Catiline promises a debt cancellation (tabulae novae) -- 8/8/23

Today's selection -- from Collapse of Antiquity by Michael Hudson. One of the famed political conflicts of ancient Rome was between Lucius Sirgius Catiline and Marcus Tullius Cicero. According to the historian and economist Michael Hudson, that conflict centered on the oppressive debts held by Romans, Catiline’s intention to cancel those debts, and Cicero’s opposition to debt cancellation. According to the World History Encyclopedia:

“The year 63 BCE saw Rome as a city of almost one million residents, governing an empire that ranged from Hispania in the west to Syria in Middle East and from Gaul in the north to the deserts of Africa. Outside the eternal city, in the provinces, the next few decades would bring a strengthening of the borders -- Pompey battling King Mithridates of Pontus in the East while Julius Caesar fought the assorted tribes of Gaul and Germany to the north, but at home Rome was facing an internal threat. The difficulties on the home front stemmed from troubles developing in the eastern provinces.

"A significant decrease in trade and the resulting loss of tax revenue resulted in an increase in debt among many of the more affluent Romans. Unemployment in the city was high. The Roman Senate stood silent, unable or unwilling to come to a solution. The people longed for a hero, namely the ever-popular Pompey, to return and bring a remedy. In the meantime, however, there was serious -- or so it appeared -- unrest, an unrest that led to a conspiracy, a supposed conspiracy that threatened not only the lives of the people who lived within the walls of Rome but also the city itself.

"At the center of this turmoil were two men -- Lucius Sirgius Catiline and Marcus Tullius Cicero. Catiline was a near bankrupt aristocrat, while Cicero, his most outspoken adversary, was a renowned orator and statesman as well as a philosopher and poet. Catiline was from a distinguished patrician family -- his great-grandfather had fought against Hannibal in the Second Punic War -- whereas Cicero came from a wealthy landed family outside Rome, Arpinum, a small city southeast of the capital. He had had a brilliant career in law where he was able to use his famed skills as an orator. It was said that people would stop what they were doing to hear Cicero speak.

"The two men clashed after Cicero uncovered a plot, a plot conceived by Catiline, that called for the assassination of several elected officials and the burning of the city itself. The purpose of this supposed assault on the city, or so it was later revealed, would be the elimination of debt for all -- the poor as well as the wealthy (Catiline included). Some believe that the resulting chaos would also allow Catiline to assume the leadership role he so passionately desired. The uncovering of the conspiracy would bring what historian Mary Beard in her book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome called a clash between 'ideology and ambition.' The discovery of the alleged conspiracy would be the pinnacle of Cicero's long distinguished career in politics. It would bring him praise from some but condemnation from others.”

In his new book, The Collapse of Antiquity, Hudson digs deeper into the debt issue:

“The context in which L. Sergius Catiline (108-62) and his supporters emerged was one of indebtedness from the top to the bottom of Rome's economy, with a corresponding rise in desperation and violence. Catiline came from a lesser patrician family. Rising under Sulla and said to have enriched himself in the proscriptions in 82, he was elected praetor (probably in 68) and gained some wealth as a governing official in Africa (67-66). He planned to run for consul in 65 after the winners, P. Cornelius Sulla (nephew of the former dictator) and P. Autronius Paetus, were disbarred for bribery. But an African delegation accused Catiline of the usual Roman corruption in office, and by the time he was acquitted (as almost always was the case} it was too late for him to run for election that year.

“Catiline again avoided prosecution in 64 when Caesar, a judge in that year's homicide court, revoked Sulla's preemptive immunity for all crimes committed by men who had participated in his executions, especially those who brought the severed heads of their victims to Rome to claim a reward. Clearing his name enabled Catiline to run for the consulship for 63. Also running were Cicero and Antonius Hybrida (106-42, uncle of Mark Antony), who had served under Sulla in the Mithridatic Wars and was supported in the election by Crassus and also by Caesar, who gained the praetorship.

“Cassius Dio reports that Catiline and some tribunes already were advocating cancellation of debts, and a number of historians suspect that Caesar was sympathetic. But with Catiline's criticism of Rome's vested interests becoming sharper, he lost by a small margin to Antonius and much more heavily to Cicero, who was supported by Pompey ( away fighting in the Caucasus) and the oligarchic Senate core.

“Catiline ran once again for the consulship in 63 (for office in 62), but by that time his views had made him an outcast among the wealthy classes who dominated Rome's weighted voting system. His rivals were D. Junius Silanus (stepfather of Brutus), S. Sulpicius Rufus (a litigious contrarian), and L. Licinius Murena (the son of the same-named father who had fought as legate under Sulla in the Second Mithridatic War).

Detail of Catiline in Cesare Maccari's fresco in Palazzo Madama

“July was the usual time for consular elections, but Cicero postponed it for a few months. Catiline appealed to voters by pointing to his own indebtedness, and promised to abolish their debts, redistribute land (much of it to be taken by proscriptions of wealthy landowners}, democratize public offices and priesthoods, and spend war tribute on the population at large. Cicero appeared in public wearing a breastplate, as if Catiline were threatening his life.

“Such posturing by Cicero helped Silanus and Murena win. Sulpicius sued to overturn Murena's victory, claiming that he had bribed the voters. But ‘the jurors, chosen exclusively according to the Lex Aurelia from the Senate, the knights and the treasury officials,’ acquitted Murena, primarily so that Catiline would not become consul.

“Having tried the constitutional approach twice, Catiline saw that elections were won by creditor alliances and bribery, and concluded that the only way to advance his program was by armed revolt. The Optimates showed their own willingness to use force when Cicero warned that debt cancellation would indeed plunge Rome into bloodshed.

“When Catiline later left Rome to take command of the army he raised for his revolt, Cicero described his major supporters as spendthrifts who refused to sell their property to pay their debts: ‘But what men has he left behind! And what debts they have! And what influence! And what names!’ He cited others hoping to have their mortgages wiped out in order to maintain their lifestyles, and veterans who had lost their farms in the settlements that Sulla had established. From this time forward, notes Jean Andreau, the debtors facing default included ‘the senatorial elite, or at least a part of it ... The urban working classes and a certain number of poor or modest peasants were most likely chronically in debt, but this indebtedness did not become politically dramatic until the elite also fell into debt. The indebted senators had assets consisting of land, livestock, slaves, houses and valuable objects and, unless they sold a fraction of these assets, they would not be able to repay their creditors.’ Yet they refused to break up their landholdings, ‘because their dignity and their rank were founded on their estates.’

“Cicero as consul for 63 had sought to deter his fellow consul Antonius from supporting Catiline's attempt to attract Populares to his camp. Seeing that Antonius needed money, Cicero offered the lucrative governorship of Macedonia and its opportunity for profiteering (which had been assigned to Cicero by lot) to Antonius when his consular term ended if he would stand aside and let Cicero act as sole consul. Antonius accepted the offer.

“Sallust describes Catiline's support as coming largely from indebted veterans, the rural poor and urban plebs hoping to be allotted land that might be confiscated from the Optimates. To organize a revolt, Catiline ‘deposited arms, in convenient places, throughout Italy; he sent sums of money borrowed on his own credit, or that of his friends ... he is said to have attached to his cause great numbers of men of all classes, and some women who had contracted heavy debts’ or perhaps wanted to get rid of their husbands.’ He also gave money to Gaius Manlius, a centurion from Sulla's army, to recruit a small army of about ten to twenty thousand volunteers, and appealed to the poor throughout Italy to support a coup d'etat.

“Andreau traces the support for Catiline from these troops to Sulla's foundation of colonies a generation earlier on land seized from his enemies and from the neighboring Italians, especially in Arezzo and Fiesole in Etruria, where many of Sulla's veterans had been settled. These colonies were a failure for most veterans, whom Cicero disparaged as deplorables playing ‘at being large scale farmers by carrying out major construction and buying significant numbers of slaves. These unfamiliar rural exploitations drove them into debt, and the only conceivable way out was to join the conspiracy.’ A letter from Manlius explained their plight in less scornful terms:

'We fight only to protect ourselves from wrong. We are poor and destitute; we have been driven from our lands by the violence and cruelty of moneylenders, who have robbed us of our reputation and fortunes .... we have been deprived of the protection of the law of our ancestors which permitted a man to remain free even after he had forfeited his possessions .... We seek only freedom, which no true man is willing to give up as long as he lives.'

“Unlike the case of senators and other well-to-do who simply feared losing their reputations and prestige by being forced to sell their estates, Manlius explained, the land of smallholders already had been lost and the debtors were desperately trying to save their personal liberty. ‘The text shows that although (definitive and statutory) servitude for debt had been abolished in Italy, at least for Roman citizens, forced work for repaying debt still existed, on a temporary basis, until such time as the work carried out had compensated the sum of money owed. ... the possibility of such forced work, conceived as a violation of freedom, existed legally, even if it was not to be confused entirely with slavery.’”



Michael Hudson


Collapse of Antiquity




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