The Common People of Rome

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This section discusses government intervention in the day to day economy of the Empire, and the efforts of the emperors to control inflation and reduce the cost of living. Keeping food and other essentials affordable was of concern to the emperors, because a hungry population tended to be discontent and rebellious. It was essential to maintain the peace of the empire to keep the population happy, and this meant keeping basic food stuffs affordable.

The history of the growth of paternalism in the Roman Empire is still to be written. It would be a fascinating and instructive record. In it the changes in the character of the Romans and in their social and economic conditions would come out clearly. It would disclose a strange mixture of worthy and unworthy motives in their statesmen and politicians, who were actuated sometimes by sympathy for the poor, sometimes by a desire for popular favor, by an honest wish to check extravagance or immorality, or by the fear that the discontent of the masses might drive them into revolution. We should find the Roman people, recognizing the menace to their simple, frugal way of living which lay in the inroads of Greek civilization, and turning in their helplessness to their officials, the censors, to protect them from a demoralization which, by their own efforts, they could not withstand. We should find the same officials preaching against race suicide, extravagant living, and evasion of public duties, and imposing penalties and restrictions in the most autocratic fashion on men of high and low degree alike who failed to adopt the official standards of conduct. We should read of laws enacted in the same spirit, laws restricting the number of guests that might be entertained on a single occasion, and prescribing penalties for guests and host alike, if the cost of a dinner exceeded the statutory limit. All this belongs to the early stage of paternal government. The motives were praiseworthy, even if the results were futile.

With the advent of the Gracchi, toward the close of the second century before our era, moral considerations become less noticeable, and paternalism takes on a more philanthropic and political character. We see this change reflected in the land laws and the corn laws. To take up first the free distribution of land by the state, in the early days of the Republic colonies of citizens were founded in the newly conquered districts of Italy to serve as garrisons on the frontier. It was a fair bargain between the citizen and the state. He received land, the state, protection. But with Tiberius Gracchus a change comes in. His colonists were to be settled in peaceful sections of Italy; they were to receive land solely because of their poverty. This was socialism or state philanthropy. Like the agrarian bill of Tiberius, the corn law of Gaius Gracchus, which provided for the sale of grain below the market price, was a paternal measure inspired in part by sympathy for the needy. The political element is clear in both cases also. The people who were thus favored by assignments of land and of food naturally supported the leaders who assisted them. Perhaps the extensive building of roads which Gaius Gracchus carried on should be mentioned in this connection. The ostensible purpose of these great highways, perhaps their primary purpose, was to develop Italy and to facilitate communication between different parts of the peninsula, but a large number of men was required for their construction, and Gaius Gracchus may well have taken the matter up, partly for the purpose of furnishing work to the unemployed. Out of these small beginnings developed the socialistic policy of later times. By the middle of the first century B.C., it is said that there were three hundred and twenty thousand persons receiving doles of corn from the state, and, if the people could look to the government for the necessities of life, why might they not hope to have it supply their less pressing needs? Or, to put it in another way, if one politician won their support by giving them corn, why might not another increase his popularity by providing them with amusement and with the comforts of life? Presents of oil and clothing naturally follow, the giving of games and theatrical performances at the expense of the state, and the building of porticos and public baths. As the government and wealthy citizens assumed a larger measure of responsibility for the welfare of the citizens, the people became more and more dependent upon them and less capable of managing their own affairs. An indication of this change we see in the decline of local self-government and the assumption by the central administration of responsibility for the conduct of public business in the towns of Italy. This last consideration suggests another phase of Roman history which a study of paternalism would bring out--I mean the effect of its introduction on the character of the Roman people.

The history of paternalism in Rome, when it is written, might approach the subject from several different points. If the writer were inclined to interpret history on the economic side, he might find the explanation of the change in the policy of the government toward its citizens in the introduction of slave labor which, under the Republic, drove the free laborer to the wall and made him look to the state for help, in the decline of agriculture, and the growth of capitalism. The sociologist would notice the drift of the people toward the cities and the sudden massing there of large numbers of persons who could not provide for themselves and in their discontent might overturn society. The historian who concerns himself with political changes mainly, would notice the socialistic legislation of the Gracchi and their political successors and would connect the growth of paternalism with the development of democracy. In all these explanations there would be a certain measure of truth.

But I am not planning here to write a history of paternalism among the Romans. That is one of the projects which I had been reserving for the day when the Carnegie Foundation should present me with a wooden sword and allow me to retire from the arena of academic life. But, alas! the trustees of that beneficent institution, by the revision which they have lately made of the conditions under which a university professor may withdraw from active service, have in their wisdom put off that day of academic leisure to the Greek Kalends, and my dream vanishes into the distance with it.

Here I wish to present only an episode in this history which we have been discussing, an episode which is unique, however, in ancient and, so far as I know, in modern history. Our knowledge of the incident comes from an edict of the Emperor Diocletian, and this document has a direct bearing on a subject of present-day discussion, because it contains a diatribe against the high cost of living and records the heroic attempt which the Roman government made to reduce it. In his effort to bring prices down to what he considered a normal level, Diocletian did not content himself with such half-measures as we are trying in our attempts to suppress combinations in restraint of trade, but he boldly fixed the maximum prices at which beef, grain, eggs, clothing, and other articles could be sold, and prescribed the penalty of death for any one who disposed of his wares at a higher figure. His edict is a very comprehensive document, and specifies prices for seven hundred or eight hundred different articles. This systematic attempt to regulate trade was very much in keeping with the character of Diocletian and his theory of government. Perhaps no Roman emperor, with the possible exception of Hadrian, showed such extraordinary administrative ability and proposed so many sweeping social reforms as Diocletian did. His systematic attempt to suppress Christianity is a case in point, and in the last twenty years of his reign he completely reorganized the government. He frankly introduced the monarchical principle, fixed upon a method of succession to the throne, redivided the provinces, established a carefully graded system of officials, concerned himself with court etiquette and dress, and reorganized the coinage and the system of taxation. We are not surprised therefore that he had the courage to attack this difficult question of high prices, and that his plan covered almost all the articles which his subjects would have occasion to buy.

It is almost exactly two centuries since the first fragments of the edict dealing with the subject were brought to light. They were discovered in Caria, in 1709, by William Sherard, the English consul at Smyrna. Since then, from time to time, other fragments of tablets containing parts of the edict have been found in Egypt, Asia Minor, and Greece. At present portions of twenty-nine copies of it are known. Fourteen of them are in Latin and fifteen in Greek. The Greek versions differ from one another, while the Latin texts are identical, except for the stone-cutters' mistakes here and there. These facts make it clear that the original document was in Latin, and was translated into Greek by the local officials of each town where the tablets were set up. We have already noticed that specimens of the edict have not been found outside of Egypt, Greece, and Asia Minor, and this was the part of the Roman world where Diocletian ruled. Scholars have also observed that almost all the manufactured articles which are mentioned come from Eastern points. From these facts it has been inferred that the edict was to apply to the East only, or perhaps more probably that Diocletian drew it up for his part of the Roman world, and that before it could be applied to the West it was repealed.

From the pieces which were then known, a very satisfactory reconstruction of the document was made by Mommsen and published in the Corpus of Latin Inscriptions.[88]

The work of restoration was like putting together the parts of a picture puzzle where some of the pieces are lacking. Fragments are still coming to light, and possibly we may have the complete text some day. As it is, the introduction is complete, and perhaps four-fifths of the list of articles with prices attached are extant. The introduction opens with a stately list of the titles of the two Augusti and the two Cæsars, which fixes the date of the proclamation as 301 A.D. Then follows a long recital of the circumstances which have led the government to adopt this drastic method of controlling prices. This introduction is one of the most extraordinary pieces of bombast, mixed metaphors, loose syntax, and incoherent expressions that Latin literature possesses. One is tempted to infer from its style that it was the product of Diocletian's own pen. He was a man of humble origin, and would not live in Rome for fear of being laughed at on account of his plebeian training. The florid and awkward style of these introductory pages is exactly what we should expect from a man of such antecedents.

It is very difficult to translate them into intelligible English, but some conception of their style and contents may be had from one or two extracts. In explaining the situation which confronts the world, the Emperor writes: "For, if the raging avarice ... which, without regard for mankind, increases and develops by leaps and bounds, we will not say from year to year, month to month, or day to day, but almost from hour to hour, and even from minute to minute, could be held in check by some regard for moderation, or if the welfare of the people could calmly tolerate this mad license from which, in a situation like this, it suffers in the worst possible fashion from day to day, some ground would appear, perhaps, for concealing the truth and saying nothing; ... but inasmuch as there is only seen a mad desire without control, to pay no heed to the needs of the many, ... it seems good to us, as we look into the future, to us who are the fathers of the people, that justice intervene to settle matters impartially, in order that that which, long hoped for, humanity itself could not bring about may be secured for the common government of all by the remedies which our care affords.... Who is of so hardened a heart and so untouched by a feeling for humanity that he can be unaware, nay that he has not noticed, that in the sale of wares which are exchanged in the market, or dealt with in the daily business of the cities, an exorbitant tendency in prices has spread to such an extent that the unbridled desire of plundering is held in check neither by abundance nor by seasons of plenty!"

If we did not know that this was found on tablets sixteen centuries old, we might think that we were reading a newspaper diatribe against the cold-storage plant or the beef trust. What the Emperor has decided to do to remedy the situation he sets forth toward the end of the introduction. He says: "It is our pleasure, therefore, that those prices which the subjoined written summary specifies, be held in observance throughout all our domain, that all may know that license to go above the same has been cut off.... It is our pleasure (also) that if any man shall have boldly come into conflict with this formal statute, he shall put his life in peril.... In the same peril also shall he be placed who, drawn along by avarice in his desire to buy, shall have conspired against these statutes. Nor shall he be esteemed innocent of the same crime who, having articles necessary for daily life and use, shall have decided hereafter that they can be held back, since the punishment ought to be even heavier for him who causes need than for him who violates the laws."

The lists which follow are arranged in three columns which give respectively the article, the unit of measure, and the price.[89]

Centenum sive sicale " " " {~ROMAN NUMERAL TEN~}{~COMBINING LONG STROKE OVERLAY~} sexa(ginta)
Mili integri " " {~ROMAN NUMERAL TEN~}{~COMBINING LONG STROKE OVERLAY~} quinquaginta'

The first item (frumentum) is wheat, which is sold by the K{~COMBINING MACRON~}M{~COMBINING MACRON~} (kastrensis modius=18½ quarts), but the price is lacking. Barley is sold by the kastrensis modius at {~ROMAN NUMERAL TEN~}{~COMBINING LONG STROKE OVERLAY~} centum (centum denarii = 43 cents) and so on.

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the common people of rome