May 17, 2009

Economics and Politics

One of the constants of Roman politics according to Livy was the conflict between the Plebeian and Patrician groupings. These groups must have varied across time in their composition- but internal dissention was definitely an element of Roman politics that persisted until the end of the Republic. The fundamental causes of that dissention remained various- they ranged from the possession of various offices to the conduct of military campaigns. Livy's account of the dissention of the 350s allows us to see a history of dispute over debt- and reading into it an interesting expedient which demonstrates how far the patricians at this period controlled the state and used it for their own ends. It is worth reading through Livy's account here and not just reading what he says- the historian supplies us with a broken and sporadic account of matters which when brought together have a different appearance.

What I am going to do is to provide you now with a list of events as Livy lays them out and then discuss them later. In 358BC the people's tribune Gaius Poetelius put a law against bribery to the people which was approved 'as authorised by the Senate'. (VII 15) In 357 and 'less welcome to the senate' the people's tribunes passed a proposal that limited the rate of interest to 1/12 (Livy does not mention a period in which interest might accrue) and the 'people voted for this with even greater enthusiasm than for the other proposal' (VII 16). In the same year one of the consuls, Gaius Marcius, got a law passed by holding an assembly in his camp, a precedent which 'disturbed' the tribunes for they worried about what soldiers might agree to when constrained by a military oath (VII 16). The next few years see arguments about whether a plebeian should be allowed to be consul (VII 17). Livy though also mentions that 'at home the Roman plebs was less fortunate than in war. Although usury had been reduced by the fixing of the rate of interest at one twelfth, the indigent still found the capital sum borrowed a crushing burden which led to their enslavement for debt.' (VII 19) The next year, dissension in Rome including 'public brawls' led to a 'general inclination for peace' which produced a plebeian and patrician consul who found a temporary solution to the crisis of debt. They proposed that 'where accounts were long standing and obstructed more by debtors' inertia than by their lack of means, either they were repaid from the Treasury from banking tables with ready cash set up in the Forum, after first safe guarding the interests of the people, or they were settled by a valuation at fair prices of the debtor's property. The crushing burden of debt was swept away not only without injustice but also without complaint from either party'. (VII 22)

I have constructed this narrative out of Livy: he does not place these entries together but intersperces them with an account of Rome's military campaigns. What we have here though are two concurrently running political crises which I think are worth analysing- both bear testament to the rising costs of living within Rome and to a state imposed solution which we will turn to in the next paragraph. On the one hand we have the measure about bribery. Before this point for ten years the consuls had been patrician- I would suggest, though Livy gives me no warrent to do so, that one of the consequences of the banning of bribery was that the patricians steadily lost control over the popular assembly. Hence expedients like passing laws in the camp were tried. It is perhaps worth asking why the senate therefore was so keen on banning bribery- oncemore we might make a conjecture that the cost of the bribes was exceeding the wealth of the senate. Let us pass to the other story here which is about debt- the loss of bribes may have hurt the plebs, so consequently in 357 they get a diminished rate of interest. However even that will not suffice to help them because it is not merely the interest payments but the quantity of the debt as a capital sum that weighs them down (and hence inevitably large interest payments). So we have on their side an insolvency problem- that leads to rioting but also to a worry that the patricians will not recover their debt.

Livy allows us to think that the settlement was a settlement which all would agree to- but my reading of what he tells us was settled is different. Essentially what Livy tells us was the settlement safeguarded the interests of the debt collector but not of the debtor. There are two measures he mentions contained within his settlement: the first is that the state undertakes to bear the risk of bad debts, the second is that the debtor's property is securely valued (possibly for confiscation!) and redeemable against the debt. The first measure guarentees the debt collector his funds- at the expense of the general public. The second measure guarentees the debt collector his funds so long as the indebted person has assets against which those funds can be redeemed. What Livy is telling us about is therefore a solution which would solve a crisis for the capital rich yet not for those who are borrowing the capital- this solves the crisis that the bribery measure was designed to solve- a crisis of wealth in the senate not in the plebeian population.

One should think of Roman politics at this point as a struggle to find a shifting point of stability in a conflict between classes or orders within the regime. What I would suggest is a slightly different interpretation to a naive reading of Livy: one has to remember that there were rich plebeians as well as poor plebeians. What the dispositions of the reforms which contented everyone (according to Livy) did were to open offices to the rich plebeians and to guarentee the senate's debts from the poorest plebeians- in a sense we should read this as a compromise not between the senate and the people but between the rich that were senators and the rich that were not. In reality the story that Livy tells is a conflict between two groups- one of which could always play the card of plebeian solidarity and rouse the passions of those outside politics, the other used briberty to get its way- at this point in Rome's history, debt, bribery and the issue of the plebeian consuls came together. The new point of stability was where bribery was banned, debt guarenteed by the state and the plebeian consulate resumed: of course with a changing economic situation, the kaleidescope might be shaken again and we should remember when thinking about Rome and Livy's history of it that the stability was always a fragile one.