The whole history of the Roman Republic is the history of class struggle, beginning with the struggles between patricians and plebeians for admission to office and share in the state lands. The decay of the old gentile society led to the rise of antagonistic classes, leading to a vicious civil war between the Plebs and the Patricians that lasted, on and off, for 200 years. Finally, the patrician nobility merged with the new class of the great landowners, slave owners and money owners, who gradually expropriated the lands of the free Roman peasantry, which was ruined by military service. The mass employment of slave labour to cultivate the enormous estates (latifundia) eventually led to the depopulation of Italy and the undermining of the Republic, paving the way for the victory, first of the emperors, the collapse of Rome and then the long dark night of barbarism, as Engels explained:
“The banishment of the last rex [king], Tarquinius Superbus, who usurped real monarchic power, and the replacement of the office of rex by two military leaders (consuls) with equal powers (as among the Iroquois) was simply a further development of this new constitution. Within this new constitution, the whole history of the Roman Republic runs its course, with all the struggles between patricians and plebeians for admission to office and share in the state lands, and the final merging of the patrician nobility in the new class of the great land and money owners, who, gradually swallowing up all the land of the peasants ruined by military service, employed slave labor to cultivate the enormous estates thus formed, depopulated Italy and so threw open the door, not only to the emperors, but also to their successors, the German barbarians.” (Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State)
The origins of Rome are shrouded in mist. We can, of course, discount the mythological account that attempts to trace the founders of Rome to the legendary Aeneas, who fled from the burning ruins of Troy. As is the case with many ancient tribes, this was an attempt to attribute a noble and illustrious ancestry to what was a far more ignoble affair. Similarly, the name of the mythical founder of Rome (Romulus) simply means “man of Rome”, and therefore tells us nothing at all. According to the traditional belief, the date of the founding of Rome was 753 BC. But this date is contradicted by the archaeological evidence: too late for the first regular settlements and too early for the time of true urbanization.
The most celebrated historian of early Rome, Livy, mixes genuine historical material with a mass of legend, speculation and mythology, from which it is difficult to extract the truth. However, these myths are of tremendous importance because they furnish us with significant clues. By comparing the written record – confused as it is – with the evidence of archaeology, comparative linguistics and other sciences, it is possible to reconstruct, at least in outline the origins of Rome. The pastoral economy of these tribes is probably true, since it corresponds to what we know about the economic mode of life of many of the Latin tribes, although by the beginning of the first millennium, they were already practicing agriculture and cultivated the soil with light ploughs.
One such group of shepherds and farmers migrated from the area of Mount Alban (Monte Cavo), some thirteen miles south-east of Rome in the early years of the first millennium, and built their huts on the banks of the Tiber. However, this particular group settled in an area that possessed a key economic importance. Rome’s geographical position, controlling the crossing of the river Tiber, which separates the two halves of the Peninsula, was of key strategic importance for the nations seeking to control the destiny of Italy. Situated on a ford of the Tiber, Rome was at a crossroads of traffic following the river valley and of traders travelling north and south on the west side of the Italian Peninsula.
To the South of Rome lay the fertile agricultural lands of the Campanian Plain, watered by two rivers and capable of producing as many as three grain crops a year in some districts. Rome also possessed the highly lucrative salt trade, derived from the salt flats at the mouth of the Tiber. The importance of this commodity in the ancient world cannot be overstated.
To this day we say: “a man who is worth his salt.” In ancient Rome, this was literally true. The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt – salarium, which linked employment, salt and soldiers, although the exact link is unclear. One theory is that the word soldier itself comes from the Latin sal dare (to give salt). The Roman historian Pliny the Elder states in his Natural History that “[I]n Rome. . .the soldier’s pay was originally salt and the word salary derives from it. . .” (Plinius Naturalis Historia XXXI). More likely, the salarium was either an allowance paid to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt or the price of having soldiers conquer salt supplies and guard the Salt Roads (Via Salarium) that led to Rome.
Whatever version one accepts, there is no question about the vital importance of salt and the salt trade that must have played a vital role in the establishment of a prosperous settled community in Rome, which must have attracted the unwelcome attention of less favoured tribes. The picture that emerges of the first Roman community is that of a group of clans fighting to defend their territory against the pressure of other peoples (Latins, Etruscans, Sabines etc.).
Early Roman society
According to Livy, Rome was formed by shepherds, under the leadership of chieftains. He refers to the ancient tribes of Rome, the Ramnenses, Titienses, and Luceres, about which we know little. The first settlement was established by a number of Latin gentes (one hundred, according to the legend), who were united in a tribe; these were soon joined by a Sabellian tribe, also said to have numbered a hundred gentes, and lastly by a third tribe of mixed elements, again said to have been composed of a hundred gentes. Thus, the population of Rome itself seems to have been a mixture of different peoples. This was the natural consequence of Rome’s geographical situation and long years of war. Over a long period, during which the original inhabitants were mixed with many other elements, they gradually succeeded in uniting the scattered inhabitants under a common state.
No one could belong to the Roman people unless he or she was a member of a gens and through it of a curia and a tribe. Ten gentes formed a curia (which among the Greeks was called a phratry). Every curia had its own religious rites, shrines and priests; the latter, as a body, formed one of the Roman priestly colleges. Ten curiae formed a tribe, which probably, like the rest of the Latin tribes, originally had an elected president-military leader and high priest. The three tribes together formed the Roman people, the Populus Romanus. In the earliest times the Roman gens (plural gentes) had the following features:
- Mutual right of inheritance among gentile members; the property remained within the gens.
- Possession of a common burial place.
- Common religious rites (the sacra gentilitia).
- Obligation not to marry within the gens.
- Common ownership of land. In primitive times the gens had always owned common land, ever since the tribal land began to be divided up. Later we still find land owned by the gentes, to say nothing of the state land, round which the whole internal history of the republic centers.
- Obligation of mutual protection and help among members of the gens. At the time of the second Punic war the gentes joined together to ransom their members who had been taken prisoner; the senate put a stop to it.
- Right to bear the gentile name.
- Right to adopt strangers into the gens.
- The right to elect the chief and to depose him. Although this is nowhere mentioned, in the earliest days of Rome all offices were filled by election or nomination, from the elected “king” downwards. The priests of the curiae were also elected by the curiae themselves, so we may assume the same procedure for the chiefs of the gentes.
Initially, it seems that public affairs were managed by the senate (the council of elders, from the Latin senex, an old man). This was composed of the chiefs of the three hundred gentes. It was for this reason that they were called “fathers”, patres, from which we later get the denomination patricians. Here we see how the original patriarchal relations of the old equalitarian genes system gradually produced a privileged tribal aristocracy, which crystallized into the Patrician Order – the ruling class in early Roman society. As Engels explains:
“[…] the custom of electing always from the same family in the gens brought into being the first hereditary nobility; these families called themselves “patricians,” and claimed for themselves exclusive right of entry into the senate and tenure of all other offices. The acquiescence of the people in this claim, in course of time, and its transformation into an actual right, appear in legend as the story that Romulus conferred the patriciate and its privileges on the first senators and their descendants. The senate, like the Athenian boule, made final decisions in many matters and held preparatory discussions on those of greater importance, particularly new laws. With regard to these, the decision rested with the assembly of the people, called the comitia curiata (assembly of the curiae). The people assembled together, grouped in curiae, each curia probably grouped in gentes; each of the thirty curiae, had one vote in the final decision. The assembly of the curiae accepted or rejected all laws, elected all higher officials, including the rex (so-called king), declared war (the senate, however, concluded peace), and, as supreme court, decided, on the appeal of the parties concerned, all cases involving death sentence on a Roman citizen.
“Lastly, besides the senate and the assembly of the people, there was the rex, who corresponded exactly to the Greek basileus and was not at all the almost absolute king which Mommsen made him out to be. He also was military leader, high priest, and president of certain courts. He had no civil authority whatever, nor any power over the life, liberty, or property of citizens, except such as derived from his disciplinary powers as military leader or his executive powers as president of a court.” (Ibid.)
The divisions between patricians and plebs was not exclusively a difference between rich and poor. Some plebeians became very rich, but they remained plebeians and thus excluded from state power, which was originally monopolized by the clan aristocracy. The old Populus, jealous of its privileges, rigidly barred any addition to its own ranks from outside. It seems that landed property was fairly equally divided between populus and plebs. But the commercial and industrial wealth, though not as yet much developed, was probably for the most part in the hands of the Plebs. Thus, the old gentile legal forms entered into contradiction with the changed economic and social relations. The growing numbers of Plebs, and the growing economic power of its upper layer, led to a sharp class struggle between Plebs and Patricians that dominated the history of Rome after the expulsion of the Etruscans.
The exact process by which the old gentile society was destroyed is unclear. The increased wealth derived from the salt trade must have played a role, strengthening the position of the old tribal aristocracy and creating a growing gulf between the aristocracy and the poor members of the gens. What is clear is that the rise of private property created sharp divisions in society from a very early date. The harshness of the property laws in early Roman society coincided with the form of the family, which in Rome was the most extreme expression of patriarchy. The (male) head of the family enjoyed absolute power over all other members of the family, who were also regarded as private property, a fact that was already noted by Hegel:
“We thus find family relations among the Romans not as a beautiful, free relation of love and feeling; the place of confidence is usurped by the principle of severity, dependence, and subordination. Marriage, in its strict and formal shape, bore quite the aspect of a mere contract; the wife was part of the husband’s property (in manum conventio), and the marriage ceremony was based on a coemtio, in a form such as might have been adopted on the occasion of any other purchase. The husband acquired a power over his wife, such as he had over his daughter; nor less over her property; so that everything which she gained, she gained for her husband […].
“[…] The relation of sons was perfectly similar: they were, on the one hand, about as dependent on the paternal power as the wife on the matrimonial; they could not possess property – it made no difference whether they filled a high office in the State or not (though the peculia castrensia, and adventitia were differently regarded); but on the other hand, when they were emancipated, they had no connection with their father and their family. An evidence of the degree in which the position of children was regarded as analogous to that of slaves, is presented in the imaginaria servitus (mancipium), through which emancipated children had to pass. In reference to inheritance, morality would seem to demand that children should share equally. Among the Romans, on the contrary, testamentary caprice manifests itself in its harshest form. Thus perverted and demoralized, do we here see the fundamental relations of ethics.” (Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, pp. 286-7)
The old gens system rested originally on common property of land. But the decay of the old system under the pressures of trade and expanded wealth undermined all the old social-tribal relations. The rise of inequality within the gens led to the domination of the privileged class of patricians. Private property established itself so firmly that wives and children were regarded as private property, over which the paterfamilias ruled with an iron hand. Hegel understood perfectly well the relationship between the family and the state:
“The immoral active severity of the Romans in this private side of character, necessarily finds its counterpart in the passive severity of their political union. For the severity which the Roman experienced from the State he was compensated by a severity, identical in nature, which he was allowed to indulge towards his family – a servant on the one side, a despot on the other.” (ibid. p. 287)
The new form of the patriarchal family, based upon the tyrannical rule of the paterfamilias, was at the same time a reflection of the changed social and property relations and a firm base upon which the latter rested. And gradually, the state as an organ of class domination raised itself above society. The history of the Roman Republic is merely the continuation, extension and deepening of these tendencies, which in the end destroyed the Republic itself.
In his masterpiece The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky explains one of the most important laws of history, the law of combined and uneven development:
“Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course, in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third or tenth cultural class.” (Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, volume 1, chapter I, Peculiarities of Russia’s Development.)
The historical development of Russia was shaped by its more advanced neighbours. It was not helped by its early contacts with the more backward Tartars and other nomadic steppe dwellers from the East who contributed nothing to its culture and barely left an imprint on its language. It was held back for centuries by its subjugation by the Mongols, although the latter left its imprint on Russian society and particularly the state, which had certain semi-Asiatic characteristics. But it received a strong impulse from its wars with the more developed Poles and Swedes. The case of Rome is analogous. What determined its course of cultural and economic development was not the long wars with the barbarian Latin tribes, but their contacts with other peoples that had reached a higher level of socio-economic development: the Etruscans, the Greeks of southern Italy, and the Carthaginians.
As a general rule backward nations tend to assimilate the material and intellectual conquests of the advanced countries, although this process can often take the most complicated and contradictory forms, combining elements of extreme backwardness with the most modern innovations imported from external sources. This was true of ancient Rome. Like the Japanese in more modern times, the Romans showed a tremendous ability to learn from and assimilate the experiences of other nations, although these borrowings from other peoples were always coloured by a peculiar Roman outlook. Roman art began by copying Greek originals and never freed itself from Greek influences. But the flexibility and the free and cheerful spirit of Greek art was alien to the psychology of the Romans, who were originally small farmers and never completely freed themselves from a certain narrowness of mind, an unsmiling provincial practicality that expressed itself in art and religion by a stern and implacable austerity.
In the early days their gods were the simple deities of an agricultural people, though infused with a strong warrior spirit. Their most important god was originally Mars. But they were pragmatic about religion as about everything else, and regularly imported any foreign deity that seemed useful to them. When they conquered an enemy, they not only took his wealth and his women, but also his main gods, who were immediately installed in a new temple in Rome. This was a way of emphasising the completeness of their domination and also provided them with allies in Heaven, which they hoped would provide them with some assistance for the next war in this world. In this way, over a period, Rome acquired, alongside a wealth of loot, a superabundance of gods, which must have been quite bewildering at times.
The Romans succeeded in fighting off the neighbouring Latin tribes, whose level of socio-economic development was not so very different from their own. But to the North they were faced with pressure from a more advanced people: the Etruscans, who occupied most of the land in what was later known as Cisalpine Gaul in Northern Italy. The exact origin of the Etruscans is still a matter of controversy, since very little Etruscan literature remains and the language of inscriptions on their monuments has been only partially deciphered. We have gained most of our knowledge of the Etruscans from studying the remains of their city walls, houses, monuments, and tombs. Some scholars think they were a seafaring people from Asia Minor. Others have speculated that they may have been an original Italian population, or of Semitic stock, like the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. We may never know.
At any rate, as early as 1000 BC they were living in Italy in an area that was roughly equivalent to modern Tuscany, from the Tiber River north almost to the Arno River. After 650 BC, the Etruscans became dominant in north-central Italy. According to tradition, Rome had been under the control of seven kings, beginning with the mythical Romulus who along with his brother Remus were said to have founded the city of Rome. Of the last three “kings”, two were said to have been Etruscan: Tarquinius Priscus and Tarquinius Superbus. Although the list of kings is of dubious historical value, it is believed that the last-named kings may have been historical figures. This suggests that Rome was under the influence of the Etruscans for about a century. The early histories state that Rome was at one time under the rule of Etruscan “kings”, and the archaeological record shows that Rome was indeed at one stage an Etruscan city.
The Etruscans were interested in Rome for both economic and strategic reasons. South of Rome, Italy was dominated by powerful and prosperous Greek colonies. Indeed, the ancients referred to southern Italy and Sicily as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece). Etruscan expansion brought them into contact with the Latins, and eventually they reached the very frontier of Magna Graecia, where they began to establish colonies. This opened up a new period of conflict between the Etruscans and Greeks for the domination of Latium. It was impossible for the Etruscans to hold Latium unless they took Rome, which lay between Latium and themselves. In addition to its strategic importance, the salt from the mouth of the Tiber was essential to Etruscan cities, which had no other source of this important commodity.
Rome was surrounded by prosperous Etruscan city states like Tarquinii, Cere and Veii, and that it was under their influence that Rome was transformed. They were on a higher plane of economic and cultural development than the Romans, with whom they traded, and whom they eventually dominated. The fact that the Etruscans were on a higher level explains why they succeeded in establishing this superiority. They were organised, like the Greeks, in city states, and their art and culture showed strong Greek influences. Weapons and other implements, exquisite jewellery, coins, statues of stone, bronze, and terra-cotta, and black pottery (called bucchero) have been found. The Roman sources never actually state that the Etruscans conquered Rome, but that may be for reasons of national pride. But it is clear that, in one way or another, they took control of the city.
Before the arrival of the Etruscans Rome was a small conglomeration of villages approaching what Engels would have called the higher stage of barbarism. From an economic, cultural and technical point of view, the Etruscans had a tremendous impact on Roman development. They must have had a profound effect on the economic life of Rome, its culture and social structure. Only the later influence of the Greeks of southern Italy was greater. Contact with a more advanced civilization would have finally put an end to whatever was left of the old gentile constitution, strengthening the position of the old tribal aristocracy, undermining the old clan solidarity and preparing the ground for a transition to new legal and class relations.
The Etruscans are said to have been great engineers, and were probably responsible for the transformation of Rome from a relatively primitive tribal centre to a thriving city around 670-630 BC. It was under the new masters that, according to tradition, the first public works such as the walls of the Capitoline hill were constructed. Until then the Tiber was crossed by ford and Rome itself was not more than a collection of poor huts. During this period a bridge called the Pons Sublicius was built. It was also at this time that we can date the construction of the impressive sewerage and draining system, the Cloaca Maxima.
Assembly and Senate
The Romans eventually succeeded in driving out the last Etruscan ruler, Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud). Actually, the use of the word “king” is incorrect. Engels points out that the Latin word for king (rex) is the same as the Celtic-Irish righ (tribal chief) and the Gothic reiks, which signified head of the gens or tribe:
“The office of rex was not hereditary; on the contrary, he was first elected by the assembly of the curiae, probably on the nomination of his predecessor, and then at a second meeting solemnly installed in office. That he could also be deposed is shown by the fate of Tarquinius Superbus.
“Like the Greeks of the heroic age, the Romans in the age of the so-called kings lived in a military democracy founded on gentes, phratries, and tribes and developed out of them. Even if the curiae and tribes were to a certain extent artificial groups, they were formed after the genuine, primitive models of the society out of which they had arisen and by which they were still surrounded on all sides. Even if the primitive patrician nobility had already gained ground, even if the reges were endeavoring gradually to extend their power, it does not change the original, fundamental character of the constitution, and that alone matters.” (Engels, Origin of the Family, State and Private Property, Chapter VI, The gens and State in Rome)
According to tradition, this last Etruscan “king” of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, was expelled by the Roman people. It may be that he tried to change the status of a tribal chief (rex), to which the Romans were accustomed, into something resembling an actual king and thus came into collision with the Roman aristocracy. In any case, it is clear that the revolt against Etruscan rule coincided with a sharp decline in Etruscan power. As we have seen, the southerly expansion of the Etruscans brought them into direct conflict with the wealthy and powerful Greek city-states. This encounter proved fatal. After some initial successes Etruria suffered defeat and its fortunes were eclipsed. It was this weakening of Etruscan power that enabled the Romans, around 500 BC, to carry out a successful rebellion against the Etruscans and gain their independence. This prepared the way for their future development.
It is at this point that Rome abandoned monarchy in favour of a republican system. The banishment of the last rex, Tarquinius Superbus, led to the replacement of the office of rex by two military leaders (consuls) with equal powers. The new republican constitution was based on a Senate, composed of the nobles of the city, along with popular assemblies which ensured political participation for most of the freeborn men and elected magistrates annually. The public power consisted of the body of citizens liable for military service.
The two consuls were elected and possessed almost absolute powers (imperium). They controlled the army and interpreted and executed the laws. But the consuls’ powers were limited by two things: firstly, they were elected for only one year; secondly, each could veto the decisions of the other. In theory, the Senate possessed no executive powers. It merely advised the consuls on domestic and foreign policy, as well as finance and religious matters. But since the senators and consuls all came from the same class, they almost always acted in the same spirit and followed the same class interests. In fact, Rome was ruled by an exclusive and aristocratic club.
This new constitution was simply the recognition of a change in the social order that had already taken place before the expulsion of Tarquin. The old gentile order of society based on personal ties of blood was in open contradiction to the new economic and social relations. It was already irremediably decayed and in its place was set up a new state constitution based on territorial division and difference of property and wealth. This constitution excluded not only the slaves, but also those without property who were barred from service in the army and from possession of arms, the so-called proletarians. Apart from this fact, the popular assembly, while democratic in appearance, was in reality a fraud that served to disguise the real domination of the patrician aristocracy.
The whole male population liable to bear arms was divided into six classes on a property basis. The cavalry was drawn from the wealthiest men, who could afford to provide their own horses. And the cavalry and the first class alone had ninety-eight votes, an inbuilt majority; if they were agreed, they did not need even to ask the others; they made their decision, and that was the end of it. On this point Livy writes:
“The rest of the population whose property fell below this were formed into one century and were exempt from military service. After thus regulating the equipment and distribution of the infantry, he re-arranged the cavalry. He enrolled from amongst the principal men of the State twelve centuries. In the same way he made six other centuries (though only three had been formed by Romulus) under the same names under which the first had been inaugurated. For the purchase of the horse, 10,000 lbs. were assigned them from the public treasury; whilst for its keep certain widows were assessed to pay 2000 lbs. each, annually. The burden of all these expenses was shifted from the poor on to the rich. Then additional privileges were conferred. The former kings had maintained the constitution as handed down by Romulus, viz., manhood suffrage in which all alike possessed the same weight and enjoyed the same rights. Servius introduced a graduation; so that whilst no one was ostensibly deprived of his vote, all the voting power was in the hands of the principal men of the State. The knights were first summoned to record their vote, then the eighty centuries of the infantry of the First Class; if their votes were divided, which seldom happened, it was arranged for the Second Class to be summoned; very seldom did the voting extend to the lowest Class.” (History of Rome, 1.43)
Theoretically, ultimate power resided in the popular Assembly, which elected the consuls on a yearly basis. But just as in our modern bourgeois democracy the power of the electorate remains in practice a legal fiction to a large extent, so in Rome, the power of the Assembly of Roman citizens (comitia centuriata) was effectively annulled, as Michael Grant points out:
“However, this Assembly had been weighted from the beginning so that the centuries of the well-to-do possessed far greater voting power than the poor. Moreover, candidates for the consulship were proposed in the Assembly by the senators, from their own ranks. The Assembly, it was true, enacted laws and declared war and peace, and conducted trials (iudicia populi). Yet the senators, with their superior prestige and wealth, controlled its votes on all such occasions. In many respects, therefore, the legal appearance of democracy was sharply corrected by what in fact happened.” (Michael Grant, History of Rome, p. 58)
There was yet another factor that undermined the power of the Assembly. In the fifth century BC there were around 53 patrician clans (gentes) that are known to us, although the actual number may have been greater. This would mean that a closed body of not more than a thousand families ruled Rome. In turn, a smaller body of especially powerful clans exercised supreme control: the Aemili, the Cornili, the Fabii, and later on, the Claudii. This means that the patricians comprised less than one-tenth of the total citizen population, and possibly not more than one-fourteenth. The question is: how was it possible for such a small number of people to dominate Rome?
In any society the ruling class is too small to exercise its class domination without the aid of a larger class of dependents. There is always a large number of sub-exploiters, sub-sub-exploiters and parasites who are at the service of the rulers of society. The relationship between patrons and clients has its roots in the basic division of early Roman society between patricians and plebeians. The Senate was composed of the heads of families (patres familias) and other prominent citizens. The power of the patricians was partly based on tradition (the age-old memory of clan loyalties), partly on their monopoly of religious rites (which were inherited) and the right to consult the auguries, and the calendar (also a religious practice), but also through their inherited clients.
In ancient Rome, in addition to ties of blood and marriage, there existed an extensive system of patronage. The rich and powerful patroni were surrounded by a large number of dependent clients (clienti), who looked to them for protection and help. The client was a free man who entrusted himself to the patronage of another and received favours and protection in return. It was similar to the kind of relation found in societies dominated by the Mafia, and it is not impossible that it is the distant historical ancestor of the latter. But in ancient Rome, clientela was all-pervasive. It was also hereditary. Though not enforceable by law, the obligation of the patroni to their clients was regarded as absolute. A law of the mid-fifth century BC damns any patron who fails to meet his obligation to his clients.
The system of clientela succeeded to some extent in blunting the sharp differences between the patricians and the plebs. As long as the latter was kept happy by the concessions and favours provided by their patroni, they were willing to accept the leading status of the patricians. But although all clients were plebeians, not all plebeians were clients. For example, immigrant traders were left out in the cold. Moreover, the total exclusion of the plebs from political power constituted a constant source of discontent. The lower orders were excluded from the consulship or, initially, from the Senate.
To the poor majority of plebeians, this was an academic question, since they could not afford to take up public office anyway. But to the minority of the plebs who had acquired a certain level of wealth, this exclusion from public office and what is known as “the fruits of office” was a very sore point. This was the social layer that put itself at the head of social protest, either for genuine reasons or to further its own advance. Their position was comparable to that of the reformist labour leaders of today, who use the labour movement as a means of personal advancement. As one British Labour leader put it: “I am in favour of the emancipation of the working class, one by one, commencing with myself.” Such a mentality has been present throughout the history of class struggle, beginning with the Roman Republic, although not all the popular leaders were cynical careerists, then or now.
This was a time when famine was a permanent threat. Grain shortages occurred at regular intervals. In order to prevent such disasters (and distract the attention of the plebeians) the Roman ruling class established the cult of Ceres, the goddess of grain, about 496 or 493 BC. This, for obvious reasons, was a cult of the plebeians, who knew all about the lack of bread. The number of plebeians who were falling into debt rose inexorably. And if a man did not have the means of settling his debts, his only solution was to offer his own body to his creditors. He became a “man in fetters” (nexus). He was not formally a slave, but in practice the difference was academic. It was similar to the bonded labour in the West Indies in the 18th Century or on the South-Asian Subcontinent today.
The phenomenon of debt slavery became increasingly common. “If a debtor to the state did not fulfill his obligations, he was without ceremony sold with all he had; the simple demand of the state was sufficient to establish the debt.” (Mommsen, History of Rome, vol.1, p. 154). Once a man had sunk into debt slavery, there was little or no possibility of ever regaining freedom. This problem was at the heart of the bitter class antagonism that emerged in the first century of the Republic, and the blind hatred of the plebeians towards the patrician governing class. This problem had been present from the earliest times. Livy’s History is full of examples of the class struggle in the early period of the Republic. He says:
“But a war with the Volscians was imminent, and the State was torn with internal dissensions; the patricians and the plebeians were bitterly hostile to one another, owing mainly to the desperate condition of the debtors. They loudly complained that whilst fighting in the field for liberty and empire they were oppressed and enslaved by their fellow-citizens at home; their freedom was more secure in war than in peace, safer amongst the enemy than amongst their own people.”
He cites the example of a veteran, a former centurion, who had not only been deprived of the produce of his land in consequence of the depredations of the enemy, but his residence had also been burned down, all his effects pillaged, his cattle driven off, and a tax imposed on him at a time when it pressed most hardly upon him, he had got into debt: that this debt, increased by exorbitant interest, had stripped him first of his father’s and grandfather’s farm, then of all his other property:
“lastly that, like a wasting sickness, it had reached his person: that he had been dragged by his creditor, not into servitude, but into a house of correction and a place of torture. He then showed his back disfigured with the marks of recent scourging. At this sight and these words a great uproar arose.” (Livy, History, 2:23)
The angry mood of the populace is described here in vivid terms. This incident provoked a riot, which spread everywhere through the entire city. But from a very early period, the Roman ruling class learned how to make use of the services of certain popular leaders to quell the revolt of the masses. In this case, the conduct of the consul Publius Servilius reminds us very strikingly of the behaviour of certain “moderate” trade union leaders today.
These popular tumults continued unabated for a long time. The ruling class responded to the threat from below with the usual methods – a combination of trickery, deceit and bloody repression. The leaders of the plebs were invariably drawn from the ranks of the Roman capitalists, who were always willing to betray the interests of the poor in return for political concessions from the patricians. The latter gave concessions to the wealthy plebeian leaders. They first allowed selected representatives of this layer to enter the Senate.
The American Marxist Daniel de Leon gives quite a good description of the position of the latter, which he compares to that of modern labour leaders in bourgeois parliaments:
“But there, among the august and haughty patrician Senators, the plebs leaders were not expected to emit a sound. The patricians argued, the patricians voted, the patricians decided. When they were through, the tellers turned to the plebs’ leaders. But they were not even then allowed to give a sign with their mouths. Their mouths had to remain shut: their opinion was expressed with their feet. If they gave a tap, it meant they approved; if they gave no tap, it meant they disapproved; and it didn’t much matter either way.” (Daniel de Leon, Two Pages from Roman History, pp. 24-5).
Every military victory purchased with the blood of the plebeian soldier, merely served to strengthen the position of the patricians and the plebeian capitalists, who were increasingly bound together by economic interests and fear of the poor plebeians and proletarians. At the other extreme, the problems of the poor continued to worsen, in particular debts and debt slavery, which led to renewed calls for relief. The resulting tensions between the classes flared up in a series of rebellions, where the plebs refused to fight in the army, and at one point threatened to secede from Rome altogether and found another Republic.
The first recorded strike in history was that of the Egyptian workers engaged on the construction of the pyramids. But the first record of what amounted to a general strike was in the early period of the Roman Republic. The Roman plebs of this period was that nameless majority who from time immemorial have ploughed the fields, planted the grain, baked the bread, fought in the wars. And this fact was brought to the attention of the noble patricians in a very novel way. On at least five occasions, in fact, the plebs threatened to “secede” by withdrawing from Rome altogether. The problem was that, whereas the plebs could do very well without the patricians, the latter could not do without the plebs at all.
The result was an uneasy compromise in which the plebs was allowed to elect two People’s Tribunes (tribuni plebes) who represented their interests and existed side by side with the two patrician consuls. This was the first victory of the plebs. The People’s Tribune had extensive powers, and could veto the consuls, while he was supposed to be inviolate. He could also seal the Public Treasury, and thus bring the whole business of the State to a grinding halt. However, as usual, the Senate found ways and means of getting round this. In the first place, the Tribune had no salary, and therefore the office could (yet again) only be held by a citizen of independent means. When the Roman capitalists occupied high office, they invariably used it for their own interests, while leaning on the mass of poor plebeians to strike blows against their aristocratic opponents.
The New Oligarchy
The patricians, as we have seen, were descended from the original Roman tribal aristocracy and constituted a privileged class that exploited and oppressed the rest of the population, the plebeians. The influx of immigrants from other tribes may be part of the explanation for the sharp line of differentiation between the patricians and plebs in early Roman history. Hegel, who was well aware of these class contradictions in Roman society, thought that they might be explained by the fact that the plebs was a different people to the patricians, who regarded them as racially inferior:
“The weaker, the poorer, the later additions of population are naturally underrated by, and in a condition of dependence upon those who originally founded the state, and those who were distinguished by valour, and also by wealth. It is not necessary, therefore, to take refuge in a hypothesis which has recently been a favourite one – that the Patricians formed a particular race.” (Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, p.285)
Whether or not one accepts the hypothesis that the original difference between patricians and plebs can be explained by different ethnic origins, one thing is certain: that throughout the history of class society, the ruling class has always looked upon the poor and labouring classes with contempt, and in fact regards them as something like a different species, an inferior class of people, unfit to rule society or run industry – a class of inferior beings whose sole purpose is to work to keep their “betters” in luxury, and to breed new generations of slaves for the same purpose. The very word “aristocracy” signifies “the best” in the Greek language, and the Latin word “proletarians” means precisely a class that is only fit for the task of reproduction, like any farmyard animal.
At the same time that the majority of the population was falling into poverty, the long series of Roman victories in the wars created enormous wealth at the other end of the social spectrum. Huge sums of money flowed into the capital, creating a new class of Roman capitalists, many of whom were “new men”, upstarts from plebeian families, whose rise was bitterly resented by the old noble Roman families. The old aristocracy initially closed ranks to defend their privileges and “rescue the consulate from the plebeian filth”. Eventually, however, the patricians had to grit their teeth, move over and find room for the class of nouveaux riches, anxious to add political power to their wealth.
Despite the sharp conflict between the upper layers of the plebs and the old aristocracy, these two social groups, as the chief holders of property, had far more in common than they had with the propertyless proletariat. By degrees, the old patrician aristocracy came to understand that the Tribunes could be useful to control the “excesses” of the masses, in whose eyes they enjoyed great authority. The plebs’ leaders succeeded in obtaining concessions from the patricians by leaning on the masses, and the patricians were usually flexible enough to give concessions and reforms in order to preserve their class rule and privileges. Eventually, this led to a process of fusion that created a new oligarchy.
The plebian agitation led to a series of reforms, which gave the Roman capitalists the right to initiate certain measures. The violent social agitation around this issue forced the Senate in 471 BC to accept the establishment of a special council, composed exclusively of plebeians (concilium plebis). This was to be convened by the Tribunes, and had the right to adopt certain measures (plebiscita). But this was yet another trick, since these decisions did not have the status of law.
At this time the laws were not written down but were interpreted by a Council of Priests (pontifices), who were all still patricians. The background to this unrest was war, famine and pestilence, in which the brunt of the fighting and suffering was borne by the poor plebeian small farmers. None of the economic problems of the poor plebeians was addressed. The central issue was land owned by the State (ager publicus), which the patricians wished to keep for themselves, while the plebs wanted to have it distributed among themselves.
The result was another period of turbulence, which in 451 BC swept away both the Consuls and Tribunes, and ended in the establishment of the Decemvirate (Council of Ten). Out of the ten decemvirs, two were wealthy plebeians. But once again, the latter were completely dominated by the patrician majority. The result was the famous Twelve Tables, where the laws were written down for the first time and set up in stone in the Forum. This is traditionally seen as a decisive turning point in the history of Rome and a great advance for democracy. But as a matter of fact, it left the fundamental social and political relations virtually untouched.
The ferocious severity of the laws on debt was only slightly mitigated. The execution of the laws was delayed for 30 days, during which the creditor was obliged to feed the debtor “adequately”. But that was not much comfort for a man who could not pay his debts, and in the end the creditor still had the right to make the debtor a nexus, that is, to enslave him. And the fact that the Twelve Tables wrote this down for the first time meant that these harsh laws were literally “set in stone”. This was a finished recipe for a further intensification of the class struggle in Rome, which would later enter onto an unprecedented level of ferocity.
The Overthrow of the Decemvirate
The internal commotions and civil strife caused by the quarrels of patricians and plebeians were followed by a temporary truce. But this broke down again when the college of tribunes attempted to check the power of the consuls by restricting their right to punish plebeians. The patricians were alarmed at what they regarded as an attempt to undermine their hereditary rights, and a long and bitter struggle began.
In the year 452 BC a compromise was reached when a commission of ten men, called decemvirs, constituting the decemvirate, was chosen to write up a code of law defining the principles of Roman administration. During the decemvirate’s term in office, all other magistracies would be suspended, and their decisions were not subject to appeal. Originally, all the decemvirs were patricians.
A concession was made when, in the year 450 BC, several plebeians were appointed to the new decemvirate, but this solved nothing, since the patricians still dominated. The peasantry was being ruined by constant wars with the neighbouring nations. Compelled to make good their losses by borrowing money from patrician creditors, they were liable to become bondsmen if they defaulted on their repayments. None of the problems were addressed by the decemvirate, which became increasingly violent and tyrannical. To make matters worse, when its term of office expired, its members refused to leave office or permit successors to take office.
The conduct of the decemvirs had brought matters to the verge of civil war, and finally provoked an uprising in 449 BC. At first the ruling class resorted to the old trick of prevarication. But when the common soldiers saw that the endless discussions of their problems were getting nowhere, they decided to take drastic action. Led by an ex-tribune called Marcus Duellius, they simply left the City and moved to the Sacred Mount, and the whole of the civilian population followed them. They said that they would only return on condition of being protected by tribunes of their own. The scene is vividly conveyed in the words of Livy.
“The plebeian civilians followed the army; no one whose age allowed him to go hung back. Their wives and children followed them, asking in piteous tones, to whom would they leave them in a City where neither modesty nor liberty were respected? The unwonted solitude gave a dreary and deserted look to every part of Rome; in the Forum there were only a few of the older patricians, and when the senate was in session it was wholly deserted. The angry citizens taunted the magistrates, asking them: ‘Are you going to administer justice to walls and roofs?’.”
It was an incredible situation. A city that shortly before had been bustling with vibrant life stood empty, its streets as silent as a desert. One can envisage a factory without capitalists, but never a factory without workers. The same was true in ancient Roman society. The ruling class was suddenly seized by panic. Faced with the prospect of losing the people who did all the work in peacetime and all the fighting in the wars, the decemvirate backed away. It is always the same story: faced with losing everything, the ruling class will always be prepared to give something. This threat tore concessions from the ruling class, which attempted to defuse the conflict by compromise.
At last the decemvirs gave way, overwhelmed by the unanimous opposition. They said that since it was the general wish, they would submit to the authority of the senate. “All they asked for was that they might be protected against the popular rage; they warned the senate against the plebs becoming by their death habituated to inflicting punishment on the patricians.” (Livy, 3.52) As always the concessions of the ruling class were dictated by fear.
The people regained the right to elect their tribunes. This caused panic among the patricians. Livy writes: “Great alarm seized the patricians; the looks of the tribunes were now as menacing as those of the decemvirs had been.” The tribunes did take action against some of the most hated patricians, such as Appius Claudius, a particularly extreme reactionary who led the opposition to the Publilian law. When he took the field against the Volsci, his soldiers would not fight, and he had every tenth man in his legions put to death. For these acts he was brought to trial by the tribunes M. Duillius and C. Sicinius. Seeing that conviction was certain, he committed suicide.
However, the ruling class need not have worried. Most of the people’s tribunes were like our modern reformists, as the following words of Duillius show quite well:
“M. Duillius the tribune imposed a salutary check upon their excessive exercise of authority. ‘We have gone,’ he said, ‘far enough in the assertion of our liberty and the punishment of our opponents, so for this year I will allow no man to be brought to trial or cast into prison. I disapprove of old crimes, long forgotten, being raked up, now that the recent ones have been atoned for by the punishment of the decemvirs. The unceasing care which both the consuls are taking to protect your liberties is a guarantee that nothing will be done which will call for the power of the tribunes.’”
To which Livy adds:
“This spirit of moderation shown by the tribune relieved the fears of the patricians, but it also intensified their resentment against the consuls, for they seemed to be so wholly devoted to the plebs, that the safety and liberty of the patricians were a matter of more immediate concern to the plebeian than they were to the patrician magistrates.” (Livy, 3.59)
These lines might have been written yesterday! They accurately convey the conduct and psychology of the kind of individuals who, while trying to mediate between irreconcilable class interests, invariably abandon the struggle for the interests of the poor and oppressed and assume responsibility for defending the interests of the rich and powerful.
The Temple of Concord
As a concession to the plebs (that is, to the wealthy plebs – the Roman capitalists), it was agreed that in future, one of the two consuls would always be a plebeian. By 351 the Censorship was also opened to plebeians, and later it was agreed that a censor must always be a plebeian. This meant that the patricians had understood that in order to keep the masses in check, it was necessary to buy off their leaders by giving some of them access to positions of power. About this time a new temple was established at Rome – the Temple of Concord. A kind of concord had indeed been established in Rome, but not between rich and poor. As Michael Grant points out:
“The effect of these changes was to create a new ruling class, no longer an entirely patrician aristocracy but a nobility consisting of those men, patricians and plebeian alike, whose ancestors had included consuls or censors or dictators – which is what the term ‘noble’ came to mean. And within the next century plebeian clans such as the Marcii and Decii and Curii, in addition to those who had come from Tusculum and elsewhere, succeeded in establishing themselves among the leaders of this new oligarchy of nobles.” (M. Grant, History of Rome, p. 68)
Throughout the history of the Republic there were many attempts to carry out an agrarian reform and alleviate the plight of debtors. The tribunes Linius and Sextus tried to pass a law whereby the interest that a debtor had already paid should be deducted from the amount of debt he still owed. Even so, they moderated this demand by adding that, in order not to cause too much distress to the creditors, the balance must be repaid in annual instalments in a period not greater than three years. Nevertheless, it is clear that this was completely ineffective, since we hear of no fewer than four new proposals to relieve debt hardship over the next 50 years. Linius and Sextus also attempted to limit the amount of land that could be owned by one person. This was intended to satisfy the land hunger of the poor. But, like the measures on debt, it soon became a dead letter.
Michael Grant neatly sums up the whole process:
“In the first place, whatever means Hortensius may have taken to clear up the debt situation did not prove permanently effective, any more than the enactments that had gone before them; so that democracy in the economic and social fields was still out of the question. Secondly, the plebeian council, though it could, on occasion, be swayed by agitators opposed to the establishment, was normally controlled by its richest members, just as thoroughly as the national Assembly was. And thirdly, the council’s guiding spirits, the tribunes of the people, who possessed the power of vetoing the actions of all Roman magistrates, were cleverly won over by the other side. This happened by gradual stages. First (the dates are uncertain) they were allowed to sit in the Senate and listen to debates. Next, they received the right to put motions to the Senate. And finally – and this had happened before the end of the century – they were even authorized to convene the Senate and preside over its sessions. None of this was unacceptable to the tribunes themselves, for they were often men who wanted to pursue official careers: as they were finally in a position to do, now that Rome possessed a dominant nobility composed of plebeians as well as patricians.
“If things had gone the other way, and the tribunes of the people had continued to develop their formal powers of obstruction, the whole machinery of government might well have been paralyzed, and that, at least, was a result which this hampering of their obstructive capacity prevented. Yet, from the standpoint of the oppressed proletarians, this transformation of the tribunes from protesters into henchmen of the government signified that the struggle between the orders, though won in the formal sense, had in other and more important respects been lost. It proved harder for the poor, henceforward, to find champions; for the new sort of pro-government tribunes placed their vetoes at the disposal of the Senate instead – and the Senate was glad to use them for its own purposes, not only to keep their fellow plebeians down, but to prevent ambitious state officials from getting out of hand.” (M. Grant, History of Rome, pp. 71-2)
The Gauls Sack Rome
The Roman state was born out of war, and was in an almost perpetual state of war with the neighbouring tribes. The struggle with tribes like the Volsci, the Aequi and the Sabines were a matter of national survival for Rome. The wars against these peoples gave the Roman citizen’s army a great deal of experience. It perfected its tactics. A new spirit was engendered in the Roman people, a spirit hardened by the trials and tribulations of war. The traditional Roman virtues: valour, discipline and submission to the state, thus reflects the real conditions in which Rome was forged.
From the first conflicts with more backward Latin tribes, Rome was preparing for greater things. The later wars were waged against more advanced, civilized nations, such as the Etruscan colony of Veii. It was in this war that Camillus first compelled the Romans to accept continuous military service. Previously, the peasant soldiers had been allowed to interrupt their military service for harvesting. Now Camillus ended this tradition, substituting it for pay. The campaign was successful, and marks a turning point. For the first time, the soldiers of Rome had conquered a great Etruscan city state.
These conquests prepared the way for the inexorable expansion of Rome. The defeat of Veii removed an important obstacle in the path of this expansion. Overnight, it almost doubled the territory of Rome. Land in the newly-conquered lands, linked by the excellent Etruscan road system, could be given to the Roman citizen-farmer/soldier as individual allotments. This system of obtaining land through conquest was a very important element in the history of the Roman Republic, but the biggest question of all was: who would get control of this conquered land. It proved to be the central question of the entire history of the Republic.
However, in 387 BC the seemingly inexorable advance of Roman arms received a sudden and shocking reverse. This was a period of huge migrations of the peoples, mainly the Celtic and Germanic peoples, moving inexorably from east to west in search of new lands to settle. These mass migrations, which transformed the face of Europe forever, only ended in the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. By the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the migration of the Celtic-speaking peoples was in full swing. They moved in huge numbers out of Central Europe as far as Spain and Britain. They occupied what is now France and gave it its name: Gaul.
From there in the fifth century they gradually spread across the Alps and drove out the Etruscans who were settled there. From this time on the North of Italy was called “Gaul this side of the Alps” (Cisalpine Gaul). The Gauls who occupied the valley of the Po had developed the art of war to the point where they possessed a formidable military machine. They had the first cavalry to use iron horse shoes and their infantry was skilled in the use of finely-tempered slashing broad-swords. Few could resist the mass onslaught of these ferocious warriors, their bodies painted and tattooed, who decorated their horses with the skulls of fallen enemies. To make their attack more terrifying, they accompanied the charge with a deafening cacophony of trumpets and war-cries that struck terror into the hearts of the most hardened Roman soldiers.
In the late fourth century BC, one group of Gauls drove southwards from the Po Valley into the Italian Peninsula in the direction of Rome. At a distance of only eleven miles from the city they were met by an army of ten to fifteen thousand Romans – the largest force Rome had ever put into the field. What followed was the greatest catastrophe in Roman history. The Roman phalanx of heavily-armed spear-carrying troops was overwhelmed by the faster-moving Gaulish cavalry and infantry, which rushed on them with an unstoppable impulse, shouting their terrifying war-cries. The Roman ranks were shattered and the army routed. Most of its soldiers plunged into a nearby river in a desperate attempt to save themselves and were drowned. Rome was left defenceless in the face of the enemy.
The Gauls entered the City and camped in the streets of Rome. Meeting no opposition, they murdered, plundered and burned, although they lacked the siege weapons to take the Capitol. Even today, traces of the devastation can be seen in the edges of the Forum, in a layer of burnt debris, broken tiles and carbonized wood and clay. The Gauls finally got tired of besieging the Capitol, and were eventually persuaded by bribery to leave the City, for which, in any case, they had no use. But the memory of this horrifying experience remained to haunt the Romans long after the events had receded into that misty area of consciousness where historic memory becomes blurred by myth and legend.
The Roman historians have left us the story that the terrified Romans emptied their temples of gold to pay the Gauls to leave the City. The gold was brought to the place appointed by the Gauls, and when the weights proved not to be equal to the amount that the Romans had with them, the Gaulish leader Brennus threw his sword onto the other scale, uttering the chilling words: “Væ victis“—“Woe to the conquered.” This story may or not be founded on fact, but it left a strong imprint on the national psychology of the Romans forever, and in particular coloured their attitude to the people of Gaul, who later learned the true horror behind the words that Roman legend attributes to Brennus.
The Samnite Wars
Despite this setback, Rome soon revived and continued its march to domination, extending its sphere of influence into the fertile plains of Campania. This brought them into conflict with one of the most warlike of all the Latin peoples and dragged Rome into the longest and bitterest wars in its history. The Samnites were peasants and herdsmen, living in the barren limestone uplands of the Apennines in central Italy. They were barbarians at a stage of social and economic development not unlike the one that characterized Rome in its initial stages. As happened with the Gauls and many other barbarian tribes in antiquity, pressure of population and the lack of agricultural land to feed it brought about a mass migration.
The result was a headlong collision with Rome, which was strengthening its position on Campania, now threatened by a wholesale Samnite invasion. The Romans constructed the Appian Road for the purpose of transporting large numbers of troops towards the theatre of military operations. However, the Samnites proved to be tough opponents and Rome suffered more than one costly defeat in the course of three separate wars. The first lasted from 343 to 341 BC. The Second (or Great) Samnite War lasted from 326 to 304 BC. And the third war lasted from 298 to 290 BC. This represented a titanic effort that seriously drained the resources of Rome. The second war alone lasted twenty years and in the first half of the war Rome suffered serious defeats, but the second half saw Rome’s recovery, reorganization, and ultimate victory.
This was not a defensive war for Rome, which for the first time found itself involved with the powerful and wealthy Greek city states of southern Italy. They had appealed to Rome for help against the Samnites. Victory in this costly war made Rome the master of the whole of Italy except for Sicily. The final defeat of the Samnites therefore decided the fate of Italy and changed world history. It also gave a powerful impulse to the class struggle in Roman society.
Class Contradictions in Rome
As the territory of Rome enlarged by conquest, there was a considerable increase in population. This was achieved partly through immigration, partly through the addition of inhabitants of the subjugated tribes (mainly from the Latin districts). But since all these new citizens stood outside the old gentes, curiae, and tribes, they formed no part of the Populus Romanus, the Roman people. Although they were personally free, could own property in land, and had to pay taxes and do military service, they could not hold any office, nor take part in the assembly of the curiae. More importantly, they were not allowed to have any share in the distribution of conquered state lands. In this way there emerged an oppressed class that was excluded from all public rights.
As we have seen, the first period of the Roman Republic was characterized by a continuous expansion that established the hegemony of Rome in all Italy after the victory over the Samnites. After the long wars of defence against neighbouring Latin tribes and marauding Gauls, the Romans passed over to wars of offence and conquest. In the process, the Roman army had been transformed. It was far bigger than before, consisting of two legions. Michael Grant describes this:
“Each legion was a masterpiece of organization, more mobile than the Greek phalanx which had served as the original model because a legion contained an articulated group of thirty smaller units (maniples), each of which could manoeuvre and fight separately on its own, in rough mountainous country as well as on the plains, either in serried ranks or open order, thus combining compactness with flexibility.” (Michael Grant, The History of Rome, p.54.)
The Romans perfected a kind of warfare that was well suited to the peculiarities of a citizen’s army: the disciplined legions, fighting with the throwing spear and the short sword created a formidable military machine that swept all before it. These new weapons were probably introduced during the Samnite wars. They completely changed the nature of warfare. The withering hail of javelins, followed by a charge and the employment of the short stabbing sword wielded from behind a solid barrier of shields has been likened to the combination of the musket and bayonet in 18th century warfare. No other army could withstand it.
The main factor that ensured the success of Roman arms was the free peasantry that formed the backbone of the Republic and its army. Under the early gens system, land was held in common by the gens itself. But with the break-up of the gentes, and the emergence of private property of the land, a class of free small peasants was created. Alongside the class of small peasants (assidui) there was the poorest layer of society, the proletarii – the “producers of children”. But it was the class of small proprietors that supplied the troops for military service. The Roman peasant was a free citizen who had something to fight for. He had the right to bear arms and the duty of military service. The very word for the people comes from the Latin populus, which originally meant “a body of warriors”, and is related to the word populari, to devastate, and popa, a butcher.
The plebs had a strong card to play: they constituted the majority of the army. On more than one occasion the plebs turned this weapon against them by refusing to fight or sabotaging recruitment. Livy notes that the Roman commanders in the field were sometimes more afraid of their own men than they were of the enemy. This brings to mind the words of the Duke of Wellington when passing review of his troops on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, when he commented to a fellow officer: “I don’t know what effect they will have on the enemy, but by God they frighten me!”
On the eve of the war with Veii, it is reported that the tribunes were stirring up discontent in the army:
“This disaffection amongst the plebs was fanned by their tribunes, who were continually giving out that the most serious war was the one going on between the senate and the plebs, who were purposely harassed by war and exposed to be butchered by the enemy and kept as it were in banishment far from their homes lest the quiet of city life might awaken memories of their liberties and lead them to discuss schemes for distributing the State lands amongst colonists and securing a free exercise of their franchise. They got hold of the veterans, counted up each man’s campaigns and wounds and scars, and asked what blood was still left in him which could be shed for the State. By raising these topics in public speeches and private conversations they produced amongst the plebeians a feeling of opposition to the projected war.” (Livy: 4:58)
Livy thus attributes the mutinous mood in the army to the agitation of the tribunes. But it is more likely that the discontent was already present, and the tribunes were merely giving it a voice: a sufficiently serious crime from the standpoint of the Senate. Again, the crafty patricians took the necessary measures to pacify the plebs. The Roman generals were careful to allow the soldiers to plunder the town of Anxur, where 2500 prisoners were taken:
“Fabius would not allow his men to touch the other spoils of war until the arrival of his colleagues, for those armies too had taken their part in the capture of Anxur, since they had prevented the Volscians from coming to its relief. On their arrival the three armies sacked the town, which, owing to its long-continued prosperity, contained much wealth. This generosity on the part of the generals was the first step towards the reconciliation of the plebs and the senate. This was followed by a boon which the senate, at a most opportune moment, conferred on the plebeians. Before the question was mooted either by the plebs or their tribunes, the senate decreed that the soldiery should receive pay from the public treasury. Previously, each man had served at his own expense.” (Livy, 4:59, my emphasis, AW)
Livy describes the scenes of rejoicing at the unexpected “generosity” of the Senate, which was preparing for war with the powerful Etruscan city state of Veii, and needed to avoid a conflict with the soldiers:
“Nothing, it is recorded, was ever welcomed by the plebs with such delight; they crowded round the Senate-house, grasped the hands of the senators as they came out, acknowledged that they were rightly called ‘Fathers,’ and declared that after what they had done no one would ever spare his person or his blood, as long as any strength remained, for so generous a country. They saw with pleasure that their private property at all events would rest undisturbed at such times as they were impressed and actively employed in the public service, and the fact of the boon being spontaneously offered, without any demand on the part of their tribunes, increased their happiness and gratitude immensely. The only people who did not share the general feeling of joy and goodwill were the tribunes of the plebs. They asserted that the arrangement would not turn out such a pleasant thing for the senate or such a benefit to the whole community as they supposed. The policy was more attractive at first sight than it would prove in actual practice. From what source, they asked, could the money be raised; except by imposing a tax on the people? They were generous at other people’s expense.” (Livy, 4:60)
The concerns of the tribunes were well founded. The Senate did impose a tax, and the tribunes publicly announced that they would defend anybody who refused to pay it. Livy records that the Senate emptied the treasury of bronze coins to keep the army happy, an aim which they succeeded in achieving – for the time being.
The ruling class understood the need to ensure that Rome’s plebeian soldiers would continue to fight. Appius Claudius, known as “Caecus”, “the Blind” – which he was in his old age – was a patrician who became Censor in 312 BC. His main aim appeared to have been to improve the position of discharged soldiers, who by this time were increasingly landless peasants flocking to Rome. No reformer had ever before taken up the cause of the Roman proletariat. His intentions may have been motivated by genuine concern, but more likely his main aim was to avoid disturbances in the Capital. These measures, however timid, irritated the Senate, which took steps to undermine and sabotage them.
The third and last Samnite war began in 298 and lasted for eight years. This ferocious conflict ended in victory but also in financial exhaustion. The plebeians of middle rank who spent years fighting in the army had returned home to find themselves ruined. The influx of cheap grain from the conquered lands undermined them. So, despite all the laws passed to protect them, a large number of small peasants fell into debt. A new period of instability ensued.
Within the community from the very beginning there were the elements of class contradiction. But the rapid increase of inequality and the encroachments on the rights of the plebs by the wealthy patricians placed a growing strain on the social cohesion of the Republic. The wealthy classes encroached on the common lands and oppressed the plebs in different ways, causing rising tension between the classes. The constant need to defend the Roman state against external enemies provided the Patricians with an invaluable instrument whereby to keep the plebs in check, as Hegel points out:
“In the first predatory period of the state, every citizen was necessarily a soldier, for the state was based on war; this burden was oppressive, since every citizen was obliged to maintain himself in the field. This circumstance, therefore, gave rise to the contracting of enormous debts – the Patricians becoming the creditors of the Plebeians. With the introduction of laws, this arbitrary relation necessarily ceased; but only gradually, for the Patricians were far from being immediately inclined to release the plebs from the cliental relation; they rather strove to render it permanent. The laws of the Twelve Tables still contained much that was undefined; very much was still left to the arbitrary will of the judge – the Patricians alone being judges; the antithesis, therefore, between Patricians and Plebeians, continues till a much later period. Only by degrees do the Plebeians scale all the heights of official station, and attain those privileges which formerly belonged to the Patricians alone.” (Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, p.286.)
Here the inner workings of every state in history are laid bare, exposing the organized violence and class oppression that lies beneath the thin veneer of “impartiality” and “justice” that is expressed in the Majesty of the Law, and serves as a fig-leaf to obscure the crude reality of the state as an organ for the oppression of one class over another:
“In order to obtain a nearer view of this Spirit, we must not merely keep in view the actions of Roman heroes, confronting the enemy as soldiers or generals, or appearing as ambassadors – since in these cases they belong, with their whole mind and thought, only to the state and its mandate, without hesitation or yielding – but pay particular attention also to the conduct of the plebs in times of revolt against the patricians. How often in insurrection and in anarchical disorder was the plebs brought back into a state of tranquillity by a mere form, and cheated of the fulfilment of its demands, righteous or unrighteous! How often was a Dictator, e.g., chosen by the senate, when there was neither war nor danger from an enemy, in order to get the plebeians into the army, and to bind them to strict obedience by the military oath!” (Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, p.288)
The campaign for land reform was repeatedly interrupted by the threat of foreign invasion. The patricians made good use of the external threat to defuse the class struggle. How well the old Idealist Hegel understood the workings of class society! And how brilliantly he exposed the tactics with which the rulers of the State make use of the “external enemy” to fool the masses and whip up patriotic sentiment in order to divert their attention from the self-evident fact that their worst enemies are at home.
The Transition to a Slave Economy
The underlying motor force of history is the development of the productive forces, or, to put it another way, the development of humankind’s power over nature. In the last analysis, the viability of a given socio-economic system will be determined by its ability to provide people with food, clothing and shelter. It is obvious that in order to think beautiful thoughts, invent clever machines, develop new religions and philosophies, one first has to eat.
Long before Marx, the great Aristotle wrote that “Man begins to philosophise when the needs of life are provided.” And Hegel pointed out:
“The first glance at History convinces us that the actions of men proceed from their needs, their passions, their characters and talents; and impresses us with the belief that such needs, passions and interests are the sole springs of action — the efficient agents in this scene of activity.” (Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Introduction)
Marx and Engels explained at great length that the connection between the economic base of a given society and the immense superstructure of the state, laws, religious beliefs, philosophical tendencies and schools of art, literature and music is not a direct and mechanical one, but an extremely complex and contradictory dialectical relation. However, in the last analysis, the causes of all great historical transformations must be traced back to changes in the mode of production, which give rise to profound modifications in society.
On one occasion the English socialist Ernest Belfort Bax challenged Engels to deduce the appearance of the Gnostic religious sect in the second century from the economic conditions in Rome at the time. The question showed a complete lack of understanding of historical materialism on Bax’s part, but Engels was patient and answered that one could not do such a thing, “but suggested that by tracing the matter further back you might arrive at some economic explanation of what he granted was an interesting side problem in history.” (Reminiscences of Marx and Engels, p. 306)
It is impossible to understand the fall of the Roman Republic unless we take the trouble to “trace the matter back” to its origins, which are the direct result of a change in the mode of production, which in turn produced profound changes in the relations between the classes in Roman society, the nature of the state and the army. The decisive change in this case was the rise of slavery, which led to the liquidation of the class of free peasants that was the backbone of the Republic and its army. All subsequent developments are contingent on this fact.
Each stage in the development of human society is marked by a certain development of the productive forces, on a higher development of labour productivity. This is the secret wellspring of all progress. Greece and Rome produced marvels of art, science, law, philosophy and literature. Yet all these intellectual marvels were based, in the last analysis, on the labour of the slaves. Subsequently, slavery entered into decline and was replaced by feudalism, where the exploitation of labour assumed a different form. Finally, we arrive at the capitalist mode of production, which remains dominant, although its contradictions are now clear to all.
To us, slavery appears as something morally repugnant. But then we are left with a paradox. If we ask the question: where did all our modern science and technology come from, we are forced to answer: Greece and Rome (we leave aside the important contributions later made by the Arabs, who preserved and developed the ideas of antiquity and transmitted them to us). That is to say, the achievements of civilization were the products of slavery.
Despite all the barbarous and bloody features that naturally arouse indignation and disgust, each stage of social development marks an advance on the road to the final emancipation of the human race, which can only be achieved on the basis of the fullest development of the productive forces and of human culture. It was in that sense that Hegel wrote that it is not so much from slavery as through slavery that humankind reaches emancipation.
The Punic Wars
The history of class society is studded with wars and revolutions. Pacifists and moralists may lament this fact. But, sad to say, even the most superficial examination of history shows that it has never been guided by moral considerations. It is as inappropriate to approach history from a moralistic standpoint as it would be to do this in relation to the workings of natural selection in the evolution of species. We may regret that carnivorous animals are not vegetarians, but our feelings on the subject will not affect the ways of nature in the slightest degree.
It is self-evident that wars and revolutions have an important – even a decisive effect – on human history. They are, to use the Hegelian expression, the nodal points where quantity becomes transformed into quality, the boundaries that separate one historical epoch from another. Thus we refer to the period before and after 1789, 1815, 1914, 1917, 1945 and so on. At these critical points, all the contradictions that have been slowly accumulating emerge with explosive force, impelling society forward – or back. In the case of the Roman Republic we see a dialectical process in which war leads to a change in the mode of production, and the change in the mode of production leads to a change in the nature of war and the army itself.
The formative period of the Roman Republic was an age of almost permanent warfare: wars against the Etruscans, the Latins, the Gauls, the Samnites, the Greek colonies in Italy, and finally, against Carthage. This last chapter was a decisive turning point in Roman history. Carthage was the main trading power in the Western Mediterranean. It possessed a great part of the coast of northern Africa and southern Spain and had a footing in Sicily and Sardinia.
It was the Carthaginians’ involvement in Sicily that first brought them into conflict with Rome. This wealthy island was occupied by prosperous Greek city states, which habitually made war on one another. One such state appealed to Rome to intervene on its behalf against some rebellious mercenaries. It later changed its mind, but it was too late. The Romans were now involved in the affairs of Sicily, where the Carthaginians were already well installed. A complex web of alliances and trade interests caused a chain reaction that led inexorably to war between the two powers for control of this key island.
Roman historians like Polybius liked to portray this as a defensive war, but there is little evidence to support the idea that at this stage Carthage was a serious threat to Rome. The fact is that Rome was now an aggressive power that was fighting to achieve total domination of the whole of Italy – including Sicily. Thus, a conflict with Carthage was inevitable. But this conflict was to turn Rome into a power, not just in Italy, but throughout the Mediterranean. And if we recall that that word mediterraneus in the Latin language signifies “the centre of the world”, then what is meant is a world power, in the understanding of those times.
There were three wars with Carthage – the Punic Wars (264-41, 218-201 and 149-146 BC). In comparison to this conflict, all previous wars seemed like child’s play. This was a deadly, bloody slogging match, which lasted decades. The human and economic cost of the war was immense. In the first Punic war alone, in a five-year period, the census of Roman citizens fell by about 40,000 – one sixth of the total population. And these figures do not include the losses suffered by Rome’s allies, who suffered big losses at sea.
But though the Romans won the first war with its most powerful enemy, the conflict was not resolved. Carthage soon rebuilt its power, drawing on the rich silver mines of Spain. A second 16-year war followed – a war that is forever associated with the name of Hannibal. The Romans had watched with alarm as the Carthaginians consolidated their power in Spain. This was dangerous and had to be stopped at all costs. The Romans needed a pretext to intervene in Spain and they got one when Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal besieged the city of Saguntum (the modern Sagunto), which was under Roman protection. The Romans claimed that there was an agreement that the Carthaginian army should not go south of the river Ebro, and that Hannibal had broken this agreement.
Whether the claim made by Rome was true or false is a question of third-rate importance. One must never confuse the causes of war with the diplomatic pretexts or accidental factors that provoke the commencement of hostilities. The First World War was not caused by the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, as the old history books used to claim. It was the inevitable result of the conflict of interests between the rising imperialist power of Germany and the older, established imperialist powers of Britain and France, which had carved up the world between them. Here we have an analogous case from the world of antiquity.
Polybius recognised the fact that:
“Some of those authors who have dealt with Hannibal and his times, wishing to indicate the causes that led to the above war between Rome and Carthage, allege as its first cause the siege of Saguntum by the Carthaginians and as its second their crossing, contrary to treaty, the river whose native name is the Iber [Ebro]. I should agree in stating that these were the beginnings of the war, but I can by no means allow that they were its causes.” (Polybius, 3:6)
This is very true. The Romans were determined to prevent Carthage from restoring her economic and military power, and therefore used this incident as a pretext to send an army into Spain.
The Romans were determined to start a war and were just looking for an excuse. Therefore they made the Carthaginians an offer they could not accept (this is another typical diplomatic trick to start a war). They demanded that they either hand over Hannibal for punishment or else accept war with Rome. Hannibal had in fact been trying to avoid a war with Rome, because he was not yet ready. But once he understood that war was inevitable, he boldly seized the initiative. He went onto the offensive.
The Romans never imagined he would take the step of invading Italy. Even less did they imagine he would lead his army out of Spain, march through Gaul and cross what seemed to be an impassable barrier – the Alps – to enter Italy from the North. But he did all these things, and took the Romans by surprise. And surprise can be a decisive element in war. Rome suddenly found itself invaded by a foreign army fighting on Italian soil. This extraordinary general, with very little support from outside, harried the Roman armies and came within a hair’s breadth of destroying Roman power altogether.
Hannibal calculated that his relatively small army would be supported by an uprising of the Latin peoples who were under Roman domination (though technically “allies”). He did get support from the Gauls of Northern Italy. But in general the Latin peoples remained loyal to Rome. Thus, although his spectacular military victories at Trebbia, Trasimene and Cannae brought Rome to its knees, he lacked sufficient strength to deliver the knockout blow. The Romans could always rebuild their armies, while Hannibal, deprived of outside help, could not afford to lose men. Therefore, in the long run, even Hannibal’s great talent as a general could not bring victory.
Learning from their earlier mistakes, the Romans simply avoided direct battles and waited for the Carthaginian forces to exhaust themselves. Then a Roman army led by Scipio invaded Spain and conquered it. Then Rome turned its attentions to Carthage itself. They organised an intrigue with Carthage’s African vassals and got them to rise up against their masters. This revolt compelled Hannibal to return to Africa to defend Carthage. Once again, the might of Rome prevailed. In the end Carthage was decisively beaten at the battle of Zama.
After this, the Romans no longer felt any need to pretend that their wars were of a defensive character. They had developed a taste for conquest. But this was merely a reflection of a fundamental change in property relations and the mode of production. The same year (146 BC) they destroyed Corinth, another trading rival. By order of the Senate, the city was razed to the ground, its entire population was sold into slavery and its priceless art treasures were shipped off to Rome. The destruction of Corinth was partly to prevent social revolution: the Romans always preferred to deal with oligarchic governments, whereas Corinth was a turbulent democracy.
The final Punic War was deliberately provoked by Rome. The war party was led by Cato, who always ended his speeches in the Senate with the celebrated slogan: “delenda est Carthago” – Carthage must be destroyed. After a three-year siege in which the inhabitants suffered terrible famine, the city was taken by storm. In a display of extreme vindictiveness, the Romans broke their promises to the Carthaginians and sold the population into slavery. They then demolished the city stone by stone and sowed the ground with salt so that nothing could grow there. The defeat of Carthage changed the destiny of Rome. Until it was compelled to take to the sea in the war with Carthage, Rome had never been a sea power. Carthage had always blocked her way. Now, with this mighty obstacle removed, Rome was free to launch herself on a career that was to end in complete domination of the Mediterranean.
The Roman victory added new territories to its growing empire, including the prosperous Greek and Phoenician colonies on the coast of Spain. This gave a further impetus to the class of Roman capitalists, involved in trade in the Mediterranean. Spain opened up her valuable iron and silver mines – which were also worked by slave labour in terrible conditions. Rome simply took over this business from Carthage. It also led to a further development of trade and exchange and therefore the rise of a money economy. Thus, war played an important role in bringing about a complete transformation of the mode of production – and therefore of social relations – in Rome.
Effects on the army
The armies of Rome were victorious on all fronts. But in the midst of these foreign triumphs, intense contradictions were developing at home, where a new and even more ferocious war was about to break out – a war between the classes. Stripped of all non-essentials this was a war for the division of the loot. This was already pointed out by Hegel, who wrote: “The Roman state, drawing its resources from rapine, came to be rent asunder by quarrels about dividing the spoils.” (Hegel, The Philosophy of History, p.309, my emphasis, AW). This is a very precise, and wholly materialist, account of the basis of the class struggle in Rome at this time.
The Punic Wars also marked a change in the nature of the Roman army. Until now the army was based on the property owning citizens and was drawn mainly from the mass of free peasants. But in the course of the Punic Wars, when the fate of the Republic was in the balance, it was no longer possible to maintain the old situation and the property qualifications were greatly reduced. For the first time a large number of proletarians between the ages of 18 and 46 were recruited into the army and served for an average of seven years and paid for out of the public funds. This was a further step in the transformation of the Roman army from a citizens’ militia to a professional army. It created a new type of general in the person of Scipio Africanus, the first Roman general who was named after his military conquests.
With every military conquest, Rome acquired a huge amount of land confiscated in the conquered territories. This land became the property of the Roman state – the ager publicus (public land). But since the state itself was in the hands of the patricians, in practice they treated the ager publicus as their own property and leased it out to people of their own class. The mass of propertyless plebeians had no access to the conquered lands. This was a constant source of intense discontent.
The discontent of the plebeian farmer-soldiers was further intensified by the fact that the length of compulsory military service was continually being increased as the wars became longer. Initially, the citizen’s militia was fighting defensive wars on its own territory. But the Samnite wars, which were fought a long way from home, extended over half a century, involving almost all the states of Italy. The long periods of military service often meant that the plebeian Roman soldier returned home to find his farm in ruins, and himself and his family deep in debt. The long years of war led gradually, on the one hand, to the rise of slavery and the big estates, on the other hand, to the rapid increase of a landless population of proletarians.
The tendency of the Senate to treat the lands of the conquered territories as their personal property has already been noted. But after the long and bloody slugging match with Hannibal, there was a feeling that the Senate had saved Rome, and the military victory over Rome’s most dangerous enemy greatly boosted the Senate’s authority and undermined any potential opposition – at least for a time. Victory meant Roman control over vast new territories with immense riches. As the third century passed into the second, the Senate strengthened its grip on the new territories by the appointment of governors, who had a virtual license to coin money at the expense of the provinces.
All the time the position of the Roman and Italian small farmer was being inexorably eroded by a fatal combination of debt, slavery and the encroachment of the big estates. The free peasantry entered into a process of decay, being unable to compete with slave labour. Constant wars, debt and impoverishment ruined them. Despite attempts to force through legislation to protect the peasants, slave labour on a large scale drove out free labour. All the laws designed to halt this process were in vain. Economic necessity tore up the laws before they could be enacted. The Licinian laws stipulated that the landlords had to employ a certain proportion of free labourers alongside the slaves and that the burden of debt was to be reduced. But it was impossible to reverse the process.
The former peasants fled the countryside to seek a life of leisure in Rome where they lived at the public expense. The Roman proletariat was in fact a lumpenproletariat. They produced nothing but lived on the backs of the slaves. They did not feed society but were fed by it. They no longer had the land, but they still had the vote and this gave them a measure of power. Thus, over a long period of time, increasing numbers of dispossessed peasants flocked to Rome, and although they were reduced to the status of proletarii – the lowest layer of propertyless citizens, they remained Roman citizens and had certain rights in the state. This presence of a large number of impoverished citizens gave a fresh impetus to the class struggle in Rome. There were violent insurrections against the burdens of debt.
It is important to note that the class struggle in ancient Rome was not identical with the struggle between plebeians and patricians. That was a difference of rank – roughly the same as the difference between “commoners” and “nobles”. But there were also wealthy plebeians – who invariably took the side of the patricians against the plebeian masses. Thus, the old struggles of Plebeians against Patricians became transformed into the struggle of rich against poor.
The Rise of Slavery
The Roman Republic in 100 BC controlled the whole of North Africa, Greece, Southern Gaul and Spain. Wealth was pouring in from all sides. But these conquests undermined the Republic fatally. Before the Punic Wars started, a new oligarchy was formed when the tribunes went over to the side of the Senate. The wealthy plebs (the Roman capitalists) gradually fused with the old aristocracy to form a powerful bloc of big property owners. The first two Punic Wars greatly strengthened the hold of the slave-holding oligarchy on Roman society. This was the social and political reflection of a fundamental change in the mode of production from an economy based on free labour and small peasant agriculture to an economy based on slave labour and big landed estates (latifundia).
Until the Punic Wars, slavery was not the decisive mode of production. True, there were probably always some slaves in Rome, and the phenomenon of debt slavery was present from the earliest recorded times. But in the beginning the number of slaves working in the fields was far less than that of the free peasants, and the lot of slaves was not as bad as in later times. The slave worked alongside his master and was almost like a member of the family. Slaves could be freed through manumission and this was a fairly common occurrence. In The Foundations of Christianity, Karl Kautsky writes:
“From the material point of view the situation of these slaves was not too hard to start with; they sometimes found themselves well enough off. As members of a prosperous household, often serving convenience or luxury, they were not taxed unduly. When they did productive work, it was often – in the case of the wealthy peasants – in common with the master; and always only for the consumption of the family itself, and that consumption had its limits. The position of the slaves was determined by the character of the master and the prosperity of the families they belonged to. It was in their own interest to increase that prosperity, for they increased their own prosperity in the process. Moreover the daily association of the slave with his master brought them closer together as human beings and, when the slave was clever, made him indispensable and even a full-fledged friend. There are many examples, in the ancient poets, of the liberties slaves took with their masters and with what intimacy the two were often connected. It was not rare for a slave to be rewarded for faithful service by being freed with a substantial gift; others saved enough to purchase their freedom. Many preferred slavery to freedom; they would rather live as members of a rich family than lead a needy and uncertain existence all by themselves.” (Karl Kautsky, The Foundations of Christianity, 2:1 The Slave Economy)
The rise of the big estates changed all that. The mode of production was transformed. The rising population of the towns meant an increased demand for bread and an increased market for other agricultural products. On the other hand, the destruction of Carthage meant that Italy was now the main producer of wine and olive oil. The small peasant subsistence agriculture was now rapidly displaced by large-scale intensive agriculture using new techniques: crop rotation, the use of manure and new deep-cutting ploughs and the selection of seeds. In southern Italy there were big ranches for the raising of cattle and sheep. In turn there were new industries for the working of wool and leather and the production of meat and cheese. Only the biggest estates could do this, since they alone had access to both the upper and lower pastures required for seasonal migration. Naturally, they were worked by slave labour.
The use of large-scale slave labour probably began in the mines. Victory in the Punic Wars meant that Rome now had possession of the valuable silver mines in Spain that had been exploited by the Carthaginians. Since the Romans had a huge supply of extremely cheap slaves, who could be worked to death, these mines could show a very decent profit for a relatively small outlay. The Spanish silver mines became among the most productive of antiquity, as ancient authors confirm:
“In the beginning,” writes Diodorus, “ordinary private citizens were occupied in the mining and got great riches, because the silver ore did not lie deep and was present in great quantity. Later, when the Romans became masters of Iberia (Spain), a crowd of Italians appeared at the mines, who won great riches through their greed. For they bought a throng of slaves and handed them over to the overseer of the mines… Those slaves that have to work in these mines bring incredible incomes to their masters: but many of them, who toil underground in the pits day and night, die of the overwork. For they have no rest or pause, but are driven by the blows of their overseers to endure the hardest exertions and work themselves to death. A few, that have enough strength and patience to endure it, only prolong their misery, which is so great it makes death preferable to life.” (Diodorus Siculus, V, 36, 38.)
Slave labour tended to drive out free labour, destroying not only the class of free peasants but also preventing the development of handicrafts, which were undermined by the industries run by gangs of slaves in the cities and on the latifundia By degrees the free peasants found themselves displaced by slave labour, as Mommsen explains:
“The burdensome and partly unfortunate wars, and the exorbitant taxes and taskworks to which these gave rise, filled up the measure of calamity, so as to deprive the possessor directly of his farm and to make him the bondsman if not the slave of his credit-lord, or to reduce him through encumbrances practically to the condition of a temporary lessee to his creditor. The capitalists, to whom a new field was here opened of lucrative speculation unattended by trouble or risk, sometimes augmented in this way their landed property; sometimes they left to the farmer, whose person and estate the law of debt placed in their hands, nominal proprietorship and actual possession. The latter course was probably the most common as well as the most pernicious; for while utter ruin might thereby be averted from the individual, this precarious position of the farmer, dependent at all times on the mercy of his creditor – a position in which he knew nothing of property but its burdens – threatened to demoralise and politically to annihilate the whole farmer-class.” (Mommsen, History of Rome, vol.1, p. 268.)
Kautsky develops the same point:
“If the slaves were cheap, their industrial products would be cheap too. They required no outlay of money. The farm, the latifundium provided the workers’ foodstuffs and raw materials, and in most cases their tools too. And since the slaves had to be kept anyway during the time they were not needed in the fields, all the industrial products they produced over and above the needs of their own enterprise were a surplus that yielded a profit even at low prices.
“In the face of this slave-labour competition it is no wonder that strong free crafts could not develop. The craftsmen in the ancient world, and particularly so in the Roman world, remained poor devils, working alone for the most part without assistants, and as a rule working up material supplied to them, either in the house of the client or at home. There was no question of a strong group of craftsmen such as grew up in the Middle Ages. The guilds remained weak and the craftsmen were always dependent on their clients, usually the bigger landowners, and very often led a parasitic existence on the verge of sinking into the lumpenproletariat as the landowner’s dependents.” (ibid.)
A fundamental change was taking place in Italy itself. The huge influx of slaves meant that slave labour was now extremely cheap. There was no way the free Italian peasantry could compete with it. The rise of slavery undermined the free peasantry that had been the backbone of the Republic and the base of its army. Italy was now full of big landed estates worked by slave labour, as described by Mommsen:
“The human labour of the field was regularly performed by slaves. At the head of the body of slaves on the estates (familia rustica) stood the steward (vilicus, from villa), who received and expended, bought and sold, went to obtain the instructions of the landlord, and in his absence issued orders and administered punishment.” (Mommsen, vol. 2, p. 344.)
Incidentally, our word family comes from this word for a community of slaves. He continues:
“The whole system was pervaded by the utter unscrupulousness characteristic of the power of capital. Slaves and cattle were placed on the same level: a good watchdog, it is said in a Roman writer on agriculture, must not be on too friendly terms with his ‘fellow slaves’. The slave and the ox were fed properly so long as they could work, because it would not have been good economy to let them starve; and they were sold like a worn-out ploughshare when they became unable to work, because in like manner it would not have been good economy to retain them longer.” (ibid., pp. 346-7.)
Originally published by Servicio Informativo Ecumenico y Popular (SIEP), 07.07.2014, under the terms of a Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial-SinDerivadas 3.0 No portada license.