Ancient History & Civilisation

The State takes over

The maintenance of the army by these taxes in cash and kind, levied amid damaging currency crises, caused misery on a gigantic scale. This was made worse by the staffs which proliferated in order to enforce the exactions. These special and military police, informers and secret agents were not new, but they were multiplied in number and placed on a systematic basis, thus adding a further substantial item to the expenses that the population had to meet. During the civil wars after Commodus’ death military police officers became regular instead of exceptional phenomena,32 and a complex network of local headquarters was established to provide them with bases for their operations. Spies, too, were everywhere. In implied contrast to the rapacious Maximinus I, a writer praises the emperor Philip, perhaps more hopefully than convincingly, for relieving the situation in which ‘many spies had gone round all the cities listening to what people were saying. All temperate and just liberty of speech was destroyed and everyone trembled at his own shadow.’33

The large part played by the army in organising these measures to guarantee its own supplies involved constant encroachment on the civil authorities, as a series of laws resisting the tendency bear witness. Military judges assumed a variety of tasks for which they were inadequately qualified.34Garrison officers, too, could make life bearable or unbearable as they chose; and ordinary soldiers (in addition to the army deserters who abounded) often became lawless and menacing, either through criminality or in order to obtain their quota of supplies. Pertinax (193) ordered them to stop oppressing civilians. The desperate condition of the persecuted populations emerges from their petitions to one emperor after another. These had also occurred earlier, but now there is a new urgency in appeals against oppression. The tenants on imperial estates in Lydia petitioned one of their rulers, probably Septimius, against military police agents and spies.35 Villagers and property-owners at Scaptopare, near a health resort and seasonal fair (Kyustendil in Bulgaria), complain desperately of demands for unpaid lodging and food (238), threatening to run away and thus deprive the imperial treasury of their payments and services – ‘we have declared that our endurance is at an end’.36 Groups of tenants on imperial estates in Asia Minor make a number of similar complaints. The Aragueni of Phrygia, for example, write to Philip: ‘We are most atrociously victimised and squeezed by those whose duty it is to protect the people – officers, soldiers, city notables holding authority, and your own subordinate officials.’37 In Egypt, where soldiers are prosperous and peasants persecuted, requisitions inspire terror. ‘It is hard, even when justice is done to us, to accomplish our duties in full’ – and the dishonest tricks of the oppressors make this quite impossible. The questions addressed to an oracle include: ‘Shall I be sold up? Am I to become a beggar? Shall I flee? Shall my flight come to an end?’38

This is a gloomy picture of violence and outrage. But in due course there was a change – not towards greater freedom but in the direction of more methodical regimentation. One of many forms of inexorable compulsion subjected the principal agents and operators of industry and trade. In spite of the disasters of the period and the economic decline of Italy (p. 52), commercial and industrial activity elsewhere presents a variable pattern in which deterioration in some regions and spheres was matched by improvements in others.39 A large part of this business was in the hands of corporations or guilds (collegia). Such merchant and artisan associations of mutual help, each representing a profession, had like clubs of other kinds become familiar institutions in the later Greek world, and particularly under the Ptolemies of Egypt. The custom then extended to Italy, where, for example, there is record of a Sardinian guild of cooks at Falerii (c. 200 BC). In the late Roman Republic the corporations had been politically troublesome, but like so many other organisations they were legalised by Augustus so as to perform work of national importance (7 BC). For the same reason Claudius and other emperors gave the corporations tax concessions. But they were apparently abused, since Hadrian insisted that to be eligible for these advantages the corporation-member must devote the bulk of his capital to duties on behalf of the state; and Marcus Aurelius ruled that no one could be a member of more than one corporation.

Septimius, too, indicated that concessions were only claimable by guildsmen who contributed their own work on a personal basis. Yet this same emperor, as the jurists show, extended tax favours to such corporations as were able to help the government in its public services and requisitions, and their titles take the place of individual traders’ names in state contracts. Traditionally the most important corporation had always been that of the shippers who carried corn and other public cargoes to Rome and the army’s maritime bases, on vessels owned by themselves. Indeed, although corporations were by no means trade unions, the shippers at Arelate (Arles), who transported troops and supplies, even threatened to go on strike (201).40 All over the empire this profession obtained a prominent share of Septimius’ privileges. But he also laid special stress on the corporations which provided bread and meat for distribution in the heavily subsidised capital (p. 52).41

Septimius’ idea of exploiting these institutions for what were regarded as essential tasks of the empire was rapidly carried forward during the years after his death. Severus Alexander increased the number of such organisations, and conferred special recognition upon those performing national service. A further step in the direction of state control was taken by Aurelian, who subordinated important corporations to his own direct orders. By the end of the third century these bodies, although they remained private and did not become completely nationalised, were subordinated to official direction and geared to fulfilling the government’s policies. Members were tied to their jobs without the possibility of leaving them (except illegally), and similar obligations fell on all who by inheritance, dowry or gift had acquired land that was under a corporation’s control.

Membership, it is true, was not made compulsory, at least in the eastern provinces, and not in the west until the end of the fourth century, when craftsmen had to be brought back to the towns from which they had migrated. Nevertheless, even by the time of Diocletian, a merchant could not prosper unless he was a guildsman. This closed shop system applied to every sort of trade and occupation, not only at Rome but in all communities of any size: to inn-keepers, fishmongers, potters, silversmiths and many others. The government was still susceptible to influence from the corporations, and particularly from ship-owners whose delegations extracted favourable rulings; but most legislation was repressive. Convicted criminals could be punished by assignment to a corporation. And we learn that bakers (presumably not alone in this) even had to choose their wives from the families of fellow guildsmen.

The corporations, as principal organs of trade, played a leading part in urban life. But the government, in its desire to establish the controls necessary to secure maximum payments in kind and cash, went beyond the corporations and tackled the cities themselves – the fundamental units of Greco-Roman civilisation. During the second century AD leading men had become more and more unwilling to serve as town councillors. This was partly because of increasing interference by the central government. Emperors had started appointing representatives of their own to supervise the affairs of one city or several, and this sort of intervention made the work of councils seem trivial and tedious. But the most important reason for the unpopularity of council service was the expense it involved. In the first place there was a tradition that town councillors, and especially those elected to the annual chairmanships or joint chairmanships, must provide extravagant entertainments and buildings. Secondly, emperors came to rely heavily upon town councils for the collection of taxes.

The law had always provided that duly qualified citizens must perform appropriate services (munera), but this had not hitherto been enforced. Enforcement came under Septimius, whose army budget, swollen by wars, required that cities should keep up their payments in kind by extorting these from their populations. In order that the towns should thus operate as the central government’s local agents with all possible efficiency, every qualified person who could not claim one of the meticulously specified legal exemptions was henceforward compelled to serve as a town councillor. Councils were still allowed to fill their own vacancies, but Septimius prescribed that every such body was to be directed by a steering committee of ten selected persons on whom the responsibility for collecting the necessary amounts of produce and materials would primarily rest. Provincial governors were charged with the task of ensuring the equitable distribution of public offices by a process of rotation according to age and rank. If requisitions proved inadequate, office–holders had to make up the short-fall out of their own pockets. Soon, therefore, we begin to hear of people giving up their properties so as to avoid having to take office42 – and in Egypt at least, and no doubt elsewhere, such attempts at evasion were overtaken by punishment (c. 250).

The cities were rapidly losing their traditional freedom of action. But when the empire-wide financial crisis reached even more serious dimensions, the full opportunities for oppression lurking in the new arrangements became apparent. Maximinus I (235–38), himself a Thracian peasant, made ruthless inroads upon the property and persons of the urban middle class, who seemed to him a good deal less important than the soldiery. Thereafter these townsmen suffered grievously from the inflations, in which long-term mortgages and fixed rent charges on land were wiped out (p. 45). Another source of grave losses was the multiplication of large estates (p. 62), which more or less forcibly freed themselves from urban fiscal administration, depriving towns of the opportunity to pass on their burdens to the countryside. And meanwhile these hardships were punctuated by the holocausts of invasions and civil wars that afflicted the towns even worse than the countryside. Indeed, two of the greatest creations of Gallic urbanisation, Lugdunum (Lyon) (197) and Augustodunum (Autun) (269), were destroyed. Aurelian’s soldiers wanted to sack Tyana in Cappadocia, and he had to remind them: The reason why we are fighting is to free these cities. Let us spare these men as our own people, and seek the spoil of barbarians instead.’43

Yet almost at the moment when he was speaking many eastern towns lost one of their most valued privileges, namely the right to issue their own bronze coinage; for this was now being exercised, by a very few surviving mints, for the last time. The legislative rights of the cities were also no more, and the whole tradition of municipal autonomy had been eroded to vanishing point. The town councils’ main purpose was now to levy supplies for the central government, and to this end their membership, in about the time of Diocletian, became not only compulsory but the permanent duty of a hereditary caste. What people thought about these jobs is illustrated by the penalty imposed by Maxentius on a Christian; he condemned him to be a town councillor. Nevertheless, avoidance remained possible, for Constantine complained that the councils were left desolate.44 One of the main reasons for such vacancies was a constant drain of council personnel into official jobs. Earlier emperors had likewise been unable to prevent this, and now there was an additional and abundant leakage because many councillors saw a new means of escape in admission to holy orders. Constantine tried to block the avenue by ruling that, while the poor should be maintained by the wealth of the churches, the rich ought to support the needs of this world.

And yet in spite of all these compulsions town life continued after a fashion, and sometimes without too much hardship. At Dura, for example, the cost of living remained fairly cheap. Important new cities appeared from time to time, notably Philip’s foundation Philippopolis at his birthplace near Shahba in the Jebel Druze. The towns of Roman Africa were never more prosperous than between 175 and 240. Even after that, there was still a good deal of building as far afield and apart as Ostia, Britain and Egypt.45 Moreover, Greek urban life, though some of its better manifestations had been driven underground, was hard to destroy, and would re-emerge later on. But it could never be the same again, and could never revive the self-sufficiency of earlier days. For meanwhile the urban middle class everywhere was almost taxed out of existence, or forced into the direct service of the emperor (p. 62).

This class had been the most typical institution of the ancient world, and was responsible for its major triumphs; it had also, under Roman rule, produced a regular supply of local loyalists or quislings prepared to collaborate with the central government. And yet any emperor who disliked the town-dwellers had his reasons. Leaving out of account their cultural dullness and unoriginality (which was not likely to worry a man like Maximinus I), they had for centuries lavished excessive sums on capital development and popular entertainment, and much of the imperial interference which had fallen upon them was due to their own extravagance and inefficiency. The rich townsmen, moreover, when not seeking popularity by adding unnecessary public buildings, spent their money on private luxuries or invested them in land; neither added to the wealth of the community. Moreover, some of the third-century emperors, with their peasant backgrounds, may have appreciated that the excessively urban nature of ancient civilisation had set up a political and economic structure which disastrously divided the towns from the unprivileged countryside.

And yet this countryside, though it continued to be excluded from power, always remained the backbone of the Roman imperial economy. In an empire where foreign trade had never been important and was now further restricted by frontier hostilities and export bans, and where internal markets were limited to the very few people who could afford to buy any manufactured products whatever, the entire commerce and industry of all the cities together did not amount to more than 5% of the revenue of the state – that is to say, of the payments in cash and kind required for the army and other services. The remaining 95% had to be found from agriculture: principally wheat, with barley as the second most important cereal crop. And yet the cultivation of the land, in spite of these massive responsibilities, could not be improved very much, because a system founded on slaves46 and tied tenants or serfs offered no incentives towards technological advance. Methods of cultivation and transport alike stagnated in conditions more primitive than those of the Middle Ages.47

And so the empire’s output never rose much beyond bare subsistence level. During the third century agriculture, like commerce, does not, as has been sometimes supposed, show a uniform downward movement. Asia Minor was saved by its dependence on villages, and Britain, Aquitania, Syria, Palestine, north Africa and even disorderly Egypt had their agricultural successes. And yet a certain amount of soil must have gone out of use during the period. Factors contributing to this loss of cultivated areas included soil exhaustion and denudation, civil wars and invasions and plagues,48the failure and disappearance of cultivators ruined by heavy taxes, and the conscription of many more for the army and other services. The waste lands which thus came into being attracted the concern of a number of rulers.49 Shrinkage of agricultural soil throughout the empire has been estimated at an average figure of 15%. This was, for the most part, ground of inferior quality, and did not therefore represent the same percentual loss of production. Nevertheless, the diminution of land-use meant that those peasants who remained had a smaller area from which to raise their payments in kind.

Nor is it likely that the total population of the empire remained at its former figure of about seventy millions.50 The devastations which caused land to go out of use raised the death-rate, and many country people were too poor to bring up their children. So the government’s ever increasing demands for goods were levied not only from a smaller area, but also probably from a smaller population. But this was just the sort of factor likely to make emperors redouble their efforts to make their exactions as comprehensive as possible; and since the agricultural element in the imperial revenue was of such overwhelming importance, the conscriptions and compulsions imposed upon townsmen in cities and corporations were meticulously extended to the inhabitants of rural areas.

A great many of these, uprooted by the disorders of the third century, took refuge in the manorial estates which became one of the most prominent features of the age. Much the largest among such properties were those belonging to the crown. By his ownership of this vast and scattered complex of lands,51 administered by an important ministry and contributing largely to the maintenance of parasitic Italy (p. 52), the emperor was far the greatest landowner in his empire. Furthermore he had become, by the third century, the greatest industrialist as well; for his mines, quarries and other industries, undertaken originally to support the needs of the estates themselves, had been expanded to dimensions which no other citizen, however wealthy, could begin to approach. In all these imperial activities, agricultural and industrial alike, forced labour was increasingly employed, and yet in order to stimulate recruitment the workers on imperial estates jealously tried to maintain their exemption from municipal burdens (p. 59).52

However, the emperor, although outstanding among landowners, was not alone in the field. For the concentration of peasants and other labourers on imperial land was increasingly mirrored on a smaller but still a very substantial scale in other estates. Indeed, during the third century AD, these had replaced small-holdings as the dominant pattern of settlement and society. ‘The rich’, said St Cyprian, ‘add properties to properties and chase the poor from their borders. Their lands extend without limit or measure.’ The domains were controlled from huge country manors such as those which archaeologists have unearthed at Anthée (Namur), Cheragan (Toulouse), Brijuni Veliki (Istria) and Fövenypuszta (Hungary). But there were also similar mansions and ranches in north Africa, Asia Minor, Babylonia, Palestine, Syria and South Russia. Some of these land–owners belonged to the old established wealthy class, but on the whole this was a new aristocracy. The men who did well out of the authoritarian state regarded land as the only permanent investment for their gains. In Britain, as elsewhere, they lived at first in the towns, maintaining their estates as absentee landlords, but then during troubled times they withdrew to these country strongholds.

To the surrounding populations, the fortified manors were able to offer security. They provided a refuge to ruined freeholders, destitute urban workers and uprooted rustics, barbarians, vagabonds, deserters and slaves on the run. Without too many questions asked, these men became tenants(coloni) of the large proprietors and helped the slaves and imported barbarian settlers to cultivate their ranches.53 Those who had a little land of their own placed it under the partial or complete control of their protectors, to whom they paid a fixed proportion of their crop.

These were self-contained great-house economies in which the central residence was surrounded by clusters of industrial as well as agricultural buildings.54 The lords of the manor mobilised troops of tenants (bucellarii) who warded off disorderly plunderers – and tax collectors, both from the central administration and the cities, were kept at a distance too. But emperors could not do without the income which this new and powerful element in society was in a position to guarantee. Accordingly, the government came to an agreement with the landowners, in a fateful bargain and alliance. Their tax obligation was assessed at a fixed total, and they were authorised to raise this sum and whatever else they could from their tenants.

The texts of jurists reflect the rise of these self-sufficient feudal units. Emperors at first favoured legislation to protect the coloni, but before the third century was far advanced this considerate attitude had become subordinated to the need for funds. The instruments chosen to satisfy this need, the owners of the large estates, were excellently placed to cheat, not only the treasury, but also their own tenants, who rapidly deteriorated into serfs. Their wages were pegged down by the slave-labour with which they competed, and their helplessness laid them open to extortionate demands. Their fathers might have paid taxes amounting to one-third of their annual yield; they themselves probably paid as much as a half to their feudal boss. And the state, in collusion with these barons, decided that adequate extortions could only be maintained if tenants were forbidden to move from place to place. This process of fastening coloni to the soil had begun as early as the time of Hadrian. He deplored the practice,55 and indeed even in the third century the law still left them free to go elsewhere. But a hundred years later they were officially tied to the land, and so were their descendants after them. In Europe, where there was always a source of potential new labourers from across the frontier, this subjection took some time to exercise full effects. It was more readily achieved in Greek lands, where hereditary service at a man’s native place had been an institution of the monarchies that preceded Roman rule.

The emperor who completed the process of binding these tenants to estates was Diocletian, whose tax-assessments required that the rural populace should stay at work in the places where they were registered in the census. Thus landowners, as a reward for collaborating with the government, were relieved of their labour worries. Constantine confirmed that the attachment of tenants to manorial estates was legally binding, and he allowed landowners to cast into chains those suspected of planning to get away. Escape all too often meant vagabondage and beggary, but there were other loopholes and evasions as well, for the machinery for enforcement on the vast scale needed was lacking.56 Moreover, in the Byzantine provinces ecclesiastical influence gradually secured mitigation of the law’s full rigours, and after c. 600 eastern tenants became almost free. But the west, although it had been slower to adopt the system, did not relinquish it, and serfdom finally became the most characteristic of medieval Institutions.

And so the government had imposed corporate and hereditary compulsion and liability upon the guilds, the cities and the tenants of great estates. Nor did compulsion stop there, for Diocletian and Constantine extended similar controls to government employees of every kind.57 Soldiers, civil servants, miners; arms manufacturers, and workers in the state textile factories58; employees of the imperial police and postal service and mints and graveyards; all were under permanent and inherited obligations to remain at their jobs.

Except perhaps in the minds of a few lawyers, these gloomy results were not the expression of some theoretical étatist ideal. The authoritarian system was established because the Roman state would not be able to survive unless the army, confronted with vital tasks, received enormously increased payments in money and kind; and without this cumulation of Essential Work Orders and Restriction on Engagement Orders, these contributions could not have been extracted from the population.59

Even if there was a merciful inability to bring into effect every coercion and prohibition which the emperors and jurists had thought out, this was a totalitarian state beyond anything which the ancient Assyrians or the Ptolemies of Egypt had contrived. The censor-ridden, standardising police-administration advocated by Plato’s Laws had arrived, and there seemed no possibility of its withering away. Aristotle regarded the state as originating in bare needs, and continuing in existence for the sake of the good life. But now, if the empire was to hang together, its bare needs were so great that the good life was enjoyed by very few. Even under earlier emperors, presiding over far more relaxed régimes, Tacitus had noted that liberty was the price that had to be paid for peace.60 But he could have had no conception of the third and fourth centuries in which almost every trace of personal freedom was sacrificed to national survival. By these grim means, the empire regained its position against all its enemies, and endured. Many of its inhabitants at the time must have wondered if it was worth saving at the price.

If, on the other hand, these methods had not been adopted to hold the Roman world together, the classical heritage which it had taken over from ancient Greece could not have come down to us; and Christianity would have lacked the framework and civilised background which enabled it to expand.

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