The class struggle in the Roman Republic

This important series by Alan Woods, provides a Marxist explanation of the processes that led to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Here the method of historical materialism is used to shed light on an important turning-point in world history. For Marxists the study of history is not just a form of harmless entertainment. It is essential that we do study history for the lessons we can learn from it. To paraphrase the words of the American philosopher George Santayana: “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.”

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto)

“[…] when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana, The Life of Reason)

What is historical materialism?

The class struggles in the Roman RepublicFor most people, history is something of merely academic interest. It may be studied for amusement, or possibly to draw this or that moral lesson. But that is the maximum that history seems to offer us. Even the use of history for the purpose of moralizing is limited. Edward Gibbon, the great English historian wrote: “History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Hegel once commented wittily that the study of history only proves that nobody has ever learnt anything from history. Yet it is essential that we do study history, and precisely for the lessons we can learn from it. To paraphrase the words of the American philosopher George Santayana: “He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.”

Until Marx developed the theory of historical materialism, the prevalent view was an idealist interpretation of history, which attributed everything to the actions of individuals. The key to history was the activity of kings, politicians, generals, and Great Individuals. If we accept this view, how is it possible to make sense of history? Individuals pursue a myriad of different aims: personal ambition, religious fanaticism, economic interests, artistic truth, political intrigue, the thirst for revenge, envy, hatred, and all the vast range of emotions, prejudices and notions known to human beings. With such a bewildering range of aims and interests, it would appear that it is no more possible to establish general historical laws than it is to determine accurately the exact position and momentum of a subatomic particle.

It seems very strange that human beings accept the possibility of providing a scientific explanation for everything in the universe, but deny the possibility of ever obtaining a rational insight into ourselves, our actions and our social evolution. We imagine that the human animal is so unique, our minds so complex, and our motivations so subtle, that any attempt to analyze the laws of human society is impossible. Such a view reflects the same stubborn egotism that in the past claimed that Man was a special Creation of the Almighty, or the ridiculous mysticism about an unknowable and immortal soul, which allegedly sets men and women apart from other animals.

In fact, any student of history can see at once that certain patterns do exist, certain situations are constantly repeated, and even certain types of personalities reproduce themselves under similar conditions. In the Introduction to Bolshevism – the Road to Revolution, I reflected on this fact: “There are many points of similarity between the October revolution in Russia and the great bourgeois revolutions of the past. At times these parallels seem almost uncanny, even extending to the personalities of the principal dramatis personnae, such as the similarity between Charles I of England and Louis XVI of France and tsar Nicholas, together with their foreign wives.” There are other examples one could cite. The similarities between Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte as particular psychological types have been commented upon many times. They are separated by a very long period of history, and they rest upon entirely different class interests corresponding to entirely different socio-economic models. So how do we explain the similarities?

Here it is possible to establish an approximate analogy with the laws that govern animal morphology. Let us take three marine animals: 1) Ichthyosaurus (an extinct genus of ichthyosaur); 2) the shark and 3) the dolphin. The first named was a kind of marine dinosaur, the second a primitive fish and the third a mammal, like ourselves. They are separated by vast periods of time and evolved entirely separately. Yet the bodily shape of all three is practically identical. From this fact alone it is possible to deduce that similar conditions produce similar results, and this is not only applicable to animal morphology but also to the history of our own species.

The constant repetition of the same patterns (and sometimes even the same types of personalities) indicates that history is not arbitrary, but that behind the appearance of chaos, there are definite laws at work, that these laws assert themselves amidst the seeming chaos – just as the chaotic movement of the waves is a reflection of powerful unseen currents beneath the surface of the ocean. In order to gain a rational understanding of history, it is necessary to penetrate beneath the surface and to examine the nature of the hidden currents that propel human society forward.

The whole of science is based on two basic assumptions: 1) that the world exists independently of ourselves and 2) that we are capable of understanding it. If science can explain the mechanisms that govern the social organisms of bees, ants and chimpanzees, why should it be impossible to explain the workings of human society and the forces that determine its development? Marxism rejects the view that history is a string of meaningless and incomprehensible events. Historical materialism asserts that the history of human society has its own laws, and that they can be analyzed and understood. The laws that govern social development were first laid bare by Karl Marx. In the famous introduction to The Critique of Political Economy, Marx explains the basis of historical materialism in the following terms:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

With these words, the founder of scientific socialism once and for all disposed of all metaphysical, idealist and subjective explanation of human history. In other words, Marx performed the same great service for human historical development that his great contemporary Charles Darwin did for the development of plants and animals. Darwin discovered in natural selection an objective process that is present in nature that explains the evolution of life in all its manifold forms without the need of any preconceived plan or supernatural “design”. In so doing, he banished the Almighty from biology, just as Newton had banished Him (in fact, if not in theory) from the workings of the universe.

The great achievement of Marx was that he discovered the ultimate mainspring of all social change and progress in terms of the development of the productive forces: agriculture, industry, science and technique. This does not mean, of course, that one can reduce everything to economics, as the ignorant critics of Marxism maintain. Men and women make their own history, but they do not do so independently of the existing conditions that shape their consciousness and, whether they are aware of it or not, determine their actions. In the same Introduction, Marx explains the precise nature of the relations between the development of the productive forces, the social relations that gradually crystallize on the basis of this, and the class struggle that expresses the contradictory nature of these relations:

“In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

“Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”

The class struggle

Here, the essence of the method of historical materialism is expressed with marvellous preciseness and concision. In the last analysis, it is the changes in the economic foundation that are the cause of great historical transformations, which we refer to as revolutions. But the relationship between the economic foundations of society and the vast and complex superstructure of legality, religion, ideology and the state that arises from it is not simple and automatic, but extremely contradictory. The men and women who are the true protagonists of history are by no means conscious of the ultimate causes and results of their actions, and the results of these actions are frequently at variance with the subjective intentions of their authors.

When Brutus and Cassius drew the daggers that struck down Julius Caesar, they imagined that they were about to re-establish the Republic, but in practice they brought about the destruction of the last vestiges of republicanism and prepared the ground for the Empire. Their republican illusions in any case were only a sentimental and idealistic fig-leaf to disguise their real class interests – which were those of the privileged Roman aristocracy that dominated the old Republic and was fighting to preserve its privileges. From this example we see the importance of carefully distinguishing what men say and think about themselves from the real interests that move them and determine their actions.

Marx explains that the history of all class society is the history of class war. The state itself consists of special armed bodies of men the purpose of which is precisely to regulate the class struggle, and to keep it within acceptable limits. The ruling class in all normal periods exercises control over the state. But there are certain periods, when the class struggle reaches a pitch of intensity that goes beyond the “acceptable limits”. In such revolutionary periods, the question of power is posed. Either the revolutionary class overthrows the old state and replaces it with a new power, or else the ruling class crushes the revolution and imposes a dictatorship – the state power in an open and undisguised form, as opposed to the state power in a “democratic” guise.

However, there is a further variant, which in different forms has been seen at different moments in history. Engels explains that the state in all normal periods is the state of the ruling class, and this is perfectly true. However, history also knows periods that are not at all normal, periods of intense class conflict in which neither of the contending classes can succeed in setting its stamp firmly on society. A long period of class struggle that does not produce a decisive result can give rise to the exhaustion of the main contending classes. In such circumstances the state apparatus itself – in the form of the army and the general who heads it (Caesar, Napoleon) – begins to raise itself above society and to establish itself as an “independent” force.

The creation of a legal framework to regulate the class struggle is by no means sufficient to guarantee a peaceful outcome. On the contrary, such an arrangement merely serves to delay the final conflict and to give it an even more violent and convulsive character in the end. The expectations of the masses are heightened and concentrated, and their aspirations are given ample scope to develop themselves. Thus, in modern times, the masses develop great illusions in their parliamentary representatives and the possibility of solving their most pressing problems by voting in elections. In the end, however, these hopes are dashed and the struggle takes place outside parliament in an even more violent manner than before – both on the side of the masses and on that of the propertied classes who do not cease to prepare illegal conspiracies and coups behind the backs of the democratic institutions. Though they swear by “democracy” in public, in reality the ruling class will only tolerate it to the degree that it does not threaten their power and privileges.

Where the contending classes have fought themselves to a standstill with no clear result, and where the struggle between the classes reaches a kind of state of unstable equilibrium, the state itself can rise above society and acquire a large degree of independence. The case of ancient Rome was no exception. In theory, the Roman Republic in historical times was “democratic”, in the sense that the citizens were the electorate and ultimate power resided in the popular Assembly, just as today everything is decided by free elections. In reality, however, the Republic was ruled by an oligarchy of wealthy aristocratic families that exercised a stranglehold over political power. The result of this contradiction was a lengthy period of class struggle that culminated in civil war, at the end of which the army had elevated itself above society and became the master of its destiny. One military adventurer competed with another for power. A typical example of this species was Gaius Julius Caesar. In modern times this phenomenon is known as Bonapartism, and in the ancient world it assumes the form of Caesarism.

In modern times we see the same phenomenon expressed in fascist and Bonapartist regimes. The state raises itself above society. The ruling class is compelled to hand power over to a military strong man, who, in order to protect them, concentrates all power into his hands. He is surrounded by a gang of thieves, corrupt politicians, careerists greedy for office and wealth, and assorted scum. Naturally, the latter expect to be well rewarded for services rendered, and nobody is in a position to question their acquisitions. The ruling class is still the owner of the means of production, but the state is no longer in its hands. In order to protect itself it has reluctantly to tolerate the impositions, thieving, insults and even the occasional kick from its Leader and his associates, to whom it is expected to sing praises from morning till night, while silently cursing under its breath.

Such a situation can only arise when the struggle between the classes reaches the point of deadlock, where no decisive victory can be won either by one side or the other. The ruling class is not able to continue to rule in the old way, and the proletariat is not able to bring about a revolutionary change. The history of the Roman Republic is an almost laboratory example of this assertion. In ancient Rome a ferocious class struggle ended precisely in the ruin of the contending classes and the rise of Caesarism, which finally ended in the Empire.

Early history

The whole history of the Roman Republic is the history of class struggle, beginning with the struggles between patricians and plebeians for admission to office and share in the state lands. The decay of the old gentile society led to the rise of antagonistic classes, leading to a vicious civil war between the Plebs and the Patricians that lasted, on and off, for 200 years. Finally, the patrician nobility merged with the new class of the great landowners, slave owners and money owners, who gradually expropriated the lands of the free Roman peasantry, which was ruined by military service. The mass employment of slave labour to cultivate the enormous estates (latifundia) eventually led to the depopulation of Italy and the undermining of the Republic, paving the way for the victory, first of the emperors, the collapse of Rome and then the long dark night of barbarism, as Engels explained:

“The banishment of the last rex, Tarquinius Superbus, who usurped real monarchic power, and the replacement of the office of rex by two military leaders (consuls) with equal powers (as among the Iroquois) was simply a further development of this new constitution. Within this new constitution, the whole history of the Roman Republic runs its course, with all the struggles between patricians and plebeians for admission to office and share in the state lands, and the final merging of the patrician nobility in the new class of the great land and money owners, who, gradually swallowing up all the land of the peasants ruined by military service, employed slave labor to cultivate the enormous estates thus formed, depopulated Italy and so threw open the door, not only to the emperors, but also to their successors, the German barbarians.” (Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State)

The origins of Rome are shrouded in mist. We can, of course, discount the mythological account that attempts to trace the founders of Rome to the legendary Aeneas, who fled from the burning ruins of Troy. As is the case with many ancient tribes, this was an attempt to attribute a noble and illustrious ancestry to what was a far more ignoble affair. Similarly, the name of the mythical founder of Rome (Romulus) simply means “man of Rome”, and therefore tells us nothing at all. According to the traditional belief, the date of the founding of Rome was 753 BC. But this date is contradicted by the archaeological evidence: too late for the first regular settlements and too early for the time of true urbanization.

The most celebrated historian of early Rome, Livy, mixes genuine historical material with a mass of legend, speculation and mythology, from which it is difficult to extract the truth. However, these myths are of tremendous importance because they furnish us with significant clues. By comparing the written record – confused as it is - with the evidence of archaeology, comparative linguistics and other sciences, it is possible to reconstruct, at least in outline the origins of Rome. The pastoral economy of these tribes is probably true, since it corresponds to what we know about the economic mode of life of many of the Latin tribes, although by the beginning of the first millennium, they were already practicing agriculture and cultivated the soil with light ploughs.

One such group of shepherds and farmers migrated from the area of Mount Alban (Monte Cavo), some thirteen miles south-east of Rome in the early years of the first millennium, and built their huts on the banks of the Tiber. However, this particular group settled in an area that possessed a key economic importance. Rome’s geographical position, controlling the crossing of the river Tiber, which separates the two halves of the Peninsula, was of key strategic importance for the nations seeking to control the destiny of Italy. Situated on a ford of the Tiber, Rome was at a crossroads of traffic following the river valley and of traders travelling north and south on the west side of the Italian Peninsula.

To the South of Rome lay the fertile agricultural lands of the Campanian Plain, watered by two rivers and capable of producing as many as three grain crops a year in some districts. Rome also possessed the highly lucrative salt trade, derived from the salt flats at the mouth of the Tiber. The importance of this commodity in the ancient world cannot be overstated.

To this day we say: “a man who is worth his salt.” In ancient Rome, this was literally true. The word “salary” comes from the Latin word for salt salarium, which linked employment, salt and soldiers, although the exact link is unclear. One theory is that the word soldier itself comes from the Latin sal dare (to give salt). The Roman historian Pliny the Elder states in his Natural History that "[I]n Rome. . .the soldier's pay was originally salt and the word salary derives from it. . ." (Plinius Naturalis Historia XXXI). More likely, the salarium was either an allowance paid to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt or the price of having soldiers conquer salt supplies and guard the Salt Roads (Via Salarium) that led to Rome.

Whatever version one accepts, there is no question about the vital importance of salt and the salt trade that must have played a vital role in the establishment of a prosperous settled community in Rome, which must have attracted the unwelcome attention of less favoured tribes. The picture that emerges of the first Roman community is that of a group of clans fighting to defend their territory against the pressure of other peoples (Latins, Etruscans, Sabines etc.).

Early Roman society

According to Livy, Rome was formed by shepherds, under the leadership of chieftains. He refers to the ancient tribes of Rome, the Ramnenses, Titienses, and Luceres, about which we know little. The first settlement was established by a number of Latin gentes (one hundred, according to the legend), who were united in a tribe; these were soon joined by a Sabellian tribe, also said to have numbered a hundred gentes, and lastly by a third tribe of mixed elements, again said to have been composed of a hundred gentes. Thus, the population of Rome itself seems to have been a mixture of different peoples. This was the natural consequence of Rome’s geographical situation and long years of war. Over a long period, during which the original inhabitants were mixed with many other elements, they gradually succeeded in uniting the scattered inhabitants under a common state.

No one could belong to the Roman people unless he or she was a member of a gens and through it of a curia and a tribe. Ten gentes formed a curia (which among the Greeks was called a phratry). Every curia had its own religious rites, shrines and priests; the latter, as a body, formed one of the Roman priestly colleges. Ten curiae formed a tribe, which probably, like the rest of the Latin tribes, originally had an elected president-military leader and high priest. The three tribes together formed the Roman people, the Populus Romanus. In the earliest times the Roman gens (plural gentes) had the following features:

  1. Mutual right of inheritance among gentile members; the property remained within the gens.
  2. Possession of a common burial place.
  3. Common religious rites (the sacra gentilitia).
  4. Obligation not to marry within the gens.
  5. Common ownership of land. In primitive times the gens had always owned common land, ever since the tribal land began to be divided up. Later we still find land owned by the gentes, to say nothing of the state land, round which the whole internal history of the republic centers.
  6. Obligation of mutual protection and help among members of the gens. At the time of the second Punic war the gentes joined together to ransom their members who had been taken prisoner; the senate put a stop to it.
  7. Right to bear the gentile name.
  8. Right to adopt strangers into the gens.
  9. The right to elect the chief and to depose him. Although this is nowhere mentioned, in the earliest days of Rome all offices were filled by election or nomination, from the elected “king” downwards. The priests of the curiae were also elected by the curiae themselves, so we may assume the same procedure for the chiefs of the gentes.

Initially, it seems that public affairs were managed by the senate (the council of elders, from the Latin senex, an old man). This was composed of the chiefs of the three hundred gentes. It was for this reason that they were called “fathers”, patres, from which we later get the denomination patricians. Here we see how the original patriarchal relations of the old equalitarian genes system gradually produced a privileged tribal aristocracy, which crystallized into the Patrician Order – the ruling class in early Roman society. As Engels explains:

“[…] the custom of electing always from the same family in the gens brought into being the first hereditary nobility; these families called themselves "patricians," and claimed for themselves exclusive right of entry into the senate and tenure of all other offices. The acquiescence of the people in this claim, in course of time, and its transformation into an actual right, appear in legend as the story that Romulus conferred the patriciate and its privileges on the first senators and their descendants. The senate, like the Athenian boule, made final decisions in many matters and held preparatory discussions on those of greater importance, particularly new laws. With regard to these, the decision rested with the assembly of the people, called the comitia curiata (assembly of the curiae). The people assembled together, grouped in curiae, each curia probably grouped in gentes; each of the thirty curiae, had one vote in the final decision. The assembly of the curiae accepted or rejected all laws, elected all higher officials, including the rex (so-called king), declared war (the senate, however, concluded peace), and, as supreme court, decided, on the appeal of the parties concerned, all cases involving death sentence on a Roman citizen.

“Lastly, besides the senate and the assembly of the people, there was the rex, who corresponded exactly to the Greek basileus and was not at all the almost absolute king which Mommsen made him out to be. He also was military leader, high priest, and president of certain courts. He had no civil authority whatever, nor any power over the life, liberty, or property of citizens, except such as derived from his disciplinary powers as military leader or his executive powers as president of a court.” (Ibid.)

The divisions between patricians and plebs was not exclusively a difference between rich and poor. Some plebeians became very rich, but they remained plebeians and thus excluded from state power, which was originally monopolized by the clan aristocracy. The old Populus, jealous of its privileges, rigidly barred any addition to its own ranks from outside. It seems that landed property was fairly equally divided between populus and plebs. But the commercial and industrial wealth, though not as yet much developed, was probably for the most part in the hands of the Plebs. Thus, the old gentile legal forms entered into contradiction with the changed economic and social relations. The growing numbers of Plebs, and the growing economic power of its upper layer, led to a sharp class struggle between Plebs and Patricians that dominated the history of Rome after the expulsion of the Etruscans.

The exact process by which the old gentile society was destroyed is unclear. The increased wealth derived from the salt trade must have played a role, strengthening the position of the old tribal aristocracy and creating a growing gulf between the aristocracy and the poor members of the gens. What is clear is that the rise of private property created sharp divisions in society from a very early date. The harshness of the property laws in early Roman society coincided with the form of the family, which in Rome was the most extreme expression of patriarchy. The (male) head of the family enjoyed absolute power over all other members of the family, who were also regarded as private property, a fact that was already noted by Hegel:

“We thus find family relations among the Romans not as a beautiful, free relation of love and feeling; the place of confidence is usurped by the principle of severity, dependence, and subordination. Marriage, in its strict and formal shape, bore quite the aspect of a mere contract; the wife was part of the husband’s property (in manum conventio), and the marriage ceremony was based on a coemtio, in a form such as might have been adopted on the occasion of any other purchase. The husband acquired a power over his wife, such as he had over his daughter; nor less over her property; so that everything which she gained, she gained for her husband […].

“[…] The relation of sons was perfectly similar: they were, on the one hand, about as dependent on the paternal power as the wife on the matrimonial; they could not possess property – it made no difference whether they filled a high office in the State or not (though the peculia castrensia, and adventitia were differently regarded); but on the other hand, when they were emancipated, they had no connection with their father and their family. An evidence of the degree in which the position of children was regarded as analogous to that of slaves, is presented in the imaginaria servitus (mancipium), through which emancipated children had to pass. In reference to inheritance, morality would seem to demand that children should share equally. Among the Romans, on the contrary, testamentary caprice manifests itself in its harshest form. Thus perverted and demoralized, do we here see the fundamental relations of ethics.” (Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, pp. 286-7)

The old gens system rested originally on common property of land. But the decay of the old system under the pressures of trade and expanded wealth undermined all the old social-tribal relations. The rise of inequality within the gens led to the domination of the privileged class of patricians. Private property established itself so firmly that wives and children were regarded as private property, over which the paterfamilias ruled with an iron hand. Hegel understood perfectly well the relationship between the family and the state:

“The immoral active severity of the Romans in this private side of character, necessarily finds its counterpart in the passive severity of their political union. For the severity which the Roman experienced from the State he was compensated by a severity, identical in nature, which he was allowed to indulge towards his family – a servant on the one side, a despot on the other.” (ibid. p. 287)

The new form of the patriarchal family, based upon the tyrannical rule of the paterfamilias, was at the same time a reflection of the changed social and property relations and a firm base upon which the latter rested. And gradually, the state as an organ of class domination raised itself above society. The history of the Roman Republic is merely the continuation, extension and deepening of these tendencies, which in the end destroyed the Republic itself.