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THERE WAS A TIME, NOT so very long ago, when the taunt was true that history was written as if it were a mere string of anecdotal biographies of great men. But for the last forty years the pendulum has been swinging so much in the other direction, that it has become necessary to enforce the lesson that the biographies of great men are, after all, a most important part of history. It is well to have conceptions of the streams of tendency and the typical developments of every age, but the blessed word "evolution" will not account for everything, and it is absurd to neglect the influence of the great personalities.
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Copyright © 2016 by Charles Oman
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THE LATER DAYS OF THE ROMAN REPUBLIC
FROM THE GRACCHI TO SULLA
THERE WAS A TIME, NOT so very long ago, when the taunt was true that history was written as if it were a mere string of anecdotal biographies of great men. But for the last forty years the pendulum has been swinging so much in the other direction, that it has become necessary to enforce the lesson that the biographies of great men are, after all, a most important part of history. It is well to have conceptions of the streams of tendency and the typical developments of every age, but the blessed word “evolution” will not account for everything, and it is absurd to neglect the influence of the great personalities.
Roman history in particular has been so much treated of late years as a mere example of constitutional growth and degeneration, or as a bundle of interesting administrative and legal details, that it seems not out of place to recall that other aspect of it which was more familiar to elder generations, and to look at it for a moment from the personal and biographical point of view, with Plutarch before us as well as Mommsen and Marquardt’s Stoatsrecht and Staatsverwaltung.
This is all the more rational because in the last century of the Roman Republic we find ourselves in a time of dominating personalities. In Rome’s earlier days this was conspicuously not the case, and her history was (as has been truly said) the history of great achievements done by men who were themselves not great. But from the Gracchi onward we come to a period in which individuals make and mar the course of the times, when the doings of a Sulla and a Caesar, or even of a Marius and a Pompey, form the main determining element in the history of the day.
From the end of the Second Punic War down to the time of the Gracchi, Roman history is very monotonous and uninteresting to the reader. It is little more than the record of the haphazard building up of an empire, by the unintentional and unsystematic conquest of various disconnected districts round the Mediterranean. The wars are uninteresting, because they are waged by men who are little more than names to us; the commander, be he a Plamininus or a Mummius, disappears from the historical stage when his consulship is over, and is lost to view once more in the ranks of an impersonal senate. Even the younger Scipio Africanus, who has to serve as a hero in these times for want of a better, soon palls upon us; he stays in our mind only as a vague impersonation of civic virtue and somewhat cold-blooded moderation.
After B.C. 133 all is different; at last we have living, interesting, individual men to deal with; the names of Tiberius Gracchus, or Sulla, or Caesar are not remembered merely as connected with files of laws or lists of battles. At the same time both the internal and the external history of Rome becomes of absorbing interest. Externally the question arises whether the sporadic and ill-compacted empire built up in the last hundred years shall endure, or whether it shall be swept away by the brute force of the Cimbri and Teutons, or carved in two by Mithradates. Looking at the growing imbecility of Roman generals in that day, and the growing deterioration of Roman armies, it is not too much to say that, but for the intervention of two great personalities, the Roman Empire might have been swept away. If Marius had not appeared, a few more generals like Mallius and Caepio would have let the Cimbri and Teutons into Central Italy, and the exploits of Alaric in A.D. 410 might have been perpetrated by his remote ancestors. Similarly, but for Sulla the Nearer East might perchance have passed back, seven hundred years before the appointed time, into the hands of Oriental rulers, and have shared the fate which overtook Hellenistic Babylon and Bactria, by losing its touch with Western civilization under a dynasty almost as thinly veneered with Greek culture as the Parthian Arsacidae or the Bactrian Scyths.
Internally the problems of Roman history during this period are quite as interesting. While the imperial city was fighting abroad, to maintain her existence and her suzerainty over the whole Mediterranean basin, she was being torn at home by a great constitutional struggle which pierced to the very roots of her being. This was the problem of determining with whom should reside for the future sovereignty, in the technical sense of the word, i.e. the actual supreme voice in the administration and law-making of the City and the Empire.
For the last two centuries there had existed a practical compromise between the theoretical omnipotence of the Public Assembly and the actual conduct of affairs by the Senate. This compromise was no longer possible, because Rome had developed from a city-state into an imperial state. Neither the Comitia nor the Senate was really competent to rule the new empire which they had acquired. If there was anything more preposterous than the theory of the Optimates (I mean that the government of the Roman world should be conducted by a small ring of narrow-minded noble families), it was certainly the opposite theory of the Democrats—that the mixed multitude of paupers and aliens into which the Comitia was fast degenerating, should supersede the senatorial oligarchy as administrators of the Empire, Complicated with this great constitutional question, as to where sovereignty should reside at Rome, were a number of social and economic questions, arising from the fact that the new commercial conditions of the Mediterranean world, which followed from the Roman conquests, were bringing about the ruin of the old farmer class which had for so many centuries formed the backbone of the state.
The details of the sporadic and never-ending wars in Spain, Macedonia, and the Hellenic East, which cover the period B.C. 200-140, hide the unwritten history of the most important changes in the social and economic conditions of Italy. In B.C. 200 Rome was still in the main a city-state of the old type, though she had already begun to acquire important transmarine domains. She was still a self-supporting agricultural community, feeding herself on home-grown corn. Moreover, she might still be described as a narrow-minded purely Italian town, little affected as yet, either in blood or in thought, by external influences. The elder Cato, with all his hard practical common sense, his stolidity, his passion for the life of the farm, and his contempt for the foreigner, was the typical Roman of that generation. By the last years of his old age he had seen a new world grow up, and complained that he was living in a city which he no longer understood.
For by B.C. 140 Rome was transformed. She was indubitably an imperial state, though she tried to shirk as long as possible the responsibilities of empire. Her population was no longer mainly a race of farmers dwelling on their own narrow acres; it was rapidly becoming divorced from the soil, and degenerating into a city-bred proletariat fed from abroad. Above all, Rome had to a large extent become cosmopolitan, having absorbed much Greek, or rather Greco-Asiatic, culture and philosophy, and still more of Hellenistic luxury and demoralization. The very blood of the people was getting largely diluted with a foreign strain, owing to the wholesale manumission of slaves.
While Rome had been transformed, her constitution remained perfectly unchanged, and the rude administrative machinery which had sufficed to manage a small community of farmers living close around the walls of the city, was being applied with a rigid and stupid formalism to the government of a widely extended empire.
Down to the Second Punic War, Rome had not acquired any provinces that tried very seriously her power to govern. Sicily and Sardinia were close at hand, in ready and constant communication with the city. They were actually visible from the headlands of Italy—mere broken off fragments of the peninsula. An order could without much difficulty reach them in a few days: the Senate and People could make their will felt by governors and generals in districts so close to themselves.
The serious trial of the old municipal system of government, as applicable to the administration of distant dependencies, came after the acquisition of the Carthaginian dominions in Spain at the end of the Second Punic War. Separated from Italy by the still unsubdued coast land of Southern Gaul, Spain could only be reached by a long sea voyage, which the Roman never loved, and which he rigidly eschewed at certain seasons of the year. The proconsuls in Spain got from the first a free hand such as no previous Roman governor had possessed.
It was a long time before any other provinces were added to the over-seas empire of the Senate and People. But at last they came, Macedonia and Africa both in 146, Asia in 133. It was the acquisition of these distant possessions that broke down the ancient power of the Senate to control the doings of the provincial magistrates. It was impossible to maintain a constant supervision over a governor at Gades, or Thessalonica, or Ephesus, or to get at him within any reasonable space of time. He had to be left very much to his own inspirations. It was but natural that the more ambitious proconsuls came to take advantage of this fact, and began to make or break treaties, to enter into wars, and to make conquests at their good pleasure. The Senate was sometimes provoked into disowning and annulling their doings, but not very often when it did, the reason was not always creditable—as witness the case of Mancinus at Numantia.
Roughly, then, it may be said that by the third quarter of the second century before Christ, Rome had acquired an empire, but refused to take up any of the responsibilities of empire. The Senate still wished to control everything, but they could no more do so efficiently, owing to the mere difficulties of geographical distance, than in the eighteenth century the East India Company’s directors could control Clive or Warren Hastings. The proconsuls, on the other hand, could govern, but each only for his short year of office, and the work of each successor generally (and often deliberately) undid the work of his predecessor.
The responsibilities of empire, of which we have made mention were, in the main, threefold. The first was to provide good government within the provinces; this the Roman Republic notoriously failed to secure. The constitution imposed on each conquered region, by the senatorial commission which drew up the lex province after its annexation, was often wisely designed and reasonable. But when once it was formulated, there was no proper machinery for modifying it in accordance with the necessities of the times, or even for seeing that the proconsul did not violate its spirit by arbitrary tampering with the edictum tralaticium, the supplementary code which he could issue and vary at his own pleasure. All through the second century the control of the Senate was growing weaker, and it seemed that the wish as well as the power to check misgovernment was disappearing. The natural result was that the type of proconsul steadily deteriorated, as the probability of impunity for abuse of authority grew greater. Expedients like the establishment of the special court De Bepetwndis for the repression of financial maladministration were practically useless. To be effective, it would have required an active public prosecutor, ready to investigate every returning magistrate’s record, and a bench of judges absolutely beyond the breath of suspicion. But Roman usage entrusted all prosecutions to private initiative, and the court which tried the accused was so much swayed by personal and party bias that from the first there were scandals in its working. When a condemnation did occur, it was generally whispered that the convicted magistrate was suffering for some old political escapade at home, rather than for mere maladministration abroad.
The second of the responsibilities of empire, which Rome seemed unable to discharge, was the duty of keeping the police of the high seas and suppressing piracy. This task had in earlier centuries been to some extent discharged by the old naval powers—Carthage in the west, Macedon and Egypt in the east. Rome had now destroyed Carthage and Macedon, and the Ptolemies had sunk into hopeless imbecility and decay. The Romans would not keep up a permanent national fleet, both because it was expensive, and because they themselves disliked the sea. Hence the Mediterranean swarmed with pirates in a way that had never before been seen. The poorer and wilder maritime races took to piracy en masse, and almost strangled commerce. The Balearic Islanders swept the western seas; the unsubdued Dalmatians, the Adriatic; the Cretans, the Aegean; the Pamphylians and Cilicians—the most numerous and reckless of all these bands—had almost taken possession of the waters of the Levant. Their pirate squadrons went out a hundred vessels strong, levied blackmail on whole regions, and often made descents on cities within the boundaries of the Roman empire. The Senate only resented their outrages by fits and starts. If they grew too insolent, a squadron was sometimes sent against them, but it was seldom composed of vessels equipped and manned from Italy. The ordinary method was to requisition a fleet from the maritime allies of the state, who rendered unwilling and inefficient service. Hence it came to pass that though many Roman expeditions had been sent against the pirates, and several commanders had celebrated triumphs over them, the evil was not removed, and the Mediterranean did not become really safe for imperial commerce till the great naval campaign of Pompey in B.C. 67.
The third great responsibility which the Romans assumed, when they annexed great and remote provinces, was that of protecting the civilized world from the outer barbarian. The conquests of Spain and Macedonia made them the neighbors of scores of wild tribes, whom the Carthaginians in the one and the kings of the house of Antigonus in the other peninsula had been wont to drive back and to keep in check. The Roman, their heir by right of conquest, discharged this duty very spasmodically and inefficiently. The main reason for this was the deep rooted dislike of distant and prolonged foreign service among the inhabitants of Italy. The people had comprehended, fifty years before, the need for universal conscription and long service in such crises as the Second Punic War. They could not see things in the same light when there was a call for troops to keep back Pseonian or Illyrian raids on Upper Macedon, or Lusitanian raids on Baetica. They grumbled and rioted every time that a new legion had to be raised. This made the Senate chary of calling out conscripts, or keeping them long on foreign service. But finally, the crisis always grew so dangerous that the hated levy had at last to be raised. Nothing can better illustrate the dislike of the Roman populace for the lingering and bloody wars of Spain, than the fact that twice in the middle years of the century (in 151 and in 138 B.C.) tribunes actually arrested and imprisoned consuls who persisted in enforcing the conscription, when public opinion was adverse to a new Spanish campaign. Yet the condition of the Roman borders in the Iberian peninsula was undoubtedly such that these levies were necessary. The Celtiberian and Lusitanian tribes were so warlike an turbulent that the frontier could never stand still. Raids had to be punished by retaliatory expeditions. The tribe that had been chastised would not remain quiet till it had been actually annexed; and so the process went on, for beyond each marauding clan lay another and a fiercer robber tribe. The whole peninsula was like the Africa and Waziri frontier of North-Western India at the present day, and by advancing their boundary-marks the Romans only changed the names of their enemies. There was no finality till the Atlantic was reached, and the last Galician and Oantabrian mountaineers maintained their ferocious independence till the days of Julius Caesar and Augustus.
The Roman world, in short, was badly governed and badly defended the provinces were steadily decreasing in wealth and resources from the moment that they were annexed. And since Italy and Rome herself were—as we shall see—tending to internal decay, though certain individual Romans and Italians were drawing huge profits from the newly acquired empire, the whole Mediterranean world seemed doomed to retrogression and collapse. It is possible that the Republic might have been demolished, if there had arisen against it any really formidable and well-equipped enemy. But the outer world was singularly destitute of strong men at this period. Jugurtha and Mithradates, in spite of all the trouble that they gave, were very third-rate personalities. And the one truly dangerous foe that marched against Rome during the last century of the Republic—the Cimbri and Teutons—represented mere brute force unguided by brains and strategy. At the last moment, when they had actually passed the Alps, they were annihilated by a general who possessed the art of improvising and handling a great army. It is curious to speculate what might have happened if not Marius, but some imbecile Optimate of the type of his predecessors Mallius and Caepio, had been in command at Aquae Sextiae or on the Raudian Plain. But Europe escaped the premature coming of the Dark Ages, and the black cloud of barbarism from the north having passed away, the men of the later Republic were left free to work out their own problems in their own unhappy way, in sedition, conspiracy, civil war, and proscription, till the coming of that great personality who showed the way—a bad way at the best—out of the hopeless deadlock into which Rome had fallen.
But ere Julius Caesar appeared there were not one but many Romans who saw well enough that the Roman world was out of joint, and tried, each in his more or less futile fashion, to set it right. With some of these statesmen it is our task to deal. Their successive biographies show well enough the course of the whole history of the later Republic; there is no gap between man and man; Sulla as a boy may have witnessed the violent end of Gains Gracchus Julius Caesar as a boy did certainly witness and well-nigh suffer in the proscriptions of Sulla. The seven lives between them completely cover the last century of Rome’s ancient regime.
BY THE THIRD QUARTER OF the second century before Christ, the contradiction between the new conditions of Roman life and the old forms of Roman government had grown so glaring, that even the conservative Roman mind saw that the present state of things could not endure much longer. The two problems which had forced themselves to the front needed solution. What was to be done to adapt the constitution to the new needs of empire?— Was the Senate or the Public Assembly to rule the world, and by what machinery? And, secondly, how was the state to deal with the unfortunate fact that the new commercial conditions of the Mediterranean countries, brought about by the Roman conquests, were beginning to ruin Italian agriculture and to thin out the farmers who formed the backbone of the old Roman race.
A single man was fated to bring forward both these questions, to formulate them in the most contentious shapes possible, to confuse their issues in the most inextricable fashion, and to leave a heritage of strife behind him for the next three generations of Romans.
Tiberius Gracchus is one of the most striking instances in history of the amount of evil that can be brought about by a thoroughly honest and well-meaning man, who is so entirely convinced of the righteousness of his own intentions and the wisdom of his own measures, that he is driven to regard anyone who strives to hinder him as not only foolish but morally wicked. The type of exalted doctrinaire who exclaims that any constitutional check that hinders his plans must be swept away without further inquiry, that every political opponent is a bad man who must be crushed, has been known in many lands and many ages, from ancient Greece down to the Prance of the Revolution. But in Rome such a figure was an exception; the stolid conservatism, the reverence for mos majorum, the dislike for abstract political speculation which marked the race, were against the development of such a frame of mind. The reformers of the past had been content to work slowly, to introduce changes by adding small rags and patches to the constitution, or by inventing transparent legal fictions, which gained the practical point, while leaving the theory of the law that they were attacking apparently untouched. The earnest doctrinaire, all in a hurry and perfectly regardless of ancestral landmarks, was as incomprehensible as he was distasteful to the average Roman mind. It is well to remember the delightful comment of the elder Cato, who having been induced in his old age to read some of Plato’s political dialogues, gravely remarked “that this Socrates seems to have been a prating seditious fellow, who suffered, rightly enough, for having tried to undermine the ancient customs of the state, and to teach young men to hold opinions at variance with the laws.”
Tiberius Gracchus was one of those unfortunate persons who are from their earliest years held up as models, and serve to point the moral and adorn the tale for their young contemporaries, till they are led on to entertain the strongest views as to their own impeccability and infallibility. The cluster of stories which Plutarch gives us to illustrate the youth of the Gracchi are almost enough by themselves to explain Tiberius’s after career. He was born with every advantage of rank and wealth; he had a quick intelligence and a handsome face. But he was cursed with a mother (a very superior woman, said every voice in Rome), who was always reminding him that he was the grandson of Scipio the elder, and asking, “How long am I to be called the daughter of Africanus and not the mother of the Gracchi?” All the domestic circle marked him off from early youth as one from whom something great was expected. His very tutor made him his moral touchstone. “If Tiberius said that a thing was right,” observed this good man, “right of course it must be.” When he grew up, the world conspired to do him honor. He was made an augur far below the usual age. The most respected member of the Senate, chancing to lie next him at a dinner-party, offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage without waiting to be asked. When Appius came home that night, he called out to his wife, as soon as he was inside the door, that he had betrothed their daughter, “Why in such a hurry,” asked the lady, “unless indeed you chance to have got Tiberius Gracchus for her?” Clearly public opinion, among the matrons of Rome who were blessed with marriageable daughters, looked upon the young man as the most eligible part in the city.
Tiberius saw his first military service in Africa during the Third Punic War. He was taken out under the best possible auspices, as one of the aides-de-camp of his brother-in-law, the younger Scipio Africanus. The general’s kinsman was offered and took every opportunity for distinction. He returned with the decoration of a mural crown, and the esteem, as we are told, of the whole army. When he first obtained a magistracy and went to Spain as quaestor to the Consul Mancinus, chance gave him an utterly unexpected opportunity of saving a Roman army from destruction (B.C. 137). The Numantines having defeated and surrounded the consul, offered to treat for a definitive peace, not with Mancinus, but with Gracchus, the reason being that the young quaestor’s father had enjoyed a great name for good faith and justice among the Spaniards. Tiberius drew up an equitable treaty, which was sworn to by both sides, and the army was allowed to depart. It was no fault of his if the Senate afterwards refused to ratify the agreement, and sent Mancinus in chains to Numantia. He was only remembered as the savior of the lives of the defeated legions, and all the ignominy of the defeat was laid upon the consul.
If Tiberius had been merely fortunate and virtuous, he might have gone through life with honor and success, have gained his consulship, celebrated his triumph, and have been buried in peace in the tomb of his ancestors. Unhappily for himself and for Rome, he had enough brains to see that the times were out of joint, enough heart to feel for the misfortunes of his countrymen, enough conscience to refuse to leave things alone and take the easy path to success that lay before him, and enough self-confidence to think that he was foreordained by the gods to set all to rights. Such was the genius of the first of Rome’s many self-constituted saviors of society.
The particular evil which had struck the eye of Tiberius, and which started him upon his crusade, was the terrible and rapid decline in the numbers of the free agricultural population which had been setting in for the last thirty years. He had at first no constitutional reforms in his head, but merely economic ones. Passing through Etruria on his way to Spain, as we are told, he saw no one working in the fields but slaves; tillage seemed to be dying out and the free farmer to have disappeared. The sight shocked him, and he pondered deeply over it during the leisure hours of his Spanish campaign. He learnt by inquiry that the same thing was to be seen in many other parts of Italy. Doubtless the discontented conscripts whom he had to command, told him all the woes of the poor freeholder in the days when farming had ceased to pay. At any rate, when he settled down once more in Rome, he imagined that he had probed to the bottom the existing distress and its causes, and that he had hit upon the necessary remedies.
The evils from which Italy, or rather Roman Italy, was suffering in B.C. 134 were much the same as those through which rural England has been passing during the last twenty years—the phenomenon that is vaguely called “agricultural depression.” It was marked by a permanent decrease in the selling value of corn, a widespread turning of arable land into pasture, so that tillage seemed almost to have ceased in certain districts, and a slow but sure shrinkage in the numbers of the free farming population who “lived by the land.”
It is usual for historians to trace the decline of Italian agriculture to various causes which began to operate as far back as the Second Punic War—to the ravages of Hannibal, the awful drain of life during his continuance in the peninsula, and after his departure to the tribute of blood levied for the never-ending and disastrous Spanish campaigns.
On the whole, too much is made of these causes. If farming is really paying, it suffers less than might be expected from a protracted war, unless indeed that war is waged within the country-side itself. Hannibal had departed seventy years before, and in a healthy state of agriculture the traces of his sojourn would long have disappeared. The Spanish and other wars of the next generation, waged far away, would not have sufficed to ruin rural Italy. As a matter of fact, the drain of life did not, for two generations after Zama, even affect the natural increase of population. The number of land holding Roman citizens fit to bear arms went rapidly up from the end of the Punic Wars down to B.C. 159. Attaining its maximum in that year, it began very slowly but steadily to decrease. In 159 there were 338,000 assidui; in 154 there were 324,000; in 147, 322,000. If Hannibal did not succeed in permanently bringing down the number of Roman freeholders, we shall not be persuaded that Viriathus and the Numantines succeeded in doing so. It was really economic changes, in a time of comparative peace, that were doing the mischief. Otherwise the Roman farmer, like the British farmer in the golden days of the struggle with Napoleon, might have prayed for “a bloody war and a wet harvest,” as the things most likely to send up wheat to 120s the quarter.
On the other hand, we must bear in mind that there were many parts of Italy where the agricultural depression does not seem to have been so much felt. Forty years later the Social War reveals to us the existence of a numerous free agricultural population all over the mountain-regions of the Apennines—Samnium, Picenum, the Marsian territory, and the rest. The Po valley in the north, too, was so fertile that it could compete in its own markets with any foreign seller. This region seems to have remained in a satisfactory economic condition long after depopulation began farther south. Roughly speaking, we may say that the economic crisis affected the land immediately round Rome, and certain other regions which were mainly in Roman hands. The Italian allies as yet suffered comparatively little; if they were sufficiently remote from the suzerain city, in a region of mountains and bad roads, they suffered not at all : for the fatal foreign corn could not creep among them on mule-back over the passes, so as to compete with the local produce. In many states the old economic conditions of the third century continued to prevail even down to the Social War. Rome’s policy unconsciously helped them to survive; she jealously kept the Italians isolated, and excluded them from the profits of the Empire, with the result that they remained torpid but well preserved in their remote valleys.
Under the stress of the competition of cheap foreign corn, the rural population of the regions round Rome had to displace itself, much in the same way as the rural population of nineteenth-century England. Nowadays such folks take refuge in emigration to America or Australia, or still more frequently drift city wards and are absorbed into the industrial classes. These ways of escape were not so obvious to the Roman of the second century. The idea that the citizen might permanently remove himself from Italy, and settle down on better soil in Spain or Africa—the America and Australia of the ancient world—had not yet become familiar. It seemed abnormal and unpatriotic to a race who still cherished the notion formulated in the statement omnis peregrinatio sordida est et inhonesta. Unlike the Greek, the Roman was not content to go abroad for ever; the first great transmarine colony (as we shall see) perished of sheer superstition, and traditionary dislike for a settlement outside the sacred soil of the Peninsula.
Nor could the industrial remedy be fully utilized, owing to the inveterate prejudice against citizens taking to handicrafts—the special portion of the slave and freedman according to Roman ideas. The ruined farmers drifted to Rome, to live on the cheap com, the doles of patrons, the frequent largesses of the state, and the distributions of candidates for magistracies. These migrants by themselves would have been enough to form the basis for a dangerous mob, but in Rome they mingled with and were demoralized by a far worse element, the great mass of manumitted slaves. The freedmen of the city were precisely the least promising section of the governing people. The slaves who made themselves acceptable to their masters, and won their freedom, were the clever subtle Greeks and Syrians who had served in the households of the nobility, not the barbarian field-hands, whom their owners never saw or regarded. There was a serious danger that Rome might become a Levantine city someday, though she was still far from the generation when men could truly say that “in Tiherim defiuxit Orontes.”
For agricultural depression, such as there existed in Italy when Tiberius Gracchus first took to politics, there is only one certain remedy. If the citizens will neither emigrate nor turn themselves from agriculture to handicrafts, and if it is absolutely necessary that the farming class should be kept up, there must be Protection. The foreign corn must at all costs be kept out, so that the yeoman may make a margin of profit, and stay by his land. Here lay the one chance for preserving the old balance of classes in the Roman state. But unfortunately for those who had the interests of the farmer at heart, the constitution of Rome rested on a public assembly of citizens massed in the Campus Martius. On any ordinary day of meeting the assembly was entirely composed of the urban populace; it would require some very great matter to induce the farmers of the Campagna to trudge in many miles in order to exercise the franchise. The more distant voters in remoter corners of Italy were practically out of touch with politics altogether. Accordingly, the statesman who wished to carry his law before the Comitia had normally to face only the plebs urbana. On rare occasions the out voters might alter the composition of the assembly, but the everyday audience of the orator would consist only of the citizens who dwelt on the spot. How was it possible to propose Protection to such a body? They had come to Rome precisely in order to enjoy the cheap loaf, and they were already clamoring to have it larger and yet cheaper. They would have laughed to scorn any proposal to impose a heavy tax on their corn for the benefit of the rural voters. High patriotic appeals would have had little effect on them. Already, thirty years back, the elder Cato, declaming in vain against a proposal for an unnecessary distribution of com, had exclaimed in his wrath, “Citizens, I perceive that it is a difficult task to argue with the belly, because it has no ears.” The city mob would never vote for the dear loaf.
The hopeless side of the agrarian problem, then, in ancient Rome, was that all legislation to support the farming class must be useless without Protection, and Protection could not be got. We do not hear even of an attempt to bring it into the sphere of practical politics.
Tiberius Gracchus was a perfectly honest and genuine enthusiast, who believed that he had a mission—the rehabilitation of Italian agriculture—and that he was quite competent to carry it out. It might be that his mission would lead him into trouble, and he was prepared to face the fact. He had had enough schooling in political philosophy from his numerous Greek friends to have freed his mind from the traditionary Roman horror of violent constitutional change. No doubt all the tags of Aristotle’s school were familiar to him. It may not be out of place to remember that his tutor, Blossius, ultimately died an anarchist, fighting at the head of a band of revolted slaves. Yet, in spite of his studies in comparative politics and Greek philosophy Tiberius, by a strange contradiction, remained so much a Roman legalist, that he held that what had once been made lawful must be morally justifiable, and that if the Comitia passed a law there could be no appeal to equity or common-sense against it.
Tiberius saw Italian agriculture languishing, the countryside occupied more and more every year by the huge estates of the capitalists, while in the city was accumulating the idle, half-starved mass of paupers who had once been Roman freeholders. His problem was, how to get the people back to the land. The end was laudable, the means which he adopted were astounding.
All over Italy there were large tracts of territory which were legally and theoretically the property of the state. Ever since the Republic became a conquering power, it had been wont to confiscate part of the soil of vanquished enemies. Sometimes this land was divided up into small farms for Roman citizens who engaged to settle thereon, sometimes a colony was planted on it, sometimes it was sold. But very often the state did not cede it in full property to any new owner, but simply proclaimed that any citizen who chose might “squat” upon it as a tenant at will, on condition of paying a rent. If it was arable, he was supposed to give the state a tithe; if it was open pasture, he was to pay a small capitation fee (scriptura) for every head of cattle turned out upon it. There existed a nominal check upon the accumulation of too much of this public land in the hands of single individuals, for the old Licinian laws had provided that no one should hold more than 500 jugera of tillage, or turn out more than 100 oxen or 500 sheep upon the pasture. But by the second century this ancient regulation was deliberately ignored; indeed, it had not been well observed even at the time of its enactment, and of late was only occasionally raked up by legalists like Cato the elder.
In the fourth century, and even in the third, the tendency of the Roman state had been to divide up the larger part of conquered land viritim, or to put colonies upon it. But from B.C. 250 onwards the amount of new soil placed at the disposal of the Republic had been so enormous that it was not possible to find settlers ready to occupy it. A larger and larger proportion after each conquest had to be thrown open to the licensed squatter. This was more especially the case with the vast tracts that were confiscated in Southern Italy from the states that adhered too long to Hannibal. These had been the last of the distributions. Since B.C. 210 they had ceased; no new Italian land being available. Once and again there had been some talk of the inconvenience caused by the want of fresh soil, and the celebrated Laelius had thought for a moment of proposing a resumption by the state of part of the broad acres of the squatters. But he dropped the project after discovering its practical difficulties, and gained thereby his nickname of Sapiens.
The simple idea of Tiberius Gracchus was that the state should resume possession of all this land held by tenants at will—possessores was their legal name, and possessio their tenure—and distribute it up among the lately dispossessed farmers who were sitting idle in the streets of Rome. He announced that, as a matter of grace, and not of right, he should propose that the present occupiers might be allowed the terms granted by the Licinian Rogations. Bach, that is, should be allowed to select and retain 500 jugera out of the land that he was holding; he might also (this was a new provision) set aside 250 acres more for each of two sons. The small estate thus created should be granted to the old occupier as private property, but the rest must at once be surrendered to the state. In the first draft of the law which Tiberius drew up, there would seem also to have been a clause providing for some compensation for unexhausted improvements on the surrendered land, such, we may suppose, as houses or farm buildings erected by the outgoing tenant. It was practically certain that the Senate would refuse its sanction to any such bill, but for that hindrance the reformer cared nought. He intended to carry it through the Comitia in spite of the Fathers.
With this, apparently, as his sole program, he stood for the tribunate in B.C. 134, was easily elected, and entered into office in the succeeding year. The first announcement of his intention roused an opposition that he cannot but have foreseen, though he displayed considerable indignation at it. The eviction of all the possessores from the public land was not such a simple matter as it looked. When an estate has been occupied by the same family for many generations, without any reminder on the part of the landlord that they may one morning be requested to depart, ties both practical and sentimental grow up between the tenant and the soil, which it is idle for the lawyer to disregard. Of the public land held by possessio, some had been granted out as far back as the Samnite and Pyrrhic wars, and none had been distributed at a later date than Hannibal’s expulsion from Italy. It had been held, therefore, by the tenants for terms ranging from seventy to two hundred years, without any interference on the part of the state. They had naturally expected that the system would endure, and had behaved as if they had a perpetual lease instead of a precarious license to squat.
The moment, therefore, that the bill was brought forward, Tiberius found that he had roused a hornets’ nest about his ears. There was probably hardly a senator or a knight in Rome who did not hold some of his land by the mere tenure of possessio, and the fact that the tenure was precarious had (through the state’s own fault) been completely forgotten. It was not merely the financial loss that angered the squatters, but the sentimental grievance. On the lands from which they were to be evicted lay, as they complained, their old family villas and the tombs of their ancestors. They did not want compensation for disturbance; nothing could make up to them for the loss of such things. Moreover, the legal difficulties that would be raised were unending; some had borrowed money on the security of such lands—were the creditors to lose the sum advanced? Others had charged upon them the dowries of their wives, or the portions of their daughters. Many had bought soil held by possessio at its full market value, under the impression—confirmed by the practice of two hundred years—that it was to all intents and purposes held under a perpetual lease. Some, occupying estates of this kind alongside of others held in full freehold, had pulled down the boundaries between them, and inextricably confused the holdings.
In short, the proposal of Tiberius to leave the possessores some remnant of their old acres and to grant them a certain compensation for unexhausted improvements, failed (as was natural) to content them. How could it, when they were to be evicted from the main part of their land entirely in opposition to their own desire? Very reasonably, from their own point of view, they resolved to fight till the last gasp, and to fight in the old constitutional Roman fashion, by finding one of the tribunes who sympathized with them, and inducing him to put his veto on his colleague’s proposed Agrarian Law.
Now the tribunicial veto had by this epoch of the Republic’s history grown to be a mere nuisance and an anachronism; yet it was so much tied up in men’s memories with the ancient constitutional triumphs of the early centuries, that it was regarded much as the modern Englishman regards Trial by Jury or Habeas Corpus. To touch it seemed profane. Yet its employment had grown casual and spasmodic. It was no longer used (as had been originally intended) for the protection of the plebeian from the patrician. Indeed patrician and plebeian were now inextricably confused in blood, and most of the staunchest oligarchs and reactionaries of the last century before Christ were of plebeian name and race. Of late the tribunate and the veto had been utilized in the most irregular and haphazard way, quite as often by the Senate against the Democrats as by the Democrats against the Senate. Sometimes it was used for purely personal ends by any vain, or eccentric, or ambitious person who had succeeded in obtaining the office. The quaintest tales may be collected, by those curious in the subject, concerning the use of the veto in these latter days. But on the whole the constitution had been saved, by a rough system of give and take, from the ever possible deadlock which the veto might bring about. The powers of the office had never been pressed to their logical extreme, though it was always possible that an obstinate man might bring matters to a crisis. At this particular moment, in B.C. 133, Rome was blessed not with one, but with two obstinate tribunes who held diametrically opposite views.
At the earliest opportunity, therefore, after his election to office, Tiberius brought forward his bill. Its most important clauses we have already noticed; but we must add that the confiscated land was to be cut up into farms of thirty jugera each, inalienable by the allottees, and charged with a small rent payable to the state. The former provision was intended to prevent applications by speculators, who might intend not to farm, but to sell at a profit; the latter was to keep before the eyes of the new settlers the fact that they were not freeholders, but tenants of the state. A permanent court of three commissioners “Humviri agris dcmdis assignandis,” was to be created, not only to distribute land, but to sit as judges in all cases where there was a dispute as to what was and what was not state domain, or as to the fraction which the old tenant desired to retain, or as to any other point arising out of the law.
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