4. The Republic Divided . . .

When Rome was freed of the fear of Carthage, and her rival in empire was out of her way, the path of virtue was abandoned for that of corruption, not gradually, but in headlong course. The older discipline was discarded to give place to the new. The state passed from vigilance to slumber, from the pursuit of arms to the pursuit of pleasure, from activity to idleness.” – Velleius Paterculus, early first century AD.

Rome’s Patrician and Equestrian classes benefited greatly from the military conquests of the provinces by its legions. But those legions had traditionally been drawn from families of large property owners, sparing small, marginal farmers from service, as they needed their own family labor to maintain their financial viability. But larger, longer and more distant provincial conquests, often permanent garrisons, required increasing numbers of recruits, who were drawn from small farms. While male family members were away in extended military service, these small farms, threatened by financial failure, became indebted and were often foreclosed by creditors, or were sold outright, and then consolidated into large estates owned by the Equestrian and Patrician classes. Dispossessed farmers, and veterans of long military campaigns, lacking means to a livelihood, migrated to Rome, competing with slave labor at subsistence wages, and living in Rome’s slums, which were often owned by the aristocracy.

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As land from failed small farms was added to the great rural estates of the aristocracy, their representatives in the Senate protected them from high taxes, effectively shifting much of the financial cost of military campaigns to the Plebeians. While all Romans benefited from cheaper imported goods, the Plebeians faced increasing taxes to pay the cost of larger and longer military expeditions; dispossession from their failed small farms; and unemployment and lower wages while competing with slave labor in Rome. The fundamental issue of sharing the Republic’s increasing wealth would remain unaddressed for generations, increasingly tugging at its political institutions, laying the seeds for their destruction.

The Roman Republic, having designed representative government, and achieved great military conquest and wealth, was concentrating that wealth in its aristocracy, at the expense of its small farmers, common labor and military veterans, who were increasingly disenfranchised. These social classes were all represented in different bodies of the government, a house dividing against itself.

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