The state gradually put all its indirect revenues and all its more complicated payments and transactions into the hands of middlemen, who gave or received a round sum and then managed the matter for their own benefit. Of course only considerable capitalists and, as the state looked strictly to tangible security, in the main only large landholders, could enter into such engagements: and thus there grew up a class of tax-farmers and contractors, who, in the rapid growth of their wealth, in their power over the state to which they appeared to be servants, and in the absurd and sterile basis of their moneyed dominion, quite admit of comparison with the speculators on the stock exchange of the present day.

Public Land

The concentrated aspect assumed by the administration of finance showed itself first and most palpably in the treatment of the public lands, which tended almost directly to accomplish the material and moral annihilation of the middle classes. The use of the public pasture and of the state-domains generally was from its very nature a privilege of burgesses; formal law excluded the plebeian from the joint use of the common pasture. As however, apart from the conversion of the public land into private property or its assignation, Roman law knew no fixed rights of usufruct on the part of individual burgesses to be respected like those of property, it depended solely on the pleasure of the king, so long as the public land remained such, to grant and to define its joint enjoyment; and it is not to be doubted that he frequently made use of his right, or at least his power, as to this matter in favour of plebeians. But on the introduction of the republic the principle was again strictly insisted on, that the use of the common pasture belonged in law merely to the burgess of best right, or in other words to the patrician; and, though the senate still as before allowed exceptions in favour of the wealthy plebeian houses represented in it, the small plebeian landholders and the day-labourers, who stood most in need of the common pasture, had its joint enjoyment injuriously withheld from them. Moreover there had hitherto been paid for the cattle driven out on the common pasture a grazing-tax, which was moderate enough to make the right of using that pasture still be regarded as a privilege, and yet yielded no inconsiderable revenue to the public purse. The patrician quaestors were now remiss and indulgent in levying it, and gradually allowed it to fall into desuetude. Hitherto, particularly when new domains were acquired by conquest, allocations of land had been regularly arranged, in which all the poorer burgesses and --metoeci-- were provided for; it was only the land which was not suitable for agriculture that was annexed to the common pasture. The ruling class did not venture wholly to give up such assignations, and still less to propose them merely in favour of the rich; but they became fewer and scantier, and were replaced by the pernicious system of occupation-that is to say, the cession of domain-lands, not in property or under formal lease for a definite term, but in special usufruct until further notice, to the first occupant and his heirs-at-law, so that the state was at any time entitled to resume them, and the occupier had to pay the tenth sheaf, or in oil and wine the fifth part of the produce, to the exchequer. This was simply the -precarium- already described(2) applied to the state-domains, and may have been already in use as to the public land at an earlier period, particularly as a temporary arrangement until its assignation should be carried out. Now, however, not only did this occupation-tenure become permanent, but, as was natural, none but privileged persons or their favourites participated, and the tenth and fifth were collected with the same negligence as the grazing-money. A threefold blow was thus struck at the intermediate and smaller landholders: they were deprived of the common usufructs of burgesses; the burden of taxation was increased in consequence of the domain revenues no longer flowing regularly into the public chest; and those land-allocations were stopped, which had provided a constant outlet for the agricultural proletariate somewhat as a great and well-regulated system of emigration would do at the present day. To these evils was added the farming on a large scale, which was probably already beginning to come into vogue, dispossessing the small agrarian clients, and in their stead cultivating the estates by rural slaves; a blow, which was more difficult to avert and perhaps more pernicious than all those political usurpations put together. The burdensome and partly unfortunate wars, and the exorbitant taxes and task-works to which these gave rise, filled up the measure of calamity, so as either to deprive the possessor directly of his farm and to make him the bondsman if not the slave of his creditor-lord, or to reduce him through encumbrances practically to the condition of a temporary lessee of his creditor. The capitalists, to whom a new field was here opened of lucrative speculation unattended by trouble or risk, sometimes augmented in this way their landed property; sometimes they left to the farmer, whose person and estate the law of debt placed in their hands, nominal proprietorship and actual possession. The latter course was probably the most common as well as the most pernicious; for while utter ruin might thereby be averted from the individual, this precarious position of the farmer, dependent at all times on the mercy of his creditor--a position in which he knew nothing of property but its burdens--threatened to demoralise and politically to annihilate the whole farmer-class. The intention of the legislator, when instead of mortgaging he prescribed the immediate transfer of the property to the creditor with a view to prevent insolvency and to devolve the burdens of the state on the real holders of the soil,(3) was evaded by the rigorous system of personal credit, which might be very suitable for merchants, but ruined the farmers.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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