The new domain-arrangement, by granting the right of driving very considerable flocks and herds upon the public pastures, and that of occupying domain-land not laid out in pasture up to a maximum fixed on a high scale, conceded to the wealthy an important and perhaps even disproportionate prior share in the produce of the domains; and by the latter regulation conferred upon the domain-tenure, although it remained in law liable to pay a tenth and revocable at pleasure, as well as upon the system of occupation itself, somewhat of a legal sanction. It was a circumstance still more suspicious, that the new legislation neither supplemented the existing and manifestly unsatisfactory provisions for the collection of the pasture-money and the tenth by compulsory measures of a more effective kind, nor prescribed any thorough revision of the domanial possessions, nor appointed a magistracy charged with the carrying of the new laws into effect. The distribution of the existing occupied domain-land partly among the holders up to a fair maximum, partly among the plebeians who had no property, in both cases in full ownership; the abolition in future of the system of occupation; and the institution of an authority empowered to make immediate distribution of any future acquisitions of territory, were so clearly demanded by the circumstances of the case, that it certainly was not through want of discernment that these comprehensive measures were neglected. We cannot fail to recollect that it was the plebeian aristocracy, in other words, a portion of the very class that was practically privileged in respect to the usufructs of the domains, which proposed the new arrangement, and that one of its very authors, Gaius Licinius Stolo, was among the first to be condemned for having exceeded the agrarian maximum; and we cannot but ask whether the legislators dealt altogether honourably, and whether they did not on the contrary designedly evade a solution, really tending to the common benefit, of the unhappy question of the domains. We do not mean, however, to express any doubt that the regulations of the Licinian laws, such as they were, might and did substantially benefit the small farmer and the day-labourer. It must, moreover, be acknowledged that in the period immediately succeeding the passing of the law the authorities watched with at least comparative strictness over the observance of its rules as to the maximum, and frequently condemned the possessors of large herds and the occupiers of the domains to heavy fines.

Laws Imposing Taxes-- Laws Of Credit

In the system of taxation and of credit also efforts were made with greater energy at this period than at any before or subsequent to it to remedy the evils of the national economy, so far as legal measures could do so. The duty levied in 397 of five per cent on the value of slaves that were to be manumitted was--irrespective of the fact that it imposed a check on the undesirable multiplication of freedmen--the first tax in Rome that was really laid upon the rich. In like manner efforts were made to remedy the system of credit. The usury laws, which the Twelve Tables had established,(9) were renewed and gradually rendered more stringent, so that the maximum of interest was successively lowered from 10 per cent (enforced in 397) to 5 per cent (in 407) for the year of twelve months, and at length (412) the taking of interest was altogether forbidden. The latter foolish law remained formally in force, but, of course, it was practically inoperative; the standard rate of interest afterwards usual, viz. 1 per cent per month, or 12 per cent for the civil common year--which, according to the value of money in antiquity, was probably at that time nearly the same as, according to its modern value, a rate of 5 or 6 per cent--must have been already about this period established as the maximum of appropriate interest. Any action at law for higher rates must have been refused, perhaps even judicial claims for repayment may have been allowed; moreover notorious usurers were not unfrequently summoned before the bar of the people and readily condemned by the tribes to heavy fines. Still more important was the alteration of the procedure in cases of debt by the Poetelian law (428 or 441). On the one hand it allowed every debtor who declared on oath his solvency to save his personal freedom by the cession of his property; on the other hand it abolished the former summary proceedings in execution on a loan-debt, and laid down the rule that no Roman burgess could be led away to bondage except upon the sentence of jurymen.

Continued Distress

It is plain that all these expedients might perhaps in some respects mitigate, but could not remove, the existing economic disorders. The continuance of the distress is shown by the appointment of a bank-commission to regulate the relations of credit and to provide advances from the state-chest in 402, by the fixing of legal payment by instalments in 407, and above all by the dangerous popular insurrection about 467, when the people, unable to obtain new facilities for the payment of debts, marched out to the Janiculum, and nothing but a seasonable attack by external enemies, and the concessions contained in the Hortensian law,(10) restored peace to the community. It is, however, very unjust to reproach these earnest attempts to check the impoverishment of the middle class with their inadequacy. The belief that it is useless to employ partial and palliative means against radical evils, because they only remedy them in part, is an article of faith never preached unsuccessfully by baseness to simplicity, but it is none the less absurd. On the contrary, we may ask whether the vile spirit of demagogism had not even thus early laid hold of this matter, and whether expedients were really needed so violent and dangerous as, for example, the deduction of the interest paid from the capital. Our documents do not enable us to decide the question of right or wrong in the case. But we recognize clearly enough that the middle class of freeholders still continued economically in a perilous and critical position; that various endeavours were made by those in power to remedy it by prohibitory laws and by respites, but of course in vain; and that the aristocratic ruling class continued to be too weak in point of control over its members, and too much entangled in the selfish interests of its order, to relieve the middle class by the only effectual means at the disposal of the government--the entire and unreserved abolition of the system of occupying the state-lands--and by that course to free the government from the reproach of turning to its own advantage the oppressed position of the governed.

From the Abolition of the Monarchy in Rome to the Union of Italy Page 26

Italian Authors

Italian Books

Free Books in the public domain from the Classic Literature Library ©

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

All Pages of This Book