Saturday, September 18, 2010

Plutarch: Sparta and Rome - Part II

Scipio Africanus was one of Rome's greatest generals. He defeated Hannibal and the Carthaginians at Zama in 202 BC and thus made Rome the greatest power in the Mediterranean. Two of his well-known grandsons were Tiberius (163-133 BC) and Caius (153-121 BC) Gracchus who went on to become Tribunes of the People of Rome. In this role, each tried unsuccessfully to introduce land reformation and redistribution of wealth similar to that attempted by Cleomones and Agis in Sparta a century earlier.


Following his grandfather's path, Tiberius served in the Roman Legions as a military tribune while fighting in the Third Punic War.  Because of the rapid militarization of Rome during this time, many citizens were giving up their farms to serve in the legions.  In addition, wealthy land-owners were buying up much of the land conquered from campaigns, leaving nothing for the poorer citizens.  Originally 500 acres was the most land one could own, but wealthy individuals were circumventing this using false identities and other tricks. When veterans returned from their military campaigns, they had no land to farm, let alone any other property.  This greatly disturbed Tiberius, who began pushing for land reform and an equal distribution of property for all soldiers. 

Tiberius was later elected a Tribune of the People, to represent their interests in the Senate.  Here he said, "Wild beasts that roam over Italy have their dens, each has a place of repose and refuge. But the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy nothing but the air and light; without house or home they wander about with their wives and children"

The Senate with its wealthy members would not enforce the previous land agreements (i.e. the 500 acre law) so Tiberius by-passed them and went directly to a vote by the Concilium Plebis (the Popular Assembly). The Senate used a procedural trick to prevent this, but Tiberius countered by shutting down the government's daily business to punish the Senate.

This sounds a lot like the political tit-for-tat tactics we see in Washington today. 

Things reached a head in 133 BC when King Attalus III of Pergamum died, leaving his entire fortune (including the whole kingdom of Pergamum) to Rome. Tiberius sought to use the agrarian reformation laws to redistribute the wealth to all the citizens of Rome, but the Senate was absolutely opposed to this.

Tiberius pressed the issue on the senators.  A final confrontation in the Senate turned deadly as Tiberius was attacked and bludgeoned to death with chairs and stools by the senators (a civilized lot, huh?) and they threw his corpse into the Tiber river.  Many of his followers suffered a similar fate.  This ceased debate on the topic of property reformation and equal rights until....


Younger than his brother by nine years, Caius (Gaius) was even more zealous about social reform than his ill-fated brother.  Serving as Tribune of the People, Caius tried to include all Italians as Roman Citizens.  Later he also tried to include all people in Roman colonies and Roman allies.  He also sought cheaper grain for the poor, a more fair judicial system, re-division of the land and free clothing for soldiers serving in Rome's Legions. 

The Senate did not try to use procedural chicanery on Caius like they did with Tiberius, but instead used another Tribune (Lucius Opimius) as a spoiler.  If Caius promised cheap grain, Lucius would promise free grain; Caius would offer low rent land, but Lucius would offer free land. Of course Lucius' promises were untenable and impossible to grant, but this still had the affect of undercutting support for Caius among the masses. Eventually the Senate trumped up some legal charges and passed a measure calling for Caius' arrest. Caius committed suicide rather than defend himself. 


Plutarch compares the lives of these two Romans with the two Greeks mentioned in my last post.

All of these men hoped to promote a more equal division of property and wealth among their citizens.  For the Spartans, they thought it would make their city-state stronger and be true to their ancient traditions.  For the Romans, they wanted their soldier-citizens to receive the same privileges as any other free individual.  All were thwarted by the wealthy, elite and well-entrenched castes of their respective societies.

It is remarkable to see how politics has changed so little in the last 2000 years.  Of course people are not being bludgeoned to death in our Capitol, but the same political maneuvering, the same attempts at legal tricks and loopholes are still played out today. 

Plutarch says that it is "difficult to change the government without force or fear".  In these four examples we can see that to be true.  In the end, the lack of reformation in Sparta resulted in it slipping into a state of decandance and avarice from which it never recovered.  Rome grew from an aristocracy to an oligarchy/democracy, but maintained a strong military. Eventually Rome became a tyranny/dictatorship under the Caesars.  It eventually followed the same path as Sparta, growing accustomed to luxury and sloth and tolerant of inequality of wealth.

As Aristotle said in Politics, inequality is the cause of rebellion and the decay of society.  Of course no one is more resistant to equality than the ones who benefit from the difference, and we have seen historically that equality among the classes can be violently opposed by those in power. 

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