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Rationist No. 7: That extreme wealth concentration destroyed the Roman Republic

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This is the seventh in a series of essays by Tim Ferguson, founder of the Anacyclosis Institute, arguing in favour of Rationism, a middle-class-oriented political theory that advocates benchmarking the national economy against the national median household net worth. Izabella Kaminska has also described Rationism as Vitruvian Capitalism, based on its promotion of the values of proportion and balance. The series emulates the Federalist Papers and is written under the pen name of Gracchus, a reformer of the Roman Republic.

Here is the introductory essay to the series.

Note: The purpose of this series is to enable readers to engage in an interesting thought experiment through a series of essays defending a hypothetical constitutional amendment. The hypothetical constitutional amendment considered in these essays has not been officially proposed or introduced in any legislative assembly, and the author does not engage in lobbying or legislative advocacy or present these essays for such purposes. It is all merely an exercise in the interest of stimulating debate.

That extreme wealth concentration destroyed the Roman Republic.

To the People of the United States of America:

The causes which destroyed the ancient republics were numerous; but in Rome, one principal cause was, the vast inequality of fortunes.

Noah Webster

Having examined the lifecycle of democracy, we now consider its death sequence in antiquity’s leading state. The ancient Greeks witnessed the phenomena of anacyclosis in hundreds of cities, including over 300 democracies. But it was the Roman Republic that first raised its final stages from the level of city-state to world-state, furnishing the most relevant historical parallel for today’s prevailing superpower republic: the United States.

In view of the internal political strains presently encountering leading western democracies, at no time since the assassination of Julius Caesar has understanding how anacyclosis brought down that ancient republic been more important. Though there is variance in the particulars, the essential dispositions and markers of political deterioration in both Rome and America are sufficiently similar to establish a recognisable pattern of middle class decline and rising authoritarianism.

The Roman establishment seems to have been generally ignorant of the underlying processes driving anacyclosis. Such ignorance not only cost the Romans their 450-year-old Republic, it also exacted a great expense of human life. Tiberius Gracchus donated the first drops of what would become a river of political bloodshed. Political stability was established by Octavian’s inauguration as emperor a century later, though the executions and confiscations continued well into the imperial period, especially among Rome’s upper crust.

While the American republic may be unique in having middling origins and sophisticated founders well-versed in the history of Rome and the lessons of anacyclosis, nothing in its present circumstances preserves it from a Roman ending. Indeed, George Washington’s Farewell Address with which we closed our last essay apprehends just such a violent conclusion to America’s republican experiment. And to consider the magnitude of replaying but one episode from the Roman saga today, if some future sequel to the proscriptions of the 80s and 40s BC were scaled up to the current population of the United States, we could easily be counting the political dead in the tens of thousands. Such is a modest portion of what may await us as we continue down the path of anacyclosis.

History records that the Roman constitution was no match for anacyclosis. Our next essay considers whether the present constitution of the United States would fare any better.

Political factions arising from extreme wealth concentration and household insecurity destroyed the Roman Republic

The main reason for the Republic’s failure is in retrospect clear: uncontrollable political factions arising from grotesque wealth concentration and extreme household insecurity. America’s founders understood the social consequences arising from these factors. The Romans themselves also came to realise that it was these effects which destroyed their republic in the end. As Dr. Lintott determined in his study of violence in republican Rome:

Roman writers after the collapse of the Republic were … united in believing that the operative factor throughout was a moral failure arising from the increase of wealth: this had led the governing class to seek riches and power without scruple, while at the same time economic inequality had made the lower classes desperate and ready for any crime against the state.

Rome’s military victories precipitated these economic and social circumstances. Conquest of the Mediterranean world transformed its independent middle class into a dependent underclass. By the time Rome defeated Carthage, the smallhold farmers which were for centuries the Republic’s citizen backbone were exhausted by the demands of protracted military service. For many, campaign duration extended from the summer to term of several years. Perhaps 10 per cent to 20 per cent of Rome’s adult males were in service in the generations preceding the Third Punic War.

Farmer revolts

Rome’s achievement of uncontested sovereignty brought even more pain for ordinary citizens: the already-exhausted middling farmers were unable to compete with the influx of labour that flowed in from Rome’s newly-conquered provinces. One instance from the Third Macedonian War alone introduced 150,000 slaves into Roman labour markets. Free domestic labour was accordingly severely undercut by slave labour against which ordinary Romans could not compete with. By the end of the Republic, perhaps 30 per cent of Italy’s population was slaves.

These economic conditions diverted immense profits of empire away from the domestic middle class and into a few households who invested vast sums into the only respectable outlet for elites: land. These great households created vast estates (latifundia) and other commercial operations on the lands of Rome’s destitute or depleted smallhold farmers. Moreover, as farming was hard labour, city life detached many Romans from their farming heritage and the habits that go with it. Many of the displaced and homeless fled to the urban centre with what payouts they obtained from their farms, their funds and their prospects were soon diminished.

Thus was Rome’s middle class plundered by its own moneyed class and the wealth of generations concentrated in few insatiable hands with astonishing speed. The persistence of these economic conditions eventually produced such extreme wealth concentration that by 104 BC Marcius Philippus announced that out of perhaps 400,000 citizens, only about 2,000 individuals held real wealth. Cicero later remarked that in the Centuriate Assembly, the single proletariat century (proletarii) nearly outnumbered the dozens of centuries comprising the first class of adsidui. Historian Victor Duruy vividly portrayed the results of such rampant wealth concentration during the Late Republic:

After having pillaged the world as praetors or consuls during time of war, the nobles again pillaged their subjects as governors in time of peace; and upon their return to Rome with immense riches they employed them in changing the modest heritage of their fathers into domains vast as provinces.

Which brings us to the symptoms of end-stage anacyclosis, considered at length in our prior essay. Facing such growing household precariousness, the people grew increasingly desperate and dependent. And their dependency engendered an inescapable system of economic patronage. The insecurity and dependency of ordinary Romans eventually grew so great that by 123 BC Gaius Gracchus brought forth a lex frumentaria subsidising grain to certain Romans (the Cura Annonae, which was subsequently liberalised by Clodius in 58 BC to make grain free). So critical was the grain dole to sustaining civic order and pacifying the underclass that by 22 AD the second emperor Tiberius predicted that its neglect would utterly ruin the Roman state.

And just as sure as economic insecurity leads to economic dependency and political patronage, ancient rights and liberties are quickly forgotten and forsaken by those who depend upon public support to survive. The Republic, the middling virtues, and any hope for authentic popular government were all doomed the moment Rome’s middle class was doomed. From the death of the Republic, the entire Mediterranean world flowed into imperial monarchy, which then fractured and crumbled into the tribal chiefdoms of Western Europe, restarting the sequence of anacyclosis anew.

The Romans failed to halt anacyclosis because they failed to de-concentrate household wealth

The assassination of Tiberius Gracchus crossed the event horizon, the threshold to monarchy, from which the Roman Republic would never return. As our third essay explained it is the diffusion and reconcentration of wealth which advances the wheel of anacyclosis. After Gracchus’s death, the Romans would summon no legislation, no policy, no political wisdom or willpower to de-concentrate wealth and turn back the wheel. Marius’s military reforms of 107 BC did not alter circumstances, but merely acknowledged the new economic reality. Sulla’s constitutional reforms of 80-82 BC ultimately accomplished little other than to manifest reactionary outrage. Caesar’s 46 BC edict that free labour comprise at least one-third of the workforce on ranches came a century too late. Cato’s rectitude, Cicero’s conservatism, and Brutus’s patriotism accounted for nothing in preserving the Republic. The simple fact is that Rome’s middle class – and thereby not only Rome’s republican future, but mankind’s first great wave of experimentation with that thing we call democracy – died with Tiberius Gracchus.

Tiberius Gracchus, whose illustrious and noble lineage makes his devotion and sacrifice to the republican cause all the more remarkable, perhaps gave Rome its last clear chance to save its middle class. His Lex Sempronia Agraria – which in 1776 John Adams acclaimed as “a genuine republican Measure” and a portion of which Thomas Jefferson sought to emulate in his first three drafts of the 1776 Virginia constitution – revived and revised existing legal limitations on the amount of public land conquered by the legions (ager publicus) that could be occupied by any household. Renowned Classicist Dr. Abbott put the stakes plainly:

The republic had been at the outset, and for several centuries afterward, a commonwealth of free landowners. This great middle class was now swept out of existence, and with it went the foundation on which the state rested. The object of the movement connected with the name of Tiberius Gracchus was to build this class up again.

In an effort to de-concentrate household wealth and restore the middling census ranks, the Gracchan law enforced the provisions of the lex de modo agrorum of the Licinian-Sextian rogations (established 367 BC) with some modifications. First, the law capped household use of public lands to 500 iugera (326 acres), along with an additional 250 iugura permitted for each child of covered households. Second, shares of 30 iugera (20 acres) of reclaimed public land were to be transferred to ordinary citizens, now made non-transferrable to prevent subsequent reconcentration thereof. Third, to blunt the law’s harsh effects, covered households adversely impacted were to be compensated for improvements made to transferred parcels, including receipt of clear title.

Because it sought to enforce existing laws and return Rome’s social balance sheet to a prior condition while restoring the middling virtues – after all the idea was to get people back on the land so they could get back to work and feed Rome’s growing military machine – Gracchus’s plan was more conservative than progressive notwithstanding some characterisations thereof as an early version of socialism. Gracchus did not aim to push Rome forward to utopia, but back to the good old days.

But implementation of his reform was not possible without violating various procedural aspects of the Roman constitution and seizing property which had long ago passed into putative private ownership. Long neglect of the ancient limitations created bewildering complexity in the legal status of unique lands, titles, and improvements. The mob was fickle. The plutocracy was enraged – many having paid market prices for these contested lots, or built improvements and buried families on them, or incorporated them into dowries and inheritances – and strenuously opposed Gracchus’s reform.

In spite of opposition the law did take effect and did manage to allocate some parcels of ager publicus. Rome’s census numbers did see some brief and modest recovery. But the law was not finally implemented for the duration and with the force that would have been necessary to truly rehabilitate Rome’s middle class. Noah Webster summarized the ultimate consequences of Rome’s failure to de-concentrate household wealth:

Rome, with the name of a republic, waz several ages loozing the spirit and principle. The Gracchi endevored to check the growing evil by an agrarian law; but were not successful. In Cesar’s time, the Romans were ripened for a change of guvernment; the spirit of a commonwelth waz lost, and Cesar waz but an instrument of altering the form, when it could no longer exist.

You’re either in power, or dead

As for Gracchus himself, he did not live to see his republican measure through. He was murdered during his reelection bid in 133 BC. The Senate was perhaps as much provoked by his perceived deviations from Roman custom as by the reform itself. His death at the hands of the Senate commenced a century-long contest of demagogues. From his younger brother Gaius – who met a similar tragic end – to Drusus, to Philippus, to Saturninus, to Marius, to Cinna, to Sulla, to Lepidus, to Catiline, to Rullus, to Flavius, to Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, and to Mark Antony, Lepidus, and finally Augustus in 27 BC, Rome’s bloody tournament of demagogues reaped global hegemony’s final, poisonous harvest, so eloquently described by Sallust in the Republic’s last moments:

“When our country had grown great through toil and the practice of justice, when great kings had been vanquished in war, savage tribes and mighty peoples subdued by force of arms, when Carthage, the rival of Rome’s sway, had perished root and branch, and all seas and lands were open, then Fortune began to grow cruel and to bring confusion into all our affairs.

“Those who had found it easy to bear hardship and dangers, anxiety and adversity, found leisure and wealth, desirable under other circumstances, a burden and a curse. Hence the lust for money first, then for power, grew upon them; these were, I may say, the root of all evils. For avarice destroyed honour, integrity, and all other noble qualities; taught in their place insolence, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to set a price on everything.

“Ambition drove many men to become false; to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue; to value friendships and enmities not on their merits but by the standard of self-interest, and to show a good front rather than a good heart.  At first these vices grew slowly, from time to time they were punished; finally, when the disease had spread like a deadly plague, the state was changed and a government second to none in equity and excellence became cruel and intolerable.


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