Sunday, September 8, 2013

Flash from a Distant Mirror

[Note: This post first appeared on another and earlier version of LaMarotte on June 8, 2009. I have closed that blog because advertisements began to appear on it. Some of the posts from that version, however, are reprinted here.}

The following quote is taken from a history entitled Caesar and Christ, by Will Durant, Simon and Schuster, 1944, pp. 111-112. It deals with an era known as the Agrarian Revolt in the Roman Republic, extending in time from 145 to 78 BC, thus the period immediately preceding the rise of Julius Caesar, who became the first emperor of Rome and thus closed the republican era of Roman history. Durant is summarizing the causes of the revolt:

The first cause was the influx of slave-grown corn from Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, and Africa, which ruined many Italian farmers by reducing the price of domestic grains below the cost of production and marketing. Second, was the influx of slaves, displacing peasants in the countryside and free workers in towns. Third, was the growth of large farms. A law of 220 forbade senators to take contracts or invest in commerce; flush with the spoils of war, they bought up extensive tracts of agricultural land. Conquered soil was sometimes sold in small plots to colonists, and eased urban strife; more of it was given to capitalists in part payment of their war loans to the state; most of it was bought or leased by senators or businessmen on terms fixed by the Senate. To compete with the latifundia the little man had to borrow money at rates that insured his inability to pay; slowly he sank into poverty or bankruptcy, tenancy or the slums. Finally, the peasant himself, after he had seen and looted the world as a soldier, had no taste or patience for the lonely labor and unadventurous chores of the farm; he preferred to join the turbulent proletariat of the city, watch without cost the exciting games of the amphitheater, receive cheap corn from  the government, sell his vote to the highest bidder or promise, and lose himself in the impoverished and indiscriminate mass.

Roman society, once a community of free farmers, now rested more and more upon external plunder and internal slavery. In the city all domestic service, many handicrafts, most trade, much banking, nearly all factory labor, and labor on public works, were performed by slaves, reducing the wages of free workers to a point where it was almost as profitable to be idle as to toil. On the latifundia slaves were preferred because they were not subject to military service, and their number could be maintained, generation after generation, as a by-product of their only pleasure or their master’s vice. All the Mediterranean region was raided to produce living machines for these industrialized farms; to the war prisoners led in after every victorious campaign were added the victims of pirates who captured slaves or freemen on or near the coasts of Asia, or of Roman officials whose organized man hunts impressed into bondage any provincial whom the local authorities did not dare to protect. Every week slave dealers brought their human prey from Africa, Spain, Gaul, Germany, the Danube, Russia, Asia, and Greece to ports of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea….

There is a great deal more along these lines, providing more detail. Durant was a very popular historian in his day, hence a copy of this book may very well be available in a decent local library. Needless to say I recommend a perusal of some pages of this important chapter. It is a kind of mirror held up to us by the past. To be sure, the economic level of Rome was on a lower stage. It was a time when agriculture was the industry and neither fossil fuels (our energy slaves) nor machines to use them had been invented yet. At the same time the public franchise had been obtained by Roman citizens who owned property; the forms of it were complex and comparable in many ways to ours. This posting will give some context to some of my past and future entries regarding the sensitive subject—sensitive because it violates our faith in the Free Market—of a national industrial policy. In the absence of one—and one based on genuine justice and values—has in the past led to chaos.

The term latifundia, plural of latifundium, was a Roman coinage of the time combining the word latus meaning “spacious” and fundus meaning “farm” or “estate.” The foundation of civilization is the fundus, the agricultural land.

1 comment:

  1. Very thought provoking and it feels uncomfortably... applicable.

    ReplyDelete