Thursday, July 03, 2008

Livy regarding liberty and the bickering of the plebs.

"But not only was war with the Volsci imminent; the citizens were at loggerheads among themselves, and internal dissensions between the Fathers and the plebs had burst into a blaze of hatred, chiefly on account of those who had been bound over to service for their debts. These men complained loudly that while they were abroad fighting for liberty and dominion they had been enslaved and oppressed at home by fellow-citizens, and that the freedom of the plebeians was more secure in war than in peace, among enemies than amongst citizens."

This bit dates to perhaps 600BC and is one of many scattered but related passages involving debts and their consequences. Originally the area around Rome had relatively equal landowners. The fortunes of landholders would rise and fall, so that sometimes they took out loans. Due to high interest rates, however, the loans frequently grew to unpayable levels and the result was that the landholder was evicted. Gradually lands were gathered into large estates and an equestrian class formed which produced the knights, while the plebs (peasants) became artisans or worked the fields of others.

When I was in the government schools, I had learned that this transformation to feudalism had occurred a thousand years later during the middle ages. It was a surprise to learn that my text books had been so wrong. Apparently this Roman practice was foisted onto most of Europe by the Roman Empire.

This does bring some new insight into a passage from Deuteronomy 23:19-20 -

"Do not charge your brother interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a brother Israelite, so that the Lord your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess."

Comparing this law with what happened to the Romans, it seems that the effect of this law would be to avoid the problems that caused the gathering of lands into large holdings and the formation of an aristocracy. It would seem that God's intent was to keep class divisions from happening.

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