Karl Kautsky

Foundations of Christianity

Book Two: Society In The Roman Empire

I. The Slave Economy

Landed Property

IF WE WISH to understand the ideas that are characteristic of an era as distinct from the ideas of other ages, the first thing we must look into is that era’s special requirements and problems, which are based in the last analysis on its particular mode of production, in the way the society of that time made its living.

First, we shall trace the economic system on which the society of the Roman Empire rested as it developed from its beginnings. Only in that way can we understand its nature at the end of this development, under the emperors, and the special trends it manifested at that time.

The basis of the mode of production of the countries comprising the Roman Empire was agriculture; crafts and trading were much less important. Production for self-consumption still predominated; commodity production, production for sale, was still slightly developed. Craftsmen and merchants often had farms as well that were in close connection with their domestic establishments; their work went principally toward producing for their households. The farm supplied provisions for the kitchen and raw materials such as flax, wool, leather, wood, from which the members of the family themselves made clothes, house furnishings and tools. It was only the surplus, if there was any, over and above the needs of the household that was sold.

This mode of production required private property in most of the means of production, all such in fact as contain human labor, including arable land but not forest and pasture, which could still be common property. It would include domestic animals but not game, and finally tools and raw materials as well as the products made from them.

With private property the possibility of economic inequality arises. Fortunate accidents could favor and enrich one farm and hurt and impoverish another. The first group grew and got more land and cattle. A special kind of labor question arises for the larger farms, the question as to where the additional labor power is to come from that is needed to care properly for the larger herds and suitably cultivate the more extensive fields.

Class differences and class contradictions now appear. The more productive agriculture is, the greater the surplus it furnishes over and above the needs of the husbandman. This surplus serves to feed craftsmen who devote themselves to producing many useful objects, for instance smiths and potters, but the surplus may also be used in exchange for useful objects or raw materials that can not be produced in the locality, either because nature does not furnish them or because the skill is lacking. Such products are brought from other regions by merchants. The rise of crafts and trade helps increase inequalities in land ownership. The inequality between larger and smaller properties is now supplemented by the difference in proximity to the points in which craftsmen and merchants congregate and exchange their goods for the farmers’ surpluses. The worse the means of transportation are, the harder it is to bring the products to market and the more the man who lives near the market is favored.

Those who are favored by all or some of these factors become a class of landholders obtaining larger surpluses than the mass of peasants, exchanging them for more products of trade and craft, having more leisure than the average husbandman, having at their disposal more technical aids in work and in warfare, receiving more intellectual stimulation by living together with artists or merchants or having frequent contact with them and so having their intellectual horizon broadened. This class of favored landholders now has the time, opportunity and means to carry on affairs that go beyond the limits of peasant narrow-mindedness. It gets the time and strength to unite several communities into a state, and to rule and define that state, as well as to settle its relations with nearby and even distant states.

All these classes, bigger farmers, merchants, craftsmen live on the surplus created by labor on the land, soon increased by the surpluses from craft and industry. Merchants take more and more of these surpluses for themselves, in the measure that their functions in society become more important. Soon the big landowners make use not only of their economic superiority but also of their powerful position in the state to take the surpluses of the work of peasants and craftsmen away from them. In this way they gain wealth far beyond the scale of peasant and craftsman, make their power in society even stronger and increase their ability to get more surplus for themselves and win new riches.

So peasants and craftsmen are overtopped by various layers of big exploiters, large landowners and merchants, with the addition of usurers, of whom we shall speak in another connection. The more their wealth increases, the greater is their need to expand their business, which is still in close connection with agriculture. At that time anyone who wanted a business of his own still had to control his own farm, and the surest way to that was owning it. Everybody strove to get land, including craftsmen, usurers and merchants. And they all tried to add to their land, for it was still production for self-consumption that prevailed; if one wanted more comfort, a more prosperous household, he had to have more acres.

The drive to obtain and extend landed property is the ruling passion of this period, which extends from the establishment of settled society on the basis of agriculture to the time of the formation of industrial capital. Ancient society, even at its acme during the Empire, never got beyond this stage. That step had to wait for modern times, after the Reformation.



Domestic Slavery

But owning land is nothing without labor power to work it. We have already referred to the peculiar labor problem that followed upon the formation of the larger estates. Even in prehistoric times we find among the wealthy the quest for labor forces, over and above the members of the family, that could be incorporated into the conduct of the estate and that could always be counted on.

Such labor forces could not be obtained directly by wage labor. We find cases of wage labor early, but they are always exceptional and temporary, like help at harvest time. An active family could easily procure the few means of production required for an independent farm. And the family and community bonds were still strong, so that the occasional misfortunes which might render a family landless were mitigated through the aid of relatives and neighbors.

If there was only a meager supply of wage laborers, there was only a meager demand for them. Household and occupation were still closely linked. If additional workers were to be incorporated into the farm, they would have to be incorporated into the household as well; they would have to be not only without a place of their own to work in, but also without a family of their own. Free workers would not serve the purpose. Even in the middle ages the journeymen accepted membership in the master’s family only as a temporary phase, a step toward being masters themselves and starting their own families. Permanent labor forces for a strange family could not be obtained at this stage of history in the form of free wage laborers. Only compulsion could supply the necessary labor for the larger landed estates. The answer was slavery. The stranger had no rights, and with the small size of the communities of that time the term “stranger” had a wide denotation. In war not only the captured soldiers, but often the entire population of the conquered land were enslaved and either divided among the victors or sold. But even in peacetime there were ways of catching slaves, for example, sea trading, which was frequently linked up with piracy at the outset; and one of the prizes that was most sought after was able-bodied and handsome people, who were snatched by the coasting sailors when found defenceless on the shore. In addition, male and female slaves mated and their offspring were slaves.

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.

“It should not be thought,” says Jentsch, “that the shocking legal conception of slavery was taken literally in private life and that the slave was not considered or treated as a human being; up to the end of the First Punic War the slaves were not too badly off. What was said with respect to the legal power of the master of the house over his wife and children applies to slaves too. His power was legally unlimited, but religion, custom, reason, feeling and interest put limits to it; and the man that the law regarded as a saleable object, subject to his master’s caprice without any protection, was valued on the farm as a faithful fellow-worker and at home as a member of the household, with whom one chatted cozily after work before the fireplace.” [1]

This comradely relationship was not limited to peasant establishments. Princes too worked with their hands in the Heroic Age. In the Odyssey the daughter of King Alcinous washes clothes with her female slaves; Odysseus challenges a rival not to a duel but to a competition in mowing and ploughing, and when he comes home to his country he finds his father in the garden busy with his shovel. Odysseus and his son Telemachus have the warm love of Eumaeus, the “godlike swineherd”, who is grimly convinced that as a reward for his faithful service his master, if he were home, would long ago have given him freedom, a farm and a wife.

This kind of slavery was one of the mildest known forms of exploitation. But it changed in aspect when it came to serve moneymaking, as labor on great enterprises distinct from the master’s household.



Slavery in Commodity Production

The first such enterprises must have been mines. The very nature of the extraction and refining of minerals, especially metallic ores, hardly suits it to be carried on only for the self-consumption of the single household. As soon as it is at all developed, it furnishes a large surplus above the individual’s needs; and it can only come to some sort of perfection when it is aimed at the regular production of large quantities, for only in that event do the workers acquire the requisite skill and experience and the necessary structures and works become profitable. Even in the stone age we find large sites at which stone tools were produced professionally on a mass scale and then circulated by exchange from village to village or tribe to tribe. These mineral products were the first commodities; and certainly the first to be produced intentionally as commodities, for the purpose of exchange.

As soon as mining had developed at a place where valuable minerals are found, and gone beyond the most primitive surface work, it called for larger and larger working forces. The need could easily exceed the number of free workers that could be recruited from the village community to which the mine belonged. Wage-labor did not permanently supply a large number of workers; they could only be slaves or condemned criminals.

These slaves no longer produced consumption objects for the limited personal use of their master; they worked to make money for him. They did not work so that he might use marble or sulphur, iron or copper, gold or silver in his household, but so that he might sell the products of the mine and get money for it, that commodity with which one can buy everything, all the pleasures, all the power that one can never have enough of. Now as much work was squeezed out of the miners as was possible, for the more work they did the more money their owner got. Moreover, they were fed and clothed as badly as possible, for their food and clothing had to be bought, money had to be given up for the purpose, since the slaves in the mines did not produce those things themselves. The proprietor of a rich household had no other outlet for his surplus food and consumption-goods than to provide them for his slaves and guests; but now, under commodity production, the more money the enterprise earned, the less the slaves consumed. The bigger the enterprise became, the worse their lot was; increasingly they were detached from the household, kept in barracks that contrasted sternly with the luxury of the master’s dwelling. All personal relationships between master and slaves were lost, not only because of the separation of their place of work from his residence, but also because of the numbers involved. In Athens at the time of the Peloponnesian War Hipponikos is said to have had 600 slaves working in the Thracian mines, and Nikias 1000. The slave’s total absence of rights was now a fearful scourge. The free wage-worker could still choose his master to a certain extent and, at least under favorable circumstances, use quitting work as a means of putting pressure on his master and avoiding the worst effects; but the slave who escaped from his master or refused to work would be put to death immediately.

There was only one motive for sparing the slave, the same as for sparing an ox: the cost of buying the slave. The wage-worker does not cost anything. If he dies at work, another will take his place. The slave has to be bought. If he died too soon, his master would lose his purchase-price. But this motive was of less importance when slaves were cheap. And there were times when their price fell enormously, when unending wars, civil and foreign, brought numerous captives on the market.

In the Romans’ third war against Macedonia in 169 B.C. seventy cities in Epirus alone were sacked and 150,000 of their inhabitants sold as slaves.

According to Böckh the ordinary price of a slave in Athens was from 100 to 200 drachmas (20 to 40 dollars). Xenophon says the price varied between 50 and 1000 drachmas. Appian tells us that on one occasion in Pontus war prisoners were sold at 4 drachmas (less than a dollar) apiece. Joseph, who was sold into Egypt by his brothers, brought only 20 shekels ($3.50). [2]

A good saddle-horse was much dearer than a slave; in Aristophanes’ time it cost some 12 minae, about $240.

The wars that furnished slaves cheap also ruined many peasants, for at that time the peasant militias made up the core of the army. If the peasant had to go to war, his farm was likely to run down for want of care. There was nothing left for the ruined farmer but to take to banditry, if he could not find refuge in a nearby city as craftsman or lumpenproletariat. Crimes and criminals abounded, something unknown in earlier times, and the hunt for criminals furnished new slaves, for prisons were unknown since they are products of the capitalist mode of production. At that time those that were not crucified were sentenced to forced labor.

Thus from time to time there were large numbers of extremely cheap slaves, whose situation was most miserable. This is shown for example by the Spanish silver mines, among the most productive of antiquity.

“In the beginning,” says Diodorus of these mines, “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.” [3]

If patriarchal domestic slavery is perhaps the mildest form of exploitation, slavery in the service of greed for profits is surely the most ghastly.

In the mines large-scale operations with slaves were indicated by the technology of the industry under the given circumstances. But with time other branches of production as well give rise to the need for commodity production on a large scale by means of slaves. There were commonwealths that far surpassed their neighbors in military power, and derived such advantages from war that they never had enough of it. Waging wars constantly provided new hordes of slaves, whom they tried to employ at a profit. But such commonwealths were connected with large cities. A city that was favored by its position and became the marketplace for a vigorous trade attracted many men merely in the course of trade; and if it was not too niggardly in granting citizenship to foreigners, soon became richer in men and means than the other communities around it, which it brought into subjection. Plundering and exploiting the surrounding territory increased the wealth of the city and its population still more. This wealth produced the need for big constructions, some sanitary like sewers, aqueducts; some esthetic and religious such as temples and theaters; some military such as city walls. The quickest way to erect such structures was to use huge troops of slaves. Building contractors came into being who bought many slaves and did all sorts of construction for the state. The metropolis also gave rise to an extensive market for large quantities of foodstuffs. With low prices for slaves, the most significant surpluses came from large landed estates. There could be no question at that time of any technical superiority of large-scale agriculture; on the contrary, slave labor was less productive than the labor of the free peasants. But the slave, whose labor power did not have to be spared and who could be sweated to death without a second thought, produced a greater surplus over the cost of his subsistence than the peasant, who at that time knew nothing of the blessings of overwork and was used to a high standard of living. There was the further advantage that in such a commonwealth the peasant was constantly being taken from the plough to defend his country, while the slave was exempt from military service. Thus the sphere of economic influence of such large and warlike cities saw the rise of large-scale agricultural production with slaves. The Carthaginians developed it to a significant extent. The Romans learned it in their wars with Carthage; along with the provinces which they took from their great rival they also took over the large-scale farm, which they further developed and extended.

In large cities where masses of slaves of the same craft were assembled and there was a good market for their production, it was an easy next step to buy up a number of such slaves and set them to work together in a single workshop, producing for the market as wage-workers do today in factories. Such slave manufacturing was of importance only in the Hellenic world, not in the Roman. Everywhere however there developed a special kind of slave industry in large-scale farming, whether in factory-like plantations producing a single crop, like grain, for the market, or devoted primarily to the consumption of the family or household and supplying it with all the diverse products it required.

Agricultural work has the property of requiring much labor only at certain times of year, but only little at others, namely in winter. That is a problem for modern large-scale agricultural enterprises; it was still a greater problem under the system of slave labor. For it is always possible to let the wage-worker go when he is not needed and fetch him back when he is. In between he must take care of himself. At that time, though, the big landholder could not sell his slaves every autumn and buy new ones in the spring. That would have come too dear, for the slaves would have been worth nothing in the fall and been dear in the spring. The owner therefore had to try to keep them busy in the season when there was little work to be done on the land. The traditional ties between agriculture and industry were still alive; the peasant still made up flax, wool, leather, wood and other products of his farm into clothing and equipment. Likewise the slaves of the large-scale farms were set to industrial work in the slack times for farmwork: weaving, tanning and leather working, making wagons and ploughs, pottery making of all sorts. But commodity production was so far advanced that they produced not only for the individual farm and household, but for the market too.

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-labor 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.

But the big enterprise with slaves was only able to prevent any strengthening of the artisanate and any development of their techniques, which remained on a low level throughout antiquity, corresponding to the poverty of the craftsman: his skill could rise to unusual heights under certain circumstances, but his tools remained wretchedly primitive. But the same was true of the big enterprises themselves; there too slavery had a crippling effect on their technological development.



The Technological Inferiority of the Slave Economy

In agriculture large size was not yet a condition of high productivity, as it was in mining. The increase in commodity production did produce an expansion of social division of labor in agriculture as well; many estates took to grain growing, others to raising livestock, and so forth. In the case of a large estate there was the possibility of having its direction in the hands of scientifically trained men who rose above peasant routine. Actually we find in countries with large landed estates, as among the Carthaginians and then among the Romans, a theory of agriculture that was as advanced as in eighteenth-century Europe. The labor force was lacking however that could apply this theory and raise the large estate above the level of the peasant holding. Even wage labor is inferior to the work of the free farmer-owner with respect to interest and care, so that it is profitable only where the large estate is considerably superior to the small farm in technology. But the slave on the large estate, no longer a member of the patriarchal family, is a still more indifferent worker, in fact one that would like to do his master harm. Even in domestic slavery the slave’s work was not thought to be as productive as the work of the free landholder. Odysseus remarks: “Slaves, when their master’s control is loosed, do not even wish to work well. Ah, the day a man’s enslaved, Zeus robs him of half his virtue!” (Odyssey, xvii, 320f., Lawrence’s translation).

How much more so with slaves that were savagely beaten every day and were full of desperation and hatred toward their master! The large estate would have to be enormously superior in technology to the small farm to obtain the same results with the same number of workers; but it was not only not superior, but in many ways inferior. The slaves, mistreated themselves, vented all their spite on the ox, who did not thrive. It was just as impossible to put fine tools into their hands.

Marx had pointed this out. He says of “production by slave power”:

“To use an expressive phrase of the ancients, the slave is merely a vocal instrument, distinguished only as vocal from the beast as semivocal instrument, and from the inanimate tool as dumb instrument. But he himself is careful to let both beast and tool know that he is of a different order from them, that he is a man. He has the self-satisfaction of convincing himself that he is different, by misusing the beast and damaging the tool. Consequently, it is a universal principle in production by slave labour that none but the rudest and heaviest implements shall be used, such tools as are difficult to damage owing to their sheer clumsiness. In some of the slave states of the American Union, those bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, the only ploughs used were constructed upon an old Chinese model; ploughs which burrowed into the soil like a pig or a mole, but did not cut a furrow and turn the earth over ... In A Journey in the Seaboard States, Olmsted writes: ‘I am here shown tools that no man in his senses, with us, would allow a labourer, for whom he was paying wages, to be encumbered with; and the excessive weight and clumsiness of which, I would judge, would make work at least ten per cent greater than those ordinarily used with us. And I am assured that, in the careless and clumsy way they must be used by the slaves, anything lighter or less rude could not be furnished them with good economy, and that such tools as we constantly give our labourers and find our profit in giving them, would not last out a day in a Virginia cornfield – much lighter and more free from stones though it be than ours. So, too, when I am asked why mules are so universally substituted for horses on the farm, the first reason given, and confessedly the most conclusive one, is that horses cannot bear the treatment that they must always get from the Negroes; horses are always soon foundered or crippled by them, while mules will bear cudgelling, or lose a meal or two now and then, and not be materially injured, and they do not take cold or get sick if neglected or overworked. But I do not need to go further than to the window of the room in which I am writing, to see at almost any time treatment of cattle that would ensure the immediate discharge of the driver by almost any farmer owning them in the North.’” (Capital, Vol. I, Eden and Cedar Paul translation, London, 1928, p. 91).

Unintelligent, half-hearted, malicious, glad of any chance to do harm to their hated tormentor, the slave labor of the latifundia produced far less than peasant farms. In the first century A.D. Pliny was already pointing out how fruitful the fields of Italy had been when generals were not ashamed to do their own farming, and how refractory Mother Earth became when she was turned over to chained and branded slaves to mistreat. This sort of agriculture might give a greater surplus than peasant farms in some cases, but it could not by any means support as many men in wellbeing. Meanwhile, all through the wars during which Rome kept the whole Mediterranean world in constant unrest, the slave economy kept expanding and the peasant class kept sinking; for war brought rich booty to the great landowners who conducted it, new tracts of land and countless cheap slaves.

Thus we find in the Roman Empire an economic evolution that externally bears a striking resemblance to modern developments: decline of small enterprise, advance of large enterprises and still quicker growth of large landed estates, the latifundia, which dispossesses the peasants and, where they do not replace him by plantations or some such extensive form of cultivation, at least reduce him from a free landholder to a dependent tenant.

Pöhlmann in his Geschichte des antiken Kommunismus und Sozialismus cites among other things The Complaint of the Poor Man against the Rich Man from the pseudo-Quintilian’s collection of declamations; in it the spread of the latifundia is well depicted. An impoverished peasant wails:

“I was not always the neighbor of a rich man. Round about there was many a farm with owners alike in wealth, tilling their modest lands in neighborly harmony. How different is it now! The land that once fed all these citizens is now a single huge plantation, belonging to a single rich man. His estate has extended its boundaries on every side; the peasant houses it has swallowed up have been razed to the ground, and the shrines of their fathers destroyed. The old owners have said farewell to their tutelary gods and gone far away with their wives and children. Monotony reigns over the wide plain. Everywhere riches close me in, as if with a wall; here there is a garden of the rich man’s, there his fields, here his vineyard, there his woods and stacks of grain. I too would gladly have departed, but I could not find a spot of land where I would not have a rich man for my neighbor. Where does one not come up against the rich man’s private property? They are not content any longer to extend their domains so far that they are bounded by natural boundaries, rivers and mountains, like whole countries. They lay hold even of the furthest mountain wildernesses and forests. And nowhere does this grasping find an end and a limit until the rich man comes up against another rich man. And this too shows the contempt the rich have for us poor, that they do not even take the trouble to deny it when they have used violence on us.” (II, p. 582f.).

Pöhlmann sees in this a picture of the tendencies of “extreme capitalism in general.” But the similarity of this development with modern capitalism and its concentration of capital is purely external; it is thoroughly misleading to equate the two. If we go deeper into the matter, we shall find a complete contradiction between them. First, the tendency towards concentration, the drive to replace smaller enterprises by larger ones and have the small business depend on the owners of great wealth, is most conspicuous in industry today, and much less so in agriculture; in ancient times, it was the reverse. Today the victory of big business over small business is done through competition, which brings out the greater productivity of enterprises with powerful machines and equipment. In antiquity it took place through the crippling of the free peasants, who were crushed by military service, and by the greater cheapness of the labor power that large-scale importation of slaves made available to those who had money; and finally by means of usury (which we shall come back to) – all factors that decreased the productivity of labor instead of raising it. The prerequisites for the development and application of machine production were lacking in antiquity. Free craftsmanship had not yet developed to the point where it could provide large numbers of free skilled labor, ready to hire themselves out for wages on a permanent basis; but these are the only labor forces capable of producing machines and making their application possible. There was therefore no incentive for thinkers and inventors to create machines, which would not have been applied in practice. But once machines have been invented that can be used successfully in production, and large free labor forces appear, pressing to be employed in the production and application of machines, the machine becomes one of the most powerful weapons in the competition of the entrepreneurs against each other. As a consequence machines are constantly perfected and enlarged, the productivity of labor rises, and with it the surplus over wages that it produces; but also so does the need rise to collect, to accumulate, a part of this surplus in order therewith to obtain new and better machines, and the need to expand the market continually, since the improved machinery keeps supplying a larger production to be disposed of. The result is that capital grows continually. The production of means of production occupies a larger and larger place in the capitalist mode of production. In order to dispose at a profit of the increased quantity of consumption goods that the increased means of production create, capitalism must constantly find new markets; and it can be said to have conquered the entire world in the course of a single century, the nineteenth.

The course of developments in antiquity was quite different. As we have seen, only the crudest tools could be put into the hands of the slaves on the large estates, and only the roughest and least intelligent workers used there. It was only by having slaves extremely cheap that the large estates could realize any profit at all. This created constant pressure for war, on the part of the owners of large estates, as the most effective way to get cheap slaves, and toward the constant expansion of the state’s territories. From the time of the Punic Wars this was one of the most powerful incentives of the Roman program of expansion, which in two centuries conquered all the lands on the Mediterranean and at the time of Christ was proceeding from the conquest of Gaul to subjugate Germany, whose vigorous people furnished such fine slaves.

It is true that the large enterprises of antiquity resembled those of modern times in this insatiability, in this constant pressure to extend the field of exploitation, but there is no resemblance at all in the application of the surplus which the growing troops of slaves furnished. The modern capitalist, as we have seen, must put aside a large part of his profit for improving and expanding his concern if he is not to be overtaken and beaten by his competitors. This was unnecessary for the ancient slave-owner. The technical basis on which he produced was not higher, but rather lower, than that of the small peasants he was supplanting. He could therefore, without being a spendthrift, use all his surplus, over the fixed costs and replacements of tools, cattle and slaves, for his personal consumption.

It was possible of course to invest money in trade and usury or put it into new lands, and so get more gain, but this too could not be applied in any other way than in consumption. The accumulation of capital for the purpose of producing new means of production beyond a certain point would have been senseless, for these new means of production could not have been used.

The more the latifundia supplanted the peasants, and the greater the quantities of land and slaves that were held by individuals, the greater were the surpluses, the treasures that those individuals had at their disposal and could use for no other purpose than their individual consumption. The modern capitalist is marked by the drive to heap up capital; the noble Romans of the Empire, the time at which Christianity arose, were marked by love of pleasure. The modern capitalists have accumulated capital to an extent that dwarfs the riches of the richest ancient Romans. The Croesus of all of these was said to be Nero’s freedman Narcissus, with a fortune of some twenty million dollars. What is that compared to the billions of a Rockefeller? But the expenditures of the American billionaires, no matter how reckless they are, are not to be compared with those of their Roman predecessors who served dishes of nightingales’ tongues and dissolved precious pearls in vinegar.

Increasing luxury meant a corresponding increase in the number of house slaves used for personal service, and the more so the cheaper slaves were. Horace says in one of his satires that ten slaves were the fewest someone living in moderate circumstances could get along with. In a noble household the number could go up into thousands. The barbarians were driven into the mines and plantations, but the well-educated slaves, especially the Greeks, were taken into the “city family,” the city household. Not only cooks, clerks, musicians, teachers and actors, but doctors and philosophers as well were held as slaves. In contrast to the slaves who were engaged in production, these had only light services to render. Most of them were as big loafers as their masters. But the two factors which in former times had more or less guaranteed the family slaves good treatment no longer existed: their high price, and the comradely relationship with the master, who worked alongside the slave. Now, given the great wealth of the master and the low price of the slaves, there was not the slightest restraint in the treatment of the slaves. Moreover, for the vast majority of the house slaves there was not the slightest personal relationship with the master; he hardly knew most of them. And when master and servant came together, it was no longer at work, which gave rise to mutual respect, but in revelry and depravity, arising out of idleness and arrogance and causing mutual contempt in master and servants alike. The slaves were idle and often pampered, and yet defenceless against any malicious caprice or fit of rage. The crime of Vedius Pollio is well known. A slave of his had broken a crystal dish, and he had him thrown to the lampreys to be eaten, as a tidbit for the voracious fish he kept in a pool.

These house slaves constituted a notable addition to the unproductive elements in society. Another increase came from among troops of the urban lumpenproletarians to which the majority of the displaced peasants sank. And this took place at a time when the replacement of free labor by slave labor in many productive activities sharply reduced the productivity of labor.

The more members a household had, however, the easier it was for it to have things made for it by its own workers which a small household would otherwise have had to buy, such as clothing and furniture. This led to a renewed extension of production for the family’s own consumption. This later form of family economy on the part of the rich must not be confused with the original simple family economy that was based on the almost total absence of commodity production and produced the most important and necessary goods, buying only tools and luxuries. The second form of production for self-consumption in the family, as we see it at the end of the Roman republic and during the Empire in rich households, was based on commodity production, the production of mines and latifundia for the market, and itself was aimed primarily at luxury production.

This sort of extension of production for self-consumption did damage to the free crafts, which the industries run by gangs of slaves in the cities and on the latifundia had already undermined. Relatively the free crafts had to retreat, that is the proportion of free workers to slave workers decreased even in the crafts. Absolutely the number of free workers might increase in some trades, because of the increase of expenditure brought about by an increasing demand for paintings and statues and objects of art, but also for luxuries and extravagances, like salves and pomades.

Those who judge the prosperity of a society by its spending, and take the narrow point of view of the Roman Caesars and land owners with their trains of courtiers, artists and literary men, will think of the social situation at the time of the Emperor Augustus as brilliant. Colossal wealth poured into Rome for the sole purpose of increasing pleasure; rich pleasure-loving rakes reeled from party to party, throwing their surplus wealth around by handfuls, since by themselves they were unable to spend it all. Many artists and men of learning received substantial sums from patrons like Maecenas; huge buildings sprang up, whose tremendous size and artistic balance we still admire; the whole world seemed to sweat riches at every pore – and yet this society was already doomed to death.



The Economic Decline

An indication that the trend was downward could be seen early in the ruling classes, who stood apart from all activity and let slaves take care of all work, even in science and politics. In Greece slave labor had served at first to leave the masters full leisure for governing the state and reflecting on the weightiest problems of life. But the bigger the surpluses grew and the more they were concentrated in the hands of a few by means of the concentration of land ownership, the extension of the latifundia and the growth of the masses of slaves, the more the enjoyment and expenditure of these surpluses became the foremost social function of the ruling classes, and the more intense was the competition in extravagance, brilliance, arrogance and idleness. This process was even briefer in Rome than in Greece, since Rome reached this mode of production while she was still on a low cultural level. The Greek power had spread principally at the expense of barbarous peoples, having come up against strong resistance in Asia Minor and Egypt. Their slaves were barbarians, from whom the Greeks had nothing to learn and to whom they could not entrust the administration of the state. And the wealth they were able to extract from the barbarians was relatively small. The Roman rule, on the other hand, spread soon over all the age-old civilized regions of the East up to Babylonia (or Seleucia) and beyond; from these newly conquered provinces the Romans took not only infinite riches but also slaves far superior to their masters in knowledge, from whom they had to learn and to whom they could easily leave the administration of the government. During the Empire the large landholding aristocracy were more and more replaced by slaves of the Imperial household and former slaves, freedmen who remained under obligation to their former master.

The only function left the owners of the latifundia and their numerous parasites was pleasure. But man becomes indifferent to any stimulus that works on him constantly, to joy and to pain, to pleasure and to the fear of death. Mere unbroken enjoyment, uninterrupted by any work or struggle, produced at first a constant pursuit of new pleasures that would surpass the old ones and stimulate the jaded nerves once more. This led to the most unnatural vices, the most intricate cruelties, as well as to extravagance on the largest and most senseless scale. Everything has its limits however, and once the individual has come to the point of financial or physical exhaustion, to being without means or strength, so that he can not increase pleasure any further, he falls into a dreadful depression, an aversion to all enjoyment, to the point of being fed up with life and feeling that all earthly scheming and striving are useless – vanitas, vanitatum vanitas. Despair and longing for death appeared, but along with them the longing for a new and higher life; yet the aversion to work was so deeply rooted in people that even this new, ideal life was not thought of as a life of happy work but as a thoroughly passive blessedness that got its joy only from being freed from the sorrows and disappointments of bodily needs and enjoyments.

In the best individuals among the exploiters there arose too a feeling of shame at the fact that their comfort was built on the destruction of many free peasants, on the abuse of thousands of slaves in the mines and the latifundia. The state of depression also gave rise to sympathy with the slaves – a strange contrast to the unthinking brutality with which masters disposed of the slaves’ lives, as in the gladiatorial shows. Finally this morning-after feeling produced an aversion to the greed for gold and money that even in those times ruled the world.

“We know,” says Pliny in the thirty-third book of his Natural History, “that Spartacus (the leader of a slave uprising) did not allow gold or silver in his camp. How our runaway slaves tower above us in largeness of spirit!”

Under this ruling class, some of which went to rack and ruin in the mad pursuit of pleasure, money and cruelty, while another section felt sympathy for the poor, aversion to money and pleasure and even longing for death: under this ruling class there was a numberless horde of working slaves, worse treated than our beasts of burden. These men and women had been swept together from all sorts of nations and coarsened and brutalized by constant mistreatment and labor in chains under the crack of the whip. They were embittered, desperate with thirst for revenge and hopelessness, always inclined to violent rebellion; but unable, because of the low intellectual level of the barbarian elements that formed the majority among them, to overthrow the existing order of the state and found a new one, even though some outstanding minds among them looked forward to some such goal. The only kind of liberation they could attain was not the overthrow of society but flight from society, flight either into crime, into the ranks of the bandits, or flight over the borders of the Empire to join its enemies.

Above these millions of the most wretched of mankind stood hundreds of thousands of slaves, often in comfort and luxury, always the witnesses and objects of the wildest and most insane sensuality, accomplices in all imaginable sorts of corruption and either caught up in this corruption and perverted like their masters, or else, like many of their masters, and even sooner than they, since they tasted the bitterness of a life of pleasure much earlier, deeply revolted by the perversion and pleasures and full of longing for a new, purer, higher life.

Along with all these there were the crowds of hundreds of thousands of free citizens and freed slaves, numerous (but impoverished) remains of the peasantry, beggared tenant farmers, the miserable city craftsmen and porters, and finally the urban lumpenproletariat, with the rights and the pride of the free citizen and yet economically superfluous in society, homeless, with no security, completely at the mercy of chance gifts thrown to them by the mighty out of their surplus, out of liberality or fear, or just to have peace and quiet.

When the Gospel according to St. Matthew has Jesus say (8, verse 20): “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head,” that expresses for the person of Jesus a thought that Tiberius Gracchus had expressed for the whole proletariat of Rome 130 years before Christ: “The wild beasts of Italy have their holes and their lairs, in which they rest, but the men that fight and die for Italy’s power have nothing but air and light, because this they can not be robbed of. They roam with their wives and children without house and home.”

Their poverty and the constant insecurity of their existence must have embittered them even more because of contrast with the shameless luxury of the wealthy. A grim class hatred of the poor against the rich arose, but it was a class hatred of a different kind from that of the modern proletarian.

Today all society is based on the labor of the proletarian. All he need do is to stop that labor, and the foundations of society tremble. The ancient lumpenproletarian did not work, and even the work of what few free peasants and craftsmen were left was not indispensable. Society did not live off the proletariat then; the proletariat lived off society. It was quite superfluous and could have disappeared altogether without hurting society; it would have done it good instead. The labor of slaves was the foundation on which society was based.

The opposition between the capitalist and the proletarian is worked out today in the factory, the place of work. The question is who shall control production, the owner of the means of production or the owners of labor power. It is a battle over the mode of production, an effort to replace the existing mode of production by a higher one.

The ancient lumpenproletarian had no such aim in mind. He did no work and did not want to work. What he wanted was a share in the pleasures of the rich, redistribution of the means of enjoyment, not of the means of production; he wanted to plunder the rich, not to change the mode of production. The sufferings of the slaves in the mines and the plantations left him as cold as the sufferings of the packhorses.

Thus, there were tremendous social contradictions, great class hatred and class struggles in the Roman society of the end of the Republic and during the Empire; there was an infinite longing for a different, better life, for going beyond the existing organization of society; there were no efforts to introduce a new, higher mode of production. [4]

The moral and intellectual conditions for such a movement were not present. There was no class that had the knowledge, the vigor, the joy in labor and the unselfishness to be able to make a real drive for a new mode of production. In addition the material conditions were lacking that could even permit such an idea to arise.

The slave economy, we have seen, did not denote a technical advance, but a step backward. Not only did it make the masters impotent and incapable of working, and increase the number of unproductive workers in society, but it also cut down the productivity of the productive workers and checked the progress of technology, with the possible exception of some luxury trades. If the new mode of production of the slave economy were compared with the free peasant economy it had supplanted, it would have to be considered a backward rather than a forward step. So men came to the idea that the old times were better, a golden age, and that each generation was worse than the one before. The age of capitalism, with its constant drive to improve the means of production, is marked by the concept of the unlimited progress of mankind and tends to see the past as black as possible and the future as rosy as possible. In the Roman Empire the prevailing view was the opposite, the steady decline of mankind and perpetual longing for the good old times. To the extent that the social reforms and social ideals of the time denoted making the productive relations sounder, they aimed merely at restoring the old mode of production, the old peasantry and rightly so, for it was the higher mode. Slave labor led into a blind alley. Society had to be put back on the basis of the peasant economy before it could recommence its upward path. But Roman society was no longer capable of doing that, for the peasants themselves had been lost. Many nations of free peasants had to flood the entire Roman Empire in the great migrations before the remains of the culture the Empire had created could provide the basis for a new social development.

Like every mode of production that is founded on contradictions, the ancient slave economy dug its own grave. In the form it finally took in the Roman world empire, it was based on war. It was only continual victorious wars, continual subjugation of new nations, continual extension of the territory of the Empire that could supply the masses of cheap slave material it required.

But war can not be waged without soldiers, and the best material for soldiers was the peasant. Accustomed to steady hard work in the open, in cold and heat, in sun and rain, he was the best fitted to endure military hardships. The city lumpenproletarian, unaccustomed to labor, and even the nimble-fingered craftsman, the weaver or goldsmith or sculptor, were less well adapted to war. When the peasants disappeared, so did the soldiers needed for the Roman army. It became increasingly necessary to fill out the ranks of the citizen militia with voluntary enlistments, professional soldiers serving beyond their term of conscription. Soon this too proved inadequate, if restricted to Roman citizens. Tiberius was already declaring in the Senate that there was a shortage of high-grade volunteers, and recourse would have to be made to all sorts of riff-raff and vagabonds. The Roman armies had more and more barbarian mercenaries from the conquered provinces; and finally in order to fill the ranks they had to recruit foreigners, enemies of the Empire. Even in Caesar’s times we find Germans in the Roman armies.

As the army became less and less able to draw its recruits from the master nation, and soldiers became fewer and costlier, Rome’s love of peace grew, not because of an ethical change, but for very material reasons. It had to conserve its soldiers and, instead of extending the frontiers of the Empire, be grateful if there were enough soldiers to guard the existing boundaries. Just at the time in which Jesus’s life is placed, in the reign of Tiberius, the Roman offensive basically came to a standstill. From that point on the Empire was primarily concerned with warding off the enemies that were pressing in on it. This pressure kept increasing too because the more foreigners, especially Germans, there were serving in Rome’s armies, the better Rome’s barbarian neighbors got to know its wealth, its art of war, and its weakness as well; and the more they desired to enter the Empire not as mercenaries and servants but as conquerors and masters, instead of carrying on manhunts against the barbarians, the masters of Rome were soon compelled to retire before them or purchase their favor. So in the first century of our era the flow of cheap slaves came to a speedy end, and they had to rely more and more on slave-breeding.

This was an expensive procedure. Slave-breeding paid only in the case of house slaves of a superior sort who could do skilled work. It was impossible to continue the latifundia economy with home-bred slaves. The use of slaves in agriculture kept decreasing; mining too declined, for many mines became unprofitable as soon as there were no more droves of cheap slaves coming from the wars.

The decline of the slave economy did not give rise to a renaissance of the peasant economy. There did not exist the requisite full generation of numerous, economically powerful peasants; and private property in land was another obstacle. The owners of the latifundia had no inclination to give up their property. They merely cut down the extent of their operations. They turned a part of their lands into small farms, which they let out to tenants, coloni, on condition that the tenant devote part of his labor power to the master’s house estates. This was the origin of that system of cultivation to which the large landowners resorted more and more in feudal times, until capitalism replaced it by capitalistic rental farming.

The labor forces from which the coloni were recruited were partly country slaves and ruined peasants, partly proletarians, free craftsmen and slaves of the big cities, who could no longer earn a living there once the incomes from the slave economy in mine and plantation had fallen off and cut down the liberality and the extravagance of the wealthy. Later there must have been added inhabitants of the border provinces, driven from their lands by the advancing barbarians and taking refuge in the internal provinces, where they found places as coloni.

But this new mode of production could not avert the economic decline arising out of the end of slave importation. It too was technically inferior to free peasant agriculture and was an obstacle to further technical development. The work that the colonus had to do on the manor remained forced labor, with the same reluctance, the same lack of care for cattle and tools as was the case with slave labor. The colonus got a farm for himself, to be sure, but it was stingily measured out to him so that he could just keep body and soul together. In addition, the rent in kind was set so high that everything above the barest subsistence was delivered to the master. The poverty of the coloni is something like that of the small tenants of Ireland or the peasants of Southern Italy, where a similar mode of production still persists. But the agrarian regions of today at least have a safety valve open in the form of emigration to rising industrial regions. There was nothing like that for the coloni of the Roman Empire. Industry was only to a very small extent devoted to the production of means of production, principally to producing luxury consumption goods. As the surpluses of the owners of latifundia and mines shrank, the urban industries declined and their population fell rapidly.

At the same time the rural population fell as well. The tenants On their diminutive farms could not support large families. Their yield was normally barely enough to support themselves. Bad harvests found them without reserves or money to make up the deficit. Hunger and poverty must have taken a heavy toll and thinned the ranks of the coloni, especially among the children. Just as the population of Ireland has been decreasing for a century, so did that of the Roman Empire.

“It is easily understandable that the economic causes that led to a decrease of population all over the Roman Empire should be felt especially in Italy, and there most strongly in Rome. If figures must be given, it may be assumed that the city had about a million inhabitants at the time of Augustus and stayed more or less at that level for the first century of the Empire, falling to about 600,000 at the time of the Severi (about 220 A.D.), and declining rapidly thereafter.” [5]

In his excellent book on Die wirtschaftliche Entwicklung des Altertums (1895), Eduard Meyer gives in an appendix the description that Dio Chrysostom (born about 50 A.D.) sketches in his seventh oration with respect to conditions in a small city in Euboea, which he does not name. Here we see in harsh colors the depopulation of the Empire.

“The whole region belongs to the city and owes it taxes. For the most part, if not exclusively, the land is owned by rich men, whose extensive estates are partly in pasture and partly cultivated fields. But it is completely deserted. ‘Almost two-thirds of our region,’ says a citizen in the town meeting, ‘lies desert, because we take no care of it and have too small a population. I myself have as many acres as anyone else, not only in the mountains but in the plain as well, and if I could find anybody to work it, I would not only let him have it free, but would gladly give him money too ...’ The waste land, he says, begins right outside the city gates, ‘the country is completely uninhabited and has a dreary look, as if it lay deep in the wilderness and not at the gates of a city. Within the city walls most of the land is plowed or turned into pasture ...The exercise grounds have been planted so that in summertime Hercules and the other statues of gods and heroes are hidden in the standing grain, and the orator who spoke before me has his cow driven into the marketplace every morning to graze in front of the government buildings, so that strangers who come to us mock the city or pity it.’

“Likewise there are many empty houses in the city; obviously the population is falling steadily. There are some fishers of the murex to get the purple dye out at the Kapharian cliffs; otherwise the whole region is uninhabited for wide stretches. Formerly this whole section belonged to a rich citizen, ‘who possessed many herds of horses and cattle, many pastures, many fine fields and other important property.’ He was killed for his money at the command of the Emperor, his herds were driven off, including the cow that belonged to his herdsman, and since that time all the land lies unused. There are only two cowherds, free men and citizens, left; they live by hunting and a little farming and gardening and dairying ...

“The conditions that Dio pictures here – and all over Greece things looked like that even at the beginning of the Empire – are the same that developed during the next few centuries in Rome and its surroundings and have left their mark on the Campagna down to the present day. Here too it came to the point that the country towns disappeared, the land lay fallow for miles around and was used only for grazing (and here and there on the mountain slopes for vineyards), until finally Rome itself was deserted, the houses were unoccupied and collapsed, as did the public buildings; and cattle grazed in the Forum and on the Capitol. These conditions have begun to develop in Ireland in our century (the nineteenth) and strike any visitor that comes to Dublin or travels in the country.” (Op. cit., pp. 67–69).

At the same time the fertility of the soil decreased. Stall feeding was poorly developed, and must have fallen off still further under the slave economy, which entailed bad handling of the cattle. But without stall feeding there was no manure. Without copious manuring and intensive cultivation, only the best lands will give any kind of profitable yield. And the quantity of such lands kept shrinking the longer the cultivation lasted, the longer the land was sucked dry.

Something similar was to be seen in America in the nineteenth century, where in the Southern states with their slave economy the ground was not fertilized and was quickly exhausted, while at the same time the use of slaves was profitable only on the best lands. The slave economy could exist only by constant westward expansion, by constantly putting new lands under cultivation, leaving the exhausted land abandoned behind it. We find the same phenomenon in the Roman Empire, and that too was one of the causes of the constant land hunger of its masters, and their drive to conquer new lands by war. By the beginning of the Empire Southern Italy, Sicily and Greece were already desolate.

Soil exhaustion and increasing shortage of labor power, coupled with the irrational use of what labor power there was, could have no other result than a steady decrease in the crops.

At the same time the ability of the country to buy food stuffs from abroad decreased. Gold and silver became rarer and rarer. For the mines ran dry for want of labor, as we have seen. The gold and silver on hand kept flowing out, partly to India and Arabia to buy luxuries for the wealthy, but especially tribute to the neighboring barbarian tribes. We have seen that that is where the soldiers were recruited to an increasing extent; there was a constantly increasing number who took their pay, or what was left of it at the end of their service, abroad with them. The more the military power of the Empire sank, the more the attempt was made to appease their dangerous neighbors and keep them in good humor; the simplest way was to pay rich tribute. Where this failed, the enemy hordes all too often invaded the Empire to plunder it; and this too deprived it of a part of its wealth.

What was left was finally frittered away in the effort to guard it. The more the military power of the inhabitants of the Empire sank, the fewer the recruits that came from within it, the more they had to be brought in from over the borders and the stronger the pressure of the barbarian enemies; the more the demand for mercenaries rose while the supply fell, the higher the wages that had to be paid them. “Since Caesar, the pay had been 225 denarii per annum ($40) and in addition each man received two-thirds a medimnus of grain monthly (a medimnus was 54 liters or 1.44 bushels), or four modii, a ration later raised to five modii. That was as much grain as a slave received who lived on nothing else. With the sobriety of the Southerner, the largest part of his needs in food was met by the grain ration. Domitian raised the pay to 300 denarii (one-third more). Under the later Caesars arms were supplied free of charge. Septimius Severus and later Caracalla raised the pay even further.”

The purchasing power of money was then of course much higher than it is today. Seneca thought in Nero’s time that a philosopher could live on half a sesterce (2 cents) a day. Forty liters of wine cost six cents, a lamb ten to twelve cents, a sheep 36 cents.

“With prices such as these, the pay of the Roman legionary was something considerable. But in addition he got an inauguration gift from the new emperor; in times when a new Caesar was installed by the soldiers every month or two, that came to a good deal. When his time of service was up he received a separation bonus which was 3,000 denarii ($510) in the time of Augustus, halved by Caligula, then raised by Caracalla to 5,000 denarii ($850)” (Paul Ernst, Social Conditions in the Roman Empire before the Barbarian Invasions, Neue Zeit, vol. XI, No. 2, p. 253f.)

Along with this, the size of the standing army must have increased constantly as the attacks on the frontiers from all sides mounted. In Augustus’ time it consisted of 300,000 men, and later was more than twice as many.

These are enormous figures when we consider that in keeping with the state of the development of agriculture the population of the Empire was very thin and the surplus that their labor produced very meager. Beloch calculates the population of the whole Roman Empire, that was something like four times the size of the present German Empire, as in the neighborhood of 55 million at the time of Augustus. Italy, that has 34 million inhabitants today, had only 6 million then. These 55 million with their primitive technology had to maintain an army as large as the army which is an oppressive burden for the German Empire today (1908) despite the enormous technical progress that has been made since then, and this was an army of enlisted mercenaries, far better paid than the German conscript of today.

And while the population became smaller and poorer, the burdens of militarism kept growing greater and greater.

This had two causes, which made the economic collapse complete.

The state had two basic outlays: the military establishment and public building. If it wanted to raise the expenditures for one without raising taxes, it would have to neglect the other. And that is what happened. At the time of wealth and the great surpluses arising out of the labor of masses of slaves, the state was rich too and in a position to erect huge edifices not only for luxury, religion and hygiene, but for economic life as well. With the enormous human masses at its disposal the state built those colossal works that still astound us today, temples and palaces, aqueducts and sewers, and also a network of magnificent roads that linked Rome with the furthest corners of the empire and constituted a powerful means of economic and political unity and international communication. In addition, great irrigation and drainage works were constructed. Thus for instance the Pontine Marshes gave an enormous stretch of fertile land; when they were drained, 100,111 hectares were brought under the plough. Once there were no fewer than 33 cities there. The construction and maintenance of drainage canals in the Pontine marshes were a constant concern of the rulers of Rome. These works fell into such complete decay that today the whole region of the marshes and its surroundings is a barren waste land.

As the financial might of the Empire weakened, its rulers let all these structures go to pieces rather than put a limit to militarism. The colossal constructions became colossal ruins, which fell apart all the sooner because as labor power became scarcer it was easier to get materials for unavoidable construction by tearing down the old edifices instead of getting them from the quarries. This method did more harm to the ancient works of art than the devastations of the invading Vandals and other barbarians.

“The spectator who casts a mournful view over the ruins of ancient Rome is tempted to accuse the memory of the Goths and Vandals for the mischief which they had neither leisure, nor power, nor perhaps inclination, to perpetrate. The tempest of war might strike some lofty turrets to the ground; but the destruction which undermined the foundations of those massy fabrics was prosecuted, slowly and silently, during a period of ten centuries ...

“The monuments of consular or Imperial greatness were no longer revered as the immortal glory of the capital: they were only esteemed as an inexhaustible mine of materials, cheaper, and more convenient, than the distant quarry.” [6]

Not only works of art decayed, but the public works that served commerce or hygiene, roads and aqueducts; this decay, a consequence of the general economic decline, now contributed to accelerate that decline.

The military burdens increased none the less, and must have become still more unendurable, completing the general ruin. The total of public burdens – taxes in kind, labor services, money taxes – remained the same or even increased while the population and its wealth grew smaller. The burden of the government on the individual became heavier and heavier. Everyone tried to shift it to weaker shoulders; the wretched coloni got most of it unloaded on them, and their already bad position became a desperate one, as is shown by the numerous rebellions, for example that of the Bagaudae, coloni in Gaul, who rose under Diocletian, 285 A.D. and after successful beginnings were beaten down, but showed the scale of their misery by new disorders and attempts at uprisings for over a hundred years thereafter.

The other classes of the population were also being depressed, if not as hard as the coloni. The fisc took everything it could find; the barbarians were no worse plunderers than the state. A general breaking-up of society began, an increasing unwillingness and inability on the part of the individual members of society to perform even the most necessary services for the commonwealth and for each other. Things that had formerly been regulated by custom and economic necessity now had more and more to be enforced by the power of the state. These coercive laws spread after Diocletian. Some fastened the coloni to the soil, thus transforming them legally into bondsmen; others forced the landowners to participate in the city government, a task consisting chiefly in the collection of taxes for the state. Still others organized the craftsmen into compulsory guilds and obliged them to furnish their services and wares at set prices. The state bureaucracy, that had the task of enforcing these coercive laws, grew larger.

The bureaucracy and the army, that is the power of the state, thus came into an ever stronger opposition not only to the exploited classes, but even to the exploiters. Even for these latter the state changed more and more from the function of protection and fostering to that of plundering and devastating. Hostility to the state grew; even the rule of the barbarians was looked on as a deliverance. The barbarians were free peasants to whom the inhabitants of the border regions more and more took flight, regarding them as saviors and rescuers from the ruling order in state and society, inviting them and receiving them with open arms.

Salvian, a Christian author of the dying Roman Empire, said on this subject in his book De gubernatione dei:

“A large part of Gaul and Spain is already Gothic, and all the Romans who live there have only one wish, not to become Romans again. I should only wonder that there were any poor and needy people that did not go over to them, were it not that they can not leave their possessions and families behind. And we Romans wonder that we can not defeat the Goths, when we Romans prefer living under them to living with each other.”

The great migrations, the flooding of the Roman Empire by the swarms of savage Germans did not mean the premature destruction of a flourishing high culture, but merely the conclusion of the dissolution of a dying civilization and the formation of the basis for a new upswing of civilization; it is sure that this last took place slowly and unsteadily over centuries.

Christianity took form in the four centuries from the founding of the Imperial power by Augustus to the barbarian invasions; in an era which began with the greatest brilliance that the ancient world attained, with the most colossal and intoxicating accumulation of wealth and power in a few hands; with the most abundant accumulation of the greatest misery for slaves, ruined peasants, craftsmen and lumpenproletarians; with the crudest class contradictions and the bitterest class hatred – and ended with the complete impoverishment and despair of the entire society.

All of this left its mark on Christianity. But it also shows the traces of other influences, arising out of the political and social life that grew in the soil of the mode of production we have described above.




1. Karl Jentsch, Drei Spaziergänge eines Laien ins klassische Altertum, 1900, Third Spaziergang, Der Römerstaat, p. 237. Cf. the second Spaziergang in the same book: Die Sklaverei bei den Dichtern.

2. Herzfeld, Handelsgeschichte der Juden des Allertums, 1894, p. 193.

3. Diodorus Siculus, V, 36, 38. Cf. the passage, III, l3, on the Egyptian gold mines to which Marx refers in Capital Vol. I, chap. 8, 9, Note 43.

4. Pöhlmann in his Geschichte des antiken Kommunismus und Sozialismus (op. cit.) meaninglessly identifies the class struggles of the ancient proletarians, even of the debt-ridden agrarians, the debt cancellations of the landholders, the plunderings and land reforms of the propertyless, with modern socialism. The object of this absurdity on the part of the Erlangen professor is to prove that the dictatorship of the proletariat never under any circumstances can produce anything but burning and looting, murder and rape, pillage and debauchery; lacking facts and arguments, he showers us with Greek citations.

5. Ludo M. Hartmann, Geschichte Italiens im Mittelalter, 1897. Vol. I, p. 7.

6. Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chap. 36.


Last updated on 28 January 2021