered that everyone should invest two-thirds of his capital on loan, in Italian real estate; but the creditors called in the whole, nor did public opinion allow debtors to compromise.” Meanwhile there was great excitement but no relief, “as the usurers hoarded for the purpose of buying low. The quantity of sales broke the market, and the more liabilities were extended, the harder liquidation became. Many were ruined, and the loss of property endangered social station and reputation.”[38] The panic finally subsided, but contraction went on and next showed itself, twenty-five years later, in adulterated coinage. From the time of the Punic Wars, about two centuries and a half before Christ, the silver denarius, worth nearly seventeen cents, had been the standard of the Roman currency, and it kept its weight and purity unimpaired until Nero, when it diminished from 1/84 to 1/96 of a pound of silver, the pure metal being mixed with 1/10 of copper.[39] Under Trajan, toward 100 A.D., the alloy reached twenty percent; under Septimius Severus a hundred years later it had mounted to fifty or sixty percent, and by the time of Elagabalus, 220 A.D., the coin had degenerated into a token of base metal, and was repudiated by the government.

Something similar happened to the gold. The aureus, though it kept its fineness, lost in weight down to Constantine. In the reign of Augustus it equaled one-fortieth of a Roman pound of gold, in that of Nero one forty-fifth, in that of Caracalla but one-fiftieth, in that of Diocletian one-sixtieth, and in that of Constantine one seventy-second, when the coin ceased passing by tale and was taken only by weight.[40]

The repudiation of the denarius was an act of bankruptcy; nor did the financial position improve while the administration remained at Rome. Therefore the inference is that, toward the middle of the third century, Italy had lost the treasure she had won in war, which had gradually gravitated to the centre of exchanges. This inference is confirmed by history. The movements of Diocletian seem to demonstrate that after 250 A.D. Rome ceased to be either the political or commercial capital of the world.

Unquestionably Diocletian must have lived a life of intense activity at the focus of affairs, to have raised himself from slavery to the purple at thirty-nine; and yet Gibbon thought he did not even visit Rome until he went thither to celebrate his triumph, after he had been twenty years upon the throne. He never seemed anxious about the temper of the city. When proclaimed emperor he ignored Italy and established himself at Nicomedia on the Propontis, where he lived until he abdicated in 305. His personal preferences evidently did not influence him, since his successors imitated his policy; and everything points to the conclusion that he, and those who followed him, only yielded to the same resistless force which fixed the economic capital of the world upon the Bosporus. In the case of Constantine the operation of this force was conspicuous, for it was not only powerful enough to overcome the habit of a lifetime, but to cause him to undertake the gigantic task of building Constantinople.

Constantine was proclaimed in Britain in 306, when only thirty-two. Six years later he defeated Maxentius, and then governed the West alone until his war with Licinius, whom he captured in 323 and afterward put to death. Thus, at fifty, he returned to the East, after an absence of nearly twenty years, and his first act was to choose Byzantium as his capital, a city nearly opposite Nicomedia.

The sequence of events seems plain. Very soon after the insolvency of the government at Rome, the administration quitted the city and moved toward the boundary between Europe and Asia; there, after some forty years of vacillation, it settled permanently at the true seat of exchanges, for Constantinople remained the economic centre of the earth for more than eight centuries.

Similar conclusions may be drawn from the fluctuations of the currency. At Rome the coin could not be maintained at the standard, because of adverse exchanges; but when the political and economic centers had come to coincide, at a point upon the Bosphorus, depreciation ceased, and the aureus fell no further.

This migration of capital, which caused the rise of Constantinople, was the true opening of the Middle Ages, for it occasioned the gradual decline of the rural population, and thus brought about the disintegration of the West. Victory carried wealth to Rome, and wealth manifested its power in a permanent police; as the attack in war gained upon the defense, and individual resistance became impossible, transportation grew cheap and safe, and human movement was accelerated. Then economic competition began, and intensified as centralization advanced, telling always in favor of the acutest intellect and the cheapest labor. Soon, exchanges became permanently unfavorable, a steady drain of bullion set in to the East, and, as the outflow depleted the treasure amassed at Rome by plunder, contraction began, and with contraction came that fall of prices which first ruined, then enslaved, and finally exterminated, the native rural population of Italy.

In the time of Diocletian, the ancient silver currency had long been repudiated, and, in his well-known edict, he spoke of prices as having risen nine-fold, when reckoned in the denarii of base metal; the purchasing power of pure gold and silver had, however, risen very considerably in all the western provinces. Nor was this all. It appears to be a natural law that when social development has reached a certain stage, and capital has accumulated sufficiently, the class which has had the capacity to absorb it shall try to enhance the value of their property by legislation. This is done most easily by reducing the quantity of the currency, which is a legal tender for the payment of debts. A currency obviously gains in power as it shrinks in volume, and the usurers of Constantinople intuitively condensed to the utmost that of the Empire. After the insolvency under Elagabalus, payments were exacted in gold by weight, and as it grew scarcer its value rose. Aurelian issued an edict limiting its use in the arts; and while there are abundant reasons for inferring that silver also gained in purchasing power, gold far outstripped it. Although no statistics remain by which to establish, with any exactness, the movement of silver in comparison with commodities, the ratio between the precious metals at different epochs is known, and gold appears to have doubled between Caesar and Romulus Augustulus.

Gold to Silver Ratios

47 B.C.: 1 : 8.9
11 A.D. under Augustus: 1 : 9.3
100–200, Trajan to Severus: 1 : 9–10
310, Constantine: 1 : 12.5
450, Theodosius II: 1 : 18

As gold had become the sole legal tender, this change of ratio represents a diminution, during the existence of the Western Empire, of at least fifty percent in the value of property in relation to debt, leaving altogether out of view the appreciation of silver itself, which was so considerable that the government was unable to maintain the denarius.[41]

Resistance to the force of centralized wealth was vain. Aurelian’s attempt to reform the mints is said to have caused a rebellion, which cost him the lives of seven thousand of his soldiers; and though his policy was continued by Probus, and Diocletian coined both metals again at a ratio, expansion was so antagonistic to the interests of the moneyed class that, by 360, silver was definitely discarded, and gold was made by law the only legal tender for the payment of debts.[42] Furthermore, the usurers protected themselves against any possible tampering with the mints by providing that the solidus should pass by weight and not by tale; that is to say, they reserved to themselves the right to reject any golden sou which contained less than one seventy-second of a pound of standard metal, the weight fixed by Constantine.[43]

Thus, at a time when the exhaustion of the mines caused a failure in the annual supply of bullion, the old composite currency was split in two, and the half retained made to pass by weight alone, so as to throw the loss by clipping and abrasion upon the debtor. So strong a contraction engendered a steady fall of prices, a fall which tended rather to increase than diminish as time went on. But in prolonged periods of decline in the market value of agricultural products, farmers can with difficulty meet a money rent, because the sale of their crops leaves a greater deficit each year, and finally a time comes when insolvency can no longer be postponed.

In his opening chapter Gibbon described the Empire under the Antonines as enjoying “a happy period of more than fourscore years” of peace and prosperity; and yet nothing is more certain than that this halcyon age was in reality an interval of agricultural ruin. On this point Pliny was explicit, and Pliny was a large land-owner.

He wrote one day to Calvisius about an investment, and went at length into the condition of the property. A large estate adjoining his own was for sale, and he
was tempted to buy, “for the land was fertile, rich, and well watered,” the fields produced vines and wood which promised a fair return, and yet this natural fruitfulness was marred by the misery of the husbandmen. He found that the former owner “had often seized the ‘pignora,’ or pledges [that is, all the property the tenants possessed]; and though, by so doing, he had temporarily reduced their arrears, he had left them “without the means of tilling the soil. These tenants were freemen, who had been unable to meet their rent because of falling prices, and who, when they had lost their tools, cattle, and household effects, were left paupers on the farms they could neither cultivate nor abandon. Consequently the property had suffered, the rent had declined, and for these reasons and “the general hardness of the times,” its value had fallen from five million to three million sesterces.[44]

In another letter he explained that he was detained at home making new arrangements with his tenants, who were apparently insolvent, for “in the last five years, in spite of great concessions, the arrears have increased. For this reason most [tenants] take no trouble to diminish their debt, which they despair of paying. Indeed, they plunder and consume what there is upon the land, since they think they cannot save for themselves.” The remedy he proposed was to make no more money leases, but to farm on shares.[45]

The tone of these letters shows that there was nothing unusual in all this. Pliny nowhere intimated that the tenants were to blame, or that better men were to be had. On the contrary, he said emphatically that in such hard times money could not be collected, and therefore the interest of the landlord was to cultivate his estates on shares, taking the single precaution to place slaves over the tenants as overseers and receivers of the crops. In the same way the digest referred to such arrears as habitual.[46] In still another letter to Trajan, Pliny observed, “Continuae sterilitates cogunt me de remissionibus cogitare.”[47] Certainly these insolvent farmers could have held no better position when working on shares than before their disasters, for as bankrupts they were wholly in their creditors’ power, and could be hunted like slaves, and brought back in fetters if they fled. They were tied to the property by a debt which never could be paid, and they and their descendants were doomed to stay forever as coloni or serfs, chattels to be devised or sold as part of the realty. In the words of the law, “they were considered slaves of the land.”[48] The ancient martial husbandman had thus “fallen from point to point, from debt to debt, into an almost perpetual subjection.”[49] Deliverance was impossible, for payment was out of the question. He was bound to the soil for his life, and his children after him inherited his servitude with his debt.

The customs, according to which the coloni held, were infinitely varied; they differed not only between estates, but between the hands on the same estate. On the whole, however, the life must have been hard, for the serfs of the Empire did multiply, and the scarcity of rural labor became a chronic disease.

Yet, relatively, the position of the colonus was good, for his for his wife and children were his own; slavery was the ulcer which ate into the flesh, and the Roman fiscal system, coupled as it was with usury, was calculated to enslave all but the oligarchs who made the laws.

The taxes of the provinces were assessed by the censors and then sold for cash to the publicans, who undertook the collection. Italy was at first exempted, but after her bankruptcy she shared the common fate. Companies were formed to handle these ventures. The knights usually subscribed the capital and divided the profits, which corresponded with the severity of their administration; and, as the Roman conquests extended, these companies grew too powerful to be controlled. The only officials in a position to act were the provincial governors, who were afraid to interfere, and preferred to share in the gains of the traffic, rather than to run the risk of exciting the wrath of so dangerous an enemy.[50]

According to Pliny the collection of a rent in money had become impossible in the reign of Trajan. The reason was that with a contracting currency prices of produce fell, and each year’s crop netted less than that of the year before; therefore a rent moderate in one decade was extortionate in the next. But taxes did not fall with the fall in values; on the contrary, the tendency of centralization is always toward a more costly administration. Under Augustus, one emperor with a moderate household sufficed; but in the third century Diocletian found it necessary to reorganize the government under four Caesars, and everything became specialized in the same proportion.

In this way the people were caught between the upper and the nether millstone. The actual quantity of bullion taken from them was greater, the lower prices of their property fell, and arrears of taxes accumulated precisely as Pliny described the accumulation of arrears of rent. These arrears were carried over from reign to reign, and even from century to century; and Petronius, the father-in-law
of Valens, is said to have precipitated the rebellion of Procopius, by exacting the tribute unpaid since the death of Aurelian a hundred years before.

The processes employed in the collection of the revenue were severe. Torture was freely used,[51] and slavery was the fate of defaulters. Armed with such power, the publicans held debtors at their mercy. Though usury was forbidden, the most lucrative part of the trade was opening accounts with the treasury, assuming debts, and charging interest sometimes as high as fifty percent. Though, as prices fell, the pressure grew severer, the abuses of the administration were never perhaps worse than toward the end of the Republic. In his oration against Verres, Cicero said the condition of the people had become intolerable: “All the provinces are in mourning, all the nations that are free are complaining; every kingdom is expostulating with us about our covetousness and injustice.”[52]

The well-known transactions of Brutus are typical of what went on wherever the Romans marched. Brutus lent the Senate of Salaminia at forty-eight percent a year. As the contract was illegal, he obtained two decrees of the Senate at Rome for his protection, and then to enforce payment of his interest, Scaptius, his man of business, borrowed from the governor of Cilicia a detachment of troops. With this he blockaded the Senate [of Salaminia] so closely that several members starved to death. The Salaminians, wanting at all costs to free themselves from such a load, offered to pay off both interest and capital at once; but to this Brutus would not consent, and to impose his own terms upon the province he demanded from Cicero more troops, “only fifty horse.”[53]

When at last, by such proceedings, the debtors were so exhausted that no torment could wring more from them, they were sold as slaves; Nicodemus, king of Bithynia, on being reproached for not furnishing his contingent of auxiliaries, replied that all his able-bodied subjects had been taken by the farmers of the revenue.[54] Nor, though the administration doubtless was better regulated under the Empire than under the Republic, did the oppression of the provinces cease. Juvenal, who wrote about 100 A.D., implored the young noble taking possession of his government to put some curb upon his avarice, “to pity the poverty of the allies. You see the bones of kings sucked of their very marrow.”[55] And though the testimony of Juvenal may be rejected as savoring too much of poetical license, Pliny must always be treated with respect. When Maximus was sent to Achaia, Pliny thought it well to write him a long letter of advice, in which he not only declared that to wrest from the Greeks the shadow of liberty left them would be ‘‘durum, ferum, barbarumque”; but adjured him to try to remember what each city had been, and not to despise it for what it was.[56]

Most impressive, perhaps, of all, is the statement of Dio Cassius that the revolt led by Boadicea in Britain in 61 A.D., which cost the Romans seventy thousand lives, was provoked by the rapacity of Seneca, who, having forced a loan of ten million drachmas ($1,670,000) on the people at usurious interest, suddenly withdrew his money, thereby inflicting intense suffering.[57] As Pliny said with bitterness
and truth, “The arts of avarice were those most cultivated at Rome.”[58]

The stronger type exterminated the weaker; the money-lender killed out the husbandman; the race of soldiers vanished, and the farms, whereon they had once flourished, were left desolate. To quote the words of Gibbon:

The fertile and happy province of Campania . . . extended between the sea and the Apennines from the Tiber to the Silanis. Within sixty years after the death of Constantine, and on the evidence of an actual survey, an exemption was granted in favor of three hundred and thirty thousand English acres of desert and uncultivated land; which amounted to one-eighth of the whole surface of the province.[59]

It is true that Gibbon, in this paragraph, described Italy as she was in the fourth century, just before the barbarian invasions, but a similar fate had overtaken the provinces under the Caesars. In the reign of Domitian, according to Plutarch, Greece had been almost depopulated.

She can with much difficulty raise three thousand men, which number the single city of Megara sent heretofore to the battle of Plataea. . . . For of what use would the oracle be now, which was heretofore at Tegyra or at Ptous? For scarcely shall you meet, in a whole day’s time, with so much as a herdsman or shepherd in those parts.[60]

Wallon has observed that Rome, “in the early times of the Republic, was chiefly preoccupied with having a numerous and strong population of freemen. Under the Empire she had but one anxiety—taxes.”[61]

To speak with more precision, force changed the channel through which it operated. Native farmers and native soldiers were needless when such material could be bought cheaper in the North or East. With money the cohorts could be filled with Germans; with money, slaves and serfs could be settled upon the Italian fields; and for the last century, before the great inroads began, one chief problem of the imperial administration was the regulation of the inflow of new blood from without, lacking which the social system must have collapsed.

The later campaigns on the Rhine and the Danube were really slave-hunts on a gigantic scale. Probus brought back sixteen thousand men from Germany, “the bravest and most robust of their youth,” and distributed them in knots of fifty or sixty among the legions. “Their aid was now become necessary. . . . The infrequency of marriage, and the ruin of agriculture, affected the principles of population; and not only destroyed the strength of the present, but intercepted the hope of future generations.”[62]

His importations of agricultural labor were much more considerable. In a single settlement in Thrace, Probus established one hundred thousand Bastarnae; Constantius Chlorus is said to have made Gaul flourish by the herds of slaves he distributed among the landlords; in 370, large numbers of Alemanni were planted in the valley of the Po, and on the vast spaces of the public domain there were barbarian villages where the native language and customs were preserved.

Probably none of these Germans came as freemen. Many, of course, were captives sold as slaves, but perhaps the majority were serfs. Frequently a tribe, hard pressed by enemies, asked leave to pass the frontier, and settle as tributaries, that is to say as coloni. On one such occasion Constantius II was nearly murdered. A body of Limigantes, who had made a raid, surrendered, and petitioned to be given lands at any distance, provided they might have protection. The emperor was delighted at the prospect of such a harvest of laborers, to say nothing of recruits, and went among them to receive their submission. Seeing him alone, the barbarians attacked him, and he escaped with difficulty. His troops slaughtered the Germans to the last man.

This unceasing emigration gradually changed the character of the rural population, and a similar alteration took place in the army. As early as the time of Caesar, Italy was exhausted; his legions were mainly raised in Gaul, and as the native farmers sank into serfdom or slavery, and then at last vanished, recruits were drawn more and more from beyond the limits of the Empire. At first they were taken singly, afterwards in tribes and nations, so that, when Aetius defeated Attila at Chalons, the battle was fought by the Visigoths under Theodoric, and the equipment of the Romans and Huns was so similar that when drawn up the lines “presented the image of civil war.”

This military metamorphosis indicated the extinction of the martial type, and it extended throughout society. Rome not only failed to breed the common soldier, she also failed to produce generals. After the first century, the change was marked. Trajan was a Spaniard, Septimius Severus an African, Aurelian an Illyrian peasant, Diocletian a Dalmatian slave, Constantius Chlorus a Dardanian noble, and the son of Constantius, by a Dacian woman, was the great Constantine.

All these men were a peculiar species of military adventurer, for they combined qualities which made them, not only effective chiefs of police, but acceptable as heads of the civil bureaucracy, which represented capital. Severus was the type, and Severus has never been better described than by Machiavelli, who said he united the ferocity of the lion to the cunning of the fox. This bureaucracy was the core of the consolidated mass called the Empire; it was the embodiment of money, the ultimate expression of force, and it recognized and advanced men who were adapted to its needs. When such men were to be found, the administration was thought good; but when no one precisely adapted for the purple appeared, and an ordinary officer had to be hired to keep the peace, friction was apt to follow, and the soldier, even though of the highest ability, was often removed. Both Stilicho and Aetius were murdered.

The moneyed oligarchy which formed this bureaucracy was a growth as characteristic of the high centralization of the age, as a sacred caste is characteristic of decentralization. Perhaps the capitalistic class of the later Empire has been better understood and appreciated by Fustel de Coulanges than by any other historian.

All the documents which show the spirit of the epoch show that this noblesse was as much honored by the government as respected by the people. . . . It was from it that the imperial government chose ordinarily its high functionaries.

These functionaries were not sought among the lower classes. The high offices were not given as a reward of long and faithful service; they belonged by prescriptive right to the great families. The Empire made the wealthy, senators, praetors, consuls, and governors; all dignities, except only the military, were practically hereditary in the opulent class.

This class is rich and the government is poor. This class is mistress of the larger part of the soil; it is in possession of the local dignities, of the administrative and judicial functions. The government has only the appearance of power, and an armed force which is continually diminishing. . . . “The aristocracy had the land, the wealth, the distinction, the education, ordinarily the morality of existence; it did not know how to fight and to command. It withdrew itself from military service; more than that, it despised it. It was one of the characteristic signs of this society to have always placed the civil functions not on a level with, but much above, the grades of the army. It esteemed much the profession of the doctor, of the professor, of the advocate; it did not esteem that of the officer and the soldier, and left it to men of low estate.”[63]

This supremacy of the economic instinct transformed all the relations of life, the domestic as well as the military. The family ceased to be a unit, the members of which cohered from the necessity of self-defense, and became a business association. Marriage took the form of a contract, dissoluble at the will of either party, and, as it was somewhat costly, it grew rare. As with the drain of their bullion to the East, which crushed their farmers, the Romans were conscious, as Augustus said, that sterility must finally deliver their city into the hand of the barbarians.[64] They knew this and they strove to avert their fate, and there is little in history more impressive than the impotence of the ancient civilization in its conflict with nature. About the opening of the Christian era the State addressed itself to the task. Probably in the year 4 A.D., the emperor succeeded in obtaining the first legislation favoring marriage, and this enactment not proving effective, it was supplemented by the famous Leges Julia and Papia Poppaea of the year 9. In the spring, at the games, the knights demanded the repeal of these laws, and then Augustus, having called them to the Forum, made them the well-known speech, whose violence now seems incredible. Those who were single were the worst of criminals, they were murderers, they were impious, they were destroyers of their race, they resembled brigands or wild beasts. He asked the equitesif they expected men to start from the ground to replace them, as in the fable; and declared in bitterness that while the government liberated slaves for the sole purpose of keeping up the number of citizens, the children of the Marcii, of the Fabii, of the Valerii, and the Julii, let their names perish from the earth.[65]

In vain celibacy was made almost criminal. In vain celibates were declared incapable of inheriting, while fathers were offered every bribe, were preferred in appointments to office, were even given the choice seats at games; in the words of Tacitus, “not for that did marriage and children increase, for the advantages of childlessness prevailed.”[66] All that was done was to breed a race of informers, and to stimulate the lawyers to fresh chicane.[67]

When wealth became force, the female might be as strong as the male; therefore she was emancipated. Through easy divorce she came to stand on an equality with the man in the marriage contract. She controlled her own property, because she could defend it; and as she had power, she exercised political privileges. In the third century Julia Domna, Julia Mamaea, Soasmias, and others, sat in the Senate, or conducted the administration.

The evolution of this centralized society was as logical as every other work of nature. When force reached the stage where it expressed itself exclusively through money, the governing class ceased to be chosen because they were valiant or eloquent, artistic, learned, or devout, and were selected solely because they had the faculty of acquiring and keeping wealth. As long as the weak retained enough vitality to produce something which could be absorbed, this oligarchy was invincible; and for very many years after the native peasantry of Gaul and Italy had perished under the load, new blood injected from more tenacious races kept the dying civilization alive.

The weakness of the moneyed class lay in their very power, for they not only killed the producer, but in the strength of their acquisitiveness they failed to propagate themselves. The State feigned to regard marriage as a debt, and yet the opulent families died out. In the reign of Augustus all but fifty of the patrician houses had become extinct, and subsequently the emperor seemed destined to remain the universal heir through bequests of the childless.

With the peasantry the case was worse. By the second century barbarian labor had to be imported to till the fields, and even the barbarians lacked the tenacity of life necessary to endure the strain. They ceased to breed, and the population dwindled. Then, somewhat suddenly, the collapse came. With shrinking numbers, the sources of wealth ran dry, the revenue failed to pay the police, and on the efficiency of the police the life of this unwarlike civilization hung.

In early ages every Roman had been a land-owner, and every land-owner had been a soldier, serving without pay. To fight had been as essential a part of life as to plough. But by the fourth century military service had become commercial; the legions were as purely an expression of money as the bureaucracy itself.

From the time of the Servian constitution downward, the change in the army had kept pace with the acceleration of movement which caused the economic competition that centralized the State. Rome owed her triumphs over Hannibal and Pyrrhus to the valor of her infantry, rather than to the genius of her generals; but from Marius the census ceased to be the basis of recruitment, and the rich refused to serve in the ranks.

This was equivalent in itself to a social revolution; for, from the moment when the wealthy succeeded in withdrawing themselves from service, and the poor saw in it a trade, the citizen ceased to be a soldier, and the soldier became a mercenary. From that time the army could be used for “all purposes, provided that they could count on their pay and their booty.”[68]

The administration of Augustus organized the permanent police, which replaced the mercenaries of the civil wars, and this machine was the greatest triumph
and the crowning glory of capital. Dio Cassius has described how the last vestige of an Italian army passed away. Up to the time of Severus it had been customary to recruit the Praetorians either from Italy itself, from Spain, Macedonia, or other neighboring countries, whose population had some affinity with that of Latium. Severus, after the treachery of the guard to Pertinax, disbanded it, and reorganized a corps selected from the bravest soldiers of the legions. These men were a horde of barbarians, repulsive to Italians in their habits, and terrible to look upon.[69] Thus a body of wage-earners, drawn from the ends of the earth, was made cohesive by money. For more than four hundred years this corps of hirelings crushed revolt within the Empire, and regulated the injection of fresh blood from without, with perfect promptitude and precision; nor did it fail in its functions while the money which vitalized it lasted.

But a time came when the suction of the usurers so wasted the life of the community that the stream of bullion ceased to flow from the capital to the frontiers; then, as the sustaining force failed, the line of troops along the Danube and the Rhine was drawn out until it broke, and the barbarians poured in unchecked.

The so-called invasions were not conquests, for they were not necessarily hostile; they were only the logical conclusion of a process which had been going on since Trajan. When the power to control the German emigration decayed, it flowed freely into the provinces.

By the year 400 disintegration was far advanced; the Empire was crumbling, not because it was corrupt or degenerate, but because the most martial and energetic race the world had ever seen had been so thoroughly exterminated by men of the economic type of mind, that petty bands of sorry adventurers might rove whither they would, on what had once been Roman soil, without meeting an enemy capable of facing them, save other adventurers like themselves. Goths, not Romans, defeated Attila at Chalons.

The Vandals, who, in the course of twenty years, wandered from the Elbe to the Atlas, were not a nation, not an army, not even a tribe, but a motley horde of northern barbarians, ruined provincials, and escaped slaves—a rabble whom Caesar’s legions would have scattered like chaff, had they been as many as the sands of the shore; and yet when Genseric routed  Boniface and sacked Carthage, in 439, he led barely fifty thousand fighting men.

Notes

1. Mommsen, History of Rome, vol. i, pp. 288, 290.

2. Preface to Virginia.

3. Niebuhr, History of Rome, vol. i, p. 576. Niebuhr has been followed in the text, although the “nexum” is one of the vexed points of Roman law. (See Savigny, Über das altrömische Schuldrecht.) The precise form of the contract is, however, perhaps, not very important for the matter in hand, as most scholars seem agreed that it resembled a mortgage, the breach of whose condition involved not only the lost of the pledge, but the personal liberty of the debtor. See Gaius, iv, 21.

4. Niebuhr, vol. ii, p. 599. Compare Aulus Gellius, xx, 1.

5. Niebuhr, vol. i, p. 582.

6. Niebuhr, vol. i, p. 583.

7. Mommsen, History of Rome, vol. i, p. 472.

8. Livy, xlv, 18.

9. Niebuhr, vol. i, p. 583.

10. Niebuhr, vol. ii, p. 603.

11. Niebuhr, vol. i, p. 574.

12. Preface to Virginia.

13. Mommsen, History of Rome, vol. i, p. 484.

14. Mommsen, History of Rome, vol. i, p. 298–99.

15. Niebuhr, vol. i, pp. 22, 30.

16. Preface to Virginia

17. Wallon, Histoire de l’Esclavage, vol. II, p. 38.

18. Suetonius, Aug., ii, 41.

19. Tacitus, Ann., ii, 48.

20. Tacitus, Ann., vi, 39.

21. Tacitus, Ann., iv, 21.

22. Juvenal, Sat., iii, 164.

23. Fustel de Coulanges L’Invasion Germanique, pp. 146–57.

24. Diod., xxxic, 38. On the subject of Sicilian slavery, see Wallon, Histoire de l’Esclavage, vol. ii, pp. 300 ff.

25. Polybius, ii, 15, Shuckburgh’s trans.

26. Mommsen, Provinces of the Roman Empire, vol. ii, 233.

27. Mommsen, Provinces of the Roman Empire, vol. ii, 239.

28. Deipnosophists, v, 37.

29. Martial, Ep., xii, 76.

30. Vopiscus, Aureliantis, 35.

31. Fustel de Coulanges, L’Invasion Germanique, p. 190.

32. Fustel de Coulanges Le Colonat Romain: Recherches sur quelques Problèmes d’Histoire, p. 143.

33. Marquardt, Organisation Financière chez les Romains, pp. 65 ff.

34. Tacitus, Ann., Murphy’s trans., iii, 53.

35. Pliny, Nat. Hist., xii, 18.

36. Vopiscus, Saturninus, 8.

37. Mommsen, Provinces of the Roman Empire, vol. 11, p. 140.

38. Tacitus, Ann., vi, 16, 17.

39. Mommsen, Geschicthe des Römischen Münzwesens, p. 756.

40. Sabatier, Monnaies Byzantines, vol. i, 51, 52.

41. Sabatier, Monnaies Byzantines, vol. i, 50.

42. Mommsen, Geschicthe des Römischen Münzwesens, p. 837.

43. Sabatier, Monnaies Byzantines, vol. i, 51, 52.

44. Pliny, Letters, iii, 19.

45. Pliny, Letters, ix, 37.

46. Digest, xix, 15 and xxxiii, 7, 20.

47. Pliny, Letters, x, 24. On the whole subject, see Fustel de Coulanges, Le Colonat Romain: Recherches sur quelques Problèmes d’Historie, ch. 1.

48. Code of Justinian, xi, 51, 1.

49. Fustel de Coulanges, Le Colonat Romain, 21.

50. Marquardt, Organisation Financière chez le Romains, p. 240; Deloume, Le Manieurs d’Argent à Rome, p. 377.

51. Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. xvii.

52. Cicero, Verrem, iv, lxxxix.

53. Cicero, Letters, Ad Att. Ci, 2, also Ad Att., v, 21 and vi, 1.

54. Diod. xxxvi, 3. See also Wallon, Histoire de l’Esclavage, vol. ii, 42, 44.

55. Juvenal, Satires, viii, 24.

56. Pliny, Letters, viii, 24.

57. Dio Cassius, lxii, 2.

58. Pliny, Nat. Hist., xiv, Proemium.

59. Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. xvii.

60. Plutarch, Morals, trans, of 1718, 4, 11.

61. Wallon, Histoire de l’Esclavage, vol. iii, 268.

62. Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. xii.

63. Fustel de Coulanges, L’Invasion Gerinanique, pp. 200, 204, 223.

64. Dio Cassius, lvi, 7.

65. Dio Cassius, lvi, 5–8.

66. Tacitus, Ann., iii, 25.

67. Tacitus, Ann., xxviii. Latin literature is full of references to these famous laws. Tacitus, Pliny, Juvenal, and Martial constantly speak of them. There were also many commentaries on them by Roman jurists.

68. Marquardt, L’Organisation Militaire chez les Romains, p. 143.

69. Dio Cassius, lxxiv, 2.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted October 27, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    This description of Rome might be usefully read against this post today at The Economic Crisis:

    “There is certainly nothing wrong with being wealthy. If you and your family work really hard and provide great value to the community around you then you should greatly benefit.

    But a system that is designed to systematically drain wealth from the general population and transfer it into the hands of an ultra-wealthy elite is not what our founding fathers ever hand in mind.”

    The One Percent: Gigantic Government + Gigantic Corporations = Massive Wealth Inequality In America
    http://theeconomiccollapseblog.com/archives/the-one-percent-gigantic-government-gigantic-corporations-massive-wealth-inequality-in-america

  2. Jaego Scorzne
    Posted October 27, 2011 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    It would seem that the basis of Civilization is self restraint – not doing something just because you can. Once everyone feels free to enrich themselves without restraint, the end is just a matter of time. Of course, many people will never agree to restrain themselves or don’t understand the necessity of doing so. So they must be restrained by their bettors. Such differences are the basis of the Caste Syste – which must be reinstated somehow. It necessity is defined by three premises: 1) Men differ. 2) The differences make them unequal in terms of being and therefore morality and wisdom. 3) The High must rule the low – whether they would or no. It is their duty.

    Of course caste must be determined by quality and not by birth. And that’s the rub. What powerful man would have his son be a manual laborer – even if that is what he should be? Thus clock makers end up as Kings and Kings as clock makers. Oh Usura, you have triumphed. Is not your first name Kali?

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  • By It is the Ring, stupid! « The West’s Darkest Hour on October 27, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    [...] we can hardly blame the Jews for what happened to the Roman Empire. Johnson also published today “The Romans,” the mentioned chapter of Adams’ book originally published in 1895 on how the “One Ring” [...]

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