Influence Of The Extension Of The Roman Dominion In Elevating The Farmer-Class
A more effectual relief than any which the government was willing or able to give was derived by the middle classes from the political successes of the Roman community and the gradual consolidation of the Roman sovereignty over Italy. The numerous and large colonies which it was necessary to found for the securing of that sovereignty, the greater part of which were sent forth in the fifth century, furnished a portion of the agricultural proletariate with farms of their own, while the efflux gave relief to such as remained at home. The increase of the indirect and extraordinary sources of revenue, and the flourishing condition of the Roman finances in general, rendered it but seldom necessary to levy any contribution from the farmers in the form of a forced loan. While the earlier small holdings were probably lost beyond recovery, the rising average of Roman prosperity must have converted the former larger landholders into farmers, and in so far added new members to the middle class. People of rank sought principally to secure the large newly-acquired districts for occupation; the mass of wealth which flowed to Rome through war and commerce must have reduced the rate of interest; the increase in the population of the capital benefited the farmer throughout Latium; a wise system of incorporation united a number of neighbouring and formerly subject communities with the Roman state, and thereby strengthened especially the middle class; finally, the glorious victories and their mighty results silenced faction. If the distress of the farmers was by no means removed and still less were its sources stopped, it yet admits of no doubt that at the close of this period the Roman middle class was on the whole in a far less oppressed condition than in the first century after the expulsion of the kings.
Lastly civic equality was in a certain sense undoubtedly attained or rather restored by the reform of 387, and the development of its legitimate consequences. As formerly, when the patricians still in fact formed the burgesses, these had stood upon a footing of absolute equality in rights and duties, so now in the enlarged burgess-body there existed in the eye of the law no arbitrary distinctions. The gradations to which differences of age, sagacity, cultivation, and wealth necessarily give rise in civil society, naturally also pervaded the sphere of public life; but the spirit animating the burgesses and the policy of the government uniformly operated so as to render these differences as little conspicuous as possible. The whole system of Rome tended to train up her burgesses on an average as sound and capable, but not to bring into prominence the gifts of genius. The growth of culture among the Romans did not at all keep pace with the development of the power of their community, and it was instinctively repressed rather than promoted by those in power. That there should be rich and poor, could not be prevented; but (as in a genuine community of farmers) the farmer as well as the day-labourer personally guided the plough, and even for the rich the good economic rule held good that they should live with uniform frugality and above all should hoard no unproductive capital at home--excepting the salt-cellar and the sacrificial ladle, no silver articles were at this period seen in any Roman house. Nor was this of little moment. In the mighty successes which the Roman community externally achieved during the century from the last Veientine down to the Pyrrhic war we perceive that the patriciate has now given place to the farmers; that the fall of the highborn Fabian would have been not more and not less lamented by the whole community than the fall of the plebeian Decian was lamented alike by plebeians and patricians; that the consulate did not of itself fall even to the wealthiest aristocrat; and that a poor husbandman from Sabina, Manius Curius, could conquer king Pyrrhus in the field of battle and chase him out of Italy, without ceasing to be a simple Sabine farmer and to cultivate in person his own bread-corn.
In regard however to this imposing republican equality we must not overlook the fact that it was to a considerable extent only formal, and that an aristocracy of a very decided stamp grew out of it or rather was contained in it from the very first. The non-patrician families of wealth and consideration had long ago separated from the plebs, and leagued themselves with the patriciate in the participation of senatorial rights and in the prosecution of a policy distinct from that of the plebs and very often counteracting it. The Licinian laws abrogated the legal distinctions within the ranks of the aristocracy, and changed the character of the barrier which excluded the plebeian from the government, so that it was no longer a hindrance unalterable in law, but one, not indeed insurmountable, but yet difficult to be surmounted in practice. In both ways fresh blood was mingled with the ruling order in Rome; but in itself the government still remained, as before, aristocratic. In this respect the Roman community was a genuine farmer-commonwealth, in which the rich holder of a whole hide was little distinguished externally from the poor cottager and held intercourse with him on equal terms, but aristocracy nevertheless exercised so all-powerful a sway that a man without means far sooner rose to be master of the burgesses in the city than mayor in his own village. It was a very great and valuable gain, that under the new legislation even the poorest burgess might fill the highest office of the state; nevertheless it was a rare exception when a man from the lower ranks of the population reached such a position,(11) and not only so, but probably it was, at least towards the close of this period, possible only by means of an election carried by the opposition.
Every aristocratic government of itself calls forth a corresponding opposition party; and as the formal equalization of the orders only modified the aristocracy, and the new ruling order not only succeeded the old patriciate but engrafted itself on it and intimately coalesced with it, the opposition also continued to exist and in all respects pursued a similar course.