The class struggle in the Roman Republic

Rome’s victorious wars on many fronts, not least that of Carthage, created the basis for the rise of slavery on a vast scale, providing a mass of cheap labour. This in turn changed the balance of class forces within Roman society, adding new privileged layers to the old, while at the same time undermining the position of the free farmer citizens, transforming them into a parasitic urban lumpenproletariat. All this undermined the very basis upon which the Republic rested.

The transition to a slave economy

The underlying motor force of history is the development of the productive forces, or, to put it another way, the development of humankind’s power over nature. In the last analysis, the viability of a given socio-economic system will be determined by its ability to provide people with food, clothing and shelter. It is obvious that in order to think beautiful thoughts, invent clever machines, develop new religions and philosophies, one first has to eat.

Long before Marx, the great Aristotle wrote that “Man begins to philosophise when the needs of life are provided.” And Hegel pointed out:

“The first glance at History convinces us that the actions of men proceed from their needs, their passions, their characters and talents; and impresses us with the belief that such needs, passions and interests are the sole springs of action — the efficient agents in this scene of activity.” (Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Introduction)

Marx and Engels explained at great length that the connection between the economic base of a given society and the immense superstructure of the state, laws, religious beliefs, philosophical tendencies and schools of art, literature and music is not a direct and mechanical one, but an extremely complex and contradictory dialectical relation. However, in the last analysis, the causes of all great historical transformations must be traced back to changes in the mode of production, which give rise to profound modifications in society.

On one occasion the English socialist Ernest Belfort Bax challenged Engels to deduce the appearance of the Gnostic religious sect in the second century from the economic conditions in Rome at the time. The question showed a complete lack of understanding of historical materialism on Bax’s part, but Engels was patient and answered that one could not do such a thing, “but suggested that by tracing the matter further back you might arrive at some economic explanation of what he granted was an interesting side problem in history.” (Reminiscences of Marx and Engels, p. 306)

It is impossible to understand the fall of the Roman Republic unless we take the trouble to “trace the matter back” to its origins, which are the direct result of a change in the mode of production, which in turn produced profound changes in the relations between the classes in Roman society, the nature of the state and the army. The decisive change in this case was the rise of slavery, which led to the liquidation of the class of free peasants that was the backbone of the Republic and its army. All subsequent developments are contingent on this fact.

Each stage in the development of human society is marked by a certain development of the productive forces, on a higher development of labour productivity. This is the secret wellspring of all progress. Greece and Rome produced marvels of art, science, law, philosophy and literature. Yet all these intellectual marvels were based, in the last analysis, on the labour of the slaves. Subsequently, slavery entered into decline and was replaced by feudalism, where the exploitation of labour assumed a different form. Finally, we arrive at the capitalist mode of production, which remains dominant, although its contradictions are now clear to all.

To us, slavery appears as something morally repugnant. But then we are left with a paradox. If we ask the question: where did all our modern science and technology come from, we are forced to answer: Greece and Rome (we leave aside the important contributions later made by the Arabs, who preserved and developed the ideas of antiquity and transmitted them to us). That is to say, the achievements of civilization were the products of slavery.

Despite all the barbarous and bloody features that naturally arouse indignation and disgust, each stage of social development marks an advance on the road to the final emancipation of the human race, which can only be achieved on the basis of the fullest development of the productive forces and of human culture. It was in that sense that Hegel wrote that it is not so much from slavery as through slavery that humankind reaches emancipation.

The Punic Wars

The history of class society is studded with wars and revolutions. Pacifists and moralists may lament this fact. But, sad to say, even the most superficial examination of history shows that it has never been guided by moral considerations. It is as inappropriate to approach history from a moralistic standpoint as it would be to do this in relation to the workings of natural selection in the evolution of species. We may regret that carnivorous animals are not vegetarians, but our feelings on the subject will not affect the ways of nature in the slightest degree.

It is self-evident that wars and revolutions have an important – even a decisive effect – on human history. They are, to use the Hegelian expression, the nodal points where quantity becomes transformed into quality, the boundaries that separate one historical epoch from another. Thus we refer to the period before and after 1789, 1815, 1914, 1917, 1945 and so on. At these critical points, all the contradictions that have been slowly accumulating emerge with explosive force, impelling society forward – or back. In the case of the Roman Republic we see a dialectical process in which war leads to a change in the mode of production, and the change in the mode of production leads to a change in the nature of war and the army itself.

The formative period of the Roman Republic was an age of almost permanent warfare: wars against the Etruscans, the Latins, the Gauls, the Samnites, the Greek colonies in Italy, and finally, against Carthage. This last chapter was a decisive turning point in Roman history. Carthage was the main trading power in the Western Mediterranean. It possessed a great part of the coast of northern Africa and southern Spain and had a footing in Sicily and Sardinia.

It was the Carthaginians’ involvement in Sicily that first brought them into conflict with Rome. This wealthy island was occupied by prosperous Greek city states, which habitually made war on one another. One such state appealed to Rome to intervene on its behalf against some rebellious mercenaries. It later changed its mind, but it was too late. The Romans were now involved in the affairs of Sicily, where the Carthaginians were already well installed. A complex web of alliances and trade interests caused a chain reaction that led inexorably to war between the two powers for control of this key island.

Roman historians like Polybius liked to portray this as a defensive war, but there is little evidence to support the idea that at this stage Carthage was a serious threat to Rome. The fact is that Rome was now an aggressive power that was fighting to achieve total domination of the whole of Italy – including Sicily. Thus, a conflict with Carthage was inevitable. But this conflict was to turn Rome into a power, not just in Italy, but throughout the Mediterranean. And if we recall that that word mediterraneus in the Latin language signifies “the centre of the world”, then what is meant is a world power, in the understanding of those times.

There were three wars with Carthage – the Punic Wars (264-41, 218-201 and 149-146 BC). In comparison to this conflict, all previous wars seemed like child’s play. This was a deadly, bloody slogging match, which lasted decades. The human and economic cost of the war was immense. In the first Punic war alone, in a five-year period, the census of Roman citizens fell by about 40,000 – one sixth of the total population. And these figures do not include the losses suffered by Rome’s allies, who suffered big losses at sea.

But though the Romans won the first war with its most powerful enemy, the conflict was not resolved. Carthage soon rebuilt its power, drawing on the rich silver mines of Spain. A second 16-year war followed – a war that is forever associated with the name of Hannibal. The Romans had watched with alarm as the Carthaginians consolidated their power in Spain. This was dangerous and had to be stopped at all costs. The Romans needed a pretext to intervene in Spain and they got one when Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal besieged the city of Saguntum (the modern Sagunto), which was under Roman protection. The Romans claimed that there was an agreement that the Carthaginian army should not go south of the river Ebro, and that Hannibal had broken this agreement.

Whether the claim made by Rome was true or false is a question of third-rate importance. One must never confuse the causes of war with the diplomatic pretexts or accidental factors that provoke the commencement of hostilities. The First World War was not caused by the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, as the old history books used to claim. It was the inevitable result of the conflict of interests between the rising imperialist power of Germany and the older, established imperialist powers of Britain and France, which had carved up the world between them. Here we have an analogous case from the world of antiquity.

Polybius recognised the fact that:

“Some of those authors who have dealt with Hannibal and his times, wishing to indicate the causes that led to the above war between Rome and Carthage, allege as its first cause the siege of Saguntum by the Carthaginians and as its second their crossing, contrary to treaty, the river whose native name is the Iber [Ebro]. I should agree in stating that these were the beginnings of the war, but I can by no means allow that they were its causes.” (Polybius, 3:6)

This is very true. The Romans were determined to prevent Carthage from restoring her economic and military power, and therefore used this incident as a pretext to send an army into Spain.

The Romans were determined to start a war and were just looking for an excuse. Therefore they made the Carthaginians an offer they could not accept (this is another typical diplomatic trick to start a war). They demanded that they either hand over Hannibal for punishment or else accept war with Rome. Hannibal had in fact been trying to avoid a war with Rome, because he was not yet ready. But once he understood that war was inevitable, he boldly seized the initiative. He went onto the offensive.

The Romans never imagined he would take the step of invading Italy. Even less did they imagine he would lead his army out of Spain, march through Gaul and cross what seemed to be an impassable barrier – the Alps – to enter Italy from the North. But he did all these things, and took the Romans by surprise. And surprise can be a decisive element in war. Rome suddenly found itself invaded by a foreign army fighting on Italian soil. This extraordinary general, with very little support from outside, harried the Roman armies and came within a hair’s breadth of destroying Roman power altogether.

Hannibal calculated that his relatively small army would be supported by an uprising of the Latin peoples who were under Roman domination (though technically “allies”). He did get support from the Gauls of Northern Italy. But in general the Latin peoples remained loyal to Rome. Thus, although his spectacular military victories at Trebbia, Trasimene and Cannae brought Rome to its knees, he lacked sufficient strength to deliver the knockout blow. The Romans could always rebuild their armies, while Hannibal, deprived of outside help, could not afford to lose men. Therefore, in the long run, even Hannibal’s great talent as a general could not bring victory.

Learning from their earlier mistakes, the Romans simply avoided direct battles and waited for the Carthaginian forces to exhaust themselves. Then a Roman army led by Scipio invaded Spain and conquered it. Then Rome turned its attentions to Carthage itself. They organised an intrigue with Carthage’s African vassals and got them to rise up against their masters. This revolt compelled Hannibal to return to Africa to defend Carthage. Once again, the might of Rome prevailed. In the end Carthage was decisively beaten at the battle of Zama.

After this, the Romans no longer felt any need to pretend that their wars were of a defensive character. They had developed a taste for conquest. But this was merely a reflection of a fundamental change in property relations and the mode of production. The same year (146 BC) they destroyed Corinth, another trading rival. By order of the Senate, the city was razed to the ground, its entire population was sold into slavery and its priceless art treasures were shipped off to Rome. The destruction of Corinth was partly to prevent social revolution: the Romans always preferred to deal with oligarchic governments, whereas Corinth was a turbulent democracy.

The final Punic War was deliberately provoked by Rome. The war party was led by Cato, who always ended his speeches in the Senate with the celebrated slogan: “delenda est Carthago”Carthage must be destroyed. After a three-year siege in which the inhabitants suffered terrible famine, the city was taken by storm. In a display of extreme vindictiveness, the Romans broke their promises to the Carthaginians and sold the population into slavery. They then demolished the city stone by stone and sowed the ground with salt so that nothing could grow there. The defeat of Carthage changed the destiny of Rome. Until it was compelled to take to the sea in the war with Carthage, Rome had never been a sea power. Carthage had always blocked her way. Now, with this mighty obstacle removed, Rome was free to launch herself on a career that was to end in complete domination of the Mediterranean.

The Roman victory added new territories to its growing empire, including the prosperous Greek and Phoenician colonies on the coast of Spain. This gave a further impetus to the class of Roman capitalists, involved in trade in the Mediterranean. Spain opened up her valuable iron and silver mines – which were also worked by slave labour in terrible conditions. Rome simply took over this business from Carthage. It also led to a further development of trade and exchange and therefore the rise of a money economy. Thus, war played an important role in bringing about a complete transformation of the mode of production – and therefore of social relations – in Rome.

Effects on the army

The armies of Rome were victorious on all fronts. But in the midst of these foreign triumphs, intense contradictions were developing at home, where a new and even more ferocious war was about to break out – a war between the classes. Stripped of all non-essentials this was a war for the division of the loot. This was already pointed out by Hegel, who wrote: “The Roman state, drawing its resources from rapine, came to be rent asunder by quarrels about dividing the spoils.” (Hegel, The Philosophy of History, p.309, my emphasis, AW). This is a very precise, and wholly materialist, account of the basis of the class struggle in Rome at this time.

The Punic Wars also marked a change in the nature of the Roman army. Until now the army was based on the property owning citizens and was drawn mainly from the mass of free peasants. But in the course of the Punic Wars, when the fate of the Republic was in the balance, it was no longer possible to maintain the old situation and the property qualifications were greatly reduced. For the first time a large number of proletarians between the ages of 18 and 46 were recruited into the army and served for an average of seven years and paid for out of the public funds. This was a further step in the transformation of the Roman army from a citizens’ militia to a professional army. It created a new type of general in the person of Scipio Africanus, the first Roman general who was named after his military conquests.

With every military conquest, Rome acquired a huge amount of land confiscated in the conquered territories. This land became the property of the Roman state – the ager publicus (public land). But since the state itself was in the hands of the patricians, in practice they treated the ager publicus as their own property and leased it out to people of their own class. The mass of propertyless plebeians had no access to the conquered lands. This was a constant source of intense discontent.

The discontent of the plebeian farmer-soldiers was further intensified by the fact that the length of compulsory military service was continually being increased as the wars became longer. Initially, the citizen’s militia was fighting defensive wars on its own territory. But the Samnite wars, which were fought a long way from home, extended over half a century, involving almost all the states of Italy. The long periods of military service often meant that the plebeian Roman soldier returned home to find his farm in ruins, and himself and his family deep in debt. The long years of war led gradually, on the one hand, to the rise of slavery and the big estates, on the other hand, to the rapid increase of a landless population of proletarians.

The tendency of the Senate to treat the lands of the conquered territories as their personal property has already been noted. But after the long and bloody slugging match with Hannibal, there was a feeling that the Senate had saved Rome, and the military victory over Rome’s most dangerous enemy greatly boosted the Senate’s authority and undermined any potential opposition – at least for a time. Victory meant Roman control over vast new territories with immense riches. As the third century passed into the second, the Senate strengthened its grip on the new territories by the appointment of governors, who had a virtual license to coin money at the expense of the provinces.

All the time the position of the Roman and Italian small farmer was being inexorably eroded by a fatal combination of debt, slavery and the encroachment of the big estates. The free peasantry entered into a process of decay, being unable to compete with slave labour. Constant wars, debt and impoverishment ruined them. Despite attempts to force through legislation to protect the peasants, slave labour on a large scale drove out free labour. All the laws designed to halt this process were in vain. Economic necessity tore up the laws before they could be enacted. The Licinian laws stipulated that the landlords had to employ a certain proportion of free labourers alongside the slaves and that the burden of debt was to be reduced. But it was impossible to reverse the process.

The former peasants fled the countryside to seek a life of leisure in Rome where they lived at the public expense. The Roman proletariat was in fact a lumpenproletariat. They produced nothing but lived on the backs of the slaves. They did not feed society but were fed by it. They no longer had the land, but they still had the vote and this gave them a measure of power. Thus, over a long period of time, increasing numbers of dispossessed peasants flocked to Rome, and although they were reduced to the status of proletarii – the lowest layer of propertyless citizens, they remained Roman citizens and had certain rights in the state. This presence of a large number of impoverished citizens gave a fresh impetus to the class struggle in Rome. There were violent insurrections against the burdens of debt.

It is important to note that the class struggle in ancient Rome was not identical with the struggle between plebeians and patricians. That was a difference of rank – roughly the same as the difference between “commoners” and “nobles”. But there were also wealthy plebeians – who invariably took the side of the patricians against the plebeian masses. Thus, the old struggles of Plebeians against Patricians became transformed into the struggle of rich against poor.

The rise of slavery

The Roman Republic in 100 BC controlled the whole of North Africa, Greece, Southern Gaul and Spain. Wealth was pouring in from all sides. But these conquests undermined the Republic fatally. Before the Punic Wars started, a new oligarchy was formed when the tribunes went over to the side of the Senate. The wealthy plebs (the Roman capitalists) gradually fused with the old aristocracy to form a powerful bloc of big property owners. The first two Punic Wars greatly strengthened the hold of the slave-holding oligarchy on Roman society. This was the social and political reflection of a fundamental change in the mode of production from an economy based on free labour and small peasant agriculture to an economy based on slave labour and big landed estates (latifundia).

Until the Punic Wars, slavery was not the decisive mode of production. True, there were probably always some slaves in Rome, and the phenomenon of debt slavery was present from the earliest recorded times. But in the beginning the number of slaves working in the fields was far less than that of the free peasants, and the lot of slaves was not as bad as in later times. The slave worked alongside his master and was almost like a member of the family. Slaves could be freed through manumission and this was a fairly common occurrence. In The Foundations of Christianity, Karl Kautsky writes:

“From the material point of view the situation of these slaves was not too hard to start with; they sometimes found themselves well enough off. As members of a prosperous household, often serving convenience or luxury, they were not taxed unduly. When they did productive work, it was often – in the case of the wealthy peasants – in common with the master; and always only for the consumption of the family itself, and that consumption had its limits. The position of the slaves was determined by the character of the master and the prosperity of the families they belonged to. It was in their own interest to increase that prosperity, for they increased their own prosperity in the process. Moreover the daily association of the slave with his master brought them closer together as human beings and, when the slave was clever, made him indispensable and even a full-fledged friend. There are many examples, in the ancient poets, of the liberties slaves took with their masters and with what intimacy the two were often connected. It was not rare for a slave to be rewarded for faithful service by being freed with a substantial gift; others saved enough to purchase their freedom. Many preferred slavery to freedom; they would rather live as members of a rich family than lead a needy and uncertain existence all by themselves.” (Karl Kautsky, The Foundations of Christianity, 2:1 The Slave Economy)

The rise of the big estates changed all that. The mode of production was transformed. The rising population of the towns meant an increased demand for bread and an increased market for other agricultural products. On the other hand, the destruction of Carthage meant that Italy was now the main producer of wine and olive oil. The small peasant subsistence agriculture was now rapidly displaced by large-scale intensive agriculture using new techniques: crop rotation, the use of manure and new deep-cutting ploughs and the selection of seeds. In southern Italy there were big ranches for the raising of cattle and sheep. In turn there were new industries for the working of wool and leather and the production of meat and cheese. Only the biggest estates could do this, since they alone had access to both the upper and lower pastures required for seasonal migration. Naturally, they were worked by slave labour.

The use of large-scale slave labour probably began in the mines. Victory in the Punic Wars meant that Rome now had possession of the valuable silver mines in Spain that had been exploited by the Carthaginians. Since the Romans had a huge supply of extremely cheap slaves, who could be worked to death, these mines could show a very decent profit for a relatively small outlay. The Spanish silver mines became among the most productive of antiquity, as ancient authors confirm:

“In the beginning,” writes Diodorus, “ordinary private citizens were occupied in the mining and got great riches, because the silver ore did not lie deep and was present in great quantity. Later, when the Romans became masters of Iberia (Spain), a crowd of Italians appeared at the mines, who won great riches through their greed. For they bought a throng of slaves and handed them over to the overseer of the mines... Those slaves that have to work in these mines bring incredible incomes to their masters: but many of them, who toil underground in the pits day and night, die of the overwork. For they have no rest or pause, but are driven by the blows of their overseers to endure the hardest exertions and work themselves to death. A few, that have enough strength and patience to endure it, only prolong their misery, which is so great it makes death preferable to life.” (Diodorus Siculus, V, 36, 38.)

Slave labour tended to drive out free labour, destroying not only the class of free peasants but also preventing the development of handicrafts, which were undermined by the industries run by gangs of slaves in the cities and on the latifundia By degrees the free peasants found themselves displaced by slave labour, as Mommsen explains:

“The burdensome and partly unfortunate wars, and the exorbitant taxes and taskworks to which these gave rise, filled up the measure of calamity, so as to deprive the possessor directly of his farm and to make him the bondsman if not the slave of his credit-lord, or to reduce him through encumbrances practically to the condition of a temporary lessee to his creditor. The capitalists, to whom a new field was here opened of lucrative speculation unattended by trouble or risk, sometimes augmented in this way their landed property; sometimes they left to the farmer, whose person and estate the law of debt placed in their hands, nominal proprietorship and actual possession. The latter course was probably the most common as well as the most pernicious; for while utter ruin might thereby be averted from the individual, this precarious position of the farmer, dependent at all times on the mercy of his creditor – a position in which he knew nothing of property but its burdens – threatened to demoralise and politically to annihilate the whole farmer-class.” (Mommsen, History of Rome, vol.1, p. 268.)

Kautsky develops the same point:

“If the slaves were cheap, their industrial products would be cheap too. They required no outlay of money. The farm, the latifundium provided the workers’ foodstuffs and raw materials, and in most cases their tools too. And since the slaves had to be kept anyway during the time they were not needed in the fields, all the industrial products they produced over and above the needs of their own enterprise were a surplus that yielded a profit even at low prices.

“In the face of this slave-labour competition it is no wonder that strong free crafts could not develop. The craftsmen in the ancient world, and particularly so in the Roman world, remained poor devils, working alone for the most part without assistants, and as a rule working up material supplied to them, either in the house of the client or at home. There was no question of a strong group of craftsmen such as grew up in the Middle Ages. The guilds remained weak and the craftsmen were always dependent on their clients, usually the bigger landowners, and very often led a parasitic existence on the verge of sinking into the lumpenproletariat as the landowner’s dependents.” (ibid.)

A fundamental change was taking place in Italy itself. The huge influx of slaves meant that slave labour was now extremely cheap. There was no way the free Italian peasantry could compete with it. The rise of slavery undermined the free peasantry that had been the backbone of the Republic and the base of its army. Italy was now full of big landed estates worked by slave labour, as described by Mommsen:

“The human labour of the field was regularly performed by slaves. At the head of the body of slaves on the estates (familia rustica) stood the steward (vilicus, from villa), who received and expended, bought and sold, went to obtain the instructions of the landlord, and in his absence issued orders and administered punishment.” (Mommsen, vol. 2, p. 344.)

Incidentally, our word family comes from this word for a community of slaves. He continues:

“The whole system was pervaded by the utter unscrupulousness characteristic of the power of capital. Slaves and cattle were placed on the same level: a good watchdog, it is said in a Roman writer on agriculture, must not be on too friendly terms with his ‘fellow slaves’. The slave and the ox were fed properly so long as they could work, because it would not have been good economy to let them starve; and they were sold like a worn-out ploughshare when they became unable to work, because in like manner it would not have been good economy to retain them longer.” (ibid., pp. 346-7.)