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analogmusicman

voting in Rome

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If you really want us to share references on the social distribution of power in the rural Roman Republic, I will be more than happy to contribute to a specific thread, as long as you don

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Allen Ward, New England Classical Journal 31.2 (2004) 101-119

 

Leaving aside that Ward is only a secondary source, here's what he writes:

At its origin, in the early fifth century B.C.,tribally organized voting was biased in favor of the rural men of property in the more numerous rural tribes. From the beginning, there were only four urban tribes, and the number of rural tribes was always greater. From 495 B.C. to 241 B.C. the number of rural tribes increased from 17 to 31, where it remained fixed thereafter. Therefore, the urban voters, who had only four tribal votes, were always outnumbered by the rural voters, no matter how few voted in each rural tribe. (p.109) ...

 

In the middle Republic, the more numerous but poorer rural voters were at a distinct disadvantage in tribal assemblies. Then, in the late Republic, after an enormous influx of poor rural citizens into the urban center and its environs, where many of them seem to have retained registration in their rural tribes,
poor urbanized voters in rural tribes could outweigh both the large and small landowners because they lived in Romewhere they could more easily vote
.

 

How easily a small number of urban residents registered in a rural tribe could determine the vote of that tribe is clear from the small percentage of citizens who actually voted. Ramsay MacMullen persuasively arguesthat only 2% of Roman citizens usually voted, which renders any notionof direct democracy nugatory.(p.111)

Your summary of this was, "urban voters were easily outnumbered by the rural voters, no matter how few of them voted in each one of the 31 rural tribes, which were always controlled by the rich Landlords."

 

But there is no evidence that the 31 rural tribes were controlled by rich landlords, and there is no claim of it in Ward's article. The closest phrase in Ward is "rural men of property", which should be taken literally -- that is, men who owned property (as opposed to slaves, women, migrant traders, etc) were eligible to vote in the rural tribes. Both in Ward's statement (and as a matter of law attested in primary source material), the rural tribes comprised freeborn small-holders (aka "peasants"), landlords, and--in the late republic--even the urban poor, who -- Ward points out -- could effectively dominate the rural tribes due to the timing and location of the elections, which were held on off-market days (i.e., when rural voters would be expected to come to Rome).

 

Thus, far from supporting the idea that rural landlords dominated the tribal assembly or even their own rural tribes, Ward provides evidence that the opposite was true -- urban voters could enroll in the rural tribes and the timing of elections was biased to favor this urban mob. And, really, why should this come as a surprise? Had rural landowners *actually* controlled the tribal assembly, it would never have been possible to pass the various and sundry leges agrariae--some of which (like the lex Julia agraria de Campania) confiscated the lands of rural voters for the veterans of adventuring generals.

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Your two ideas--(1) that there was no such thing as a poor landowner and (2) that farming precluded the ability to travel to Rome to vote--simply doesn't jibe with primary sources on Roman farming practices. I can discuss these matters in some detail in another thread; here, I'll simply refer you to an excellent study on the matter, "Rome at War: Farms, Families, and Death in the Middle Republic," by Nate Rosenstein. His study shows that subsistence farming (i.e., by families of poor landowners) was widespread throughout Italy (even during periods when it was thought to have been precluded by the rise of the latifundia), and the labor requirements of subsistence farming (being seasonal and shared by a family) did not conflict with participation in military and political service.

 

Also, please refer back to the article by Ward (quoted above) regarding the enrollment of urban citizens in the rural tribes. The key point is not that urban citizens previously enrolled in urban tribes were permitted to switch; the point is that rural citizens previously enrolled in rural tribes remained in rural tribes even when they moved to the city for good and stopped farming. This is important for understanding politics in the late republic because by that point Rome's population had swelled with citizens enrolled in rural tribes (consider Cicero and Pompey as two vivid examples of many). Thus, in a tribal assembly in the late republic, rural assidui travelling to Rome to vote would have been outnumbered by the faces of their and their friends' urban relatives.

 

In any case, the idea that the rural tribes were dominated by rich landowners simply doesn't receive any support in either the primary or secondary source material.

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I think we can agree on two important points. First, when talking about the practice of Roman voting, it's important to clarify exactly when we're talking about because the laws changed over time as did Roman demographics. Second, English common terms (landowners, men of property, etc) do not map neatly onto English translations of Latin legal terms, and this can give rise to another source of confusion and needless argument.

 

Broadly speaking, there were two major classes of voters: assidui (citizens whose wealth--as little as 2 iugera of land in some cases-- sufficed to oblige their service in the legions) and proletarii (citizens whose wealth only obliged their service as rowers in the navy).

 

During the Hannibalic War, it is clear that the assidui vastly outnumbered the proletarii. The best evidence for this comes from Livy (24.11.5-9, 26.35.1-36.12; 36.3.4-6), who reports that the senate in 214 was forced to recruit slaves for rowing duty due to insufficient number of eligible proletarii, suggesting that no more than 20,000 proletarii were serving in that capacity. This figure suggests that the proletarii composed only 10% of the citizenry (see Rosenstein, op. cit.; see also Brunt's estimate of the citizen population being 285,000 at the outset of the Hannibalic War).

 

During the late republic, the number of proletarii may have been greater, though it isn't clear. According to Cicero (admittedly given to exaggeration), a single century of proletarii in the comitia centuriata contained a majority of citizens in the reign of Servius Tullius, a statement which -- if it has any validity at all -- might reflect conditions in his own day.

 

Thus, purely from a demographic perspective, it seems highly unlikely that the rural tribes were dominated by idle rich landlords with the luxury of traveling to Rome to vote--the vast majority of citizens had their own land, were eligible to vote, and had sufficient time to serve in the legions, view triumphs, vote in elections, watch trials like Cicero prosecuting Verres, and otherwise participate in civic life. Moreover, to the extent that rural assidui could not come to Rome, they had plenty of tribesmen living in Rome itself, where they should have been easily able to outvote the very few "rich landlords" who wanted their voices heard too.

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During the Hannibalic War, it is clear that the assidui vastly outnumbered the proletarii. The best evidence for this comes from Livy (24.11.5-9, 26.35.1-36.12; 36.3.4-6), who reports that the senate in 214 was forced to recruit slaves for rowing duty due to insufficient number of eligible proletarii, suggesting that no more than 20,000 proletarii were serving in that capacity. This figure suggests that the proletarii composed only 10% of the citizenry (see Rosenstein, op. cit.; see also Brunt's estimate of the citizen population being 285,000 at the outset of the Hannibalic War).
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Let me check a little deeper on our secondary economic sources (eg, Scheidel or Hopkins); however, I have no reason to doubt that, the same as it was the case for the Late Republic and the early Empire, the structure of the income distribution for the Roman population was always quite pyramidal, ie. any lower stage (poorer income group) was far wider than the upper ones, like in any contemporary third-world country.

 

Over the entire European history peasants where the biggest group of people. Generally, they had access to plots of land as owners or as tenants and landless peasants are a rare occurrence, significant only in places like early modern England.

Access to land was always a fairly complicated issue and reliable information it's scarce. Still, the rural areas of Italy during the romans had a fairly high level of well being and the poorest category of free man were the small number of urban and rural unskilled wage earners.

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Over the entire European history peasants where the biggest group of people. Generally, they had access to plots of land as owners or as tenants and landless peasants are a rare occurrence, significant only in places like early modern England.

Access to land was always a fairly complicated issue and reliable information it's scarce. Still, the rural areas of Italy during the romans had a fairly high level of well being and the poorest category of free man were the small number of urban and rural unskilled wage earners.

We are sharing our references here; bare assertions are just not enough. Can you quote your sources?

 

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fantastic discussion guys... really good to see. At the risk of starting the whole thing going again though I have a couple of points that I would love your opinions on. I am just completing a study on the Gracchi to give you some context.

 

A couple of my conclusions might surprise you. The first is that the lex Sempronia of 133 was actually part of democratising continuum (for want of a better phrase) which had its begginings right back in the conflict of the orders. This continuum can be traced in the actions of Licinius Stolo and his heirs. It can be seen in the work of Flaminius and in many comments on the role and power of the Tribune of the the Plebs.

 

Secondly although reform of the Comitia Centuriata did help with this democratising process marginally. However, more important were the social changes occuring in Roman society in the first quarter of the Second Century. These changes came about as a result of several factors including: the increasing political power of the plebs, the weakening of the traditional client-patron system and its replacement by more commercially led patronage, the rise of the equites and the increasing political power of commercial interests, the growth of the slave economy both rurally and in urban areas, the concomitant rise in rural and urban unemployment and the increasing importance of army supply contracts in times of economic hardship. A long list - I know.

 

The idea of a Rome where the plebs were completely conservative in their choices of leader is seemingly at odds with this picture of a rapidly evolving society. However, the posession of an illustrious heritage did not neccessarily preculde radical politics. The popularity of both Gracchi and of Flaminius attest to this fact. Throughout the Third and Second Centuries Tribunes regularly championed some quite radical social policy measures. Increasingly these measures were passed without Senate approval. The only fly in this ointment was the regular obstruction of the passage of reform by "rogue" tribunes in the pocket of the Senate. they were, however, the exception to the rule. The Concilium Plebis became more and more important as a legislative body whilst, at the same time, the Senate began to be bypassed more and more in the legislative process. This was entirely constitutional, however.

 

The point made about the relative wealth of landowners is an interesting one, and related is the point about the numbers of landless poor. The comments I should like make on the number of assidui are that:

 

# - property was not measured in land alone. Roman society was increasingly urbanised and there were an increasing number of urban tradesmen who owned premises or assets that could allowed them to be censed as assidui.

 

#- that said there were a lot of people who must have fallen under the limit, and that number was increasing as a direct result of the increase in the competition for land.

 

#- we cannot unfortunately know what proportion of the Roman population were even censed let alone met the property qualifications for military service.

 

# - there has been much tosh talked about a lack of real land hunger by writers in the last 30 years. This has mainly come about due to misunderstandings in terminology, chiefly the term latifundium. This term has been used with regard to the Gracchan period. However, that type of farming was not mentioned until Pliny. The best source we have for the type of Farming developing in the Second Century is Cato's De Agricultura. At 3.4 his instruction to build within your means and at 14 his list of materials for a villa was never going to build a palace! The confusion has led to us looking for a type of villa that did not exist in the Second Century. however, more recent archaeological work has uncovered a number of sites, especially in the hinterland of Rome that bear a close resemblence to the type of villa favoured by Cato. they also date from the Third and Second Century.

 

#- The survival of the peasant farmer in the Second century had been thought to have been much healthier than either Plutarch or Appian would have us believe. However it now appears that new interpretations of vital ceramic chronologies point to real gap in occupation at many sites, interestingly which would back up the literary tradition.

 

#- The ager Campanus probably wasn't farmed by peasants. Its leases were auctioned off in Rome to the highest bidders. This meant it went to those prepared to pay for security of tenure on the most valuable land outside of Rome.

 

# - The rush for valuable land, was not just symptomatic of vast profits to be had from farming. These were as hard to come by then as they are now. One of the problems was that during the periodic economic downturns of the economy there was a lack of decent return on investmentand few investment opportunities. Land was attractive for its relative stability, the potential profit to be made from it, the potential of land to fulfil miltary supply contracts and also for its ability to provide the neccessary goods for maintaining a high status household in Rome.

Edited by sullafelix

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Allen Ward, New England Classical Journal 31.2 (2004) 101-119

 

Leaving aside that Ward is only a secondary source, here's what he writes:

At its origin, in the early fifth century B.C.,tribally organized voting was biased in favor of the rural men of property in the more numerous rural tribes. From the beginning, there were only four urban tribes, and the number of rural tribes was always greater. From 495 B.C. to 241 B.C. the number of rural tribes increased from 17 to 31, where it remained fixed thereafter. Therefore, the urban voters, who had only four tribal votes, were always outnumbered by the rural voters, no matter how few voted in each rural tribe. (p.109) ...

 

In the middle Republic, the more numerous but poorer rural voters were at a distinct disadvantage in tribal assemblies. Then, in the late Republic, after an enormous influx of poor rural citizens into the urban center and its environs, where many of them seem to have retained registration in their rural tribes,
poor urbanized voters in rural tribes could outweigh both the large and small landowners because they lived in Romewhere they could more easily vote
.

 

How easily a small number of urban residents registered in a rural tribe could determine the vote of that tribe is clear from the small percentage of citizens who actually voted. Ramsay MacMullen persuasively arguesthat only 2% of Roman citizens usually voted, which renders any notionof direct democracy nugatory.(p.111)

Your summary of this was, "urban voters were easily outnumbered by the rural voters, no matter how few of them voted in each one of the 31 rural tribes, which were always controlled by the rich Landlords."

 

But there is no evidence that the 31 rural tribes were controlled by rich landlords, and there is no claim of it in Ward's article. The closest phrase in Ward is "rural men of property", which should be taken literally -- that is, men who owned property (as opposed to slaves, women, migrant traders, etc) were eligible to vote in the rural tribes. Both in Ward's statement (and as a matter of law attested in primary source material), the rural tribes comprised freeborn small-holders (aka "peasants"), landlords, and--in the late republic--even the urban poor, who -- Ward points out -- could effectively dominate the rural tribes due to the timing and location of the elections, which were held on off-market days (i.e., when rural voters would be expected to come to Rome).

 

Thus, far from supporting the idea that rural landlords dominated the tribal assembly or even their own rural tribes, Ward provides evidence that the opposite was true -- urban voters could enroll in the rural tribes and the timing of elections was biased to favor this urban mob. And, really, why should this come as a surprise? Had rural landowners *actually* controlled the tribal assembly, it would never have been possible to pass the various and sundry leges agrariae--some of which (like the lex Julia agraria de Campania) confiscated the lands of rural voters for the veterans of adventuring generals.

Thanks for this, Cato, this has really cleared up my understanding of the Tribal Assembly. I was under the impression that the urban poor (the Head Count) could not vote, looks like I was dead wrong. Edited by TaylorS

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I totally agree with Praetor that one must look at public lands and the ager publicus to get to the heart of this discussion of the fall of Rome's Republic, for once again, it was not always this way, and perhaps we have been taught to assume it was. While yes, the frequency of the elections meant that few were willing to travel from the countryside to vote, the Patricians using the comita to maintain control of Rome came after the decree from the Senate (a decree which did not hold the force of law ever), that people might occupy the public lands and work it. As Appian and Plutarch both point out, this led to Patricians taking over large tracts of land, or latifundia, basically slave plantations, and thus recieving all of the votes for the landed countryside (which as we know was 36 votes in the comita, rather than the 6 votes all the collective million voters of Rome received). I don't know if Appian puts an exact date on this decree (Appian, Civil Wars, 1.1.7), but we can assume it is somewhere after the many wars that decimated Rome's population in the second and third centuries, and before the landlessness that caused the ire of the Gracchi in 133 BC. According to Peter Wiseman, author of Clio's Cosmetics, and a professor Emeritus at Exeter, all of the history was rewritten and retrojected at this point anyway, in order to justify such actions. So at that time the history went from being 9 volumes to ten times that number. Obviously the history on this point was obscured to hide the fact that this hadn't always been the precedent.

 

Therefore, this question is not black and white: yes, this BECAME the truth, but it was NOT the truth, but an obfuscation of it. Cicero would have known the history of this incident, and identified it was a problem.

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Neocicero's view--that the Senate of the Middle Republic was responsible for huge plantations popping up in the public lands, thereby driving small-holders out of agriculture and into the arms of poverty, politics, and populares--is a respectable one that was nicely argued by Brunt several decades ago.

 

Why should we believe this view? The only empirical support for it comes from historians--like the Appian and Plutarch cited by Neocicero--who were urban Greeks with little knowledge of how Italian agriculture worked and who lived centuries after the alleged transformation of the Italian countryside. Insofar as we can check the authenticity of their claims, the archaeological record appears to flatly contradict them. That is, archaeologists find that during the middle Republic, the buildings and infrastructure of the latifundia continuously co-exist and grow together with the same buildings and infrastructure of the small-holdings.

 

So, the question is--what is more convincing to you about the true conditions of the middle Republic? The dramatic narrative of Greek historians, or the physical record left by the actual subjects of those cloistered Greeks? For me, the archaeological record makes vastly more sense, even within the context of what the Greek historians otherwise wrote, and even more sense within the context of what was written by those with much better of knowledge of the Italian countryside, like (paleo) Cicero and Cato the Elder. These Roman sources certainly do not give out the view that the Italian countryside had been denuded of anything but chattel slavery and cash crops. Rather, we see the native sons of Italy prospering in trades and agriculture beside more prosperous farms, and when they travel to Rome, they do not join the popluares but resist them.

 

Neocicero, if you want to understand Italian farms, I think you'd be better off looking to the writings of your namesake and his countrymen than to those of Greek city-boys!

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