The Fight between Slave and Free

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Theresa Urbainczyk looks at the social struggles of ancient Rome.

Class struggle in Rome seems quite simple. The Romans, after all, not only gave us the triumphal arch and the sewer, but also gave us the expression 'plebs', since Roman citizens were categorised either as patricians or plebeians. In the early days these fought each other for control of the city. But by the late Republican period, the time in which the recent TV series is set, the picture became more complicated and less easy to explain in these terms, since some plebeians were very wealthy and very powerful, and the label no longer had much meaning.

Make a desert and call it peace

Similarly, the presence of slaves complicated the picture and reduced the obvious conflict between the rich and poor. The poor could look on the slaves and think, 'Well, at least I'm not a slave.' Slavery meant the upper classes did not have to exploit the poorer citizens directly. Slaves worked the land, served the rich in their houses and baths, entertained them, fed them and often educated them. The very poor free Romans were originally not even eligible to serve in the Roman army, as there was a minimum property qualification. Eventually this was abolished so that any citizen, however poor, could be a Roman soldier.

The Roman Republic was an oligarchy but there was some element of political participation by the lower classes - the votes were weighted so those of the rich counted for more than those of the poor, but there was voting nevertheless. This meant that politicians had to take some notice of the lower classes, and sometimes they even took up their causes.

In approximately the 100 years from 150 to 50 BC Rome had gone from being a large city in the Mediterranean, with acquisitions in Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and Spain, to being the dominating power in the area, having virtual total control of it, with provinces stretching from Gaul to the Black Sea. Fighting was what the Romans did best, and those they didn't kill in the process were taken as slaves.

Calgacus, the defiant leader of a Caledonian tribe, is reported by the Roman historian Tacitus to have told his troops on the eve of a great battle:

'They [the Romans] plunder the whole world: and having exhausted the land, they now scour the sea. If their victims are rich, their greed is for gain, if they are poor it is for glory, and neither east nor west can satisfy them. They are the only people in the world who covet wealth and others' lack of wealth with equal greed. To robbery, murder and pillage they give the false name of empire, and when they make a desert they call it peace.'

War had brought unparalleled and unprecedented personal fortunes for Rome's victorious generals. Crassus, a phenomenally rich contemporary of Caesar, is supposed to have said that you could only be called wealthy if you could maintain an army at your own expense. And while winning battles brought money and slaves, maintaining the empire brought unimagined material gain. It was said among the nobles that a provincial governor, the Roman magistrate sent out to run a province for a year, needed to make three fortunes in his year there - one to recoup his election expenses, another to bribe the jury at his expected trial for misgovernment, and the third to maintain him for the rest of his life.

In the ancient world if you had money you bought land, and as most Romans wanted to live as close to Rome as possible they acquired large estates in Italy and then moved into Sicily. Small farms were bought up to make large estates, which were worked by slaves since these were cheap after all the wars of conquest. Those who previously had lived on small farms and occasionally served in the Roman army found themselves increasingly pushed from the land, and naturally headed for the metropolis to find food and work.

One consequence of continual warfare was that having so many slaves working the land was dangerous, since they might revolt, and they did, three times in the 70 years from 140 to 70 BC. This you might say was the real class struggle, the fight between slave and free, and this, after all, is how Marx and Engels start off The Communist Manifesto. But the direct warfare between slave and free was not widely reported by historians, ancient or modern, at least in western countries. In Soviet bloc countries the slaves were glorified and Spartacus became a hero, but for most western historians he was merely a footnote.

From conflict to collapse

There were, however, more of these outbreaks than just that of Spartacus, and the Romans were continually afraid of uprisings of slaves. It was once suggested that all slaves dress as slaves, but this was quickly rejected because they would see how many there were. There was a saying in Rome that 'all slaves were enemies', but of course great care was therefore taken to control them.

While it is true that the class struggle was weakened by the differences between slave and poor, in fact in all the examples of slave revolt we also read about the involvement of free people on their side. During the reign of Nero a rich master was murdered by one of his slaves. The law was that if a man was killed all his slaves would be executed, whether or not they had any involvement, because they should have protected him. In this man's case this meant 400 of them would have lost their lives. There was, however, a riot outside the Senate house to protest at so many innocent people being killed - so here we see poor free Romans trying to protect slaves. They failed in the end as Nero ordered the troops in and the slaves were slaughtered. But they did manage to prevent all the man's freed men being deported from Italy.

The Roman Republic started to collapse under the chaos and pressure brought about by continual warfare and vast amounts of money and slaves being brought into Rome and Italy. At the start of this period of extreme unrest, and during the first slave war on Sicily, in 133 BC, the aristocrat Tiberius Gracchus had proposed a plan to redistribute some of the land in Italy. This proposal aimed to reduce the concentration of slaves and increase the numbers of peasant farmers in order to maintain recruitment levels, but for these radical views he was clubbed to death by his fellow senators along with more than 300 of his supporters, and their bodies were thrown into the river Tiber.

As individual generals became personally wealthy, their power over their own armies grew. Their men became more loyal to their general than to the state because it was the general who ensured they got paid, and received their fair share of the booty and some land when they were discharged. The other side of this was that the generals could and did use their troops to further their own careers. When in 88 BC a general, Sulla, lost his military command in the east to a rival, he simply marched into Rome with his troops and occupied it. The Senate quickly restored his command to him.

The memory of this traumatic event lived on, and Pompey, a rising military and political star, was able to rise faster with the threat of his own legions. Julius Caesar followed along these lines when in 49 BC he crossed the river Rubicon with his troops, a declaration of civil war, since troops were not allowed to leave the province where a general had his command.

While the ruling classes were fighting each other over the loot, the poorer classes who had seen the huge influx of wealth but not had any share in it became more impatient. Long before the disintegration of the system in Rome, the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle had observed that states were safe as long as the ruling class was not divided, however small that ruling class might be. In Rome, in the late Republic, the ruling class was very much divided, and the anger and hostility of the lower classes, who had been ignored and used, were there to be harnessed.

In 52 BC Clodius, an aristocratic politician who had supported laws beneficial to the lower classes, was murdered because of his unacceptable views. Clodius's angry supporters carried his body into the city and, after eulogies for the dead man in the Forum, took it into the Senate house, which they then burnt down. They then vented their rage further and rioted throughout the city, destroying not only property but also, we are told, attacking anyone who looked rich. Ten years before this in 63 BC, another noble, Catiline, had declared support for redistributing land and cancelling debts. He and his supporters were killed by those who viewed him as a dangerous revolutionary. And ten years later, in 44 BC, Julius Caesar, who had also sought support from the poor, was stabbed to death by his friends.

What gives these individuals their significance is that they brought the issues of the poor to the political level from which, in the Roman system, they were virtually excluded without the intervention of the aristocrats.

During the oligarchy the Romans had won a great empire. By doing so they won many more enemies both at home and abroad. With the wealth they acquired, generals furnished their own armies who fought for their own personal interest even against other generals. The final stages of the Republic were marked by wars against those they had recently enslaved, and also by wars where Romans appealed to slaves to help them in their fight against other Romans. The Greek historian Diodorus once observed about the Romans, 'Those who wish to attain hegemony over others employ courage and intelligence to gain it, moderation and acts of kindness to extend it widely, and paralysing terror to secure it.'


Dr Theresa Urbainczyk teaches classical studies at University College Dublin, and is the author of Spartacus (Bristol Classical Press, 2004)