November 03, 2008

The uses of a Fiscal Bonus

In the dictatorship of Camillus (c. 396 BC) Rome finally captured its great rival Veii. Livy tells us that Camillus recognised immediatly that the city 'would yield more in plunder than all the previous campaigns put together' (V 20). Even if we discount Livy's words as hyperbolic, Veii was still an impressive capture and an important one for Rome- and not merely in strategical terms. It was an important city within the Etruscan confederation. Rome had had to exert new fiscal and military strategies- including a paid army which served all year- in order to put down its rival. But they also confronted Rome with a new problem- a problem that Camillus recognised that even as dictator he could not deal with- the problem of a sudden amount of plunder. As he beseiged the city- he sought advice from the senate about what to do with the plunder he might acquire.

There were two positions within the senate. Livy makes us privy to the arguments. It is noticable that the typical Roman position which had focussed on the land that they had conquered was not amongst the position in the senate- wealth not land was the key to the importance of Veii within domestic Roman politics. The first position, identified with Publius Licinius, was that Rome should invite its over taxed people to go to Veii and strip the town of its wealth- they should earn the plunder as a 'real relief' from the vast taxation that they paid. (V 20). In opposition to Licinius, Appius Claudius argued that the money should be taken into the Roman treasury and 'the money should be used for paying the troops. Every family would feel the benefit and city idlets would be prevented from laying greedy fingers on a prize that should go by rights to men who had fought bravely for their country'. (V 20). Eventually the senate decided to go with Licinius- fearing the anger of the population if they took Appius's course (V 21).

Whether they were right or not is something that is difficult at this distance to say. But what I think this debate throws into relief is the continuation of a modern issue. To be provocative, as my title indicates, one could argue that Rome had received an unexpected fiscal bonus: the state was suddenly rich with expected plunder. The question between Licinius and Appius was what to do with that bonus- whether to grant it as a direct gift to the people or to use it to reduce taxation in the long term. What we have here is a debate about the distribution of this good- whether it should go to the classes paying the taxes, or to those who were most likely to go to plunder the city. In a sense this is a debate about the distribution of fiscal bonuses- and it is perhaps the most modern thing I have yet seen in Livy. The modern state is a state which collects taxes- as soon as you have taxes, you have issues about their distribution and something which approximates to modern debates about the way that the state's finances both are used and are paid for. This fiscal bonus indicates a 'modern' facet to Roman politics which was directly related to the development of taxation and to the development of war.

As President Eisenhower might say, the military-industrial complex had arrived in ancient Rome with all its issues- that we as moderns are familiar with.


Crushed said...

You made points in your last post about Roman economics.

I think largely, those points are valid. I think Roman was possibly the first clearly monetary power- as in one where precious metals assumed such huge significance.

Essentially of course, Rome was a slave state, a society that continually fuelled itself by seeking fresh peoples to plunder.

Its people lived such luxurious lives because someone else somewhere was paying. It was the first empire of that type.

Georg said...

Again and again the United States of America have been compared to ancient Rome.

As Crushed says "someone else somewhere was paying" but Rome did not just gobble it up. These people created a legacy for us and the world.


Gracchi said...

Crushed- yes I agree. I'm not sure to what extent Rome was a slave state at this point- though I do know that there were slaves there- particularly as there were slave revolts at least some reported by Livy. I haven't written about them yet because I need a longer statement from Livy about them- but we shall get to them in time I'm sure. I think that anxiety existed at all times.

As to 'seeking new peoples to plunder' yes and no. I think there is a point to what you say. But it is true that the Roman empire did not conquer anywhere from 0AD to 400AD with the exception of the marginal province of Britain (50AD) and the shortlived conquests of Trajan. The effects of trade should be noted as well- the reason that Rome's fall was so disastrous say in Britain was that a society that depended on specialised gains from trade was deprived of connections to the empire. Its worth looking in this context at the spread of African pottery- we can see plentiful amounts as far afield as Dumfries. Trade I would say was crucial to Rome- as crucial if not more than conquest.

Georg- I actually think the main legacy for the US and the rest of the world is the one of trade. Rome was incredibly rich as was China- and historically free trade areas have been wealthy because of empire (our own era is one of the leading ones in terms of trade between smaller states) but they are also vulnerable. They are vulnerable to the breakdown of trade- through invasion, environmental catastrophe (earthquake etc) or illness and that's the huge danger today. If we went back to subsistence levels- as Britain did in the 100 years between 400-500 we would see famine and death on a huge scale as well as the complete breakdown of civil order. That's the danger- I think its very remote but its worth remembering Rome's fall in taht context.

goodbanker said...

Crushed comments on Rome's need to fuel itself by seeking fresh peoples to plunder. Gracchi points out that there were essentially no conquests during the first four centuries (AD), prior to the fall of the (western) Roman Empire. I suggest both these points can stand perfectly validly: I'm reminded of Ibn Khaldun's "Muqaddimah", in which he draws out how dynasties go through successive stages of 1. success/overthrow of opposition, 2. gaining control over the people, 3. leisure and tranquillity (when the fruits of authority are enjoyed), 4. contentment and peacefulness [n.b. I never quite understood how this differed from stage 3.!], 5. waste and squandering. In this last stage "the dynasty is seized by senility...and, eventually, it is destroyed".

Isn't this cycle of dynastic stages a common feature of all Empires - Roman, Hun/Avar/Mongol, Umayyad/Abbasid, etc. - at least until the modern day? And this is where georg's point comes in: Rome may have created a legacy for the world; but as it became more bloated (for instance, by paying for a standing army), the Roman Empire (in stage 5. of Ibn Khaldun's cycle) was increasingly vulnerable to barbarian attacks (who were enjoying being in stage 1. of Ibn Khaldun's cycle). The Roman Empire 0-400 AD arguably represented Ibn Khaldun's stages 3. and 4. But here's where I would suggest the difference is between the USA and Rome: since World War II, with few exceptions, (first world) sovereign nations are no longer in the business of "conquer or be conquered" (even Russia no longer seeks to occupy its satellites indefinitely - cf. Georgia earlier this year); rather, modern countries' political systems are now sufficiently mature so as to have reached an equilibrium in their territorial expansion / contraction. On this basis, I would posit that there is no foreseeable prospect of the USA declining and falling like Rome did (at least not unless there is the very remote disaster that Gracchi concludes his comment with - and even then, it's worth remembering that the archeological evidence of immediate post-Roman Britain does not support the contention that there was a complete breakdown of civil order, whatever Gildas might have written).