ancient civilizations

The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
Installment 55
Roman Empire

We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.

Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.

more of CHAPTER 23, CIVILIZATIONS GONE BEFORE

Greece and Rome Died from What Now Ails America

If peerless Greece fell, shall the American nation escape? We have public schools, the printing-press and manhood suffrage. We have far more democratic political institutions. If great intellectual advancement could not save socially unequal Greece, how can it save this Republic, with its widening social gulf?

Chattel slavery does not exist among us, but a widespread, extending and deepening industrial slavery does. For those who own the soil and the avenues of transportation and who order taxation are the masters in fact of those who have to submit to these things.

The march of concentration is bringing these privileges into amazingly few hands, and the real, if indirect, slavery that this entails is more heartless than the old-time chattel slavery, because it operates through the bitter competition of the masses for opportunities of employment which Privilege controls.

So fearful are many that they will not be able to find other means of livelihood should they lose such as they have, that they are reduced to a pitiable and totally unAmerican state of dependence. They may in a sense be said to go with their employment, much as serfs went with the land they tilled. And in that sense they may be described in Aristotle's words, "The living machines which a man [the owner of a privilege] possesses."

Because we verbally subscribe to principles of democratic-republicanism we feel that we are and that we act as democratic-republicans. Yet the Greeks uttered principles not a whit less broad and deep. Witness the funeral oration attributed to Pericles: -

Controlling the getting of a living, the privileged class must control in all other respects. No matter how free and equal political institutions be, such social inequality inevitably converts the community into Plato's "hares and lions." In the ordinary run of political affairs we now have, as Professor Mahaffy said of conditions in Greece, a "small minority ruling a far greater population." Methods differ from those employed in Greece, but results must be practically the same.

And is there not here, as there was in Greece, a "tendency in the cultivated classes to stand aside from politics," meaning, to refuse to participate as equal citizens? How many of our very rich vote? Their influence too often tells through campaign contributions and the control of political machines. It is the rule of corruption. And those of the "cultured classes" who have a disgust for this kind of thing try to escape it by eschewing politics.

More and more well-circumstanced American citizens are not exercising the right of suffrage. Partisan newspapers deplore its abandonment for golf, yachting or house-parties. Among those who thus shirk their duty are not a few who speak of manhood suffrage as being a failure; who describe Thomas Jefferson as an "impractical theorist" and the Declaration of Independence as false in asserting "equal" and "inalienable" rights. On the other hand, they are ready to condone in government any new step, however revolutionary, or the holding to any precedent, however reactionary, if such course will conserve "property."

Greece fell, not because of an absence of real democracy in her political organization, but because of social inequality. A community of social equals can easily and will quickly change what does not suit its needs.

Greece fell because socially she was, as Voltaire said of France anterior to the Revolution, "rotten before ripe." Some of her people were intellectually and materially lifted to high Olympus. The mass were plunged into the black waters of the river Styx. Privilege was the cause of these social disparities. It degraded politics at home, it made of the nation a "conquering and imperial democracy" abroad.

Is not Privilege working parallel transformations with us? Has it not degraded our politics at home? Is it not making of us a "conquering and imperial democracy" abroad?

Nor is it less disquieting to compare our results and tendencies with the conditions that accompanied the downfall of imperial Rome. Sallust, in his history of the Catiline political conspiracy just before the ascendency of Caesar, compares the material simplicity and the moral grandeur of earlier Rome with the heaped wealth, the blood-stained plunder, the lavish show, the prodigal extravagance and the base public and private morals of his own time.

Sallust wrote this before the Christian era began. It revealed the course of the nation down to the turbulent, surging time that brought forth the first and greatest Caesar. It showed to what a pass Rome had come before she changed her republican toga for the purple and diadem of an emperor.

The testimony is the stronger because it was probably written before Sallust himself had bowed to avarice and injustice. In extenuation it might be said that he had no means to support him save his brains.

Mere brains without special privilege were as nothing at that stage in Rome's history. Philosophers, poets, scientists, artists, architects and engineers were among the chattel slaves made so by war. Sallust was harried by poverty and allured by voluptuousness. Hope of remedial social and political change grew cold within him. He yielded to the fascinations of sensual delights.

Becoming Governor of the African province of Numidia, he used extortion to heap together a huge fortune. On his return to Rome he built a villa on the Pincian Hill, whose luxury later made it the abode of Emperors. About that villa he laid out gardens whose beauty compelled the wonder and admiration of succeeding generations.

In effect Sallust said: To see the difference between present and earlier conditions one needs but to take a view of the houses of particular citizens both in town and country and compare them with the temples and fortunes of the Fathers of the Republic. Might not we of this nation make a like comparison with particular profit? Is it not a fact that some of our citizens live like crowned monarchs rather than equals in a democratic-republic? Here, as in the Roman world, there has been a great concentration of wealth. Had the Romans expressed themselves in modern style, some one among them might have said, "The Gods in their infinite wisdom have given the wealth-producing and wealth-appropriating powers of this empire into the hands of devout men who will take care of every one else."

For such was the concentration of wealth in Julius Caesar's time that of 450,000 citizens in Rome, 320,500 were living at public expense. And this took no note of the multitudes of freedmen and slaves beneath, who were not citizens. The tribune Phillipus left on record the statement that "there are but 2000 individuals in Rome who own anything."

What was the cause of this? Pliny summed it up in a phrase, "Latifundia perdidere Italiam," meaning, "The great estates have ruined Italy." Not only had the small ownerships been absorbed, but the great stretches of public domain had been seized by the nobles. "The powerful men of our time," complained Columella, "have estates so large that they cannot make the circuit of them in a day on horseback." An old Italian inscription shows that an aqueduct nine miles in length traversed the domains of only six proprietors. By the fourth century the evil of great estates had extended to the provinces; the latifundia had everywhere absorbed petty ownerships. Eleven men owned the Province of Africa and eighty-three the whole territory of Leontini in Sicily.

Thus the small landowners, the independent husbandmen who had formed the brawn and sinew of the legions in the early days of the Republic, were squeezed out of their holdings and forced to become renters. Rents were extortionate; and falling into arrears and becoming insolvent, these men became coloni, or serfs.

In the words of the law, they were "slaves of the land." Or else, avoiding the crushing burdens of rent and taxes, these small farmers sought employment of the great estate owners in degrading competition with the slaves whom Varro called "instrumentum vocale," meaning, "the talking kind of agricultural implements," and whom the great Greek, Aristotle, had called "the living machines which a man possesses."

Usury in a variety of forms was practiced by the landed class. The rate ranged from twenty per cent. upward, with imprisonment, slavery or death as the penalty of non-payment.

Nor was this all. A comparatively few had a complete monopoly of commerce. The exercise of the right of free commerce (jus commercii) was restricted to Roman citizens. The allies and subjugated nations were prohibited from commercial relations beyond their respective territories. This commercial monopoly brought superabundant riches to a small number of men, who, at first not nobles, bought vast estates and were quickly admitted to the noble class. One of these men boasted that he had more money than "three kings." Rabirius found no difficulty in lending on a sudden to a fugitive prince 100,000,000 sesterces (perhaps not above $4,000,000); and Didius Julianus gave what is variously estimated at from $12,000,000 to $18,000,000 to the Praetorian Guards in donatives to be made Emperor.

Are we not beginning to show some points of similarity with these things?

Next Week: Rome and America


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