Those who don’t learn their history, they say, are doomed to repeat it.
I’ve always enjoyed Roman history because it seems to me that what the Greeks invented politically, the Romans took to its logical extreme.
They threw out superstars, plutocrats, villains and heroes with all of the ruthless efficiency of the media machine we have today, and they did it all for the first time.
It’s a bit like the theory that Shakespeare wrote every plot possible in his works: similarly the Romans played out pretty much the whole political agenda two thousand years ago, and we can still learn from their failures and successes. All of which leads to the question… did the Romans go through the same situations that we Byron Shire Australians are currently experiencing? And is there anything we can learn from this?
From humble beginnings, Rome became the place to be if you were wealthy and famous, or a socially mobile wannabee keen to be part of ‘the scene’. The locals were conservative and insular, but as the city became popular to the point that things began to snowball, they found themselves wealthy oligarchs with vested interests in some of the most desirable land in the ancient world… does any of this sound familiar?
The parvenu newcomers, full of the hunger and fervour they brought with them, began to make some serious inroads in the social and financial fabric of the burgeoning city. The locals (or patricians, as they called them), held grimly onto their exclusivity until the whole shebang became what is now known as the ‘social war’. The scuffle was only ended when the outsiders (plebeians) staged the world’s first recorded strike. Refusing to man the battlements when enemy soldiers approached, they cut a deal that would see them have a real share in political power, albeit a slightly subordinate one.
With the new consensus between the classes, Rome became even more successful. This translated into military victories, which brought in more land, more wealth, and since we are in the ancient era; slaves. Have I still got you here?
The slaves that were brought in began to displace people of the so-called lower classes, mainly rural workers but also craft and tradespeople. All of a sudden, people who had a real connection to the land found that there were no jobs, no prospects, and no alternatives, and literally ended up on the street. The patricians, secure in their oligarchy, cared not a whit, but began to complain a bit about the horrible hoi polloi hanging around on their streets.
Who has the power?
This is where the ancient city of Rome threw out two politicians who have got my gong as the best and fairest of the lot. Their names were Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. The Gracchi brothers were a part of the most elite faction of the Patricians but chose to look forward to the future of their city rather than protect their obvious vested interests. They recognised that the current situation would only lead to ruin and rebellion in Rome so they broke ranks with their patrician neighbours and began an agenda that would cause ructions, division and ultimately – change.
There were laws on the books in Rome that limited how much land anyone could legally own. The large landholdings were called the Latifundia. That’s what I love about the Romans, they thought of everything. They saw that if one family, faction or person had too much power the whole system would fall down.
So Tiberius, the first Gracchus to take up the cudgels, took up the position of Tribune of the plebs (a station below his social standing, but quite a powerful office in real terms), and began to legislate laws that enforced the ancient enactments that limited land ownership but had, until then, been conveniently overlooked.
These lands were to be redistributed to the Roman poor. For his trouble the patricians organised, and had him beaten to death after a short pursuit on the Mulvian bridge.
Ten years later, and with the knowledge of his brother’s fate, his younger brother Gaius took up the same cause. Fearlessly, and with nothing but the health and welfare of his native town in mind, he took up the same agenda, setting up a commission that would re-distribute land to the urban poor and retired soldiers from the disproportionate (and technically illegal) lands owned by the ultra-wealthy. He was chopped up and floated in a basket down the river Tiber as an example to those who attempt to curb the privileges of the first class.
This may be a depressing sort of tale but about 100 years later Marius, and a guy called Caesar (who could really get things done), squared up the ledger, re-distributing land to returned soldiers and the deserving poor.
The housing crisis in Byron is not so dissimilar to the problems in Rome 2,000 years ago, with local workers finding that they can no longer afford to live here. Do we have a Gracchi in our midst?