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  Columnist: Victoria Grossack

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Income inequality and the end of the Roman Republic

Posted on Sunday, 2 December, 2012 | 2 comments
Columnist: Victoria Grossack

I believe that income inequality played an enormous role in the end of the republic. Why past tense? Because this column is concerned mostly with the end of the Roman Republic, which ended at about 27 BCE. After that it was known as the Roman Empire. It has been determined that the Roman Empire suffered from severe inequality of income. Only a few nations have had worse – and yes, the USA is now one of them. But what may not be known or understood is how much the increase in income inequality led to the end of the republic.

A brief history of Rome: Rome (Roma) was founded in 753 BCE, by Romulus, along the Tiber River on one of 7 hills (some of the hills have been razed and other valleys filled so if you visit today you won't see them). It was an ordinary city-state at first, ruled by kings probably of Etruscan origin. These kings were so brutal and corrupt that the Romans rebelled and began a republic, by investing power in a pair of consuls who ruled for a year, “a list of which can be seen here ”. The system had checks and balances, because there were two men and not one and a variety of other positions in government, from a Senate that consisted of men from elite families to the tribunes of the plebians, who represented those in lower classes.

It was a Republic, with votes cast by citizens (to start to qualify for Roman citizenship you had to be male and not a slave) but not all votes were equal. There were many classes of votes – the votes in the first class (the richest and those with the best ancestry) counting much more than votes in the lower classes.

Despite this institutionalized inequality, the Roman Republic thrived. Those in the upper classes had a sense of responsibility, noblesse oblige, and spent their wealth and efforts on public goods ranging from entertaining games to public buildings and temples to aqueducts. Those in the lower classes had enough – they were small farmers and businessmen, and they were able to provide enough men for Rome's main industry: war.

In many respects, war was a necessity in that period, because other city-states were also aggressive, and if you could not defend yourselves, your city would be burned, the men mostly killed, the women raped and enslaved. So having a well-trained army – and Rome's army was incredibly well-trained – was matter of survival.

But like every other military industrial complex, those who profit from war will lobby for it. Rome's armies were used to defend itself from threats such as Carthage's Hannibal and the gladiator-slave Spartacus – and actually not very successfully at first – but many of Rome's wars were aggressive. They gradually conquered the Italian peninsula and then Greece and what is now Spain.

These conquests provided great sources of wealth for the armies and especially their generals. There were natural resources such as minerals and metals, but the greatest source of riches were the people. Hundreds of thousands were captured and sold into slavery.

The creation of a huge slave class led to the creation of huge factories and farms, undercutting the smallholders. It was like what happened to many small, independent booksellers when mega bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble entered neighborhoods – many of the smallholders literally lost their farms. The rich, of course, got richer, to the point where the Republic was no longer stable.
During the last 80 or so years of the Roman Republic, the most ambitious men were not content with just accumulating vast wealth. They wanted to be known as the First Man in Rome (I heartily recommend the series by Colleen McCullough). Only that would satisfy their immense egos. So the Roman Republic was devastated by civil wars between Gaius Marius and Lucius Sulla. A generation later the opponents were Julius Caesar versus Pompey Magnus; the generation that followed was Mark Antony against Octavian (later Augustus). There were lesser conflicts along the way.

Besides funding these ambitious men who would not be content with being consul, but who hankered after the position of either Dictator or King, income inequality played another role in the downfall of the Roman Republic. All those men displaced from their farms and small industries needed something else to survive. Many joined the army, and felt more loyalty to their generals than they did towards the Roman Republic. This is important for everyone to realize: when there is too much income inequality, those at the bottom have nothing to lose.

Those at the top might have lived in luxury, but they also lived in fear. Being too rich could be dangerous. In order to raise funds and to rid themselves of threats, both Sulla and Octavian engaged in proscriptions: they sent members of their guards to rich households and often killed the head of the family and confiscated the fortune (some of those they deemed less dangerous ones were allowed to choose exile). This method of raising money and ridding themselves of enemies was continued by emperors even after the fall of the republic. The wealthier you were, the more tempting you a target you made.

Given that Pompey, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony all came to bad ends – murdered or compelled to suicide – and the many others who suffered, either from slavery or penury – perhaps this income inequality is worth discouraging, even for those at the top.

Yet income inequality in the USA is greater now than it has ever been. Those at the top cannot strive for just more stuff because they cannot use more houses, yachts and toys – after a while they start questing for power and to be “THE” alpha male. If they follow the way of the Roman Republic, eventually they will turn on each other.

Of course, there are other paths that history can take: consider the French Revolution, where the commoners chopped off the heads of most of the aristocracy (and then the revolutionaries turned on each other). We're watching the results these days of the Arab Spring, and crossing our fingers that the new governments take decent care of their people.

But all too often, serious income inequality leads to upheaval, which in the short term is uncomfortable or even deadly for many who were at the top. In the long run there is no guarantee that the revolutions lead to anything better, but when people have nothing to lose they have everything to gain and are willing to take risks in the hope that matters will improve. Too great an income inequality is inherently unstable, and most of the ways it gets reset is painful and unpleasant.

Some References

A list of Roman consuls: Income inequality in the Roman Empire:

Article Copyright© Victoria Grossack - reproduced with permission.

Victoria Grossack is the author, with Alice Underwood, of several novels based on Greek mythology, published in both English and Greek. Their books include: JOCASTA: The Mother-Wife of Oedipus; Niobe & Pelops: CHILDREN OF TANTALUS; Niobe & Amphion: THE ROAD TO THEBES; Niobe & Chloris: ARROWS OF ARTEMIS. To learn more about them, their writing and their research, please visit Of course their books make wonderful gifts for those who love Greek mythology!. Celebrate Saturnalia (or any other festival) by enjoying some time in the Bronze Age.

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