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Bill Thayer

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Chapter IX

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Rome
Tenney Frank

published by
Henry Holt and Company
New York 1923

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter XI

 p166  Chapter X

Roman Society in the Days of Cato

Through these years of marvelous expansion when the dread monarchs of Alexander's empire bowed before Rome's study soldiers, the plain-living Roman senators found themselves suddenly lifted to unusual heights of responsibility and dignity. There is a characteristic story of how Popilius, a senator, was sent to order the magnificent Antiochus to desist from attacking Egypt, and how, when the King refused to answer, the senator drew a circle about the King with his staff, saying: "Give me your answer before you step outside this circle." To such consciousness of power had these deposited "barbarians" of the west been exalted. But if we observe them in their daily life at Rome and examine their mode of life we shall find them still a peculiarly simple farmer folk. It is more than likely that Popilius lived in an ugly little house of five or six rooms, a structure of sun‑dried bricks with no floor but packed sand, without heat except from the kitchen hearth-fire, without bath, without decorations. As Horace says, the people lived in huts, palaces were built only for the gods.

The Roman house. The plan of the Roman house in general use at the time under consideration was very simple. The central atrium was open to the sky in the middle to let in light and let out smoke; the rest was roofed. Surrounding this and leading into it were the four or five rooms, which had no windows outward but received their light from the doors opening into the atrium. In the rear was the tablinum, where the master had his office and kept his accounts. The chief reasons for the shape of the Roman house were two. Ancient towns were walled and therefore space inside the walls was costly. Hence houses needed  p167 to be packed closely together, and to be built in the center of city blocks leaving the street fronts for shops and booths. Dwelling houses, therefore, seldom had a visible exterior. They opened toward an inner atrium rather than toward outside porches. The second reason was the lack of window glass in the early days. Since windows could not be let into the exterior walls, light and air must come in under the shelter of the atrium-portico so that rain would not enter.

Temples. But the gods, as Horace says, had palaces. The temples possessed some grandeur though not much beauty, because unfortunately there is no beautiful stone within hundreds of miles of Rome.​a The native rock about Rome consists of tuff and lava, volcanic rock of the ugliest drab brown and gray. For temple walls it was used in blocks and also broken up and used in concrete. But its effects were so unpleasant that it had to be coated with stucco. It was not until the end of the Republic that the Romans could afford to import slabs of marble and granite with which to cover the walls. Nor in the earlier days was there any fine stone available for columns, cornices, and statues, such as Athens had near at hand. Pillars were stuccoed, and the pediments and roof adornments were made of terracotta, tastily molded. But, of course, real beauty and dignity could hardly be attained in such materials.

Public buildings. Various consuls, especially democratic ones, had also begun to decorate the city with buildings for the use and pleasure of the people. Before the Punic war Flaminius had built a circus where races might be held. A public hall or basilica was erected in the Forum by Cato during his censorship in 185, a second was ordered by the censors of 179 and a third in 170. These were spacious halls in the Forum built of stone to serve as court houses and places to contain business booths, especially in inclement weather. It is very likely that these so‑called basilicas, "royal palaces," were modeled on buildings observed in Macedonia, for Cato as well as the other builders of these  p168 structures had taken an active part in the wars against Macedonia and had had an opportunity to make observations there. It is to be noted that the early Christian basilica adopted the form of these public buildings.

The first stone bridge was contracted for in 179. About the same time the censors began to have the streets paved with lava-blocks. This very hard stone was at first quarried about forty miles from the city. In 144 the splendid aqueduct called the aqua Marcia was built to bring pure cold water to the city from the Sabine mountains, a distance of about forty miles. The two previous aqueducts had been underground affairs and had served only the lower section of the city. The Marcia ran on high arches over the six miles of low ground outside the city and could therefore serve even the top of the Capitoline hill.​1 It still bears witness to the marvelous efficiency and the care for the public health of the Romans, for some of the fine arches are standing to‑day.

Permanent theaters were not yet built. In fact the comedies of Plautus and Terence, based on Greek models, seemed to the Roman censors somewhat too free in their sophisticated morals. They felt towards them as the English Puritans toward the Restoration drama brought in by the court of King Charles. They let them continue for the sake of amusing the populace on holidays, but did not quite wish to lend them open approval by building permanent theaters for them.

Social life. The austere conservatives of the day, men like Cato, complained bitterly of the decay of old customs and the introduction of Greek manners at Rome, but when we examine their complaints we are reminded of the vials of wrath that the Pilgrim fathers were wont to pour over  p169 foibles which now seem innocent enough. Despite some innovations there was apparently not much crime. A divorce occurred so rarely that a single instance shocked society for weeks. The day of judgment seemed at hand if a nobleman's son lost some property at gambling. A censor like Cato could still bring disgrace upon a senator for setting a few pieces of silver plate upon the table. It must be said that a city which, with a population of perhaps three or four hundred thousand, could fare as well as Rome did without any police, was hardly corrupt to the core.

Family life was, to be sure, growing somewhat freer, and society recognized instinctively that as the government gained in capacity the authority of the father must yield. Hence the old rite of confarreatio which established the patria potestas had gradually to give way to a new rite which was less strict and which allowed a woman the privilege of holding property and freeing herself by divorce. This did not mean, as Cato thought, that family life was corrupt. It simply was an indication that the government of the state had progressed beyond a primitive stage. Nor was the lex Voconia, passed in 169, forbidding a woman to inherit property, intended as a reaction against the new liberty within the family. It was only a link in the chain of laws that were somewhat conservatively meant to keep family estates together, for it permitted a son or adopted son a free hand in the division of the inheritance in order that the whole estate of a family might be held within the family. Daughters could still procure the shares intended for them by private arrangement.

Greek and Roman literature. New ideas were being rapidly introduced into Roman literature. Ennius had issued several books of "Saturae," which might be called miscellaneous essays in prose and verse, and he had not hesitated to discuss philosophy and to question the myths. His son-in‑law, the tragic poet Pacuvius, also liked to introduce radical and skeptical ideas in his plays.

 p170  Polybius, one of the Achean hostages brought to Rome in 166, was not only a historian but well versed in the Stoic philosophy, and he became influential in directing Greek reading in the circle of the younger Scipio. This Scipio in fact was the center of a group of important nobles who read and studied Stoic philosophy. He invited Panaetius, the leading philosopher of that school, to come from Greece and to live with him while he lectured in Rome. Stoicism was a philosophy which suited the puritanism and austere life of the natural Roman and began at once to affect the life and the legal thinking of Rome.

In literature, drama still held the foremost place, since the Romans had not yet been trained to become a nation of readers. Ennius' tragedies continued to be produced after his death, and Pacuvius, a man of scarcely less power, added to the store of tragedies. A good half dozen writers of clever comedies supplied the fun required at Roman festivals. We have the names of over a hundred comedies produced in this half century, but nothing has survived except six plays by Terence. These were perhaps the best in point of literary merit, but were apparently less original than many of the others.

In prose, Roman histories were growing to be popular. The story of Rome was so full of marvelous happenings that fiction could hardly be more exciting, and they were now being written in Latin. Cato himself wrote one in seven books, in which, as we might expect, he abused his noble opponents roundly and by name, talked incessantly about what he had done, and quoted liberally from his own speeches. Orations also came to be written out and circulated at this time. The battles of the Senate and Forum had grown to be more and more exciting owing to the importance of the political questions involved. Crowds would come to listen when Cato hurled his thunderbolts, and written copies of his speech were in demand for the enjoyment of rereading. Cato alone published about 150 of  p171 them. It was an education in politics as well as in style to read these. Cato's style was indeed far from polished. He claimed to scorn stylistic finish. "Know your subject and your phrases will take care of themselves," was his motto. But his wits were keen, his vocabulary precise, and his homely illustrations, drawn from everyday life, remarkably apt. Cato's speeches were as good as a radical weekly and came out almost as regularly.

The Roman economic system continued to be based chiefly on agriculture. Capital was, to be sure, going somewhat into public contracting, but there was still very little manufacturing or commerce at Rome or nearby. Tools and implements, household ware and clothing had of course to be made, and when we consider that such ware was now generally turned out in individual small shops, not in factories, we may assume quite a large population of handicraftsmen. Rome, however, made nothing for export. Cato in his farmer's manual De Re Rustica, written for his son, has a paragraph on where to buy tools, implements and clothes.​b Here we discover that Campania rather than Rome supplied the best iron and bronze ware. It was the Greek population of the bay of Naples and the Capuans driven from their farms in 211 who kept up the crafts in Campania. In fact, the iron industry was even deserting Etruria with the influx of Roman settlers, and the ore that was mined at Elba, which used to supply Etruscan industry, was now being shipped south to the Neapolitan bay to be worked into implements. The Romans had always liked farming and disliked shop life, and they continued to do so.

The situation in commerce was similar. The Roman republic continued to do nothing to encourage trade. Ostia, the seaport, was falling into decay again because shippers would not come there. They could not get return cargoes at Rome and Ostia. They, therefore, began to use Puteoli and the bay of Naples as their chief Italian port of call, though this was 140 miles from Rome, but there at least  p172 there was something to buy. Goods bound for Rome had to go the rest of the way by coasting vessels or by the via Appia on muleback. So little did the Roman Senate care to encourage Romans at trade that though it controlled the whole Mediterranean by treaty compacts, not one clause is found in any treaty or law which accords any preference to a Roman merchant or trader. These treaties all insisted upon open ports for Rome and her allies alike, and since several of her allies were trading states, they not only benefited, but benefited to such an extent that they retained their old position as the foremost traders in the Mediterranean. When in fear that Antiochus might invade Italy at the beginning of the second century, Rome had planted citizen colonies at most of the southern ports, there were in each case 300 farmers who received land; they were to act as garrisons and to be the controlling political influence at each port town so that the enemy could be kept out. It was, however, the native Greeks of these places who continued to conduct the industries and trade under Roman protection.

That at Puteoli, which had the deepest and safest harbor in Italy, and which, as we have seen, became for a long time Rome's chief port, Rome placed only 300 landholders, is indeed most surprising. Greeks and Campanians controlled the trade there as elsewhere. The thousands of traders and business men who spread from Italy east and west — those, for instance, found in Asia by Mithradates, those recorded on inscriptions at Delos, which Rome had declared a free port in 167, those mentioned in the Verrine orations as engaged in commerce in Spain and Sicily — are almost all South Italians: Greeks, Lucanians, and Campanians. This explains why Rome did not care enough for her trade to establish a Roman seaport in the place of Carthage, but let the allied Punic city of Utica profit from the trade of Rome's province, why the Roman Republic did not keep Ostia in serviceable condition, or pass a single law in the  p173 nature of a protective tariff, or make a single treaty giving preferential rights to her own citizens.2

This scorn for trade and industry, concomitant with a devotion to landed property, which has everywhere manifested itself in the societies where an ancient aristocracy is strong, simplified the government's problems to a great extent. It did not have to trouble itself about tariff schedules, protection versus free-trade, and the struggle between capital and labor, questions that occupy so much of the energy of modern governments. Traders, bankers, and manufacturers were quite below the horizon of the senator's notice. His concern was with imperial problems, the peace on a score of borders, and delicate relations with a hundred different allies and subjects.

The Equites and Public Contracts. There was, however, a class of business men closely connected with the politics of the state, the class that took state contracts, and was, therefore in a way a part of the civil service. After the Second Punic War, especially after the debts had been paid, when the Spanish mines began to bring good returns, when the leased public lands yielded rents, Sicily provided a good tribute, and war indemnities came from Philip and Antiochus, there was a surplus in the treasury that could be used for public works. The censors now let expensive contracts. The Aemilian way was built from Ariminum to Placentia, the Cassian way was run up from Rome to the Po valley through Etruria, a large part of Rome was paved, several basilicas, temples, porticoes and bridges were built. Since Rome's administration changed so frequently, a permanent bureau of public works could not be organized; the censors, therefore, let these undertakings out to contractors. Since few men, however, had capital enough to undertake large contracts, the contractors were allowed to form corporations and gather capital by issuing what we might call shares  p174 and stocks (a thing which Roman law did not yet permit for purposes of private business). When the work had been completed the state would pay the contract price, the profits would be distributed among the stockholders and the company dissolved. The Catonian period was a very prosperous one for such companies, and Romans who had any free capital were encouraged to invest in their shares. Polybius assures us that all Romans of any account were able to invest in this way. Since the business was on the public account, it was considered above the plane of private business, and the organizers of the companies were looked upon as a substantial class, worthy of honor.

Later these companies were tempted to engage in the menial business of provincial tax‑collecting and this brought them into bad repute. But for the present the Sicilian tithe was collected by natives, while the Spanish, African, and Macedonian tributes were fixed amounts sent in by their own governments. In Cato's day the companies, uncontaminated by foreign business, had a good reputation. The contracts which they took were let by the censors who were drawn from Rome's best statesmen removed from political influence, and since the work was done at Rome or nearby where every citizen could watch it, the work was honestly done. The companies that built the bridges of the Aemilian and Flaminian roads that laid the pavement of the Appian way, and erected the masonry of the Marcian aqueduct, deserved the highest respect and received it. We can still judge the excellence of their works by considerable remains. They should not be made to share in the condemnation of the knights' companies which a century later fouled their hands with unclean politics in order to control the exploitation of provincial tithes in the east.

Latifundia. The capital, however, that went into these companies was after all but one or two percent of Rome's total wealth. It was investment in land that always and everywhere attracted Romans first. Agriculture was unfortunately  p175 tending towards the accumulation of large estates, partly because it is so apt to tend that way. In all countries shrewd farmers who know the best methods are apt to progress and accumulate several farms, then by saving on "overhead expenses" they increase their profits at the expense of small holders. This tendency is particularly apparent when land begins to be exhausted and special skill, new methods of rotating and fertilizing, and the introduction of new crops require the investment of some capital. Accumulation was further favored at Rome by the customs of inheritance which owed their origin to the Roman pride in family. Romans, to be sure, had no law of primogeniture such as that which has kept estates together in some modern states, but they seldom divided up a property by will. To procure its passing on intact they usually stated only what fraction of its value each child should have, and this permitted one to buy out the shares of the others in the final settlement and thus keep the estate intact. Thus estates frequently passed intact or enlarged from generation to generation. Such a growth of large farms naturally implies the diminution of small ones.

But the most serious difficulty in Italy arose as a legacy of the Punic War. The vast places then laid waste, as we have observed before, had been rented in large blocks to any who could or would take them. Poor men, however, could hardly invest far from home in this way. Most of the tracts needed development or they were so far from a market and labor was so scarce that there was no use in attempting to raise vegetables or grain upon them. The obvious thing was to buy cattle and a few slaves to tend them. Slaves could be bought in the Greek market-place, as they came in from the east or were being sold off by the Greeks whose finances were in a bad way. As time went on these leaseholders quietly took possession of other unoccupied lots. This was contrary to the Licinian law, which specified 300 jugera as the maximum allotment of any one  p176 person, but since the land was unoccupied and Romans believed in "developing resources," no one objected for the present. Needless to say, the leaseholders were frequently senators who were accustomed to land owning, derived their incomes from it, and could not invest in trade if they wished. Thus the Senate, which now administered Italy, became interested in protecting the system. The land question, therefore, became a political question.

The misfortune that resulted can readily be imagined. When Italy's population recovered from the wars, the new generation found its opportunities gone. The lands already occupied, and being farmed and grazed in the least expensive way. Some hardy young men broke into the system, and small-farming continued to some extent. But most men drifted elsewhere. Some went to the city to see what could be had in public contracts — only to come to grief at times when no contracts were let. We hear of much suffering at Rome during the century. Others sought opportunities abroad. Not a few migrated to Cisalpine Gaul and found land there, though they had to neglect their citizenship to do so. Hence it is that the citizen-census shows such bad returns during this century. During the first forty years after the Second Punic War there was a very slow increase in population, but during the next thirty years there is a decrease. And this is true despite the fact that there were few serious battles, and that slaves were constantly being freed, and becoming citizens. This was not a healthy condition. Italy was not now supporting the hardy old Italian stock, its work was falling into the hands of slaves.

Agriculture. The methods of agriculture were on the whole intelligent. Cato's handbook De Re Rustica has survived so that we can still appraise them. A good farmer like Cato studied the physical properties of the soil to find out what crop it was best fitted for, and he studied market needs in order to raise the most profitable products. He  p177 knew the value of rotating crops, and urged especially the use of leguminous plants in rotation so as to enrich the soil, though of course he did not know that their value lay in fixing nitrogen about the roots. He also recognized the advantage of plowing under a green crop of beans, and the value of wood ashes and of stable manure. He did not make the mistake of trying to cling to methods of "household economy," for he realized that there were things that others could raise and make more cheaply than he. He, therefore, specialized on the few crops that were most profitable with a view to selling the product at the best market. What he could not raise to advantage, he bought. In other words, he was very like a modern capitalistic farmer.

Though he had a large estate he did not of course farm it with much labor-serving machinery. The tools were still largely hand-implements. Cato was in fact not practicing real "extensive farming" but rather "intensive farming" on a large scale. The reasons for this are that the use of slave labor discourages the invention of labor-saving machinery because it is so cheap, and also that very much of the land of the Italian peninsula is too stony and rough to permit the employment of bulky machinery.

One advantage of the plantation system was that with careful supervision by intelligent men the land was more productively cultivated than by ignorant peasants, another was that crops and, therefore, food supplies were more diversified. It was good for the Romans to get away from their monotonous fare of cereals. Beef, pork and mutton, and many new kinds of fruit appeared on the tables of the well-to‑do, though the poor, to be sure, who had to live on wages reduced by slave competition, could not afford such things. But we must hasten to say that, whatever advantages lay in the system, they did not outweigh the danger inherent in the ever-increasing mass of slaves who were driving out a hardier race.

 p178  Slavery. Slavery had always existed in Italy, but before the Punic War there were relatively few slaves at or near Rome. People had been too poor to buy them in the market, and Rome had seldom enslaved captives in the early Republic because the wars had been with closely related tribes. As a result of their scarcity slaves had been treated with remarkable kindness at Rome. If a farmer had a slave who was a Latin or a Samnite, and worked with him daily, he could hardly be cruel to him. The slave ate with his master and mistress and took part in the family worship. Hence the Romans had early adopted the custom of manumitting such slaves as a reward for a few years of good service and of making them full citizens at manumission.

In the Catonian period, however, the situation began to change. At that time many slaves were Punic and Syrian captives who had to be guarded and even chained. Some landlords who lived at Rome far away from their farms never saw their slave gangs and, therefore, had no personal sentiment with regard to them. The slaves were watched by trusted slave overseers whose one duty was to get as much profitable work out of those under them as possible. Cruel treatment came to be of daily occurrence. Furthermore the standard textbook on plantation farming with slave gangs was a Carthaginian book by Mago, a book that went into details concerning how to treat slaves. Punic practice had not been gentle in such things and these rules went far to aggravate the evils latent in the system.

In the city, however, where slaves came into contact with their master and mistress, old customs were generally continued, slaves were treated kindly, and the custom of manumitting was practiced very freely, — too freely in fact for the good of Rome's civilization. For, however worthy these people may have been — and many Greek and Syrian slaves were more clever than their masters, — they could hardly as citizens have the same respect for Roman institutions  p179 and sound traditions as the more austerely tempered citizens of Italic stock. One of the most serious factors in the oncoming change in Rome's morals and manners was this rapid introduction of new stocks from below due to Rome's over-generous gift of citizenship to so many slaves.

The Author's Notes:

1 The principle that water seeks its level was known and was applied at times. But since iron was very expensive, it was found more economical to keep the water at a fair level on arches than to use iron or make cement flues underground that would be capable of holding the weight of a flume nearly seven miles in length.

2 The tax collectors had tariff privileges, but they were of course in the service of the state.

Thayer's Notes:

a A big exaggeration: there are very sizable quarries of beautiful and well-wearing travertine, for example, at Acquasanta Terme, just 75 miles (121 km) from Rome as the crow flies, and other places in the area. Prof. Frank's argument is not affected, though, since these quarries lie on the other side of the Apennines; road transport would be difficult and much longer, even with good modern roads.

b The work is onsite; the paragraph is § 135.

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