ANY examination of the economy in ancient times holds certain problems, but the main question is what exactly we mean by the early economies in Rome, and taking into account the extended period of time and the the changes which occurred, economies is a more apt term than the economy:
‘The half millennium that runs from the revolution of 509 to the beginning of the principate saw the transformation of the Roman state from a regional power into a world empire. Thus, to speak of the Roman economy in the singular is misleading, as there is little justification, other than the common denominator of the political institutions referred to as “republican”…’ (Aubert, J-J, The Republican Economy and Roman Law: Regulation, Promotion, or Reflection, in Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic, 160)
It would be self evident that the economy of Tudor England could not be taken as being the same as that of the United Kingdom in the 21st century; it must be seen as equally self evident that the economic structures and institutions of the 6th century are not those of the 1st century.
The one constant on an economic level is that the vast majority of the population were involved in working the land and the dependent agricultural industries ((Watson, Rome of the Twelve Tables, 1975: 157–165; Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome, 1995: 287)). However, the expansion in the empire over the period led to major upheavals on an economic basis as much as socially, politically and militarily: indeed, much of the evolution in these latter three areas was dictated by the economic situation at any given point. What makes this a particularly difficult area for the historian is the fact that the ancient writers did not pay any particular attention to the economic state of affairs, or at least not to the extent that we might wish. There is a lot of evidence which stems from archaeological research and findings, but there are still many areas where the modern historian must use a high level of interpretation to fill in the gaps in the very complex jigsaw of economic history over the Republican period.
One key area which helps in the understanding of when the economy was successful is the amount of public building which took place. The great periods of the construction of massive public buildings show levels of major success, often after the income of huge amounts of booty and plunder subsequent to a military campaign, whereas times of fiscal stress show a limited level of such public works and on a much decreased scale in size as well as quality.
As has been stated above, the level of employment in agriculture was extremely high in all ancient cultures; Garnsey and Woolf (Patronage of the Rural Poor in the Roman World, 1989) estimate it as high as 80% of the populace. This has one immediate impact on our understanding: the rural poor left very few if any inscriptions, monuments or even meaningful graffitied vandalism which give us insights into their role into the daily life of the peasant class. Even through the writings of Cato and Varro, we get little insight into the life of those whom they chose to regard as the underclass of society and therefore outside of their consideration. Both Varro (1.10.2) and Pliny the Elder (Nat. Hist. 18) report that the followers of Romulus were the recipients of a land grant of 2 iugera (approx/ 0.5 hectare), though other than hinting that such would likely be the expected land holding in the time of the kings, there is little else we can glean from this. It again emphasises the importance of looking into the archaeological evidence which is available to us and the necessity of concentrating on the economic consequences of the distribution of the ager publicus either as direct land grants, territory seized and occupied by the aristocracy and their clientelae, Roman coloniae, Latin coloniae or its use by the state to increase the coffers. The problems caused by such have been examined above with regard to the land production and the inability of the proletarii either to keep possession of their lands or to expand the amount of land which they occupied and the laws of the Early Republic passed in order to soften the impact of the seizures by the oligarchs, and thereafter presumably worked by the proletarii as a form of rent. As such, this chapter will look at the economic developments from the Middle to Late Republic.
The difficulties faced by the peasantry are easy to see when one looks at the cases across the whole Mediterranean basin in ancient times, and there is no reason to doubt that these would have been as pertinent to Roman peasants as the were to Egyptian or Hellenic people of the same class. They survived at or around a subsistence level, relying on the crops produced on their small stretches of land. A poor crop, for whatever reason, be that as major as a natural disaster or as apparently insignificant as a couple of escaped goats, could make the difference between having a good year and hence survival, or a bad year and the consequences which such might bring. In the earliest periods in times of difficulty, peasants would first turn to their kin or to their fellows in their village for aid, be that labour or seed grain, a relationship which would be symbiotic in that the neighbour would be able to rely on such assistance from their neighbours when required. The reality that everyone in this situation would face times of success and times of extreme difficulty mean that this sort of relationship of mutual aid would undoubtedly be the norm. This would further be advantageous in constructing a sense of solidarity in communities, not just amongst those who were blood relations or related by marriage, but amongst the whole community and all its members.
However, as de Ligt states:
“Whatever view of landholding patterns in early republican Rome we prefer to take, the existence of a substantial group of poor peasants is implied by the persistent tradition that rural indebtedness was a major social problem in fifth- and fourth-century Rome.” (in Greek Democracy, Roman Republic, 2015, 370)
As the situation grew and evolved, however, there would inevitably have been those who rose above the others, either through better harvests from more fruitful land or more particularly by being the protectors when the community was under threat. The original horizontal associations within the more primitive community would subsequently begin to break down and a level of vertical bonds within the social structure would begin to develop. It would be through such that a system of patronage would begin to develop, and it is this patron – client system which was to become a major factor in the economic and political development of the Roman state. Where the rich developed power, there was the consequence that the poor would be obliged to turn to them in times of need; they it would be who had the resources to supply the needs of those under them, be that in terms of food, protection or loans of such things as oxen for ploughing or the tools needed. As the influence of the leading citizens grew, so did the influence which they held and the reliance of the poor on their patronage, though evidently something which was not to go unreciprocated. In some societies, such as Egypt, this developed into a strict hierarchical society with each person holding his place in that pyramid and where the horizontal bonds between the rich and the poor were governed in a way that, in very general terms, implied that the rich had a duty to protect the poor in accordance with Ma’at. (In simplistic terms, Ma’at meant ‘good order’ and was the primary requirement for the success and survival of a society, particularly that of Egypt: Ma’at balanced Chaos, which was anathema for Egyptians. They went so far as to give Ma’at and Chaos divine incarnations in the form of the goddess Ma’at and the god Sutekh (Set).) In Roman society, however, this was to take a different idea through the institution of the Republic as opposed to the absolute theocracy which existed in Egypt, and this was the catalyst for the patron – client system.
As Finley has pointed out (The Ancient Economy, London, 1985, 66-69) the system at Rome was not, as in Egypt, based upon a state of dependency of the peasants on the rich (though a certain level of such dependency must at times have existed). Dependency is something which is imposed externally and has consequences under law for those who do not fulfil the requirements; indeed, the situation of those dependent is in many ways little different from the situation of a slave, as Caesar points out in reference to Gaul. (The Gallic Wars, 6.13) The relationship at Rome was voluntary, following an almost unwritten contract, and was reciprocal, though through differing forms of support and assistance. The fact that the landowning was to a great extent broader than in many areas of contemporary societies comes from the military – the requisite lands required to serve in the legions was set. The number of soldiers who must have been in the legions in even the earliest days of the Republic such that the recorded military campaigns were carried out successfully dictates that the small to medium land holders were high. The question of the ager publicus, however, shows that the land holdings were still in no way a level of parity – as early as the lex Licinia de modo agrorum of 367BC, the limits of land that could legally be held was restricted to 500 iugera, though this was in practice often ignored. The economic difficulties that this would eventually present were offset as far as approximately 240 BC through the new lands brought in by the expanding land conquests, often highly fertile lands such as Campania. The coloniae that were set up expanded the economic bases that underpinned the Republic, either through citizen or Latin occupation as they both paid the requisite taxes and served in the legions post the enfranchisement of a great number of Latins in 338 BC.
As the population grew, the level of underemployment within the agricultural workforce must have been a major difficulty, particularly where large tracts of land were occupied by the rich and powerful, those who feely absorbed the ager publicus into their estates and then worked theses massive holdings with a slave labour force. This was a consistent problem – it was the viewing of such during a return from a tour of duty that brought Gaius Gracchus to the conclusion that a land redistribution was an immediate necessity when he became tribune in 123BC.
Part II to follow.