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tion of the assembly, but the everyday audience of the orator would consist only of the citizens who dwelt on
How was it possible to propose Protection to such a body? They had come to Rome precisely in order to enjoy the cheap loaf, and they were already clamouring to have it larger and yet cheaper. They would have laughed to scorn any proposal to impose a heavy tax on their corn for the benefit of the rural voters. High patriotic appeals would have had little effect on them. Already, thirty years back, the elder Cato, declaming in vain against a proposal for an unnecessary distribution of corn, had exclaimed in his wrath, “Citizens, I perceive that it is a difficult task to argue with the belly, because it has no ears. The city mob would never vote for the dear loaf.
The hopeless side of the agrarian problem, then, in ancient Rome, was that all legislation to support the farming class must be useless without Protection, and Protection could not be got. We do not hear even of an attempt to bring it into the sphere of practical politics.
Tiberius Gracchus was a perfectly honest and genuine enthusiast, who believed that he had a mission-the rehabilitation of Italian agriculture--and that he was quite competent to carry it out. It might be that his mission would lead him into trouble, and he was prepared to face the fact. He had had enough schooling in political philosophy from his numerous Greek friends to have freed his mind from the traditionary Roman horror of violent constitutional change. No doubt all the tags of Aristotle's school on χρεών αποκοπή and γης αναδασμός were familiar to him. It may not be out of place to remember that his tutor, Blossius, ultimately died an anarchist, fighting at the head of a band of revolted slaves. Yet, in spite of his studies in comparative politics and Greek philosophy, Tiberius, by a strange contradiction, remained so much a
THE “PUBLIC LAND"
Roman legalist, that he held that what had once been made lawful must be morally justifiable, and that if the Comitia passed a law there could be no appeal to equity or common-sense against it.
Tiberius saw Italian agriculture languishing, the countryside occupied more and more every year by the huge estates of the capitalists, while in the city was accumulating the idle, half-starved mass of paupers who had once been Roman freeholders. His problem was, how to get the people back to the land. The end was laudable, the means which he adopted were astounding.
All over Italy there were large tracts of territory which were legally and theoretically the property of the state. Ever since the Republic became a conquering power, it had been wont to confiscate part of the soil of vanquished enemies. Sometimes this land was divided up into small farms for Roman citizens who engaged to settle thereon, sometimes a colony was planted on it, sometimes it was sold. But
very often the state did not cede it in full property to any new owner, but simply proclaimed that any citizen who chose might “squat” upon it as a tenant at will, on condition of paying a rent. If it was arable, he was supposed to give the state a tithe; if it was open pasture, he was to pay a small capitation fee (scriptura) for every head of cattle turned out upon it. There existed a nominal check upon the accumulation of too much of this public land in the hands of single individuals, for the old Licinian laws had provided that! no one should hold more than 500 jugera of tillage, or turn out more than 100 oxen or 500 sheep upon the pasture. But by the second century this ancient regulation was wholly forgotten; indeed, it had not been well observed even at the time of its enactment, and had long mouldered in the statute-book as an empty form.
In the fourth century, and even in the third, the
tendency of the Roman state had been to divide up the larger part of conquered land viritim, or to put colonies upon it. But from B.C. 250 onwards the amount of new soil placed at the disposal of the Republic had been so enormous that it was not possible to find settlers ready to
A larger and larger proportion after each conquest had to be thrown open to the licensed squatter. This was more especially the case with the vast tracts that were confiscated in Southern Italy from the states that adhered too long to Hannibal. These had been the last of the distributions. Since B.C. 210 they had ceased; no new Italian land being available. Once and again there had been some talk of the inconvenience caused by the want of fresh soil, and the celebrated Laelius had thought for a moment of proposing a resumption by the state of part of the broad acres of the squatters. But he dropped the project after discovering its practical difficulties, and gained thereby his nickname of Sapiens.
The simple idea of Tiberius Gracchus was that the state should resume possession of all this land held by tenants at will-possessores was their legal name, and possessio their tenure—and distribute it up among the lately dispossessed farmers who were sitting idle in the streets of Rome. He announced that, as a matter of grace, and not of right, he should propose that the present occupiers might be allowed the terms granted by the Licinian Rogations. Each, that is, should be allowed to select and retain 500 jugera out of the land that he was holding; he might also (this was a new provision) set aside 250 acres more for each of two sons. The small estate thus created should be granted to the old occupier as private property, but the rest must at once be surrendered to the state. In the first draft of the law which Tiberius drew up, there would seem also to have been a clause providing for some compensation for unexhausted improvements on
THE “ POSSESSORES”
the surrendered land, such, we may suppose, as houses or farm buildings erected by the outgoing tenant. It was practically certain that the Senate would refuse its sanction to any such bill, but for that hindrance the reformer cared nought. He intended to carry it through the Comitia in spite of the Fathers.
With this, apparently, as his sole programme, he stood 1 for the tribunate in B.C. 134, was easily elected, and entered into office in the succeeding year.
The first announcement of his intention roused an opposition that he cannot but have foreseen, though he displayed considerable indignation at it. The eviction of all the possessores from the public land was not such a simple matter as it looked. - When an estate has been occupied by the same family for many generations, without any reminder on the part of the landlord that they may one morning be requested to depart, ties both practical and sentimental grow up between the tenant and the soil, which it is idle for the lawyer to disregard. Of the public land held by possessio, some had been granted out as far back as the Samnite and Pyrrhic wars, and none had been distributed at a later date than Hannibal's expulsion from Italy. It had been held, therefore, by the tenants for terms ranging from seventy to two hundred years, without any interference on the part of the state. They had naturally expected that the system would endure, and had behaved as if they had a perpetual lease instead of a precarious license to squat.
The moment, therefore, that the bill was brought forward, Tiberius found that he had roused a hornets' nest about his ears. There was probably hardly a senator or a knight in Rome who did not hold some of his land by the mere tenure of possessio, and the fact that the tenure was precarious had (through the state's own fault) been completely forgotten. It was not merely the financial
loss that angered the squatters, but the sentimental grievance. On the lands from which they were to be evicted lay, as they complained, their old family villas and the tombs of their ancestors. They did not want compensation for disturbance; nothing could make up to them for the loss of such things. Moreover, the legal difficulties that would be raised were unending; some had borrowed money on the security of such lands-were the creditors to lose the sum advanced ? Others had charged upon them the dowries of their wives, or the portions of their daughters. Many had bought soil held by possessio at its full market value, under the impression-confirmed by the practice of two hundred years—that it was to all intents and purposes held under a perpetual lease. Some, occupying estates of this kind alongside of others held in full freehold, had pulled down the boundaries between them, and inextricably confused the holdings.
In short, the proposal of Tiberius to leave the possessores some remnant of their old acres, and to grant them a certain compensation for unexhausted improvements, failed (as was natural) to content them. How could it, when they were to be evicted from the main part of their land entirely in opposition to their own desire ? / Very reasonably, from their own point of view, they resolved to fight till the last gasp, and to fight in the old constitutional Roman fashion, by finding one of the tribunes who sympathised with them, and inducing him to put his veto on his colleague's proposed Agrarian Law.
Now the tribunicial veto had by this epoch of the Republic's history grown to be a mere nuisance and an anachronism; yet it was so much tied up in men's memories with the ancient constitutional triumphs of the early centuries, that it was regarded much as the modern Englishman regards Trial by Jury or Habeas Corpus. To touch it seemed profane. Yet its employment had grown