A.H.M. Jones, Augustus, The Breakdown of the Republic
The following is the introduction to Jones' 1970 biography of the Roman emperor Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire and ruling from 27 BC to 14 AD. I chanced on a copy at a friend's house during recent travels, and finally tracked down a copy (it does remain in print as a print-on-demand book, but is otherwise surprisingly difficult to locate for sale).
What struck me most was the description of the political situation which begins the work -- what follows are quite literally the first few paragraphs of the book, which I typed out a couple of days ago.
The parties -- a plutonomic obligates, the proletarian populares, and the swing-voting equites, and the fundamental platforms: strong property rights and absolute honoring of debt by the obligates, land reform (democratising the means of production) and grain subsidies (one way to accomplishing what a living wage would provide), and the interests of each in either securing more power for themselves, or of weakening the power of the opposition. Oh, and complete with extrajudicial executions of the unfortunate. It all sound stunningly contemporary. Frighteningly so.
The book itself is brief, 167 pages. I'm going to try to force myself to a strict online diet to plow through it. It's Jones' final work, he died prior to its publication, though all but the index was complete at the time. Pithy, expert, and compelling, from the first bits.
But yeah: it's all about power, my droogs.
The breakdown of the Roman Republic has been called Hannibal's legacy, and there is some truth in the epigram. The long years (218-201 B.C.) of fighting and ravaging up and down Italy, and the long years of military service at home and abroad, impoverished the peasantry and brought many of them to ruin. In the years that followed, the Spanish provinces acquired during the war meant more long-term service abroad, while the Eastern wars brought in a flood of money, most of which found its way into the pockets of the upper classes, particularly senators. Their invevitable reaction was to invest this money in land and, since the wars produced a glut of slaves, to stock their new estates with slaves. The peasant proprietors began to be squeezed out, and a rural proletariat of landless peasants began to form. These were the origins of the agrarian problem which was to dog the Roman Republic for the rest of its existence.
The second Punic War, and still more the wars overseas which followed it, also embittered relations betwen Rome and her Italian allies. The cities and tribes of Italy, as they had one by one been subdued, had been given treaties, under which they were obliged to supply troops to fight in Rome's wars. As long as these wars were in Italy, against such common enemies as the Gauls, the allies felt no particular grievance. But now that they had to fight to win provinces or indemnities for the sole benefit of Rome, they began to be restive. Roman magistrates and the Senate had, moreover, in the period of the second Punic War grown used to ordering the allies about in an arbitrary fashion, and continued to do so in peace time.
It was the agrarian problem that sparked off the violence that was ultimately to destroy the Republic. Tiberius Gracchus' bill, enacted in 133 B.C. for distributing the public land, after leaving a generous allowance to the occupiers, in small lots to poor citizens, excited such furious resistance among the senatorial landowners that a group of them lynchded Gracchus. This was the first in a series of violent clashes between two groups who called themselves the optimates and the populares. The nucleus of the optimates was the small clique of nobles (men whose fathers, grandfathers, or more remote ancesters had been consuls) who more or less monopolized the highest offices and dominated the Senate, but they had wide support among the propertied class, even, as Cicero says, propserous freedman; otherwise they could not have maintained their unbroken hold on the higher magistracies. They were conservatives, who regarded the rights of property as sacred, and therefore resisted bitterly any attempts to redistribute land or cancel debt. They were upholders of the constitution and of religion, which could be used to block any revolutionary legislation. Though at times they had to yield to popular pressure, they always remained the government.
The populares were a much less well defined group. Their leaders were individual politicians or very small groups of politicians, who at intervals attempted to legislate in the interests of the people, by which they meant the common people. Most of them were also nobles, and their usual weapon was the tribunate of the plebs, which was the normal legislative office --- when the Senate wanted a law passed it normally requested the tribunes to put it to the plebeian assembly, and a tribune could pass a law without the assent of the Senate --- and possessed other formidable powers, such as an all embracing veto and the right of impeaching the most senior magistrates (after their year of office) before the people: it was also an office to which it was easy to be elected, since there were ten tribunes a year. The populares developed a regular programme of legislation. First came the distribution of smallholdings to landless citizens. These were at first offered to all. Later, when Marius began to recruit landless peasants into the army, the distribution was limited to time-served soldiers, who obviously had a superior claim. The next point in the programme was the provision by the state of corn for the proletariat of Rome at a price that they could afford. From time to time the populares were interested in the problem of debt, which frequently meant agricultural indebtedness. They were early successful in introducing the secret ballot into voting in the assembly, for legislation, elections and trials. They also stood up against the execution of Roman citizens without a lawful trial; the Senate was very prone to ignore this elementary right of the citizen in what it deemed to be political crises. Most populares advocated the grant of citizenship to the Italian allies. They were generally interested in the welfare of the provincials; most of the extortion laws were promoted by populares. Finally, they substituted equites (citizens owning 400,000 sesterces who were not senators) for senators as jurors in the criminal courts.
Support came to the populares from different sections of the population according to the measures that they advocated from time to time. The landless peasants flocked to Rome to vote for land allotments, but the urban poor were more interested in distribution of corn. It was the peasant proprietors who clamoured for abolition of debt. The equites were uncertain in their allegiance. They would support a popular leader who championed their control of the criminal courts, but the thought of distribution of land or abolition of debt promptly sent them into the camp of the optimates. Apart from the allies themselves, who having no votes were politically valueless, no one favoured their enfranchisement; for one reason or another optimates, the equites, the urban proletariat and the peasantry were opposed to it. We know the fact but we can only infer the reasons. In general there was a reluctance to extend and therby dilute the privileges of citizenship. The nobles no doubt feared that the aristocratic families in the Italian cities would break their monopoly of high office at Rome. The equites may have feared that wealthy Italian groups would outbid them for the tax contracts and compete for the equestrian militiae, the offer-posts of prefect and tribune in the army. The urban proletariat may have feared that poor Italians would migrate to Rome and compete for the wheat ration, the peasants that they would apply for land allotments.
A. H. M. Jones, Augustus, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York