Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Italian Niche: Rome, Italy and the Provinces, First Century B.C. (1)

The senatorial system of government was attacked by a succession of revolutionary politicans with a definite programme, which was, to transfer all power to the popular assembly, to redistribute the land, and to extend the limits of the franchise. Of this programme the last item only was realized to some extent, and that after a cruel war: the whole of Italy was admitted to the body of Roman citizens. The other two points led to a long political conflict, in the heat of which their real meaning was forgotten. Rome was divided into two camps__the partisans of the Senate, and its enemies. Meantime the need of constitutional reform grew with the growth of the state. The cautious foreign policy of the Senate, which shrank from the annexation of more provinces, gave place first, in the second century B.C., to the selfish policy of the great landowners, and then, in the next century, to a frankly imperialistic policy, which was carried out both by the Senate and by the enemies of the Senate, including the class of business men who were known as "knights".

The two highest classes of Roman society, the senators and knights, were supreme ibn the provinces. The former governed the provinces with almost unlimited powers and were sometimes guilty of scandalous misconduct. The speeches of Cicero against Verres, the governor of Sicily, describe such a case in vi vid colours. The knights' chief business in the provinces was to collect the taxes and dues, which the Senate had let out to them through the agency of the censors. By collusion with the governor, by bribing him, by presenting him with shares in the joint-stock companies which were formed for the collection of taxes, the knights found it feasible to oppress the provincials and squeeze the last drop of jice out of them. It was useless to send complaints to Rome. Occasionally, as in the case of Verres, a skilfuyl advocate was willing to plead for the provincials, if he could thereby crush a political adversary or improve his own prospects of advancement. Bu in most cases the j uries, being composed of sentors or knights or both together, returned a verdict in favour of those who paid them most.

Another scandal of provincial government consisted in the exstensive financial operations of capitalists who lent money often at usurious rates of interest. The loans were advanced chiefly to the cities of the East, w hich needed them in order to satisfy the greed of tax-farmers and governors. At the beginning of the civil wars these cities were already hopelessly involved, and each aspirant to supremacy at Rome laid them under contributions which they could not pay. Their difficulties were taken advantage of by the Roman bankers and capitalist, both sentors and knights. They were ready to find money but demanded exorbitant interest and all the property of the city as security. If the city was unable to pay, the creditor was backed up by the power of Rome and demande4d his money with the help of armed force. The tributary kings were treated no better. The real purpose of many military operations carried our by the Romans in Asia Minor was to enforce the payment of debt. To take a share in the business of tax-farmers and moneylenders was so much a matter of course, that men of the highest character, Cicero, for instance, a man of unstained reputation and an excellent provincial governor, did not scruple to engage in it. Brutus, the murderer of Caesar, invested his money in loans to cities and charged interest at 48 per cent.

To be continued: (2)

Source of Information: A History of the Ancient World by M. Rostovtzeff; Volume II Rome (Translated from the Russian by J.D. Duff. Oxford at the Clarendon Press Published: 1927 Great Britain.

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