Archive for August 16th, 2019

Computation Of Roman Republic Absolute Wealth Limit. Caesar A Revolutionary.

August 16, 2019

Greed, the power of a few, can’t grow to heavens, all over the solar system, then the galaxy, or we will end with evil so great, we can’t even imagine it.

The Roman Republic had the same problem, and succeeded to limit greed and power for around 5 centuries… This is why it lasted so long, until it was increasing replaced and displaced by the imperial plutocracy known as the Principate. 

By 150 BCE, Roma had a gigantic empire, taking weeks to cross. Plutocracy got out of control, thanks to globalization which, then as now, enabled the wealthiest to escape local laws. 

In -133, the tribune of the plebs Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a very high level military official renounced his (topmost) Patrician status to be elected Tribune of the People. He attempted an agrarian reform in Rome (lex Sempronia) which stipulated that no citizen can personally occupy more than 500 jugeres of the ager publicus (public lands), with a maximum of 1000 (250 hectares) if he had two sons and forbids grazing on the public pasture more than one hundred head of cattle or five hundred of small. The land, taken over by the State from the large landowners (compensated), was to be distributed in inalienable lots of 30 jugeres to the poor citizens. Tibérius hoped to encourage the inactive plebs to return to the land and fight against depopulation of the countryside, and the increasing underclass..

Tiberius passed his law by relying on the tradition (the limitation to 500 jugeres was a return to the agrarian law of Caius Licinius Stolon) and on the liberal fraction of the Senate. The proposal is first supported by the consul P. Mucius Scaevola, the ex-consul Appius Claudius Pulcher, Pontifex Maximus  P. Licinius Crassus, Q. Metellus  and some others. The tribune M. Octavius, who opposes the reform, is deposed of his office unanimously by the comices summoned by Tibérius in violation of the constitution. The agrarian law passed in an aggravated form (no indemnity).

Now think of it. Say one acre is worth 4,000 dollars… 

https://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Todays_Reports/reports/land0818.pdf

The maximum wealth is then 2,000 x 4,000 ~ 10 x 10^6= 10 million dollars.

This gives an idea of the order of magnitude of what Roman Republicans thought was reasonable as wealth limit. Later, under the fascist Principate (the degraded republican oligarchy Augustus set up), individuals worth many billions (of today’s dollars) were many: they would build entire circuses or theaters, organized and financed extravagant, extremely costly “games”…

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Topmost general, top revolutionary… But too trusting in human nature’s rationality… Iulius Caesar…

Roman censors punished those culprit as what was viewed as extravagant living (and they were busy). When that became not enough, the Roman Republic enacted “sumptuary laws”, limiting extravagant private wealth exhibition: no woman could wear more than half an ounce of gold, for example (Lex Oppia, 213 BCE, passed during the Second Punic War). Lex Orchia, passed three years after the Censorship of Cato the Elder (181 BCE), limited the number of guests at parties, among other things.

SUMTUARIAE LEGES, was the name of various laws passed over the centuries to prevent inordinate expense (sumtus) in banquets, dress, &c. (Gellius, II.24,XX.1). In antiquity, and not just in the Roman Republic, it was considered the duty of government to put a check upon extravagance in the private expenses of persons. The censors, to whom was entrusted the disciplina or cura morum, punished by the nota censoria all persons guilty of luxurious mode of living: a great many instances of this kind are recorded [Censor, p264, a.] 

There were many such laws. An example: Lex Didia, passed 143 B.C.E, extended the Lex Fannia to the whole of Italy, and enacted that not only those who gave entertainments which exceeded in expense what the law had prescribed, but also all who were present at such entertainments, should be liable to the penalties of the law. (Macrob. Sat. III.17.6). But as the love of luxury greatly increased with the immense foreign conquests of the Republic and the luxurious moods of various potentates thereupon infected the Republic, the sumptuary laws went by the way side too.

Nowadays, we could start sumptuary laws by not having We The People subsidize private jets… Or having cruise ships pay tax on fuel, etc. The French put a tax on business and first class air travel…

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Julius Caesar, Redistributive Revolutionary:

Caesar was elected consul for 59 BC. The most controversial measure Caesar introduced was an agrarian bill to allot plots of land to the landless poor for farming, which clashed with the traditional conservative opposition. In historian Cassius Dio‘s opinion, Caesar tried to appear to promote the interests of the optimates as well as those of the people (POPULARES). Caesar read the draft of the bill to the senate, asked for the opinion of each senator and promised to amend or scrap any clause that had raised objections. 

The optimates were annoyed because the bill, to their embarrassment, could not be criticised. Moreover, passing the law would give Caesar popularity and power. Even though no optimate spoke against it, no one expressed approval. The law would distribute public and private land to all citizens instead of just Pompey’s veterans and would do so without any expense for the city or any loss for the optimates. It would be financed with the proceeds from Pompey’s war booty and the new tributes and taxes in the east Pompey established with his victories in the Third Mithridatic War

Private land was to be bought at the price assessed in the tax-lists to ensure fairness. The land commission in charge of the allocations would have twenty members so that it would not be dominated by a clique and so that many men could share the honour. Caesar added that it would be run by the most suitable men, an invitation to the optimates to apply for these posts. He ruled himself out of the commission to avoid suggestions that he proposed the measure out of self-interest and said that he was happy with being just the proposer of the law. 

The senators kept delaying the vote. Cato advocated the status quo. Caesar came to the point of having him dragged out of the senate house and arrested. Many senators followed suit and left. Caesar adjourned the session and decided that since the senate was not willing to pass a preliminary decree Caesar would get the plebeian council to vote. He did not convene the senate for the rest of his consulship and proposed motions directly to the plebeian council

Appian wrote that the law provided for distribution of public land that was leased to generate public revenues in Campania, especially around Capua, to citizens who had at least three children, and that this included 20,000 men. When many senators opposed the bill, Caesar pretended to be indignant and rushed out of the senate. Appian noted that Caesar did not convene it again for the rest of the year. Instead, he harangued the people and proposed his bills to the plebeian council. Suetonius also mentioned the 20,000 citizens with three children. He also wrote that the allocations concerned land in the plain of Stella that had been made public in by-gone days, and other public lands in Campania that had not been allotted but were under lease. Plutarch, who had a pro-aristocratic slant, thought that this law was not becoming of a consul, but for a most radical plebeian tribune

Land distribution, which was anathema to conservative aristocrats, was usually proposed by the plebeian tribunes who were often described by Roman writers (who were usually wealthy aristocrats) as base and vile. It was opposed by ‘men of the better sort’ (aristocrats) and this gave Caesar an excuse to rush to the plebeian council, claiming that he was driven to it by the obduracy of the senate. It was only the most arrogant plebeian tribunes who courted the favour of the multitude and now Caesar did this to support his consular power “in a disgraceful and humiliating manner”.

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The Gracchi were assassinated. By the wealthiest. Because of the land redistribution law. So was Caesar, leader of the POPULARES… Caesar was in a league of his own. He was not just a fantastic general and a dictator, or, as some have erroneous said, the first “emperor” (there had been many “imperators” before). Caesar was also a genuine revolutionary, just what Rome needed. Like the Gracchi, he took shortcuts (they all may have had to). Their biggest mistake was to have been assassinated.

A few months ago, I was reading a new misinforming book by a famous historian from one of the wealthiest universities (most of the book was good, but that made the misinformation within that much more lethal). The professor pontificated that there was not a shred of revolution in Caesar’s bones. But, actually, the Lex Iulia, Caesar’s agrarian reform, passed… 15 years later, the plutocrats killed Caesar…

The absurd, counterfactual position of this US university professor teaches us that, to this day, the quarrel of the Populares with the plutocrats is ongoing. His wealthy sponsors (through his wealthy university) instilled in that historian, a spirit of dismissal of Caesar, where it could really hurt plutocracy….

Now Elizabeth Warren 2% wealth tax above 50 million dollars is far from the ferocity of the Roman Republic laws against wealth, power, and luxury. But one has to start somewhere…

Patrice Ayme