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.