The class struggle in the Roman Republic

 When a ruling class is weakened and exhausted by long years of internecine struggle, we have seen how power can pass into the hands of a “strong man” who rules in the name of the existing social order, but who in fact usurps power and reinforces it by creating a new state in his own image. Such a man was Sulla. His rise, however, also marked the beginning of a process of utter degeneration of Roman society in all spheres of life.

The state as an organ of repression

As we have seen, the state is, in the last analysis, special bodies of armed men in defence of private property. In the good old days of the Republic the army was not allowed to set foot in Rome, and as a consequence there was no army garrison in the capital.

The revolutionary events of the previous period, however, persuaded the ruling clique of the need to take special measures. Sulla therefore took steps to strengthen the state as an organ of repression. For the first time he set up a real standing army, made up of specially selected professionals taken from the ranks of freed slaves and numbering around 10,000.

Nowadays the state is surrounded by a mystique that has been built up over centuries. It is presented as a power standing above society (which it is) and above all class interests (which it is not). It is the Holy of Holies, and not to be questioned. But in Sulla’s time the nature and role of the state was plain for all to see. The force set up by Sulla was intended as a kind of bodyguard for the oligarchy, but this was not defence, as in the past, against a foreign enemy, but to defend the ruling class against its own citizens. Here we already have the outline of the future Praetorian Guard. Here is the embryo of the Gestapo, the KGB, and all future special organs of state repression, where an armed force is created to defend the state against the people it is supposed to be defending.

Having concentrated power into his hands, Sulla ruthlessly crushed both the Popular Party and the capitalists. Ever since the time of Gaius Gracchus, the government had provided the proletariat with the distribution of free corn. Sulla abolished this. Gaius Gracchus had encouraged the formation of a class of capitalists (the equites) by developing the system of tax farming, whereby private individuals were able to fleece the wealthy provinces of Asia for their own benefit. Sulla struck a heavy blow against the Roman capitalists by abolishing the system of middlemen and establishing fixed taxes for Asia, to be paid directly to the Treasury at Rome. Gracchus gave the capitalists a privileged place in the legal system. Sulla abolished the equestrian courts and re-established the senatorial courts. In short, the equestrian order established by Gaius Gracchus, was abolished by Sulla.

It is impossible to run society by repression alone and the army is too narrow a base to achieve a stable regime. Therefore, Sulla needed a policy that would give him a social base. Following a line of action that was in theory acceptable to both conservatives and democrats, he tried unsuccessfully to put the clock back by encouraging the creation of small farms through colonisation of territories in Italy. He ordered the breaking up of some big latifundia, to be settled by soldiers in his own army. Similar utopian schemes were advanced two thousand years later by the Italian fascists – with just as little success. In the time of Sulla the big latifundia dominated agriculture just as the big monopolies dominate our own world. The day of the free small peasant was over, and all attempts to revive it were necessarily doomed to impotence.

Which class now held power? In theory all power now passed to the senate. But in practice, this was only a show. Real power was concentrated in the hands of Sulla and the army. In a move ostensibly designed to strengthen it, Sulla introduced 300 new members into the senate, drawn from the young men of the old aristocratic families and members of Sulla’s own circle. These new appointees were grateful to Sulla for their promotion and loyal to him. This measure resembles the way in which Stalin flooded the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet state with his appointees after Lenin’s death. The class basis is, of course, entirely different, but the mechanism is similar. In a situation where the ruling class is weakened and exhausted by long years of struggle, power passes to the hands of a “strong man” who rules in the name of the existing social order, but who in fact usurps power and reinforces it by creating a new state in his own image.

While preserving the outward forms of the old republican democracy, Sulla robbed them of any real content. Mommsen explains:

“The burgess-body remained formally sovereign; but so far as its general assemblies were concerned, while it seemed to the regent necessary to preserve their names, he was still more careful to prevent any real activity on their part. Sulla dealt even with the franchise in the most contemptuous manner; he made no difficulty either in conceding it to the new burgess communities, or in bestowing it on Spaniards and Celts en masse.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 340.)

Sulla did everything to consolidate his grip on power. But he had overlooked one small detail. The Roman army on which he relied had been entirely transformed. The soldiers no longer had any loyalty to the state, but only to their commanders. And this loyalty lasted only as long as the latter guaranteed the soldiers an acceptable amount of loot. In the course of the civil war no fewer than six generals had been murdered by their own troops. The army now had a sense of its own power, and was not prepared to submit to anybody. It is typical of the cynicism of men like Sulla that he abolished the death penalty for political offences, at the very time when his paid assassins were striking down his real or imagined enemies on all sides.

When Sulla attempted to assert his authority over the army, he immediately met with the resistance in his own staff. Naturally, his main opponents were the people in whom he had placed the greatest trust: Gnaeus Pompeus, whom he had entrusted with the conquest of Sicily and Africa and intended to make his son-in-law, and Quintus Ofella. When Sulla, through the senate, ordered Pompey to dismiss his army, the latter refused. The arrogant upstart Pompey told Sulla to his face that more people were concerned with the rising than the setting sun. Nevertheless, Sulla decided to attempt a compromise with Pompey. Ofella was not so lucky. The death penalty had been abolished for political offences, but Sulla had him cut down in the market place anyway.

Plunder of the provinces

Under Sulla’s dictatorship, the Popular Party and the capitalists were deprived of all rights. But the ruling oligarchy was itself displaced from state power, which passed to the hands of Sulla and his clique. Sulla was a king in all but name. The whole system rested on the exploitation of the slaves and the plunder of the provinces. The fact that Sulla gave provincials the vote was an empty gesture, because the vote itself was meaningless. He gave the provinces an empty title and in exchange robbed them of very real wealth. But though Sulla kicked and humiliated them, he could not do without the very capitalists he had displaced from political power.

After decades of revolution and civil war, Rome’s Treasury was depleted. Sulla needed the capitalists to raise more cash, but then a large part of the wealth flowed from the state’s coffers to the pockets of Roman capitalists. The war tax that Sulla imposed on Asia swelled to six times its original amount as a result of usurious interest rates. The usurers made huge fortunes and the provinces were stripped bare. People in the affected communities had to sell their public buildings, their jewels, their works of art; parents had to sell their children in order to satisfy the greed of these insatiable leeches.

The provinces were being crushed under an intolerable burden of taxation. Sicily and Sardinia had to hand over one tenth of its production of grapes and wheat. There was also a land tax, import duties, and a hundred other impositions. The province of Judea had to pay a Temple tax. Even more onerous was the quartering of troops and other such obligations, such as the free lodging of magistrates, clerks, lectors, heralds, physicians, priests and a host of other official functionaries. To these taxes and obligations must be added periodic forced sales and requisitions. All this provided enterprising Roman magistrates with a huge source of personal enrichment.

These things were the normal state of affairs for most of the provinces. But if the provincials dared to rebel against their tormentors, their plight would be far worse. Sulla compelled the provinces of Asia Minor, which had rebelled against Rome, to pay to every common Roman soldier quartered on them the equivalent of forty times their daily wage (16 denarii), and seventy times of his pay to a centurion. In addition to free food and lodging, they had to provide them with free clothing. To make matters worse, the soldiers were given the right to invite as many guests as they liked.

This does not exhaust the list of impositions. To it must be added the numerous local taxes for the maintenance of public buildings and the payment of all local services. Last, but not least, the system of tax farming greatly increased the burden of taxation, as greedy Roman middlemen took their slice of the wealth produced by the provinces. Even without the tax farmers, the Roman governors and magistrates plundered the provincials shamelessly. And new laws introducing new taxes were a regular occurrence.

It was necessary to look around for some new source of plunder. Asia was the most tempting target for Roman avarice. With all her wealth, Rome’s annual income was only two-thirds of that of the king of Egypt. The Ptolemies exploited the fabulous wealth of the Nile Valley and in addition benefited from Egypt’s favoured position as an international commercial centre. Its turn would come soon.

The other source of wealth was slavery. Although the Roman capitalists had been politically expropriated by Sulla, they still retained their stranglehold on the key elements of the economic life of Rome. The Roman capitalists increased their wealth all the time. In Sulla’s time, a modest fortune for a Roman senator would be three million sesterces, while two million was considered to be a decent equestrian fortune. The Roman capitalists were naturally the driving force behind the Republic’s foreign policy. It was the pressure of the capitalists that led to the destruction of Carthage and Corinth, because they wanted to rid themselves of these trading rivals. Similarly, the slave trade was increased to unheard-of levels to meet the demands of the Roman capitalists: “All lands and all nations were laid under contribution for slaves, but the places where they were chiefly captured were Syria and the interior of Asia Minor.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 385.)

This was the hay-day of slavery. Italy was now overrun by a mass of slaves. According to the census of 70 BC, the number of men capable of bearing arms in Italy was 910,000. Mommsen estimates that, after adding dependents, foreigners and others, the total free population of Italy was between six and seven millions. He calculates the number of slaves at an incredible thirteen to fourteen millions – that is, twice the number of free citizens. This is a very rough estimate, but there can be no doubt whatsoever that the slave population was very high and continuously expanding.

This was what led to a whole series of slave revolts, some on a massive scale. The slaves, the only productive class, were at the bottom of the pile, stripped of all human rights, made to toil in infamous conditions, until they dropped. By contrast, the ancient proletariat was a parasitic class, dependent on the labour of the slaves. This fact explains why the class struggle in Rome could never give rise to a new form of society. Only if the slaves had united with the city poor, the free proletarians, could they have succeeded in overthrowing the old system and arrived at a new synthesis. However, in the end, there was no revolutionary synthesis, and the result was an inexorable decline, accompanied by social, political and cultural collapse.

Is it conceivable that such a synthesis could have existed? This was theoretically possible, and this was shown by the fact that in every revolutionary movement, the most determined elements on the left wing of the Popular Party made appeals to the slaves to rise up. But in the moment of truth the Roman proletariat had more in common with the capitalists than with the slaves. They were on opposite sides of the line that separated exploiters from exploited.


The rule of Sulla was a golden age for the Roman upper classes. This was a period in which the rich became even more fabulously rich. This was shown by the lavish gladiatorial games that now became fashionable. Sulla himself, when he was Praetor, exhibited a hundred lions at the games. Rich men had luxurious houses and gardens, tended by small armies of domestic slaves. The capitalist Crassus had a town house famous for its old trees, which was valued at six million sesterces. By comparison the value of an ordinary dwelling at Rome was about six hundred.

The Roman nobility lounged in idleness in their splendid villas around the Bay of Naples. The inside of their houses was even more impressive than the outside, being hung with expensive curtains and tapestries. Instead of the old woollen dresses, women wore silk that scarcely concealed their figures. Conservatives complained that the latest styles were only an excuse for people to walk around naked. Fortunes were made and lost at the gaming tables. Extravagant prices were paid for qualified domestic slaves – 100,000 sesterces for a good cook, for instance, or 200,000 for an educated Greek slave of the first rank. As in every other form of class society the ignorant rich masters could purchase the services of poets and philosophers.

Morals were looser than ever before. Divorce, previously almost unheard-of in Rome, became commonplace. A Roman orator of the time, speaking in the open Forum, could make fun of a senatorial civil juryman, who instead of going to court, is in some tavern or brothel, drinking and gaming with his cronies:

"They play at hazard, delicately perfumed, surrounded by their mistresses. As the afternoon advances, they summon the servant and bid him make enquiries on the Comitium, what has occurred in the Forum, who has spoken in favour of or against the new project of law, what tribes have voted for and what against it. At length they go themselves to the judgment-seat, just early enough not to bring the process down on their own neck. On the way there is no opportunity in any retired alley which they do not avail themselves of, for they have gorged themselves with wine.

“Reluctantly they come to the tribunal and give audience to the parties. Those who are concerned bring forward their cause. The juryman orders the witnesses to come forward; he himself steps aside. When he returns, he declares that he has heard everything and asks for the documents. He looks into the writings; he can hardly keep his eyes open for wine. When he thereupon withdraws to consider his sentence, he says to his boon-companions, 'What concern have I with these tiresome people? Why should we not rather go to drink a cup of mulse mixed with Greek wine, and accompany it with a fat fieldfare and a good fish, a veritable pike from the Tiber Island?'" (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 395.)

So scandalous was the ostentation of the rich that the government passed the so-called sumptuary laws, which sought in vain to place some limit on the extravagances of the wealthy. The rulers of Rome were afraid of the reaction that such conduct might provoke among the less favoured population of Rome. But the nobles felt themselves above the law. Their ostentation was a defiant reaction to the period when they had to suffer the indignities and persecutions of the rule of the Popular Party. They were now the masters of the house! They would flaunt their wealth for all to see! No laws would stop them! We see this phenomenon repeated many times in history – in France during the Thermidorean reaction, for example, or in 17th century England after the Restoration of Charles II following the death of Oliver Cromwell.

To this moral decay we must add the decay of religion and the spread of mystical and irrational tendencies. The old Romans were not at all inclined to mysticism. They were farmers with a practical attitude to life. The Roman religion was a religion of farmers with a rather provincial and prosaic outlook on life. We see this healthy and thoroughly un-mystical outlook in all kinds of details. In the struggle against Carthage, the Romans had to learn how to fight on ships for the first time. They were not natural sailors. On one occasion, when they were about to go into battle with the Carthaginian navy, the priest announced that the auguries were unfavourable because the sacred chickens would not eat the grain he had offered them. The Roman captain’s answer was: “If they will not eat, then let them drink!” So saying he threw the unfortunate birds into the sea and attacked the enemy – although, sad to say, not very successfully.

It is in the period of Sulla when for the first time we see the spread of mysticism in Roman society. Sulla himself had no ideology and little religion, but he was superstitious and believed in Fate. Of Sulla’s beliefs, Mommsen writes:

“[…] it was that faith in the absurd, which necessarily makes its appearance in every man who has thoroughly ceased to believe in a connected order of things – the superstition of the fortunate player, who deems himself privileged by fate to throw on each and every occasion the right number.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 360.)

Both Caesar and Napoleon had a similar cast of mind to that of Sulla, and they constantly harped on about Destiny There is always an element of the gambler in such military adventurers, and all gamblers are superstitious. It often appears that the outcome of a battle is decided by a lucky accident, like the lucky throw at dice. But this is also a product of a specific period in history, when a given socio-economic system has entered into a terminal decline. This decline sets its stamp on the psychology of all men and women, from the lowest to the highest.

As Hegel pointed out, Necessity expresses itself through accident. The Men of Destiny throughout history have only been men who expressed an idea that had already become necessary by the working out of processes that take place behind the backs of men, and invisible to them. Their “luck” turns out to be no luck at all, but an optical illusion. The circumstances that determine whether they win or lose are prepared in advance. This does not cancel out the role of the individual in history. What it means is that the scope for individual action is severely limited by objective reality, which favours one outcome over all others. When history plays games with the destiny of men and women, it always plays with a loaded dice.

This rise of mysticism and irrationality in the later Roman Republic is also no accident. In a period when the productive forces are developing and society is going forward, people will believe in the existing gods, will accept unquestioningly the existing morality and obey the existing laws. But when a given social order is breaking down, when the productive forces stagnate and decline, then a different psychology can be observed. There are symptoms of universal malaise, doubt and scepticism. The temples stand empty. Nobody believes in the old gods any more. Instead, we see the spread of mysticism, unbelief and superstition. Mommsen writes:

“Men had become perplexed, not merely as to the old faith, but as to their very selves; the fearful crises of a fifty years’ revolution, the instinctive feeling that a civil war was still far from being at an end, increased the anxious suspense, the gloomy perplexity of the multitude. Restlessly, the wandering imagination climbed every height and fathomed every abyss, where it fancied that it might discover new prospects or new light amidst the fatalities impending, might gain fresh hopes in the desperate struggles against destiny, or perhaps might find merely fresh alarms. A portentous mysticism found in the general distraction – political, economic, moral, religious – the soil which was adapted for it, and grew with alarming rapidity; it was as if gigantic trees had grown by night out of the earth, none knew whence or whither, and this very marvellous rapidity of growth worked new wonders and seized like an epidemic on all minds not thoroughly fortified.” (Mommsen, vol. 3, p. 412.)

This extract shows very clearly the depth of degeneration that had corroded the very spirit of the Roman Republic. What is shocking is not the events here described but the fact that they should be so casually made light of in public. The conclusion is clear. The Republic now existed in name only. Unable to live, it was unwilling to die. It was only a matter of time that an appropriate executioner would be found to put it out of its misery. Exactly the same can be said of the capitalist system in the first decade of the 21st century. Reading Mommsen’s comments on this period, we seem to be reading a description of our own troubled times.