“God takes from whomever he wants, and gives to whomever he wants. And he has given the land of Israel, all of it, to the Jewish people.”
The Article: The class struggle in the Roman Republic by Alan Woods presented by In Defense of Marxism. [PBH Editors Note: I spent a lot of time cleaning up the formatting and text to make this more readable]
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto)
“[…] when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana, The Life of Reason)
What is historical materialism?
For most people, history is something of merely academic interest. It may be studied for amusement, or possibly to draw this or that moral lesson. But that is the maximum that history seems to offer us. Even the use of history for the purpose of moralizing is limited. Edward Gibbon, the great English historian wrote: “History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Hegel once commented wittily that the study of history only proves that nobody has ever learnt anything from history. Yet it is essential that we do study history, and precisely for the lessons we can learn from it. To paraphrase the words of the American philosopher George Santayana: “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.”
Until Marx developed the theory of historical materialism, the prevalent view was an idealist interpretation of history, which attributed everything to the actions of individuals. The key to history was the activity of kings, politicians, generals, and Great Individuals. If we accept this view, how is it possible to make sense of history? Individuals pursue a myriad of different aims: personal ambition, religious fanaticism, economic interests, artistic truth, political intrigue, the thirst for revenge, envy, hatred, and all the vast range of emotions, prejudices and notions known to human beings. With such a bewildering range of aims and interests, it would appear that it is no more possible to establish general historical laws than it is to determine accurately the exact position and momentum of a subatomic particle.
It seems very strange that human beings accept the possibility of providing a scientific explanation for everything in the universe, but deny the possibility of ever obtaining a rational insight into ourselves, our actions and our social evolution. We imagine that the human animal is so unique, our minds so complex, and our motivations so subtle, that any attempt to analyze the laws of human society is impossible. Such a view reflects the same stubborn egotism that in the past claimed that Man was a special Creation of the Almighty, or the ridiculous mysticism about an unknowable and immortal soul, which allegedly sets men and women apart from other animals.
In fact, any student of history can see at once that certain patterns do exist, certain situations are constantly repeated, and even certain types of personalities reproduce themselves under similar conditions. In the Introduction to Bolshevism – the Road to Revolution, I reflected on this fact: “There are many points of similarity between the October revolution in Russia and the great bourgeois revolutions of the past. At times these parallels seem almost uncanny, even extending to the personalities of the principal dramatis personnae, such as the similarity between Charles I of England and Louis XVI of France and tsar Nicholas, together with their foreign wives.” There are other examples one could cite. The similarities between Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte as particular psychological types have been commented upon many times. They are separated by a very long period of history, and they rest upon entirely different class interests corresponding to entirely different socio-economic models. So how do we explain the similarities?
Here it is possible to establish an approximate analogy with the laws that govern animal morphology. Let us take three marine animals: 1) Ichthyosaurus (an extinct genus of ichthyosaur); 2) the shark and 3) the dolphin. The first named was a kind of marine dinosaur, the second a primitive fish and the third a mammal, like ourselves. They are separated by vast periods of time and evolved entirely separately. Yet the bodily shape of all three is practically identical. From this fact alone it is possible to deduce that similar conditions produce similar results, and this is not only applicable to animal morphology but also to the history of our own species.
The constant repetition of the same patterns (and sometimes even the same types of personalities) indicates that history is not arbitrary, but that behind the appearance of chaos, there are definite laws at work, that these laws assert themselves amidst the seeming chaos – just as the chaotic movement of the waves is a reflection of powerful unseen currents beneath the surface of the ocean. In order to gain a rational understanding of history, it is necessary to penetrate beneath the surface and to examine the nature of the hidden currents that propel human society forward.
The whole of science is based on two basic assumptions: 1) that the world exists independently of ourselves and 2) that we are capable of understanding it. If science can explain the mechanisms that govern the social organisms of bees, ants and chimpanzees, why should it be impossible to explain the workings of human society and the forces that determine its development? Marxism rejects the view that history is a string of meaningless and incomprehensible events. Historical materialism asserts that the history of human society has its own laws, and that they can be analyzed and understood. The laws that govern social development were first laid bare by Karl Marx. In the famous introduction to The Critique of Political Economy, Marx explains the basis of historical materialism in the following terms:
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”
With these words, the founder of scientific socialism once and for all disposed of all metaphysical, idealist and subjective explanation of human history. In other words, Marx performed the same great service for human historical development that his great contemporary Charles Darwin did for the development of plants and animals. Darwin discovered in natural selection an objective process that is present in nature that explains the evolution of life in all its manifold forms without the need of any preconceived plan or supernatural “design”. In so doing, he banished the Almighty from biology, just as Newton had banished Him (in fact, if not in theory) from the workings of the universe.
The great achievement of Marx was that he discovered the ultimate mainspring of all social change and progress in terms of the development of the productive forces: agriculture, industry, science and technique. This does not mean, of course, that one can reduce everything to economics, as the ignorant critics of Marxism maintain. Men and women make their own history, but they do not do so independently of the existing conditions that shape their consciousness and, whether they are aware of it or not, determine their actions. In the same Introduction, Marx explains the precise nature of the relations between the development of the productive forces, the social relations that gradually crystallize on the basis of this, and the class struggle that expresses the contradictory nature of these relations:
“In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.
Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”
The class struggle
Here, the essence of the method of historical materialism is expressed with marvellous preciseness and concision. In the last analysis, it is the changes in the economic foundation that are the cause of great historical transformations, which we refer to as revolutions. But the relationship between the economic foundations of society and the vast and complex superstructure of legality, religion, ideology and the state that arises from it is not simple and automatic, but extremely contradictory. The men and women who are the true protagonists of history are by no means conscious of the ultimate causes and results of their actions, and the results of these actions are frequently at variance with the subjective intentions of their authors.
When Brutus and Cassius drew the daggers that struck down Julius Caesar, they imagined that they were about to re-establish the Republic, but in practice they brought about the destruction of the last vestiges of republicanism and prepared the ground for the Empire. Their republican illusions in any case were only a sentimental and idealistic fig-leaf to disguise their real class interests – which were those of the privileged Roman aristocracy that dominated the old Republic and was fighting to preserve its privileges. From this example we see the importance of carefully distinguishing what men say and think about themselves from the real interests that move them and determine their actions.
Marx explains that the history of all class society is the history of class war. The state itself consists of special armed bodies of men the purpose of which is precisely to regulate the class struggle, and to keep it within acceptable limits. The ruling class in all normal periods exercises control over the state. But there are certain periods, when the class struggle reaches a pitch of intensity that goes beyond the “acceptable limits”. In such revolutionary periods, the question of power is posed. Either the revolutionary class overthrows the old state and replaces it with a new power, or else the ruling class crushes the revolution and imposes a dictatorship – the state power in an open and undisguised form, as opposed to the state power in a “democratic” guise.
However, there is a further variant, which in different forms has been seen at different moments in history. Engels explains that the state in all normal periods is the state of the ruling class, and this is perfectly true. However, history also knows periods that are not at all normal, periods of intense class conflict in which neither of the contending classes can succeed in setting its stamp firmly on society. A long period of class struggle that does not produce a decisive result can give rise to the exhaustion of the main contending classes. In such circumstances the state apparatus itself – in the form of the army and the general who heads it (Caesar, Napoleon) – begins to raise itself above society and to establish itself as an “independent” force.
The creation of a legal framework to regulate the class struggle is by no means sufficient to guarantee a peaceful outcome. On the contrary, such an arrangement merely serves to delay the final conflict and to give it an even more violent and convulsive character in the end. The expectations of the masses are heightened and concentrated, and their aspirations are given ample scope to develop themselves. Thus, in modern times, the masses develop great illusions in their parliamentary representatives and the possibility of solving their most pressing problems by voting in elections. In the end, however, these hopes are dashed and the struggle takes place outside parliament in an even more violent manner than before – both on the side of the masses and on that of the propertied classes who do not cease to prepare illegal conspiracies and coups behind the backs of the democratic institutions. Though they swear by “democracy” in public, in reality the ruling class will only tolerate it to the degree that it does not threaten their power and privileges.
Where the contending classes have fought themselves to a standstill with no clear result, and where the struggle between the classes reaches a kind of state of unstable equilibrium, the state itself can rise above society and acquire a large degree of independence. The case of ancient Rome was no exception. In theory, the Roman Republic in historical times was “democratic”, in the sense that the citizens were the electorate and ultimate power resided in the popular Assembly, just as today everything is decided by free elections. In reality, however, the Republic was ruled by an oligarchy of wealthy aristocratic families that exercised a stranglehold over political power. The result of this contradiction was a lengthy period of class struggle that culminated in civil war, at the end of which the army had elevated itself above society and became the master of its destiny. One military adventurer competed with another for power. A typical example of this species was Gaius Julius Caesar. In modern times this phenomenon is known as Bonapartism, and in the ancient world it assumes the form of Caesarism.
In modern times we see the same phenomenon expressed in fascist and Bonapartist regimes. The state raises itself above society. The ruling class is compelled to hand power over to a military strong man, who, in order to protect them, concentrates all power into his hands. He is surrounded by a gang of thieves, corrupt politicians, careerists greedy for office and wealth, and assorted scum. Naturally, the latter expect to be well rewarded for services rendered, and nobody is in a position to question their acquisitions. The ruling class is still the owner of the means of production, but the state is no longer in its hands. In order to protect itself it has reluctantly to tolerate the impositions, thieving, insults and even the occasional kick from its Leader and his associates, to whom it is expected to sing praises from morning till night, while silently cursing under its breath.
Such a situation can only arise when the struggle between the classes reaches the point of deadlock, where no decisive victory can be won either by one side or the other. The ruling class is not able to continue to rule in the old way, and the proletariat is not able to bring about a revolutionary change. The history of the Roman Republic is an almost laboratory example of this assertion. In ancient Rome a ferocious class struggle ended precisely in the ruin of the contending classes and the rise of Caesarism, which finally ended in the Empire.
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, 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:
1. Mutual right of inheritance among gentile members; the property remained within the gens.
2. Possession of a common burial place.
3. Common religious rites (the sacra gentilitia).
4. Obligation not to marry within the gens.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Right to bear the gentile name.
8. Right to adopt strangers into the gens.
9. 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.”
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.”
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.
As Rome conquered one people after another, taking over their land and wealth as it expanded, this also led to new class contradictions as new layers of society were absorbed and others moved up the social hierarchy. At each new turn new conflicts emerged and those at the top had to develop skills in maneuvering against those below them, making concessions when necessary and corrupting always the representatives of the lower layers.
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 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)
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.
Rome’s victorious wars on many fronts, not least that of Carthage, created the basis for the rise of slavery on a vast scale, providing a mass of cheap labour. This in turn changed the balance of class forces within Roman society, adding new privileged layers to the old, while at the same time undermining the position of the free farmer citizens, transforming them into a parasitic urban lumpenproletariat. All this undermined the very basis upon which the Republic rested.
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.”
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.”
The changes in the mode of production in the Roman Republic after the Punic Wars required greater and greater use of slave labour. This forced Rome into war after war as it sought to replenish its supply of slaves. This abundant supply of cheap labour explains why there was no incentive to invest in labour-saving technology. It also explains the brutal treatment of the slaves and the subsequent mass revolts that broke out.
Productivity and culture
It is possible to describe the whole course of human history in terms of the struggle to raise the productivity of labour. This is the secret motor-force of all progress: the way in which humankind achieves power over its natural environment and society gradually lifts itself from a lower to a higher stage of development. The transition to a slave economy undoubtedly raised the productive powers of society, and was accompanied by a notable advance of art, literature and culture.
Before the Punic Wars, the Romans were not at all interested in the fine arts. Learning was not highly regarded, and the top statesmen devoted most of their energies to agriculture. This was very different to Athens. Among the Romans fine talk was regarded with suspicion. Romans tended to speak in practical terms of what they had to do, preferring substance to style. Fine writing was no better regarded: the literature of the early Republic was confined to purely factual annals. But the latter phase of the Republic was characterised by the rise of new literary trends and philosophical schools: poets like Catullus and Lucretius became fashionable. This reflected a change in the lifestyle and outlook of the ruling class. Conservatives like Cato railed against these tendencies, but he was already regarded as a crank by his contemporaries.
All this elegance and culture was based on the labour of the slaves, whose conditions steadily deteriorated. A vast gulf opened up between the wealthy elite and the mass of poor Romans, not to speak of the slaves. There are certain parallels between the transformation of the mode of production in the Roman Republic after the Punic Wars and the rise of capitalism in Europe in the 18th century. Indeed, the word “capitalism” is frequently used when speaking of this phase of Roman development. Yet, though there are certain analogies, the comparison is not exact. Modern capitalism depends on a free market for goods and labour. Large-scale slavery is incompatible with modern capitalism, which abolishes slavery as it develops. The American Civil War is sufficient proof of this assertion.
The basic mode of production of the Roman Republic was agriculture. Other parts of the economy (mining, crafts and trading) were dependent on this. The small peasants produced mainly for self-consumption. Only the surplus (if there was any) could be sold. Production for exchange (commodity production) was not developed until after the Punic Wars. All this changed with the rise of the big estates (latifundia) and the large-scale use of slave labour. Gradually the old order was subverted by slave labour that ruined the free Roman peasantry.
The Roman capitalists continued to buy up the small landholdings, and where the peasants proved obstinate, simply seized their land without even the pretence of a sale. According to Mommsen (Roman History, vol. 3, p. 79) in Etruria by the year 134 BC there was not a single free farmer left. The following extract from The Complaint of the Poor Man against the Rich Man from the pseudo-Quintilian’s collection of declamations, describes the spread of the latifundia in the complaint of an impoverished peasant:
“I was not always the neighbour of a rich man. Round about there was many a farm with owners alike in wealth, tilling their modest lands in neighbourly harmony. How different is it now! The land that once fed all these citizens is now a single huge plantation, belonging to a single rich man. His estate has extended its boundaries on every side; the peasant houses it has swallowed up have been razed to the ground, and the shrines of their fathers destroyed. The old owners have said farewell to their tutelary gods and gone far away with their wives and children. Monotony reigns over the wide plain. Everywhere riches close me in, as if with a wall; here there is a garden of the rich man’s, there his fields, here his vineyard, there his woods and stacks of grain. I too would gladly have departed, but I could not find a spot of land where I would not have a rich man for my neighbour. Where does one not come up against the rich man’s private property? They are not content any longer to extend their domains so far that they are bounded by natural boundaries, rivers and mountains, like whole countries. They lay hold even of the furthest mountain wildernesses and forests. And nowhere does this grasping find an end and a limit until the rich man comes up against another rich man. And this too shows the contempt the rich have for us poor, that they do not even take the trouble to deny it when they have used violence on us.” (II, p. 582f., quoted by Kautsky, op. cit.)
Contradictions of slave economy
In this period we see a considerable strengthening of the ruling oligarchy, which increases its grip on society and the state. Together with the old aristocratic families we see the rise of the Roman capitalists: the new rich, big landowners, merchants and usurers. But in the last analysis, all the wealth of these layers was derived from the products of agriculture. Since land was the main source of all wealth, everybody strove to get land, and to add to the land they already possessed. But in order for it to be profitable, someone has to work the land. This was provided by slave labour. The Carthaginians had developed slavery on a large scale, and the Romans learned it from them. When they seized the provinces owned by Carthage in Sicily, Sardinia, Spain and North Africa, they also took over the large-scale farms, which they found there, and developed and extended them further.
In the slack times between harvesting and Spring ploughing, the slaves were put to work weaving, tanning and leather working, making wagons and ploughs, pottery making of all sorts. But commodity production was so far advanced that they produced not only for the individual farm, but also for sale. The only cost to the slave-owner was the price of purchasing the slave in the first place, and the minimal costs of keeping him or her alive afterwards. Kautsky says:
“There could be no question at that time of any technical superiority of large-scale agriculture; on the contrary, slave labour was less productive than the labour of the free peasants. But the slave, whose labour power did not have to be spared and who could be sweated to death without a second thought, produced a greater surplus over the cost of his subsistence than the peasant, who at that time knew nothing of the blessings of overwork and was used to a high standard of living. There was the further advantage that in such a commonwealth the peasant was constantly being taken from the plough to defend his country, while the slave was exempt from military service. Thus the sphere of economic influence of such large and warlike cities saw the rise of large-scale agricultural production with slaves.” (Kautsky, The Foundations of Christianity, 2:1)
The wars that provided cheap slaves ruined the Roman free peasants who were the backbone of the army. The ruined peasant was forced to resort to banditry or else join the army of unemployed lumpenproletarians in Rome or other cities. This social disintegration led to an unprecedented wave of crime and banditry, which furnished a new source of slaves in the form of convicted criminals. Prisons were unknown, and criminals were either crucified or sentenced to forced labour.
Although we refer to Roman capitalism, it was unlike modern capitalism. It was not based upon industry but on trade, money lending and slave agriculture. As we have seen, it is a peculiar feature of slave labour that it is not very productive. Although slavery enormously raised the productive powers of society, it contained a contradiction. It signified an increase in the productivity of labour in the aggregate, but the labour productivity per unit of an individual slave was far lower than that of a free peasant.
The labour of an individual slave has a low level of productivity because it is forced labour. Slave labour only becomes profitable when it is employed on a vast scale. What is important is the aggregate of production, where individual slaves are literally worked to death and quickly replaced by others. Thus, the conditions of the slaves worsened continually. The big estates or latifundia were worked by gangs of slaves during the day, branded with a hot iron and shackled together in gangs. They were locked up at night in common, frequently subterranean labourers’ prisons. Cato used to say: “a slave must either work or sleep”.
And just as the nomenclature of “capitalist” is not really adequate to describe the functions of the Roman slave owners, so the word “proletariat” is misleading when applied to the dispossessed peasants forced to flee to the cities. There is a fundamental difference between the modern proletariat and that of the ancient world. The modern working class is the only really productive class (together with the peasantry, insofar as it still exists), but the Roman proletariat did not work – it had an entirely unproductive and parasitical character. As we have seen in Part Four of this article, the modern proletariat feeds society, whereas the Roman proletariat was fed by society – that is to say, by the slaves, who were the real productive class.
The basis of modern capitalism is the accumulation of capital for the purpose of re-investment. Such a conception would have been totally incomprehensible to a Roman capitalist. The existence of a mass of cheap slave labour made such an idea unnecessary. Competition of slave labour undermined the development of free crafts. The craftsmen led a precarious existence, always on the verge of sinking into the lumpenproletariat.
Slavery also inhibited the development of industry and technology. The modern capitalist invests a large part of his profit for improving technology in order to get an advantage over his competitors. The case with the Roman slave-owner was very different. Slavery is incompatible with technological advance. For the reasons already stated, only the crudest tools could be put into the hands of the slaves on the large estates.
One of the most striking contradictions of the ancient world is that, having come so close to a capitalist economy, it always drew back from the edge and failed to develop, when it would seem that a potential existed. Take just one example: the Alexandrine Greeks invented a steam engine that worked. But they regarded it as a mere curiosity – a toy. Its productive potential never occurred to them. Why should it?
With cheap slaves, the biggest surpluses came from large landed estates. This was not the result of the application of new technology to large-scale agriculture. With a mass of cheap slave labour, there was no need to develop technology. Moreover, technology is incompatible with slave labour, as slaves working under compulsion will not treat delicate instruments with care – they will break them on purpose. The mule was developed in the slave states of the Southern USA because the slaves could not be trusted with a horse, which was too delicate to survive in their hands. Only the crudest, most resistant implements and tools could be entrusted to the slaves. Marx had pointed this out. He says the following of “production by slave power”:
“To use an expressive phrase of the ancients, the slave is merely a vocal instrument, distinguished only as vocal from the beast as semivocal instrument, and from the inanimate tool as dumb instrument. But he himself is careful to let both beast and tool know that he is of a different order from them, that he is a man. He has the self-satisfaction of convincing himself that he is different, by misusing the beast and damaging the tool. Consequently, it is a universal principle in production by slave labour that none but the rudest and heaviest implements shall be used, such tools as are difficult to damage owing to their sheer clumsiness. In some of the slave states of the American Union, those bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, the only ploughs used were constructed upon an old Chinese model; ploughs which burrowed into the soil like a pig or a mole, but did not cut a furrow and turn the earth over… In A Journey in the Seaboard States, Olmsted writes: ‘I am here shown tools that no man in his senses, with us, would allow a labourer, for whom he was paying wages, to be encumbered with; and the excessive weight and clumsiness of which, I would judge, would make work at least ten per cent greater than those ordinarily used with us. And I am assured that, in the careless and clumsy way they must be used by the slaves, anything lighter or less rude could not be furnished them with good economy, and that such tools as we constantly give our labourers and find our profit in giving them, would not last out a day in a Virginia cornfield – much lighter and more free from stones though it be than ours. So, too, when I am asked why mules are so universally substituted for horses on the farm, the first reason given, and confessedly the most conclusive one, is that horses cannot bear the treatment that they must always get from the Negroes; horses are always soon foundered or crippled by them, while mules will bear cudgelling, or lose a meal or two now and then, and not be materially injured, and they do not take cold or get sick if neglected or overworked. But I do not need to go further than to the window of the room in which I am writing, to see at almost any time treatment of cattle that would ensure the immediate discharge of the driver by almost any farmer owning them in the North.’” (Capital, Vol. I., Eden and Cedar Paul translation, London, 1928, p.91.)
Thus, for the whole period of slavery, no great advances were made in technology and productivity remained on a low level. The slave owners, like the feudal lords who succeeded them, were not in the least interested in accumulating for investment. The purpose of accumulation was for their personal enjoyment and consumption on a most lavish scale. This explains the extravagantly luxurious lifestyle of the wealthy Romans, their sumptuous banquets and so on. The description of the extraordinary banquets, parties and orgies that have come down to us, the consumption of such things as stuffed lark’s tongues and pearls dissolved in wine, are the end result of the labour of the slaves, along with extravagant games and festivals, silk dresses, colossal public buildings and – last but not least – the free handout of grain to the unemployed mob in Rome.
Since the slave owners had no use for productive investment in labour-saving machinery, he could use his entire surplus (apart from the fixed costs and replacements of tools, cattle and slaves) for his personal consumption. There was some investment in trade and usury, but in the end, this too could not be applied in any other way than in consumption. In some trades the number of free workers might increase in absolute terms, because of the increasing demand for luxuries, like paintings, statues and objects of art, as well as silk clothes, expensive perfumes and ointments etc. But all this luxury was squeezed from the blood, sweat and tears of an army of slaves.
“The modern capitalist is marked by the drive to heap up capital; the noble Romans of the Empire, the time at which Christianity arose, were marked by love of pleasure. The modern capitalists have accumulated capital to an extent that dwarfs the riches of the richest ancient Romans. The Croesus of all of these was said to be Nero’s freedman Narcissus, with a fortune of some twenty million dollars. What is that compared to the billions of a Rockefeller? But the expenditures of the American billionaires, no matter how reckless they are, are not to be compared with those of their Roman predecessors who served dishes of nightingales’ tongues and dissolved precious pearls in vinegar.” (Kautsky, op. cit.)
These wealthy parasites lived for pleasure, since there was nothing else they could do with the surplus extracted from the slaves. The extravagances of the ruling class were deplored by conservatives like Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), who also denounced the debilitating effects of Greek culture on the Roman mind. “We know,” says Pliny in the thirty-third book of his Natural History, “that Spartacus (the leader of a slave uprising) did not allow gold or silver in his camp. How our runaway slaves tower above us in largeness of spirit!”
Slavery – the motor-force of Roman expansionism
A new contradiction arose out of the constant demand for more slaves to make up the shortfall, as large numbers of slaves were worked to death. As slavery can only be profitably employed on a massive scale, and since slaves do not reproduce in sufficient numbers, a constant renewal of slave labour can only be achieved through war or other violent means. Therefore, new wars were constantly needed to replenish the supply of cheap slaves.
The owners of large estates were always naturally in favour of war, as the most effective way to get cheap slaves, and of seizing new territories. This gave a powerful impetus to Roman expansionism. After the Punic Wars, the wars waged by Rome often assumed the character of large-scale slave hunts. A steady flow of cheap slaves played a fundamental role in stimulating the slave economy. War was therefore a necessary element in the Roman slave economy. Within two centuries, Rome had conquered all the lands bordering the Mediterranean and was proceeding from the conquest of Gaul to subjugate Germany, the conquest of which provided a rich harvest of slaves.
All the wars of the period ended in the capture of a vast number of prisoners, which swelled the army of slaves working in the mines and big estates on Roman territory. To cite just one example, in the Romans’ third war against Macedonia in 169 B.C. seventy cities in Epirus alone were sacked and 150,000 of their inhabitants sold as slaves. Appian tells us that on one occasion in Pontus prisoners of war were sold at 4 drachmas (less than a dollar) apiece. When Tiberius Gracchus raided Sardinia, he took as many as 80,000 captives, to be dragged to the slave market at Rome, where the expression “as cheap as a Sardinian” became a proverb.
By the end of the Republic, slaves were present at all levels of social life. They were put to work on the construction of public buildings, aqueducts and roads. They also worked as carpenters and blacksmiths who repaired the farm tools and carts. Others looked after the cattle, sheep and pigs. The wool from the sheep was spun and made into items which were used by the Roman army and navy. The Roman farm products such as wine, oil, tools, meat were exported to other counties. They kept accounts, cooked the master’s feast and read Greek poetry (which they sometimes composed) after it. Finally, they fought and died in the arena.
However, slavery in general is not possible without a reign of terror. The conditions of the slaves on the big estates worsened continually in the later Republic. The slave had no rights and had to accept whatever conditions the master offered. They could be forced to work, kept in barracks and fed as much as was needed to keep them alive. Whereas a free wage-worker (in theory at least) can choose his employer, and withdraw his labour to put pressure to get higher wages, this is impossible for a slave. The only alternative was to escape, but a slave who escaped from his master or refused to work would be put to death.
The only real restraint on ill-treatment or neglect was similar to that involved in looking after a horse or an ox. If a slave dies it was a dead loss to the owner, who would have to pay out money for a replacement. If there was a scarcity of slaves, this might be an argument for treating them well. However, in a period when Roman armies were conquering the world, slaves were cheap and there was no reason to treat the slaves in a humane manner. In an age of unending wars and civil wars, the price of slaves fell continuously, as captives flooded the market.
There was a Roman proverb: “so many slaves – so many enemies”. That is why Plato, Aristotle and the Carthaginian, Mago, warned masters against bringing together slaves of the same nationality, lest they should combine and stage conspiracies against their masters. The slave-owners were always anxious about the possibility of a slave uprising. The free Romans lived permanently like a man sitting on a volcano waiting to erupt. Therefore, any expression of insubordination was punished with extreme cruelty. This explains why even petty offences could be met with arbitrary and sadistic punishments.
Since, in the eyes of the law, slaves were private property, the master’s power over the slave (dominica potestas) was absolute. He was allowed to torture, degrade, beat without cause, and even kill a slave when he was old or sick. A slave could not legally hold property, make contracts, or marry, and could testify in court only under torture. If a slave tried to run away, he could expect to be whipped, burned with iron, or even killed. Many cases of extreme cruelty have been recorded. When a slave of Vedius Pollio broke a crystal dish, he had him thrown into a pool of lampreys to be eaten alive by the fish.
For neglect of duty or petty misconduct slaves were often punished by flogging. In more serious case, slaves were sold to be gladiators. Since nothing was so much dreaded throughout all Italy as an uprising of the slaves, any attempt on a master’s life or taking part in an insurrection, was punishable with death for the criminal and his family in a most agonizing form – crucifixion. Indeed, after the defeat of Spartacus’ uprising, Pompey erected six thousand crosses along the Appian Way to Rome, on each of which a survivor of the final battle was nailed. In fact, the word crux (cross) was used among slaves as a curse.
In spite of all these repressive measures – indeed one could say because of them ? there were several large-scale slave revolts, of which the uprising led by Spartacus is the best known. (See also: Spartacus – a real representative of the proletariat of ancient times) But there were several other cases. The first recorded Slave Revolt took place in 135-132 B.C. in Sicily. The uprising was provoked by great changes of property ensuing upon the final expulsion of the Carthaginians, about the middle of the Second Punic War, when an army of speculators from Italy rushed into the island and, to the general distress of the Sicilians, bought up large tracts of land at a low price, or became the occupiers of estates which had belonged to Sicilians of the Carthaginian party and had been forfeited to Rome after the execution or flight of their owners.
The Sicilians of the Roman party, by contrast, became rich out of the distress of their countrymen. After the ravages of war Italy was in need of grain and the abundance of cheap slaves could be used to produce grain that had a sure market. Sicily was therefore flooded with slaves, employed to grow grain for the great land owners. The slaves were so ill-fed by their masters that they began to take to robbing the poorer Sicilians; and the masters were glad that their slaves should be maintained at the expense of others. After seventy or eighty years, pressures broke out in the Servile War, which was accompanied by the most horrible atrocities.
Roman sources give us some idea of the kind of bad treatment that provoked this uprising, which was accompanied by the most horrible atrocities. One slave owner, Damophilus, is specifically named (together with his wife) as one of the cruellest:
“36. Purchasing a large number of slaves, he treated them outrageously, marking with branding irons the bodies of men who in their own countries had been free, but who through capture in war had come to know the fate of a slave. Some of these he put in fetters and thrust into slave pens; others he designated to act as his herdsmen, but neglected to provide them with suitable clothing or food.
37. Because of his arbitrary and savage humour not a day passed that this same Damophilus did not torment some of his slaves without just cause. His wife Metallis, who delighted no less in these arrogant punishments, treated her maidservants cruelly, as well as any other slaves who fell into her clutches. And because of the despiteful punishments received from them both, the slaves were filled with rage against their masters, and conceiving that they could encounter nothing worse than their present misfortunes began to form conspiracies to revolt and to murder their masters.”
Tormented beyond endurance, the slaves took their revenge. Damophilus and Metallis were both murdered. But their daughter, who had treated the slaves kindly, was spared, and this detail was noted by the Roman historian as proof that the slaves were not naturally bloodthirsty, but only desired to revenge themselves for the unspeakable torments inflicted on them. When the slave army captured the town of Enna we are told that they killed “many”, and in general the Roman historians stress the injuries they inflicted on the free citizens. But we must be on our guard here, since it was in the interests of these historians to blacken the name of the slaves as much as possible in order to justify the bloody reprisals they later inflicted on the defeated rebels.
We know almost nothing of the leader of this revolt, except that he was a freeborn slave named Eunus, and seems to have been born in Syria. Styling himself “King Antiochus,” Eunus was reputed to be a magician, evidently because the Romans were embarrassed that a mere slave or freedman could defy their power, and therefore attributed magical powers to him (similar nonsense was written about Spartacus). He led the slaves of the eastern part of Sicily. A Roman source informs us:
“In three days Eunus had armed, as best he could, more than six thousand men, besides others in his train who had only axes and hatchets, or slings, or sickles, or fire-hardened stakes, or even kitchen spits; and he went about ravaging the countryside. Then, since he kept recruiting untold numbers of slaves, he ventured even to do battle with Roman generals, and on joining combat repeatedly overcame them with his superior numbers, for he now had more than ten thousand soldiers.” (Diodorus Siculus, Books 34/35. 2. 1-48)
At the same time, in the western part of the island, a slave manager or vilicus named Cleon (also, naturally, accredited with religious and mystical powers) gathered together a slave army. It is interesting that Cleon was a manager or overseer of slaves, that is to say, a man who was recognised by his master as having sufficient intelligence and strength of character to be put in charge of other slaves. History knows many similar examples of this kind of thing. It is known, for example, that most army mutinies were organized and led by sergeants or other Non-Commissioned Officers. Such men tend also to be the natural leaders of the working class.
The same source tells us:
“17. Meanwhile a man named Cleon, a Cilician, began a revolt of still other slaves. And though there were high hopes everywhere that the revolutionary groups would come into conflict one with the other, and that the rebels, by destroying themselves, would free Sicily of strife, contrary to expectations the two groups joined forces, Cleon having subordinated himself to Eunus at his mere command, and discharging, as it were, the function of a general serving a king; his particular band numbered five thousand men.”
The Roman sources are reluctantly obliged to pay tribute to the bravery of the rebel slaves:
“18. Soon after, engaging in battle with a general arrived from Rome, Lucius Hypsaeus, who had eight thousand Sicilian troops, the rebels were victorious, since they now numbered twenty thousand. Before long their band reached a total of two hundred thousand [possibly this figure included women and children also], and in numerous battles with the Romans they acquitted themselves well, and failed but seldom.”
Significantly, news of the rebellion in Sicily sparked off uprisings of the slaves elsewhere – even in Rome:
“19. As word of this was bruited about, a revolt of one hundred and fifty slaves, banded together, flared up in Rome, of more than a thousand in Attica, and of yet others in Delos and many other places. But thanks to the speed with which forces were brought up and to the severity of their punitive measures, the magistrates of these communities at once disposed of the rebels and brought to their senses any who were wavering on the verge of revolt. In Sicily, however, the trouble grew.
20. Cities were captured with all their inhabitants, and many armies were cut to pieces by the rebels, until Rupilius, the Roman commander, recovered Tauromenium for the Romans by placing it under strict siege and confining the rebels under conditions of unspeakable duress and famine: conditions such that, beginning by eating the children, they progressed to the women, and did not altogether abstain even from eating one another. It was on this occasion that Rupilius captured Comanus, the brother of Cleon, as he was attempting to escape from the beleaguered city.”
The Roman senate was obliged to dispatch the Roman army to end the slave war. The Roman accounts that have come down to us, describe him as more cunning than able; but it should be remembered that these reports were written by his enemies who would not wish to depict him in a favourable light. His lieutenant, Cleon, was given the credit for the many victories he won over the Roman forces; but this may just be spite on the part of the latter. This rebel chief must have been a man of considerable ability to have maintained his position so long, and to have commanded the services of those said to have been his superiors. Cleon fell in battle, and Eunus was made prisoner, but died before he could be brought to punishment.
This was the first of a series of three slave revolts in the Roman Republic. A second Slave Revolt followed, that lasted from 104 BC until 100 BC. The leader of this slave revolt named Salvius led the slaves in the east of Sicily, while Athenion led the western slaves and it took Rome four years to suppress. The Roman consul M. Aquilas quelled the revolt only after great effort. In addition to these slave uprisings, and the great, last and most famous uprising led by Spartacus, the war against Aristonicus and his “Heliopolites” in Asia Minor was also in reality a war of the landowners against insurgent slaves.
In some cases the free labourers made common cause with the slaves. In fact, at one point, the whole island of Sicily fell into the hands of the slaves. According to even the most moderate estimates, the active slave army amounted to at least 70,000 men capable of bearing arms (see Mommsen, vol. 3, pp. 76-7.) The only way of assuring the total submission of the slaves after such revolts was by applying the most ruthless and brutal methods. Thus, in every case, the revolt ended with a massacre of the slaves. In the capital of Sicily, 150 slaves were executed, in Minturnae 450, and in Sinuessa, as many as 4,000. After the suppression of the revolt in Sicily the consul Publius Rupilius ordered that every rebel slave who was captured be crucified – some 20,000 in all.
Rome continued to be in the hands of an exclusive aristocratic club, although the economic and class relations in society had been completely transformed. The political superstructure no longer corresponded to the economic base. This contradiction had to be resolved, and it was resolved through the most savage class struggle. This was the explosive background to the emergence of the Gracchi.
The rise of a money economy
The early Republic was an agricultural economy based upon subsistence farming. Its backbone was the class of free peasants who produced mainly for their own consumption, only exchanging the small surplus left over. In the early days of Rome money played an unimportant role in the economic life of society. But a long period of wars and foreign conquests had radically transformed the Roman economy. With the emergence of Rome as a world power and the consequent expansion of trade on an international scale, money begins to play a more important role, first as silver, later as copper and gold. For the first time, exchange and money-relations begin to dominate economic life.
This led to the disintegration of the old social forms. The rise of money economy put an end to the relative equality of the early days of the Republic, and in its place we see an increasing polarisation between rich and poor that no longer corresponds to the old tribal divisions between plebeians and patricians, noblemen and commoners. As we have seen, the spread of slave labour not only destroyed the class of free peasants. It also degraded the value of free labour in general, reducing the free proletarians to a level of misery that was not very different to that of the slaves.
Together with trade and money economy, the Roman capitalists’ power also increases. A new class of Roman capitalists arose on the basis of money, production for exchange and the slave economy. The name equites (“knights”, derived from equus, a horse) was originally given to those citizens who could afford a horse and provided the cavalry in the army, but now began to refer to all those with an estate worth more than 4,000,000 sesterces, a kind of Roman bourgeoisie, a new “aristocracy” of speculators, tax farmers, merchants and the like.
With the emergence of these new relations of production, the day of the free peasant was over, and so was the old Republic with its stern morality and simple soldierly virtues. Gone was the famous frugality of the Romans. Very often the new men of money were commoners, and even freedmen (former slaves). These “new men” had no aristocratic pedigree, but they had wealth and showed it off ostentatiously. The nouveaux riches dressed in silk, drank fine foreign wines and employed educated Greek slaves to recite Homer at their lavish banquets, even if neither they nor their guests understood a single word. Conservatives like Cato complained bitterly about this ostentation, but, as we have already seen, by this time old Cato was regarded as a crank when he dressed himself up in a rough peasant’s tunic and went to work in the fields alongside his domestic slaves. Such things were now seen as anachronisms.
Although in economic terms the capitalists and aristocrats had similar interests as defenders of private property, in political terms there were still important differences between them. The power of the old aristocracy was based on its control of the senate, but increasingly the equites began to exercise a decisive influence on Roman politics. As these “new men” gradually accumulated vast sums of wealth, so they increasingly felt themselves to be a power in the land. They constantly jostled with old patrician nobility for political power, creating new tensions and antagonisms within the Roman Republic.
Despite the concessions that the patricians had been forced to give to the “new men” in the previous period, the latter were still poorly represented in the offices of state. The government was still in the hands of a closed circle of privileged families. About 2,000 men from less than twenty clans controlled the state and took the lion’s share of the huge amounts of loot from the wars. A good example of this is the Scipio family, which in less than a hundred years had gained no fewer than twenty three consulships. This was a permanent source of friction between the capitalists and the patricians.
These great aristocratic families kept in their cupboards the wax masks of their ancestors who had held consular office. These masks were paraded in the streets at their funerals, when there were pompous speeches in praise of the dead man and all his ancestors. In this way Rome remained in the hands of an exclusive aristocratic club, although the economic and class relations in society had been completely transformed. The political superstructure no longer corresponded to the economic base. This contradiction had to be resolved, and it was resolved through the most savage class struggle.
Rome was now effectively divided into two or three rival centres of power, reflecting the interests of different classes: the official state power, the senate, controlled by the predominantly patrician oligarchy, the voting-assemblies or comitia, controlled by the middle class citizens, and the popular assemblies, where the poorest sections of the populace gathered, the proletariat, including street-boys, Jews, Egyptians and the city rabble in general. The political life of the Republic now becomes much more complicated. In order to get support for its struggle with the aristocracy, the most radical wing of what we might call the Popular Party tried to lean on the masses, as the French middle class Jacobins did at the time of the French Revolution.
The popular assemblies existed, although they had no legal powers to decide anything – but in practice they controlled the streets. And the power of the street in Rome was growing. The urban poor formed a lumpenproletariat of dispossessed peasants, embittered by their expropriation and always ready to riot. Plutarch describes the popular agitation in Rome at this time. In the Life of Tiberius Gracchus he writes of the common people expressing their discontent by “setting up writings upon the porches, walls, and monuments,” demanding that the poor citizens be reinstated in their former possessions. This was the explosive background to the emergence of the Gracchi.
The Agrarian question
The period that led to the fall of the Republic was characterized by a ferocious struggle between the classes, along with fierce power struggles between ambitious generals and politicians. There is an official history of this period, but there is also a secret history. In Capital, Marx wrote: “For the rest, it requires but a slight acquaintance with the history of the Roman republic, for example, to be aware that its secret history is the history of its landed property.” (Capital, vol. 1 p. 82, The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof).
It was standard practice of the Romans to confiscate part of the land of conquered cities and states, and this was made public land which, was occupied by tenants who paid rent, usually in produce, to the state. From the earliest times the patricians held the lion’s share of the public lands. In Italy the holding of public lands tended to become a monopoly of the wealthy. This confirms the old saying that property is nine-tenths of the law. No matter by what dubious means this land had been acquired, once it had been occupied for a certain length of time, it was considered as real property of the occupier. In this way, gradually the people were robbed of the public lands, and this was the focal point of all the great class battles in the later Roman Republic.
There were repeated attempts to pass laws regulating the distribution of public lands– the result of the struggle of the poorer classes to gain some share in the ager publicus. Since these lands were occupied without lease, from a strictly legal point of view, this should not have been difficult. But the law, especially as regards property, has always favoured the rich and powerful. And since most agrarian legislation challenged the wealth and privileges of the powerful, it remained a dead letter. The wealthy classes were determined to keep the lands they held, and they controlled the state and drew up the laws. Consequently the agrarian laws were often flagrantly disobeyed or simply ignored.
The most famous of early agrarian laws were the Licinian Reforms (367 B.C.), which limited the amount of land any citizen could hold and the number of sheep and cattle he could pasture on public land. Some public lands were distributed to poor citizens, but by about 233 B.C. these laws had already fallen into disuse and the situation of the poor peasants became increasingly difficult.
The next serious attempt to solve the agrarian problem was the Sempronian Law of 133 B.C. This will be forever associated with the name of one of the most remarkable figures in Roman history: Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. He was not a plebeian but an outstanding member of the Roman aristocracy, whose father had held high office. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and his brother Gaius (known to history as “the Gracchi”) came from a prestigious aristocratic family. They were the sons of Sempronius Gracchus and Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio Africanus, the famous general who defeated Hannibal.
With such a pedigree, Tiberius would normally be destined to take his place with the ruling aristocracy and hold high office in the state. But instead he broke with his class and became the most celebrated leader of the plebeians, the Roman poor – the proletariat. Despite his impeccable aristocratic credentials, Tiberius Gracchus was destined to launch himself on a course that would destroy the social and political equilibrium of the Republic.
This is not the only case in history where outstanding members of the ruling class come over to the side of the revolution. In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels point out that “in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands.” (The Communist Manifesto, Bourgeois and Proletarians, Selected Works, Vol. 1. p. 117)
We see the same process in earlier periods also. Marx points out that in the period of the decay of feudalism, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie. So in a period of intense class struggle in the Roman Republic, certain individuals broke away from their class and attempted to represent the interests of the oppressed classes. It may be argued that the Gracchi did not have a consistently revolutionary policy, that they vacillated and attempted to compromise, and that this eventually led to defeat. But when we consider that these men had no reason to do what they did, and that they gave their lives fighting for the cause, surely they deserve to be remembered for their courage and not for their weaknesses.
Tiberius Gracchus was clearly a man of high principles and extraordinary talent, a fact that was grudgingly accepted even by his critics. Seventy five years after Gracchus’ death, Cicero considered Gracchus to be among the best orators Rome had ever produced, but he also saw him as a dangerous demagogue when he wrote: “I only wish that Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus had possessed political intentions as good as his oratorical talents”, and he added, “If so, his renown would have been the most splendid in the world.” (Cicero, Letters, p. 254)
To us today his proposals for reform do not seem excessively radical, but for their time they were genuinely revolutionary. It was almost unheard-of for Roman politicians to deal with social or economic problems and such problems seldom played any part in senatorial debates. The idea that a senator or politician might represent a particular social class was completely alien to the Romans. Tiberius was the first one to address the growing problems in the city of Rome itself, and tried to solve the economic crisis in the countryside through agrarian reform.
Tiberius clashes with the senate
How did this man become a revolutionary? Probably there were several different reasons. Cicero wrote: “He took office only because he was so infuriated with the nobility.” (ibid.) His clash with the senate seems to have its origins in an incident during the Numantian war in Spain (153 BC), when the name of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus first comes to our attention. He apparently became interested in the land question when he travelled to Spain, and observed the decline of farming in Etruria. Plutarch writes:
“When Tiberius passed through Etruria and found the country almost depopulated and its husband men and shepherds imported barbarian slaves, he first conceived the policy which was to be the source of countless ills to himself and his brother.” (Plutarch, The Life of Tiberius Gracchus, in The Makers of Rome, Penguin Edition p. 161)
He saw with his own eyes how the Italian smallholders, whom Rome depended on to provide men for her army, were declining in numbers, undermined by competition from the huge farms, worked by armies of slaves. The smallholdings were everywhere in decline, although they had by no means disappeared by this time. Tiberius Gracchus drew the conclusion that the destruction of the class of free peasants would undermine Rome itself.
As a member of an aristocratic family, Tiberius Gracchus could have expected a distinguished senatorial career, following in his father’s footsteps to both the consulship and the censorship. But his reputation was undermined by a reckless decision he took in Spain. In the Numantian campaign, Tiberius served with distinction as quaestor, and earned the respect of the Spaniards for his bravery and honesty. Such was his reputation for honesty and fairness that the Numantines insisted on negotiating with the son of the man who had treated the Iberians better than other Romans, who frequently reneged on their promises.
But his conduct gave rise to an incident that changed his life and the course of Roman history. In order to save the army of Mancinus, which was trapped and facing certain destruction, Tiberius staked his reputation by concluding a treaty with the Spaniards – without first consulting the senate. Plutarch credited Tiberius Gracchus with saving the lives of 20,000 Roman citizens through this agreement. But there was a problem. The senate had not been consulted about this deal and promptly rejected it and sent the commander Mancinus in chains back to Numantia.
The actions of the senate mortified Tiberius. A Roman aristocrat was brought up to prize above all else his dignitas, a more complicated idea than dignity in English. It means not just dignity, but status and honour. Tiberius had given his word to the Spaniards, and the senate broke it. He considered this a dishonourable action, which not merely betrayed the Numantines, but also disgraced him. Tiberius’ brother-in-law Scipio Aemilianus did his best to shelter him from the dishonour of the Numantian affair, but to no effect. This betrayal had a profound effect on Tiberius Gracchus, who took deep and lasting offence at the senate. This set in motion a chain reaction which exercised a fatal influence on Roman history for more than a century.
Tiberius Gracchus became the mortal enemy of the senate and the Roman aristocracy. He entered the political arena, and in 133 BC he shocked the Roman system by standing not for the office of magistrate, but for the office of tribune of the people. This was a bold and fateful step to take. The tribunate carried with it important powers: the power to veto and to propose law. But the ruling class had always assumed that it could buy off the tribunes and use them to police the masses. They never thought that such an office would be held by a significant political figure such as Tiberius Gracchus, or that it would be used in a serious attempt to change society. But they were wrong.
The moment Gracchus stood for the office it was clear that he was seeking to use his power to rival that of the consuls. In so doing, he was acting according to the letter of the law, but he was doing things that were not in the original script. This was extremely dangerous. It was as if the modern Labour leaders were to make use of the machinery of formal parliamentary democracy to pass laws to expropriate the capitalists. That also is not in the script! This action set Tiberius Gracchus on a collision course with the senate. The hatred felt by the aristocracy towards him was so intense because they saw him as a traitor to his class. He was the first member of the Roman senatorial class to break ranks. His actions offended the strong spirit of solidarity that always exists within the ruling class. They wanted to destroy him utterly. For his part, he was looking for a fight.
The land question
Tiberius Gracchus was no doubt a courageous and sincere man, convinced of the need for a change. He was a social reformer, an idealist who was influenced by the philosophical doctrines of the Stoics of the brotherhood of man. His critics said that he had spent too much time listening to Greeks. In his Life of Tiberius Gracchus, Plutarch writes:
“Of the land which the Romans gained by conquest from their neighbours, part they sold publicly, and turned the remainder into common; this common land they assigned to such of the citizens as were poor and indigent, for which they were to pay only a small acknowledgement into the public treasury. But when the wealthy men began to offer larger rents, and drive the poorer people out, it was enacted by law that no person whatever should enjoy more than five hundred acres of ground. This act for some time checked the avarice of the richer, and was of great assistance to the poorer people, who retained under it their respective proportions of ground, as they had been formerly rented by them. Afterwards the rich men of the neighbourhood contrived to get these lands again into their possession, under other people’s names, and at last would not stick to claim most of them publicly in their own. The poor, who were thus deprived of their farms, were no longer either ready, as they had formerly been, to serve in war or careful in the education of their children; insomuch that in a short time there were comparatively few freemen remaining in all Italy, which swarmed with workhouses full of foreign-born slaves. These the rich men employed in cultivating their ground of which they dispossessed the citizens.” (See Plutarch, op. cit, pp. 159-60)
As we have noted, according to his contemporaries, he was an excellent orator. The following speech recorded by Plutarch is probably not authentic but invented by Plutarch (this was standard procedure with the ancient writers). But it undoubtedly conveys the spirit, if not the letter, of his agitation:
“The wild beasts,” said he, “all over Italy, have their dens, they have their places of repose and refuge; but the men who bear arms, and expose their lives for the safety of their country, enjoy in the meantime nothing more in it but the air and light and, having no houses or settlements of their own, are constrained to wander from place to place with their wives and children.
He told them that the commanders were guilty of a ridiculous error, when, at the head of their armies, they exhorted the common soldiers to fight for their sepulchres and altars; when not any amongst so many Romans is possessed of either altar or monument, neither have they any houses of their own, or hearths of their ancestors to defend. They fought indeed and were slain, but it was to maintain the luxury and the wealth of other men. They were styled the masters of the world, but in the meantime had not one foot of ground which they could call their own.” (Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus, p. 162)
Despite the implacable opposition of the aristocracy, Tiberius Gracchus obtained some important backers for his candidature to the tribunate, including a number of key senators and ex-consuls. This may reflect the power of old family ties and personal friendships, or maybe they did not take his populist propaganda very seriously. In the same way, members of the British Establishment did not take seriously the Communist convictions of Burgess, Maclean and Philby because they were members of the upper class and had been educated at Eton and Cambridge – until they turned out to be Soviet spies.
If they had looked more closely at his programme for taking office, they might have seen that he was very serious indeed.
Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune in 133BC on a platform of distributing land to the urban poor and limiting the land that each individual could hold. This was hugely popular with the poor but – in spite of significant concessions to the wealthy landowners ? it provoked the anger of the patrician reactionaries who blocked his proposed reforms. This sharpened the class conflict, giving it a revolutionary character.
The Sempronian Law
The support that Gracchus got at first from the most powerful of Rome’s politicians may indicate that at least a section of the ruling class understood that land reform was both necessary and overdue. His original proposals were not very radical. Many of these latifundia were actually situated on public land, which they rented for ridiculously small leases from the state, if they paid anything at all. Tiberius devised a plan to distribute land to the urban poor.
The Licinian laws were easily circumvented and they had been turned into a dead letter, but they had never been revoked. Tiberius Gracchus therefore could argue that his proposed reforms were based upon law. The Sempronian Law reaffirmed the provisions of the Licinian Laws and added to the maximum allowance an extra amount for each son. The occupants were to be reduced to the legal maximum and the surplus given to the poor. This idea guaranteed popular support for Gracchus, who was duly elected tribune for the year 133 BC. But his movement for reform was continually blocked by the patrician reactionaries and therefore acquired a revolutionary character.
He proposed to limit the amount of land a man could own to no more than 500 iugera (300 acres). To conciliate the big landowners, he offered to allow the current holders of public land to keep 300 acres as their undisputed property, including another 150 acres for every child. Any wealthy man with four children would therefore be allowed to keep 1000 acres. The remaining public land was to be redistributed in plots of 30 acres to family smallholders. The intention was to create thousands of new landowners, from whom Rome would recruit for her armies. The plots, once granted, were supposed to be inalienable. They could not be sold or transferred to new owners, other than by inheritance from father to son.
In compensation for their losses, the occupants of public land were to receive full title to the land they retained. This was a huge concession to the rich, who would be allowed to keep a large amount of public land, in addition to any other lands they already outright owned, which would have remained untouched. In effect, the old Licinian Law would have been superseded, and the big landowners would have their vast estates legitimized. This was intended to make the reforms palatable to the rich landowners. By this measure Tiberius Gracchus hoped to reduce the opposition of the wealthy landowners to his reform. But this was a vain hope.
Despite the moderate nature of his proposals, the wealthy classes were bitterly opposed to everything Tiberius Gracchus stood for. Plutarch describes their rabid hostility:
“But though this reformation was managed with so much tenderness that, all the former transactions being passed over, the people were only thankful to prevent abuses of the like nature for the future, yet, on the other hand, the moneyed men, and those of great estates, were exasperated, through their covetous feelings against the law itself, and against the lawgiver, through anger and party-spirit. They therefore endeavoured to seduce the people, declaring that Tiberius was designing a general redivision of lands, to overthrow the government, and throw all things into confusion.” (Plutarch, ibid, p. 161)
How familiar these lines sound today! Nowadays, the ruling class would use the mass media to launch a campaign against the “threat to democracy” posed by socialism. We see this now in the hysterical campaign in the media in the USA, which tries to present a very timid attempt to reform the health system more or less as an attempt to push through a socialist revolution and “sovietize American medicine.” This fact shows how little has changed in over 2,000 years of class struggle. The names and circumstances have changed, but the psychology of the ruling class has not.
For the conservative aristocrats who sat in the senate even minor political differences seemed to be matters of fundamental principle. They saw any attempt to restrict their powers as an attack on the republic. It was particularly intolerable that those who were agitating for reform were men from their own class. Tiberius Gracchus knew he would have to face a stiff a fight. Similar land reform had been proposed some ten years earlier by C. Laelius (ca. 145 BC), but these proposals were shipwrecked on the rock of senatorial opposition.
Naturally, the most strenuous opposition came from those who held large quantities of public land. They faced losing the lion’s share of their public lands, and some of them had no great private estates to fall back on. Many senators were themselves large landowners holding vast tracts of public land. They furiously opposed the reform as a radical attack on the principle of private property. They also understood that a land redistribution that would involve settling 70,000 families on public land would create a mass base of clients loyal to Tiberius. For such men Gracchus’ law could represent a serious threat. Among these opponents, the most implacable was Scipio Nasica, ex consul of 138 BC, who held vast tracts of public land.
The new land reform bill was carefully drafted. But Gracchus took a revolutionary step when he presented the bill directly to the people’s assembly (concilium plebis). He did not submit the law for review to the senate. This was not strictly required by law but it was the usual practice. Why did Tiberius Gracchus proceed in this way? The reason is unclear. Did he want to take his revenge on the senate, treating them with contempt for having betrayed him over the Numantia affair? It seems more likely that he sought to by-pass the senate where he would meet stiff opposition, and appeal directly to the people.
Whatever his reasons were, the senators were outraged. They did everything in their power to block the bill’s progress. When voting day arrived, the party of the rich prevented a vote by the simple expedient of seizing the voting urns. The masses confronted them and were preparing for a fight. Rome now seemed on the brink of revolution. But once again the situation was saved by the cunning of the ruling class and the vacillations of the leaders of the Popular Party. Two distinguished men of consular rank, Manilius and Flavius, threw themselves to their knees before Tiberius and implored him to stop the proceedings and instead take the matter to the senate.
Tiberius agreed “out of respect for their rank”. This shows the limitations of his outlook. Despite his undoubted sincerity, he had not yet given up all hope of convincing the senate of the correctness of his proposals. Tiberius appealed to the senate. What was the result? There was no result because the oligarchs dominated the proceedings. The masses were demobilized and the initiative, at least for now, was lost.
Intervention of the masses
We can only explain the conduct of Tiberius Gracchus by the fact that he was not proposing a revolution against the senate, but a reform that was calculated to prevent revolution and save the Republic through an agrarian reform that would save the small peasantry. But for the wealthy and powerful such proposals sounded like a call to subvert all property, undermine the State and provoke a general revolution (“to confound everything”). Feeling themselves threatened, the aristocrats armed a large number of their followers and slaves. They were preparing for a showdown.
A commission was set up to execute the law, but the senate organized a campaign of obstruction to undermine the law and render it ineffective. They circulated the rumour that Tiberius wanted to crown himself king. The senators staged a protest in the streets, dressing themselves in mourning clothes and walking about the Forum as if to announce the imminent death of the Republic. It was part of the preparation for counterrevolutionary violence.
Stirred up by the prospect of land, large numbers of country people flocked to Rome to vote for the bill, which was easily passed in the popular assembly. The senate struck back. They bribed another Tribune, Marcus Octavius, to veto the bill. This was a scandalous move, because this man was using his position to frustrate the will of the people he was supposed to represent. The tribunate had never been intended for this purpose. But the office of tribune was being corrupted and turned into the tool of the senatorial order. The tribune’s veto seemed to spell the end of the reform.
One might have expected Tiberius Gracchus either to retreat or seek to do some kind of deal with the senate. But this time he did no such thing. Instead he passed onto the offensive. First he offered Octavius (who, it seems, was himself the owner of public land) to compensate him out of his own pocket for any losses he incurred, on condition that he would drop his veto on the bill. Octavius refused. Then Gracchus proposed that unless he withdrew his veto, Octavius should be removed from office. What he was demanding was the right of recall.
In a desperate attempt to avoid a head-on confrontation, Tiberius tried to appeal to Octavius before the popular assembly. Plutarch describes the scene very vividly:
“When the people were met together again, Tiberius placed himself in the rostra, and endeavoured a second time to persuade Octavius. But all being to no purpose, he referred the whole matter to the people, calling on them to vote at once, whether Octavius should be deposed or not; and when seventeen of the thirty-five tribes had already voted against him, and there wanted only the votes of one tribe more for his final deprivation, Tiberius put a short stop to the proceedings, and once more renewed his importunities; he embraced and kissed him before all the assembly, begging with all the earnestness imaginable, that he would neither suffer himself to incur the dishonour, nor him to be reputed the author and promoter of so odious a measure.
Octavius, we are told, did seem a little softened and moved with these entreaties; his eyes filled with tears, and he continued silent for a considerable time. But presently looking towards the rich men and proprietors of estates, who stood gathered in a body together, partly for shame, and partly for fear of disgracing himself with them, he boldly bade Tiberius use any severity he pleased. The law for his deprivation being thus voted, Tiberius ordered one of his servants, whom he had made a freeman, to remove Octavius from the rostra, employing his own domestic freed servants in the stead of the public officers. And it made the action seem all the sadder, that Octavius was dragged out in such an ignominious manner.
The people immediately assaulted him, whilst the rich men ran in to his assistance. Octavius, with some difficulty, was snatched away and safely conveyed out of the crowd; though a trusty servant of his, who had placed himself in front of his master that he might assist his escape, in keeping off the multitude, had his eyes struck out, much to the displeasure of Tiberius, who ran with all haste, when he perceived the disturbance, to appease the rioters.” (Plutarch, op. cit. p. 165)
In these lines we can clearly see the class forces at work. The two opposing forces, the oligarchy and the masses, are pulling in opposite directions. It is a clash of mutually incompatible interests. In the middle we have the social reformer, Tiberius Gracchus, who has set in motion forces beyond his control. He begins to fear that the situation is slipping out of his hands and pleads with the other side to see reason. But the other side is obdurate and will not budge an inch. The masses, enraged, intervene and force the issue. For the time being, the other side is forced to retreat.
After Octavius refused for the second time, and was promptly voted out of office and dragged from the speaker’s podium he was replaced with another candidate. Another Roman historian, Appian, describes the euphoria of the people in this moment: “[Tiberius] Gracchus, immensely popular, was escorted home by the multitude as though he were the founder, not of a single city or people, but of all the nations of Italy [his opponents said that] as soon as Gracchus should become a private citizen he would be sorry that he had done outrage to the sacred and inviolable office of tribune, and had sown in Italy so many seeds of future strife.” (Appian, p. 89)
Sabotage by the senate
When Tiberius persuaded the popular assembly to impeach the tribune, he committed an unconstitutional act that was absolutely without precedent. Cicero later used this disagreement between two tribunes as an example of the wonderful flexibility of the Roman constitution:
“The tribunes have too much power you say. Yes, that is undeniable, but the power of the popular assembly has a much more cruel and violent potential. Yet, in practice, that potential sometimes makes for greater mildness when there is a leader to keep the assembly under control [....] For no board of  tribunes, surely, would ever be so outrageously constituted that not a single one of its members remained sane! Indeed, what caused the downfall of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was the fact the he had an opponent on his own board, that, indeed, is what brought about his downfall: his removal of one of his own colleagues from office, because he had exercised his right of veto against Tiberius Gracchus.” (Cicero, On Government, P. 205)
The senate had suffered a setback, but was by no means prepared to concede defeat. Tiberius’ agrarian law was finally passed without opposition and a new tribune was elected to replace the deposed Octavius. But it still held a strong card in its hand: its control over finances. A commission was set up to supervise the distribution of land to the people. However, the senate sabotaged the measure by withholding the funds that were necessary to help stock the new smallholdings. Without money to provide the basic necessities, the plots distributed under the reform would not be viable farms.
Tiberius Gracchus now took a drastic step, which brought the struggle between the two factions to a head. Attalus, king of Pergamum, who had died childless, bequeathed his treasury to the Roman state. Tiberius Gracchus proposed that this wealth be divided up between the citizens of Rome in order to fund the land commission and help set up farms for new settlers. In effect, he confiscated a large amount of money in order to finance the work of the agrarian commission.
Thanks to this measure, the commission could begin distributing land. But such an action was in complete disregard for tradition, which gave the senate control of all overseas affairs. Although nowhere was this explicitly stated by Roman law, Tiberius’ action was a direct challenge to the senate. And that was not all. He also proposed to reduce the length of military service, and to introduce the right of appeal against the verdicts of juries (up to then composed exclusively of senators). In short, he was trying to reduce the powers of the Senate by every means possible.
The reactionaries in the senate were alarmed by the passage of the bill, the deposition of the tribune and the confiscation of Attilus’ legacy. They were even more alarmed by the mass following Tiberius was acquiring among the poor. The senate was forced to accept the situation, but only playing for time. The reactionaries had no intention of limiting themselves to peaceful and legal means.
The seizure of the Pergamene treasury in defiance of the senate was a turning point. Tiberius Gracchus had made powerful enemies. Many of his former allies now broke away, once they saw he was serious about his intentions. He was now in a dangerous position. There were plenty of people out to destroy him. The fundamental issue at this point was no longer the land reform. The question was: who rules Rome? There was now an open clash between the senate and the popular assembly.
The situation was completely polarized: on one side were Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters, the poor peasants and proletarians, on the other, the senators, the patricians, and the big landowners. There were two rival centres of power in society, a situation resembling what Lenin called Dual Power: on the one hand, the senate, which was in the hands of the slave-holding oligarchy, on the other, the popular assembly. This contradiction could not be settled by laws and constitutions, by speeches and votes. It could only be settled by violence.
The reactionaries now saw their opportunity. Tiberius’ term as tribune was nearing its end. Once he no longer had immunity from prosecution as a tribune, he would be a dead man. The only way to prevent this was to stand for a new term of tribune. But for him to run for a second term as tribune was yet another unconstitutional action. He decided upon this desperate recourse. As a matter of fact, his chances of winning the election for the tribunate in 134 BC were very poor. His main base was in the rural areas, where the peasants were busy with the harvest. His powerful political allies had abandoned him and he had lost the support of his fellow tribunes. But the senators did not want to take any chances.
These tactics used by counterrevolutionaries of every period are well known. The reactionaries accuse their enemies of wishing to install a “tyranny” (“dictatorship”). They agitate around this false accusation in order to incite violence, while at the same time publicly adopting a “defensive” stance: “we will not be the ones who cast the first stone. We are only trying to defend the existing order and institutions of society, and protect the rights of the citizens.” While posing as the injured party that is trying to “defend” themselves, the aristocrats were in fact preparing a violent aggression against the Popular Party.
The Roman ruling elite decided that their only hope was to behead the mass movement: to kill Tiberius Gracchus. But since Tiberius was too powerful to attack directly, his opponents decided to play a waiting game. The reactionary forces began to prepare the ground carefully. They gathered around Cornelius Scipio Nasica, the Pontifex Maximus, who was in charge of religious observances and, by chance, Tiberius’ cousin. They began by provoking a riot in the senate:
“They [the aristocrats] created uproar in the Senate, and Nasica demanded that the consul must act now to protect the state and put down the tyrant. The consul answered in conciliatory manner that he would not be the first to use violence, and would put no citizen to death without a regular trial.” (Plutarch, The Life of Tiberius Gracchus, in The Makers of Rome, p. 171)
There was violence also in the popular assembly, where the reactionaries were attempting to gain support by bribery or other means. The masses attempted to make use of their existing rights, such as the popular assembly, to express their grievances, and this led to open fights in the assembly, with the supporters of Gracchus attempting to physically expel the aristocrats and their supporters.
The murder of Tiberius Gracchus
The Gracchus faction held the Capitol where the popular assembly met. According to Appian, Cornelius Scipio Nasica led a mob of nobles and senators armed with clubs to the Capitol where Tiberius Gracchus was addressing an electoral meeting. As a supreme irony, the unsuspecting supporters of Gracchus gave way as a sign of respect for the senatorial rank. This polite gesture was answered by a show of naked force. The frenzied reactionaries attacked the meeting and battered Tiberius Gracchus’ brains out on the steps of the Temple of Fidelity. The scene is described by Plutarch:
“The senators’ followers were armed with clubs and staves, which they had brought from their houses. The senators themselves snatched up the legs and fragments of the benches which the crowd had broken in their hurry to escape, and made straight for Tiberius, lashing out at those who were drawn up in front of him. His protectors were quickly scattered or clubbed down, and as Tiberius turned to run, someone caught hold of his clothing. He threw off his toga and fled in his tunic, but then stumbled over some of the prostrate bodies in front of him. As he struggled to his feet, one of his fellow tribunes, Publius Satyreius, as everybody agrees, dealt the first blow, striking him on the head with the leg of a bench. Lucius Rufus claimed to have given him the second, and prided himself upon this as if it were some noble exploit. More than three hundred men were killed by blows from sticks and stones, but none by the sword.” (Plutarch, op. cit., p. 172)
For the first time in almost four centuries, there was open violence and bloodshed in Rome among members of the ruling elite. “All former quarrels,” wrote Plutarch, “which were neither small nor about trivial matters, were always amicably disposed, by mutual concessions on either side, the senate yielding for fear of the people, and the people out of respect for the senate.” (ibid.)
The terror that followed was similar to all other such episodes in history. The ruling class took its revenge on the defeated party with the utmost cruelty and ruthlessness. In the proscriptions that followed, the supporters of Tiberius were hunted down and killed like animals. The vengeful spite of the aristocratic party was vented even on the dead bodies of its enemies. Plutarch comments:
“They refused his brother’s request for permission to take up the body and bury it at night. Instead they threw it into the Tiber together with the rest of the dead. And this was not all. Some of Tiberius’ supporters were banished without a trial, while others were arrested and executed, Diophanes the rhetorician among them. A certain Gaius Villius was shut up in a vessel with vipers and other poisonous snakes and put to death in this way.” (Plutarch, The Life of Tiberius Gracchus, in The Makers of Rome, p. 172)
The death of Tiberius Gracchus was followed by a White Terror. The senate organized a witch hunt in which many of his supporters were sentenced to death. The bitterness at all levels of society is indicated by the rumour that the war hero Scipio Aemilianus had been murdered by his wife, Sempronia, who was the sister of Tiberius Gracchus, because of Scipio’s refusal to condemn the murder of Tiberius Gracchus.
The rich senators, having killed Tiberius, found that that was not the end of the matter. Powerful class forces had been unleashed from below. Such was the strength of the movement that the senate was forced to accept at least a partial implementation of Tiberius’ reforms. But this was only a means of controlling the masses and eventually overturning those very same reforms. The destruction of the small free peasants and the concentration of land in the hands of the wealthy was an unstoppable process.
The murder of Tiberius Gracchus changed everything. It introduced violence onto the streets of Rome as a political weapon. All hopes of a political consensus died with Tiberius. There was now no question of compromise. Neither side paid any attention to the laws or the “rules of the game”. It was a fight to the finish between the contending classes. Appian writes:
“Thus Gracchus, son of Gracchus who had been twice consul and of Cornelia, daughter of Scipio who had wrested supremacy from the Carthaginians, lost his life on the Capitol, while holding the office of tribune, as a result of an excellent scheme which he pushed forward by violent means. And this foul crime, the first perpetrated in the public assembly, was not the last, but from time to time something similar would always occur. The city was divided between grief and rejoicing at the murder of Gracchus, one group mourning for themselves and for him and for the present situation, which they saw not as ordered political life, but as violence and the rule of force.” (Appian, pp. 1011)
Although reaction was once more in the saddle in Rome, the murder had solved nothing for the oligarchy. Objectively, the problems of the poor and the dispossessed peasantry continued to worsen, providing a fertile soil for revolutionary agitation. Marx explains that the revolution sometimes needs the whip of the counterrevolution. The masses were enraged by the murder of Tiberius. They insulted the counterrevolutionary senators in the streets. Tiberius’ younger brother Gaius was put on trial, but defended himself energetically and was cleared. By contrast, Cornelius Scipio Nasica, the murderer of Tiberius was disgraced and forced into exile, posted to the new province of Asia, where he died under suspicious circumstances.
The aristocratic party concentrated its attacks on the agrarian reform, determined to remove the last remaining barrier to its seizing all the remaining land. But the senate did not feel strong enough to reverse Gracchus’ land law. The Popular Party was equally determined to keep the laws that defended what was left of the free peasantry. Faced with the sullen anger of the people, the senate retreated and named a land commission to carry out some of the reforms that Tiberius had demanded. For a time, it even seemed to be succeeding. By 125 BC seventy-five thousand citizens were added to the list of those liable for military service, when compared to the census figures of 131 BC.
The plunder of Italy
The oligarchy was forced to buy peace for a while by squeezing the provinces with high taxes. While keeping the merchants and the urban poor quiet by a combination of concession and repression, the aristocracy continued to concentrate more land into its hands. They plundered Italy shamelessly, ruining the small peasants and driving them out, creating an economic and social disaster. Small farms in Italy, says Mommsen, “disappeared like raindrops in the sea.”
Many dispossessed Italians began to drift into Rome, agitating for greater rights. This added to the political ferment in the city. In 126 BC the tribune Iunius Pennus passed a law expelling non-citizens from Rome This measure was really targeted at evicting the Italian agitators. To what extent it was ever enforced against the rich foreign merchants and traders is unclear. It is obvious that many of them circumvented this law, which was directed against the poor non-Roman citizens.
Italian discontent became so dangerous that in 125 BC consul Marcus Fulvius Flaccus proposed to grant full citizenship to the Latins and Latin privileges to all Italians in preparation of eventual full citizenship. But this met with opposition on two fronts. The senators saw the mass of Italians as a threat to their political authority, as they held no hold of political patronage over them. And the poor saw any increase of the number of citizens as a threat to their privileges as Roman citizens. The measure stood little chance of success, but just to make sure, the senate sent Flaccus off to Massilia to fight the Saluvii.
Unable to win by force, the senate temporarily resorted to intrigue and bribery. They offered to increase the ration of corn and to give land to the landless Roman citizenship (at the expense of the Italian peasants). But this was only meant to buy time while they prepared behind the scenes to deal with their enemies in the traditional way. Later the class struggle assumed a violent form again, with new conflicts on the streets and murders. The ruling class, not yet sure of the situation, had to tread with care, combining repression with concession in an attempt to keep the masses under control. They allowed the distribution of public land to proceed and proposed that the people should elect a new commissioner to succeed Tiberius.
The struggle therefore continued, but there was a situation of deadlock between the classes. A class of no more than 2,000 wealthy families decided everything. But the whole nation was now in a palpable state of decline. The upper class showed itself as utterly degenerate and unfit to hold power. At the same time, the masses were not in a position to overthrow them.
The people had learned to challenge the authority of the senate. Tiberius had turned the Popular Party into a viable political movement. After his murder it was impossible to make the constitution of the Republic work effectively. How could the laws work when the people understood that the legal code was only the formal expression of the class interests of their masters? Tiberius Gracchus had tried to base himself on the people. He failed, but there would be others willing to try it again.
Gaius Gracchus, the brother of the murdered Tiberius, assumed leadership of the Popular Party. Like his brother he advocated a programme that was aimed at breaking the power of the rich. He was a political agitator who started a hundred years of civil war that brought the Roman Republic to the point of exhaustion. He enjoyed immense popularity with the masses, and equally was hated by the rich and powerful:
“All the most distinguished men in Rome without exception joined forces to oppose him, but such an immense multitude poured into the city from various parts of Italy to support his candidature that many of them could find no lodging; and since the Campus Martius was too small to hold them, they climbed up to the attics and housetops to declare their support for Gaius.” (Plutarch, The Life of Gaius Gracchus, in The Makers of Rome, p. 177.)
Despite Gaius’ popularity, the aristocrats succeeded in gerrymandering the elections to the post of tribune, so that he came fourth, instead of first, as expected. But no trickery could prevent his meteoric rise.
The agrarian law of Tiberius Gracchus was being applied in a reactionary manner, at the expense of the Italian peasants. This created a profound sense of grievance among the allied regions of Italy. As we have seen, a prominent member of the Gracchan camp, M. Fulvius Flaccus, argued strenuously that the Italians should be granted Roman citizenship as compensation for any disadvantages they should suffer from agrarian reform, and Gaius agreed. The Italian question finally proved to be his undoing.
The senate tried to get rid of Flaccus by sending him off as consul to Gaul to protect the Roman allies of Massilia (Marseilles) who had appealed for help against the Celtic tribes. The manoeuvre backfired. He later returned in triumph, having won victories over the Gauls. In the meantime, Gaius Gracchus had finished his term of office as quaestor in Sardinia, and returned to Rome to take the place of his brother. Nine years after his brother’s murder, at the age of about thirty, Gaius was elected as people’s tribune in 123 BC.
Gaius’s main base was the city poor, the proletariat, which looked to him to provide them with their rations and land. He planned to expand his base, forming a broad opposition, based on the city masses, the “knights” and the Italians. In a blatant attempt to bribe the voters, he enacted legislation by which the population of Rome was to be provided with corn at half price.
The programme initiated by the younger Gracchus was even more far-reaching than that of his brother. He demanded that the soldiers should be supplied with clothing at the public expense, with no deduction from their pay, and that nobody under the age of 17 should be conscripted. He also demanded a reduction in the price of grain sold to the public. He got a law passed adding to the 300 members to the senate another 300 drawn from the class of “knights”. He launched an ambitious programme of public works, such as roads and harbours, which mainly benefited the equestrian community – the Roman capitalists. By such means he succeeded in splitting the equites away from the senate.
With this broad coalition, Gaius was able to remain in office for two years, during which he pushed through a lot of legislation. He reaffirmed Tiberius’ land laws and established smallholdings in Roman territory abroad, creating new colonies, including one on the old site of the destroyed city of Carthage. He proposed to divide up the public lands among the poor citizens. But once again he was met with sabotage. The senate allowed the new tenants to sell their new land, which the wealthy bought up. This was a regular feature, by which the senate turned every attempt at reform into a dead letter. Every time newly acquired lands were assigned to the poor, they simply passed into the hands of the wealthy landholders. In the meantime, large-scale slave labour drove all before it, tearing up the laws and mercilessly displacing free peasant labour throughout Italy.
The aristocracy was able to control the assembly (comitia tributa) because, with each tribe controlling a single block vote determined by the majority, the voting power of the urban proletariat was concentrated within four tribes. On the other hand, the rural tribes numbered thirty-one. The landowners could therefore register themselves, together with their freedmen and clients, and this body of interests could usually dominate the assembly, since the small farmers seldom travelled to Rome in great numbers and never stayed there for long. Originally this system had been devised to prevent the interests of the farmers being swamped by those of the urban masses. But now it was a weapon in the hands of the slave-owning aristocracy.
In order to please the equestrian class, Gaius awarding them the right to contract for the collecting of the enormous taxes due from the newly created province of Asia. It was further agreed that members of the equestrian class should hold judgement in court cases over provincial governors accused of wrong-doings. This was clearly an attempt to cut down the power of the senate, as it restricted its power over the governors, many of whom were Roman capitalists of the equestrian order, filling their pockets at the expense of the provinces.
Gaius wished to expand the franchise to give the vote to the Italians, in order to increase his basis of support. But these measures were controversial and exposed the contradictions within the popular camp. The reactionaries then skilfully utilised anti-Italian feeling to divide the masses and thus the city poor united with the senate to defeat this proposal. The lumpenproletarian rabble did not want to share their privileges as Roman citizens with anybody. Since this “seemed to these people, so to speak, like a partnership which gave them a claim to share in sundry very tangible profits, direct and indirect, they were not at all disposed to enlarge the number of the partners.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 116.)
The struggle between the classes had reached the point of deadlock, as Mommsen points out:
“It was clear that the senate was not powerful enough to wrest either from the merchants or from the proletariat their new privileges; any attempt to assail the corn-laws or the new jury arrangement would have led, under a somewhat grosser or somewhat more civilised form, to a street riot in presence of which the senate was utterly defenceless.”
(Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 117)
In 121 BC Gaius Gracchus stood for yet another term as tribune, just as his brother had done. Once again, the senate conspired against him. They put forward their own candidate, M. Livius Drusus with a demagogic programme intended to undermine Gracchus’ standing as a champion of the people. They put into circulation malicious rumours about Gaius to undermine his credibility. But the most serious weakness was the loss of popularity resulting from the failed proposal to extend Roman citizenship to the Italians. As a result, Gaius lost the vote for his third term in office.
Gaius Gracchus’ angry supporters, some of them apparently carrying weapons, held a mass protest demonstration on the Aventine Hill, with Flaccus at their head. This was used as an excuse for sending the consul Lucius Opimius to the Aventine Hill, backed by militia, legionary infantry and archers, “to restore order”. He carried an order from the senate to take action against anyone “endangering the stability of the Roman state”. That was all he needed. What followed was a massacre in which the Gracchan movement was drowned in blood. It appears that realizing the hopelessness of the situation Gaius ordered his personal slave to stab him to death. His headless corpse was thrown into the Tiber. In the bloody proscriptions that followed as many as 3,000 of his followers were arrested and strangled in prison.
Why the Gracchi failed
The fatal weakness of the Popular Party was the fact that what we call the Roman proletariat was not a proletariat in the Marxist sense, but to a very great extent a declassed lumpenproletariat. The unemployed mob in Rome hated the rich patricians, but in the last analysis, they formed part of the exploiting classes, living off the labour created by the slaves in the form of the dole, the state handouts of free grain. The Roman proletariat benefited from the exploitation and oppression of the Italians, and therefore were implacably opposed to recognising them as Roman citizens.
They were able to stage riots, and sometimes played a revolutionary role, but in the end they turned out to be fodder for the camp of reaction, which skilfully played on their prejudices. In a repeat of what happened to his brother, Gaius’s plans to extend rights to non-Roman Italians were vetoed by another tribune. But this time, the senate’s manoeuvre was accompanied by a sinister development. A large number of plebeians, jealous of their privileges as Roman citizens, turned against Gaius. This fatal split in the popular camp was what emboldened the reactionaries, who again went onto the offensive.
This was not the end of attempts to solve the land problem. It was a particularly serious issue with the soldiers in the Roman army, who demanded land when they retired from military service. On several occasions in the first century BC, public lands were assigned to veterans in Italy as well as on the borders of the empire. The dictator Sulla carried out wholesale confiscation and reassignment of private lands in 82 BC. Later Caesar distributed land to his veterans. Ultimately, however, the attempts at agrarian reform failed, and were bound to fail.
As we have seen, the aim of the Gracchi was to distribute land to the free citizens, revive the peasantry, and populate Italy with free peasants instead of slaves. They demanded that this public land should be redistributed to the poor. Nevertheless, their proposals did not remove the central contradictions. The new class of smallholders could not compete with the big estates of the rich run on the basis of slave labour, especially, if they were to be regularly taken away from their farms to perform military service. In essence, this was an attempt to put back the clock. It flew in the face of economic necessity.
Just as under modern capitalism all the attempts to bolster small businesses and prevent the spread of monopolies by anti-trust laws have proved futile, so in the Roman Republic, the efforts to re-create a class of small farmers proved to be ineffective. The tendency towards the concentration of the ownership of land in the hands of a small number of slave-owners was unstoppable.
The different classes in society, the urban “proletariat”, the propertied classes, divided between capitalists and aristocrats, were not capable of providing any way out of the impasse Roman society faced. The result was a long and inglorious agony of the Republic that led inexorably to Caesarism and the Empire.
The Republic was dying on its feet because its social basis had ceased to exist. This fact expressed itself in continuous political crises and convulsions in the capital, party strife, revolutions and counterrevolutions. Paradoxically, the peasants were not the only ones affected by debt. Behind their outward splendour and overbearing pride, many Roman senators were in debt. The rise of a money economy served to disintegrate the old social relations and the political power that rested upon them.
The old system was dead but there was nothing viable to put in its place. This produced a deadlock between the classes. The masses in Rome were capable of staging periodic riots and upheavals that provided the opportunity for demagogues to seize the reins of political power. But, as we have seen, the Roman proletariat – unlike the modern proletariat – was an unproductive and parasitic class. It lived off the backs of the slaves and the oppressed provinces just as much as the capitalists and aristocracy that they hated. They could never provide a viable alternative to the existing system. On the other hand, the propertied classes, divided between capitalists and aristocrats, were also not capable of providing the necessary stability. The result was a long and inglorious agony of the Republic that led inexorably to Caesarism and the Empire.
The class struggle at Rome in this period assumes a particularly feverish and convulsive character. One party succeeds another without offering a definitive solution. The freedmen were given votes in order to make their patrons masters of the streets. Politicians appeared in the streets and the Forum at the head of private armies of freedmen numbering hundreds or even thousands to intimidate the senate into passing certain laws. The political struggle had reached the point where only armed force could restore some kind of order and equilibrium. The stage was set for the eruption of the army into politics.
Proletarians and slaves
The crisis of Roman society necessarily affected the slaves. There was ferment among the slave population everywhere, and a whole series of revolts and uprisings, which culminated in the great slave rebellion led by Spartacus. The slave miners in the Attic silver mines in Greece rose up, occupying the promontory of Sunion near Athens and pillaging the surrounding country, before being suppressed. Sicily, as we have seen, was the scene of one uprising after another, even inflicting some defeats on the Roman army.
In the first Sicilian revolt there were cases where the free proletarians joined the insurgent slaves, who came within a hair’s breadth of conquering Messana. It is probable that the reason Spartacus tried to lead his army into Sicily was to spark off a new slave revolt there and possibly establish an independent state. But the uprising failed, and after its suppression the slave-owners took their revenge by selling large numbers of proletarians into slavery.
Since the conditions of the free proletarians were not much better than those of the slaves, the logical result should have been the linking up of both classes in a common revolt against the oligarchy. The big question is: why did this not take place? The conditions of the mass of peasants in the countryside were no better than those of the urban poor in Rome. Yet there is no record of rural uprisings, and only in a few cases did the poor Romans join in the uprisings of the slaves.
The reason for this apparent contradiction is that neither the urban plebs nor the free peasants were the productive base of society. Although they were underprivileged and oppressed, in the last analysis they had more in common with the slave owners than with the slaves who were the real exploited class and the producers of social wealth. It was their labour that provided the dole of the unemployed citizens of Rome, their sweat, blood and tears that paid for the bread and circuses of the masses as well as the luxurious life-style of the slave-owners.
If one wants an historical analogy to the outlook of the free Roman peasants (or the remnant that still survived by the end of the Republic), it can be found in the psychology of the “poor whites” of the southern states of America at the time of the Civil War. This social layer had absolutely nothing in common with the wealthy slave-owning aristocracy which treated it with contempt. For the wealthy slave owners they were merely “white trash”. Although they lived in conditions of poverty which were not that much better that those of the black families that frequently lived alongside them, they nevertheless always combined with the white slave owners against the blacks, and fought obstinately for the cause of the South in the Civil War.
The poor whites, despite their degrading conditions, always felt themselves to be superior to the blacks. It is an established fact that the lowest and most degraded layers of society like to feel that there are people on a lower level than themselves. A similar psychology must have existed among the poor layers of Roman societies in both town and countryside. At every decisive moment, they united with the senate to defeat the slaves.
In his article The North American Civil War Marx made this specific comparison: “Finally, the number of actual slaveholders in the South of the Union does not amount to more than three hundred thousand, a narrow oligarchy that is confronted with many millions of so-called poor whites, whose numbers have been constantly growing through concentration of landed property and whose condition is only to be compared with that of the Roman plebeians in the period of Rome’s extreme decline.” (Marx, The North American Civil War, October 20, 1861).
Marius’ army reforms
The defeat of the slave revolts and the crushing of the Gracchan movement meant that there was no longer any possibility of a genuinely revolutionary reconstruction of society. Henceforth, the political struggle in Rome resolved itself into a struggle between rival wings of the propertied classes, a section of which leaned on the city poor for support. But if ever it seemed that the city mob was getting out of control, the propertied classes would always close ranks to put them in their place.
As we have seen in earlier parts of this article, the simmering hostility between the senate and the Roman capitalists (equites) came to a head in 123 BC, when Gaius Gracchus passed the Lex Judicaria, which prescribed that the jurors (judices) should be chosen from the equites, and not the Senate. From this time on the gulf between the senate and the equestrian order widened every year. Hitherto the jurors were chosen from the ranks of the nobles, who therefore had control of the courts, and made unscrupulous use of their power.
This was especially the case in the courts which were established to try governors for extortion in the provinces. The voracious Roman tax-gatherers who plundered the provinces were mainly drawn from the equites. Usually the governors connived with them in this thievery in exchange for bribes. But occasionally, an honest governor would clash with them, and then could be threatened with prosecution, fines or exile. The question of who controlled the courts therefore affected the fundamental interests of the capitalists.
In a situation where the contending classes have fought themselves to a standstill, and where neither side is able to win a decisive victory, the state apparatus, in the form of the army, begins to raise itself above society and acquire a certain degree of independence. In the Roman Republic this process was assisted by the fact that the army had an increasingly mercenary character, reflecting the destruction of the free peasantry that had been the backbone of the old citizens’ militia.
After the crushing of the Gracchan movement, the class struggle resolved itself into mere party strife in which ambitious politicians and generals representing one or other clique of the possessing classes struggled to get control of the state. There now appears a whole series of rival generals, each manoeuvring for power. The constant wars against the Cimbri, the Teutones and other tribes, confers increasing power and prestige to these generals, who support now one party, now another.
The first of these generals with political ambitions was Gaius Marius, the son of a poor day-labourer who got rich as the result of lucky speculation and married into the ancient patrician gens of the Julii. His military victories over the Africans, Germans, Cimbri and Teutones further increased his prestige. “Marius stood aloof from parties not much less than from society,” Mommsen informs us (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 186.). This adventurer had one foot in each class and intrigued and manoeuvred between all of them. But his main base was the army, which he reorganised to suit his own purposes. Prior to this, the army was open only to citizens with property.
The different branches of the army (cavalry etc.) were likewise determined by the amount of property one possessed. But the changes in the class composition of Roman society rendered these distinctions irrelevant. In any case, the propertied classes were no longer enthusiastic about military service and avoided it when they could. On the other hand the poor citizens wanted to join the army where at least they would have the prospect of pay and plunder. For the Roman peasant, there was only one way of escaping from poverty: by joining the army. This they frequently did, either voluntarily or under compulsion in the later Roman Republic. Once in the army, the peasant soldier (as later in the armies of Napoleon) felt an overriding loyalty to his commanding general.
The reforms of Marius were a big step towards transforming the army from a citizens’ militia into a professional standing army, separate and apart from society, with its own identity and interests and where the soldiers’ first loyalty was not to the senate and the people of Rome but to their own commander – the man who would guarantee them their pay, plunder and glory. It was also a step towards a dilution of the rank of Roman citizen, since the army was open to Latins and other non-Romans, and Marius even gave Roman citizenship away on the battlefield – which he had no constitutional right to do.
From now on, the army was open to the non-propertied classes and what part of the army one served in was determined not by property but only by duration of service. All distinctions of armour were abolished, all wore the same uniform and all recruits were uniformly trained. The result was a general improvement in the fighting qualities and discipline of the troops, who had a new sense of identity – a new esprit de corps. The Roman army became a formidable and disciplined fighting force. But the reforms had another, more sinister import.
“The republican constitution”, observes Mommsen, “was essentially based on the view that the citizen was also a soldier, and that the soldier was above all a citizen; it was at an end, so soon as a soldier-class was formed. To this issue the new system of drill, with its routine borrowed from the professional gladiator, necessarily led; the military service became gradually a profession. Far more rapid was the effect of the admission – though but limited – of the proletariat to participate in military service; especially in connection with the primitive maxims, which conceded to the general an arbitrary right of rewarding his soldiers compatible only with the very solid republican institutions, and gave to the able and successful soldier a sort of title to demand from the general a share in the movable spoil and then from the state a portion of the soil that had been won.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, pp. 190-1.)
The little detail that the training of the soldiers was copied from that of gladiators is significant of a profound change in the nature of the army. Gladiatorial combat, which played such a significant role in the national psychology of Rome in the later Republic and Empire, was probably invented by the Etruscans as a religious ritual involving human sacrifice. But it is possible that the Romans copied this bloody practice from the Samnites. Indeed, they used the words “gladiator” and “Samnites” synonymously. The gladiator was more often than not a slave, and although some of them acquired the status of pop stars (as long as they stayed alive), the profession in general was looked down upon as unworthy of free men.
The Roman soldier was now a professional killer, just like the gladiator, part of a professional killing machine, held together by military discipline and a common interest in conquest and plunder: “His only home was the camp, his only science war, his only hope the general,” writes Mommsen (ibid., p. 191) The Roman legionary was now completely severed from civil society, and, although it carried on its banners the proud title SPQR (The Senate and the Roman People), in practice ambitious Roman generals could, and did, use it as a weapon against both the Senate and the Roman People.
Thus, the basis for Caesarism had been laid. “They had now the standing army, the soldier-class, the body-guard; as in the civil constitution, so also in the military, all the pillars of the future monarchy were already in existence; the monarch alone was wanting.” (ibid.)
The very existence of a standing professional army is a threat to democracy. A standing army that is cut off from society is always a potential instrument for a coup d’etat. This is demonstrated by the experience of the Roman Republic. That is why many centuries later the Paris Commune inscribed in its programme the demand for the abolition of the standing army and its replacement by the armed people – a citizens’ militia. And this demand is at the very heart of the programme of workers’ democracy as explained by Lenin in State and Revolution and included in the Bolshevik Party Programme of 1919. The history of the Roman Republic is a salutary warning in this respect.
The republic was being torn apart by the class struggle. A series of demagogues arose, always willing to rouse the city poor at Rome to riots and disorders. Such men were the street orator Gaius Servilius Glaucia, known as the Roman Hyperbous, his more able colleague, Lucius Appuleius Saturnius, whom even his enemies recognised as a fiery public speaker. Marius flirted with the People’s Party, and its leaders were not averse to a deal with the victorious general with the power of the legions at his back.
Here we have one of the elements of what we now call Bonapartism, and what was known in the ancient world as Caesarism: a tendency to balance between the classes, to lean on the lumpenproletariat to strike blows against the ruling class, while manoeuvring to seize power, using the army. The leaders of the Popular Party struck a deal with Marius to carve up public offices between them. It is said that Marius himself was not above soliciting votes or even buying them. He certainly used the services of discharged soldiers to help his campaign with a little physical force. By a combination of bribery and assassination, Marius succeeded in getting himself elected consul, while Glaucia was made praetor and Saturninus a tribune of the people.
Marius obtained the loyalty of his men by promising them land. This could only be done through conquests. Partly it consisted of confiscated Carthaginian lands. Other land was taken from the Gaulish territory in northern Italy. But soon all the legally available land was divided up. This fact was an important impulse to future Roman expansion, as was the resources to bribe the population of the capital with free grain. Together with the constant need to replenish the stock of cheap slaves, it became a self-enforcing process, propelling Rome to new wars of conquest.
In Rome itself the struggle between the senate and the Popular Party continued. The latter demanded subsidies for the poor that would have bankrupted the treasury. The aristocracy resisted, but the senate was under the pressure of the masses, who regularly rioted in the streets. Saturninus demanded that the Senate act, “or else thunder will be followed by hail”. But behind the scenes the aristocratic party was preparing a counterstroke. Arms were distributed to the sons of the rich, and they began to attack supporters of the Popular Party.
As on previous occasions, the populares were superior in numbers, but they were not properly armed or trained. They were therefore unprepared for such an onslaught. They broke open the doors of the prisons and even appealed to the slaves to fight for their freedom. But it was too late. As we have seen so many times in history, small, well-organized armed groups with good captains can defeat an unarmed and disorganized mass without too much difficulty. And in the moment of truth, they found that they could not rely on “friendly” generals to save them.
Marius, who had leaned upon the populares to gain power for himself, now abandoned them and sided with the aristocracy to put down the masses. A fierce battle was fought in the great market place. The supporters of the Popular Party were defeated and took refuge in the Capitol, where fighting was seen for the first time in history. But they were forced to capitulate when the water supply was cut off. Probably Marius would have preferred to spare the lives of his former allies, who could be useful to him in future intrigues, but matters were no longer in his hands. Without waiting for orders, the gilded youth of Rome climbed the rooftops of the courtyard where the populares were effectively imprisoned and, tearing the tiles from the roofs, stoned their helpless victims to death.
The victory of the reactionaries was complete and devastating. Overnight, the populares were utterly crushed, their leaders butchered. There followed a reign of terror, in which the ruling class took revenge for its humiliation at the hands of the masses: trials, executions, bans and proscriptions decimated the Popular Party. In the past, the equites had supported the Gracchi, but now, terrified of the threat from the masses, they rallied to the banner of reaction that always unites the propertied classes against the poor and dispossessed.
The state rises above society
In the end the conflict had solved nothing. Roman society was now split into two bitterly antagonistic camps of rich and poor. On the one hand, the slave owners, the Roman capitalists or equites, formed a single reactionary bloc with the aristocracy, on the other side stood the mass of dispossessed Roman citizens, the proletarians. But the peculiarity of the situation was this: that neither side could win a final and decisive victory over the other. Under such circumstances, the state – armed bodies of men – tends to rise above society and acquire a large degree of independence. Engels explained the role of the state thus:
“The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without; just as little is it ‘the reality of the ethical idea’, ‘the image and reality of reason’, as Hegel maintains. Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.” (Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3, Moscow, 1973, pp. 326-27)
We see this in Roman history in the phenomenon of Caesarism, which is rule by the sword. There followed a long night of reaction in which the rights of the proletariat were abolished or restricted, laws were changed, progressive reforms liquidated. However, the class struggle was not abolished, only driven underground. The discontent of the masses festered. Some of the Popular Party resorted to individual terrorism. They succeeded in assassinating the hated Quintus Metellus by poisoning him. Others took refuge with foreign enemies of Rome, such as king Mithredates, who was preparing war against Rome.
Reaction was firmly in control but contradictions were breaking out in the camp of the victors. Having utilised the services of the Roman capitalists (the equites) to crush the proletariat, the aristocratic party in the Senate now proceeded to turn on its erstwhile allies. The confidence of the aristocrats had grown, their old overweening pride reasserted itself. Freed of the fear of the masses, they asserted their right to rule the roost without consideration for the Roman capitalists, whom they saw as upstart nouveaux riches.
The class lines did not completely comply with the lines of party affiliation. There were those in the senate who supported the capitalists. Men like Lucius Marcius Philippus defended the rights of the equestrian order. The conflict between the senatorial and capitalist parties boiled down to who would plunder the provinces. Some of the senatorial party were prepared to share the plunder with the equestrian order. Others were greedier or else blinded by the class hatred of the old Roman aristocracy for the new class of moneyed upstarts. The leaders of the intransigent aristocrats were Drusus and Scaurus.
While squabbling among themselves, the ruling class always kept a wary eye on the masses, whom they attempted to keep happy with free handouts of grain (plundered from the unfortunate Italian provinces) and promises of land (likewise taken from the provinces). Slowly the provinces were being crushed by the burdens imposed by the capital. The class of small peasants was already extinct in Umbria and Etruria, although it maintained a precarious foothold in areas like the Abruzzi valley. Italy was being bled by Rome and denied of its rights.
See Also: Why democracy?, A Discussion on Romanness Past and Present (2). Is a Roman ‘Race’ Surviving?, Exploring Barnstone: Anti-Semitism, Slavery, and Sexism in the Bible, The last days of the empire, America Is Repeating the Mistakes Which Led to the Fall of the Hapsburg Empire, Did Christianity Cause The Fall of The Roman Empire?, and The Visigoth Immigrants and the Fall of Rome.
[tags]roman civilization, class analysis of rome, the rise of capitalism, the rise of the aristocracy, slave economy, marxist analysis of rome, roman economy, roman political structure, roman socio-economic structure, class struggle in the roman republic, alan woods, roman history, marxist interpretation of roman history, roman history, class contradictions, karl marx, engels, hegel, slaves, slave owners, downfall of rome, roman economics, roman republic, class analyses, socio-economic analysis, inequality, slave economies[/tags]
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