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The History of Rome

The History of Rome

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by Theodor Mommsen

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"One of the imperishable books of history." — The History Book Club Review. This abridged edition makes the great German scholar's multi-volume work accessible to a larger audience. Rivaling Gibbon, Macaulay, and Burckhardt in its scope and power, it chronicles Roman society and government from the second century BC to the end of the Republic and rise of


"One of the imperishable books of history." — The History Book Club Review. This abridged edition makes the great German scholar's multi-volume work accessible to a larger audience. Rivaling Gibbon, Macaulay, and Burckhardt in its scope and power, it chronicles Roman society and government from the second century BC to the end of the Republic and rise of Julius Caesar and helped earn Mommsen the 1902 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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The History of Rome

An Account of Events and Persons from the Conquest of Carthage to the End of the Republic

By Theodor Mommsen

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-31617-8



For a whole generation after the battle of Pydna the Roman state enjoyed a profound calm, scarcely troubled by a ripple here and there on the surface. Its dominion extended over three continents; the luster of the Roman power and the glory of the Roman name were constantly on the increase; all eyes rested on Italy, all talents and all riches flowed thither. It seemed as if a golden age of peaceful prosperity and intellectual fruitfulness must surely soon begin. The Orientals told each other with astonishment of the mighty republic of the West, "which subdued kingdoms far and near, so that everyone who heard its name trembled; but which kept good faith with its friends and dependents. Such was the glory of the Romans, and yet no one usurped the crown and no one glittered in purple dress; but they obeyed whomsoever from year to year they made their master, and there was among them neither envy nor discord."

So it seemed at a distance; matters looked differently at closer view. The government of the aristocracy was well on the way to destroying its own work. It was not that the sons and grandsons of the vanquished at Cannae and the victors of Zama had utterly degenerated from their fathers and grandfathers; the difference was not so much in the men who sat in the Senate as it was in the times. Where a few old families of established wealth and hereditary political importance conduct the government, they will display in seasons of danger an incomparable tenacity of purpose and heroic self-sacrifice—just as in seasons of tranquility they will be short-sighted, selfish, and negligent: the germs of both traits are inherent in their hereditary character. The aristocratic rottenness had long existed, but the sun of prosperity was needed to ripen it. There was profound meaning in Cato's question, "What will become of Rome when she no longer has any state to fear?"

That point had now been reached. Every neighbor whom she might have feared was politically annihilated; and of the men who had been reared under the old order of things in the severe school of the Hannibalic wars, and whose words still echoed that mighty epoch so long as they survived, death called one after another away until at length the voice of the last of them, the veteran Cato, ceased to be heard in the Senate and the Forum. A younger generation came to the helm, and their policy was a sorry answer to the question of that veteran patriot.

In internal affairs the Romans were, if possible, still more disposed than in foreign affairs to let the ship drift before the wind: if internal government means more than the mere transaction of current business, there was in this period no government in Rome at all. The single thought of the governing clique was the maintenance and, if possible, the increase of their usurped privileges. The state did not have the right to get the best man for its supreme magistracy; rather, every member of the clique had an inborn title to the highest office of the state—a title not to be threatened by the unfair rivalry of his peers or the encroachments of the excluded. Accordingly the clique set as its most important political aim the restriction of reelection to the consulship and the exclusion of "new men." It succeeded, in fact, in obtaining the legal prohibition of the former about 151 B.C., and thenceforward contented itself with a government of aristocratic nobodies. Even the government's inaction in external affairs was doubtless connected with this policy of the nobility, exclusive toward commoners and suspicious of individual members of their own order. There was no surer means to keep commoners, whose deeds might become their patent of nobility, out of the pure circles of the hereditary aristocracy than by allowing no one to perform any deeds at all. Even an aristocratic conqueror of Syria or Egypt would have embarrassed so mediocre a government.

It is true that there was no want of opposition, some of it even partly effective. The administration of justice was improved. The administrative jurisdiction which the Senate exercised either personally or by extraordinary commissions over provincial officials was confessedly inadequate; and the innovation proposed in 149 B.C. by Lucius Calpurnius Piso, for a standing commission to try the complaints of the provincials against the extortions of their Roman magistrates, had a momentous bearing on the whole public life of the Roman community. An effort was made to free the comitia from the domination of the aristocracy. The panacea of Roman democracy was vote by ballot in the assemblies of citizens, introduced first for the election of magistrates by the Gabinian Law (139 B.C.), then for the public tribunals by the Cassian Law (137 B.C.), and lastly for voting on legislative proposals by the Papirian Law (131 B.C.). Soon afterwards the senators were also required by decree of the people to give up their command of mounted soldiers on admission to the Senate, and thereby to renounce their privilege of voting in the equestrian order. These measures, directed to the emancipation of the electorate from the ruling aristocracy, may perhaps have seemed to the party which suggested them the first steps toward regenerating the state. In reality, they made not the slightest change in the impotence of the legally supreme organ of the Roman community, the citizenry. That impotence, indeed, was only the more obvious to all, whether it concerned them or not. Equally ostentatious and equally empty was the formal recognition of the independence and sovereignty of the citizens by transferring their place of assembly from the old Comitium below the Capitol to the Forum (c. 145 B.C.).

But this hostility between the formal sovereignty of the people and the actually existing constitution was largely a sham. Party phrases were in free circulation, but of parties themselves there was little trace in important practical affairs. Throughout the republic's last century the annual public election, especially to the consulship and censorship, was the real focus of political activity; but only in rare and isolated instances did the opposing candidates represent different political principles. Ordinarily the contests were purely between personalities, and it was a matter of practical indifference whether the majority of votes fell to a Caecilian or a Cornelian. The Romans thus lacked the great compensation for the evils of party politics—the spontaneous choice by the masses of the goals which they preferred—and yet endured all those evils solely for the benefit of the paltry game played by the ruling clique.

It was comparatively easy for the Roman noble to begin a political career as tribune of the people or as quaestor, but the consulship or the censorship was attainable only by great exertions prolonged over the years. The prizes were many, but those really worth having were few: the competitors ran, as a Roman poet once said, over a racecourse wide at the starting point but gradually narrowing toward the end. This was right so long as political office was (as it was called) an "honor," and so long as men of military, political, or juristic ability competed for the ultimate prizes. But now the exclusiveness of the nobility did away with the benefits of competition, and left only its disadvantages. With few exceptions the young men of the ruling families crowded into the political arena, and their impetuous and premature ambition soon sought channels more effective than mere public service. The first prerequisite for a career came to be powerful connections. Therefore that career began not, as it once had, in the camp, but in the waiting-rooms of influential men. A new and genteel body of hangers-on began to do what had formerly been done only by dependents and freedmen, to come and wait on their patron early in the morning and appear publicly in his train.

But the populace was also a great lord, and desired its share of attention. The rabble began to demand as its right that the future consul should recognize and honor the sovereign people in every ragged idler of the street, and that every candidate should in his "going round" (ambitus) salute every individual voter by name and press his hand. The world of quality readily entered into this degrading canvass. The candidate cringed not only in the palace but also on the street, and recommended himself to the multitude by flattering attentions, indulgences, and civilities. A demagogic cry for reform was sedulously employed to attract public notice and favor, and was the more effective the more it attacked personalities. It became the custom for beardless youths of genteel birth to introduce themselves noisily into public life by replaying with boyish eloquence the part of Cato, proclaiming themselves state prosecutors against some man of high standing and great unpopularity. Thus the Romans permitted the courts and the police to become a means of soliciting office. The provision (or still worse, the promise) of magnificent popular amusements had long been the accepted route to the consulship, but now the votes of the electors began to be directly bought, as is shown by the prohibition issued about 159 B.C.

Perhaps the worst consequence of this continual courting of popular favor by the ruling aristocracy was the incompatibility of such begging and fawning with the position which government should rightfully occupy in relation to the governed. The government was thus converted from a blessing to a curse for the people. It no longer ventured to dispose of the blood and treasure of the citizens, as exigency required, for the good of their country. It allowed the people to become habituated to the dangerous idea that they were legally exempt from direct taxes even as an advance: after the war with King Perseus of Macedonia ending in 168 B.C. no further advance was asked of the community. It allowed the military system to decay rather than compel the citizens to enter the hated overseas service; and hard was the fate of officials who attempted strict enforcement of the conscription laws.

In the Rome of this epoch, the twin evils of a degenerate aristocracy and an infant democracy already cankered in the bud were joined in a fatal marriage. According to their party names, which were first heard during this period, the "Optimates" wished to give effect to the will of the best, the "Populares" to that of the community; but in fact there was in Rome of that day neither a true aristocracy nor a truly self-governing community. Both parties contended alike for shadows, and numbered in their ranks none but zealots or hypocrites. Both were equally tainted by political corruption, both were equally worthless. Both were necessarily tied to the status quo, for neither had a single political idea (not to mention a political plan) reaching beyond the existing state of affairs. Accordingly, the two parties were in such entire agreement that their ends and means dovetailed at every step, and a change of party was a change of political tactics rather than of political sentiments. The commonwealth would doubtless have gained if the aristocracy had introduced a hereditary rotation, or if the democracy had produced from within itself a genuine popular government. But these "Optimates" and "Populares" of the Republic's last century were far too indispensable to each other to wage internecine war; they not only could not destroy each other, but would not have done so if they could. Meanwhile the commonwealth, politically and morally more and more unhinged, was verging toward utter disorganization.

The crisis that sparked the Roman revolution arose not out of this petty political conflict, but out of the economic and social relations which the Roman government allowed, like everything else, simply to take their course. Thus the social infection, which had long been developing, was allowed to come to a head with fearful rapidity and violence. From a very early period the Roman economy was based on two factors, always interdependent and always at odds—the husbandry of the small farmer and the money of the capitalist. The latter, hand in glove with the great landholders, had for centuries waged a war against the small farmer, a war which seemed destined to end by destroying first the farmer class and then the commonwealth. But the struggle was broken off indecisively by the extensive distribution of new lands accruing to the state from successful wars.

In that same age, which renewed the distinction between patricians and plebeians under altered names, the disproportionate accumulation of capital was preparing a second assault on the farming system. It is true that the method was different. Formerly the small farmer had been ruined by loans of money, which practically reduced him to a mere steward of his creditor; now he was crushed by the competition of overseas, especially slave-grown, grain. The capitalists kept pace with the times. While waging war against labor and against personal liberty, as they had always done to the extent permitted by law, they waged it no longer in the unseemly fashion that converted the free man into a slave through his debts, but on the contrary with slaves regularly bought and paid for; the former usurer of capital appeared in contemporary guise as the owner of commercial plantations. But in both cases the ultimate result was the same: the undermining of the Italian farms; the supplanting of small farming first in part of the provinces and then in Italy by the farming of large estates; the concentration of these large Italian farms upon cattle, oil, and wine; and finally, the replacing of free laborers both in the provinces and in Italy by slaves. Just as the new nobility was more dangerous than the old patricians, because the former could not be set aside by changing the constitution, so the new power of capital was less controllable than that of previous centuries because nothing could be done to oppose it by changing the law of the land.

Before we attempt to describe this second great conflict between labor and captial, it is necessary to give some account of the nature and extent of the slave system. We do not now refer to the old, and in some measure innocent, rural slavery, under which the farmer tilled the field along with his slave, or, if he possessed more land than he could manage, placed the slave either as a steward or as a sort of share-tenant over a detached farm. Such relationships no doubt persisted (around Comum, for instance, they were still the rule in the time of the Empire), but only as exceptions in privileged districts and on humanely managed estates. What we now refer to is the system of slavery on a grand scale, which in the Roman state as formerly in the Carthaginian grew out of the ascendancy of capital. While the captives taken in war and the hereditary transmission of slavery sufficed to keep up the stock of slaves during the earlier period, this new system of slavery was, like that of America, based on the methodically prosecuted hunting of man. For owing to the manner in which slaves were used, with little regard to their life or propagation, the slave population was constantly on the wane, and even the wars that continually furnished fresh masses to the slave markets could not cover the deficit.

No country where this species of game could be hunted remained unmolested; even in Italy it was by no means unheard of for the poor free man to be placed by his employer among the slaves. But the Negro-land of that age was western Asia, where the Cretan and Cilician corsairs, the real professional slave hunters and slave dealers, robbed the coasts of Syria and the Greek islands, and where the Roman tax gatherers emulated their feats by instituting manhunts in the satellite states and enslaving those whom they captured. This was done to such an extent that about 100 B.C. the king of Bithynia declared himself unable to furnish the required contingent of auxiliaries to the Roman army, because all his people capable of labor had been dragged off by the tax gatherers. At the great market in Delos, where the slave dealers of Asia Minor sold their wares to Italian speculators, as many as 10,000 slaves are said to have been disembarked in one morning and to have been sold before evening—a proof of how enormous was the number of slaves, and of how the demand still exceeded the supply.

It was no wonder. The Roman economy of the second century B.C. was based, like all the large-scale economies of antiquity, on the employment of slaves. In whatever direction speculation applied itself, its instrument was invariably man reduced by law to the status of a beast of burden. Trade was in great part carried on by slaves, the proceeds belonging to the master. Tax-gathering in the lower departments was regularly conducted by the slaves of the associations that leased them. Servile hands performed the operations of mining, of making pitch, and others of a similar kind. It early became the custom to send herds of slaves to the Spanish mines, whose superintendents readily paid a high rent for them. The vine and olive harvest of Italy was not conducted by the people on the estate, but was contracted for by a slave operator. The armed, and frequently mounted, slave herdsmen who roamed the great pastoral districts of Italy were soon transplanted to those provinces which were favored by Roman speculation—Dalmatia, for example, had hardly been acquired (155 B.C.) before Roman capitalists introduced there the rearing of cattle on a great scale after the Italian fashion.


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