Theodor Mommsen.

The History of Rome, Book IV The Revolution online

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that the control of the government appeared to be worthless and
that of the capitalist-courts to be in reality dangerous to the
upright magistrate alone. The institution of a standing commission
regarding the exactions of magistrates in the provinces, occasioned
by the frequency of complaints as to such cases, in 605,(15) and
the laws as to extortion following each other so rapidly and
constantly augmenting its penalties, show the daily increasing
height of the evil, as the Nilometer shows the rise of the flood.

Under all these circumstances even a taxation moderate in theory
might become extremely oppressive in its actual operation; and that
it was so is beyond doubt, although the financial oppression, which
the Italian merchants and bankers exercised over the provinces, was
probably felt as a far heavier burden than the taxation with all
the abuses that attached to it.

Aggregate Financial Result

If we sum up, the income which Rome drew from the provinces was
not properly a taxation of the subjects in the sense which we now
attach to that expression, but rather in the main a revenue that
may be compared with the Attic tributes, by means of which the
leading state defrayed the expense of the military system which
it maintained. This explains the surprisingly small amount of the
gross as well as of the net proceeds. There exists a statement,
according to which the income of Rome, exclusive, it may be
presumed, of the Italian revenues and of the grain delivered in
kind to Italy by the -decumani- up to 691 amounted to not more
than 200 millions of sesterces (2,000,000 pounds); that is, but
two-thirds of the sum which the king of Egypt drew from his country
annually. The proportion can only seem strange at the first
glance. The Ptolemies turned to account the valley of the Nile as
great, plantation-owners, and drew immense sums from their monopoly
of the commercial intercourse with the east; the Roman treasury was
not much more than the joint military chest of the communities
united under Rome's protection. The net produce was probably still
less in proportion. The only provinces yielding a considerable
surplus were perhaps Sicily, where the Carthaginian system of
taxation prevailed, and more especially Asia from the time that
Gaius Gracchus, in order to provide for his largesses of corn, had
carried out the confiscation of the soil and a general domanial
taxation there. According to manifold testimonies the finances of
the Roman state were essentially dependent on the revenues of Asia.
The assertion sounds quite credible that the other provinces on an
average cost nearly as much as they brought in; in fact those which
required a considerable garrison, such as the two Spains,
Transalpine Gaul, and Macedonia, probably often cost more than they
yielded. On the whole certainly the Roman treasury in ordinary
times possessed a surplus, which enabled them amply to defray the
expense of the buildings of the state and city, and to accumulate a
reserve-fund; but even the figures appearing for these objects,
when compared with the wide domain of the Roman rule, attest the
small amount of the net proceeds of the Roman taxes. In a certain
sense therefore the old principle equally honourable and judicious -
that the political hegemony should not be treated as a privilege
yielding profit - still governed the financial administration of the
provinces as it had governed that of Rome in Italy. What the Roman
community levied from its transmarine subjects was, as a rule, re-
expended for the military security of the transmarine possessions;
and if these Roman imposts fell more heavily on those who paid them
than the earlier taxation, in so far as they were in great part
expended abroad, the substitution, on the other hand, of a single
ruler and a centralized military administration for the many petty
rulers and armies involved a very considerable financial saving.
It is true, however, that this principle of a previous better age
came from the very first to be infringed and mutilated by the
numerous exceptions which were allowed to prevail. The ground-
tenth levied by Hiero and Carthage in Sicily went far beyond the
amount of an annual war-contributioa With justice moreover Scipio
Aemilianus says in Cicero, that it was unbecoming for the Roman
burgess-body to be at the same time the ruler and the tax-gatherer
of the nations. The appropriation of the customs-dues was not
compatible with the principle of disinterested hegemony, and the
high rates of the customs as well as the vexatious mode of levying
them were not fitted to allay the sense of the injustice thereby
inflicted. Even as early probably as this period the name of
publican became synonymous among the eastern peoples with that of
rogue and robber: no burden contributed so much as this to make the
Roman name offensive and odious especially in the east. But when
Gaius Gracchus and those who called themselves the "popular party"
in Rome came to the helm, political sovereignty was declared in
plain terms to be a right which entitled every one who shared in
it to a number of bushels of corn, the hegemony was converted into
a direct ownership of the soil, and the most complete system of
making the most of that ownership was not only introduced but
with shameless candour legally justified and proclaimed. It was
certainly not a mere accident, that the hardest lot in this respect
fell precisely to the two least warlike provinces, Sicily and Asia.

The Finances and Public Buildings

An approximate measure of the condition of Roman finance at this
period is furnished, in the absence of definite statements, first
of all by the public buildings. In the first decades of this epoch
these were prosecuted on the greatest scale, and the construction
of roads in particular had at no time been so energetically
pursued. In Italy the great southern highway of presumably earlier
origin, which as a prolongation of the Appian road ran from Rome by
way of Capua, Beneventum, and Venusia to the ports of Tarentum and
Brundisium, had attached to it a branch-road from Capua to the
Sicilian straits, a work of Publius Popillius, consul in 622.
On the east coast, where hitherto only the section from Fanum to
Ariminum had been constructed as part of the Flaminian highway (ii.
229), the coast road was prolonged southward as far as Brundisium,
northward by way of Atria on the Po as far as Aquileia, and the
portion at least from Ariminum to Atria was formed by the Popillius
just mentioned in the same year. The two great Etruscan highways -
the coast or Aurelian road from Rome to Pisa and Luna, which was in
course of formation in 631, and the Cassian road leading by way of
Sutrium and Clusium to Arretium and Florentia, which seems not to
have been constructed before 583 - may as Roman public highways
belong only to this age. About Rome itself new projects were
not required; but the Mulvian bridge (Ponte Molle), by which
the Flaminian road crossed the Tiber not far from Rome, was in 645
reconstructed of stone. Lastly in Northern Italy, which hitherto
had possessed no other artificial road than the Flaminio-Aemilian
terminating at Placentia, the great Postumian road was constructed
in 606, which led from Genua by way of Dertona, where probably
a colony was founded at the same time, and onward by way of
Placentia, where it joined the Flaminio-Aemilian road, and of
Cremona and Verona to Aquileia, and thus connected the Tyrrhenian
and Adriatic seas; to which was added the communication established
in 645 by Marcus Aemilius Scaurus between Luna and Genua, which
connected the Postumian road directly with Rome. Gaius Gracchus
exerted himself in another way for the improvement of the Italian
roads. He secured the due repair of the great rural roads by
assigning, on occasion of his distribution of lands, pieces of
ground alongside of the roads, to which was attached the obligation
of keeping them in repair as an heritable burden. To him,
moreover, or at any rate to the allotment-commission, the custom
of erecting milestones appears to be traceable, as well as that
of marking the limits of fields by regular boundary-stones. Lastly
he provided for good -viae vicinales-, with the view of thereby
promoting agriculture. But of still greater moment was the
construction of the imperial highways in the provinces, which
beyond doubt began in this epoch. The Domitian highway after long
preparations(16) furnished a secure land-route from Italy to Spain,
and was closely connected with the founding of Aquae Sextiae and
Narbo;(17) the Gabinian(18) and the Egnatian (19) led from the
principal places on the east coast of the Adriatic sea - the former
from Salona, the latter from Apollonia and Dyrrhachium - into
the interior; the network of roads laid out by Manius Aquillius
immediately after the erection of the Asiatic province in 625
led from the capital Ephesus in different directions towards the
frontier. Of the origin of these works no mention is to be found
in the fragmentary tradition of this epoch, but they were
nevertheless undoubtedly connected with the consolidation
of the Roman rule in Gaul, Dalmatia, Macedonia, and Asia Minor,
and came to be of the greatest importance for the centralization of
the state and the civilizing of the subjugated barbarian districts.

In Italy at least great works of drainage were prosecuted as well
as the formation of roads. In 594 the drying of the Pomptine
marshes - a vital matter for Central Italy - was set about with great
energy and at least temporary success; in 645 the draining of the
low-lying lands between Parma and Placentia was effected in
connection with the construction of the north Italian highway.
Moreover, the government did much for the Roman aqueducts, as
indispensable for the health and comfort of the capital as they
were costly. Not only were the two that had been in existence
since the years 442 and 492 - the Appian and the Anio aqueducts -
thoroughly repaired in 610, but two new ones were formed; the
Marcian in 610, which remained afterwards unsurpassed for the
excellence and abundance of the water, and the Tepula as it was
called, nineteen years later. The power of the Roman exchequer to
execute great operations by means of payments in pure cash without
making use of the system of credit, is very clearly shown by the
way in which the Marcian aqueduct was created: the sum required for
it of 180,000,000 sesterces (in gold nearly 2,000,000 pounds) was
raised and applied within three years. This leads us to infer a
very considerable reserve in the treasury: in fact at the very
beginning of this period it amounted to almost 860,000 pounds,(20)
and was doubtless constantly on the increase.

All these facts taken together certainly lead to the inference that
the position of the Roman finances at this epoch was on the whole
favourable. Only we may not in a financial point of view overlook
the fact that, while the government during the two earlier thirds
of this period executed splendid and magnificent buildings, it
neglected to make other outlays at least as necessary. We have
already indicated how unsatisfactory were its military provisions;
the frontier countries and even the valley of the Po(21) were
pillaged by barbarians, and bands of robbers made havoc in the
interior even of Asia Minor, Sicily, and Italy. The fleet even was
totally neglected; there was hardly any longer a Roman vessel of
war; and the war-vessels, which the subject cities were required to
build and maintain, were not sufficient, so that Rome was not only
absolutely unable to carry on a naval war, but was not even in a
position to check the trade of piracy. In Rome itself a number of
the most necessary improvements were left untouched, and the river-
buildings in particular were singularly neglected. The capital
still possessed no other bridge over the Tiber than the primitive
wooden gangway, which led over the Tiber island to the Janiculum;
the Tiber was still allowed to lay the streets every year under
water, and to demolish houses and in fact not unfrequently whole
districts, without anything being done to strengthen the banks;
mighty as was the growth of transmarine commerce, the roadstead
of Ostia - already by nature bad - was allowed to become more and
more sanded up. A government, which under the most favourable
circumstances and in an epoch of forty years of peace abroad and
at home neglected such duties, might easily allow taxes to fall
into abeyance and yet obtain an annual surplus of income over
expenditure and a considerable reserve; but such a financial
administration by no means deserves commendation for its mere
semblance of brilliant results, but rather merits the same censure -
in respect of laxity, want of unity in management, mistaken
flattery of the people - as falls to be brought in every other
sphere of political life against the senatorial government
of this epoch.

The Finances in the Revolution

The financial condition of Rome of course assumed a far worse
aspect, when the storms of revolution set in. The new and, even in
a mere financial point of view, extremely oppressive burden imposed
upon the state by the obligation under which Gaius Gracchus placed
it to furnish corn at nominal rates to the burgesses of the
capital, was certainly counterbalanced at first by the newly-opened
sources of income in the province of Asia. Nevertheless the public
buildings seem from that time to have almost come to a standstill.
While the public works which can be shown to have been constructed
from the battle of Pydna down to the time of Gaius Gracchus were
numerous, from the period after 632 there is scarcely mention of
any other than the projects of bridges, roads, and drainage which
Marcus Aemilius Scaurus organized as censor in 645. It must remain
a moot point whether this was the effect of the largesses of grain
or, as is perhaps more probable, the consequence of the system of
increased savings, such as befitted a government which became daily
more and more a rigid oligarchy, and such as is indicated by the
statement that the Roman reserve reached its highest point in 663.
The terrible storm of insurrection and revolution, in combination
with the five years' deficit of the revenues of Asia Minor, was the
first serious trial to which the Roman finances were subjected
after the Hannibalic war: they failed to sustain it. Nothing
perhaps so clearly marks the difference of the times as the
circumstance that in the Hannibalic war it was not till the tenth
year of the struggle, when the burgesses were almost sinking under
taxation, that the reserve was touched;(22) whereas the Social war
was from the first supported by the balance in hand, and when this
was expended after two campaigns to the last penny, they preferred
to sell by auction the public sites in the capital(23) and to seize
the treasures of the temples(24) rather than levy a tax on the
burgesses. The storm however, severe as it was, passed over;
Sulla, at the expense doubtless of enormous economic sacrifices
imposed on the subjects and Italian revolutionists in particular,
restored order to the finances and, by abolishing the largesses of
corn and retaining although in a reduced form the Asiatic revenues,
secured for the commonwealth a satisfactory economic condition, at
least in the sense of the ordinary expenditure remaining far below
the ordinary income.

Private Economics

In the private economics of this period hardly any new feature
emerges; the advantages and disadvantages formerly set forth as
incident to the social circumstances of Italy(25) were not altered,
but merely farther and more distinctly developed. In agriculture
we have already seen that the growing power of Roman capital was
gradually absorbing the intermediate and small landed estates in
Italy as well as in the provinces, as the sun sucks up the drops of
rain. The government not only looked on without preventing, but
even promoted this injurious division of the soil by particular
measures, especially by prohibiting the production of wine and oil
beyond the Alps with a view to favour the great Italian landlords
and merchants.(26) It is true that both the opposition and the
section of the conservatives that entered into ideas of reform
worked energetically to counteract the evil; the two Gracchi, by
carrying out the distribution of almost the whole domain land, gave
to the state 80,000 new Italian farmers; Sulla, by settling 120,000
colonists in Italy, filled up at least in part the gaps which the
revolution and he himself had made in the ranks of the Italian
yeomen. But, when a vessel is emptying itself by constant efflux,
the evil is to be remedied not by pouring in even considerable
quantities, but only by the establishment of a constant influx -
a remedy which was on various occasions attempted, but not with
success. In the provinces, not even the smallest effort was made
to save the farmer class there from being bought out by the Roman
speculators; the provincials, forsooth, were merely men, and not a
party. The consequence was, that even the rents of the soil beyond
Italy flowed more and more to Rome. Moreover the plantation-
system, which about the middle of this epoch had already gained
the ascendant even in particular districts of Italy, such as Etruria,
had, through the co-operation of an energetic and methodical
management and abundant pecuniary resources, attained to a state
of high prosperity after its kind. The production of Italian wine
in particular, which was artificially promoted partly by the opening
of forced markets in a portion of the provinces, partly by the
prohibition of foreign wines in Italy as expressed for instance
in the sumptuary law of 593, attained very considerable results:
the Aminean and Falernian wine began to be named by the side of the
Thasian and Chian, and the "Opimian wine" of 633, the Roman vintage
"Eleven," was long remembered after the last jar was exhausted.


Of trades and manufactur es there is nothing to be said, except
that the Italian nation in this respect persevered in an inaction
bordering on barbarism. They destroyed the Corinthian factories,
the depositories of so many valuable industrial traditions - not
however that they might establish similar factories for themselves,
but that they might buy up at extravagant prices such Corinthian
vases of earthenware or copper and similar "antique works" as were
preserved in Greek houses. The trades that were still somewhat
prosperous, such as those connected with building, were productive
of hardly any benefit for the commonwealth, because here too the
system of employing slaves in every more considerable undertaking
intervened: in the construction of the Marcian aqueduct, for
instance, the government concluded contracts for building and
materials simultaneously with 3000 master-tradesmen, each of whom
then performed the work contracted for with his band of slaves.

Money-Dealing and Commerce

The most brilliant, or rather the only brilliant, side of Roman
private economics was money-dealing and commerce. First of all
stood the leasing of the domains and of the taxes, through which a
large, perhaps the larger, part of the income of the Roman state
flowed into the pockets of the Roman capitalists. The money-
dealings, moreover, throughout the range of the Roman state were
monopolized by the Romans; every penny circulated in Gaul, it is
said in a writing issued soon after the end of this period, passes
through the books of the Roman merchants, and so it was doubtless
everywhere. The co-operation of rude economic conditions and of
the unscrupulous employment of Rome's political ascendency for the
benefit of the private interests of every wealthy Roman rendered a
usurious system of interest universal, as is shown for example by
the treatment of the war-tax imposed by Sulla on the province of
Asia in 670, which the Roman capitalists advanced; it swelled with
paid and unpaid interest within fourteen years to sixfold its
original amount. The communities had to sell their public buildings,
their works of art and jewels, parents had to sell their grown-up
children, in order to meet the claims of the Roman creditor: it
was no rare occurrence for the debtor to be not merely subjected
to moral torture, but directly placed upon the rack. To these
sources of gain fell to be added the wholesale traffic. The exports
and imports of Italy were very considerable. The former consisted
chiefly of wine and oil, with which Italy and Greece almost
exclusively - for the production of wine in the Massiliot and
Turdetanian territories can at that time have been but small -
supplied the whole region of the Mediterranean; Italian wine was
sent in considerable quantities to the Balearic islands and
Celtiberia, to Africa, which was merely a corn and pasture country,
to Narbo and into the interior of Gaul. Still more considerable
was the import to Italy, where at that time all luxury was
concentrated, and whither most articles of luxury for food, drink,
or clothing, ornaments, books, household furniture, works of art
were imported by sea. The traffic in slaves, above all, received
through the ever-increasing demand of the Roman merchants an
impetus to which no parallel had been known in the region of the
Mediterranean, and which stood in the closest connection with the
flourishing of piracy. All lands and all nations were laid under
contribution for slaves, but the places where they were chiefly
captured were Syria and the interior of Asia Minor.(27)


In Italy the transmarine imports were chiefly concentrated in
the two great emporia on the Tyrrhene sea, Ostia and Puteoli.
The grain destined for the capital was brought to Ostia, which
was far from having a good roadstead, but, as being the nearest
port to Rome, was the most appropriate mart for less valuable wares;
whereas the traffic in luxuries with the east was directed mainly
to Puteoli, which recommended itself by its good harbour for ships
with valuable cargoes, and presented to merchants a market in its
immediate neighbourhood little inferior to that of the capital -
the district of Baiae, which came to be more and more filled with
villas. For a long time this latter traffic was conducted through
Corinth and after its destruction through Delos, and in this sense
accordingly Puteoli is called by Lucilius the Italian "Little Delos";
but after the catastrophe which befel Delos in the Mithradatic war,(28)
and from which it never recovered, the Puteolans entered into direct
commercial connections with Syria and Alexandria, and their city became
more and more decidedly the first seat of transmarine commerce in Italy.
But it was not merely the gain which was made by the Italian exports
and imports, that fell mainly to the Italians; at Narbo they competed
in the Celtic trade with the Massiliots, and in general it admits of
no doubt that the Roman merchants to be met with everywhere, floating
or settled, took to themselves the best share of all speculations.

Capitalist Oligarchy

Putting together these phenomena, we recognize as the most prominent
feature in the private economy of this epoch the financial oligarchy
of Roman capitalists standing alongside of, and on a par with,
the political oligarchy. In their hands were united the rents
of the soil of almost all Italy and of the best portions of
the provincial territory, the proceeds at usury of the capital
monopolized by them, the commercial gain from the whole empire,
and lastly, a very considerable part of the Roman state-revenue
in the form of profits accruing from the lease of that revenue.
The daily-increasing accumulation of capital is evident in the rise
of the average rate of wealth: 3,000,000 sesterces (30,000 pounds)
was now a moderate senatorial, 2,000,000 (20,000 pounds) was a decent
equestrian fortune; the property of the wealthiest man of the
Gracchan age, Publius Crassus consul in 623 was estimated at
100,000,000 sesterces (1,000,000 pounds). It is no wonder,
that this capitalist order exercised a preponderant influence
on external policy; that it destroyed out of commercial rivalry
Carthage and Corinth(29) as the Etruscans had formerly destroyed
Alalia and the Syracusans Caere; that it in spite of the senate
upheld the colony of Narbo.(30) It is likewise no wonder, that
this capitalist oligarchy engaged in earnest and often victorious
competition with the oligarchy of the nobles in internal politics.
But it is also no wonder, that ruined men of wealth put themselves

Online LibraryTheodor MommsenThe History of Rome, Book IV The Revolution → online text (page 39 of 50)