The expansion of Rome from a small city on the banks of the Tiber river to a global power impressed people throughout history. But how did that expansion affect the roman middle class, the small farmers & craftsmen? Was it all positive or did it also have negative impacts?
Most of the Roman army was made up of farmers. Since the campaigns often lasted for years these men would be kept away from their farms for a long time often resulting in them losing their farms to over-indebtedness. That led to their impoverishment because of which they were no longer eligible for military service.
Let`s find out more.
The roman middle class – small farmers & craftsmen
In order to investigate how the expansion of Rome affected the small roman farmers, we first have to take a look at what it meant to be a roman farmer or a part of the Roman middle class in general.
The average roman farmer did not own a large plot of land. Most of them produced enough to survive and a small surplus that could be sold at local markets.
These farms usually only had a few slaves (if any) and relied on the manual labor of the owner’s family.
Being a roman citizen came with privileges. Especially when it came to voting and the political system of the roman republic, more on that here. But the roman citizenship also came with its liabilities, mostly the duty of military service.
During the early roman republic, just like in ancient Greece, every Roman citizen who was rich enough to afford armor, weapons, and provision for the duration of the campaign could be drafted.
Now that for itself doesn`t sound like a big problem. But we will come back to why it actually was a giant problem for both the state and the roman middle class!
But for now, we will focus on the benefits that the roman expansion had for the small roman farmers.
Benefits of the roman expansion for small farmers
One of the major benefits of the Roman expansion was that sometimes conquered territories were integrated into the Roman territory. That land would then be split up and (partially) distributed among poor roman families.
Distributing plots of newly conquered land among poor roman families, for example, the territory of the Etruscan city of Veii in 396 BC, had multiple advantages.
Giving land to poor roman families meant that these families would no longer be in Rome where they were a risk for revolts. Another reason was that the presence of Romans in newly conquered territories reinforced the roman grip over these areas.
For more information on that, I would like to recommend you my article on the different ways Rome would either directly or indirectly control newly conquered areas here.
But there was another, even more, important reason.
Since the early roman army consisted of militiamen only these Roman citizens who were rich enough to afford the equipment could be drafted for campaigns.
By distributing newly conquered land among families who before being given land were not been rich enough for military service Rome massively increased its military potential!
So during the less well-known early days of the Roman expansion following the year 396 BC the Roman middle class actually profited. For more information on the less well-known early roman expansion, I would like to recommend you my article here.
But let`s now turn to the disadvantages the roman expansion had for small farmers and the roman middle class in general.
Disadvantages of the roman expansion for small farmers
The main disadvantages that the roman expansion had for small farmers were the military service and the flooding of Italy with slaves.
It is noteworthy that both the military service, especially the absence from the farms during campaigns, and the cheaper slave labor destroyed both the economical foundation of the small roman farmers and also the military potential of Rome.
The militia system of the early roman republic had its advantages. Especially since the state did not have to uphold a large standing army with its permanent costs. But the militia system also had its disadvantages and limitations.
As long as Rome was just fighting to dominate central Italy the campaigns would only last a few weeks. The roman army would assemble, march into hostile territory, fight the war, and then return home.
Since these militiamen were primarily farmers they had to be at their farms during spring when the crops were planted and in fall when it was time to harvest. That limited the duration of campaigns.
As long as these campaigns only brought the roman armies into the territories that only were a few days marches away from Rome that was not a problem.
But especially since the beginning of the punic wars in 264 BC, more on that in my article about the roman expansion here, the armies had to fight at more and more distant battlegrounds.
Just think about it. It makes a big difference if an army that starts in Rome has to march 100 miles to meet its enemy or if the army has to be deployed to Spain, Greece, or Northern Africa.
As Rome expanded the roman militiamen were forced to fight on more and more distant battlegrounds (in Spain, Africa, and so on). That meant that now they were away from their farms for years at a time!
And when these militiamen returned, or better if they returned, they often found their farms in major debts that they could not pay off. Many of these soldiers were forced to sell their land and most migrated to Rome where they would join the army of the unemployed roman poor.
By the way, the fact that these indebted farms were usually bought by the aristocrats caused the roman land crisis. As a result, the upper class was able to accumulate large private estates, so-called latifundia. And these latifundia caused another problem for the remaining small farmers. More on that in the next paragraph
Now the fact that previously wealthy farmers were driven off their farms was not only bad for them. It also had a big negative impact on the state.
Since only wealthy men could afford the full set of armor these impoverished farmers could no longer participate in campaigns. And that reduced the roman military potential quite significantly.
Another reason for the decline was the massive losses in lives that made the roman expansion possible. In the Battle of Cannae alone, more on it here in my article, Hannibal was able to annihilate a total of 80.000 men (half roman citizens, half roman allies).
So to sum it up:
Since the roman middle class provided the bulk of the soldiers they also had the most casualties and the campaigns that would keep these men away from their farms would lead to the impoverishment of the small roman farmers.
The decline of wealthy roman farmers who could serve in the army was so big that eventually the minimum wealth requirements were lowered and later completely derelict.
After that, every roman could serve since his armor and weapons were paid for by the state. Now that led to another problem since these men were basically professional soldiers inside a militia system.
That meant that soldiers were only enlisted for individual campaigns after which they were unemployed again. That resulted in large numbers of unemployed veterans populating Italy while waiting on their next assignment without having their own farms to return to.
Needless to say that the accumulation of unemployed veterans and a lack of perspective was a dangerous mixture that in the end would lead to the fall of the roman republic.
But that is a story for another time.
For now, we will return to the second problem that the expansion of the roman republic brought to small farmers even when they were able to keep their farms out of debt.
Flooding of Italy with cheap slave laborers
One side-effect of the expansion of Rome and the countless wars, more on both here in my article, was that Rome was flooded with slaves.
After the Third Macedonian War alone, find our more here, 150.000 inhabitants of Epiros were sold into slavery.
And now the already mentioned problem of the latifundia resurfaces.
Latifundia were large Italian estates that were owned by members of the upper class and were usually created by cheaply purchasing the over-indebted farms of small roman farmers. These estates were (inefficiently) farmed by slaves.
The reason for that was that due to the large amounts of slaves that were brought to Italy as a result of the roman expansion it was much cheaper to have the land farmed by slaves than by roman lessees.
Because slave labor was so cheap the grains that were produced on these latifunidia could be sold to a much lower price than grains that were grown by small roman farmers.
That in return led to the indebtedness of the few remaining small roman farmers. Once again many of them had to give up their farms and move to Rome.
But there was another problem:
Since the slaves who were working on the latifundiea had no personal interest or benefit in producing more grains the production of these large estates was highly inefficient. That resulted in a shortage of Grains that could only be solved by importing grains from Sicily and Egypt.
Solutions – the agrarian reform laws by Tiberius & Caius Gracchus
All these problems, small roman farmers losing their land due to indebtedness that was caused by long military services, the inequality in the distribution of land, and all the aftereffects had already been realized by Roman politicians.
Tiberius Gracchus actually planned laws that would have confiscated land from the upper class. There was actually a widely ignored law in place that prohibited roman citizens from owning more than 311,5 acres of the ager publicus.
The ager publicus was land that was originally conquered by Rome and added to the Roman territory. It was usually leased to farmers (mostly large upper-class landowners) but the lease was rarely collected.
Please check out my article here for more information on how Rome could use the ager publicus and other conquered territories.
But due to the processes that have been presented many wealthy landowners owned estates much larger than 311,5 Acres.
Tiberius Gracchus planned to confiscate parts of that excess land (while compensating) the previous owners.
Tiberius Gracchus then wanted to distribute the confiscated public land in plots of 18,69 Acres to poor roman families. That would increase the number of men eligible for military service and reduce the number of poor and homeless Romans.
Now obviously the roman senate, mostly consisting of large landowners who had leased areas of the ager publicus to ridiculously low prices, was not overly excited with that proposal.
Tiberius Gracchus was killed in 133 BC without his law being passed. His brother Caius proposed even further-reaching social reforms than his brother had. He met the same fate as his brother in 121 BC.
Due to their fight for social reforms both the Gracchi brother were seen and worshiped as heroes of the people. And it actually seems as if the roman senate implemented at least some of the reforms the Gracchi had developed. Please check out my post here for more information on the senate and the other political institutions of the roman republic.
I hope you enjoyed our trip to the roman republic just as much as I did. If you want to learn more about the social structure of the roman republic you might want the check out the article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
A. Heuß, G. Mann (Hrsg.); Propyläen Weltgeschichte. Eine Universalgeschichte, Band IV Rom – Die Römische Welt (Frankfurt a. Main 1986).