Inequality and the Late Roman Republic – What have the Romans ever done for us?

Inequality is nothing new. The Romans struggled with it just as we do today. Perhaps we should learn from history instead of repeating their mistakes.

 


 

What have the Romans ever done for us? Asks the famous Monty Python Sketch. Well apart from the roads, the aqueducts and the sanitation, there is perhaps one more thing which they have done for us. They have given us an example on the running of society to study.

Things would have looked very different back then, and obviously they did not have the technology we have today, but despite the obvious surface differences, much of the issues that Rome faced are remarkably similar to those which we are grappling with today. This is particularly true during the period before Julius Caesar took power, when Rome was a republic. The systems of government were based on democracy (albeit not everyone was included) and the length of time some one could spend in office was limited. The elite patrician class wielded much of the power and spent their time networking and leveraging the social connections and resources they possessed to hold on to power and one up their rivals. The ordinary people, or plebeians, worked long hours and tried their best to survive. Land and property ownership was a heated issue with one prominent politician, Tiberius Gracchus, winning popular support by initiating agrarian reform and redistributing land to the poor – a policy enacted many times throughout the last century. In order to maintain the balance of social order, many such concessions were made to the plebeian class with another example being the creation of the tribune position – a political office designed to give them a voice in matters of government.

During a period known as the late republic however, this social balance started to erode. As the elite started to horde more and more power and wealth, the people of Rome became more and more rebellious with riots and uprisings occurring. The poor no long felt that society could provide them with a decent standard of living and resented the opulence of the patrician class. Rome had transitioned into an oligarchy.

Populist leaders (another political phenomenon that exists today) such as the aforementioned Tiberius and his brother Gaius gained huge support by enacting reforms that made the lot of the ordinary Romans more bearable and this allowed them to flout the laws of the republic and win re-election past the legal limits. The end result was a situation where Caesar was able to take power and turn the republic into an empire.

Of course there are many differences between Roman society and our own. Caesar was a military leader and used his relationship with his legions to secure the title of emperor – something that, although not unheard of in other parts of the world – has seemed unlikely in the Western world for some time. It also seems unlikely our democratic institution would break down any time soon and allow someone to retain power for longer than existing term limits. There is however a lesson here that when the social balance between the haves and the have nots is broken down, bad things can happen.

Recently Oxfam released a report that concluded that the richest 1% of the world will this year overtake the rest of the world and own more wealth than everyone else combined. This is across the globe but similar trends are occurring within Western countries as well. In austerity hit Britain the richest section of the population have seen their wealth increase dramatically since the financial crisis of 2008 and the social safety nets such as the welfare system and the NHS – created at the end of the second world war to ensure the social balance remained in equilibrium – are being striped back and the ‘plebeian’ class is finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet. Meanwhile, student debt, the inflated and understocked housing market, and the increase in insecure and low paying jobs are creating an increasingly frustrated and marginalised youth. A similar situation can be found across the Western world and populist parties (a loaded term with many definitions) are on the rise just as they were in late republican Rome. One Roman writer – Cicero – coined the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ to explain how, for the most part, order was kept. Keep people fed and entertained and those in power can do as they like. Well, under this British government food bank usage is skyrocketing and people hardly have enough income to visit the local pub (if it has not been bought up and turned into flats). The greed of an oligarchical elite is taking away even these simple pleasures and this surely is a recipe for disaster.

So what have the Romans ever done for us? They were in a situation that, in many ways, was remarkably similar to the one we face today meaning that we have an example to learn from. It would be foolish to suggest that things will play out exactly as they did back then and that we are about to see a Caesar breakdown of our democratic system. However unless steps are taken to address the rising inequality the world is witnessing, we too could seen be facing a crisis. We would do well to pay heed to the example of the late Roman republic because as another famous phrase goes – Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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