Plutocratisation – getting priced out of ancient Rome

Simon Kuper wrote a melancholy piece in the latest Weekend FT on a subject which weighs upon every thinking urbanite – the vertiginous climb in house prices in the world’s great capitals, making it virtually impossible for anyone outside the ‘one per cent’ to live in them. The cities underwent gentrification in the 1980s, and now, in Kuper’s excellent coinage, they are seeing ‘plutocratisation’. Anyone not lucky enough to inherit city property or be a part of the corporate sector marathon is forced to the margins. Those who dedicate their time to the ‘counter, original, spare, strange’ are denied the oxygen of creative association and like-minded society, since they compelled to abandon urban life for the relative isolation of the suburbs. Bye-bye Bohemia, in other words.

Kuper makes one point that should be extended. He writes that ‘there’s an iron law of 21-st century life: when something is desirable, the “one per cent” grabs it.’ This might well be a law for the present day, but it was certainly the rule for ancient Rome. The Roman Republic offers an example of the exact same phenomenon of plutocratisation, but with a interesting twist and a frightening conclusion. It was the countryside, not the city, which suffered the attentions of the ‘one per cent’.

Rome, at its birth, was a nation of farmers. Its historians and poets look back to a golden age – which in all likelihood was mostly a reality – when the Roman citizens were a sturdy, property-owning yeomanry. They came into the city only to transact business and go to market, but their real life was farming. It was here, in the rigours of practical rustic life on their smallholdings, that they learned the virtues which made Rome great. Horace, writing at the end of the first century BC, looks back over 200 years to the time of the Punic Wars, and declares that the Romans who beat Hannibal were “the manly offspring of peasant soldiers, who had been taught to turn the sod with the Sabellian mattock; on the instructions of their stern mother, they learned to cut and carry firewood, when the sun was lengthening the shadows on the hillside, lifting the yoke from weary oxen…” (Horace, Odes 3.6).

The virtue of such a civic order, so the Roman historians thought (for example see Appian, The Civil Wars 1.1.7ff) was its stability. The citizens learned martial strength from their work on the land, and to despise luxury and vanity, and the desire for excess. Hence, there was a unity amongst the citizen body through a rough equality of wealth. The produce of the farms would maintain the soldiers and their families even whilst the soldiers were on campaign, and the possession of land gave the citizen class a stake in society, something very specific for which to fight.

Yet, the manly offspring of peasant soldiers were too successful for their own good. The many campaigns fought by Rome as the Empire expanded meant that the soldiers were too often absent from their smallholdings to cultivate them properly. Many fell into disuse, and others were ravaged by attacks on Italy, particularly those of Hannibal. Roman success in warfare also brought into Italy vast hordes of cheap slaves. With such conditions, from the middle of the third century BC wealthier Romans began to buy up the countryside and to cultivate it with gangs of slaves. For the original small-holders, who could scarcely compete with slave labour, there was the additional problem that newly-captured territories began to send tributes of grain to Rome, which were distributed for free to the poor dwellers in the city itself. Through the second century BC the process continued, with the result that the countryside was plutocratised, and the ordinary middle-class Roman citizens were forced from their small farms into city slums.

The outcome, in brief, is something that should give the contemporary world pause. In the city, thousands of unemployed people with nothing to sell but their votes and political support, happily bought off with free food and public entertainments (this is the origin of Juvenal’s ‘bread and circuses’); in the wider world, legions of soldiers with no homes to come back to an no income to support them on demobilisation looking to their generals to find them cash and a pension; in government, a wealthy minority looking to cling on to their property, uninterested in helping the dispossessed masses.

If one can trace the start of the civil war in Rome to one point, which left hundreds of thousands dead, wracked the politics of the empire with ambitious demagogues like Sulla and Caesar struggling for power, and led to the collapse of the old republican constitution and the rise of autocratic emperors, it was to an attempt in 133 BC by a more forward-thinking aristocrat, Tiberius Gracchus, to redistribute the land held by the Roman ‘one per cent’. For his pains, Tiberius Gracchus was murdered, and blood began to flow freely in the forum. One wonders, after the Roman example, what would happen in our own world should some Gracchus come forward to reform the iniquities of our plutocratised age.


Think Latin AS levels are racy? Forget Ovid, look at Pre-U Tacitus

The Daily Mail and the Times earlier this week expressed surprise and shock that pupils sitting AS level exams were asked to comment on a passage of Ovid’s Amores (3.14), which include a depiction of lovers in embrace (‘Talk lovingly. Say all sorts of naughty things, and let the bed creak and groan as you writhe with pleasure.’ [tr. J. Lewis May]).

They were even able to find a Professor – of physics – from Cambridge to condemn the inclusion of the text in the exam syllabus. “Professor John Ellis,” writes The Mail,” a reader in  physics at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, and fellow at Gonville and  Caius College, said the exam board was not in their ‘right minds’ to  include the passage for children as young as 16…” He told the Times: ‘How would a school react  to such material distributed on their premises? ‘Many teachers would have glossed over this extract, assuming no one in their right minds would set it in an exam.’”

As helpful as it is to have Professor Ellis’ tips on how to choose Classical texts for the classroom and the treatment of them in lessons, I am more relieved that no-one has told him, the Times or the Mail about the syllabus of this year’s Pre-U Latin exam (the new alternative to the A Level). The prose paper looks at Tacitus Annals 14 and 15, which describe the reign of the Emperor Nero. A few choice incidents from the set text include:

- The seduction of Nero by his mother, Agrippina – she presented herself to her son seductively attired, as he was half-drunk at lunchtime, smothering him in kisses and caresses (14.2)

- The murder of Agrippina by Nero’s agents, described in violent detail, including her being stabbed and beaten about the head, with Nero then praising the beauty of her body after death (14.8-9)

- A rampant orgy carried out for the benefit of the emperor on Agrippa’s lake – vessels clad in gold and ivory sailed around the lake, where booths were set up with noble women forced to pole-dance (the Roman equivalent) and act as prostitutes, whilst Nero himself underwent a same-sex wedding with a Greek freedman, named Pythagoras (15.37)

- Graphic scenes of enforced suicide, including the philosopher Seneca opening his veins (15.64) and the freedwoman Epicharis hanging herself with her bra after being broken on the rack (15.57)

After the violence and corruption of Tacitus, one should be pleased that students have the opportunity to read some good and wholesome Ovid. You can read more about Books 14 and 15 of Tacitus at this introduction on my website here.

Discovered? The site of one Alexander the Great’s Central Asian Massacres…

Reading the first volume of Christoph Baumer’s excellent new History of Central Asia, I was excited to see a recent development in an ancient mystery: the question of Alexander the Great’s massacre of the Branchidae.

The story is one of the most unpleasant deeds in Alexander’s conquest of Central Asia. Its beginning lies, however, many generations beforehand. The clan of the Branchidae were the keepers of an ancient shrine of Apollo at Didyma. Located on the south-eastern coast of Asia Minor, it was on the territory of the trading city of Miletus. In 493 BC, when Darius was embarking on his conquest of the Greeks, the Branchidae willingly gave up the temple to the Persian King, who desecrated and burnt it. In return for their compliance, and to prevent them from any attack by their fellow Greeks, the Branchidae were safely resettled in a new town somewhere beyond the Oxus, in the far territory of the Persian Empire.

When Alexander was making his conquest of the Persian Empire in 334 BC, he visited the ruins of the shrine and had it reconsecrated. Then, four years later, when he had marched into Central Asia and crossed the River Oxus, he was astonished to find the distant city where the Branchidae had been settled. For their part, they were delighted to see him. Although they now spoke the local languages as well as Greek, they maintained their ancient Greek customs, and they thought that they would be protected on account of their Greek identity. Yet, some of Alexander’s troops from Miletus were not so sanguine. Some, but by no means all, remembered the betrayal, and wished to take revenge. Since the Milesians were dissenting amongst themselves, Alexander ordered them to desist, and said that he would treat them has he himself saw fit.

The historian Quintus Curtius Rufus continues the story:

“The next day, having met the Branchidae, he ordered them to go with him, and when they had reached the city, he himself entered the gate with a light-armed company. The phalanx was ordered to surround the walls, and, when a signal was given, to plunder the city – a hideout for traitors – and to slaughter them to the last man. The inhabitants were unarmed, and everywhere there was butchery; neither their common language, nor prayers, nor olive branches held out to the attackers were able to prevent the cruelty. At length, so that the walls could be pulled down, their foundations were undermined, so that no even the slightest trace of the city would remain. Moreover, their woods and their sacred groves were not only cut down, but also utterly uprooted, so that, nothing but a vast and sterile desert wilderness would be left behind.”

This deed has been a constant source of horror. Even in the ancient world, it caused unease. Curtius himself said: “If this revenge had been brought against the original authors of the betrayal, it would have been just, and not at all cruel; now, however, people who had never even seen Miletus, were now being compelled to pay for the sins of their forebears.” W.W. Tarn, one of the 20th century’s great admirers of Alexander, tried to argue that the massacre never took place.

However, according to Baumer, a site fitting the description of the Branchidae’s settlement has now been located. The ruins of a fort, Talashkan I, are in the correct position, between the city of Termez on the Oxus and the “Iron Gates” Mountain Passes. A round settlement, with 15 defensive towers, it was built at the start of the 5th century BC, and during the time of Alexander’s conquest burnt down and completely destroyed. It deserves further investigation, but perhaps the site of one of Alexander’s worst crimes has just been found.