Saturday, February 28, 2009

Capitalism in the Roman Republic

Let’s start with a definition:

Capitalism is an economic system in which wealth, and the means of producing wealth, are privately owned and controlled rather than commonly, publicly, or state-owned and controlled. Through capitalism, the land, labor, and capital are owned, operated, and traded by private individuals or corporations and investments, distribution, income, production, pricing and supply of goods, commodities and services are determined by voluntary private decision in a market economy.

According to the word capitalism came into existance around 1850, but two thousand years before then the Roman Republic was a capitalist economy without a definition.

It’s my theory that a division of labor always exists in human society. The more people the more differentation until people run out of new skills to try or limits are placed on the number of skills (e.g. poverty). Capitalists always show up in societies as salemen or entrepreneurs who are clever at buying and selling, so as Rome became a great city its merchantile capabilities multiplied.

Roman businessmen were born out of a middle class that didn’t exist at the beginning of the Republic. In the days of the kings the ranks of the army were divided by wealth. Those at the top rank could serve in the cavalry, hence the name Knights or Equestrians. Later the Knights quit the cavalry but retained their status as the leading voting block in the Comitia Centuriata.- the senior people’s assembly.

As Rome grew the demand for business grew, but the nobility considered merchant activities off limits for them – it lacked dignitas. Since there was no government administration the Senate looked to the Knights to handle the business of the Republic. The first of these “businessmen” were called Publicans. They were employed by the state to manage public contracts: to collect taxes, manage mining companies, and oversee road construction. These contracts were awarded at auction and their duration was five years.

During the Punic Wars Publicans built ships for the Roman Navy and equiped the Roman Army. The nobility began to covert the profits of the Knights and become involved in sea trade, until a law was passed in 218 BC forbidding Senators from owning ships with a larger capacity of more than 300 amphorae (1 amp= 6 gal). In 215 three Publican contractors were censured because they provided financing to Spanish tribes (the enemy). They scuttled their ships and sued the Republic for reimbursement for the loss.

The Senate chose to utilize the Knights commercially, instead of creating a civil service, and disregarded their political claims. But the power of the Knights grew and they were able to exert great influence as a class. In 169 BC the censor Tiberius Gracchus cancelled all Publican contracts because of corruption, but the Knights rebelled and accused him of treason against the state. Tiberius was acquited, but the Knights has flexed their muscles.

By the fall of the Republic there were hundreds of corporations selling shares to investors. Manufacturing and trades flourished: including furniture making, leatherwork, weaving, metalworking, stoneworking, and food processing.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Roman Republic/United States Timeline

The above chart compares the Roman Republic and The United States in a timeline format. Each is shown in chronological order starting at the beginning of their political system. The chart is interesting on several levels. As you can see, the United States has existed for twenty years short of half the time the Roman Republic existed. What will the United States be like in 2270? Its obvious how the events are compressed in the American experience. With improved communications and technology the modern world has been able to move farther faster.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

American Factions

I talked in the last post about Roman factions, and it is interesting to compare the Roman experience with that of the United States in the years after the Constitution was ratified. The United States began, as the Roman Republic, with no political parties – only different political philosophies. The main opponents were Hamilton (traditionalist/for strong central government) and Jefferson (government by the people/Republican).

Hamilton perceived early on that one of the keys to government was to forge an alliance between the government and men of wealth. In his mind democracy was unworkable because it would always lead to anarchy. Hamilton despised public opinion and told Washington that he considered it “of no value.” By the time the revolution ended he had arrived at his architecture of government which included strength supported by wealth which would be sustained, if need be, by a standing army.

Jefferson came to a political philosophy opposite that of Hamilton quite early in life, under the influence of his father. The young Jefferson housed a prejudice against all aristocracy as a divider of men, and declined reelection to the Congress so he could go home to Virginia, join the House of Burgesses and reform the caste system in operation at that time. Jefferson then went to France a democrat, saw the evils of that monarchy and took pleasure in the first awakenings of the French revolution.

Although Washington was sympathetic to the philosophy of the Federalists he was essentially a president without party. The election of 1796, however, pitted the Federalist Adams against the Republican Jefferson. Adams won the presidency and for the only time in American history the vice-president, Jefferson, represented a different party. Jefferson openly opposed the policies of Adams so strongly that the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 as an attempt to control criticism of government. The backlash from this law swept Jefferson and the Republicans into office in 1800 and destroyed the Federalist Party forever.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Roman Factions

The Roman Republic did not have political parties as we know them, but over time, the Senate became factionalized, as Patrician families sought to create or maintain a dominant position for themselves. As these factions increased their desire for power, the stability and efficiency of the Roman political system was compromised.

During the Second Punic War, Hannibal was able to ravage the Italian Peninsula for fifteen years because the Romans were unable to defeat him in a major battle. Factionalism had the Romans arguing about their approach rather than working together to win the war.

The chart below lists the Consuls during the Second Punic War and the families they were associated with. During this period the Fabii and Claudii were aligned against the Aemilii. Remember two consuls were elected each year. You can click on the chart to enlarge it.

The Fabii/Claudii were considered conservative (Senate orientated) while the Aemilii were progressive (for people's rights). Q. Fabius Maximus was able to keep the conservative faction in control of the war strategy until the emergence of Publius Cornelius Scipio. Scipio's personality and military skill dominated Roman politics in the second half of the war, and caused the faction power struggle to shift to the Aemilii.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hannibal's March Across the Alps

Hannibal’s trip over the Alps in the fall of 218 B.C. is often cited as an amazing feat (which it was), but where was he going and why?

At the age of 26, Hannibal was put in charge of the Carthaginian army in Spain during the period before The Second Punic War. Acting with the approval of his superiors in Carthage, he provoked the Romans into war by attacking the Roman ally Saguntum in Northern Spain. Then, after forming his army, Hannibal crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into Southern Gaul and made his way to the Rhone Valley to block Roman attempts to move an army over land to Spain. As Hannibal crossed the Rhone, the Roman army was arriving at the mouth of the river after being transported there by ship. The Romans were hoping to block Hannibal from any move eastward into Italy, but had not anticipated his rapid advance. When scouts of the two armies encountered each other, Hannibal made the decision to head north rather than fight an enemy of unknown size.

The Carthaginian army followed the Rhone River and proceeded to what is now Grenoble, France during fourth week in October. Snow was already on the ground, and the prospects for the 46,000 infantry and cavalry were not good. Because of a missed turn and harassing attacks from the native tribes, Hannibal was forced to cross the Alps by an unconventional route. It took nine days to reach the highest point and six more days to descend into western Italy near Torino (Turin). The Carthaginian army lost 20,000 men in its trek over the Alps, although his 37 elephants survived. Even with these losses, Hannibal was able to prepare for battle and won his first great victory over the Romans at Trebbia on December 21st, 218 B.C.

In 217 B.C. Hannibal moved into the Italian peninsula hoping to get the Roman allies to defect to his cause but was unable to do so. He stayed until 203 B.C, harassing the Romans until he was recalled to Carthage to help oppose a Roman invasion. Hannibal was defeated by Scipio Africanus at the battle of Zama in 202 B.C, ending the second Punic War.

Map shown taken from Google Earth.

I wrote a follow up post to this story called Hannibal's March Over the Alps revisited. The date was August 19, 2010. You can find it by searching this blog with the keyword Hannibal. Among other details about the story you will find a better map.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Amazing Romans and Their Navy

The First Punic War began in 262 B.C, after a series of silly diplomatic failures.

The pre-text for the war was the occupation of the Sicilian city of Messana (now Messina) by a tribe of thugs called the Mamertines. The King of the Greek colony of Syracuse, named Hiero, wanted to return Messana to Greek control, so he sent his army north to attack the city. Defeated in the initial battle, he returned the next year (265 B.C.), taking the surrounding territory and laying siege to Messana. The Carthaginians, observing Hiero’s behavior and not wanting him to get too powerful, decided to get in the game. They sent a garrison to occupy the Messana after convincing the Mamertines they needed protection. No fools themselves, the Mamertines didn’t trust the Carthaginians, so they signed a treaty with Rome. The Romans, for their part, saw the value of an alliance designed to counter a Carthaginian threat to Italy.

Hiero promptly made a treaty with the Carthaginians, and they agreed to destroy Messana the next year (264 B.C.). The Romans got two legions to Messana in with great difficulty, after their rented ships had problems with the wind and tides. They raised the siege of Messana, scared Hiero back to Syracuse, and defeated the Carthaginians. Under pressure from Rome, Hiero sued for peace, which was granted, and he was required to pay a fine.

The Carthaginians decided they did not appreciate the aggressiveness of Rome so they prepared an army, placed it in Acragas, and sent their navy in support. Carthage had the best navy in the western Mediterranean at that time -- built out of the requirement to protect its trade routes with outlying colonies. No country was in a position to challenge the Carthaginian Navy.

In 262 B.C, the Romans laid siege to Acragas, officially starting a war that would last twenty-one years. After taking the city, the Romans leveled it. Both armies were exhausted and unable to prepare for battle until the next year, but the Romans now realized that driving the Carthaginians out of Sicily was going to be more difficult than they anticipated. They also knew their success was in doubt without a navy, so the Senate approved he funds for construction of war ships.

Rome had no coastline (60 miles inland), no navy, no merchant marine, and no history of trade or knowledge of sailing practice in the Mediterranean, yet they went ahead and built 500 ships in 60 days!

The new navy did not find a place in the war for five years, because the majority of the conflict was inland and all the navy could do was re-supply the army. Then in 256 B.C, the stage was set for the Battle of Ecnomus, where 330 Roman battleships were opposed by an equal number of Carthaginian vessels. The Romans formed their fleet in two large “Vs” with the second of them shielding transport ships. The Carthaginians formed a long line in an attempt to flank the Roman V, but in the midst of his success, the Punic commander chose to attack the transports rather than encircling the Roman warships. That left the Roman fleet free to counterattack and the Carthaginians were defeated.

The Romans would eventually win the war through a combination of sea and land power, but the initial success of the navy would not be repeated for years. The Romans had to learn how to fight on water, where the weather and wind can determine the outcome.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Slavery in the Roman Republic and America

In the greatest portion of our human past, losers in battle were massacred – soldiers, women, and children. It was the common outcome of tribe warfare, designed to prevent retaliation from the vanquished. Even after the ancient civilizations began to develop, the purposeful killing of human beings by their own species continued. Then, sometime after agriculture was introduced and men stopped migrating, the defeated began to be used as slaves rather than being killed. Slaves became the preferred source of manual labor – labor the victors didn’t want to do themselves. Many societies evolved a warrior class and a servant class, like the Spartans who subjugated their unfortunate Helot neighbors.

Slavery was fundamental to the early Romans because Rome was an agrarian society, and there was always a need for farm labor. Not all Roman slaves were the defeated enemy: some were purchased at auction, others were freemen enslaved through their own misdeeds. Until 325 B.C, Roman citizens could be placed in servitude if they were unable to pay their debts.

It is estimated that Rome had 17,000 slaves in 475 B.C. and 40,000 by 325 B.C. Those numbers pale beside the 55,000 captured Carthaginians brought back from Africa at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C. By then, slavery had become a significant problem for the Republic, as slaves took the jobs of freemen in the city, displaced them as farm labor, and began to serve in the army.

The economic and social impact of slavery drove Tiberius Gracchus to push through an agrarian bill to redistribute land to the poor in 133 B.C. He wanted them to become property owners and serve in the army, because slaves were disloyal and unreliable in battle. Unfortunately, Tiberius was assassinated by an angry Senate who was indifferent to the needs of the poor freemen.

The slave experience in North America was different – and worse. Started by the early Spanish explorers when their native American slaves began to die of disease, the import of Africans to the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean became a thriving industry. The English, Dutch, French, and Spanish all competed to make money moving human cargo.

The first Africans in America arrived in Jamestown in 1619, possibly as indentured servants. Many paid their debt and became freemen, but soon after the importation of Africans as slaves became the rule, based on the color difference with whites or the perceived heathenism of people from an unknown land. A Virginia law from 1705 defined slaves as people from countries who were not Christian, as if their lack of religion was an excuse for mistreatment. Of course the real growth of the slave population occurred in the Southern states where staple crops such as rice and cotton became the foundation of the southern economy. Too much land for the number of people willing to work required massive numbers of workers, and eventually the African slaves outnumbered their white masters. Estate owners became fearful of revolts, so they instituted further repression on the slave population.

Once the Southern economy became dependent on slave workers, its politicians would not listen to the anti-slavery cries from the North. The Constitutional Convention of the United States would have been a failure if demands for abolition were carried forward. Both sides agreed to set the issue aside except for the agreement to stop slave importation after 1810. Ignoring the slave problem did not make it go away and seventy years later the unresolved problem would split the nation in two.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Roman Law and American Law

When the Roman Empire in the West collapsed in 476 A.D, the Empire in the East continued on. It survived for three reasons: the population was larger and more urbanized than the West, making it more difficult to invade, its government was located at the fortress of Constantinople, which was almost impregnable, and its leaders were better at running government than those in the West. Perhaps the greatest Eastern Emperor was Justinian, who ruled from 527-565 A.D. Well educated and inclined toward the structure of law, Justinian believed it was his mission to codify the law of the Roman Empire. He engaged the greatest legalists of his time to prepare the new code based on rationality, coherence, equity, and the furtherance of imperial power. This Roman Civil law, also called The Justinian Code, was completed in 534 A.D.

Unfortunately, the new code fell into disuse with the failure of the Eastern empire. Justinian tried to re-capture Italy from the Ostrogoths to re-unite the empire, but he failed, and after his death, the link with the West was permanently broken, and the Byzantine Empire moved away from its Roman roots to became more Greek, Balkan, and oriental in character.

Six hundred years passed and the code was unused, because conditions in Europe were too primitive to see value in a legal system designed for mature governments. No one is sure how it was resurrected, but the code began to be studied in Northern Italy in the last decade of the eleventh century. Its rational qualities made it useful for academic study and, in turn, created an environment which fostered the growth of the legal profession in Europe. As it became more well known, the code began to impact the political thinking of European leaders, most notibly Frederick I of Germany, who fully embraced it in the 1160s. Frederick and other European leaders saw two benefits: they could use its structure to define the way lawyers are used in government administrations, and they could adopt its ideology as a justification of the right of kingship, based on the Roman concept of the supreme emperor.

The Justinian Code swept through Europe, influencing the legal systems of every country with the exception of England. Ahead of Europe in legal thinking, Henry I and Henry II had modified the old Germanic legal system into a code of Common Law that was strong enough to withstand the influence of the new code. The Common Law system of England became the legal system of the United States after the Revolutionary War in all states except one. Louisiana adopted the Justinian Code, because the state's legal system was established during the time when the territory was under French rule.

Today most of the world uses The Justinian Code, with the exception of England and its former colonies.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Gallic Invasion of 390 B.C.

If you asked a Roman during the Republican years to name the event in history that created the most fear in the hearts of he and his fellow citizens, the answer would undoubtedly be the Gallic invasion of 390 B.C. In that year Rome was in its one hundred twentieth year as a Republic, but her army was not large or as battle tested as it would be later.

During the spring of that year, several Gallic tribes invaded Northern Italy. One of them, the Senones, raced down the peninsula with 30,000 men in search of plunder. They rolled up towns and villages as they headed south, burning everything they couldn’t take and killing the people who had the misfortunate to be in their way. Rome did not receive word of the threat until the enemy was eighty miles from the city, but sent two legions north and set them up in battle formation at the eleventh milestone near the Tiber.

The battle was a disaster because the shear volume of men in the Gallic force was more than the defenders could handle and the Roman position was easily flanked. Half of the army was killed and the survivors retreated to Veii, on the other side of the Tiber.

Now the city was defenseless and open to plunder. The Vestal Virgins and priests gathered up the sacred relics and fled to Caere, while the remnants of the senate and army retreated to the top of the Capitoline Hill, prepared to resist any Gallic attempt to storm the citadel. The Gauls entered the city, plundered it, and set it on fire. They seemed content to let those on the Capitoline starve, and only tried to attack it on a couple of occasions. For seven months they occupied the city.

Finally, when the defenders were at a point of starvation, fortune took their side. The Gauls got word their homeland was under attack, so they decided to abandon the siege and head north. Before leaving, they demanded a thousand pounds of gold from their victims.

It took decades for the Rome to recover, and wasn’t until 378 B.C. that enough money was raised to build a wall around the city. This Servian Wall was twenty-four feet high, twelve feet thick, and took twenty five years to complete. No new enemy would enter Rome for the next 800 years.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What is a Republic?

The word republic comes from the Latin res publica, which means thing of the people. A republic is a political system without a monarchy; one where the people and their representatives rule. The first republic of note, created in Athens by Solon in 594 B.C, lasted nearly one hundred years before it collapsed. The Greeks were not kin to Republics, however, and preferred democracy as a political system.

Rome created its Republic when the last Etruscan king was expelled in 509 B.C. The king had relied on a group of men to advise him, called patres (fathers) -- later designated as the social class called Patrician. As the Republic began, the Fathers became the Senate, a people’s assembly was continued, and a pair of executive magistrates were created (Consuls). This system was weighted toward the aristocracy because the consuls were nominated by the Senate and were also in control of the judicial system.

Republicans loathe monarchies, so they build checks and balances to protect the people against an accumulation of power. In Rome, the consuls were given veto rights over each other, and served for one year. Moreover, a consul could only serve one term during his career. The Senate was given authority to suggest laws, but new laws had to be passed by the people’s assemblies. Eventually the Republic ended up with a complicated group of assemblies: one by tribe, one by district, one by wealth, and one for the Plebian class. Even with safeguards built into the Roman system, its success depended on factors beyond checks and balances: wise governance by the Senate, extension of rights to the people, and economic opportunity. Ultimately, the Roman Republic failed because the Senate began to work for its own interests rather than the interests of the people. A weakened Senate coupled with the advent of a professional army became the formula for creating a tyrant.

After Rome, republics were tried on several occasions; one of the most interesting being that of thirteenth century Florence. At the beginning of that period, the city was ruled by two factions, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, each with its own government apparatus. Because the factions couldn’t agree on government policy, an arbiter’s office, called podesta, was created. Soon the arbiter had his own administration. As time went on, the Florentine government expanded in ridiculous fashion as hundreds of new governmental offices were created to address new problems. Terms of office had to be shortened to as little as two months to accommodate all the elections. For two hundred years, the checks and balances of this complex republic resisted attempts to destroy it, until the Medici family took control by sitting on the sidelines while their backers were elected to the majority of offices.

The founding fathers of the United States wanted to create a Republic in the style of Rome, because they too hated monarchies and sought to create a system under the control of the people. The problem was how to balance the branches of government. The states were a differentiating factor in the design, because they possessed power they were not interested in giving up. One of the plans introduced at the Constitutional Convention involved eliminating the states, but resistance to that concept was absolute. In the end, our government became a federal system with powers shared by the states and the national government.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Distribution of Wealth – Ancient times and now

In difficult economic times, the distribution of wealth is raised as an indicator of immorality and unfairness in whatever society is being discussed. Critics point out that the rich are stealing from the poor, to become more wealthy themselves. Is this criticism valid and, if so, what can be done about it?

As much as I dislike the rich and feel sorry for the poor, there is an element of unfairness in human society that cannot be overcome. People in groups divide themselves naturally by intelligence, aptitude, and personality to produce a hierarchy of wealth and power. Why should this be so? It’s simply the fact that men are not equal in capability and temperment. Take a critical mass of people, perhaps ten thousand or more, put them together in a tribe, and a distribution of labor emerges. There will be farmers, blacksmiths, mechanics, cooks, tanners, merchants, soldiers, and finally kings. Most people do not want to worry about every aspect of their lives: finding/growing food, creating shelter, protecting themselves from harm, etc, so they become members of groups which incorporate a division of labor. Since each skill has a economic value, the ability to become wealthy depends on demand for a skill.

Let me quote a passage from Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul, illustrating the distribution of wealth in the flat societies of the Gallic tribes of 50 B.C:

“Everywhere in Gaul there are only two classes of men who bear any consideration. The common people are treated as slaves never to venture on their own initiative and are not consulted on any subject. Most of them, crushed by debt or heavy taxation or the oppression of more powerful persons, bind themselves to serve men of rank, who exercise over them the rights masters have over slaves. Two privileged classes exist: the Knights and the Druids. The Knights lead the army into battle; the Druids act as the religious men of the tribe.”

Like Gaul, Rome began with a highly disproportionate distribution of wealth: the Patrician class in control and the Plebian class subservient. In 200 B.C, the adult male population of Rome was 270,000 and the value of all property about $ 3 billion. It’s easy to imagine the wealthiest 1% of the population controlling 50% or more of this wealth. Scipio Africanus, the great general, who died in 183 B.C, left an estate of $ 600,000. His relative by marriage Aemilianus Paulus left an estate of $ 250,000.

As time went on in the Republic, there arose two great forces impacting the distribution of wealth: booty from war and the emergence of the Equestrian class (Knights). The former tended to enrich the generals (Caesar, Pompey and others) and move them up the wealth ladder, while the Knights became rich through their own efforts. Since the ruling class was prohibited from trade because it was seen as a low profession, the Knights became the businessmen the state needed to make the Republic work. They formed their own corporations and engaged in tax collection and public works. Over time, the wealth accumulated by the Knights, lowered the percentage of wealth controlled by the ruling class.

What about other societies? In America, since 1983, the percentage of wealth held by the top one percent of the population has been in the range of 30-35%. In 1916, the figure was 40%. The distribution of wealth for the top one percent in the United Kingdom fell steadily in the twentieth century – 70% in 1911, dropping to 23% in 2002. In Milan, Italy the percentage held by the top one percent was 23% in 1870 and 41% in 1900. Although wealth distribution statistics are scant, they still point to a certain inevitability regarding wealth and the human race.

I believe it is impossible to use legislation to re-distribute wealth. Where legislation is used, twin constraints act against it. The wealthy find ways to protect what they have, including the control they have over government, and the inefficient government apparatus setup to manage the re-distribution fails to achieve its goal. In the end, the forces of human behavior in a society drive the distribution of wealth to its own equilibrium.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Roman Tribune - Unique among magistrates

In the early days of the Republic (soon after its founding in 509 B.C.), there was significant social conflict between the aristocratic class (Patricians) and the poor (Plebians). At that time, the entire government apparatus was controlled by the wealthy and the lower class had no rights. Unhappy with their situation, the Plebian class began to protest an indiscriminant application of law that saw them assaulted or dragged from their homes without the ability to defend themselves. After a protest in 494 B.C, the Patricians agreed to create a new magistrate who could protect the people from abuses. Originally two Tribunes were elected, then five, and finally, in 457 B.C, their number was expanded to ten.

Tribunes were designated as inviolate; meaning they could not be touched or harmed by any person. They had the right of intersessio, and could step in front of an assailant to protect a Plebian from harm. If a Tribune were injured in any way, the offender would become an outlaw and forfeit his property to the state.

During the year of their term of office, Tribunes were required to leave the doors of their homes open day and night in case someone needed help. If they left the city, they could only be absent for twenty-four hours.

This personal protector role expanded over time and Tribunes eventually acquired a powerful role in government. They were given the power to block legislation, call meetings of the Senate, or compel Consuls to comply with decrees of the Senate. In 286 B.C, the law Lex Hortensia was passed which gave the Plebian class, through its own assembly, the right to pass laws binding on all of Rome. Tribunes were elected by the Plebian Assembly and presided over its meetings.

But the aristocratic class came to regret what they had done in giving the lower class so much power, so they sought ways to influence the behavior of Tribunes on their behalf. By pressure or bribery, the rich began to induce the Tribunes to veto legislation they were opposed to. This problem came to a head during the Tribune of Tiberius Gracchus (133 B.C.) when he removed another Tribune from office for vetoing a land bill favored by the people but opposed by the Senate. Tiberius was later assassinated by the Senate for trying to accumulate power. This single event incited the Plebian class against the Senate, beginning the process of the decline of the Senate as an institution and the end of the Republic.