They allowed the burgesses to become habituated to the dangerous idea that they were legally exempt from the payment of direct taxes even by way of advance--after the war with Perseus no further advance had been asked from the community. They allowed their military system to decay rather than compel the burgesses to enter the odious transmarine service; how it fared with the individual magistrates who attempted to carry out the conscription according to the strict letter of the law, has already been related.(4)

Optimates And Populares

In the Rome of this epoch the two evils of a degenerate oligarchy and a democracy still undeveloped but already cankered in the bud were interwoven in a manner pregnant with fatal results. According to their party names, which were first heard during this period, the "Optimates" wished to give effect to the will of the best, the "Populares" to that of the community; but in fact there was in the Rome of that day neither a true aristocracy nor a truly self-determining community. Both parties contended alike for shadows, and numbered in their ranks none but enthusiasts or hypocrites. Both were equally affected by political corruption, and both were in fact equally worthless. Both were necessarily tied down to the status quo, for neither on the one side nor on the other was there found any political idea--to say nothing of any political plan--reaching beyond the existing state of things; and accordingly the two parties were so entirely in agreement that they met at every step as respected both means and ends, and a change of party was a change of political tactics more than of political sentiments. The commonwealth would beyond doubt have been a gainer, if either the aristocracy had directly introduced a hereditary rotation instead of election by the burgesses, or the democracy had produced from within it a real demagogic government. But these Optimates and these Populares of the beginning of the seventh century were far too indispensable for eachother to wage such internecine war; they not only could not destroy each other, but, even if they had been able to do so, they would not have been willing. Meanwhile the commonwealth was politically and morally more and more unhinged, and was verging towards utter disorganization.

Social Crisis

The crisis with which the Roman revolution was opened arose not out of this paltry political conflict, but out of the economic and social relations which the Roman government allowed, like everything else, simply to take their course, and which thus found opportunity to bring the morbid matter, that had been long fermenting, without hindrance and with fearful rapidity and violence to maturity. From a very early period the Roman economy was based on the two factors --always in quest of each other, and always at variance--the husbandry of the small farmer and the money of the capitalist. The latter in the closest alliance with landholding on a great scale had already for centuries waged against the farmer-class a war, which seemed as though it could not but terminate in the destruction first of the farmers and thereafter of the whole commonwealth, but was broken off without being properly decided in consequence of the successful wars and the comprehensive and ample distribution of domains for which these wars gave facilities. It has already been shown(5) that in the same age, which renewed the distinction between patricians and plebeians under altered names, the disproportionate accumulation of capital was preparing a second assault on the farming system. It is true that the method was different. Formerly the small farmer had been ruined by advances of money, which practically reduced him to be the steward of his creditor; now he was crushed by the competition of transmarine, and especially of slave-grown, corn. The capitalists kept pace with the times; capital, while waging war against labour or in other words against the liberty of the person, of course, as it had always done, under the strictest form of law, waged it no longer in the unseemly fashion which converted the free man on account of debt into a slave, but, throughout, with slaves legitimately bought and paid; the former usurer of the capital appeared in a shape conformable to the times as the owner of industrial plantations. But the ultimate result was in both cases the same--the depreciation of the Italian farms; the supplanting of the petty husbandry, first in a part of the provinces and then in Italy, by the farming of large estates; the prevailing tendency to devote the latter in Italy to the rearing of cattle and the culture of the olive and vine; finally, the replacing of the free labourers in the provinces as in Italy by slaves. Just as the nobility was more dangerous than the patriciate, because the former could not, like the latter, be set aside by a change of the constitution; so this new power of capital was more dangerous than that of the fourth and fifth centuries, because nothing was to be done against it by changes in the law of the land.

Slavery And Its Consequences

Before we attempt to describe the course of this second great conflict between labour and capital, it is necessary to give here some indication of the nature and extent of the system of slavery. We have not now to do with the old, in some measure innocent, rural slavery, under which the farmer either tilled the field along with his slave, or, if he possessed more land than he could manage, placed the slave--either as steward or as a sort of lessee obliged to render up a portion of the produce--over a detached farm.(6) Such relations no doubt existed at all times--around Comum, for instance, they were still the rule in the time of the empire--but as exceptional features in privileged districts and on humanely-managed estates. What we now refer to is the system of slavery on a great scale, which in the Roman state, as formerly in the Carthaginian, grew out of the ascendency of capital. While the captives taken in war and the hereditary transmission of slavery sufficed to keep up the stock of slaves during the earlier period, this system of slavery was, just like that of America, based on the methodically-prosecuted hunting of man; for, owing to the manner in which slaves were used with little regard to their life or propagation, the slave population was constantly on the wane, and even the wars which were always furnishing fresh masses to the slave-market were not sufficient to cover the deficit. No country where this species of game could be hunted remained exempt from visitation; even in Italy it was a thing by no means unheard of, that the poor freeman was placed by his employer among the slaves. But the Negroland of that period was western Asia,(7) where the Cretan and Cilician corsairs, the real professional slave-hunters and slave- dealers, robbed the coasts of Syria and the Greek islands; and where, emulating their feats, the Roman revenue-farmers instituted human hunts in the client states and incorporated those whom they captured among their slaves.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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