Friday, May 29, 2015

History Lesson

A FURTHER LIMITATION imposed by the Roman imperial system stems from this elegant, leisured and highly privileged lifestyle. It rested upon the massively unequal distribution of landed property: as noted earlier, less than 5 per cent of the population owned over 80 per cent, and perhaps  substantially more. And at the heart of this inequality was the Roman state itself, in that its laws both defined and protected the ownership rights of the property-owning class... Its land registration systems were the ultimate arbiter of who owned - and hence who did not own - land, and its criminal legislation rigorously defended owners against the hostile attentions of those left out in the economic cold...

A huge amount of Roman law dealt precisely with property: basic ownership, modes of exploiting it (selling, leasing tor longer or shorter terms, simple renting and  sharecropping), and its transfer between generations through marriage settlements, inheritance and special bequests. The ferocity of Roman criminal law, likewise, protected ownership: death was the main punishment for theft - certainly, for anything beyond petty pilfering. Again, we can see a resemblance here to later 'genteel societies relied on similarly unequal distributions of landed wealth in an overwhelmingly agricultural economy, when Jane Austen was writing her elegant tales of love, marriage and property transfer, you could be whipped (for theft valued at up to l0p), branded (for theft up to 4s l0p) or hanged (theft over 5 shillings). In eighteenth century London an average of twenty people were hanged each year.

The Roman state had to advance and protect the interests of these landowning classes because they were, in large measure, the same people who participated in its political structures. This didn't mean that there weren't occasional conflicts between the state and individual landowners, or even whole groups of them. Landowning families sometimes lost their estates by confiscation it they ended up on the wrong side of a political dispute, for instance. (This didn't necessarily mean that they were ruined for ever: as in the medieval world, restoring confiscated lands was a favoured way for a subsequent ruler to win a family's loyalty.) Nonetheless, as we have seen, the state relied on the administrative input of its provincial landowning classes at all levels of the governmental machine, and in particular to collect its taxes - the efficient collection of which hung on the willingness of these same landed classes to pay up.
Peter Heather; The Fall of the Roman Empire. pp. 138-140


  1. YIPES! This is way to close to what is happening now in the U.S. Also, did you know that debtors prisons are coming back? They're supposed to be illegal, but they are indeed coming back.

  2. The Roman economy was also based on very clear ideas of status and community citizens had a right to a portion of the tax wealth, albeit a very small sliver, which they normally received in food. True or not Roman citizens clearly believed that they belonged to a system in which it was better to participate at whatever level you found yourself than to go it alone or migrate. A great view of this system is provided in Peter Brown's book Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD ( In this book he provides a great deal of commentary on the economic system of the later Roman Empire and a lot of translated documents, or pieces of them, which give a very interesting view of this collapsing system. Not perhaps a page turner but worth a look if you are trying to figure out what it was like to live in the last decades of the Western Roman polity or how such a vast and complex system could eventually become medieval Europe. .


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