The World History Rewritten
Speaking about Ancient Rome there are two important problems
that have to be aforementioned:
- First, people usually have a quite good knowledge about
the history of Rome in times of late Republic (I-st century BC) and
history of Roman Empire after Caesar. But, as I mentioned before these
times Rome was no more a democracy, but a populistic country. And a
common knowledge about the history of democratic period of Ancient Rome
history (449 - 133 BC) is usually very poor.
- Second, we have limited historical sources about early
ages of Rome. Everything before year 500 BC is half-legendary (like
Lykourgos in Sparta). I think that most of
the facts in Roman chronicles are generally true, but it is my personal
opinion (that roots from laws presented here). Moreover, most of the
chronicles that describe the early ages of Rome were written in times
of late Republic, so are not always impartial.
Rome (509-449 BC)
Traditionally Rome was
founded in 753 BC by Romulus. Next
Pompilius created the senate. Roman nobles (patricians) very
early gained political privileges and thus in times of Etruscan kings
(617-509 BC) Latin Rome was feudal state with extended political
institutions for nobles. This subclass of feudal system is called a
As I said before, Rome became populistic state in the year
509 BC when citizens of Rome banished Etruscan king Tarquinius Superbus, and after a very short
time (only 60 years after) in 449 BC Rome city-state became democratic
What was the reason for so fast political evolution?
Well, here is “quick-and-dirty” explanation:
- First, feudal and
then populistic Rome have no place to expand because have many
strong neighbours: Etruscan city-states and Latin tribal states, so its
political system could not decompose because of too many conquered
lands. Moreover, for the same reason, the war was always was the worst
strategy of increasing wealth for Romans. Trade and export were more
- Rome was important intermediary in salt trade that goes
thorough the city (which made merchant class stronger), and an exporter
of agricultural products (which turned Roman peasants into farmers).
- Rich Etruscan city-states these times colonized the
Northern Italy and were a great market to sell Roman agricultural
Because of reasons mentioned above feudal
Rome under the rule of Etruscan kings became the
“feudal-democracy”. Etruscan kings have limited power
(probably were even elected by Roman nobles), and noble class
(patricians) had many political privileges. As the example of England
(1642-1689) proves, when the feudal state with “feudal-democracy” becomes
very quickly turns into democratic country, if the external economic
After the banishment of Etruscan
kings (509 BC) Rome became a republic. It was a small
populistic city-state that waged many, but rather small wars in
close vicinity (no more than 50 miles from Rome), and its political
system evolved step-by-step evolve through many conflicts between
patricians (who ruled the city) and plebeians who had almost no
political rights at the beginning.
In 494 BC plebeians made the First Seccesion - they went out
from the city threatening that they will not work and fight for
patricians. With that “strike” they gained a special representation: plebeian tribunate - a few special
city-officials (or ombudsmen), who could negate the laws
created by Roman senate dominated by patricians, and have
political immunity (no one citizen could kill plebeian tribune).
That privilege made the further political struggle conducted by
plebeians against the patricians senate much easier. It useful to note
that this success shows the economic strength of plebeians. If
plebeians position had been weaker, they would have been pacified with
force by richer citizens.
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With that institutional protection plebeians could fight for
their rights more effectively. Finally, after the 45 years of
(sometimes brutal) struggle, the populistic system ended. In
the Commission of Ten was
nominated to write down law regulations which was demanded by
plebeians. These times courts (or law enforcement) were dominated by
patricians who often abused law against plebeians, taking advantage of
fact that law regulations wasn’t written down. But the 10 patricians,
who were nominated to the Commission, tried to rule Rome as long as
possible and refused to include plebeians postulates into a new codex.
So, in 449 BC plebeians made the
second secession that effected in a compromise between
patricians and plebeians, and the Laws of
Twelve Tables (lex duodecim tabularum) were legislated. With Valero-Horatian Laws (also 449
it was something like a Constitution and Law Codex of democratic Rome:
- regulated the political life of Rome
- regulated the legal system of Rome
With this dawn of democratic system (in 449 and in a few
subsequent years) plebeians gained also:
- law to marry with
patricians (since then patricians were no longer a closed social class)
- some guaranties and privileges for tribunes and for the
meeting of plebeians
- a law that prohibited to create a city office (institution)
from which decisions a citizen of Rome couldn’t appeal to some other
city institution (ius provocationis).
In other words: a
citizen should always have a right to appeal from arbitrary
Democratic system usually starts when different GPIs
(groups of political interests) have not enough power to dominate
other GPIs, not because of politicians become honest and intelligent or
country inhabitants become more mature. Democratic system is simply an
effect of a draw situation in the struggle for power.
Since then the polity of Rome were changed in an evolutionary
way. And finally after a many decades of political struggle (but waged
in democratic manner) plebeians acquired the law to be elected on every
city office (originally most of offices were accessible only for
patricians). It is useful to compare this evolution with the evolution
of Great Britain political institutions in XVIIIth and XIXth centuries
- Struggle of Orders between patricians andd plebeians resembles the
conflict between Whigs and Tories.
To be honest: usually in democratic manner. There were some exceptions.
For example in 439 BC a rich plebeians Spurius Melius, who presented
grain for free, buying this way a political votes for himself, was
killed by an army officer who had been ordered to arrest him.
Democratic system is not an utopia or ideal
It is rather a continuous, never-ending struggle to protect democratic
institutions against government abuses and manipulations (and sometimes
against the manipulations started by political opposition too) or
against the corruption. The criminal methods of making politics
sometimes happen in democratic system, but
are exception rather than the rule (opposite as in populistic system).
But generally the laws of twelve tables and political
institutions of Rome worked fine for over 300 years. And the higher
rationality of democratic system gave Rome an important advantage over
all of the neighbouring countries.
Democratic system is not free from brainwashing
Of course in democratic system political ideologies have no such power
like in populistic country, but this doesn’t mean that ideologies are
not present in democratic country. Even in democratic system more than
95% of citizens are making their political choices under the influence
of some ideology. Overall effect is rational only because they believe
Rationality of democratic system is an effect of a free market of
ideologies, an effect of freedom and pluralism in the world of
But under some conditions, (ex. when the dangerous or profitable war
comes), there is a chance that political life in democratic country
will be strongly saturated with ideology.
It is a good moment do describe shortly the system of democratic institutions of Rome.
It was quite complicated system (but no more than institutions of
European Union today), but well balanced and with many protections
against potential abuses. And please forgive me some terrible
simplifications I have made here, because of limited space:
- There were a several city offices that constituted the
administrational framework for the city, and had some built-in
protections against abuses:
- Every office came from election
- Every office (even dictator
nominated when Rome was in serious danger) had the limited tenure
- Important offices like consulate
(two officials that took the most important decisions
for the city, and command the Roman army) were collective, so one
official could control the another
- When the tenure ended, a citizen might not be
nominated for the same office for some time (usually for 10 years)
- There was something like the hierarchy of offices (cursus
politician who wanted to hold the highest offices was
first tested on less important offices
- And of course
no politician could hold two offices or hold an office
and be a senator the same time
- There was the senate of Rome (SPQR)
that was something like a higher house of parliament or a government.
The members of the senate were former city officials.
- There were a number of institutional guaranties which
protected the civil rights of every
citizen: ius provocationis, immunity of plebeian tribunes, independent
courts, legal system rooted from Laws of Twelve Tables. These
had similar function as British Bill of the Rights or Amendments to the
Constitution of USA.
- There were four
different kinds of citizens meetings:
- concilia plebis.
Meeting of poorer citizens. A counterbalance for the senate. Had a
right to elect plebeian tribunes and other plebeian officials plus
some legislative privileges.
- comitia tributa.
Meeting of all citizens organized according to administrational
districts. The most democratic meeting. Most of Roman laws (called
“lex”) were legislated here.
- comitia curiata.
The older kind of meeting without great importance in times of
democratic Rome. Probably have (aside of the other responsibilities)
the same responsibilities as the High Court or the
- comitia centuriata.
Meeting of citizens organized by the types of military units they
belonged to (and the types of military units corresponded with the
social status of different groups of citizens). Dominated by
patricians, who had privileged representation here. This meeting
elected higher city officials.
It is useful to note here, that in spite of privileged
position that patricians had in senate and in the comitia centuriata,
the early days of democratic republic a plebeian could be elected even
the highest office (i.e. could not became a consul, but a “military
tribune” who generally had the same scope of authority).
And with the permanent political conflict between plebeians
and patricians (which is typical in democratic states), Rome was
surprisingly strong. Ironically it was thanks to this permanent
conflict which forced Romans to solve potential social problems before
that problems become serious. This is one of the most important
strengths of the democratic system.
Political power in a democratic system usually
is not equally distributed
When there is a group (GPI) of 10% richest citizens that group usually
has more than 10% share in political life of democratic country. There
is nothing strange here, they simply have greater political strength
than other groups of citizens. The same is true for educated citizens,
are also over-represented in political life (comparing with their
This is not honest or righteous, this is effective.
So, democratic country is effective because it maintains the balance.
- When political interests low-income citizens are
over-represented, the rate of development is slower, and that country
have not enough capital resources to compete successfully with other
countries, either on economic nor political and military planes.
- When political interests of upper-income citizens are
strongly over-represented, the costs of protecting a very unfair
redistribution of wealth are too high (and the risk of social unrest is
very high) making the country’s economy ineffective too.
Of course Rome was not a democracy like democratic countries
today. Times and people’s mentality has changed, and technological
advances made present democracies more “people-friendly” and wealth
distribution more righteous. Honestly, there is even a great difference
between democracies today and before 1968. But comparing with any other
ancient state, ancient Rome was the country of political freedom and
much safer place to live.
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Rome built an empire?
Now it is time to explain shortly, why
Rome built a great empire. But first I have to correct one
false image that many people have about ancient Rome.
People generally think that Ancient Rome was as a very
militaristic state. It’s not true. Let see a map that compare Rome and
Athens states about 440 BC Just after Rome changed to democratic
system and just before the Peloponnesian War in Greece, when both
countries have more or less
the same population (150 - 200 thousands of citizens).
Athens and Rome 440 BC I have
lost the link to the Web site where this map comes from. Please
take my apologies.
Rome city-state is marked blue.
Athens city-state is marked red
and its colonies in Athens Sea Union are marked orange.
Orange arrows shows the
farthest operations of Athens fleet (with troops on board) during the
Pelloponnesian War and before
(in the age of Pericles).
And thin green line shows borders
of Rome 327 BC, just before Alexander the Great conquests in Persia
that changed economic conditions for whole Mediterranean and Middle
As you can see, comparing with Athens, and with almost any
populistic city-state in the Mediterranean region, Rome was rather
peaceful, non-expansionistic state. Actually, a great part of Roman
conquests at the early stage of its expansion were the effect of devise
“si vis pacem, para bellum” (you
peace, be prepared to wage war) - Romans simply eliminated the
potential threats to their state.
320 years long expansion of democratic Rome was possible because of
- First, Rome was democratic, so ruling GPI (group of
political interests) could not involve the state into a war that would
give profits only that GPI, when other GPIs had to pay costs of that
war. All costs of every war were evident, no cost were hidden. So, Rome
waged only those wars which were necessary because of national security
reasons, or were profitable for most of the citizens.
- Second, Rome used
only a small percentage of its resources in expansive wars. So, when
the city was in real danger (as the war with Sammites, with Pyrrus or
with Hannibal), Rome could loss a dozen of battles, and always had
reserves to build another army. (Compare this with great industrial
production increase when USA joined the 2nd World War.)
- Third, Rome almost always built an alliance against its
enemy with some other states (even if Rome was actually stronger).
About half of the Roman Empire were really the allies of Rome -
countries or tribes that were united with Rome in more or less peaceful
way (see Map). It is useful to mention here two
basic rules from diplomatic games:
- Even much stronger enemy can be defeated by the alliance
of smaller states
- When there are several players, is often no chance to win
anything without making an alliance
- Fourth, Rome very
quickly adapted and imported technologies from neighbouring countries.
Most of the Roman war tactics and military technologies were taken from
- Fifth, divide et impera
(divide and rule). (divide and rule). One of the basic tactics that
lowers the costs of occupation of a country is to find here an
important GPI (conflicted with other GPIs) which will support the rule
of the occupier and pay some costs of occupation. It is very easy to
find that group in a feudal country, rather hard in a populistic
country, and almost impossible in a democratic country. Therefore Rome
could use the tactic of divide and impera against almost any enemy, and
no enemy could use this tactic against Rome.
Democratic system is a very dangerous enemy
Generally, democratic country loses a war only when it have to retreat
from colonies that had became to expensive to control (like United
States for England or Algeria for France).Of course there are no rules
without exceptions. There was
one war that was completely lost by democratic country: in 390 BC a
Rome was defeated and occupied by Celtic tribes.
And now is a good time for a short digression. I have written
that science and technology development is faster in a democratic
country than in a populistic one. But we all know that Greeks made much
more discoveries than Romans. Are you wonder why? Here is a
As you can see, even very strong law of history could be (under some
circumstances) negated by a cumulated effect of other laws. It is one
of the reasons, why the overall pattern of our history is so
- There was many Greek city states and only one Rome
- At the beginning Rome had quite low technological level, so
more profitable choice was to import technologies from Etruscans and
- Romans invented many new technologies which was not so
spectacular as Greek discoveries but had important impact on everyday
life (ex. in road and bridge building, construction, law system). We
don’t call people like James Watt, Thomas Edison or Steven Wozniak
great scientists but their inventions launched great changes in our
- When Rome achieved technological level comparable with
Greece, it was so strong country that the state investments (i.e.
expansive wars) started to be more profitable than science development.
Then in a very short time Rome became populistic state.
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democracy, populistic Rome again
With all conquered lands, the polity of Rome still was the
when it was a small city-state. Conquered provinces were administrated
by former city officials or special private enterprises. Romans usually
confiscated from 1/3 to 2/3 of fields from countries they had conquered
(Athens usually confiscated the whole land). These fields then became a
property of Rome called ager publicus
(public land). This land was divided between the citizens of Rome, who
organized here farms or plantations.
In the middle of IInd century BC the great conquests of Rome
(whole Italy, Spain, Greece, North Africa, Mediterranean coast of
France, coast of Adriatic Sea and western portions of Asia Minor)
started two important processes:
- First, a cheap import of agricultural products from newly
conquered lands and Egypt started the agricultural crisis in Italy.
Many owners of small farms bankrupted, and migrated to the city of Rome
where they have better chances to survive the crisis. Rich planters
increased the exploitation of slave-workers.
- Second, rich citizens grew in wealth, because they have
better starting position in the race for profits that great conquests
of Rome had brought: they could gain a larger farms made from ager
publicus, and have a better chance to gain a privilege of
administrating the conquered provinces, which was extremely profitable.
This way the GPI
political interests) of the richest
citizens grew in strength, and many very poor citizens arrived to
Rome increasing the number of poor educated citizens with
no financial independence (because of low-income) who were easy to
manipulate by populist leaders. The group of middle-income citizens
became overpowered, and that was the economic reason
for the fall of democratic
system in Rome.
GPI of richer citizens formed a faction of Optimates (represented by
the senate), and the leaders of poor citizens formed the faction of Populares (represented by
plebeian tribunes). At the beginning both factions competed in
democratic manner but about 133
B.C a leader of Populares and a plebeian tribune Tiberius Sempronius
Gracchus tried to promote an
legislation that introduced the agricultural reform: project to divide
great farms formed from ager publicus, and gave that land to poor
citizens. In counter-strike armed senators killed him and many men from
his faction on Forum (a central public square in Rome, the place of
The year of 133 BC was
the moment when democratic institutions of Rome were definitively
broken. So, I am nominating this year as the end of 315 years long
democratic period in the history of Rome. Of course it is an arbitrary
date. Whole process was gradual, and the economic base for democracy
decomposed probably a few years (or even decades) before, but
democratic institutions suspended the final fall of democracy until 133
The final element of diffusion caused by conquests of Rome was
the war with Roman allies in Italy (90-89 BC). In consequence of this
war Rome had to grant a privileges of citizens to all free people
living in Italy (with edict called lex
Julia after young Julius Caesar, who promoted that law).
Since then, the core of Empire was the whole Italy, not only the
city-state of Rome.
Because of economic changes, no matter which politician, or
which political option would won, the final result would be the same:
some kind of populistic
system. Further military expansion was the most
profitable way to increase national income, so finally the
populistic system in Rome took a form of military dictatorship.
When the group of poor citizens is very large, they don’t represent
their own political interests but the interests of some other, richer
or more influential citizens. They are usually poor educated, with no
work or any stable source of income, what made them very susceptible to
manipulation by skillful demagogues, populistic ideologies or easy to
bribe with relatively small sums of money or cheap gifts. They become
clients of some other GPI or a populistic political party,
organization, church, charismatic leader, etc.
come from the history of ancient Rome. During the first populistic
period (509-499 BC) rich patricians families were usually supported
by group of financially dependent clients. But there are other forms of
political clientelism too:
could buy votes for food (like Spurius Melius mentioned
before or Julius Caesar) or for alcohol (like in Kansas in
the early XXth century or in modern Russia).
- Local oligarch could threat them to vote for him, if
he have someway a control over their source of income (ex. could stop
- Political party like communists in Soviet Union (or
some GPI of government administrators) could gain their votes offering
social protections and material stability, even if their wages would be
Ironically, because of the danger of political
clientelism, sometimes voting rights in democratic country could be the
privilege of smaller group of people than in some contemporary
populistic countries. Compare for example France and Great Britain in
the last decade of XVIIIth century.
One of the symptoms of increasing problem with political
clientelism could be a high popularity of primitive entertainments like
gladiator fights. Therefore it is always useful to observe changes in
culture, because this gives us a chance to predict social and economic
processes we cannot measure statistically for some reasons.
Populistic Rome was still the largest and strongest country in
Mediterranean region, so could continue military expansion with ease
for next 150-200 years. Until too high costs made that expansion
economically ineffective. Basically there was three elements of these
- Costs of occupying many large (i.e. with numerous
inhabitants) countries and protecting a very long border. These are
more or less the logistic costs, as Paul Kennedy describes them.
- Decreasing country's income because of crisis that was
launched by diffusion powers.
- Increasing costs of continuous wars with barbarians who
grew in number and strength (effect of importing Roman military
technologies) because of the same diffusion powers.
Diffusion powers launched by Roman conquests were responsible
for one of the longest economic recessions in history. Of course this
crisis had some intervals, and the same time some provinces like Gallia
(France) or provinces in Asia could experienced periods of economic
growth thanks the implementation of Roman technologies and the law
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decomposition, feudal Roman Empire
About the end of II century AD political system of Roman
Empire regressed from from populistic
to feudal. As
with the fall
of democracy, is hard to give an exact year date here, because it was a
gradual process. I can only say this was happened probably between year
180 AD (death of imperator Marcus Aurelius at the end of serious wars
with German tribes of Marcomans) and the edict of emperor
Caracalla (212 AD) which granted citizen status to all free
people who lived in the Empire. That way emperor Caracalla gained extra
money from new citizens.
Here is a quick list of a few important processes we can
observe in falling Roman Empire:
Change from populistic to feudal system in a short run increased the
military power of Roman Empire, but couldn’t stop the diffusion
processes, so the final fall of the Empire was unavoidable.
Long-distance trade which glued the state shrank so much that the
Empire finally broke into a few pieces (which was the beginning of
feudal fragmentation). Eastern part of the Empire (Byzantium) which was
composed of mostly civilized lands, survived the crisis, but the
Western part that consisted of many less-developed lands conquered on
barbarians was completely destroyed by the
German tribes in the Vth century AD.
- Because of economic crisis income from taxes shrank. That
Emperors to increase taxation and to spoil the money (decrease the
amount of precious metals in coins - a historical receipt to start
inflation which always helps to finance government spendings).
Unfortunately the side-effect of inflation is always the destruction of
credit system plus the higher transaction costs of every trade
- Because of the fall of the trade, economic power of the
cities declined. And many richer citizens moved to rural areas to avoid
high taxes and other tributes for the state.
- Slavery production on large plantations became less and
less effective because of shrinking trade, increasing costs of capital
and workers resistance. Therefore, large land owners started to prefer
small farms with feudal-dependent peasants over the
organized slavery plantations.
- Rome as the rich state was an immigration destination
country for many barbarians, a long before their forces invaded Roman
Empire. It was very similar process like Muslim
immigration to EU, with the same social and political consequences, but
of course the scale of immigration in Ancient Rome was
- Social processes like: shrinking of the liberal-oriented
middle-class (and thus decay of rational ideologies promoted by that
class), long lasted economic crisis plus natural disasters launched by
that crisis (like great plague in the last decades of
II century), and need for ideology that could cement the resistance
against government and economic oppression - all those reasons
increased the popularity of different religions
(cults of Kybele, Isida, Mitra, etc.) imported from the East.
Final Notes on Ancient Rome
Generally, first chronicles that are
describing the history of the beginnings Rome were written in Ist
century BC when Rome was populistic or at best in IInd century B.C,
when the democratic system of Rome was decomposing. Ancient historians
were not always objective (impartial), and they obviously weren’t know
for sure some facts from the first centuries of Rome (especially
because some documents were lost in the time of Celtic invasion - 390
BC). Moreover, many parts of later historical documents and chronicles
were lost too. So, you have to be aware that facts from the democratic
period of Rome history are not always certain.
For example I know two variants of history of Spurius Melius. Which one
is true? On the other hand, statistical information about the number of
Roman citizens are precise because were systematically collected by the
democratic administration of Rome, and the number of citizens of
ancient Athens we can only guess.
Warsaw, 18 November 2003
Last revision: July-August