Ancient History & Civilisation



The real government of Rome during the second century was the Senate, the instrument of the nobility, whose power rested on custom and not on law. We must first consider what policy this governing authority pursued in home affairs, towards the old Confederacy; and secondly, its foreign policy and provincial administration. Then we must examine the basis of the power of this senatorial oligarchy, its control of all branches of public life, the cliques into which it was divided, and the tendencies which these represented.


By the Lex Claudia of 218 (p. 169) senators were forbidden to own ships other than small ones to transport the produce of their estates. A sharp distinction was drawn between land and trade, between the governing and commercial classes. A senator could get round the law by allowing his freedmen to trade for him or by loans on bottomry, but in the main the distinction remained real. During the strain of the Hannibalic War the government, which relied largely on private enterprise for supplies, had to excuse from military service three companies of nineteen men who supplied the Spanish army on credit (215). Two of the contractors scuttled their ships, which had been filled with rubbish, and demanded compensation from the state which had undertaken responsibility for sea-risks. Despite the Senate’s desire to maintain unity at home, two tribunes brought a capital charge against them; during their trial their fellow-contractors rioted and used violence. The war thus helped to make the commercial classes conscious of their unity and importance.

The capitalists were known as equites. This term strictly refers to two classes of people: either young nobles, members of the eighteen equestrian centuries, who ceased to be effective cavalry and became an honorary corps; or members of ignoble (non-official) families whose incomes were equivalent to those of the equites, but who were not enrolled in the equestrian centuries. In the third century the censors had drawn up a list, supplementary to the eighteen centuries, of those whose property warranted cavalry service at their own expense; probably in the second century this census was fixed by law. It was these men who were then commonly called equites. With the conquest of the Mediterranean world they gained an extended field for their activities. Many of them formed joint-stock companies of limited liability, and to such corporations the censors usually let contracts for the performance of public works and the collection of certain taxes. The equites were also permitted to collect the tithes and the grazing tax on public lands in Italy, together with harbour dues. They took over the operation of the Spanish mines about 178 and of the Macedonian mines in 158. Though the military supplies and equipment for the eastern wars were primarily the responsibility of the regular magistrates, these must often have had recourse to the co-operation of traders. Thus by helping the state to exploit its extensive real estate, by contracting for public works, by collecting certain taxes, a body of rich and intelligent men was created. These publicani were backed by smallernegotiatores, who went in for money-lending, banking and trading, and on occasion even by senators who borrowed from them or speculated with their help. If any of them wished later to turn to a public career they might by serving as military tribunes or praefecti sociorum get their feet on the lowest rung of an official career, but they seldom succeeded in climbing to the top. But included in the ordo equester were the country gentry of the towns of Italy who preferred the interests of their landed estates and the affairs of their local communities to both the glamour of political life in Rome and the risks of business. These men in part came from the same social background as the senators: although wealthy enough and with the right family connexions to compete for office, they chose to stand aloof. As tensions with the senatorial order developed, it was the publicani, described by Cicero as the ‘flower of the equestrian order’, who in the main began to clash with the Senate in the political arena. How the equites became increasingly politically self-conscious is a story that belongs more to the revolutionary age of the Gracchi, but before then they had become an important factor in Roman life.1

The policy of the Senate towards this new class was to use it commercially, instead of creating an adequate civil service, but to disregard its political claims. This naturally occasioned a certain friction and jealousy between the classes. In Cato’s censorship of 184 his letting of state contracts was so severe that the leading contractors complained to the Senate and got their contracts cancelled. In 169 a real quarrel broke out between the Senate and equites. The censors refused to accept tenders from contractors, who had been employed by the previous censors, on the ground of their exorbitant profits. The cause of the excluded publicans was taken up by a tribune. When one of the censors tried to intervene at a meeting, both were accused of high treason (perduellio) and only just escaped condemnation through the exertions of the nobles and the popularity of Ti. Sempronius Gracchus. It is noteworthy that the censors, backed by the Senate, succeeded in defying the power of the tribune, but the incident also shows the important part now played by the capitalist class in Roman life; as the Senate usurped more judicial power the breach between senators and equites widened until C. Gracchus precipitated a political crisis.

Secondly, the government had to define a policy towards freedmen. The conquest of the Mediterranean was flooding the slave markets and consequently there was an increase in the number of freedmen, who with their children swelled the mass of clients. After the liberal attempt of Appius Claudius had failed, those who possessed no land, whether rich or poor, had been placed in the four urban tribes (304), but between the First and Second Punic Wars, perhaps when the Comitia Centuriata was reformed, all freedmen were confined to the urban tribes, irrespective of whether they possessed land. But the Hannibalic War had emphasized their importance, so that in 189 Q. Terentius Culleo carried a liberal measure enrolling sons of freedmen, libertini, in the rustic tribes. At the same time (or in 179) freedmen with land valued at more than 30,000 sesterces, that is, those whose census was equal to that of the first or second class of the centuries, could also be enrolled in the rustic tribes; in 179 those who had sons and land in a rustic tribe received the same privilege. But in 169 the censors provided that those freedmen who had not 30,000 sesterces were in future to be confined to one urban tribe (the Esquilina). In sum, this policy to liberated slaves was very generous compared with that of other ancient states; for they became so numerous that, had their votes not been limited, they might have outvoted the citizens living outside Rome. But the infusion of this element into the state threatened the old standards of morality and it must have embittered those Latins who in vain tried to gain or retain Roman citizenship.2

The Italian confederacy had been tested in the fire of the Hannibalic War and it emerged changed. The old feeling of unity and equality was shattered: Rome held whip and reins alike. Those allies that had revolted were not treated with undue harshness. In 210 Capua had felt the strength of Rome’s hand, but her punishment was not unjust; the original owners were generally allowed to remain as tenants on their land when it had been annexed by Rome. Further south the Romans had confiscated more land from the rebels, especially from Bruttium, Thurii and Tarentum, perhaps some 4000 square miles, which they could dispose of as they liked, by founding colonies or by viritane assignments. Two small Latin colonies were settled at Copia (193) and Vibo (Hipponium; 192), but as the Latin towns could supply few colonists, the founding of Latin colonies would mainly redound to Rome’s advantage. But the shortage of men was widespread and there was more attractive land than the devastated south nearer Rome; so the censors rented out large estates of 500 iugera to any Roman, Latin or ally who had the means to undertake the venture. In this way southern Italy recovered something of its old prosperity, but the growth of large ranches where cattle, sheep and horses were reared mainly by slave labour soon seriously affected the economic life of Italy.3

Latin colonies were still founded for some time, and Latins were even allowed to share in the citizen colonies to make up the numbers, for example, at Buxentum in 194, but when colonists from Ferentinum claimed that participation in a citizen colony automatically granted Roman citizenship, the Senate refused the claim. Roman franchise was becoming more valuable, and a quick method of winning it had been for a Latin to participate in a Roman colony instead of settling in Rome long enough to be enrolled by the new censors in the ordinary way. The Romans also were becoming unwilling to surrender their citizenship by going to Latin colonies. At first they were attracted by the grant of larger allotments than the 5–10 iugera of Roman colonies: at Copia commoners received 20 iugera, equites 40; at Bononia 50 and 70 respectively; at Aquileia 50 and 140. After 178 BC, however, no more Latin colonies were founded, partly because Rome felt she could not afford to lose more citizens by settlement in Latin colonies and partly because later the military need declined. When in 173 Boian land was distributed viritim, 10 iugera were given to citizens but only three to allies. Indeed, very few Roman colonies were settled in Italy after this date. When the tributum was discontinued in 167 the Senate became more dependent on its revenue from rents from ager publicus and was less willing to grant land for colonies of any sort. But the burst of colonization after the Hannibalic War had been useful. The citizen colonies formed military centres which strengthened the confederation; the Latin colonies became centres of agricultural development; and all hastened the unification of Italy.4

Latin claims for Roman citizenship also caused friction. The Romans remembered how to be generous when in 188 they raised Arpinum, Formiae and Fundi from half- to full citizenship and the Capuans to a probationary stage. The rest of the cities enjoying half-franchise may gradually have been promoted (how gradually we do not know: some may have continued until the Social War), but no effort was made to enfranchise the Italian allies. Complaints reached Rome from various Latin cities which could not fulfil their military obligations because so many of their citizens had settled in Rome.5 In 193 a consul tried to meet the difficulty by summoning contingents of allies in proportion to the number of men fit for service in each town, instead of in accordance with the old fixed quota. In 187 the Latins asked that those who had migrated to Rome should be repatriated: twelve thousand men were struck off the citizen-roll and sent back to their own colonies. This alien act was for the benefit of the Latin communities and to the disadvantage of Rome, but it must have caused much discontent among the ejected and it infringed the ius migrandi. When the Latin cities appealed again, a Lex Claudia, passed in 177, was enforced by the censors of 173, who expelled more of those who had wrongly been registered at Rome.

The Latins and allies found other causes for complaint. The spoils of empire, the revenue from the tithes, harbour dues and mines, and tribute of the provinces went into the Roman Treasury and did not enrich the Latins. Similarly, the bulk of the sum raised from the sale of war booty was paid by successful generals into the Roman Treasury; at first the small donative given from the booty to the rank and file was shared by Roman and Latin alike, but after the Histrian War in 177 the Latins received only half as much as Romans. Though Italian merchants often followed the flag it was the Roman governors that received the fruits, whether honest or corrupt, from the provinces. Further, by an enactment of a tribune, P. Porcius Laeca (199), Roman citizens in Italy and the provinces were safeguarded against the almost unlimited imperium of the governor by the right of appeal; the scourging of Roman citizens without appeal was forbidden by Marcus Porcius Cato (198 or 195); and Lucius Porcius Cato (?154) prohibited summary execution by military officers.6 But over the Italians that served with the Romans and over the Italian traders and residents the governor still retained powers of life and death and the right to scourge.

Direct interference by Rome in Italian affairs was small. For instance, in 193 a Lex Sempronia virtually instructed the praetor peregrinus to apply Roman laws of usury to all Latins and Italians in their dealings with Roman citizens. This limitation of the ius commercii was quite fair in practice, but the measure emphasized the difference in political status between Romans and allies. A more striking instance of interference was the enquiry caused by the Bacchanalian conspiracy (pp. 360 f.). The spread of mystic cults from southern Italy led to the formation of secret associations for their celebration. The resultant immorality and disorder forced the Senate to stamp out the evil (186–181). The cult itself was legalized for individuals, but all secret associations were disbanded. It is noticeable that police measures were first taken in Rome itself and then conducted largely in fora, that is, citizen territory, and only in allied districts in the last resort. In fact the Senate made itself responsible for public security in Italy, and thereby might technically infringe its treaties with the various cities, but it interfered as little as possible. More annoying was the later interference by Roman magistrates who, in touring the country, illegally imposed burdens on cities. In 173 Postumius demanded free entertainment when passing through Praeneste. It was symptomatic that a Roman magistrate should apply to an honoured allied city in Italy treatment which had been reserved for subjects; also that the Praenestines dared not refuse. The abuse increased. The story of how the chief magistrate of Sidicinum, an allied city, was scourged because he was slow in clearing a public bath for a Roman magistrate’s wife is well known.7

In sum, Rome’s relations with her confederacy underwent a gradual change in the second century. During the first decade or so a certain generosity remained, which was later throttled by self-interest and aggressiveness. As the franchise was coveted, so it was withheld. Latin colonies ceased; Latins received smaller assignments of land. The Empire was exploited for Rome rather than for Italy, and Roman magistrates became more overbearing. The distinction between the privileged Latins and the other Italians had broken down. The Latins realized that they were to be treated like the rest, and all found their condition sinking from alliance to dependence, if not to subjection. It was not until after the smouldering discontent had blazed forth in the Social War that Italy really became one.

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