The class struggle in the Roman Republic

The Etruscans

In his masterpiece The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky explains one of the most important laws of history, the law of combined and uneven development:

“Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development – by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course, in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third or tenth cultural class.” (Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, volume 1, chapter I, Peculiarities of Russia’s Development.)

The historical development of Russia was shaped by its more advanced neighbours. It was not helped by its early contacts with the more backward Tartars and other nomadic steppe dwellers from the East who contributed nothing to its culture and barely left an imprint on its language. It was held back for centuries by its subjugation by the Mongols, although the latter left its imprint on Russian society and particularly the state, which had certain semi-Asiatic characteristics. But it received a strong impulse from its wars with the more developed Poles and Swedes. The case of Rome is analogous. What determined its course of cultural and economic development was not the long wars with the barbarian Latin tribes, but their contacts with other peoples that had reached a higher level of socio-economic development: the Etruscans, the Greeks of southern Italy, and the Carthaginians.

As a general rule backward nations tend to assimilate the material and intellectual conquests of the advanced countries, although this process can often take the most complicated and contradictory forms, combining elements of extreme backwardness with the most modern innovations imported from external sources. This was true of ancient Rome. Like the Japanese in more modern times, the Romans showed a tremendous ability to learn from and assimilate the experiences of other nations, although these borrowings from other peoples were always coloured by a peculiar Roman outlook. Roman art began by copying Greek originals and never freed itself from Greek influences. But the flexibility and the free and cheerful spirit of Greek art was alien to the psychology of the Romans, who were originally small farmers and never completely freed themselves from a certain narrowness of mind, an unsmiling provincial practicality that expressed itself in art and religion by a stern and implacable austerity.

In the early days their gods were the simple deities of an agricultural people, though infused with a strong warrior spirit. Their most important god was originally Mars. But they were pragmatic about religion as about everything else, and regularly imported any foreign deity that seemed useful to them. When they conquered an enemy, they not only took his wealth and his women, but also his main gods, who were immediately installed in a new temple in Rome. This was a way of emphasising the completeness of their domination and also provided them with allies in Heaven, which they hoped would provide them with some assistance for the next war in this world. In this way, over a period, Rome acquired, alongside a wealth of loot, a superabundance of gods, which must have been quite bewildering at times.

The Romans succeeded in fighting off the neighbouring Latin tribes, whose level of socio-economic development was not so very different from their own. But to the North they were faced with pressure from a more advanced people: the Etruscans, who occupied most of the land in what was later known as Cisalpine Gaul in Northern Italy. The exact origin of the Etruscans is still a matter of controversy, since very little Etruscan literature remains and the language of inscriptions on their monuments has been only partially deciphered. We have gained most of our knowledge of the Etruscans from studying the remains of their city walls, houses, monuments, and tombs. Some scholars think they were a seafaring people from Asia Minor. Others have speculated that they may have been an original Italian population, or of Semitic stock, like the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. We may never know.

At any rate, as early as 1000 BC they were living in Italy in an area that was roughly equivalent to modern Tuscany, from the Tiber River north almost to the Arno River. After 650 BC, the Etruscans became dominant in north-central Italy. According to tradition, Rome had been under the control of seven kings, beginning with the mythical Romulus who along with his brother Remus were said to have founded the city of Rome. Of the last three “kings”, two were said to have been Etruscan: Tarquinius Priscus and Tarquinius Superbus. Although the list of kings is of dubious historical value, it is believed that the last-named kings may have been historical figures. This suggests that Rome was under the influence of the Etruscans for about a century. The early histories state that Rome was at one time under the rule of Etruscan “kings”, and the archaeological record shows that Rome was indeed at one stage an Etruscan city.

The Etruscans were interested in Rome for both economic and strategic reasons. South of Rome, Italy was dominated by powerful and prosperous Greek colonies. Indeed, the ancients referred to southern Italy and Sicily as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece). Etruscan expansion brought them into contact with the Latins, and eventually they reached the very frontier of Magna Graecia, where they began to establish colonies. This opened up a new period of conflict between the Etruscans and Greeks for the domination of Latium. It was impossible for the Etruscans to hold Latium unless they took Rome, which lay between Latium and themselves. In addition to its strategic importance, the salt from the mouth of the Tiber was essential to Etruscan cities, which had no other source of this important commodity.

Rome was surrounded by prosperous Etruscan city states like Tarquinii, Cere and Veii, and that it was under their influence that Rome was transformed. They were on a higher plane of economic and cultural development than the Romans, with whom they traded, and whom they eventually dominated. The fact that the Etruscans were on a higher level explains why they succeeded in establishing this superiority. They were organised, like the Greeks, in city states, and their art and culture showed strong Greek influences. Weapons and other implements, exquisite jewellery, coins, statues of stone, bronze, and terra-cotta, and black pottery (called bucchero) have been found. The Roman sources never actually state that the Etruscans conquered Rome, but that may be for reasons of national pride. But it is clear that, in one way or another, they took control of the city.

Before the arrival of the Etruscans Rome was a small conglomeration of villages approaching what Engels would have called the higher stage of barbarism. From an economic, cultural and technical point of view, the Etruscans had a tremendous impact on Roman development. They must have had a profound effect on the economic life of Rome, its culture and social structure. Only the later influence of the Greeks of southern Italy was greater. Contact with a more advanced civilization would have finally put an end to whatever was left of the old gentile constitution, strengthening the position of the old tribal aristocracy, undermining the old clan solidarity and preparing the ground for a transition to new legal and class relations.

The Etruscans are said to have been great engineers, and were probably responsible for the transformation of Rome from a relatively primitive tribal centre to a thriving city around 670-630 BC. It was under the new masters that, according to tradition, the first public works such as the walls of the Capitoline hill were constructed. Until then the Tiber was crossed by ford and Rome itself was not more than a collection of poor huts. During this period a bridge called the Pons Sublicius was built. It was also at this time that we can date the construction of the impressive sewerage and draining system, the Cloaca Maxima.

Assembly and Senate

The Romans eventually succeeded in driving out the last Etruscan ruler, Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud). Actually, the use of the word “king” is incorrect. Engels points out that the Latin word for king (rex) is the same as the Celtic-Irish righ (tribal chief) and the Gothic reiks, which signified head of the gens or tribe:

“The office of rex was not hereditary; on the contrary, he was first elected by the assembly of the curiae, probably on the nomination of his predecessor, and then at a second meeting solemnly installed in office. That he could also be deposed is shown by the fate of Tarquinius Superbus.

“Like the Greeks of the heroic age, the Romans in the age of the so-called kings lived in a military democracy founded on gentes, phratries, and tribes and developed out of them. Even if the curiae and tribes were to a certain extent artificial groups, they were formed after the genuine, primitive models of the society out of which they had arisen and by which they were still surrounded on all sides. Even if the primitive patrician nobility had already gained ground, even if the reges were endeavoring gradually to extend their power, it does not change the original, fundamental character of the constitution, and that alone matters.” (Engels, Origin of the Family, State and Private Property, Chapter VI, The gens and State in Rome)

According to tradition, this last Etruscan “king” of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, was expelled by the Roman people. It may be that he tried to change the status of a tribal chief (rex), to which the Romans were accustomed, into something resembling an actual king and thus came into collision with the Roman aristocracy. In any case, it is clear that the revolt against Etruscan rule coincided with a sharp decline in Etruscan power. As we have seen, the southerly expansion of the Etruscans brought them into direct conflict with the wealthy and powerful Greek city-states. This encounter proved fatal. After some initial successes Etruria suffered defeat and its fortunes were eclipsed. It was this weakening of Etruscan power that enabled the Romans, around 500 BC, to carry out a successful rebellion against the Etruscans and gain their independence. This prepared the way for their future development.

It is at this point that Rome abandoned monarchy in favour of a republican system. The banishment of the last rex, Tarquinius Superbus, led to the replacement of the office of rex by two military leaders (consuls) with equal powers. The new republican constitution was based on a Senate, composed of the nobles of the city, along with popular assemblies which ensured political participation for most of the freeborn men and elected magistrates annually. The public power consisted of the body of citizens liable for military service.

The two consuls were elected and possessed almost absolute powers (imperium). They controlled the army and interpreted and executed the laws. But the consuls’ powers were limited by two things: firstly, they were elected for only one year; secondly, each could veto the decisions of the other. In theory, the Senate possessed no executive powers. It merely advised the consuls on domestic and foreign policy, as well as finance and religious matters. But since the senators and consuls all came from the same class, they almost always acted in the same spirit and followed the same class interests. In fact, Rome was ruled by an exclusive and aristocratic club.

This new constitution was simply the recognition of a change in the social order that had already taken place before the expulsion of Tarquin. The old gentile order of society based on personal ties of blood was in open contradiction to the new economic and social relations. It was already irremediably decayed and in its place was set up a new state constitution based on territorial division and difference of property and wealth. This constitution excluded not only the slaves, but also those without property who were barred from service in the army and from possession of arms, the so-called proletarians. Apart from this fact, the popular assembly, while democratic in appearance, was in reality a fraud that served to disguise the real domination of the patrician aristocracy.

The whole male population liable to bear arms was divided into six classes on a property basis. The cavalry was drawn from the wealthiest men, who could afford to provide their own horses. And the cavalry and the first class alone had ninety-eight votes, an inbuilt majority; if they were agreed, they did not need even to ask the others; they made their decision, and that was the end of it. On this point Livy writes:

“The rest of the population whose property fell below this were formed into one century and were exempt from military service. After thus regulating the equipment and distribution of the infantry, he re-arranged the cavalry. He enrolled from amongst the principal men of the State twelve centuries. In the same way he made six other centuries (though only three had been formed by Romulus) under the same names under which the first had been inaugurated. For the purchase of the horse, 10,000 lbs. were assigned them from the public treasury; whilst for its keep certain widows were assessed to pay 2000 lbs. each, annually. The burden of all these expenses was shifted from the poor on to the rich. Then additional privileges were conferred. The former kings had maintained the constitution as handed down by Romulus, viz., manhood suffrage in which all alike possessed the same weight and enjoyed the same rights. Servius introduced a graduation; so that whilst no one was ostensibly deprived of his vote, all the voting power was in the hands of the principal men of the State. The knights were first summoned to record their vote, then the eighty centuries of the infantry of the First Class; if their votes were divided, which seldom happened, it was arranged for the Second Class to be summoned; very seldom did the voting extend to the lowest Class.” (History of Rome, 1.43)

Theoretically, ultimate power resided in the popular Assembly, which elected the consuls on a yearly basis. But just as in our modern bourgeois democracy the power of the electorate remains in practice a legal fiction to a large extent, so in Rome, the power of the Assembly of Roman citizens (comitia centuriata) was effectively annulled, as Michael Grant points out:

“However, this Assembly had been weighted from the beginning so that the centuries of the well-to-do possessed far greater voting power than the poor. Moreover, candidates for the consulship were proposed in the Assembly by the senators, from their own ranks. The Assembly, it was true, enacted laws and declared war and peace, and conducted trials (iudicia populi). Yet the senators, with their superior prestige and wealth, controlled its votes on all such occasions. In many respects, therefore, the legal appearance of democracy was sharply corrected by what in fact happened.” (Michael Grant, History of Rome, p. 58)


There was yet another factor that undermined the power of the Assembly. In the fifth century BC there were around 53 patrician clans (gentes) that are known to us, although the actual number may have been greater. This would mean that a closed body of not more than a thousand families ruled Rome. In turn, a smaller body of especially powerful clans exercised supreme control: the Aemili, the Cornili, the Fabii, and later on, the Claudii. This means that the patricians comprised less than one-tenth of the total citizen population, and possibly not more than one-fourteenth. The question is: how was it possible for such a small number of people to dominate Rome?

In any society the ruling class is too small to exercise its class domination without the aid of a larger class of dependents. There is always a large number of sub-exploiters, sub-sub-exploiters and parasites who are at the service of the rulers of society. The relationship between patrons and clients has its roots in the basic division of early Roman society between patricians and plebeians. The Senate was composed of the heads of families (patres familias) and other prominent citizens. The power of the patricians was partly based on tradition (the age-old memory of clan loyalties), partly on their monopoly of religious rites (which were inherited) and the right to consult the auguries, and the calendar (also a religious practice), but also through their inherited clients.

In ancient Rome, in addition to ties of blood and marriage, there existed an extensive system of patronage. The rich and powerful patroni were surrounded by a large number of dependent clients (clienti), who looked to them for protection and help. The client was a free man who entrusted himself to the patronage of another and received favours and protection in return. It was similar to the kind of relation found in societies dominated by the Mafia, and it is not impossible that it is the distant historical ancestor of the latter. But in ancient Rome, clientela was all-pervasive. It was also hereditary. Though not enforceable by law, the obligation of the patroni to their clients was regarded as absolute. A law of the mid-fifth century BC damns any patron who fails to meet his obligation to his clients.

The system of clientela succeeded to some extent in blunting the sharp differences between the patricians and the plebs. As long as the latter was kept happy by the concessions and favours provided by their patroni, they were willing to accept the leading status of the patricians. But although all clients were plebeians, not all plebeians were clients. For example, immigrant traders were left out in the cold. Moreover, the total exclusion of the plebs from political power constituted a constant source of discontent. The lower orders were excluded from the consulship or, initially, from the Senate.

To the poor majority of plebeians, this was an academic question, since they could not afford to take up public office anyway. But to the minority of the plebs who had acquired a certain level of wealth, this exclusion from public office and what is known as “the fruits of office” was a very sore point. This was the social layer that put itself at the head of social protest, either for genuine reasons or to further its own advance. Their position was comparable to that of the reformist labour leaders of today, who use the labour movement as a means of personal advancement. As one British Labour leader put it: “I am in favour of the emancipation of the working class, one by one, commencing with myself.” Such a mentality has been present throughout the history of class struggle, beginning with the Roman Republic, although not all the popular leaders were cynical careerists, then or now.

Debt slavery

This was a time when famine was a permanent threat. Grain shortages occurred at regular intervals. In order to prevent such disasters (and distract the attention of the plebeians) the Roman ruling class established the cult of Ceres, the goddess of grain, about 496 or 493 BC. This, for obvious reasons, was a cult of the plebeians, who knew all about the lack of bread. The number of plebeians who were falling into debt rose inexorably. And if a man did not have the means of settling his debts, his only solution was to offer his own body to his creditors. He became a “man in fetters” (nexus). He was not formally a slave, but in practice the difference was academic. It was similar to the bonded labour in the West Indies in the 18th Century or on the South-Asian Subcontinent today.

The phenomenon of debt slavery became increasingly common. “If a debtor to the state did not fulfill his obligations, he was without ceremony sold with all he had; the simple demand of the state was sufficient to establish the debt.” (Mommsen, History of Rome, vol.1, p. 154). Once a man had sunk into debt slavery, there was little or no possibility of ever regaining freedom. This problem was at the heart of the bitter class antagonism that emerged in the first century of the Republic, and the blind hatred of the plebeians towards the patrician governing class. This problem had been present from the earliest times. Livy’s History is full of examples of the class struggle in the early period of the Republic. He says:

“But a war with the Volscians was imminent, and the State was torn with internal dissensions; the patricians and the plebeians were bitterly hostile to one another, owing mainly to the desperate condition of the debtors. They loudly complained that whilst fighting in the field for liberty and empire they were oppressed and enslaved by their fellow-citizens at home; their freedom was more secure in war than in peace, safer amongst the enemy than amongst their own people.”

He cites the example of a veteran, a former centurion, who had not only been deprived of the produce of his land in consequence of the depredations of the enemy, but his residence had also been burned down, all his effects pillaged, his cattle driven off, and a tax imposed on him at a time when it pressed most hardly upon him, he had got into debt: that this debt, increased by exorbitant interest, had stripped him first of his father's and grandfather's farm, then of all his other property:

“lastly that, like a wasting sickness, it had reached his person: that he had been dragged by his creditor, not into servitude, but into a house of correction and a place of torture. He then showed his back disfigured with the marks of recent scourging. At this sight and these words a great uproar arose.” (Livy, History, 2:23)

The angry mood of the populace is described here in vivid terms. This incident provoked a riot, which spread everywhere through the entire city. But from a very early period, the Roman ruling class learned how to make use of the services of certain popular leaders to quell the revolt of the masses. In this case, the conduct of the consul Publius Servilius reminds us very strikingly of the behaviour of certain “moderate” trade union leaders today.

These popular tumults continued unabated for a long time. The ruling class responded to the threat from below with the usual methods – a combination of trickery, deceit and bloody repression. The leaders of the plebs were invariably drawn from the ranks of the Roman capitalists, who were always willing to betray the interests of the poor in return for political concessions from the patricians. The latter gave concessions to the wealthy plebeian leaders. They first allowed selected representatives of this layer to enter the Senate.

The American Marxist Daniel de Leon gives quite a good description of the position of the latter, which he compares to that of modern labour leaders in bourgeois parliaments:

“But there, among the august and haughty patrician Senators, the plebs leaders were not expected to emit a sound. The patricians argued, the patricians voted, the patricians decided. When they were through, the tellers turned to the plebs’ leaders. But they were not even then allowed to give a sign with their mouths. Their mouths had to remain shut: their opinion was expressed with their feet. If they gave a tap, it meant they approved; if they gave no tap, it meant they disapproved; and it didn’t much matter either way.” (Daniel de Leon, Two Pages from Roman History, pp. 24-5).

Every military victory purchased with the blood of the plebeian soldier, merely served to strengthen the position of the patricians and the plebeian capitalists, who were increasingly bound together by economic interests and fear of the poor plebeians and proletarians. At the other extreme, the problems of the poor continued to worsen, in particular debts and debt slavery, which led to renewed calls for relief. The resulting tensions between the classes flared up in a series of rebellions, where the plebs refused to fight in the army, and at one point threatened to secede from Rome altogether and found another Republic.

The first recorded strike in history was that of the Egyptian workers engaged on the construction of the pyramids. But the first record of what amounted to a general strike was in the early period of the Roman Republic. The Roman plebs of this period was that nameless majority who from time immemorial have ploughed the fields, planted the grain, baked the bread, fought in the wars. And this fact was brought to the attention of the noble patricians in a very novel way. On at least five occasions, in fact, the plebs threatened to “secede” by withdrawing from Rome altogether. The problem was that, whereas the plebs could do very well without the patricians, the latter could not do without the plebs at all.

The result was an uneasy compromise in which the plebs was allowed to elect two People’s Tribunes (tribuni plebes) who represented their interests and existed side by side with the two patrician consuls. This was the first victory of the plebs. The People’s Tribune had extensive powers, and could veto the consuls, while he was supposed to be inviolate. He could also seal the Public Treasury, and thus bring the whole business of the State to a grinding halt. However, as usual, the Senate found ways and means of getting round this. In the first place, the Tribune had no salary, and therefore the office could (yet again) only be held by a citizen of independent means. When the Roman capitalists occupied high office, they invariably used it for their own interests, while leaning on the mass of poor plebeians to strike blows against their aristocratic opponents.

The New Oligarchy

The patricians, as we have seen, were descended from the original Roman tribal aristocracy and constituted a privileged class that exploited and oppressed the rest of the population, the plebeians. The influx of immigrants from other tribes may be part of the explanation for the sharp line of differentiation between the patricians and plebs in early Roman history. Hegel, who was well aware of these class contradictions in Roman society, thought that they might be explained by the fact that the plebs was a different people to the patricians, who regarded them as racially inferior:

“The weaker, the poorer, the later additions of population are naturally underrated by, and in a condition of dependence upon those who originally founded the state, and those who were distinguished by valour, and also by wealth. It is not necessary, therefore, to take refuge in a hypothesis which has recently been a favourite one – that the Patricians formed a particular race.” (Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, p.285)

Whether or not one accepts the hypothesis that the original difference between patricians and plebs can be explained by different ethnic origins, one thing is certain: that throughout the history of class society, the ruling class has always looked upon the poor and labouring classes with contempt, and in fact regards them as something like a different species, an inferior class of people, unfit to rule society or run industry – a class of inferior beings whose sole purpose is to work to keep their “betters” in luxury, and to breed new generations of slaves for the same purpose. The very word “aristocracy” signifies “the best” in the Greek language, and the Latin word “proletarians” means precisely a class that is only fit for the task of reproduction, like any farmyard animal.

At the same time that the majority of the population was falling into poverty, the long series of Roman victories in the wars created enormous wealth at the other end of the social spectrum. Huge sums of money flowed into the capital, creating a new class of Roman capitalists, many of whom were “new men”, upstarts from plebeian families, whose rise was bitterly resented by the old noble Roman families. The old aristocracy initially closed ranks to defend their privileges and “rescue the consulate from the plebeian filth”. Eventually, however, the patricians had to grit their teeth, move over and find room for the class of nouveaux riches, anxious to add political power to their wealth.

Despite the sharp conflict between the upper layers of the plebs and the old aristocracy, these two social groups, as the chief holders of property, had far more in common than they had with the propertyless proletariat. By degrees, the old patrician aristocracy came to understand that the Tribunes could be useful to control the “excesses” of the masses, in whose eyes they enjoyed great authority. The plebs’ leaders succeeded in obtaining concessions from the patricians by leaning on the masses, and the patricians were usually flexible enough to give concessions and reforms in order to preserve their class rule and privileges. Eventually, this led to a process of fusion that created a new oligarchy.

The plebian agitation led to a series of reforms, which gave the Roman capitalists the right to initiate certain measures. The violent social agitation around this issue forced the Senate in 471 BC to accept the establishment of a special council, composed exclusively of plebeians (concilium plebis). This was to be convened by the Tribunes, and had the right to adopt certain measures (plebiscita). But this was yet another trick, since these decisions did not have the status of law.

At this time the laws were not written down but were interpreted by a Council of Priests (pontifices), who were all still patricians. The background to this unrest was war, famine and pestilence, in which the brunt of the fighting and suffering was borne by the poor plebeian small farmers. None of the economic problems of the poor plebeians was addressed. The central issue was land owned by the State (ager publicus), which the patricians wished to keep for themselves, while the plebs wanted to have it distributed among themselves.

The result was another period of turbulence, which in 451 BC swept away both the Consuls and Tribunes, and ended in the establishment of the Decemvirate (Council of Ten). Out of the ten decemvirs, two were wealthy plebeians. But once again, the latter were completely dominated by the patrician majority. The result was the famous Twelve Tables, where the laws were written down for the first time and set up in stone in the Forum. This is traditionally seen as a decisive turning point in the history of Rome and a great advance for democracy. But as a matter of fact, it left the fundamental social and political relations virtually untouched.

The ferocious severity of the laws on debt was only slightly mitigated. The execution of the laws was delayed for 30 days, during which the creditor was obliged to feed the debtor “adequately”. But that was not much comfort for a man who could not pay his debts, and in the end the creditor still had the right to make the debtor a nexus, that is, to enslave him. And the fact that the Twelve Tables wrote this down for the first time meant that these harsh laws were literally “set in stone”. This was a finished recipe for a further intensification of the class struggle in Rome, which would later enter onto an unprecedented level of ferocity.