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The Political Economy of Empire: Land, Law and the Census

Lisa Eberle

Oxford University

This paper examines the conditions on which Romans could acquire land in Italy and in the provinces during the Middle and Late Republic, arguing that while several Roman institutions and practices persistently made new land available to Romans, their legal construction also made sure that these economic benefits could not be translated into political capital in Rome. After all, imperial expansion not only spelt changes for the conquered, but also those conquering - changes that, as my argument shows, were heavily mediated and contested. This paper thus moves beyond existing paradigms concerning such changes, which has focused on consumption habits in the imperial center (Wallace-Hadrill 2008: 315-440; Morley 2010: 70-101). More particularly, the paper argues that Roman conquest potentially threatened the position of the very elites that orchestrated this conquest as it made ever more resources available to Roman citizens, who might thus hope to join their ranks. This insight provides the basis for reinterpreting a wide range of Roman institutions as various means by which the social group that made up Rome’s political elite tried to defend its position within the Roman polity against this threat - a defence that came increasingly under pressure in the Late Republic.

Starting in the fourth century BC, the senators devising Roman colonies (Bradley 2014: 65-6) confronted potential Roman colonists with a tough choice: to retain the citizenship and receive a two-iugera lot in a citizen colony, or to accept Latin rights in return for larger plots of land (Salmon 1969: 72). Similarly, the creation of ager publicus, which accompanied Roman conquest throughout Italy, did not give Romans land that impacted their political rights (Roselaar 2010: 31-64; RS 2, ll. 8-10). While viritane assignments could give Roman citizens between two and ten iugera of land that they could declare in the census, such assignments repeatedly produced senatorial opposition, as was the case most notoriously in relation to Flaminius’ proposal concerning ager Gallicus in 232 BC (Roselaar 2010: 56-57). This opposition only confirms what the aforementioned practices have suggested - that Rome’s political elite, just as it was being reconstituted through the Struggle of the Orders, also made sure that Rome’s military success did not result in a situation where ever more people could aspire to join them. The doctrine that the substantial estates that Romans owned in the provinces (Tran 2014: 112) could not be declared in the census, which fits so well within this pattern, is only attested in the first century BC (Cic. Flac. 80; Bleicken 1974: 374), but there is no reason to suppose that it did not originate in the second or even the third century BC. In the Middle Republic, then, many Romans undoubtedly acquired more land, but their political power remained unchanged.

Various aspects of this system gave way under different pressures in the second and first centuries BC: in the 180s BC bigger citizen colonies with larger allotments were founded. The agrarian law of 111 BC privatized much of the remaining ager publicus in Italy, while after the Social War the Italians were admitted to the citizenship. An underappreciated Augustan reform allowed Romans to declare their provincial estates in the Roman census, thus creating the basis for the world that Pliny inhabited - a world in which an ever-increasing number of provincial senators were seeking to buy property in Italy so as to comply with the law that at least some of their holdings should be located there (Plin. Ep. 6.19).

The anxiety of Rome’s political elite as a social group to retain their position within the Roman polity was a crucial factor in shaping Roman imperial behavior and institutions. As such, it not only connects Roman behavior in Italy and in the provinces, but also uncovers an important element in the political economy of Roman imperialism.

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Power and Politics: Approaching Roman Imperialism in the Republic

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