The highest class in the social scale at Rome was divided, roughly rather than exactly, into two sections, according as they did or did not aim at being elected to magistracies and so entering the senate. To the senatorius ordo, which will be dealt with in the next chapter, belonged all senators, and all sons of senators whether or no they had as yet been elected to the quaestorship, which after Sulla was the magistracy qualifying for the senate. But outside the senatorial ranks there were numbers of wealthy and well educated men, most of whom were engaged in one way or another in business; by which term is here meant, not so much trading and mercantile operations, as banking, money-lending, the undertaking of State contracts, and the raising of taxes. The general name for this class was, strange to say, equites, or knights, as they are often but unfortunately called in modern histories of Rome. They were in fact at this time the most unmilitary part of the population, and they inherited the title only because the property qualification for the equites equo privato, i.e. the cavalry who served with their horses, had been taken as the qualification also for equestrian judices, to whom Gaius Gracchus had given the decision of cases in the quaestio de repetundis. This law of Gracchus had had the result of constituting an ordo equester alongside of the ordo senatorius, with a property qualification of 400,000 sesterces, or about £3200, not of income but of capital. Any one who had this sum could call himself an eques, provided he were not a senator, even if he had never served in the cavalry or mounted a horse.
We are concerned here with the business which these men carried on, not with their history as a body in the State; this latter difficult subject has been handled by Dr. Greenidge in his Roman Public Life, and by many other writers. We have to take them here as the representatives of capital and the chief uses to which it was put in the age of Cicero; for, as a matter of fact, they were then doing by far the greatest part of the money-making of the Empire. They were not indeed always doing it for themselves; they often represented men of senatorial rank, and acted as their agents in the investment of money and in securing the returns due. For the senator was not allowed, by the strict letter of the law, to engage in business which would take him out of Italy; his services were needed at home, and if indeed he had performed his proper work with industry and energy he never could have found time to travel on his own business. At the time of which we are speaking there were ways in which he could escape from his duties,--ways only too often used; but many senators did undoubtedly employ members of the equestrian order to transact their business abroad, so that it is not untrue to say that the equites had in their hands almost the whole of the monetary business of the Empire.
The property qualification may seem to us small enough, but it is of course no real index to the amount of capital which a wealthy eques might possess. Nothing is more astonishing in the history of the last century of the republic than the vast sums of money in the hands of individuals, and the enormous sums lent and borrowed in private by the men whose names are familiar to us as statesmen. It is told of Caesar that as a very young man he owed a sum equivalent to about £280,000; of Crassus that he had 200 million sesterces invested in land alone. Cicero, though from time to time in difficulties, always found it possible to borrow the large sums which he spent on houses, libraries, etc. These are men of the ordo senatorius; of the equites proper, the men who dealt rather in lending than borrowing, we have not such explicit accounts, because they were not in the same degree before the public. But of Atticus, the type of the best and highest section of the ordo equester, and of the amount and the sources of his wealth, we happen to know a good deal from the little biography of him written by his contemporary and friend Cornelius Nepos, taken together with Cicero's numerous letters to him. His father had left him the moderate fortune of £16,000. With this he bought land, not in Italy but in Epirus, where it was probably to be had cheap. The profits arising from this land, with which he took no doubt much trouble and pains, he invested again in other ways. He lent money to Greek cities: to Athens indeed without claiming any interest; to Sicyon without much hope of repayment; but no doubt to many others at a large profit. He also undertook the publishing of books, buying slaves who were skilled copyists; and in this, as in so many other ways, his friendship was of infinite value to Cicero. When we reflect that every highly educated man at this time owned a library and wished to have the last new book, we can understand how even this business might be extensive and profitable, and are not astonished to find Cicero asking Atticus to see that copies of his Greek book on his own consulship were to be had in Athens and other Greek towns. This shrewd man also invested in gladiators, whom he could let out at a profit, as no doubt he would let out his library slaves. Lastly, he owned houses in Rome; in fact he must have been making money in many different ways, spending little himself, and attending personally and indefatigably to all his business, as indeed with true and disinterested friendship he attended to that of Cicero In him we see the best type of the Roman businessman: not the bloated millionaire living in coarse luxury, but the man who loved to be always busy for himself or his friends, and whose knowledge of men and things was so thorough that he could make a fortune without anxiety to himself or discomfort to others. What amount of capital he realised in these various ways we do not know, but the mass of his fortune came to him after he had been pursuing them for many years, in the form of a legacy from an uncle. This uncle was a typical capitalist and money-lender of a much lower and coarser type than his nephew; Nepos aptly describes him as "familiarem L. Luculli, divitem, difficillima natura." The nephew was the only man who could get on with this Peter Featherstone of Roman life, and this simple fact tells us as much about the character and disposition of Atticus as anything in Cicero's correspondence with him. The happy result was that his uncle left him a sum which we may reckon at about £80,000 (centies sestertium), and henceforward he may be reckoned, if not as a millionaire, at any rate as a man of large capital, soundly invested and continually on the increase.
There is no doubt then as to the fact of the presence of capital on a large scale in the Rome of the last century B.C., or of the business talents of many of its holders, or again of the many profitable ways in which it might be invested. But in order to learn a little more of the history of capital at Rome, which is of the utmost importance for a proper understanding not only of the economic, but of the social and ethical characteristics of the age, it is necessary to go as far back as the war with Hannibal at least.
That there had been surplus capital in the hands of individuals long before the war with Hannibal is a well known fact, proved by the old Roman law of debt, and by the traditions of the unhappy relations of debtor and creditor. But in order not to go back too far, we may notice a striking fact which meets us at the very outset of that momentous war. In 215 B.C., and again the next year, the treasury was almost empty; then for the first time, so far as we know, private individuals came to the rescue, and lent large sums to the State; these were partners in certain associations to be described later on in this chapter, which had made money by undertaking State contracts in the previous wars. The presence of Hannibal in Italy strained the resources of the State to the utmost in every way; it cut the Romans off from their supply of the precious metals, forced them to reduce the weight of the as to one ounce, and, curiously enough, also to issue gold coins for the first time,--a measure probably taken on account of the dearth of silver,--and to make use of the uncoined gold in the treasury or in private hands. At the end of the war the supply of silver was recovered; henceforward all reckonings were made in silver, and the gold coinage was not long continued.
At this happy time, when Rome felt that she could breathe again after the final defeat of her deadly enemy, began the great inpouring of wealth of which the capitalism of Cicero's time is the direct result. The chief sources of this wealth, so far as the State was concerned, were the indemnities paid by conquered peoples, especially Carthage and Antiochus of Syria, and the booty brought home by victorious generals. Of these Livy has preserved explicit accounts, and the best example is perhaps that of the booty brought by Scipio Asiaticus from Asia Minor in 189 B.C., of which Pliny remarks that it first introduced luxury into Italy. It has been roughly computed that the total amount from indemnities may be taken at six million of our pounds, in the period of the great wars of the second century B.C., and from booty very much the same sum. Besides this we have to take account of the produce of the Spanish silver mines, of which the Romans came into possession with the Carthaginian dominions in Spain; the richest of these were near Carthago Nova, and Polybius tells us that in his day they employed 40,000 miners, and produced an immense revenue.
All this went into the aerarium, except what was distributed out of the booty to the soldiers, both Romans and socii, the former naturally taking as a rule double the amount paid to the latter. But the influx of treasure into the State coffers soon began to tell upon the financial welfare of the whole citizen community; the most striking proof of this is the fact that, in 167 B.C., after the second Macedonian war, the tribulum or property-tax was no longer imposed upon all citizens. Henceforward the Roman citizen had hardly any burdens to bear except the necessity of military service, and there are very distinct signs that he was beginning to be unwilling to bear even that one. He saw the prominent men of his time enriching themselves abroad and leading luxurious lives, and the spirit of ease and idleness began inevitably to affect him too. Polybius indeed, writing about 140-130 B.C., declines to state positively that the great Romans were corrupt or extortionate, and those who were his intimate friends, Aemilius Paullus and his sons, were distinguished for their "abstinentia": but the mere occurrence of this word "abstinentia" in the epitomes of Livy's lost books which dealt with this time, betrays the fact too obviously. In 149 was passed the first of the long series of laws intended, but in vain, to check the tendency of provincial governors to extort money from their subjects; and as this law established for the first time a standing court to try offences of this kind, the inference is inevitable that such offences were common and on the increase.
The remarkable fact about this inpouring of wealth is its extraordinary suddenness. Within the lifetime of a single individual, Cato the Censor, who died an old man in 149 B.C., the financial condition of the State and of individuals had undergone a complete change. Cato loved to make money and knew very well how to do it, as his own treatise on agriculture plainly shows; but he wished to do it in a legitimate way, and to spend profitably the money he made, and he spared no pains to prevent others from making it illegally and spending it unprofitably. He saw clearly that the sudden influx of wealth was disturbing the balance of the Roman mind, and that the desire to make money was taking the place of the idea of duty to the State. He knew that no Roman could serve two masters, Mammon and the State, and that Mammon was getting the upper hand in his views of life. If the accumulation of wealth had been gradual instead of sudden, natural instead of artificial, this could hardly have happened; as in England from the fourteenth century onwards, the steady growth of capital would have produced no ethical mischief, no false economic ideas, because it would have been an organic growth, resting upon a sound and natural economic basis. As the French historian has said with singular felicity, "Money is like water of a river: if it suddenly floods, it devastates; divide it into a thousand channels where it circulates quietly, and it brings life and fertility to every spot."
It was in this period of the great wars, so unwholesome and perilous economically, that the men of business, as defined at the beginning of this chapter--the men of capital outside the ordo senatorius--first rose to real importance. In the century that followed, and as we see them more especially in Cicero's correspondence, they became a great power in the State, and not only in Rome, but in every corner of the Empire. We have now to see how they gained this importance and this power, and what use they made of their capital and their opportunities. This is not usually explained or illustrated in the ordinary histories of Rome, yet it is impossible without explaining it to understand either the social or the public life of the Rome of this period.
The men of business may be divided into two classes, according as they undertook work for the State or on their own account entirely. It does not follow that these two classes were mutually exclusive; a man might very well invest his money in both kinds of undertaking, but these two kinds were totally distinct, and called by different names. A public undertaking was called publicum, and the men who undertook it publicani; a private undertaking was negotium, and all private business men were known as negotiatores. The publicani were always organised in joint-stock companies (societates publicanorum); the negotiatores might be in private partnership with one or more partners, but as a rule seem to have been single individuals. We will deal first with the publicani.
In a passage of Livy quoted just now it is stated that at the beginning of the Hannibalic war money was advanced to the State by societates publicanorum; Livy also happens to mention that three of these competed for the privilege. Thus it is clear that the system of getting public work done by contract was in full operation before that date, together with the practice on the part of the contractors of uniting in partnerships to lessen the risk. System and practice are equally natural, and it needs but a little historical imagination to realise their development. As the Roman State became involved in wars leading to the conquest of Italy, and in due time to the acquisition of dominions beyond sea, armies and fleets had to be equipped and provisioned, roads had to be made, public rents to be got in, new buildings to be erected for public convenience or worship, corn had to be procured for the growing population, and, above all, taxes had to be collected both in Italy and in the provinces as these were severally acquired. The government had no apparatus for carrying out these undertakings itself; it had not, as we have, separate departments or bureaux with a permanent staff of officials attached to each, and even if it had been so provided, it would still have found it most convenient, as modern governments also do, to get the necessary work carried out in most cases by private contractors. Every five years the censors let the various works by auction to contracting companies, who engaged to carry them out for fixed sums, and make what profit they could out of the business (censoria locatio). This saved an immense amount of trouble to the senate and magistrates, who were usually busily engaged in other matters; nor was there at first any harm in the system, so long as the Romans were morally sound, and incapable of jobbing or scamping their work. The very fact that they united into companies for the purpose of undertaking these contracts shows that they were aware of the risk involved, and wished as far as possible to neutralise it; it did not mean greed for money, but rather anxiety not to lose the capital invested.
But as Rome advanced her dominion in the second century B.C., and had to see to an ever-increasing amount of public business, it was discovered that the business of contracting was one which might indeed be risky, but with skill and experience, and especially with a trifle of unscrupulousness, might be made a perfectly safe and paying investment. This was especially the case with the undertakings for raising the taxes in the newly acquired provinces as well as in Italy, more particularly in those provinces, viz. Sicily and Asia, which paid their taxes in the form of tithe and not in a lump sum. The collection of these revenues could be made a very paying concern seeing that it was not necessary to be too squeamish about the rights and claims of the provincials. And, indeed, by the time of the Gracchi all these joint-stock companies had become the one favourite investment in which every one who had any capital, however small, placed it without hesitation. Polybius, who was in Rome at this time for several years, and was thoroughly acquainted with Roman life, has left a valuable record in his sixth book (ch. xvii.) of the universal demand for shares in these companies; a fact which proves that they were believed to be both safe and profitable.
These societates were managed by the great men of business, as our joint-stock companies are directed by men of capital and consequence. Polybius tells us that among those who were concerned, some took the contracts from the censors: these were called mancipes, because the sign of accepting the contract at the auction was to hold up the hand. Others, Polybius goes on, were in association with these mancipes, and, as we may assume, equally responsible with them; these were the socii. It was of course necessary that security should be given for the fulfilment of the contract, and Polybius does not omit to mention the praedes or guarantors. Lastly, he says that others again gave their property on behalf of these official members of the companies, or in their name, for the public purpose in hand. These last words admit of more than one interpretation, but as in the same passage Polybius tells us that all who had any money put it into these concerns, we may reasonably suppose that he means to indicate the participes, or small holders of shares, which were called partes, or if very small, _particulae_. The socii and participes seem to be distinguished by Cicero in his Verrine orations
Such a business as this, involving the interests of so many citizens, must have necessitated something very like the Stock Exchange or Bourse of modern times; and in fact the basilicas and porticoes which we met with in the Forum during our walk through Rome did actually serve this purpose. The reader of Cicero's letters will have noticed how often the Forum is spoken of as the centre of life at Rome--going down to the Forum was indeed the equivalent of "going into the City," as well as of "going down to Westminster." All who had investments in the societates would wish to know the latest news brought by tabellarii from the provinces, e.g. of the state of the crop in Sicily or Asia, or of the disposition of some provincial governor towards the publicani of his province, or again of the approach of some enemy, such as Mithridates or Ariovistus, who by defeating a Roman army might break into Roman territory and destroy the prospects of a successful contractual enterprise. Assuredly Cicero's love for the Forum was not a political one only; he loved it indeed as the scene of his great triumphs as an advocate, but also no doubt because he was concerned in some of the companies which had their headquarters there. When urging the people to give Pompeius extraordinary powers to drive Mithridates out of reach of Roman Asia, where he had done incalculable damage, he dwells both with knowledge and feeling on the value of the province, not only to the State, but to innumerable private citizens who had their money invested in its revenues. "If some," he pleads, "lose their whole fortunes, they will drag many more down with them. Save the State from such a calamity: and believe me (though you see it well enough) that the whole system of credit and finance which is carried on here at Rome in the Forum, is inextricably bound up with the revenues of the Asiatic province. If those revenues are destroyed, our whole system of credit will come down with a crash. See that you do not hesitate for a moment to prosecute with all your energies a war by which the glory of the Roman name, the safety of our allies, our most valuable revenues, and the fortunes of innumerable citizens, will be effectually preserved."
This is a good example of the way in which political questions might be decided in the interests of capital, and it is all the more striking, because a few years earlier Sulla had done all he could to weaken the capitalists as a distinct class. Pompeius went out with abnormal powers, and might be considered for the time as their representative; the result in this case was on the whole good, for the work he did in the East was of permanent value to the Empire. But the constitution was shaken and never wholly recovered, and nothing that he was able to do could restore the unfortunate province of Asia to its former prosperity. Four years later the company which had contracted for raising the taxes in the province sought to repudiate their bargain. This was disgraceful, as Cicero himself expressly says; but it is quite possible that they had great difficulty in getting the money in, and feared a dead loss, owing to the impoverishment of the provincials. This matter again led to a political crisis; for the senate, urged by Cato, was disposed to refuse the concession, and the alliance between the senatorial class and the business men (ordinum concordia), which it had been Cicero's particular policy to confirm, in order to mass together all men of property against the dangers of socialism and anarchy, was thereby threatened so seriously that it ceased to be a factor in politics.
These companies and their agents were indeed destined to be a thorn in Cicero's side as a provincial governor himself. When called upon to rule Cilicia in 51 B.C. he found the people quite unable to pay their taxes and driven into the hands of the middleman in order to do so; his sympathies were thus divided between the unfortunate provincials, for whom he felt a genuine pity, and the interests of the company for collecting the Cilician taxes, and of those who had invested their money in its funds. In his edict, issued before his entrance into the province, he had tried to balance the conflicting interests; writing of it to Atticus, who had naturally as a capitalist been anxious to know what he was doing, he says that he is doing all he can for the publicani, coaxing them, praising them, yielding to them--but taking care that they do no mischief; words which perhaps did not altogether satisfy his friend. All honest provincial governors, especially in the Eastern provinces, which had been the scene of continual wars for nearly three centuries, found themselves in the same difficulty. They were continually beset by urgent appeals on behalf of the tax-companies and their agents--appeals made without a thought of the condition of a province or its tax-paying capacity--so completely had the idea of making money taken possession of the Roman mind. Among the letters of Cicero are many such appeals, sent by himself to other provincial governors, some of them while he was himself in Cilicia. We may take two as examples, before bringing this part of our subject to a close.
The first of these letters is to P. Silius Nerva, propraetor of Bithynia, a province recently added to the Empire by Pompeius. Cicero here says that he is himself closely connected with the partners in the company for collecting the pasture-dues (scriptura) of the province, "not only because that company as a body is my client, but also because I am very intimate with most of the individual partners." Can we doubt that he was himself a shareholder? He urges Nerva to do all he can for Terentius Hispo, the pro-magister of the company, and to try to secure for him the means of making all the necessary arrangements with the taxed communities--relying, we are glad to find, on the tact and kindness of the governor. The second letter, to his own son-in-law, Furius Crassipes, quaestor of Bithynia, shall be quoted here in full from Mr. Shuckburgh's translation:
"Though in a personal interview I recommended as earnestly as I could the publicani of Bithynia, and though I gathered that by your own inclination no less than from my recommendation, you were anxious to promote the advantage of that company in every way in your power, I have not hesitated to write you this, since those interested thought it of great importance that I should inform you what my feeling towards them was. I wish you to believe that, while I have ever had the greatest pleasure in doing all I can for the order of publicani generally, yet this particular company of Bithynia has my special good wishes. Owing to the rank and birth of its members, this company constitutes a very important part of the state: for it is made up of members of the other companies: and it so happens that a very large number of its members are extremely intimate with me, and especially the man who is at present at the head of the business, P. Rupilius, its pro-magister. Such being the case, I beg you with more than common earnestness to protect Cn. Pupius, an employé of the company, by every sort of kindness and liberality in your power, and to secure, as you easily may, that his services shall be as satisfactory as possible to the company, while at the same time securing and promoting the property and interests of the partners--as to which I am well aware how much power a quaestor possesses. You will be doing me in this matter a very great favour, and I can myself from personal experience pledge you my word that you will find the partners of the Bithynia company gratefully mindful of any services you can do them."
If Cicero, the most tender-hearted of Roman public men, could urge the claims of the companies so strongly, and, as in this last letter, without any allusion to the interests of the province and its people, we may well imagine how others, less scrupulous, must have combined with the capitalists to work havoc in regions that only needed peace and mild government to recover from centuries of misery. Such a letter is the best comment we can have on the pernicious system of raising taxes by contract--a system which was to be modified, regulated, and eventually reduced to harmless dimensions under the benevolent and scientific government of the early Empire.
We must now turn to the other department of the activity of the men of business, that of banking and money-lending (negotiatores).
On the north or sunny side of the Forum we noticed in our walk round the city the shops of the bankers (tabernae argentariae). The argentarii were originally, as their name suggests, only money-changers, a class of small business men that arose in response to a need felt as soon as increasing commerce and extended empire brought foreign coin in large quantities to Rome. The Italian communities outside the Roman State issued their own coinage until they were admitted to the civitas after the Social War,--a fact which alone is sufficient to show the need of men who made it their business to know the current value of various coins in Roman money; and as Rome became involved in the affairs of the East, there were always circulating in the city the tetradrachms of Antioch and Alexandria, the Rhodian drachmas, and the cistophori of the kings of Pergamus, afterwards coined in the province of Asia. No doubt the money-changing business was a profitable one, and itself led to the formation of capital which could be used in taking deposits and making advances; and, as Professor Purser puts it, the mere possession of a quantity of coin for purposes of change would be likely to develop spontaneously the profession of banking. In the same way the nummularii, or assayers of the coin, having a mass of it in their hands, would tend to develop a private business as well as their official public one. All these, argentarii or nummularii, might be called foeneratores, from the interest (foenus) which they charged in their transactions. The profession was a respectable one, for honesty and exactness in accounts were absolutely necessary to success in it. If the reader will turn to Cicero's speech in defence of Caecina (6. 16), he will find these accounts appealed to, though apparently not actually produced in court; but in the Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius (xiv. 2) a judge who is describing a civil case which came before him, mentions, among the documents produced, mensae rationes, i.e. the accounts kept by the banker.
Your argentarius seems to have been ready to undertake for you almost all that a modern banker will do for his customer. He would take deposits of money, either for the depositor's use or to bear interest, and would make payments on his behalf on receipt of a written order, answering to our cheque; this was a practice probably introduced from Greece, for in the Eastern Mediterranean the whole business of credit and exchange had long been reduced to a system. Again, if you wished to be supplied with money during a journey, or to pay a sum to any one at a distance, e.g. in Greece or Asia, your argentarius would arrange it for you by giving you letters of credit or bills of exchange on a banker at such towns as you might mention, and so save you the trouble of carrying a heavy weight of coin with you. When, Cicero sent his son to the University of Athens, he wished to give him a generous allowance,--too generous, as we should think, for it amounted to about £640 a year,--and he asked Atticus whether it could be managed for him by permutatio, i.e. exchange, and received an affirmative answer. So too when his beloved freedman secretary Tiro fell ill of fever at Patrae, Cicero finds it easy to get a local banker there to advance him all the money he needed, and to pay the doctor, engaging himself to repay the money to any agent whom the banker might name.
Your argentarius would also attend for you, or appoint an agent to attend, at any public auction in which you were interested as seller or purchaser, and would pay or receive the money for you,--a practice which must have greatly helped him in getting to know the current value of all kinds of property, and indeed in learning to understand human nature on its business side. In the passage from the pro Caecina quoted just now, a lady, Caesennia, wished to buy an estate; she employs an agent, Aebutius, no doubt recommended by her banker, and to him the estate is knocked down. He undertakes that the argentarius of the vendor, who is present at the auction, shall be paid the value, and this is ultimately done by Caesennia, and the sum entered in the banker's books (tabulae).
But perhaps the most important part of the business was the finding money for those who were in want of it, i.e. making advances on interest. The poor man who was in need of ready money could get it from the argentarius in coin if he had any security to offer, and, as we saw in the last chapter, might get entangled more and more hopelessly in the nets of the money-lender. Whether the same argentarius did this small business and also the work of supplying the rich man with credit, we do not know; it may have been the case that the great money-lenders like Atticus themselves employed argentarii, and so kept them going. That Atticus would undertake, anyhow, for a friend like Cicero, any amount of money-finding, we know well from many letters of Cicero, written when he was anxious to buy a piece of land at any cost on which to erect a shrine to his beloved daughter; and we may be pretty sure that Atticus could not have done all that Cicero importunately pressed upon him if he had not had a number of useful professional agents at command. From these same letters we also learn that finding money by no means necessarily meant finding coin; in a society where every one was lending or borrowing, and probably doing both at the same time, what actually passed was chiefly securities, mortgages, debts, and so on. If you wanted to hand over a hundred thousand or so to a creditor, what your agent had as often as not to do was to persuade that creditor to accept as payment the debts owing to yourself from others, i.e. you would hand over to him, if he would accept them, the bonds or other securities given you by your own debtors.
It is plain then that the money-lenders had an enormous business, even in Rome alone, and risky as it undoubtedly was, it must often have been a profitable one. And it was not only at Rome that men were borrowing and lending, but over the whole Empire. For reasons which it would need an economic treatise to explain, private men, cities, and even kings were in want of money; it was needed to meet the increased cost of living and the constantly increasing standard of living among the educated; it was needed by the cities of Greece and the East to repair the damages done in the wars of the last three hundred years; it was needed by the poorer provincials to pay the taxes for which neither the publicani nor the Roman government could afford to wait; and it was needed by the kings who had come within the dismal shadow of the Roman Empire, in order to carry on their own government, or to satisfy the demands of the neighbouring provincial governor, or to bribe the ruling men at Rome to get some decree passed in their favour. Cicero, at the end of his life, looking back to his own consulship in 63, says that at no time in his recollection was the whole world in such a condition of indebtedness, and in a famous passage in his second Catilinarian oration he has drawn a picture of the various classes of debtors in Rome and Italy at that time (Cat.
Wonderful figures are given by later writers, such as Plutarch, of the debts and loans of the great men of this time, and they may stand as giving us a general impression of private financial recklessness. But the only authentic information that has come down to us is what Cicero drops from time to time in his correspondence about his own affairs, and even this needs much explanation which we are unable to apply to it. What is certain is that Cicero never had more than a very moderate income on which he could depend, and that at times he was hard up for money, especially of course after his exile and the confiscation of his property; and that on the other hand he never had any difficulty in getting the sums he needed, and never shows the smallest real anxiety about his finances. His profession as a barrister only brought him a return indirectly in the form of an occasional legacy or gift, since fees were forbidden by a lex Cincia; his books could hardly have paid him, at least in the form of money; his inherited property was small, and his Italian villas were not profitable farms, nor was it the practice to let such country houses, as we do now, when not occupying them; he declined a provincial government, the usual source of wealth, and when at last compelled to undertake one, only realised what was then a paltry sum,--some £17,500, all of which, while in deposit at Ephesus, was seized by the Pompeians in the Civil War. Yet even early in life he could afford the necessary expenses for election to successive magistracies, and could live in the style demanded of an important public man. Immediately after his consulship he paid £28,000 for Crassus' house on the Palatine, and it is here that we first discover how he managed such financial operations. Here are his own words in a letter to a friend of December 62 B.C.: "I have bought the house for 3,500 sestertia ... so you may now look on me as so deeply in debt as to be eager to join a conspiracy if any one would admit me! ... Money is plentiful at 6 per cent, and the success of my measures (in the consulship) has caused me to be regarded as a good security."
The simple fact was that Cicero was always regarded as a safe man to lend money to, by the business men and the great capitalists; partly because he was an honest man,--a vir bonus who would never dream of repudiation or bankruptcy; partly because he knew every one, and had a hundred wealthy friends besides the lender of the moment and among them, most faithful of all, the prudent and indefatigable Atticus. Undoubtedly then it was by borrowing, and regularly paying interest on the loans, that he raised money whenever he wanted it. He may have occasionally made money in the companies of tax-collectors; we have seen that he probably had shares in some of their ventures. But there is no clear evidence in his letters of this source of wealth, and there is abundant evidence of the borrowing. After his return from exile, though the senate had given him somewhat meagre compensation for the loss of his property, he began at once to borrow and to build: "I am building in three places," he writes to his brother, "and am patching up my other houses. I live somewhat more lavishly than I used to do; I am obliged to do so." Here again we know from whom he borrowed,--it was this same brother, who of course had no more certain income than his own, probably less. But he had been governor of Asia for three years (61-58 B.C.), and must have realised large sums even in that exhausted province; and at this moment he was legatus to Pompeius as special commissioner for organising the supply of corn, and thus was in immediate contact with one of the greatest millionaires of the day. In order to repay his brother all Marcus had to do was to borrow from other friends. "In regard to money I am crippled. But the liberality of my brother I have repaid, in spite of his protests, by the aid of my friends, that I might not be drained quite dry myself" (ad Att. iv. 3). Two years later an unwary reader might feel some astonishment at finding that Quintus himself was now deep in debt; but as he continues to read the correspondence his astonishment will vanish. With the prospect before him of a prolonged stay in Gaul with Caesar, Quintus might doubtless have borrowed to any extent; and in fact with Caesar's help--the proceeds of the Gallic wars--both brothers found themselves in opulence. The Civil War, and the repayment of his debts to Caesar, nearly ruined Marcus towards the end of his life, but nothing prevented his contriving to find money for any object on which he had set his heart; when in his grief for the loss of his daughter he wishes to buy suburban gardens where a shrine to her memory may (strange to say) attract public notice, he tells Atticus to buy what is necessary at any cost. "Manage the business your own way; do not consider what my purse demands--about that I care nothing--but what I want."
Such being the financial method of Cicero and his brother, we cannot be surprised to find that the younger generation of the family followed faithfully in the footsteps of their elders. We have seen that the young Marcus had a large allowance at Athens and on the whole he seems to have kept fairly well within it, in spite of some trouble; but his cousin the younger Quintus, coming to see his uncle in December 45, showed him a gloomy countenance, and on being asked the meaning of it, said that he was going with Caesar to the Parthian war in order to avoid his creditors, and presumably to make money to pay them with. He had not even enough money for the journey out. His uncle did not offer to give him any, but he does not seem to have thought very seriously of the young man's embarrassments.
One more example of the financial dealings of the business men of this extraordinary age, and we will bring this chapter to an end. It is a story which has luckily been preserved in Cicero's speech in defence of a certain Rabirius Postumus in the year 54, who was accused under Caesar's law de pecuniis repetundis (extortion in the provinces). It is a remarkable revelation of all the most striking methods of making and using money in the last years of the Republic.
The father of this Rabirius, says Cicero, had been a distinguished member of the equestrian order, and "fortissimus et maximus publicanus"; not greedy of money, but most liberal to his friends--in other words, he was not a miser, for that character was rare in this age, but lent his money freely in order to acquire influence and consideration. The son took up the same line of business, and engaged in a wide sphere of financial operations. He dealt largely in the stock of the tax-companies; he lent money to cities in several provinces; he lent money to Ptolemy Auletes, King of Egypt, both before he was expelled from his kingdom by sedition, and afterwards when he was in Rome in 59 and 58, intriguing to induce the senate to have him restored. Rabirius never doubted that he would be so restored, and seems to have failed to see the probability of such a policy being contested or quarrelled about, as actually happened in the winter of 57-56. He lent, and persuaded his friends to lend: he represented the king's cause as a good investment; and then, like the investing agent of to-day who slips so easily from carelessness into crime, he had to go on lending more and more, because he feared that if he stopped the king might turn against him.
He had staked the mass of his substance on a desperate venture. But time went on and Ptolemy was not restored, and without the revenues of his kingdom he of course could not pay his creditors. At last, at the end of the year 56, Gabinius, then governor of Syria, had pressure put on him by the creditors--among them perhaps both Caesar and Pompeius--to march into Egypt without the authority of the senate. He took Rabirius with him, and, in order to secure the repayment, the latter was made superintendent (dioikaetaes) of the Egyptian revenues. Unluckily for him, his wily debtor did after all turn against him, and he escaped from Egypt with difficulty and with the loss of all his wealth. When Gabinius was accused de repetundis and found guilty of accepting enormous sums from Ptolemy, Rabirius was involved in the same prosecution as having received part of the money; Cicero defended him, and as it seems with success, on the plea that equites were not liable to prosecution under the lex Julia. Towards the end of his speech he drew a clever picture of his unlucky client's misfortunes, and declared that he would have had to quit the Forum, i.e. to leave the Stock Exchange in disgrace, if Caesar had not come to his rescue by placing large sums at his disposal.
What Rabirius did was simply to gamble on a gigantic scale, and get others to gamble with him. The luck turned against him, and he came utterly to grief. There seems indeed to have been a perfect passion for dealing with money in this wild way among the men of wealth and influence; it was the fancy of the hour, and no disgrace attached to it if a man could escape ruin. Thus the vast capital accumulated--the sources of which were almost entirely in the provinces and the kingdoms on the frontiers--was hardly ever used productively. It never returned to the region whence it came, to be used in developing its resources; the idea of using it even in Italy for industrial undertakings was absent from the mind of the gambler. Those numberless villas, of which we shall speak in another chapter, were homes of luxury and magnificence, not centres of agricultural industry. There are indeed some signs that in this very generation the revival of Italian agriculture was beginning, and more especially the cultivation of the olive and the vine; Varro, some twenty years later, could claim that Italy was the best cultivated country in the world. It may be that the din of the "insanum forum" and its wild speculation has prevented our hearing of the quiet efforts in the country to put capital to a legitimate productive use. But of the social life of the city the Forum was the heart, and of any prudent or scientific use of capital the Forum knew hardly anything.
Of the two classes of business men we have been describing, the tax-farmers and the money-lenders, it is hard to say which wrought the most mischief in the Empire; they played into each other's hands in wringing money out of the helpless provincials. Together too they did incalculable harm, morally and socially, among the upper strata of Roman society at home. Economic maladies react upon the mental, and moral condition of a State. Where the idea of making money for its own sake, or merely for the sake of the pleasure derivable from excitement, is paramount in the minds of so large a section of society, moral perception quickly becomes warped. The sense of justice disappears, because when the fever is on a man he does not stop to ask whether his gains are ill-gotten; and in this age the only restriction on the plundering of the subjects of the Empire was a legal one, and that of no great efficacy. There are many repulsive things in the exquisite poetry of Catullus, but none of them jar on the modern mind quite so sharply as his virulent attacks on a provincial governor in whose suite he had gone to Bithynia in the hope of enriching himself, and under whose just administration he had failed to do so. There is lost also the sense of a duty arising out of the possession of wealth--the feeling that it should do some good in the world, or at least be in part applied to some useful purpose. Lastly, the exciting pursuit of wealth helps to produce a curious restlessness and instability of character, of which we have many examples in the age we are studying. "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel," are words that might be applied to many a young man among Cicero's acquaintance, and to many women also.
No sudden operation could cure these evils--they needed the careful and gradual treatment of a wise physician. As in so many other ways, so here Augustus showed his wonderful instinct as a social reformer. The first requisite of all was an age of comparative peace--a healthy atmosphere in which the patient could recover his natural tone. Next in importance was the removal of the incitement to enrich yourself and to spend illegally or unprofitably, and the revival of a sense of duty towards the State and its rulers. Provincial governors were made more really responsible, and a scientific census revealed the actual tax-paying capacity of the provincials; tax-farming was more closely superintended and gradually disappeared. It is true enough that even under the Empire great fortunes were made and lost, but the gambling spirit, the wild recklessness in monetary dealings, are not met with again. The Roman Forum ceased to be insane, and Italy became once more the home of much happy and useful country life. The passionate and reckless self-consciousness of Catullus is succeeded in the next generation by the calm sweet hopefulness of Virgil; in passing from the one poet to the other, we feel that we are leaving behind us an age of over-sensitive self-seeking and entering on one in which duty and honour, labour on the land and hard work for the State, may be reckoned as things more likely to make life worth living than all the accumulated capital of a Crassus.
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