As many of us have noted (loudly and often), centralization is the executioner of liberty and prosperity. That truth is seen very clearly in the history of Rome.
Continued from last week…
THE ECONOMIC FALL OF ROME
This slave economy was a crucial factor in the fall of Rome. Rome's reserves increased steadily through foreign conquests. (They quadrupled between 200 B.C. and 70 B.C., for example, then doubled again in the 60s B.C.) Under the Empire, the city of Rome was highly subsidized, with roughly 15 to 25 percent of its grain supply being paid by the central government. Julius Caesar found 320,000 beneficiaries in Rome – one in three. Claudius (41-54) had 200,000 heads of families getting free wheat. Commerce and industry played small roles; the economy was based upon conquest and upon agriculture, and other forms of commercial activity were looked down upon.
The nobility of Rome were excluded from commerce by law. This kept a great deal of capital and talent out of commerce and drove the nobles to build ever-larger farms, if they wanted to increase their personal surplus. (The elegant monetary ethic of earlier times was overrun during the Empire by a need to impress.) This, of course, required a continual supply of new slaves. Obtaining more slaves, however, required more conquest. Rome was now dependent upon plunder to keep the system going. This was not sustainable, and all the Romans who wished to know, knew. The others kept their minds closed and pretended that all things would continue as they had been.
During the earlier years of the Empire (31 B.C. into the 3rd century A.D.) Rome kept its citizens happy with plunder from the new provinces (especially slaves) and with very low taxation. But this can be done only so long as plunder from the provinces keeps coming in. After centuries of expansion, Rome eventually reached its limit and further expansion cost more than it gained. Then, the entire operation ceased its effectiveness.
One surprising fact is that Rome was able to retain elements of its moral core for quite some time. It occupied a great deal of 'mental territory' among its subjects. The standard mode of conquest in those days was to lay siege to an opponent city, surrounding it and burning or invading it. Almost inevitably, someone would open the gates of the opposing city, usually for a bribe. No one ever opened the gates of Rome, even while under terrific siege. The Roman symbol was the fascio, a bundle of sticks bound together into an unbreakable whole. This allegory had evidently taken deep root, and the people bought into the idea that they, like the sticks, could remain together and become supremely strong. During those years, no one ever left the bundle to open the gates.
But, as was inevitable, once Rome could no longer extend its frontiers the operation rotted where it stood. It did not rot instantly, however. Economic problems began first, as the treasury ran low on funds and the Emperors began to mix base metals into their silver coins. This, as always, created inflation and led to economic depression.
Government efforts to overcome economic depression led to a much larger government bureaucracy and tax burden. This fell primarily upon landlords, because commercial activity was shrinking and because the landlords were stationary. Merchants could avoid the tax-gatherer; landowners could not. The landowners were clever people, however, and did develop a method of avoiding taxes, by saying that their tenants had moved along in search of better wages1. To counter, the Senate passed laws that tied the tenant farmers (called coloni) to their tenancies and made them hereditary. Thus the coloni and their children were tied to the land, and the landlord could no longer avoid taxation.
Because of this relationship, the coloni came to look to the landlords for protection and to settle their disputes. As the government became weaker and more distant, the landlords became more powerful. Laws were passed to stop this process, but they were not enforced. As the Empire withdrew, the landlords became the last vestiges of government.
THE PATH TO CENTRALIZED POWER
As explained earlier, a great strength of the Roman Republic was that it was decentralized. Power and responsibilities were shared among many groups and no one of them could ruin the entire operation. The family was the core of the structure of Rome, which created this decentralized structure. This was successful for hundreds of years. This went far beyond the virtue of "having a stake in the game." They were bound by tradition, and the tradition was: Work the land, fight for your country, go back to working the land. Expand your holdings. Make Rome wealthier. Your family will profit thereby. This worked for three hundred years. If you owned property, you were a citizen, you had rights, and you served in the army when needed.
During these years, the army was comprised solely of Roman citizens. Then, as the Republic expanded, more soldiers were necessary and there simply weren't enough citizens. In 100 B.C., Marius opened membership to the masses (called the capiti censi, which literally meant, "the headcount"). So, non-citizens enrolled in the Army, and they did so for future benefits, which was a radically different motivation from the self-sovereignty and responsibility that moved the Roman citizen. These new recruits trusted their General to secure benefits for them, and that was the end of the matter. The exchange was not dishonest, but it did centralize power into the hands of officials and took it away from the citizens.
It must be added that this had a further degrading effect upon the idea of Rome itself. The citizens, like their fathers and grandfathers long before them, saw themselves as self-sovereigns, cooperating together in a sensible structure. But the masses – who were now users of force – generally had little understanding of the root of Rome, but had loyalty only to the General who secured their benefits. They took the payout, while the old citizens talked on about concepts that seemed old and silly to them.
Another issue was that the army had political power. Non-citizens with political power could enforce commands upon the citizens, at least when acting in concert with other political groups. In other words, people with no stake in the game could now dictate policy. They could vote themselves food and favors, which would be paid for by others, which, soon enough, they did. Again, this took surplus away from the citizen families and put it under the control of the central state. Surplus began flowing away from the farms, where it could be used productively, and into the hands of the political class, where it would be used to buy favors. This removed investment capital from the farms and caused grave economic problems. The farmer who wanted to make improvements had no excess to spend on them.
After the Second Punic War of 218-201 B.C., rich Romans began taking over large properties (called Latifundium) in the conquered provinces. This was crucial to them for attaining status. The wealth of a Senator was measured in his land. When the Censor examined the Senate and expunged those who were not wealthy enough – as happened from time to time – it was based on the amount of land owned by the Senator's family. So, obtaining large tracts of land became important in retaining one's rank in the aristocracy. And obtaining lands from conquest required friends in the central structure of the state. Those who wished for status had nothing to gain from the noble, scattered farmers, but they had much to gain from the state. And so they championed the state, and especially their friends within the state. Again, power passed away from the distributed farms and to offices in the city of Rome.
The constitution of the Republic was built around a separation of powers and checks and balances, often taking the form of a struggle between the aristocracy and the average Roman. Over time, the laws that allowed the landed aristocracy to dominate the government were repealed, and the result was the emergence of a new aristocracy, which depended on political power, rather than tradition or law, to maintain its dominance. Thus, checks and balances vanished and power was transferred from distributed families into a centralized political state.
The collapse of the Roman Republic in the 1st century B.C. was largely due to the naked power that people like Caesar and Pompey could wield by having private armies at their back. Cicero lamented in a letter to Brutus:
We are made a mockery by the whims of soldiers and arrogance of generals. Everyone demands as much political power as the army at his back can deliver. Reason, moderation, law, tradition, duty count for nothing.
The reason, of course, was that moderation, law and tradition no longer had any bearing on the use of force. They may still have mattered to a majority of the citizens, but they didn't matter to the ruling classes. And by this time, the citizens had lost much of their power. They were talked to, far more than they were listened to.
Caesar was simply a realist who saw that only power really mattered. Tradition was for the workers in the fields, not for men of power. So, he consolidated military power, overcame the rest of Rome's armies and made himself dictator . Two centuries before, there would have been precious little power for Caesar to grab, but by the middle of the 1st century B.C. the central state had a huge amount of power, making it an irresistible target for him.
Upon Caesar's assassination in 44 B.C., his adopted son Octavian became his heir. Thirteen bloody years later, Octavian emerged as the first emperor, Augustus. With the Romans sick of internecine strife, he brilliantly maneuvered all power into his own hands, created a single army accountable only to the state and, because he kept institutions such as the consuls and Senate, he persuaded the Roman people that the traditional constitutional order had been restored. Many of the farmers wanted to believe that the old ways still mattered. They were wrong.
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To be continued…
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