Praecipitia in Ruinam: The decline of the small Roman farmer and the fall of the Roman Republic.

AuthorMorato, Jack

Praecipitia in Ruinam: The Decline of the Small Roman Farmer and the Fall of the Roman Republic

War and fraternal bloodshed dominated the late Roman Republic. From the tribunate of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus in 133 to the beginning of the Augustan Principate in 27, Rome was wracked by internal dissention and political anarchy. (1) The chaos was the product of the unbounded personal ambitions of Rome's leading men--ambitions that were encouraged by a militaristic culture that impelled individual aristocrats to pursue fame and glory for themselves at all cost. Powerful Roman commanders made war with each other and sacked the city of Rome with their personal armies. "Violence," according to Appian, "prevailed almost constantly, together with shameful contempt for law and justice." (2) This traumatic episode witnessed the dismantling of the oligarchic Republic and its replacement with a government ruled by the despotic authority of one man. Personal ambition tells only part of the story. The Republic was, in many ways, a victim of its own success. By 133 the Romans found themselves in command of a far-flung empire extending from Spain in the west to Asia Minor in the east, but they were forced to administer it with the government structure of a city-state. Rapid imperial expansion during the middle Republic strained nearly every aspect of the Roman system but none more so than the very foundation of Roman military strength--the small farmer. Spoils of war were channeled into agriculture by the landed elite, resulting in economic polarization and the displacement of independent labor in the countryside. This inquiry traces the socio-economic developments that led to the decline of independent farming in Rome, developments that culminated in political turmoil and civil war during the first century.

The question of what caused the decline of the Roman Republic is a complex one. In answering it, many ancient and modern writers have held that the problems of the late Republic were caused by the steady deterioration of aristocratic morals throughout the second century. Sallust, a contemporary of G. Julius Caesar and Catiline, complained of the "shamelessness, bribery and rapacity" prevalent in the political life of his time, the "corruption of the public morals," and the "two great evils of... extravagance and avarice." (3) Dionysius of Halicarnassus, writing towards the end of the first century, reflected on the virtuous days of the early Republic when Roman leaders "worked with their own hands, led frugal lives, did not chafe under honourable poverty, and, far from aiming at positions of royal power, actually refused them." (4) The first century historian Velleius Patercullus complained of the "private luxury" and the "public extravagance" of Rome's leading citizens. (5)

This view continues to attract its defenders. Historian R. E. Smith, for example, argues that the senatorial class was handling Rome's problems just fine up until the end of the Third Punic War and that it was the "fundamentally irresponsible" behavior of the Gracchi that disrupted the traditional political system and set in motion the decline in aristocratic morals. (6) Historian David Shotter blamed the corrupting influence of imperial wealth for the gradual loss of the "old-fashioned corporateness" of Roman society and the rise in individualism among the Roman aristocracy. (7) Historian Monte Pearson attributed the degeneration of aristocratic morals to imperial growth, the corruption of the political process, and the breakdown of collectivist norms that had once imposed an unshakeable restraining influence on the behavior of individual magistrates. (8) Historian Pamela Marin drew attention to the erosion of long-held Roman ideals of patriotism and selfless service to the state and their replacement with "competition, desire, and greed" on the part of the Roman elite. (9) Historian Ronald Syme focused on the incessant squabbling of the Roman nobility and their corrupt, sinister, and fraudulent behavior in his discussion of the Republic's end. (10)

The central thrust of this traditional interpretation was that there was some sudden change in the behavior of the ruling aristocracy, (11) that "love of office and the disgrace entailed by obscurity" (12) seized the aristocracy and expanded the extent to which aristocrats were willing to go to win political power for themselves at the expense of the state. According to the argument, this was not always the case. The community sentiment of the early Republic imposed such a powerful constraint on aristocratic ambition and behavior that fame, glory, and wealth were not pursued at the expense of the common good. Prestige for one's self and for one's family was won through selfless acts of bravery that primarily benefitted the state rather than the individual. (13) This selfless behavior was engendered by the unusually high value the typical Roman placed on his citizenship. It gave even the lowliest member a stake in the future of his great city, and it created a sense of community that permeated every rung of Roman society. (14) As the second century satirist Lucilius so romantically put it, virtue is "thinking our country's interests to be foremost of all, our parents' next, and then thirdly and lastly our own. (15) The sense of community broke down by the first century. Deprived of cities to besiege and armies to defeat, so the argument goes, members of the ruling elite eventually turned their competitive wrath on each other. (16) Constructive competition turned destructive as personal prestige took precedence over the well-being of the Roman state, and whereas the heroes of Rome's wars of expansion fought for the glory of their country and the praise of their fellow citizens, the leading men of the late Republic fought simply to enhance their personal fame and wealth.

Roman culture was indeed highly competitive, especially for those at the top of the social hierarchy. (17) Historian Norman Cantor described it as a "one-class" society dominated by a single group--the Roman nobilitas. (18) Collectively, this group monopolized all military and political power and steered the affairs of the Roman state. Individually, however, aristocrats of the Republic exercised political power indirectly by way of elections and assemblies. (19) Winning the esteem of other aristocrats was crucial if one was to enjoy influence over the political process. Therefore, the Roman ruling elite sought to constantly outdo each other in terms of prestige, fame, and glory, for winning all three meant leverage in the assemblies and election to the magistracies. For an ambitious aristocrat, the shortest route to glory and fame--and political power--was through a successful military command. Evidence of this can be seen the peculiar characteristics of Roman culture itself, a culture which--through its outward physical symbols, its stories of past heroes, and its social rewards system--cherished military success above all other social accomplishments. The high value placed on warfare increased the frequency and severity of Rome's wars and explains, at least in part, the rapid march of Roman power throughout Italy and the Mediterranean during the early and middle Republic. (20) In this way at least, the aristocratic pursuit of glory and fame through warfare served the interests of the Roman state, for the competitive energies of the ruling aristocracy were absorbed by neighboring communities during the initial flush of Roman expansion. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the typical Roman aristocrat was exposed to combat and military command at an early age and throughout his political career. (21)

The moral interpretation of the Republic's decline has some serious flaws. Greed, ambition, and lust for power are constants in human nature, and as Harris convincingly demonstrates, the aristocratic pursuit of fame and glory was not exclusive to the late Republic--competition for both among the Roman elite was already vigorous during the late-fourth century. (22) Roman aristocrats preferred fame to obscurity long before the so-called period of moral decline in the second century, and it is therefore unreasonable to assume that the nobility of the late Republic were less ambitious than their counterparts in the early Republic. (23) Furthermore, the use of violence in domestic politics was just as common, if not more so, during the early Republic as in later times. This was especially true during the Conflict of the Orders, a drawn-out civil struggle in the fifth and fourth centuries waged by the lesser nobility to break the higher nobility's exclusive grip on political power. (24) The assertion that ambition, greed, and political violence were the main drivers of political decline is seriously undermined by the presence of these tendencies during the early days of the Republic. Furthermore, the moral interpretation is far too simplistic and superficial and does little to acknowledge the immense socio-economic changes brought on by the process of empire. Rome found it increasingly difficult to replenish its legions as the economic position of its yeomanry declined. The manpower shortage was a chronic symptom of fundamental economic changes occurring at the heart of Rome's traditional, subsistence-based economy. Marius saw professionalization as the only means of balancing the recruiting deficit, and his decision to enlist property-less men in his supplementum of 107 was one of monumental consequence for the later history of the Republic. Professional armies became instruments of unscrupulous commanders who were willing to use them against the state. Political decline and civil war were thus the final steps in a long economic process that originated in the late-third century. Rome's independent farmers were squeezed by a number of specific economic developments including the development of large estates, the influx of slave...

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