Expansion and slave society

In the second article in his series on the Roman empire Chris Gray examines the imperial oligarchy

Over a period of some 200 years from the middle of the 4th to the middle of the 2nd century BCE, Rome was transformed from a slightly more than average-scale Italian city-state into the centre of a Mediterranean empire. This was achieved in a number of stages, beginning with the conquest of all Italy south of the Apennines (343-272BCE) and followed by the conquest of the Carthaginian empire and Greece.

Roman hegemony in Italy

Having established an ascendancy over the other Latin towns and beaten off attacks by the neighbouring Aequi and Volsci, and having fought a series of successful duels with the nearby Etruscan city of Veii, which they finally annexed in 396 BCE, the Romans then faced a threat from the Gauls, who burst into the valley of the Po early in the 4th century, defeated the Etruscans and proceeded to settle north of the Apennines and along the Adriatic coast as far south as the neighbourhood of modern Ancona. A Gallic force advanced into Etruria and clashed with the Romans, inflicting a resounding defeat on them at the battle of the Allia in 390. These Gauls then went on to sack Rome.

Fortunately for the Romans, the Gallic force was only a large-scale raiding party and not part of a full-scale invasion. The Romans recovered and were able to re-embark on a process of expansion in the second half of the 4th century. This took the form of a struggle against the Samnites, a federation of tribes inhabiting the central Apennines - speakers of Oscan, an Italian language akin to Latin. There were three Samnite wars, in 343-41, 326-04 and 298-90. During this period the Romans granted citizens’ rights to the inhabitants of a number of Latin towns.

This was a momentous step. As Egyptologist Bruce Trigger has pointed out, the ancient world was dominated by two types of state - individual cities and extensive territorial empires. The city-states often showed a tendency to expand by overpowering their neighbours, but none was able to effectively extend citizenship rights to members of alien communities. The Athenians, for example, never succeeded in treating the inhabitants of those Greek cities that they established control over as anything but subjects, and the Spartans and Thebans, who became masters of Greece after them, were no more accommodating. After Alexander of Macedon had conquered the Persian empire, his Hellenistic successors ruled Greek empires on the Persian model. It was the Romans who created a new synthesis of empire and city-state.

As Cornell notes, “The settlement which the Romans imposed after 338 established a pattern for the future development of Roman expansion in Italy. It combined a number of constitutional innovations and created a unique structure which made possible the rise of the Roman empire. In the opinion of De Sanctis this was the turning point of Roman history.

“The settlement was based on two broad principles. First, the Romans dealt with the various defeated communities individually rather than in groups. Leagues and confederations were dissolved, and their constituent units bound to Rome by separate ties. Second, a set of distinctive types of relationships was established, so that Rome’s subjects were divided into formal juridical categories defined by the specific rights and obligations of each community in relation to the Roman state. In this way a ‘Roman commonwealth’ was created, based on a hierarchy of statuses among its various members.”1

The Romans also sent out colonies to various parts of Italy. The citizens in these colonies could govern themselves along Roman lines, but were not able to vote in assemblies at Rome. Colonies with Latin rights could also be established. Consequently the whole citizenship policy was tailor-made to allow for the expansion of the state.

To quote Cornell again, “This manifested itself in three ways. First, the institution of the self-governing municipium enabled the Roman state to go on extending its territory and incorporating new communities without having to make any radical changes to its rudimentary system of centralised administration. Second, by the invention of the civitas sine suffragio [citizenship without vote] the Romans could increase their citizen manpower, but still maintain the essential character of Rome as a city-state and the integrity of its traditional political institutions. The third vital innovation of this period was the resurrection (in changed circumstances but essentially the same form) of the institution of the Latin colony.

“After the settlement of 338 BC, Latin status ceased to have a distinct ethnic or linguistic significance, and came instead to depend on the possession of legally defined rights and privileges that could be exercised in dealings with Roman citizens. A Latin state could therefore be created simply by an enactment of the Roman people conferring Latin rights on it. By the same token, a new Latin community could be founded ex novo. The fact that the Latin League no longer existed did not matter; the city became ‘Latin’ because it possessed certain rights in relation to Rome. This juridical shift was important because it meant that Latin communities no longer had to be located in Latium, but could be placed anywhere.”2

It is worth noting that, as the Romans extended their control over Italy, they met with opposition from the democratic elements in towns threatened. For example, in the Greek city of Neapolis (modern Naples) the demos favoured the Samnites, but the oligarchs were pro-Roman; the oligarchs staged a coup d’etat in favour of Rome in 326. This pattern was repeated in the Roman conquest of Greece in the next century.

As Michael Crawford points out, this was a rerun of events in Etruria: “In return for support against the lower orders, the governing classes were only too happy to accept Roman overlordship, as at Arretium in 302 and Volsinii in 264. It was a technique that Rome never forgot.”3

Crawford also pinpoints an additional ideological factor in the Roman expansion process: “Rome drew no tributum [tribute] from any of her associates (other than from the cives sine suffragio) or allies, but demanded from them manpower. The origin of the institution is intelligible enough in a world in which Rome and Latium and the Hernici [a people allied early on with the Romans and Latins] lived under permanent threat of invasion from marauding upland tribesmen; but the consequence of the institution was that the only way in which Rome could derive benefit from her confederation was by summoning troops. The only way in which she could symbolise her leadership, a factor of at least as great importance in an empire as its practical benefits, was by placing the troops of the confederacy under the command of the consuls. And then - what else but war and conquest?”4

Cornell makes the same point rather more bluntly: “The Roman system has been compared to a criminal operation which compensates its victims by enrolling them in the gang and inviting them to share the proceeds of future robberies. This brutal analogy brings us back to the point about the Roman state’s need to make war. Any self-respecting criminal gang would soon break up if its boss decided to abandon crime and ‘go legitimate’”5

Defeat of Pyrrhus

The series of events that established Rome as a Mediterranean power to be reckoned with was the duel between Rome’s citizen-peasant army and the invasion force led by king Pyrrhus of Epirus. Pyrrhus was invited into Italy by the Greeks of Taras (Tarentum) because they needed help against the encroaching power of Rome. The first engagement in the campaign, the battle of Heraclea (280BCE), was typical:

“The opposing forces were about numerically equal, but the citizen militia of Rome and her allies was face to face with a first-class professional Hellenistic army. The Roman legion met the Macedonian phalanx for the first time. The tactics employed by Pyrrhus were essentially similar to those of Alexander and Hannibal. He sought to hold or wear down the Roman infantry with the serried ranks of his phalanx, which presented to the short swords of the legionaries a hedge of projecting spearheads, almost as impenetrable as a barbed-wire entanglement; at the same time his elephants and cavalry not only prevented his line being outflanked, but also broke the enemy’s wings and turned their flanks instead. So it fell out at Heraclea.

“The Romans were terrified by their first encounter in battle with elephants, which untrained horses will not face. Their cavalry was driven back and, leaving 7,000 men on the field, they fled to Venusia, where Aemilius, a consul of the previous year, was still stationed. But Pyrrhus, whose resources were far more limited than those of his foe, lost 4,000 men in this ‘Pyrrhic victory’, though his cause was strengthened by the support of the Lucanians and Samnites and by the adhesion of Croton and Locri.”6

Thus the phrase ‘Pyrrhic victory’, meaning a victory with dangerously high losses, entered the vocabulary of military history.

Pyrrhus offered peace after an interval, but the Romans would have none of it. Pyrrhus was then faced with the choice of responding to a Celtic invasion of Macedonia or to Carthaginian advances threatening the whole Greek position in Sicily. He decided in favour of Sicily and crossed to the island in 278. Once again he failed to force his operations to a successful conclusion, returning to Italy in 276, only to be defeated by the Romans at Beneventum in 275. His efforts in Sicily had prevented the island being overrun by the Carthaginians, but his failure in Italy had more momentous effects:

“It sealed the fate of the Italiote Greeks, it demonstrated the rock-like solidarity of the Roman confederacy, against which Pyrrhus had flung his professional soldiers in vain, and it showed the whole Hellenistic world that the unknown barbarians of central Italy were in fact a great military and imperial state, with which Ptolemaic Egypt now established diplomatic relations.”7

Imperialism and slavery

There was a clear close relationship between Roman imperialism and the development of what one might call ‘mature slave society’ in this period.

As Cornell observes, “poor Roman citizens were sent away to colonise lands whose original inhabitants were brought back to Roman territory as slaves. The process was complicated by a change in the relative distribution of the inhabitants in the old ager Romanus [Roman territory], with a greater proportion than before living in the city, and a corresponding reduction in the population of the countryside. The same land was worked by a smaller number of people; since they were slaves they could be worked harder and organised more effectively, so as to produce a greater surplus. Increased productivity was stimulated by the development of an urban market in the growing and prosperous city of Rome.”8 This, says Cornell, is hypothesis, but plausible nonetheless.

Keith Hopkins notes the growing affluence of the Roman ruling class in the process of imperial expansion: “The Roman elite enhanced its status by spending this new wealth on ostentatious display in the city of Rome and other Italian towns. Such expenditure provided new forms of employment for both free citizens and for slaves, and created a new demand for food in towns. This increased demand for food was met partly by imports of food raised as tax in the provinces and partly out of a new surplus grown on Italian farms.”9

Hopkins’s remarks about the obtainment of food supplies via taxes levied on the provinces refer, strictly speaking, to the period following the first Punic War (264-41BCE), but he is right about the overall trajectory of Roman imperialism from the middle of the 3rd century BCE onwards.

Carthage and Roman expansion

All in all, Roman society grew in sophistication following Rome’s conquest of Italy. A silver coinage was introduced in 269. Five years later came the clash with the Carthaginians.

It appears that the Carthaginian empire, although apparently rather more commercially based than that of Rome, nevertheless had certain features in common with it and may have exhibited a similar dynamic. There were certainly some political parallels. Scullard points out that the Phoenician settlers in Carthage were governed by a pair of annually appointed judges - suffetes, the Latin version of a Cathaginian word similar to the early Israeli shophetim:

“In original function these magistrates were judges rather than general: the early aims of Carthage were commercial, not military. The real conduct of state affairs rested with a council of (perhaps) 30, which included the suffetes, and with a senate of 300, of which the 30 were a sub-committee. Matters carefully prepared by these bodies, or questions on which the higher powers could not agree, might be brought before a popular assembly of citizens, but where agreement was reached the assembly would not usually be consulted. In the assembly, however, there was great freedom of speech, and it was the people who, with certain restrictions, elected the suffetes, the members of both councils, and the generals …

“Stability was further increased by vesting judicial power not in the people but in a council of 104, chosen from the larger senate. This court of judges, which was first established to check the tyrannical tendencies of the house of Mago, supervised the administration of the magistrates. Yet, as these judges were elected not by the people but by a group of magistrates whom Aristotle called pentarchies or boards of five, the state gradually succumbed to the domination of a close and corrupt oligarchy of judges and pentarchs, until Hannibal cleansed the administration.

“The effective government was thus in the hands of an oligarchy of nobles. But it is uncertain how far they formed an aristocracy of birth or wealth, how far they closed their ranks against other aspirants to office and how far their interests were commercial or agricultural. “10

Scullard adds: “Many of these nobles continued to derive their wealth from commerce and industry, but others, in answer to the needs of the growing population for food, gradually turned to agriculture and became large landowners. Big estates were cultivated by cheap slave labour and the success achieved by the landed gentry in scientific farming may be gauged by the fact that after the fall of Carthage the Roman senate had Mago’s 32 books on agriculture translated into Latin for the benefit of Roman colonists.”11

Carthage dominated the western Mediterranean in the mid-3rd century BCE, having done so effectively since around 535, when a combined Carthaginian and Etruscan naval force defeated the Phokaian Greeks. The principal object of this exercise was to protect Carthage’s trading interests in southern Spain, which contained mineral resources (eg, silver) - Scullard speaks of “an almost inexhaustible source of natural wealth and manpower”. Carthaginian control over the Straits of Gibraltar enabled the city mariners to explore the Atlantic coast of north Africa and to push northwards to what the Greeks called the Kasseritides, the ‘Tin Islands’ - ie, Britain. Meanwhile, in addition to the north African territory which she controlled, directly or indirectly, Carthage also had settlements in Sardinia and in western Sicily. Her attempts to gain full control of Sicily were checked by the Greek colonial cities on the island, chief of which was Syracuse.

Clearly Carthaginian power, if it came to a contest, was bound to present Rome with a formidable challenge, and so it proved. The first and second Punic Wars - ‘Punic’ derives from the Roman word for ‘Carthaginians’, Poeni (obviously related to ‘Phoenicians’) - ran from 264 to 241 and from 218 to 201BCE. The Romans came through with flying colours, and went on to dominate the Mediterranean completely by extending their empire into Greece, Macedonia and Asia minor. The climax of this process came with the destruction of the city of Carthage, which the Romans still feared as a rival, and of Corinth, famously sacked by the troops under the command of L Mummius, who developed a strong taste for appropriating Greek art objects.

Roman treatment of Greece was initially mild and conciliatory, but became exceptionally cruel following the battle of Pydna in 168 BCE, when the Romans defeated King Perseus of Macedon in the third Macedonian War. Perseus had pledged support for the democratic factions in the Greek cities, and these became targets:

“The cities were cleared of all Macedonian sympathizers by a brutal putsch. In Aetolia 500 of the anti-Roman party were put to death after a farcical trial and throughout northern Greece the predominance of Rome was explicitly recognised; Athens alone received preferential treatment. In Achaea on the advice of the infamous Callicrates [pro-Roman Achaean leader, who became widely hated in Greece as a traitor] one thousand men were deported to Italy on the pretext of being tried at Rome; among them was the historian, Polybius.

“In Epirus Rome’s treatment was still more brutal. Aemilius Paullus was ordered to plunder the country systematically; at one fell swoop 150,000 Epirotes were carried off to the Roman slave-market and the country was left desolate. This inexcusable barbarity shocked even a world on whose conscience cruelty did not lie heavily.”e:12

When Paullus died, in 160, “he was worth 360,000 denarii, at a time when a legionary was probably paid 108 denarii a year. Paullus was regarded as poor, within the Roman aristocracy.”13

Latifundia and the equites

Clearly the increased supply of slaves gave a boost to the creation of large landed estates worked by slave labour, which were already in evidence. The elder Cato’s treatise on agriculture, De agri cultura, assumes slave labour supervised by a bailiff (vilicus). Cato the Elder lived from approximately 234 to 149BCE; his treatise has a homespun feel, but he is keen to stress the importance of making a profit out of farming (cf II, 7: Patrem familias vendacem, non emacem esse oportet - “The master should have the selling habit, not the buying habit”) and, according to the editor of the Loeb (bilingual) edition, “he became in later years the owner of great plantations worked by slave labour” (page ix).

Scullard notes: “As the ravages of war in Italy had created a shortage of free men willing to settle on the land, and as foreign wars had flooded the Italian slave markets, servile labour soon began to oust free labour on the bigger estates.”14

Under these conditions the peninsula witnessed the growth of what were later characterised as latifundia (latus fundus = a large farm). The word itself only appears in the literary records in the time of Augustus, but the phenomenon itself is clearly earlier. Cato in his work envisages as “the best kind of farm” (praedium quod primum siet) a holding of 100 iugera of land (roughly 66.67 acres) (I, 7), situated in Latium or Campania, and preferably capable of bearing vines. This is, it would seem, a medium-sized holding for the period.15 This suggests that there existed in Cato’s time holdings of around 150 iugera or more. There was also nothing to stop aristocrats owning any number of properties in various parts of Italy - indeed it was a political advantage to do so, as it was possible to build up a client following in any area where one owned land. Also share-cropping tenants could be made use of.16

The expansion of Roman territories also gave great opportunities to that social group immediately below the senatorial aristocracy, known as equites (literally ‘horsemen’; the traditional translation is ‘knights’). Despite the fact that this group was where republican Rome’s merchant capitalists and usurers were to be found, we need to remember that it was not a class in the Marxist sense of the term, but an order, the ordo equester. The name goes back to the regal period, when king Servius Tullius allegedly decided to institute a cavalry arm 1,800-strong with horses supplied at state expense: they were known as equites equo publico (‘with a public horse’), and for voting purposes comprised 18 centuries in the Comitia Centuriata (Assembly of Centuries).

“About 400 BC, men on their own horses (equites equo privato) were added to the cavalry. They did not share the voting privilege, but were given at least some of the status marks, of the others. In the 3rd century Roman cavalry proved increasingly ineffective in war and by 200 was largely replaced by auxilia [allied troops]. But equites retained their social eminence and became a corps from which officers and the staffs of governors and commanders were drawn. This new ‘equestrian’ service was within reach of any wealthy and well-connected family and the old exclusiveness was undermined.”17

The final separation of the senatorial and equestrian orders is datable only from 129BCE, as Badian states in the above article, when senators (but not their non-senatorial relatives) were excluded from the equestrian centuries, but the political recognition of a distinct non-senatorial commercial interest can be seen in the Lex Claudia of 218, under which senators and their sons were prohibited from owning ships above a certain tonnage to transport the produce of their estates.18 This had the effect of making it more difficult for senators to engage in overseas trade, but they got round the law by using front-men or relatives.

Badian summarises: “The new ordo was a disparate body. Round an aristocratic Roman core … were grouped leading men from colonies and muncipia [towns with Roman citizenship rights], publicani [tax-collectors] and even negotiatores (businessmen) - many of similar background, but some self-made men. Free birth and a landed interest were prerequisites for social recognition … Senators and equites in the late republic thus formed a plutocracy sharing both landed and business interests in a continuous range of proportions.”19

The community of interest existing between senatorial aristocrats and equites was reinforced by the absence of a mass market for commodities, such as we are familiar with under industrial capitalism. Peasants, whether free of obligations to the rich landowners or surviving as their tenants, produced enough to feed themselves and clung to their land; slaves ipso facto constituted no mass market. Hence the only tappable consumers were the urban artisans, on the one hand, and the exploiting classes themselves, on the other. The result was that there was no effective incentive for entrepreneurs to invest in industrial enterprises employing wage labour except on a small scale; such a market as there was could also be supplied using slave labour. Hence fortunes acquired in commerce tended to be reinvested - if they were reinvested - in real estate. This is exemplified by the freedmen, Trimalchio, in Petronius’s novel Satyricon: Trimalchio makes his money initially via wholesale trade in wine, but then invests in land, while simultaneously becoming a money-lender.

Plebeians and the Roman constitution

These economic developments need to be borne in mind when assessing the degree of political advance achieved by the plebeian masses under the Roman constitution. The Lex Hortensia of 287 ostensibly marked the victory of the plebs when it ordained that decisions of the plebeian assembly, the Concilium Plebis, had the force of law (Hortensius was the dictator who pushed this through).

But the big difference between the Athenian assembly and the various representative Roman bodies was that, whereas at Athens the assembly met at regular intervals as a matter of course, the various Roman equivalents could not meet unless summoned by a magistrate. Even the Concilium Plebis depended on the summons of a tribune. The Comitia, furthermore, were unable to initiate any proposals: their function was only to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to proposals put to them by a magistrate, or to choose between various candidates for office - less power, on the face of it, than that of the Carthaginian demos. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that it was the senate, rather than the people, that was sovereign - a relationship enshrined in the famous initials SPQR (Senatus populusque Romanus   the senate and the Roman people).

Secondly the magistrates were not, as they were at Athens, accountable to the people. Despite that, (point three), the people could only advance their interests in collusion or alliance with a magistrate - their own tribunes were ostensibly the choice, but even these could not be relied upon under all circumstances. Fourthly, conditions applied which we are familiar with under contemporary ‘democracy’ - only more so. As Tim Cornell notes, “only members of the elite could stand for magisterial office. Whether or not there was a formal property qualification, it is obvious that only the wealthy could put themselves forward for positions that were unpaid and might entail considerable expense. Moreover, given the restrictions on canvassing and the absence of any means of making oneself known to the electorate, an outsider without powerful connections and backing would have had no chance at all. It is significant that the term nobilis means literally ‘well known’.”20

Fifth, popular decisions were not expressed by a simple majority of those present and voting (as at Athens), but by a block vote system, and in the Comitia Centuriata the distribution of centuries among the various income classes was in inverse proportion to the number of citizens in each group, so that the wealthiest class, voting first, whose numbers were relatively small, was spread across 80 centuries; together with the 18 equestrian centuries, this group could command an absolute majority - 98 out of 193 centuries, whereas the literal ‘proletariat’, who did not possess the minimum military property qualification, were enrolled in a single century, which often did not get to vote because the issue had already been decided.

If all these checks failed, there was always religion, which could be used against any initiative that the oligarchs viewed with disapproval. Cicero defended such practices because, as he saw it, “the immortal gods have often restrained, by means of auspices [omens], the unjust impetuosity of the people.”21

These aspects, deficiencies from a democratic point of view, were definite advantages as far as the Roman oligarchs were concerned. Indeed it can be said that Rome was an ideal-type imperial oligarchy.22

However, the oligarchs did not have things all their own way. Marx speaks in the Communist manifesto of class struggles involving “freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian”.23 The creation of a specifically Roman form of ‘mature slave society’ at the close of the second Punic War was followed by a series of slave revolts - in 198, 196, 187 and 135-132. The revolt of 104-100 and the final great uprising of 73-71BCE, associated with the name of Spartacus, we must leave till later.

Let us also leave, for the moment, the Roman republican imperialist oligarchy at its high point in 146, in order to take up the domestic challenge to its power posed by the Gracchus brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, and their followers, in the next article.


1. TJ Cornell The beginnings of Rome London 1995, p348.
2. Ibid pp351-52.
3. M Crawford The Roman republic (second edition) Harvard 1992, p21.
4. Ibid pp47-48.
5. TJ Cornell The beginnings of Rome London 1995, p367.
6. HH Scullard A history of the Roman world 753 to 146 BC London 1969, pp120-21.
7. Ibid p124.
8. TJ Cornell The beginnings of Rome London 1995, p394.
9. K Hopkins Conquerors and slaves Cambridge 1978, p12.
10. HH Scullard A history of the Roman world London 1969, p138.
11. Ibid p139.
12. Ibid pp273-74.
13. M Crawford The Roman republic (second edition) Harvard 1992, p75.
14. HH Scullard A history of the Roman world London 1969, p334.
15. See The Oxford companion to classical civilisation p146.
16. Cato’s treatise deals with this topic: see also Cicero De Lege Agraria ii, 84.
17. Oxford companion p264, article by E Badian.
18. HH Scullard A history of the Roman world London 1969, pp169, 309.
19. Oxford companion p269.
20. TJ Cornell The beginnings of Rome London 1995, p380.
21. Saepe enim populi impetum iniustum auspiciis di immortales represserunt (De Legibus III, 27).
22. See Perry Anderson’s comments in Passages from antiquity to feudalism London 1974, pp57-59.
23. K Marx, F Engels Selected works Vol 1, p34.