Ancient History & Civilisation

V

THE UNION OF THE ORDERS AND THE CONSTITUTION

1. ECONOMIC DISTRESS

The Gallic invasion brought in its train a period of extreme distress. Amid this confusion the demands of the plebeians became more insistent until in 367 the Licinian Rogations won for them a considerable political victory which went far to unite the orders. Economic depression formed the background to much of the discontent. This centred around conditions of land tenure and the harsh laws of debt; it was aggravated by actual shortage of food. It has already been seen how pressing were these problems in the early days of the Republic (pp. 75f.). During the fifth century, and especially in its last decades, Rome’s conquests in Italy had increased the amount of ager publicus. If the plebs had been refused a fair share of Roman territory earlier, it would obviously be fatal to refuse their demands when this territory had been so greatly increased partly as a result of their efforts. So although some land may have been sold by the state to those who could afford to buy, some was distributed in plots to individual citizens as their absolute property (assignatio) The tribunes were not yet powerful enough to propose such measures, which were moved by magistrates and voted by the Comitia Centuriata with the Senate’s approval. Part of the land taken from Veii was distributed in this way in 393 in allotments of perhaps 4 iugera each (Diodorus, xiv, 102, 4; Livy v, 30, 8, gives 7 iugera). Patricians could apply for such land, but would probably sell or lease their portions; the poorer citizens were the chief gainers. By such grants of land the Romans secured the proximity and the interest of responsible self-supporting property owners who would rally to defend the state in hours of need. There were other means of relief for those who lacked land: they could share in the founding of colonies where they received allotments, and it is estimated that some 50,000 people may have gone to colonies between 450 and 290 BC. Or land could be obtained by squatting (occupatio) on state property with the right of possessio. Nominally a rent was paid, but most of such land fell into the hands of the richer farmers who could afford to develop it and who in practice seldom paid their dues.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that the legislation of this period should include some agrarian enactments. Such are found in the Licinian Rogations of 367 by which the amount of public land held by any individual was limited. Since the form of the law, as preserved, is similar to that enacted by Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC, many historians reject the economic clauses of the Licinio-Sextian legislation as anticipations of later conditions. This radical criticism seems unjustified. Some details, for instance, that the limit was set at 500 iugera (300 acres), may be due to Gracchan influences, but a clause which limited the tenancies of public land may be accepted.1 This measure, however, did not solve the land problem, which was rather met by the rapid advance of Rome in Italy, by the increasing number of colonies, by fresh distributions of land and perhaps by the slow growth of industry.

The second main grievance arose from the harsh laws of debt. The story of how the patrician M. Manlius Capitolinus, who had saved the Capitol from the Gauls, gave up his property to redeem debtors from slavery and was killed for aiming at a tyranny, may deserve little credence, but it does reflect the serious economic situation. As Solon at Athens proclaimed a Seisachtheia, so the tribunes Licinius and Sextius in their Rogation of 367 decreed that interest already paid should be deducted from the original loan, and the balance, if any, should be repaid within three years. Modern attempts to discredit this measure are not very convincing; it was a temporary expedient which treated the symptoms rather than the disease.2

Attempts at relief consisted either in limiting the rate of interest or in bankruptcy laws, neither of which was very successful. No experiment was tried on the lines of allowing the debtor to compound with his creditor for a sum rather less than the full amount. In 357 M. Duilius and L. Menenius, two tribunes, fixed the rate of interest at one-twelfth (8⅓ per cent); if such a law had been contained in the Twelve Tables it was now re-enacted (p. 80). In 352 a Commission of Five was set up by the consuls as a state bank. They had powers to make advances from the state to debtors in difficulties, to take over mortgages on adequate security, or to settle them by allowing bankruptcy proceedings. Five years later the legal rate of interest was reduced by half, and another three years’ moratorium was declared; as the state had taken over many mortgages, the Treasury would have to stand the loss in such cases. In 342 a tribune, L. Genucius, carried a measure to forbid loans and usury; Livy appears a little doubtful about this law, but it may well have been another temporary expedient which soon fell into disuse. Foreign conquests and increased colonization offered some relief in the following years, but in 326 (Livy, viii, 28) or 313 (Varro, L. L., vii, 105) the question of enslavement for debt was once more faced and finally settled. It was scarcely possible to amend the law relating to nexum laid down by the Twelve Tables, but it could be rendered harmless. The Lex Poetelia stands out like an ancient Magna Charta. ‘In that year’, wrote Livy, ‘the liberty of the Roman plebs had, as it were, a new beginning; for men ceased to be imprisoned for debt.’ The details are obscure, but apparently it was decreed that judgement must be obtained before execution was carried out; and Pais may be correct in supposing that loans were to be made on the security of the property, and not of the person of the borrower. ‘The bonds of the citizens were released and thereafter binding for debts ceased,’ wrote Cicero.3 A landmark had been set up, but the financial and agricultural problems still awaited a permanent solution.

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