The Political Condition of Italy in the First Century B.C.

The Roman state was in form and name a commonwealth or republic. While Rome was a small agricultural community and her citizens a body of patriotic, sturdy, and independent freeholders, the task of government was easy and the constitution well adapted to its purpose. The wars that followed for the establishment and extension of her power at first fostered unity and soundness of national life. But in course of time Rome became an imperial state and took upon herself the guardianship of every country in the world. Wealth flowed into her coffers from every quarter of the earth, her citizens became corrupt, and the rule of the people became the rule of a rich landed aristocracy, whose principal ambition was to perpetuate its mischievous power. The organ of this aristocracy was the senate, a body of six or seven hundred men, who became members of it nominally by virtue of holding certain high offices, and who remained senators for life. In theory, therefore, the senate was elective, and rested on the popular will; but the members really became such on account of noble blood, wealth, or political, social, or other influence. Moreover, the great offices of the state came to be bought and sold openly and without shame, and opposing factions contended not with ballots alone, but with iron and steel, so that the election place was frequently stained with the blood of the slain. It became increasingly difficult for one not possessing and willing to use such means to be elected to any office.

Opposed to the landed aristocracy was a class of wealthy capitalists known as equites, the "Equestrian Order." Many of these were as rich as the senators, but their wealth — most of it gained by usury, state contracts, slave-dealing, and tax-gathering — consisted of money instead of land. They took no active interest in politics excepting so far as they could influence legislation to their advantage by lobbying and bribing.

There was no industrious middle class among the free citizens of Rome. Manufacture on a large scale, as a means of wealth, was absolutely unknown; while all mechanical industries were carried on by slaves. The poorer class of citizens, the plebs, were wholly influenced in their votes by their wealthy patrons or by scheming demagogues. The freedmen were the only class who could become rich by industry.

The rural portions of Italy were for the most part held in large plantations (latifundia), owned by nobles and cultivated by slaves, or, more frequently, occupied by great droves of cattle. This plantation system had crowded out the free peasant proprietors in almost all parts of the peninsula. After throwing up their farms, which foreign competition had made unprofitable, they flocked to Rome to swell the idle mob that lived on what their votes would bring. There still remained, especially in Northern Italy, a considerable body of small land owners; and the municipal towns (municipia), about four hundred in number, whose territories comprised, politically speaking, the whole area of Italy, were still the home of a fairly prosperous middle class. These had all received Roman citizenship after the social war (B. C. 90) and might, by their substantial character and intelligence, have served as a strong opposition to the corrupt aristocracy at Rome; but they lacked organization and leadership, and when they went to Rome to vote, they were wholly powerless against the turbulent political clubs of the metropolis, whose violence was a regular feature of all public proceedings. Yet in this class alone was the oldRoman virtue to be found, and in it lay whatever hope there was to redeem the state.

Another menace to the government was in the constitution of the armies. After a man had been consul, he was given charge of a province and was put in command of several legions. While abroad he was not amenable to the government at home, and when he returned he used his old soldiers to further his political schemes, and rewarded them at the expense of the opposing faction, often by wholesale spoliation and murder.

Partisans of the nobility were known as Optimates; those opposed to them as Populares. Before Caesar, the most conspicuous leader of the former had been Sulla, of the latter, Marius, Caesar's uncle by marriage. These two men by their thirst for power and mutual hatred filled all Italy with bloodshed and terror for years. Under the established régime there was no continuity in government, but a perpetual see-saw between rivals. Rome was kept in a constant electioneering excitement accompanied by the worst forms of demoralization. All the vast interests of the Roman world were sacrificed to the luxury and ambition of a governing class wholly incompetent for its task; and the only resource against anarchy appears to have been that some one man, by craft or by force, should get all the reins of power into his single hand. That man was destined to be Julius Caesar.

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