22 August 2018

Some Thoughts on the Roman Republic's Weakneses

It's been close to a year since I last wrote on a topic from European history, so with my 5-part post on Classical Chinese done, I think now's a good time. And since I just began translating Ad Astra, I'll go mainstream and talk about Rome for once. But rather than talk about how strong Rome was thanks to its military, I'm going to talk about how weak the Roman Republic was as a state and how this contributed to its fall. Just a heads-up, this post is really just a book summary in disguise which — I know, I know — is a lazy thing to do. But I do think the book brings a perspective many supposed Romaboos who only ever read Osprey military books don't quite seem to be aware of.

So what do I mean when I call the Roman Republic a "weak state?" A Romaboo may rightfully claim, "Just look at aaaaallll that fucking land it conquered and successfully held onto! Look at its sophisticated republican government divided into legislative, executive, and judicial branches! Or look how it managed to conduct periodic censuses and levy either labour or wealth in order to run a successful conscript-based army!" I of course concede all these claims and have to admit I'm being a little click-baitey here. When I say the Roman Republic was a weak state, I'm in no way putting them on the same level as the Romano-Germanic successor kingdoms of late antiquity and early medieval eras. But the Roman Republic's state institutions were designed for a city state and as it rapidly expanded, especially during the 2nd century BC, it failed to appropriately expand its state capacity, defined here as the state's ability to administer its territories and manage non-state actors such as private citizens. Three indicators of the Republic's failure to strengthen its state capacity can be seen in its census, public works, and taxation.
From pp. 13-14 of P.A. Brunt's Italian Manpower 225 BC - AD 14
So if you look at the years listed in the above image, you'll see that Rome conducted regular censuses typically once every 5 years but at least once a decade... until the end of the 2nd century. In fact, in the entire last century of the Republic's existence, only 2 censuses were fully carried out. Now you might think that's not too odd since the last century of the Republic's existence was a turbulent one, fraught with civil wars and political violence. Or you might also think that censuses were no longer really necessary to maintain a conscript-army when the Marian reforms allowed poor, landless Romans to enlist in the army (previously, conscription was restricted to the patricians and the top 5 wealthiest plebeian classes as identified by the census).

But consider that two censuses were still taken during the 2nd Punic War when things were hardly super stable for the Republic. And even after the Marian reforms of 107 BC, there was still some need for censuses since the expanding army from frequent conscription meant that the Republic needed its various municipalities to levy men as Brunt argues in his book. Of course, for most of 70s BC and 50s BC, there was an abeyance of censorships, but there was also a string of censorships during the 60s BC. Yet these censors were only able to make several incomplete censuses and even Pompey, that great conqueror of the East and exterminator of pirates, wished to carry out a new census to figure out just who was entitled to the grain dole but never ended up seeing it through (a large enough grain supply seemed to have partly obviated the need). As such, what we have here seems to be less a sign of censuses being no longer needed but more a sign of the Republic being unwilling to overhaul the censorship by increasing its numbers/funding so that it could function properly even as both the population and Republic's territories expanded.
From p. 29 of James Tan's Power and Public Finance at Rome (264-49 BCE).
Btw, "manubial buildings" are those that were vowed in battle and funded from the spoils.
Moving onto public services, we've all heard of the marvels of the ancient world that were Rome's famous roads and aqueducts. Initially, these infrastructural projects like the Via Appia and Aqua Appia (Rome's first major road and aqueduct) were often commissioned by a censor using public funds. But here too, we see a similar pattern of declining activity during Republic's spectacular 2nd century BC that won its Mediterranean hegemony. The number of censorial public building declines dramatically (the black bits in the bar graph) and if it weren't for all the spoils of war flooding into Italy, the total numbers would be quite small. Of course, this data is likely skewed in part by the loss of many sections of Livy's annals, but the well-recorded last few decades of the Republic strongly suggests that the lack of public building was a historical reality. And it wasn't simply in the building of new projects where state involvement seems to have receded but also in its maintenance. Despite Rome of the late Republic likely becoming the world's most populous city with anywhere from 750,000 to 1,000,000 inhabitants, there was a remarkable lack of interest in the state stepping up its administration of this Eternal City. For example, within the city walls, there were no actual paid state-officials monitoring the supply of water. Rather, aediles simply appointed two residents in each neighbourhood to monitor it as a civic service. This seems to have been woefully inadequate since upon becoming emperor, Augustus immediately made Agrippa the permanent water commissioner endowed with a whole team of slaves to carry out this duty. Even when it came to the grain dole, "no permanent measures were implemented to source, transport, store, and distribute grain for the benefit of the urban population before Gaius Gracchus' program of 123, more than a century after Rome began to draw a tithe of grain from Sicily and Sardinia" (Tan 26). And like with the water supply, Augustus must have found these reforms of Gaius and Clodius were still inadequate, because he reformed this too not long after becoming emperor.
Photograph of Roman legionary looking smug after the Battle of Pydna,
resulting in the subjugation of Macedonia (circa 168 BC, colourized)
In case you aren't familiar with the history of the Roman Republic and think the above issues are simply due to a lack of funds, I just want to stress how rich Rome was from the late 2nd century BC and onwards. After the subjugation of Macedonia in 167 BC, the Republic made enough money from mines, war indemnities, taxation of non-Romans, and indirect taxation (customs and excise) that it ended the tributum, a levy on property that basically served as a form of direct taxation (more on this point later). And even though the number of legions ballooned from 10 at the time of tributum was ended to 40-50 by the last few decades of the Republic, this exemption from direct taxation wasn't reversed until Diocletian's tax reforms more than 300 years later. This is quite peculiar in the history of warlike, sedentary fiscal states. The typical fiscal pattern for aggressive, expansionist states is to be on the constant search for maximizing state revenues as the cost of wars were so prohibitively expensive. But not only did the Roman Republic cease to directly tax Roman citizens, but it also heavily relied on a highly inefficient form of taxation for non-Roman provinces known as tax farming, which is when you employ private contractors to collect direct taxes. So imagine that the state might demand some ballpark estimate of $X for province Y, and some contractor will say he can deliver 20% more than that, while another contractor will say he can do 30% more. The latter would then get hired and try to squeeze out more so that he can pocket the difference as profit. Unsurprisingly, this led to more than a few cases of provincial unrest in response to extremely exploitative Roman tax-farmers.

But the usage of middle-men who're non-state actors is not inherently a bad thing and not even necessarily oppressive. Typically, indirect taxes like customs and excises are hard to measure, so contracting out their collection will incentivise the middle-man more than a regular state-official who has no such incentive and might half-ass it. Additionally, tax farming may even be desirable when low state capacity makes it too inefficient for the state to handle taxation by itself, perhaps because of low literacy rates even for the elites or the lack of capital to maintain a proper bureaucracy. And in many pre-modern states, the reliance on non-state actors to handle taxes can help maintain social order because it's a way for local elites to maintain patronage networks and make sure there isn't some rampant unemployment problem or starvation going on due to oppressive taxation. So how does one make sense out of the widespread use of tax farming in the Roman Republican context? Some historians have simply posited that the Republic just lacked the bureaucracy to do this, but this doesn't really answer the question because then we have to ask why didn't the Republic create the necessary bureaucracy to maximize state revenues. It's clearly not a case of the Republic being unaware of bureaucracies, since its Eastern contemporaries had such bureaucracies (*cough EGYPT cough*). In fact, this is partly why many Roman tax farms in its Eastern territories were novel creations rather than the Romans simply continuing the tax traditions of their predecessors. Moreover, even without creating a centralized bureaucracy or increasing the level of state administration, Caesar curtailed the massive profits that Roman tax-farmers were making through by abolishing some tax farms in the East and simply letting the provincial cities handle the collection and delivery of taxes themselves.

So now that I've outlined that the Roman Republic failed to grow its state capacity correspondingly despite its expanding territories and populations, two questions remain. 1) Why this lack of growth? 2) Why does this matter?
An interesting way to go about answering these two interrelated questions is by examining on the political violence triggered by Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus. For the purposes of this post, I'll assume you know who the Gracchi brothers but if you don't, Extra Credits did a pretty good job at making an entertaining and accessible 6-part video series on them so give that a watch. Now, Extra Credits and most other overviews of the Gracchi's populism easily assume that the senatorial class reacted violently because the content of Gracchi's reforms was incompatible with the senators' interests. This isn't entirely wrong but it does gloss over a few facts. For one, it's not immediately understandable why some senators would have initially resisted Tiberius' land reform (lex Sempronia Agraria) to an almost irrational extent. While the violent backlash against Tiberius is more understandable once he dared to do things that no tribune of pleb had even thought about doing (like seizing the treasury of Pergamum without consulting the senate), we should remember that Tiberius only resorted to such daring measures after his land reform was initially resisted by the senate. For you see, Tiberius' initial proposal was quite a mild measure that would have financially compensated the senators who illegally owned public land. As Plutarch puts it:
And it is thought that a law dealing with injustice and rapacity so great was never drawn up in milder and gentler terms. For men who ought to have been punished for their disobedience and to have surrendered with payment of a fine the land which they were illegally enjoying, hese men it merely ordered to abandon their unjust acquisitions upon being paid the value, and to admit into ownership of them such citizens as needed assistance. (The Life of Tiberius Gracchus, 9.2)
The mild and just nature of this reform lent itself to being publicly supported by a number of well-respected senators. The sources clearly name 6 of the most prominent senators who supported Tiberius' land reform, and these senators all eventually became senators and at least 5 of them hailed from families of consular standing. And upon Tiberius' death, his opponents simply allowed the land commission to redistribute land at least until 129 BC. Furthermore, while some historians point out that the mere idea of wealth redistribution through land was really more a Greek tradition that was anathema to conservative Roman elites, others such as Fiona Tweedie point out that the lex Sempronia Agraria was aimed specifically at settling poor, landless veteran legionaries and draws from a Roman tradition of settling veterans that had been active until the 140s BC. If the Republic, that is the res publica, was defined as the "public thing" or res populi (the people's property) as Cicero would later put it, then how do we explain the extreme opposition to Tiberius' idea of using public land to benefit the brave legionaries who had risked their life for Rome and had conquered these lands to begin with?
This is the book whose points I'm basically regurgitating/summarizing in this post by the way.
It's a short and fun read, so I do highly recommend it.
The way that James Tan answers this question is show that the Gracchi brothers had a very different conception of the state and its proper roles compared to their opposition. It wasn't simply that their reforms touched the nerves of Roman elites, "but also because they (intentionally or unintentionally) established a working principle for the distribution of resources in the future" (155). The Gracchi brothers saw that the Punic wars and other 2nd century BC conquests enriched Rome, but more specifically, it enriched Roman elites rather than the state. This was a problem to be redressed since for the Gracchi, the point of a res publica was to ensure the communal well-being of Rome. If this meant giving the state enough muscle to redistribute land, deliver grain to the people, or censors who would actually uphold the laws, then so be it. However, for many Roman elites, the state was simply a level playing field without agency of its own upon which the aristocrats could exercise their libertas. This libertas should not be confused with our modern notions of liberty, but rather the liberty for an aristocrat to exercise his privileges and, in doing so, confirm his privileged identity. As Scipio Aemilianus put it, "out of integrity comes respect, out of respect comes public office, out of public office comes the right to give commands (imperium), and out of the right to give commands comes libertas" (161). Hence, if the state was to defend the libertas of Roman elites, then the state's power had to be minimized so as to allow individual autonomy for these elites.

So to unpack this idea more, take for example public services such as constructing new buildings, maintaining a city's water supply, or providing a grain dole to the poor. If a powerful state simply had a large staff of nameless state-employees providing such services, who does the average Roman citizen thank and respect? The state. However, if the actual state institutions are so weak that the magistrates had to draw upon their personal wealth and connections to get the job done, who then does the Roman citizen thank and respect? The aristocrat. And this is more or less how the late Republic functioned. People like Pompey or Caesar used the state (by serving as its magistrates and military commanders) to bring personal riches and glory to themselves. They disliked the idea of having an efficient system of taxation that would leave most of the money in the state treasury that they only had temporary, restricted access to when in office. They welcomed the decline of censorial construction via public funds because it allowed them to construct lavish public buildings that they could then point and say, "I built that. Not the republic. But ME." This is the privatization of public space as Amy Russell put it, but more broadly speaking, these elites who were richer than ever and who could privately fund entire armies were "alternative states" as Michael H. Crawford put it (side note: when I say richer, I mean RICHER since the wealth of Roman aristocrats seemed to have ballooned by perhaps 3 ORDERS of magnitude over the course of the mid/late Republic). Thus, the dilletantist, ad hoc, or simply lacking nature of the Republic's state capacity as I discussed above was not a bug but an intended feature envisaged by most Roman aristocrats. As these "alternative states" became richer and more powerful than ever over the course of the 2nd and 1st centuries BC and competed for personal glory, it was all but inevitable that intra-elite competition would have ramped up to unsustainable levels. Not surprisingly, when this intra-elite competition ended with a single victor, Augustus and later emperors saw that it was to their benefit to centralize power to the state.
Here's another random image of an anime-ized Roman legionary looking hella fine.
I'm not from NorCal, btw.
And this is why, as I stated in the beginning of this post, that the Republic's weak state capacity contributed to its demise. In typical lectures on why the Republic fell, you'll be told that it ultimately stemmed from the unequal distribution of the wealth that poured into Rome after the 2nd punic war and 2nd century BC conquests. This helped paved the path towards the violent political struggle between avaricious patricians and populist demagogues who stood up for increasing numbers of landless/indebted Romans. It also created the need to adopt Marian reforms which led to professional soldiers becoming more loyal to their commanders than to the Republic. Now these are all reasons that I agree with but an influx of wealth does not have to necessarily lead to an increasing Gini coefficient and political instability. I mean, sure, the cynic in me says I'm absolutely fucking wrong, but what I'm trying to point out is that the Republic wasn't doomed to unsustainable levels of internal political strife when wealth and slaves flooded into Italy after successful military conquests.One has to admit it's at least possible, though probably not likely, that the Roman Republic could have gone down a different path. Had the Gracchi brothers not been successfully and so vehemently opposed, perhaps they could have changed how Romans conceived of the proper functions of their Republic. Perhaps they could have come to see that it was necessary to increase the state's autonomy and authority by creating new state institutions or enhancing existing ones.

The reason why I say this wasn't likely is because when the tributum was ended in 167 BC as I previously mentioned, the plebeian Roman citizenry lost their bargaining power. In the time of the Punic Wars and before that, the prohibitive costs of war made the citizen's support necessary, as they provided the manpower and financial support. Accordingly, even though the senate liked to regard foreign policy its exclusive preserve, it let the people make crucial decisions such as whether or not to intervene in Sicily, which led to the Punic Wars. The Roman people could also make themselves heard by electing men such as Flaminius, loathed by much of the other senators, but willing to propose and support bills that threatened senatorial interests, such as the Lex Claudia that forbade senators and their sons from owning ships with a capacity of over 300 amphorae. Tan argues that such incidents show that Roman senators understood the power that ordinary citizens held in the mid-Republic and behaved accordingly so as to not completely dismiss the interests of their social inferiors. This could allow for unprecedented actions that overthrew procedural regularities such as the senate allowing the people to vote who should be made dictator and his magister equitum in the aftermath of the Battle of Cannae, which left one consul dead and the other absent without contact. But this dynamic that counterbalanced senatorial interests with their fear/respect for the public had withered away by the late 2nd century BC, when the tributum was no longer levied, and the senate could freely raise armies and fund wars even without the Roman citizens' financial backing.
One last cute 2d legionary for the road.
And with that, I'll end this post with the following passage from the conclusion of Tan's book which summarizes this new situation of the late Republic:
By the time of the Social War, with no tributum and with the option of delving into a deep pool of indigent recruits to fill the legions, what exactly did the political elite need from the citizenry? “Not a great deal,” is the answer. The availability of provincial revenues and the availability of lower-class volunteers in the legions meant that the two resources that the state had needed from the people — the two resources which citizens could withhold for leverage — were being copiously supplied. What, on the other hand, did the citizens need from the elite? Quite a bit. By locking up the vast profits of imperialism in their own estates, Rome’s most powerful had come to control the distribution of economic resources, and if others wanted a share, they would have to ask nicely. For the bulk of Romans, there was an enormous new pool of wealth that was inaccessible unless its keepers gave permission, and this upset the balance of bargaining power. . . The average Roman citizen of the third century, in other words, was relatively empowered, but the limited scale of public finance meant that he only rarely saw a policy for which it was worth fighting. The first- century citizen, on the other hand, lived amid wealth that was constantly worth fighting for, but he had lost the leverage to do so successfully. (183-184)


  1. You spoiled you article with cure anime girls.

  2. you saved your article with cute anime girls

  3. It's becoming fashionable nowadays to compare the decline of modern republics with that of Rome. However, the sole reason why people do that, or are able to, is precisely because they live in a modern society. Of course it's OK to do this kind of thing, but the insights gathered are less interesting because there hasn't been any good thesis at all, because we're stuck with this lazy juxtapositioning of Roman historiography with contemporary events.