Karl Kautsky

Foundations of Christianity

Book Two: Society In The Roman Empire

II. The State

State and Commerce

ALONG WITH slavery there were two other important methods of exploitation in ancient society; these also reached their high point at the time Christianity arose; they sharpened class oppositions to an extreme and speeded the decline of society and of the state. These two were usury and the plunder of the conquered provinces by the conquering central power. Both were intimately related to the nature of the state at that time, and that in turn was so closely connected with economics that we must take it into account even when dealing with the basis of state and society, namely, the mode of production.

First we must briefly describe the ancient state.

Ancient democracy never got beyond the limits of the municipality or the Markgenossenschaft [group of villages sharing common land], which was made up of one or more villages that owned and ruled a region in common. This was done through direct legislation by the people, by the assembly of all the members with the right to vote. In such an arrangement the community could not be very extensive. Its territory could be only so large that every member could get from his house to the assembly without too much trouble and loss. Antiquity was unable to develop a democratic organization beyond this framework, for want of the necessary technical and economic prerequisites. It was only modern capitalism with printing and post-offices, its newspapers, railroads and telegraphs that was able to create the modern nation, not merely as a linguistic unity but as a durable political and economic organization. Basically this was not accomplished until the nineteenth century. Special conditions made it possible for England and France, and no others, to become nations in the modern sense earlier, and set up a national parliament, the foundation of a democracy in a wider framework than that of the commune. But this achievement was possible only because of the leading role played by two great communes, London and Paris, and even in 1848 the national and democratic movement was mainly the movement of single outstanding communes – Paris, Vienna, Berlin.

In antiquity, with its much more primitive means of communication, democracy was confined within the limits of the commune. At last, in the first century of our era, commerce among the countries on the Mediterranean did achieve a respectable scope, so much so that it brought two languages into international use there, Greek and Latin. Unfortunately this took place right at the time when democracy and political life in general were declining – unfortunately, but not by an unfortunate accident. The development of communication among the communes was of necessity tied up at that time with conditions that were fatal to democracy.

It is not our purpose to show how this was the case in the Oriental countries, where democracy limited to the commune became the basis for a particular kind of despotism. We shall consider only the special course of development taken by the Hellenic and Roman world, using a single example, the commune of Rome. This shows the tendencies of the ancient course of development most acutely, since things went more quickly and on a more gigantic scale here than in any other community of the ancient world. The tendencies at work in all of them, however, were the same, although often more petty and less dramatic.

The extension of every Markgenossenschaft and commune had narrow limits beyond which it could not go. As a result, the various villages and communes remained more or less on the same level so long as they had a peasant economy pure and simple. At this stage there were few incentives to greed and strife among them, since each community produced virtually everything it needed. At most increasing population might produce a shortage of land; it could not however lead to an extension of its territory, for the commune could not become so large that each member could not attend the legislative assembly without excessive loss of time and effort. If actually all the cultivable land of the commune were in use, the excess young men of military age took themselves off to found a commune of their own, either expelling other elements that were weaker or by settling in regions where a lower mode of production still prevailed, and hence the population was thin enough to make room.

Thus the various communes or Markgenossenschaften were pretty much on the same level; but this changed when commerce arose alongside of the peasant economy.

We have seen that trading in commodities began very early. Its origins go back to the Stone Age. In regions where it was easy to obtain many sought-after raw materials which were scarce or nonexistent elsewhere, the inhabitants would be likely to get more than they needed, as well as becoming more skillful in obtaining and processing them. They traded the excess to their neighbors for other products, and much of what they traded was again traded to places further removed. By means of this process of barter from tribe to tribe many products traveled incredible distances. The prerequisite for this trade was a nomadic form of life for some hordes, who frequently encountered one another in their wanderings and traded surplus objects on such occasions.

These occasions came to an end when men settled down in fixed dwelling places, but the need for exchange of goods did not cease therewith. In particular the need grew for tools or the materials they were made from, and that were to be found only in certain places, and so as a rule could only be obtained through trade. To supply this need a special class had to come into being, the merchants. These were either nomadic tribes of herdsmen who now took to carrying goods on their beasts of burden from a district where they were in surplus, and therefore cheap, to other districts where they were scarce and dear, or else they were fishermen who ventured along the coast or from island to island in their little boats. The more trade throve, the more it would induce peasants as well to take it up. In general landholding looked down with scorn on trade; the Roman aristocracy considered usury, but not trade, as an honorable profession. That did not prevent many landowners from getting large profits from trade.

Trade takes to definite routes, on which traffic becomes heavier. Communities that lie on such routes get their wares more easily than others, and find customers for their products in the merchants. At many points it is not possible to deviate from the route; such points can not be got around; and if they are also natural fortifications, that makes it possible for their inhabitants and lords, that is the landowners, to hold up the traders and lay them under contribution, tax them. There were other points that became warehouse points or depots, where goods had to be transshipped, such as harbors and crossroads, where merchants came in large numbers from various points and often stored goods for long periods.

It was inevitable that communities thus favored by nature for trade should grow beyond the size of a peasant commune. The population of a peasant commune soon finds its limit in the extent and fertility of its territory, but the population of a commercial state does not depend on the productivity of its territory and can increase far beyond it. For, in the goods it owns it has the means to buy whatever it needs, including foodstuffs. In addition to trade in tools for agriculture, in raw materials and tools for industry and in luxury products of industry, there develops trade in foodstuffs for the cities.

The extension of trade has no set limits and by its very nature tends to overcome any barriers, always looking for new clients and new producers, for new lodes of scarce metals, for new industrial districts, for new purchasers for their products. Thus the Phoenicians early emerged from the Mediterranean and went as far as England in one direction and south around the Cape Of Good Hope in the other.

“We find them at an incredibly early date in Cyprus and Egypt, in Greece and Sicily, in Africa and Spain, even in the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. Their sphere of trade reaches from Sierra Leone in West Africa and Cornwall in England in the West, eastward to the Malabar Coast in the East Indies; through their hands pass the gold and the pearls of the East, the Tyrian purple, the slaves, ivory, lion and leopard skins from the heart of Africa, Arabian frankincense, Egypt’s linen, Greece’s pottery and fine wines, Cyprian copper, Spanish silver, English tin, the iron of Elba.” (Mommsen, Römische Geschichte, 6th edn., 1874, vol. I, p. 484).

Craftsmen like to settle in commercial cities. For many crafts such a city constitutes the market without which they could not come into being: on the one hand the merchants looking for goods, and on the other the country people from the surrounding villages, who come to town on market days to sell their produce and buy tools, arms and finery in exchange. In addition the trading town assures the craftsman of the supply of raw materials he needs to practice his craft.

Alongside the merchants and craftsmen a class of rich landholders arises in the city community. The members of the rural community of this city, those who had a share in its rural districts, now become wealthy, since the newcomers seek land, which rises steadily in value. The same people also profit from the fact that among the wares the merchant brings there are slaves, as we have seen. Individual families of landowners, who for one reason or another have risen above the level of ordinary peasants and obtain more land or greater wealth, now find it possible to extend their farming operations by the use of slaves, and even to have them carried on exclusively by slaves, while they settle in the city and devote themselves to business in town, to municipal affairs or to war. Such a landowner, who hitherto had lived exclusively in his farmhouse in the outskirts, could now build himself a town house to live in. Such landlords still derived their economic power and social position from the ownership of land and agriculture, but were city-dwellers as well and augmented the city population with their households, which in time came to considerable dimensions including the luxury slaves.

In this way the commercial city kept growing richer and more populous. With its power, its warlike spirit and its greed for plunder increased as well. For trade is by no means so peaceable a thing as bourgeois economics says it is, and least of all at the outset. Commerce and transportation were not distinct in those days. The merchant could not stay in his office, as he can today, get his orders by mail and send them out by road and ship and mail. He had to bring the goods to market himself, and that took strength and courage. Through the trackless wilderness on foot or on horseback, or over stormy seas in small open boats he had to find his way, away from home for months or even years. The hardships of such a life were no less than those of a military campaign; and only a strong man could endure them.

But the dangers too of travel were not less than those of a war. It was not only nature that threatened the trader at every moment, here with wave and cliffs, there with sandstorms, thirst or starvation, icy cold or pestilential heat. The treasures he carried with him were a booty to tempt anybody who had the strength to take them away from him. Originally trade had been carried on from tribe to tribe; later too it was a group activity, caravans on land and trading fleets at sea. And every member of such a party had to be armed and ready to defend his goods sword in hand. Trade became a school of war.

The wealth of goods that the merchant carried along with him compelled him to acquire military power to defend them; this military power in turn became a temptation to use it aggressively. The profit in trade was obtained by getting cheap and selling dear. The cheapest way to get things however was undoubtedly to take without payment what one wanted. Robbery and trade have been closely linked from the beginning. Where the merchant felt stronger, it was easy for him to turn into a robber, when there was something valuable to steal – and not the least valuable booty was man himself.

The merchant had need of his skill in arms not merely to procure his goods and gains as cheaply as he could, but also to keep competitors from the markets he frequented; for, the more buyers there were the higher would be the prices of the goods he had to buy, and the more sellers, the lower the prices on what he had to sell, and hence the lower the difference between the purchase and selling prices, the profit. As soon as several great commercial cities arose, wars soon arose between them, in which the victor not only gained the advantage of driving his competitor out of the market but also that of turning the competitor from a factor unfavorable to profit to a favorable one. This could be done either in the most radical way, which to be sure can not be repeated, by totally looting the opponents’ city and selling its inhabitants into slavery; or less radically, but repeating itself every year, by taking the conquered city in as an “ally” that has to furnish troops and tribute and refrain from doing any damage to the competitor that has become its master.

Some commercial cities especially favored by their situation or other conditions were thus able to combine many other cities with their territories into a single state. A democratic constitution could continue to exist in each city, but the totality of the cities, the state as a whole, would not be democratically governed, since only the single victorious city ruled and the others had to obey without the slightest influence on the legislation and administration of the state as a whole.

In Greece we find many such city states. The mightiest among them was Athens. But none of the victorious cities was strong enough to subjugate all the others permanently, to get rid of all its rivals. So the history of Greece shows nothing but the unending war of the single cities and city states with each other, with only the occasional interruption of a common defence against a common enemy. These wars contributed enormously to hastening the decline of Greece, once the consequences of the slave economy we have spoken of began to make themselves felt. But it is ridiculous to view this with moral indignation, as so many of our professors do. Fighting against competitors is a natural concomitant of trade. The forms of this conflict vary, but it inevitably takes on the form of war where the opponents are sovereign trading cities. It was inevitable that Greece should tear itself to pieces as soon as trade began to make her cities big and powerful.

The goal of every war of competition is to shut out or suppress the competitor: that is, monopoly. No Greek city had the strength for that, not even powerful Athens. It was an Italian city that accomplished it. Rome became the ruler of the entire civilized world around the Mediterranean.



Patricians and Plebeians

Competition with rivals is not the only source of war for a great commercial city. When it has vigorous peasants for neighbors, especially cattle-raising peasants in the mountains, who are as a rule poorer than the ploughmen of the fertile plains, but also less tied down to the soil and more used to bloodshed and the hunt, that school of war, the wealth of the great city is likely to excite the peasants to plunder. They could pass by and disregard small country towns that only served the local trade of a limited region and a few artisans; but the treasures of a great commercial center must have tempted them sorely to collect into bands for a raid on the rich community. Meanwhile the city was trying to extend its territory and the number of its vassals. We have seen how the growth of the city creates in it an extensive market for agricultural products and the land that produces goods for the city increases in value. In this way the hunger grows for more land and for more labor power to work the newly-won fields for the conquerors. All this leads to constant war between the big city and the rural peoples round about it. If the latter win, the city is looted and its city must start over again from the beginning. If the city wins, it turns a part of the peasants’ lands over to its own landowners, who sometimes settle their own landless sons there, but for the most part cultivate the newly-won lands by means of forced labor, whether in the form of tenants or serfs or slaves. Sometimes things are done more gently; the conquered people is not only not enslaved but incorporated into the citizenry of the victorious city; not however as full citizens, whose assembly rules the city and the state, but as second-class citizens, who have full freedom and all the protection of the laws of the state, but have no share in its government. The city needed such new citizens all the more as its military burdens rose with the growth of its wealth; for the families of the old citizens no longer sufficed now to supply the needed number of citizen soldiers. Now, military service and citizenship are closely linked from the outset. If the number of warriors was to be increased quickly, new citizens would have to be taken into the body politic. One of the most important causes of Rome’s rising to greatness was the fact that it was very liberal with citizenship toward immigrants as well as toward the inhabitants of near-by conquered communities.

The number of these new citizens could be extended indefinitely. They were not limited by the factors which kept down the number of old citizens. In part these limits were technical. The city government was as a rule governed by the assembly of the old citizens, and this assembly could not be so unwieldy as to make action impossible. Moreover, the citizens had to live near enough the place of assembly to be able to reach it at stated times without hardship and harm to their affairs. These considerations did not apply in the case of the new citizens. Even when they were granted certain political rights, even in some cases the right to vote in the citizen assemblies (something which seldom happened), it was not at all necessary, at least from the point of view of the old citizens, for them to be able to take part in these assemblies. The more the old citizens remained a caste apart, the better they liked it.

Thus the factors limiting their number did not apply to the new citizens. The number of the latter could grow indefinitely, limited only by the size of the state and its needs for trustworthy soldiers. For even when troops could be obtained from the conquered provinces, the army needed a nucleus it could rely on, and that could only be made up of a strong contingent of citizen soldiers.

In this way the growth of the city gives rise to a second form of undemocratic organization in the state. On the one hand the great city community becomes absolute ruler of many communes and provinces; on the other, within the citizenry of the community, which now extends far beyond the territory of the old city district, there arises the opposition between full or old citizens (patricians) and new citizens (plebeians). In both ways democracy turns into aristocracy, not by restricting the group of full citizens nor by raising some of them to a privileged position above the others, but in virtue of the fact that the state grows while that group remains unchanged, so that all the new elements added to the old community or Markgenossenschaft lack some or all of the rights of full citizenship.

These two ways of evolving aristocracy out of democracy follow different paths. One form of the exploitation and domination of the state by a privileged minority, the rule of a community over a whole empire, can always increase in size, as the example of Rome shows; and it must increase, so long as the state is vigorous and does not break against some superior power. It is different with the lack of political rights on the part of the new citizens. As long as they are almost exclusively peasants, they take the absence of rights more or less calmly. Most of them live so far from the city that they are not in a position to leave their houses in the morning, be present at noon in the assembly in the city’s marketplace and return home in the evening. Moreover, as the state grows, its internal and external relationships become more and more complicated. Politics and warfare become trades requiring special knowledge which the peasant can not obtain. He had no understanding of all the personal and factual questions that are decided in the political assemblies of the city, and so feels no great urge to demand the right to participate in them.

But the new citizenry does not remain confined to peasants only. Foreigners who come to the city and are useful to it receive citizenship. The regions that have been conquered and given citizenship contain not only villages, but cities with craftsmen and merchants, and large landholders as well, who have a city house in addition to their country estate. As soon as they get Roman citizenship, they have a strong incentive to move from the smaller city to the larger one, to which they now have a right to go, and in which they can have better earnings and more leisure. At the same time there are more and more peasants who have lost their property through war and the slave economy in the way we have described. The best refuge for such elements, left hanging in the air, is the big city, whose citizens they are; there they try to get along as craftsmen or porters, tavern keepers, shopkeepers, or hangers-on of some rich lord, to whom they attach themselves as clients, to perform all sorts of services – genuine lumpenproletarians.

These elements have much more time and opportunity than the peasants to concern themselves with city politics, whose consequences they feel much more clearly and directly. It is in their most vital interests to have some influence in politics, to replace the assembly of the old citizens by the assembly of the entire citizenry, to win for the latter the election of officers and the passage of laws.

As the state grew there came to be more and more of these elements, while the number of old citizens remained more or less the same. The latter gradually became relatively weaker, and especially so since they did not have any military power apart from the general citizenry; the new citizens were in the militia just as the old citizens were, in possession of arms and familiar with their use. Hence there flares up in all the cities of this sort a bitter class warfare between old citizens and new citizens, which usually ends sooner or later with the triumph of the latter, that is of democracy; this is really however only a broadening of the aristocracy, since the provinces continue to be exploited and do not have the rights of citizens. In fact, the extent and sometimes the intensity of the exploitation of the provinces is often increased at the same time that the democracy makes progress within the ruling community.



The Roman State

All these conflicts, which characterize every flourishing commercial city of antiquity, are to be found fully developed in Rome at the time that city first appears in history.

Rome’s position is very well suited to making it a trading center. It lies on the Tiber a little distance from the sea, but at that time this was no obstacle to ocean commerce, ships were so small; it was even an advantage, because being inland they were safer from pirates and storms. It is no accident that so many of the great older commercial cities were not directly on the sea, but on navigable rivers at some distance from their mouths – Babylon and Bagdad, London and Paris, Antwerp and Hamburg.

The city of Rome grew up at a spot where the Tiber, still navigable, is flanked by two easily fortifiable hills that afforded security for the goods entering and leaving. The country around was still rough, solidly peasant, but north and south of it were economically advanced regions, Etruria and Campania, with strong industries, extensive trade, and an agriculture already based on unfree labor. From Africa came the Carthaginians with their wares, standing on the same level of development as the Etruscans and the South Italian Greek colonies.

This geographical situation put Rome into a peculiar double position. Compared to its immediate neighbors, the Latins and the Volscians, the trading city appeared as the representative of a higher civilization; compared to their more distant neighbors, the Etruscans and the Italian Greeks, the Romans seemed to be a crude peasant folk. Actually, for all the growth of commerce, agriculture remained the fundamental occupation. Far from the sea, they had no understanding of seafaring and shipbuilding. They left it to foreign merchants and seamen to come to them and do business. This trait did not change. It is a partial explanation of the fact that at the time of Caesar and his first successors, that is at the time of the rise of Christianity, the Jews had so large a colony in Rome. At that time they had got into their hands a part of Roman commerce. So today in Constantinople trade is principally in the hands of non-Turks.

The more Rome flourished through her trade, the more she came into conflict with her neighbors. The market for foodstuffs that was opened up by commerce produced in the Roman landowners a drive to increase their landholdings at the expense of their neighbors, who in turn hankered for the riches of the city. Then too conflicts arose out of the competition with the Etruscan cities. The young community had to endure many long hard wars, but emerged victorious from them thanks to the double position we have spoken of. The peasants were beaten by the more advanced technology and the firm organization of the big city; the Etruscans, who had already gone down in military strength because of the supplanting of the free peasantry by forced labor, lost to the tenacity and endurance of the Roman peasants.

As soon as Rome had become strong enough to subdue the Etruscans, it learned what an excellent business war can be. There is much more wealth to be got in successful wars than in trade, which mostly was carried on by foreigners anyway, or in agriculture which yielded only meager surplus under the conditions of small-scale farming; and especially so when the wars were waged against rich cities and nations that could be plundered and laid under tribute. Commerce and robbery are related to each other in any event; but no other commercial city put robbery in the foreground and raised it to a government institution, in fact made it the basis of the city’s greatness, as did Rome.

As soon as Rome has conquered the Etruscan cities, plundered them and made them tributaries, it turned on its rich neighbors to the south whose growing wealth had brought with it a decline in their military power, in accordance with the process described above; the booty was thus easier to get in the measure that it was more valuable. This wealth however attracted another peasant nation, the Samnites, at the same time. They had to be driven out of the competition before the Greek cities in Southern Italy could be conquered. Peasant nation fought peasant nation, but the Samnites had no great city like Rome to give the peasant fighting forces a centralized organization. They lost, and then the way was open for Rome to the rich cities of South Italy, which were now plundered and subjugated.

From Southern Italy it was but a step to Sicily, which was just as rich as Greek Italy and had an equal attraction for the Roman robber hordes. There however they came up against a dangerous enemy, the Carthaginians. Carthage, a powerful commercial city near present-day Tunis, had conquered the western part of the north coast of Africa, following the same robber drive as Rome, and was now trying to do the same thing in Sicily. It was a colony of the Phoenecians, who had early been led to seafaring by the very nature of their country and in that domain had attained a marked superiority. Carthage too achieved its greatness and its wealth through seafaring. It bred seamen, not peasants. Instead of a peasant economy it developed a latifundia economy with cheap captured slaves and, along with that, mining. It therefore had no peasant national army. As soon as they had to leave the coast and go inland to hold their controlling position, they needed an army and had to use mercenaries.

The struggle between Rome and Carthage, known as the three Punic Wars, began in 264 B.C. and ended in 146 with the complete destruction of Carthage. It had been decided when Hannibal was defeated, after which the second Punic War ended, in 201. These were wars between mercenary armies and peasant armies, between professionals and a militia. The former often won; Rome was on the brink of being defeated by Hannibal; but in the end the militia army, defending its own hearths, proved to be more tenacious and forced its opponent to the ground. Carthage was razed and its inhabitants wiped out. Its enormous wealth in latifundia, mines, and subject cities fell as booty to the victor.

With this the most dangerous enemy of Rome had fallen, and Rome ruled unchallenged in the Western Mediterranean, and soon in the Eastern basin as well. The countries of that region were in decline, going the way of ancient civilization – the supplanting of the free peasants by forced labor by slaves or serfs and their ruin by endless wars, and the replacement of the militias by mercenaries; they had gone so far on this road and become so weak in military strength that they could no longer offer any significant opposition to Rome’s armies. One city after another, one country after another fell almost of its own weight, to be plundered and put under perpetual tribute. From now on Rome remained the ruler of the old civilized world until the Germanic barbarians dealt out the same fate to it that it had to the Greeks, despite the fact that the Greeks were far more advanced than the Romans in science and art. As in economics and politics, Rome was in philosophy and art too merely a plunderer of the Greeks. Its great thinkers and poets were almost entirely plagiarists.

The richest lands of the world at that time, in which the untold treasures of centuries, or as in Egypt thousands of years, of culture had been accumulated, were delivered to the looting and extortions of Rome. It was only as a democracy that Rome could develop the enormous military effort that brought this brilliant result, only as a city in whose existence all the classes of its population were interested although not in the same way. In a long and bitter struggle from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C. the new citizens, the plebeians, had succeeded in wresting one privilege after another from the old citizens, the patricians, until finally every legal distinction between the two orders had disappeared and the assembly of all the citizens made the laws and elected the highest officials, the consuls, praetors and aediles; on the expiration of their terms these officials entered the Senate, which actually ruled the whole state.

These conquests however did not give the Roman people mastery in the state, but only the right to choose its masters. The more the lumpenproletariat came to predominate in Rome, the more the right of democracy became a means of extorting money and entertainments from the candidates, a means of getting handouts.

We have already become acquainted with the clients, who were at the service of the rich lords, for all sorts of services. If they had the right to vote, there was no more important service they could render than to vote as their protector, the patron, wanted them to. Every rich Roman, every rich family, had many votes in the assembly at its disposal to give to the clique they belonged to. A few cliques of rich families thus held control of the state in their hands by getting their members elected to the higher offices and thus into the Senate. The only change that democracy introduced was to allow the rich plebeian families to push their way into this circle, which formerly under aristocratic rule had been limited to patricians only.

The newly elected consuls and praetors had to spend their first year of office in Rome. In their second year each of them took over the government of a province, where he tried to get back the money he had spent on getting elected and if possible something over for himself. For he had no salary. The offices were “offices of honor.” On the other hand, the hope of getting rich in the provinces by extortion and bribery, and sometimes even by direct robbery, was one of the reasons for seeking office, so that the various candidates, vying for popular favor, kept raising the scale of gifts and offerings.

But the more the various methods of buying votes improved the lumpenproletarian’s chances of gaining some advantage by selling his civic rights, the more the peasants, who possessed Roman citizenship, must have felt tempted to give up their hard poor existence on the land and come to Rome. This further increased the size of the voting lumpenproletariat and the corresponding demands on the candidate’s purse. In Caesar’s time there were in Rome no less than 320,000 Roman citizens receiving free grain from the state; the number of votes for sale must have been something on the same order. It can be imagined what sums an election required.

In the year 53 B.C. the buying of votes caused such a demand for coin that the interest rate rose sharply and there was a money crisis. [7]

“The nobility (office-seeking nobles) had to pay dear,” says Mommsen. “A gladiatorial show cost 720,000 sesterces [$35,000]. But they paid willingly, because by it they shut political career off from the propertyless.” [8]

And they had to pay often, since there were new elections every year; but they paid not out of idealistic motives but because they knew that they were just buying the opportunity for more profitable plundering of the provinces; they were doing good business.

“Democracy,” that is the rule of the population of the whole Roman Empire of about 50 to 60 million people by a few hundred thousand Roman citizens, thus became one of the most powerful means of raising the looting and exploitation of the provinces to an extreme, because it increased the number of those sharing in it. And it was not only the governors who carried on these extortions, but each took with him a crowd of “friends,” who had helped in his election and now went out in order to steal and rob under his protection.

But that was not all; in addition, Roman usury capital was loosed on the provinces, where it had a devastating influence and grew to a scale reached nowhere else in the ancient world.




Usury itself is age-old, almost as old as trade. It can not be traced back to the Stone Age, but it is surely older than money. As soon as there were distinct households with definite family property, there was the possibility of having one family richer than another in cattle, land or slaves, while others became poor. Peasants in difficulties would be likely to borrow something from their better-off neighbors, for example some of their surplus cattle or grain, pledging to return it with something added or to perform some labor for the loan - the beginning of debt slavery. Such usurious transactions are possible under a natural economy, without the use of money. Large landholding and usury are closely interwined from their beginnings, and usury capital – known today as high finance – and large landholding have often got along very well together. In Rome too the large landowners were usurers as far back as we can trace their history; the clash between patricians and plebeians was not merely a conflict between aristocracy and democracy over political rights, not merely a conflict between large landholders and peasantry over the public lands, but also a conflict between usurers and debtors.

Meanwhile the productivity of peasant labor and hence the surplus it produced were so small that it required the exploitation of great masses of men to assure the exploiters any considerable wealth. So long as the Roman aristocrats only despoiled the peasants of the areas around Rome, there was not too much to be got no matter how hard they squeezed the victims. Their affairs flourished much more brilliantly and brought in much more wealth through access to the new empire, the then entire civilized world.

Here a division of labor took place. Taking usurious interest from neighbors was not a business that required particular attention. The aristocrats could easily take care of that while farming their lands and governing the state. But it was hard to manage the usurious exploitation of Spain and Syria, Gaul and North Africa, and at the same time carry on the affairs of so enormous a state. The business of usury became more and more something distinct from the business of the state. Along with the high officials who robbed the provinces in the course of their functions as generals and governors, without disdaining a profitable piece of business here and there, a special class of usury capitalists arose, organized into a separate social order of “knights.” As the number of these moneyed capitalists increased, the variety of their enterprises grew as well.

One of the principal ways of plundering the provinces was the farming of the taxes. As yet there was no bureaucracy to whom tax collection could be entrusted. The easiest way was to hand the function over to a wealthy Roman, who turned over the amount of the tax to the state and saw to it that he did not lose in the transaction. It was a system like the one that still prevails in many parts of the Orient and serves to devastate them. For the tax farmer of course does not stop with the sum that is coming to him. The provincials are handed over to him and are bled white without mercy.

It often happened however that single cities or tributary kings could not pay the sums imposed on them. Here again the Roman men of money were prepared to advance the needed sums, naturally at a suitable rate of interest. For example, Junius Brutus, the great republican, made “excellent speculations by lending money to the King of Cappadocia and the city of Salamis; with the latter he made a loan at the rate of 48% interest.” (Salvioli, op. cit., p. 42). This was not an exceptionally high rate. Loans to cities were made, as Salvioli shows, at as high as 75%. In risky cases it was even higher. Thus in Caesar’s time the great banking house of Rabirius lent its entire fortune and that of its friends to the exiled king Ptolemy of Egypt at 100% interest. Rabirius miscalculated, for when Ptolemy regained his throne, he did not pay his debt, and jailed the importunate creditor, who tried to treat all Egypt as his own domain. The financier managed to escape to Rome, and Caesar gave him the chance of making a new fortune in contracts for supplies for the African war.

This was still another method of making money. The tribute of the subject provinces that flowed into the Roman treasury was enormous. But the perpetual wars cost money too. They were one way in which the financiers got their hands on large sums out of that part of the loot of the provinces that did not go directly to them but was delivered to the state. They contracted for war supplies – still a method for making large fortunes today. They also took interest from their own state itself, when it was caught short of funds, something that happened often enough, for the more it took from the provinces, the more parasites of all sorts there were to share in the profits. Sometimes the state needed such large sums that no individual could furnish them, and joint stock companies were formed for the purpose. Just as usury is the first form of capitalist exploitation, it forms the first function of corporations.

The moneyed men of Rome “founded societies, corresponding to our banking corporations, with directors, cashiers, agents, etc. At the time of Sulla there was the company of the Asiani [the Asia Company] with a large enough capital to lend the state 20,000 talents [$25,000,000]. Twelve years later they had run this debt up to 120,000 talents ... Small capital sums were invested in shares of the big companies, so that as Polybius says (VI, 17) the whole city (of Rome) was interested in the various financial enterprises of a few prominent firms. The smallest savings had their share in the undertakings of the publicani, that is in the farming of the taxes and the public domains, which yielded extraordinary profits.” (Salvioli, op. cit., pp. 40f.).

All this sounds very modern to us; and it does show that Roman society had reached the threshold of modern capitalism at the time of the rise of Christianity; and yet the effects of that old capitalism were quite different from those of the modern variety.

The methods we have described here are roughly the same as those by which modern capitalism was founded, which Marx denoted as those of “primary accumulation”: expropriation of the peasantry, plundering the colonies, slave trading, trade wars and government debts. In modern times as in antiquity we find the same destructive and devastating effects of these methods. But the difference is that antiquity was able to develop only the destructive effects of capitalism, while modern capitalism derives from these destructions the conditions for the construction of a new and higher mode of production. To be sure the method of modern capitalism’s development is no less barbaric and gruesome; but it creates the basis for rising above this bloody destruction, while ancient capitalism could not.

We saw the basis for this in the previous chapter. Only a minute fraction of what modern capitalism scrapes together by plunder and extortion and all sorts of acts of violence is used for enjoyment; most of it goes to create new, higher means of production and increases the productivity of human labor. The capitalism of the ancient world did not possess the conditions for any such process. In so far as it entered into the mode of production at all, it could only replace the labor of the free peasants by that of slaves; in the decisive branches of production this meant a technical regression, a decline in the productivity of social labor, an impoverishment of society.

That part of the gains of the Roman financiers and of the booty of Roman generals and officials that did not go into new usurious deals, that is into further plunderings, could have only two outlets: one in pleasures and the creation of means of enjoyment – including not only palaces but temples as well; and the other, except for the acquisition of a mine or two, was the purchase of landed property, that is the expropriation of free peasants and their replacement by slaves.

The plundering and devastation of the provinces only served to give the wealthy men of Rome means of reducing the productivity of social labor even more quickly by spreading slavery than would have been possible otherwise. The devastation was not compensated for by an economic advance elsewhere, as happens at least occasionally with modern capitalism; instead devastation in one place only hastened the decline elsewhere. And so thanks to Rome’s world domination the general impoverishment of the ancient world after the beginning of our era took place even sooner than it would have otherwise.

For a long time however the signs of economic bankruptcy were masked by the glamour arising from the fact that in a few decades there was brought to Rome everything that hundreds or thousands of years of diligent artistic work had produced in all the centers of civilization around the Mediterranean. The political bankruptcy of the system came to light much sooner than the economic bankruptcy.




Rome killed political life in all the regions it conquered breaking their power of resistance and depriving them of all independence. All the politics of the enormous empire was concentrated in the one city of Rome. But in whom was the political life vested there. Moneyed men, whose only concern was how to pile interest on interest; aristocrats, reeling from one pleasure to another, to whom any regular work or effort, even government or making war, was repulsive; and lumpenproletarians, whose only means of support was selling their political power to the highest bidder.

For example, in his biography of Caesar, Suetonius reports the leader’s expenditures after the civil wars: “He distributed to the people, in addition to ten modii of grain and the same number of pounds of oil, the 300 sesterces he had previously promised, and too more as interest for the delay. [That is, twenty dollars at a time when a man could get by on two cents a day. – K.K.] He also undertook [for those renting dwellings in Rome – K.K.] to pay a year’s rent up to 2000 sesterces [$100] in Rome and up to 500 in Italy [$25]. To this he added a great banquet [for 250,000 people – K.K.] and a distribution of meat, and after the victory in Spain two breakfasts into the bargain. Because the first breakfast seemed miserly to him and unworthy of his liberality, he had a second one prepared five days later, very sumptuous” (chap.28).

In addition, he gave entertainments of unheard-of splendor. An actor, Decimus Laberius, received 500,000 ($25,000) sesterces for a single performance.

And about Augustus, Suetonius says: “He often distributed bounties to the people, but not always in the same amount, sometimes 400 sesterces [$20], sometimes 300, often only 250 per man. And once he did not omit young boys, although as a rule they only received the bounty from the age of eleven on. Likewise he often had grain sold at a very low price in scarcity years, sometimes even given away free, and at those times doubled the amount to be distributed in money” (Octavius, chap. 41).

Obviously a proletariat that let itself be bought in this way, that made a system out of venality right out in the open, had lost all political independence. It was no longer anything more than a tool in the hands of the highest bidder. The struggle for power in the state became a competition among a small number of robbers who had been able to amass the largest booty and therefore had the best credit with the financiers.

This factor was enormously strengthened by the rise of the mercenary soldiery. The army became more and more the master of the republic. As the mercenary soldiery increased, the fighting capacity of the Roman citizens fell; or rather, the decline of their fighting capacity conditioned the growth of the mercenary soldiery. All the elements of the people that were capable of fighting were in the army; the part of the people outside of it kept losing both its ability and its desire to bear arms.

There were however two special factors tending to make the army deteriorate more and more into a willing tool of any general who gave or promised them enough pay and loot, and to make the soldiers indifferent to political considerations. The first cause was the increasing number of non-Romans, of provincials, and finally of foreigners in the army, elements that had no civic rights and were thus completely excluded from the political life of Rome; the second was the increasing unwillingness of the pleasure-seeking, flabby aristocracy to do military service. Heretofore they had furnished the officers; now their place was more and more taken by professional or career officers, who were not economically independent, like the aristocrat, and moreover had not the slightest interest in the party struggles in Rome, which were really struggles among aristocratic cliques.

The more non-Romans there were in the army and the more the aristocratic officers were replaced by career men, the more willing the army was to sell itself to the highest bidder and make him the ruler of Rome.

In this way the foundations were laid for Caesarism, by having the richest man in Rome buy up the republic by purchasing its political power. It was also the basis for having a successful general with an army at his back try to make himself the richest man of Rome; the simplest way to do this was to expropriate his opponents and confiscate their property.

The political life of the last century of the republic consists basically in nothing but “civil wars” – a most misleading term, since the citizens had nothing whatsoever to say about these wars. They were not wars of citizens, but wars between individual politicians, who were for the most part as greedy for money as they were successful as generals; they murdered and robbed each other until finally Augustus succeeded in overcoming all competition and setting up a permanent monarchy.

To a certain extent Caesar had succeeded in doing this before him. Caesar, an aristocratic adventurer, had conspired to take over the state with two of the richest Roman financiers, Pompey and Crassus. The latter is described by Mommsen in this way: “His fortune had been founded on the buying up of confiscated estates during the revolution; but despised no means of gain; he carried on building operations in the capital carefully and on a large scale; he went into partnership with his freedmen in the most diverse enterprises; he acted as banker in and out of Rome, himself and through agents; he advanced money to his colleagues in the Senate and undertook to do public works on their accounts or bribe the courts, as the case might be. He was not choosy in making profits. ... He did not refuse to take an inheritance for the mere reason that the will in which his name occurred was notoriously a forged one.” [9]

But Caesar was no better. No means to acquire money were too foul. Suetonius, whom we have often cited, tells in his biography of Caesar of this man whom Mommsen later glorified: “He did not show unselfishness either as general or as statesman. As many witnesses have testified, when he was proconsul in Spain he took money for the allies, in fact begged it, to pay his debts, and looted several cities of Lusitania as though they were enemy cities, although they had submitted and opened their doors at his approach. In Gaul he robbed the temples and shrines with their stores of offerings; he destroyed cities more for the sake of the booty than on account of any offences they had committed. By these means he got gold in such quantities that he had it put up for sale and sold in Italy and the provinces at 3000 sesterces the pound [$150]. [10] During his first consulate he stole three thousand pounds of gold from the Capitol and replaced it by the same amount of gilded copper. He sold alliances and kingdoms for money; for example he took almost 6000 talents [$7,500,000] from Ptolemy, King of Egypt, in his own name and Pompey’s. Later on he met the crushing costs of civil wars, triumphs and festivities by the crudest extortions and temple robberies” (Julius Caesar, chap. 54).

It was primarily in order to gain money that Caesar undertook the war against Gaul, which hitherto had been free of Roman rule and so unplundered. The rich booty he stole there enabled him to stand on his own feet and break off his friendship with Pompey, with whom he had shared the business of mastery up to then. The third partner, Crassus, had fallen in a robber expedition against the Parthians in Asia, in which, as Appian says, “he hoped to gain not only much fame but also stores of money” [11] – in the same way that Caesar had been doing in Gaul at the same time.

After Crassus’ death only Pompey stood in Caesar’s way; and around Pompey the remainder of the politically active aristocracy rallied. The great Julius finished them off in a series of campaigns, which once more brought him rich loot.

“It is said that in his triumph [at the end of the civil war] he carried 60,000 talents of silver, together with 2,822 golden crowns, weighing 2,414 pounds. Immediately after his triumph he used these treasures to satisfy his army; going beyond his promises, he gave every soldier 5,000 Attic drachmas [$l,000], every non-commissioned officer twice as much and every higher officer twice as much again.” [12] What he gave the proletariat of Rome as largess, we have already reported from Suetonius.

From that time on Caesar’s one-man rule was not publicly contested, and it was only by assassination that the republicans could protest. Caesar’s heirs, Antony and Augustus, then disposed of the republicans.

Thus the Roman Empire became the domain, the private property of a single man, the Caesar or Emperor. All political life came to an end. The administration of this domain became the private affair of its proprietor. Like any other property, it was under all sorts of attacks; robbers, that is successful generals with a strong army to support them often menaced the current possessor, who was sometimes killed by his own bodyguard so that they could sell the vacant throne to the highest bidder. But this was a business deal no worse than many another that was going on at the same time; it was not a political action. Political life came completely to an end. In fact there appeared, first among the lower classes and then among the upper classes too, not merely indifference towards the state, but hate towards it and its officials, against its judges, its tax collectors, its soldiers, against the very emperors, who no longer protected anyone and were a torment even to the wealthy classes who had to defend themselves against the emperors as they did against the barbarians.

After Caesar’s victory there were only a few spots in the Roman world empire which still retained remnants of a political life. These remnants were soon wiped out by Caesar’s successors. The last place in which a vigorous political life survived was the capital of Palestine, Jerusalem. It required the most violent efforts to destroy this last fortress of political freedom in the Roman Empire. After a long and obstinate siege Jerusalem was razed to the ground in the year 70 A.D., and the Jewish people were robbed of their homeland.




7. Salvioli, Le capitalisme dans le monde antique, 1906, p. 243.

8. Römische Geschichte, vol. I, p. 809.

9. Römische Geschichte, III, 14.

10. Ordinarily gold was worth 4000 sesterces the pound. Caesar’s Gallic lootings brought its price down in Italy by fully one-fourth.

11. History of the Civil Wars, Book II, chap. 3. Appian testifies that the Parthians had not shown the slightest hostility. The war against them was therefore nothing more than a robber expedition.

12. Appian, History of the Civil Wars, Book II, chap. 15.


Last updated on 28 January 2021