- Published: November 20, 2022
- Updated: November 20, 2022
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Early roman society was actually agrarian. Little difference existed between Rome and Greek city states. In the early centuries of the Republic, agriculture was not only the principal occupation of the Roman people, it was also a way of life. To its influence Cato the Censor attributed all the moral virtues of the early Romans. The early consuls and dictators, Cincinnatus and Manius Curius, whose example Cato loved to imitate, worked with their hands as did the other farmers of their time. A Roman farm represented a classical example of subsistence farming.
With the help of his sons and perhaps a slave or two, the farmer was able to produce all the food his family required as well as most of their clothing, shoes, and other necessities. The occasional sale of a few bushels of grain or a couple of pigs would enable him to buy what he could not produce on the farm . By the middle of the second century B. C. however, farm life in Italy had undergone a radical change hastened by Hannibal’s invasion. For fourteen years Punic and Roman armies marched up and down the peninsula, living off the land, seizing or destroying crops, killing livestock, and burning down thousands of homes and farm buildings.
Malaria had become endemic in the swampy districts. Many of the farmersoldiers would never return. The security of army life, the sight of strange and exciting places were more pleasant for some than the dull farm routine. Others returned to find homes ruined and fields overrun with briars and weeds and those, who were lucky enough to find houses and fields intact could not raise money to buy the necessary oxen, tools, and seed. Many, discouraged, drifted into Rome hoping to find employment.
Others went back into the army or returned to the provinces where looting and trading paid better than farming. Despite the enormous property and manpower losses, the family size farm of ancient Italy could have been restored within a few decades because the ravages of ancient wars were superficial and not permanently ruinous to fertile regions. But unfortunately to the old social formation, Roman conquest of the Mediterranean basin generated new economic forces that proved destructive of the primitive agricultural regime in all but the most backward and mountainous sections of Italy.
The flow of capital and cheap slave labor from the conquered provinces, especially those of the Hellenistic East, brought about the ruin of the small Italian farmer and the rise of the cattle ranch and the plantation. The cattle ranch predominated in southern Italy, in Etruria, and in some parts of Latium; the plantation in other parts of Latium and especially in Campania. The Roman conquests with the wholesale plundering of the provinces started an unprecedented flow of capital to Rome.
Enormous commercial expansion followed, and additional wealth poured into the Roman treasury from war indemnities, provincial taxation, the sale of slaves, and the exploitation of lands, seized and declared public, mines, quarries, forests, and fisheries. Enormous sums also filled the pockets of private individuals. Generals and military governors made money from the sale of army promotions, exemptions, and furloughs, sometimes from the embezzlement of military funds, but more often from the extortion of money from cities and private persons unfortunate enough to fall under their power.
Even bigger fortunes were made by the knights or equestrians and merchants who received government contracts for supplying equipment to the army, for the construction of roads, bridges, harbors, and temples, for the collection of provincial taxes and rents, and for the exploitation of lands, pastures, mines, forests, and other natural resources seized and owned by the state in Italy and the provinces. Some of the acquired capital was invested in shipping, commerce, and industry, but most was invested in real estate (especially farm land) since it was for senators the only kind of investment permitted by the Claudian Law of 218 B.
C. , and for members of the equestrian class the main road to political advancement and social recognition. The so-called Licinian-Sextian legislation which restricted the growth of the large estate had never been strictly enforced and was almost completely ignored after the Second Punic War. The state encouraged such investment, for it had some 14, 000, 000 acres of land (most of it confiscated after the war) at least 9, 000, 000 acres of which were good farming land.
Since the state found it easier to deal with large investors, it leased most of the public land for long terms at small stipulated rents to rich and powerful landowners, who after a few generations came to regard the leased lands as private property and even ceased paying rent to the state. Those new landlords found it more profitable to themselves to grow crops other than wheat. Another type of capitalistic organization that displaced the small grain producing farmer: the wine and oil plantation.
Also, rough and mountainous areas in the South were often used for cattle and sheep ranches. The result was, that towards the year 70 B. C. , half of the Italian population relied upon foreign wheat. The total amount of imported wheat was up to more than 8, 000, 00022, 000, 000 bushels, so that if 2, 000, 000 Italians were fed by imported corn, they would have received eleven bushels each . Attempts to Reform: The Gracchi Brothers The general social structure of agricultural producers in Rome by middle of the II century B.
C. was roughly the following. Separate self-sufficient farmers, who were once the basis of the society, still existed, but they could hardly compete with large estate holders. The problem was, that imported wheat appeared to be cheaper and often of higher quality, than self-produced. It was also impossible for the traditional farmers to change their occupation and start producing wine ore olives, so as the landlords deed, because such crops required great land lots and many workers to deal with.
Lacking the capital to engage in the more profitable forms of agriculture, many sold or abandoned their farms and took advantage of the government’s colonizing program in the North and Northwest. These abandoned farms were bought up at extremely low prices by rich investors, who consolidated them into plantations ranging at first from sixty to two hundred acres, and later to as many as five hundred acres. Furthermore, the big estates formed in this way lay alongside of small properties, or might even surround them.
As happens in such cases, the owner of the big estate wanted to round it off by obtaining the adjoining land. Sometimes this was achieved by a deal, but more often by fraud or simply by force. The absence of the head of the family on military service made such usurpation all the easier. Their parents and children, if they had some powerful neighbour, were often driven by him from their homes. So, as a result of various causes and by different methods, there grew up the huge latifundia – a large estate, producing certain kinds of agricultural products .
The main working power of the latifundia were slaves. Use of slave labor encouraged the cultivation of such crops as required attention all year round yet which involved the simplest processes of cultivation so that even the dullest hands could learn by routine and such crops as permitted maximum concentration of labor in the smallest possible area in order to reduce the high cost of supervision. Oil and wine, became ideal plantation crops.
Wheat and barley seemed to be unsuitable because they have a relatively short growing season, require a great deal of labor at planting and harvest time, and do not permit use of the gang system, whereby a single supervisor can direct the work of the greatest number of slaves in the smallest possible area. Some wheat was still grown because the plantation aimed to achieve the ideal of selfsufficiency but it was rarely produced as a staple. The competitive advantages of organized slave labor were many. It was a stable supply of manpower, always available when and where needed, and easily replaced.
Slaves, unlike tenants, could not be drafted for military service. Still more important, they could be organized, concentrated, and combined in any way the owner saw fit. Because the owner could appropriate any physical or value surplus earned by slaves, he was able to produce at price levels only slightly above the cost of maintaining them. The dispossessed farmers flocked into bid cities, such as Rome, where they lived in shacks or in badly built tenement houses and formed an unemployed, discontented proletariat, dangerous to the peace and order of the state.
Rich and unscrupulous politicians bought their votes and organized them into mobs to influence elections, create riots, or kill political opponents. The violence and anarchy thus introduced prevailed in Roman politics till the downfall of the Republic . The unsteadiness led to proletarian and slave revolts, which began breaking out after 138 B. C. In Italy, the revolt of these miserable wretches was suppressed after the crucifixion of 450 of them at Minturnae, 150 at Rome, and 4, 000 at Sinuessa.
An uprising at the great slave market of Delos was put down by force of arms. In Pergamum, the war ( 132-129 B. C. ) of Aristonicus, against Rome was simply a major revolt of slaves, proletarians, and soldiers. Worst of all was the slave revolt in Sicily, where normal slave thuggery and mugging had swelled into full scale war near 136 B. C. Only after several years of hard fighting, the murder of many landlords, and much damage to property, were the Romans able to crush this dangerous revolt, extinguishing its last sparks in 131 B.
C. The revolt in Sicily was only a warning of things yet to come. The Roman conquests had already produced an economic and social upheaval that had reduced the constitution to a sham and was driving the Republic towards inevitable disaster. A few thoughtful men weakly tried to stave off the coming disaster, among whom the most famous were Tiberius and Gaius Gracchi. They were not revolutionaries but their aim was to restore in part the old regime which had held sway until the fifth century.
They did not dream of deposing the nobility, but wished only to deprive them of the thousands of acres which they had illegally taken away from the State. They did not meditate any general social levelling; their plan was, by giving the right of individual ownership to the thousands of citizens who could have reconstituted a middle class, to stop the avalanche of great patrician expropriators. To break the intolerable power of the senatorial order, the great majority of whom were hostile to a redistribution of the ager, they turned to the equites.
Tiberius Gracchus became tribune in 134 B. C. and made use of his prerogatives to put into force once more the laws which had fallen into disuse for more than two centuries. The function of a tribune was actually to protect the interests of simple people against the rich, and that is what Tiberius tried to do. His point was the restoration of the Licinian laws: nobody might own more than 500 jugera of the ager or send to the public pastures more than 100 cattle or 500 sheep. Everybody was obliged to have on his estates a certain number of workmen of free condition.
And the tribune added these two important clauses in attenuation: the tenants of lands of the domain might also keep 250 jugera for every son not yet emancipated from the paternal authority and an allowance would be made in compensation for improvements effected on the land taken away from them. The land recovered was to be distributed among the poor in inalienable lots and was not subject to rent. The bill was designed to break the large estates and turn the people back to farming. And it is clear, that the Senate, which consisted to a great part of the very landowners, vetoed the bill.
To carry out the provisions of the land act, Tiberius asked the people to appoint a commission of three members consisting of himself, his younger brother, Gaius, and his father-in-law, Appius Claudius. The commission was later granted full judicial powers with imperium to determine what lands were public and what private, to repossess all public land not exempt by the law. Later to protect his legislation from annulment, and to save himself from certain prosecution and probable death, Tiberius offered to run for a second term.
On the day of the vote Scipio Africanus, a general in command in the Punic wars and his men rushed towards Tiberius and clubbed him and three hundred of his followers to death. Scipio Aemilianus, his brother-in-law and head of the senatorial faction, was found dead in his bed four years later, a victim, in all probability of the popular faction. In the year 123, Caius Gracchus, who had been made tribune, resumed the work of his brother but on a broader basis. During his two short years of office he passed at least seventeen major laws, all highly damaging to the power and prestige of the senate.
Gaius persuaded the assembly to pass the famous lex frumentaria or Grain Law, which provided that the state should buy and import grain from overseas for sale on demand in fixed monthly amounts to citizens residing in Rome The Grain Law also provided for the construction of warehouses and wharves in Rome, a measure designed to relieve unemployment. The Law helped to restore the independence of Roman citizens and rendered more effective the secret ballot law of 131 B. C.
However, these laws, together with other actions of Gaius, such as adopting of Military law and granting citizenship to all people of Italy caused Gaius to follow Tiberius. He was murdered in 121 B. C. The murder of political opponents was not enough for the patricians. The Lex Thoria in 111 set a seal on the victory of the aristocratic ambitions: it suppressed the scriptura or fee paid by owners of flocks for each head of cattle pastured in the ager; it abolished all the contributions previously payable by landowners and converted into ownership the de facto occupation which was their status until then .
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