2003-01-18: Makers of Rome

Makers of Rome (tr. 1965)

by Plutarch (ca. 100); translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (1917-1989)

Scott-Kilvert has selected from Plutarch’s Lives to form a sequence from Corialanus (-5C) to Mark Antony (80-30BCE). The result shows something of the changes in Roman attitudes through the period from the kingdom to the beginning of the empire. I found it interesting for that reason. In addition, he provides an appendix giving some historical treatment or supposition to the Antony/Cleopatra story, aside from Plutarch’s (biased by the sources he had) and Shakespeare’s (dramatized, based on Plutarch) versions.

There are useful nuggets of apparent fact, such as these:

[From Cato the Elder, 234 – 149 BC] Ten years after his consulship Cato became a candidate for the censorship. This office was regarded as the crowning achievement of a Roman civic life, and in a sense the culminating achievement of a political career. Its powers were very extensive and they included the right to inquire into the lives of and manners of the citizens. The Romans did not think it proper that anyone should be left free to follow his personal preferences and appetites, whether in marriage, the begetting of children, the regulation of his daily life, or the entertainment of his friends, without a large measure of surveillance and control. They believed that a man’s true character was more clearly revealed in his private life than in his public or political career, and they therefore chose two officials, one from among the so-called patricians and the other a plebeian, whose duty it was to watch, regulate, and punish any tendency to indulge in licentious or voluptuous habits and to depart from the traditional and established way of living. These officers were known as censors, and they had authority to degrade a Roman knight or to expel a senator who led a vicious or disorderly life. They also carried out a general census of property, kept a register of all the citizens according to their social and political classification, and exercised various other important powers.

[From Tiberius Gracchus, 163 – 133 BC] Whenever the Romans annexed land from their neighbours as a result of their wars, it was their custom to put a part up for sale by auction: the rest was made common land and was distributed among the poorest and most needy of the citizens, who were allowed to cultivate it on payment of a small rent to the public treasury. When the rich began to outbid and drive out the poor by offering higher rentals, a law was passed which forbade any one individual to hold more than 500 jugera [about 310 acres] of land. For a while this law restrained the greed of the rich and helped the poor, who were enabled to remain on the land which they had rented, so that each of them could occupy the allotment which he had originally been granted. But after a time the rich men in the neighbourhood by using the names of fictitious tenants, contrived to transfer many of these holdings to themselves, and finally they openly took possession of the greater part of the land under their own names. The poor, when they found themselves forced off the land, became more and more unwilling to volunteer for military service or even to raise a family. The result was a rapid decline of the class of free-holders all over Italy, their place being taken by gangs of foreign slaves, whom the rich employed to cultivate the estates from which they had driven off the free citizens.

Several aspects of the class conflicts among Romans during the Republic are illustrated in the Lives selected by Scott-Kilvert. Unfortunately, these illustrations are not systematic. It will still be necessary to consult a more modern history.


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