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The Economics of Roman Political Culture

James K. Tan

Political Culture revolves around interaction and exchange – words, gestures, consent and obedience – and recent scholarship out of Germany has made great headway in exploring the cognitive and communicative aspects of such transactions. Missing from this research, however, has been an economic focus. The immateriality of Roman politics as conceived by recent German scholars stands in stark contrast to the tendency of American sociologists to emphasize economic resources in what have become known as “political economies.” By bringing together the German model of communicative exchange with recent research on the politics of economic exchange, this paper offers one model for bridging the all-too-wide gap between Roman political history and Roman economic history.

Recent German studies of Roman political culture have tended to share two features: a focus on the conceptual foundation of political experience at Rome, and a synchronic assertion of stability across the middle Republican period (most notably Hölkeskamp 2010). This paper, however, argues that a full understanding of Roman political culture cannot escape the reality that political concepts exist alongside the exchange of economic resources and that the nature of that interaction necessarily changed in light of the economic transformations brought about by successful military expansion. The core argument is that the position of Roman citizens – their relative bargaining power – was progressively eroded by the influx of new provincial revenues. This was because Roman leaders required the consent of Roman taxpayers in the early stages of expansion, since there was no other source of funding for the wars which the aristocracy was determined to wage. After the cancellation of tributum (the war tax) in 166, however, Rome’s leaders could make whatever decisions they liked, safe in the knowledge that the treasury, with or without broad support among the citizens, would be able to finance any plan they devised. The aristocracy now controlled the finances. Instead of leaders needing to placate the taxpayers, therefore, the voters now needed to ingratiate themselves with the elite in order to gain access to the vast wealth on offer from empire.

            To make the case, it will be useful to look at how collective decisions were made when truly expensive policies were at hand. In the First Punic War, the Second Punic War and perhaps at the outset of the Second Macedonian War, decisions about declaring war or changing strategy appear to have been much more consultative than they would be in the Late Republic. Assemblies, according to the model used here, were called in the third century because leaders needed the commitment of the taxpayers. In the late Republic, however, few such monumental decisions are brought before the people, and when they are, they are the result of political manoeuvring and the splits within the elite. Without citizens footing the bills for policy, the elite had less reason to consult with the assemblies. This solidifies the rule of the elite and weakens the hand of the voters.

Only rarely do citizen bodies escape taxation en masse – those in modern oil states are the obvious examples – but it is a questionable privilege. Without paying the state’s bills, Roman citizens had less with which to bargain. The tables turned. The elite, so successful in capturing the wars’ profits, could now dictate terms for sharing their enormous wealth, and the masses were forced to offer what they could in order to win a share of the riches. All they had to offer was loyalty in political battles, and military service. It was a dangerous recipe, and one that reminds students that, although concepts and values stressed by recent German scholarship are important, they existed alongside very real and very pressing economic concerns.

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Thinking through Recent German Scholarship on the Roman Republic

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