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The Influence of Wealth in Imperial Rome/Political Corruption and High Finance, Especially Under the Later Republic

< The Influence of Wealth in Imperial Rome
Political Corruption and High Finance, Especially Under the Later Republic

1. The Increasing Scramble for Wealth.

"With us the most reverend majesty is that of Riches: even though, Foul Lucre! thou dwellest in no temple, and we have not reared altars to Coin, as we have for the worship of Peace and Faith, Victory, Virtue and Concord." Thus the satirist Juvenal writes one hundred and fifty years after the Roman Republic had become the Roman Empire. He might have written the same words in praise of the "sanctissima divitiarum majestas," whether he had lived in the days of Cicero or in those of Theodosius I. Claudian and Ammianus Marcellinus give ample witness that the scramble after wealth--honest or fraudful,--the tricks of the legacy hunter, the client, the parasite, lasted down to the last glitter of the Empire. At all ages of Rome, after the Republic went forth conquering and to conquer, this love for Mammon existed, and we can discover it almost at its worst a hundred years before Julius Caesar toppled down the decayed edifice of the Republic.

The Roman seemingly was in all his business relations more devoid of sentiment than the most abused Semite. He was in money matters either oppressor or oppressed, either hammer or anvil. In his private life his sympathies extended only to a very narrow circle of associates. His instincts as a moral being were always subordinate to his instincts as a financier, and a financier whose code was that of unmitigated commercialism. If he kept his old Latin religion--and with the spread of Greek philosophy in Italy it is likely he did not,--he regarded the gods as he did his customers and commercial correspondents. He gave so much in prayer and sacrifice, in return for which he expected a given amount of favor. If the divine favor was not forthcoming, heaven had broken its contract; and it was a misfortune that the faithless god could not be brought into court to be compelled to make good his promise or refund the offering.

The average Roman indeed realized that from a selfish standpoint "honesty was the best policy;" even if his honesty was usually of a deplorably narrow and literal kind. Nevertheless, the love of gain and of the enjoyments which followed gain, too often blunted his vision utterly; and made him a harsh father, an unfilial son, a faithless husband, a brutal master, a corrupt citizen. At his best a Roman could rise to the heights of civic and personal virtue. At his worst, he could show examples of avarice, cruelty and vice to the basest peoples he had conquered. To what a condition the "gilded youth" of Rome could come was well shown during the great proscription conducted by the Second Triumvirs (43 B.C.). One Thoranus, an ex-praetor, had been denounced. He pleaded with the centurion, come to slay him, to delay until his son, a favorite of Marcus Antonius, could beg him mercy. "He has already appealed," laughed the officer, "but on the other side." The son, in other words, had sought the reward offered the betrayers of the proscribed. The old man called for his daughter, begged her not to claim her share of the inheritance after he was dead, or her brother would ask for her life, too,--then submitted to his doom.

The causes which made tragedies like this possible lie outside the scope of this volume. Whether the Romans would have continued chaste, honest, and simple, had they never spread their dominions beyond Italy, is a question no historian can answer. "I do not know," writes Florus, "whether it would have been better for the Roman people to have been content with Sicily and Africa, or even to have been without them, while still enjoying Italy, than to grow to such greatness as to be ruined by their own strength. For what else produced those intestine distractions but excessive good fortune?" And he adds that it was the Conquest of Asia from Antiochus the Syrian, presently followed by the annexation of the Kingdom of Pergamus, which wrought the special havoc in the old-time morality and simplicity. It is perfectly certain that in the second century B.C. the Romans changed from a people predominantly agricultural to one predominantly commercial. The change --as will be explained in later chapter's--wrought grievous harm to Italy, and ultimately to the whole world. The ruling Roman classes ceased to ask how much they could get out of the soil, and asked how much they could get out of their subjects. The Forum, and the basilicas around it, became a regular stock exchange; the most influential men in the state were directly or indirectly the speculators. A few steps from his banker's stalls brought the Roman nobleman to the Curia, where as an august senator he and his class handed down decrees enforced by the legions upon Syria or Spain. The commercial motives in public policy were often highly obvious. Corinth and Carthage were both destroyed in 146 B.C. Both were dangerous commercial and financial rivals. The fear of Carthaginian money-lenders, competing with Roman money-lenders, was at least equal to the dread of the rise of a second Hannibal. The removal of these great cities drove capital to Rome more than ever before. Her only real commercial equal now was Alexandria; and Alexandria was remote, and circumstances made her more an ally than an enemy to the money-kings by the Tiber.

The process of commercializing the Romans, which had begun probably before the Second Punic War, went on through the later Republic, and reached a climax in the Age of Augustus. By that time the old noble families had largely run out. Their scions, who had not earned but had inherited riches, were more anxious for spending than for getting. Luxury and squandering rose to ever greater excesses, and culminated under Nero. After him several things began to produce a reaction. The emperors undertook to set a more frugal example; the Stoic philosophy and, more slowly, Christianity, began to establish other ideals than those of getting and enjoying. The high-born families who had amassed the riches had nearly all died out, thanks to a childlessness caused by luxurious living and to the slaughters of the civil wars and of the tyrants; and property was passing into the hands of ex-slaves and provincials who had a juster knowledge of the use of riches.

Unfortunately the leaven that had begun to work among the Roman upper classes during the Republic, had spread into the whole social lump. The ex-slaves and subject nations had now learned, if not before, to worship the golden god so eagerly invoked by their masters. Under the Empire the forms and expressions of the commercial spirit changed in some details from those under the Republic. The underlying essence was the same. Money continued to be the leading power in the world until the coming of the barbarians and of Christianity.

* * * * * * *

To justify the broad generalizations of the preceding paragraphs, it will be necessary to examine the influence of money upon the forms of human interest and activity usual in the Roman Age. By the Roman Age is meant the last century of the Republic, and the first two centuries of the Empire. We are not concerned with the Romans while they were purely an Italian power, before they became the dominators, and finally actual masters of the ancient world. Again, when we pass too far beyond the Age of the Antonines we find forces intruding themselves into the Empire that are distinctly alien to the genius of Ancient Society. We have nothing to do with the economic development of the early Church, or with the institutions of the invading barbarians, although occasionally a reference to conditions in the third, fourth or fifth centuries will be illuminating. On the other hand, to understand how the money power stretched its tentacles over society one must examine many things apart from mere financiering. One must ask how the money power affected marriage, home life, slavery, the getting and holding of public office. One must examine ancient benevolence and its tendencies. In short, the question must be, how did money or the "sense" of money affect the relations of man to man? Thus there need be no apologies for discussions that seem to touch only slightly on the fortunes of Crassus and the poverty of Manes.

2. Bribery and Political Corruption.

If a state becomes thoroughly commercialized, this fact will probably betray itself in the public life. It will be increasingly difficult for officials to quit office with clean hands. The receipt of what is to-day called "graft" will affect both magistrates and citizens. If this tendency to make the public loss the private gain is not ultimately checked, it is likely there will be needed some violent change in the structure of government by which political bribery and corruption will be left less opportunity for their sinister work. Not all the evils that cursed the dying Roman Republic were due to this illicit passing of money. Not a few of the oligarchs who did their best to make the rule of the Roman Senate intolerable went through their public careers without directly filching or unlawfully receiving a denarius. This can be said of Cato Minor, of Cicero, of a good many more. On the other hand, Julius Caesar, the founder of the better regime of the Empire, would undoubtedly have assented to Walpole's alleged maxim, that "all men have their price." He bought up votes and opposing statesmen shamelessly--witness his purchase of Curio; and probably the other leaders of the democratic party were no more free from malpractices than their senatorial opponents.

But the direct influence of money upon elections in the Comitia, upon questions of policy in the Senate, or upon the relations of Rome with foreign princes, commenced almost as soon as Rome became a great power, and hardly ended when the Empire dissolved the phantom of a "Free Republic." And even under the Caesars, who shall say that the bribe to the prominent palace official, the confidential freedman-secretary, did not often have as great effect on the public weal as the direct purchase of so many thousand quirites in the Comitia of the days of Pompeius?

The Second Punic War--that gigantic contest which actually decided the destinies of the ancient world--gave opportunity for the rich men of the Republic, as well as for its soldiers, to display their patriotism. On one occasion when the government was in the most direful financial straits, the Roman moneyed classes came forward with a large loan to replenish the empty treasury, on no other security than a bare promise to repay when the government had the money; while other companies undertook the public works which had been suspended, and told the bankrupt state they would expect repayment when the war was over.

Such exhibitions of disinterested patriotism were seldom afterwards called for. From the day when the great war indemnity wrung out of Carthage began to fill the Roman treasury, whatever else the Senate's government lacked, it seldom lacked money. The public service, especially the foreign service, with its chances for the plunder of conquered kings, the loot of conquered cities, the "gifts" of trembling Asiatics and Greeklings, was no longer likely to cost the general or propraetor a farthing; on the contrary, he was an exceptional man if he laid down his unsalaried office without being far wealthier than when he took it up. In 171 B.C. Occurred the first case of a Roman official--a commissioner to Illyria--taking bribes from a foreign potentate; an example only too eagerly followed by the succeeding generations, until the scandals culminated in Jugurtha's bribery of a large fraction of the actual rulers of Rome ( 111 B.C.), and his memorable words as he cast his eyes backward when quitting the sovereign city, "Urbem venalem, et mature perituram, A emptorem invenerit."

Unfortunately for Jugurtha he did not possess treasures enough to purchase all his enemies; and he discovered too late that there were limits at Rome beyond which even gold could not carry him. But while bribery was often a determining factor in the Republic's foreign relations, the influence of money was equally decisive upon home politics. A great noble craved office to enrich himself by a war, an embassy, a governorship. An Italian farmer craved the franchise more humbly to fatten on the favors handed him for electing the great noble to office. The results were almost inevitable.

The abuses of the Ambitus--the canvassing for election--were patent to the Roman fathers before the city ceased to be a weak commonwealth. The custom of a candidate's walking around the Forum, saluting the farmers come to trade, and asking their votes, was not to be supplemented by adventitious helps. Thus in 432 B.C. a law forbade such candidates from wearing a conspicuous white dress to attract attention. In 358 B.C., they were forbidden to go about on market days when the people would be especially thronged together. These laws appeared to be sufficient for nearly two centuries; then it seemed that their edge needed to be sharpened. In 181 B.C. a new law declared that persons convicted of illicit convassing should be ineligible as candidates for ten years. Here matters were again allowed practically to sleep, while the laws themselves insufficient, considering the highly organized party-system developing at Rome, were more honored in the breach than in the observance. Finally in the last two decades of the Republic the trading in votes rose to such a height that the law was repeatedly strengthened--though, it would seem, to deplorably little purpose. By an act of 67 B.C. the "treating" of voters was made punishable; in 63 B.C. (the year of Cicero's consulship) the penalty for violating this act was set at ten years of exile; it was also forbidden to candidates to give any public games for the two years previous to standing for office, or to hire persons to attend them while they made their rounds of vote seeking. In 55 B.C. a new law struck at what was probably the most flagrant form of corruption--a form that to an American has a painfully familiar aspect. The wealthy candidate would quietly arrange for his election to the desired office with a band of political "go-betweens" (interpretes). These professional gentlemen would proceed to mark out the Roman tribes into smaller and more wieldy sections, arrange the voters into clubs and fraternities, compound with each section for its votes, marshal the faithful henchmen to the electoral comitia, and duly pay over the stipulated honorarium upon delivery of the election. The details of such arrangements were--it may be imagined--seldom committed to writing. We are left to guess at the workings of these voters' collegia by a few hints from Cicero. It is sufficient to remark that under the later Republic almost any man of noble family and deep purse seems to have been able to rise fairly high in the scale of offices, provided he was willing to spend freely. In times of great excitement, to be sure, mere money might fail to prevail against an approved party leader; but the latter, it can be assumed, would himself hardly prove niggardly.[1] The law of 55 B.C., declared these voters' collegia unlawful, and arranged special methods for trying offenders against the election statutes. That this new law was ineffectual is shown by still another act in 52 B.C., against political clubs, making the penalties still heavier. Soon after this came the Caesarian regime, and elections became mere registrations of the will of Julius Caesar, and later of the Triumvirs. Under Augustus[2] a modicum of freedom returned to the electoral comitia, and that the old methods were being pursued and the old evils returning, is shown by the law of 18 B.C., which required a candidate, before beginning his canvass, to deposit 100,000 sesterces as security that he would keep the laws. With the death of Augustus, however, and the transfer of the elections by Tiberius from the Cormitia to the Senate, election bribery practically ceased to be a crime. At least if a Roman Father was open to a gratuity from a candidate, the consideration would be conveyed in a way too delicate for the law to find an entrance.

It would be easy to present details of the venality of the Roman government during the later Republic. The notorious case ( 61 B.C.) of the trial of Clodius for sacrilege, when thirty-one judges out of fifty-six voted him "not guilty" of a crime all knew he had committed, is a good instance of the way gold could blind the eyes of Roman judices. The manner in which the infamous Egyptian King, Ptolemaeus Auletes, bought the friendship of the Senate in 58 B.C., was almost as glaring as the bribery by Jugurtha. Too often the person to buy was not the voter or the influential party leader, but the party leader's mistress. This was true in the instance of the concubine of that Verres, whose knaveries were immortalized by Cicero; and of Praecia, the mistress of Cethegus, a powerful tribune, whose favor was necessary to Lucullus when he wished the Cilician province.

The gifts an Asiatic prince might be expected to send a Roman general and his staff, can only be compared to the fortunes acquired by the Anglo-Indian "nabobs" in the days of Clive and Hastings. Even petty potentates would pay richly for the privilege of keeping life and power. Thus Aristobulus, a Jewish Prince, sent Pompeius a golden vine worth 500 talents; he gave a legate, A. Gabinius, 300, a quaestor 400 talents. Ptolemaeus "Mennai," lord of a robber state in Lebanon, bought immunity for himself from Pompeius for 1,000 talents, which--with unusual honesty for a Roman general--Pompeius used to pay his troops. Ariobarzanes of Cappadocia paid the same conqueror thirty-three talents monthly, which, however, did not reach to the interest on his debts. Gabinius again while proconsul of Syria pressed out of the province 400,000,000 sesterces. Finally Crassus the Rich is said to have taken from the Temple of Jerusalem, treasure worth 10,000 talents.

These great hoards, however, could not, in the nature of things, come to every general and governor. These had a far more reliable mine in the regular pickings which all Roman officials could find among the rich and unfortunate subject-populations in their provinces.

3. The Plundering by Governors in the Provinces.

From the first conquest of Sicily the Romans administered their provinces with no altruistic notions as to the uplifting of the governed. The provinces were so many farms of the sovereign people. The only question was how to raise the largest possible crops of tribute. Should the new farm be forced, its soil quickly exhausted by a few huge harvests, or should it be carefully cultivated, preferring smaller but permanent returns? The question seemed merely one of expediency. It was only after bitter experience that the rulers of the ancient world could assent to the Emperor Tiberius's maxim--"a good shepherd clips his sheep, but does not flay them."

Sent forth to govern while such motives obtained at home, it required more than ordinary strength of character on the part of a pro-magistrate not to extend also to the filling of his private coffer, the mandate to fill the public aerarium. With him would go a suite of friends, usually young spendthrifts, and with their fortunes to make. If he and they were truly honest, still they would return after one to three years with their fortunes vastly bettered. If they were men of easy consciences they would return, as Varus--the victim of Arminius--did from Syria, who "as a poor man entered a rich country, as a rich man left the country poor."

As early as 198 B.C. Cato, the censor, had to put a stop to certain unjust exactions in Sardinia. In 171 B.C. delegates from the two Spains made formal complaint in the Senate of the avarice and insolence of their governors. Before this there had been outcry from the Ambraciots of Greece and the Cenomani of Gaul. In 149 B.C. came the Lex Calpurnia, the first of the almost fruitless laws devised to prevent provincial oppression.

As a rule the Roman governor--especially if he was set over the more civilized, hence more wealthy and desirable provinces--had little to fear from that usual check to despotism--the revolt of the oppressed. In the East the Diodochi and their long series of wars and tyrannies had almost stamped out the sentiment of local patriotism, and it is a fair question whether the rule of the average Roman governor was worse than that of the average local despot to which those regions had been accustomed. Greece, the one country where local spirit ought to have been strong, had been emasculated by the great draughts on her population for the Hellenistic colonies and armies, and by the systematic pressure from Macedonia. The defeat at Sellasia in 221 B.C. of Cleomenes of Sparta ended perhaps the last genuine attempt of the home Hellenes to live for themselves, and to pursue their own policy; for Aratus and Philopoemen were barely able to keep their much vaunted Aehaean League from becoming the victim of Macedonia; and the deathlike quiet that settled over Greece after the destruction of Corinth ( 146 B.C.) shows how little political vitality was left in a country which three centuries before had seemed one high-school of active politics. That Roman misrule might be resented, could be shown by the ready welcome Mithridates of Pontus received from the Greek and Asiatic cities; but, except as the help came from without, things seldom passed beyond mere grumblings. It was usually cheaper and safer to pay the fee to the Roman governor and his quaestor than to engage in conspiracies against the power which had worn down the genius of Hannibal. Besides, as was said--bad as were Roman governors--the dynasts preceding them had been very bad also. The woes of the Jews arose largely because of the misdeeds of the houses of the Maccabees and of the Herods. Those Agrippas who held sway over much of Palestine down to the great Jewish War, had to pay tribute to Rome and support their own ostentatious courts--no small expense for the governed; which expense partly ended when the royal household with its harem, eunuchs and greedy chamberlains was replaced by the simpler praetorium of a Roman governor. The average proconsul, in short, could seldom oppress to the extent of a covetous, unscrupulous, degenerate princelet only indirectly under the supervision of Rome.

And yet the oppression of the provinces, those "estates of the Roman people" (praedia populi Romani), was very great. The provincial was regularly spoken of as a stipendarius, "the man who must pay." If he was to be defended from attack and fostered, it was only because leaving him defenseless cut off his sovereign's revenue. The governors sent out to him were clothed with the power of Turkish pashas. In theory the governor was not allowed to purchase anything in his province "because," we are naïvely informed by Cicero, "it was thought a theft, not a purchase, when the seller could not sell at his own price"; for a governor would be able to take anything he pleased whether for sale or not, once he began to purchase. A Lucius Piso, governor of Further Spain, having lost a ring, sent for a goldsmith to come to his tribunal in the open Forum at Corduba, weighed out the necessary gold, and had the man make the ring in the sight of every one; but that an honest governor should feel the need of such precautions is a sorry comment on the general practice. A new governor, in fact, entering his province, came to his subjects almost as a strange demi-god, who might prove to be a benefactor or a demon. They would await eagerly his "edict"--his announcement of his attitude towards the dreaded tax-farmers and money-lenders, and as to how he would deal with the matter of usury. Would he exact the aurum aedilicium, a supposedly voluntary offering, sent from the provincial cities to pay for the aediles' games at Rome?[3] Finally, would he exact large fees from litigants, and consistently give the judgment to the man with the freest purse?

In theory a governor was usually sent out for one year only--time enough to amass a fair fortune; but the supply of eligible ex-consuls and ex-praetors was so small that with a little managing at Rome the term was usually prolonged.[4] Verres held Sicily three years; Fonteius, Gaul for three; Quintus Cicero, Asia for three; Marcus Cicero held Cilicia only one, but he had much trouble in getting away at that time, when he wished to be in Rome, and finally had to leave a deputy. In those years the new pasha could suck his victims and grow fat; to repeat the boast of Verres in Sicily--in the first year he could gain enough for himself, in the second enough to reward the friends who got him the office, in the third enough to silence the accusers and mollify the judges, should he be brought to trial for oppression at the end of his service. If the governor did not find mere presents from timid cities and fees from wealthy litigants sufficient, he had plenty of other means of oppression. A favorite means of inducing the money to flow out of the strong boxes of provincials was found in the quartering of troops upon them--dragonades worthy of Louis XIV. It would sometimes be stipulated in city charters (e.g. Thermesus in Pisidia) that this should not be done without the special vote of the Senate; but not many communities were so favored. The provincials usually avoided this calamity by regular payments to their ruler. This was done by the rich towns of Cilicia, and Cicero tells how the people of Cyprus set aside two hundred talents for the purpose. At Salamis in Cyprus there was a "Praetor's Fund," a sum appropriated yearly by the municipality to buy the good will of the governor. When Cicero refrained from taking it, the astonished burghers used the money for paying the city debt. The laws upon repetundae, for the recovery or punishment of sums extorted from provincials, were sufficiently numerous, but so long as the Republic lasted about equally ineffective. The evil governor could only be attacked at the end of his period of rule, when the plunder was in the thief's possession. He was tried before a numerous jury, usually containing a large percentage of ex-magistrates as corrupt as he, or of Roman Knights--who, as will be made plain, might be still more corrupt. His conviction as a rule depended as much on the political influence of his chief accuser--the Roman advocate who undertook the provincials' cause--as on the evidence. If he was convicted, he had usually to fear only an easy exile, and a fine that was but a fraction of his plunderings. Therefore, while in power he could wisely gamble upon immunity at the end of his office, and regard it as exceptional cruelty of fortune--as no doubt Verres did--if some Cicero, able, eloquent, and unbribable, stood across his path finally to bring him to partial justice.

We hear of a good many trials for maladministration in the provinces, but except in Verres's case it is seldom that we feel the verdict was a just one. Many guilty men were acquitted. In at least one case an upright governor was convicted because he had not allowed his subalterns and the ubiquitous Roman tax-farmers and usurers to plunder the provincials in his name. With the coming of the Empire much is changed. The emperor is wise enough to know that if the provinces are his farms, no one must grow rich from them but himself. Governors are his agents. They are given ample salaries. Let them not then steal from their employer's property! If there is a fair case against them, a trial before the Senate is certain, and the presiding Caesar will see to it that there is no undue leniency. In all of Tacitus, and of the younger Pliny, we find that twenty-seven governors were set on trial for misrule; of these only seven were acquitted, perhaps justly. Under the Republic the conditions had been practically reversed.

How much could a provincial governor gain during a term of office? Fortunately we are well informed about Cicero and his year in Cilicia. He was supposed to serve without salary, and to levy only enough in money and kind to cover his expenses and no more. Cicero was an extraordinarily honest Roman. He made fair boasts of how he turned away tempting perquisites. His province--Cilicia--was small and poor compared with many others. He was only in it a year. Yet he brought back from Cilicia 2,100,000 sesterces, or counting the difference in purchasing power of coin, say $250,000 to-day. Cicero was an "honest" governor-- how much could one less scrupulous make in three years! Cicero surely did not make full use of his opportunities. The fashionable circles at Rome were so certain that he would come back princely rich that Tullia, the proconsul's daughter, was beset by noble young suitors who wished her hand--and her father's plunder. We are left to imagine their disgust when Cicero returned with only his beggarly two millions.

Cilicia, however, if it received a year of respite, was destined soon to disgorge all the wealth that this overlenient governor had neglected to take away. In 43 B.C., Cassius, Caesar's murderer, descended on the province. He was engaged in a life and death struggle with Antonius and Octavius the avengers. Under the justification of extreme public peril, his exactions rose to sheer confiscation. At Tarsus he ruthlessly quartered soldiers on the city folk till the huge sum of 1,500 talents had been paid. The miserable citizens sold all the public property, coined all the sacred vessels and precious ornaments in the temples, and finally the despairing magistrates "sold free persons into bondage, first boys and girls, later women and wretched old men, who brought a very small price, and finally young men. Many of these committed suicide." Finally Cassius' heart "was touched" (did he have true scruples, or did he fear a desperate insurrection?). He remitted a part of the contribution, and presently marched away to his doom. In the great province of Asia during this destructive civil war the contributions levied by both sides were almost as merciless.

It has been said that the rule of the emperors in the provinces was milder and juster than that of the Republic. This is true; but all abuses were by no means at an end. In Tiberius' reign the formidable revolt of Julius Florus and Julius Sacrovis in Gaul was directly traceable to "the excessive debts of the states of Gaul," and the rebel agitators argued against the domineering and cruelty of the government, and "the tribute without end and the excessive usury" of the Romans. Juvenal, writing about 100 A.D., again would have one feel that "the very marrow is drained from the empty bones of kings"; that it is folly to complain at Rome; that the governors' wife often abuses her influence; that the lictors' rods and axes are always busy, and that judgments are sold for bribes. But this, in his age, we can say on better authority than his statement, was the exception, not the rule. Under the early Empire the average governor was not a great extortioner; but, better than that for the provincials, the still more grievous exactions of the tax-farmers and Roman money-lenders were largely curbed or swept away. What these crying evils were under the later Republic it is now time to see.

4. The Tax-Farmers and Usurers Under the Republic.

If it were possible to find complete statistics of the money unjustly wrung from the provinces and communities subject to Rome, it is very probable that while the extortions of the governors would appear great, the extortions of the Roman tax-farmers and money-lenders would be found greater. The rulers of the Republic were fond to a marked degree of the practice of farming out the revenues. The method certainly had advantages. Each pair of censors could readjust the state finances for five years. For this lustrum the government receipts could be estimated to a certainty, and consequently the expenditures arranged to match. The income of the Republic came largely from lands--held in Italy, or in the conquered provinces. The petty business details, the rent collecting and the like, could be done much better by the experienced agents of the great tax-farming syndicates than by the kid-gloved, noble magistrates who did not like the smell of vulgar business. So long as Roman domains were small, and a reasonable watch could be kept over the doings of the tax-farmers, their system was not open to very gross abuses.

But when the provinces rose one by one to fourteen; when shares in one of the five-year tax-syndicates became a favorite form of investing much of the floating capital at Rome, it was inevitable that the system--unless carefully supervised--should become a burden, and very often a frightful curse to the provincials.

The tax-farming companies early in the second century B.C. had become large and powerful. The shareholders were many--influential politicians, still more influential capitalists. The Senate in 184 B.C. undertook to cancel the tax-farming contracts, awarded by the censors, as unjust to the successful bidders, and it is a reasonable guess that some of the Conscript Fathers were indirect shareholders and feared for their profits.

As the Roman dominions grew, the tax-farming contracts grew correspondingly. The publicani bid in almost every state monopoly. The right to take oysters in the Lucrine lake was held by a syndicate; the right to work the salt mines,[5] the gold mines, the forests, to collect the customs revenues--all fell into this category. But the most important business was undoubtedly the collection of the land taxes, especially in the conquered provinces.

The Romans had formed the convenient theory that most of the subjected territories had become the real as well as the political property of the conquerors. In place then of mere taxes, the unlucky provincials were now required to pay the new owners rent for the lands of which they remained mere tenants. Being tenants, it was largely a matter of condescension on the part of their landlords if the rentals were not made ruinously high. The technical details of the provincial system of taxation under the Republic are of no moment here. Suffice it that a system of rentals like the above was open to the gravest abuses, and that it was left for the tax-farmer practically to be his own assessor; to determine how much the provincial ought to pay, then to collect it. If the tax-farmer had been caught in brisk competition before the censors, and had his bid run up to dangerously high figures, his temptation to ensure against loss by arbitrary assessments would naturally be overpowering. It is true the contract with the censor determined the rate at which the publican could collect. One tenth of the produce of sown land was usually set apart for him; one fifth from the planted. A shepherd must pay so many lambs or kids out of his flocks, etc. The governor was supposed to act in the manner of arbiter between publican and tax-payer. He was to restrain the extortionate collector, to coërce the laggard debtor. But considering the character and motives of the average governor, it would be easy to predict which way his influence would tend. A round present from the company would commonly close his eyes to the most systematic plundering; if he were an unwontedly scrupulous man, he could be reminded that the shareholders at Rome were very influential and that his political future depended on their good graces.

To the organization of these tax-farming syndicates, the Romans brought their usual capacity for practical business. The companies had to be formed for the five years of the lustrum; at its end wound up or organized afresh. The shares were numerous. They could be bought directly; or loans might be made to the socii (shareholders) of the company, the interest being dependent on the success of the venture. The shareholders' liability was limited, and they could dispose of their shares from time to time, which were subject to the fluctuations of the market. More important, however, were the direct managers and promotors of the concern. At Rome there must be a central manager and banker, the magister societatis, elected annually, and his account subject to yearly audit; he had a corps of secretaries and clerks under him. In the province, where the revenue was being gathered, was the deputy of the chief, --the pro magister, with more clerks. There was a staff of regular messengers, tabellarii, to carry the voluminous correspondence necessary between the province and the capital. The legal head of the company was not, however, the magister, but the manceps, a financier of repute and responsibility, who had bid in the contract from the censors, had deposited the security for performing its provisos, and who was responsible to the government for the engagements of the company. In the province itself, beneath the pro magister, would be the actual tax gatherers, agents often native and natives of no very high class, so odious were their duties. These were the ill-famed "publicans" of the New Testament, not the purple-hemmed equites at Rome. As intimated, not all the publicani got in their handiwork in the provinces. They made the Italian custom houses, where they collected the portoria, more odious than the most exacting in the United States. Their extortions in searching for dutiable goods were notorious. "Imagine," writes Cicero to his brother, "what is the fate of our allies in the remote provinces, when even in Italy I hear the complaint of Roman citizens." In the provinces again their powers for plundering were not always equal. Tax-farming was not a new invention of the Romans. The Greeks knew of it. An elaborate system of farming the revenues is found in Ptolemaic Egypt. In Sicily the Lex Hieronica, instituted by King Hiero and confirmed by the Romans, fixed--so far as Sicily was involved--the tax-farming on a very careful basis. Verres to be sure in his three years of rule, let the laws be set at defiance;[6] but a commission of the Senate investigating Sicily about his time confirmed these laws as the best possible. Again, in Syria, the teeth of the publicani were blunted by the institution--soon after the conquest--of a fixed tax-payment. But in Sardinia, Greece, and especially the rich Asiatic provinces, their system reached its fullest development. The taxes here were merely a fluctuating tithe, and the profits through over-valuing the harvest and collecting a quota of a crop which the land had never borne can be conjectured.

The power of the publicani in the eastern provinces was such that Marcus Cicero deliberately tells his brother Quintus--governor of provincial Asia--to urge the natives not to stand too much upon their bare legal rights lest worse befall them.

"Wherever the publican penetrates," says Livy, solemnly, "there is no justice or liberty for any one--" unconscious, it would seem, that he was penning a grievous indictment against the Republic he so tried to glorify.

The system of tax-farming is said in some modern books to have been abolished by the emperors. This is not, strictly speaking, true. Publicani continued to manage the public mines and forests, and the customs duties; but the government now had a strong motive for curbing their rapacity, just as it had for curbing the governors. The substitution of direct taxation in the provinces for the collecting of an uncertain tithe through middlemen, stopped the largest channel for abuses. Nero issued edicts making the penalties for illegal exactions by the farmers more severe and certain. The system, however, had become almost hopelessly bad, so that "publicans and sinners" could indeed be grouped together in popular speech as one in kind. A tax-farmer who was honest and uncovetous was indeed such a wonder as to leave a name and fame behind him. Such a man was Sabinus, the father of Vespasian, a tax-farmer in Asia engaged in collecting "the tax of the fortieth penny." The cities of Asia erected statues to him, "to the honest publican"--a more unique honor than those heaped upon proconsuls, nay! upon emperors.

It may be presumed that some of the subordinate "publicans" of the New Testament were not agents of Rome at all, but farmers of the revenues of the vassal Herods. Whatever their origin, they all shared the popular hatred. In Rabbinical literature the tax gatherer is commonly treated as a robber. The chances of even a subordinate to grow rich by over-appraisement of articles was usually irresistible. "If I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation [as to its value] I restore him fourfold;" cries Zacchaeus, "the chief among the publicans" of Jericho, after Jesus had conversed with him; but it was not often that the stony heart of a tax gatherer was thus melted.

How the agents of the tax-farmers were regarded by the subject peoples is shown again by the ordinances of the Rabbis. Such men could give no testimony in a Jewish court of law; it was forbidden to receive gifts from them in charity. No money was to be changed at their treasury.[7] They were ranked with highwaymen and murderers, and below harlots and heathen. It was even allowed in dealing with them to swear falsely and to make false returns--to do anything in short to avoid paying their demands. And it is very possible that Jesus gave greater offense to his countrymen when he led about "Matthew the Publican" in his company, than when he refused to condemn Mary Magdalene.

If the Greeks, the Syrians, the Phrygians, and the other races under the iron heel of Rome, had left us similar records, there is no doubt similar sentiments would have pervaded them. The system, to repeat, was incurably bad. However, it was one of the chief arteries by which gold was pumped into Rome, until the city became the financial as well as the political capital of the ancient world. The tax-farming system, nevertheless, did not stand alone. Along with it went a system of octopus-like usury which tended every year to make the vassal states and provinces more completely the helpless victims of their conqueror.

The Roman genius seems to have run to credit-transactions, banking and money handling to an extent hardly surpassed by that of the Jew. The hard-handed, hardheaded, shrewd, covetous race that had wrested the crops out of the stony soil of Latium, that had worn away the armies of Hannibal, now diverted its talents from farming and fighting to money getting, and with equal or greater success. The trade of the usurers was not so genteel as that of the general, the magistrate, the Forum orator. A certain social stigma fell upon the money-lender, as will be explained in a later chapter; but the vast gains of his calling made it an attractive one, and very successful usurers could pose as boon companions of consulars and triumphators. As a class, the money-lenders were called negotiatores. They were usually of the equestrian order, and the line of cleavage between them and the publicani was never very clear. It was more genteel to farm the taxes than to lend on interest; but many a taxfarmer, if outbidden before the censors, must have spent the vacant lustrum in placing loans, many a lucky lender having diverted his capital to a tax syndicate. A man could not be both a publicanus and a negotiator at once, but nothing prevented him from changing his calling frequently, while sometimes the lender would be a man of great social consequence at least in a province; as Cnaeus Calidius for example, who in Sicily could entertain the governor and provincial officials seemingly on terms of equality.

As a rule, again, the negotiator and the publicanus acted together as brethren. The lender's chief booty often came in loans to provincials trying to satisfy the demands of the rapacious tax gatherers. The negotiator could work with less capital than the publicanus; he usually represented a pettier class of interests, and on very rare occasions the ambitions of the two orders clashed. Once we find Cicero writing to Atticus of how the publicani were demanding that the customs duties be increased, while the lenders were as anxious that they be lessened. But such conflicts are quite exceptional.

The payments and presents of vassal princes were the richest gold mines for many Roman diplomats; but the humbler negotiatores found in kings and kinglets also a goodly prey. It was worth while to finance a pretender to a throne; to push his fortunes before the Senate; to induce the Roman government to "restore" him with the legions. The friendly money-lender in such cases would not let himself be forgotten. He would plunge his hands deep in the treasury of the vassal state. If, after the "restoring" general and the kindly financier had been rewarded, the luckless prince had a drachma left, and had not driven his subjects to a fresh revolt by grinding taxation, he was a happy man. Publius Sittius, a well known financier of the later Republic loaned heavily to the King of Mauretania. Brutus and Pompeius themselves did not hesitate thus to put in leading strings the unfortunate Ariobazanes III of Cappadocia.

But besides an occasional king to "assist," the negotiator could depend more surely on getting whole provincial municipalities in his debt; and woe to the city that could not repay. Nicaea in Bithynia owed 8,000,000 ses. to a ward of Cicero. Apollonia owed so much that it was worth while for the municipality to bribe the local governor with two hundred talents not to allow payment to be enforced. That loans to provincial towns were a source of grave abuses was realized at Rome. In 67 B.C. a Lex Gabinia was passed forbidding such lending; but the law was not enforced. The Senate also weakened it by various votes. The practice continued under the early Empire, and was one of the motives in Sacrovir's Gallic revolt, previously mentioned.

A municipality, in normal times, was surely entitled to borrow a reasonable amount of money on reasonable security. The evil came in the fact that the pressure of the publicani made such loans painfully frequent, and that no law regulated the rate of interest as in Italy. The community must pay its taxes; otherwise the tax gatherers supported by the governor's lictors--if need be, cohorts--would be seizing the holy statues in the local temples, and perhaps the estates of the town council. Recourse must be had to the nearest man with ready money--an Italian negotiator, sage, sly, unscrupulous. He would not hesitate to demand 24, 36 and even 48%. The trembling provincials could do nought but accept his terms. Henceforth they were a community of serfs. The load of interest would become intolerable. No stony Janus at the highway would be more implacable than the lender. The governor would be on his side. If by a great good providence one or two communities managed to discharge the loans before they became unendurable, many succumbed. It would have been better to have submitted to the tax gatherer and avoided several years of civic misery.

The workings of the money-lenders' system is well illustrated by a concrete case. Brutus, the tyrannicide, was one of the last individuals to be imagined soiling his hands with vulgar usury; but he was rich and possessed two friends, Scaptius and Mantinius, able to act as his agents, and keep his name from appearing too often in a profitable business. Some time before 51 B.C., the town of Salamis in Cyprus borrowed money on bond at 48% interest. Pressed for payment the town tried to raise the sum at Rome, assigning the bond as security. The Roman lenders refused to take this, since by Roman law only 12% was recoverable--insufficient, they thought, on a provincial loan.[8] Brutus' two agents, however, offered to advance the money, provided the 48% rate was authorized by a special decree of the Senate. The Conscript Fathers, influenced by the pressure Brutus could bring to bear, did pass such a decree. But a mere senatus consultum could not put aside a solemn Roman law, and a new decree of the Senate, the Fathers having reconsidered the matter, declared the lenders were to have no special privileges. In course of time, when Appius Claudius, Brutus' father-in-law was governor of Cilicia and Cyprus, Scaptius went out to his province and was soon made one of Claudius' praefects. He now used all means in his power to coërce the Salaminians into paying the uttermost farthing of the unlawful bond. Though the Roman Senate had practically repealed its own unconstitutional decree, Scaptius filled Salamis with cavalry, shut up the local councilors in the city hall, and kept them imprisoned there till five died of sheer starvation. When Cicero started for Cilicia and Cyprus,[9] he was met at Ephesus by a deputation from Salamis imploring his protection. He at once ordered Scaptius to send away his cavalry. Brutus meantime wrote to Cicero about "the debt due to his friends," but saying not a word as to who was the true lender. Scaptius likewise came to Cilicia begging to be re-appointed praefect, but Cicero declined to give high office to a man engaged in trade; still the proconsul told him he should have his money. By this time Cicero was aware that Brutus, his intimate friend, was the real usurer; however, he could not avoid being judge in the case of "Scaptius vs. Inhabitants of Salamis," that soon came to trial at Tarsus. That the Salaminians would have to pay something on the bond there was no doubt. But what amount? And at what interest? In his edict on assuming office Cicero had announced he would never permit more than 12% to be collected with compound interest. Scaptius claimed his 48% and produced the first invalid decree of the Senate justifying such a demand. But the later decree and the standing, unchangeable law was also in evidence. Cicero pointed out to Scaptius the weakness of his case, whereupon Scaptius the plaintiff, took Cicero the judge aside, said that it was quite so, that the town really did not owe him so much as was contended. "Let it pay him two hundred talents." Cicero then asked the deputies from Salamis how much they claimed they owed. One hundred and six talents was the answer. Scaptius protested, but the sums were verified then and there in the praetorium. The Salaminians were right. Then Scaptius again took Cicero aside and asked not to be forced to take the money. In other words Brutus's agent wanted to delay, until a new and more compliant governor would let him have his full 48%. Cicero tells us that "the request was an impudent one, but he yielded to it." He even prevented the Salaminians from depositing their money in a temple, and so stopping the heaping up of interest. He said he did this out of regard for Brutus. And thus--so far as the great orator was involved--the case ended. No doubt that noble young Stoic, Brutus, felt that his older friend had been decidedly unfriendly in not awarding the full 48%. Cicero, however, prided himself on the way he disposed of the case. As Fowler, one of Cicero's most lenient biographers remarks, "if one of the most upright of Roman governors could allow himself thus to trifle with equity, what may not be believed of the conduct of others?" "For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?"

The negotiatores were ubiquitous; they were the Phoenicians of the first century B.C. In Africa they formed large and prosperous colonies. "All Gaul," says Cicero in his speech for Fonteius, "is full of traders--Roman citizens. No Gaul does any business without a Roman's aid." He avows that "he does not declare this rashly," though we must never forget that it is an orator and not a statesman who is talking. They were in Egypt long before Augustus' conquest--witness that case of Gaius Rabirius Postumus, a rich moneylender, who in 55 B.C. believed he had grasped all the revenues of the Lagidae, thanks to the loans he had advanced Ptolemaeus XI, who to collect his fortune became diocetes, chief treasurer of Egypt, and whose extortions finally were so terrible that Ptolemaeus cast him into prison, lest the people revolt; and who with some difficulty escaped stripped to Rome, where a lawsuit and banishment awaited him. And Asia Minor, with its rich and defenseless industrial cities was as fair a prey for the money-lenders as for the publicani. Lucullus--an honorable exception among proconsuls of Asia--tried to stand out against their rapacity. He found parents selling their children, cities their art treasures and ancestral gods. Individuals, says Plutarch, were so tortured and beset by their Roman creditors, that the very slavery they fell into was a relief. The province was groaning under the effect of Sulla's war fine of 20,000 talents. To pay this sum the provincials had turned in despair to the Roman lenders. In a few years usury and sheer outrage had swollen the alleged debt to 120,000 talents. Because Lucullus struck off their worst demands, and arranged for a fair settlement, the negotiatores never forgave him, "and by their money's help" says Plutarch, "as they were very powerful and had many of the statesmen in their pay, they stirred up several leading men against him."

Lucullus was finally recalled, more because he failed to bow to the financial magnates than because he could not end the Pontic War. It is to be hoped that Cicero's fortune was not enlarged by a round fee for that speech "Pro Manilia Lege" which did so much to send Pompeius out to replace the money-lender's enemy.Not every Roman money-lender, any more than every publicanus, was invariably extortionate. Later we shall speak again of the fortune of Atticus, Cicero's friend, and some questionable transactions he engaged in; but at Athens where he spent so much of his life, he delighted to play the accommodating friend and easy creditor. He loaned the city of Athens money for a long term, and took no interest; and on one occasion he presented every Athenian citizen with seven medimni of wheat. These, however, are not the acts of a financier, but of a rich benefactor. Other communities that borrowed of Atticus did not find him so obliging.Finally it should be said that much of the business of the negotiatores was, no doubt, quite legitimate. The coming of the Empire put an end to most of the peculiar abuses of the republican regime, nor would the misdoings of governors, publicani and usurers have permanent significance save for two reasons.

First: These abuses tended to concentrate the capital of the world at Rome and made possible the vast fortunes and prodigal spending of the later republic and the early Empire.
Second: These extraordinary opportunities for illgained and easily gained wealth deepened the lust of the ruling classes for money, and their willingness to gauge honor, happiness, love, religion, in terms of money.

The result, under the early Caesars, was a cult of Mammon which has no counterpart in history.


  1. The large number of annual offices at this date--those of two consuls, ten tribunes, eight praetors, four aediles and twenty quaestors--gave an ample opportunity for the candidate to find at least one post to which he could be elected.
  2. Augustus ought to have had knowledge of bribes and bribers. His own father had been a professional agent to distribute the fees among the voters at the Campus Martius.
  3. Caelius seems to have written to his friend Cicero, begging for some of this money from the Cilician cities, as if it were a dependable income.
  4. In Cicero's day there were two consuls, eight praetors and fourteen provinces; while not all of these officials would desire to go at once abroad.
  5. This was an extremely old monopoly, perhaps the most ancient in Rome. Its beginnings have been dated back as far as 508 B.C.
  6. Verres even owned shares in the Sicilian tax syndicate, which was directly forbidden by law.
  7. They often combined money-changing and banking with the taxcollecting.
  8. The new loan was to be negotiated at Rome, and so would be subject to local Roman law.
  9. They formed together but one province in 51 B.C.