Monday, 13 February 2012

Rome: The Home Front After Hannibal

Pompeii Fresco - Venus and Mars

After the war against Hannibal, overseas wars continued and life in Rome for most people was not at all luxurious - or even comfortable.

Although some Romans became wealthy, most were poor and unable to find work.

The war against Carthage changed Rome. The Senate - and consequently the aristocracy - had gained more power and prestige during the wars, and people's assemblies, the Comitias Plebus, had declined in influence. The Romans had emerged from the Punic wars with the widespread understanding that ultimate authority over the military lay with the Senate, that it was the Senate's job to know, advise and guide, and the Senate's job to decide the question of war or peace and other foreign policy matters.

Wealthy Romans began investing their money abroad, in the newly conquered territories - some in mines in Spain and some in vast tracts of land in Sicily, both operated by slave labour.

Some rich Romans lent money abroad, at high interest rates, and Roman financial operations became greater than that of the Greeks and Near Easterners.

There was a general increase in corruption and fraud, against which the Senate was not always willing to press charges. And those with wealth imported more spices, carpets, perfumes and other luxury goods from the East.

Continuing war was a source of wealth for some. War contracts were lucrative for those Roman entrepreneurs who could bribe the right people effectively. Rome was spending as much as eighty percent of its budget on its military. The wars across the Adriatic were a boon also for Romans who volunteered for the military. They brought back money and booty from Greece, which encouraged more Romans to volunteer for military duty.

Life in the countryside was transformed. The was against Hannibal had reduced the number of people in the Italian countryside. Men had gone off to war. People had died and people had moved to the cities to escape war. Some people had left the countryside to work in the arms industry, and some went to Rome looking for subsistence.

As a result of the war, much farmland in Italy could be bought cheaply. Those with wealth began buying this farmland, some landowners expanding their holdings and some businessmen from the cities looking for a secure investment and a source of social respectability. With the accelerated trend toward larger farms came a greater use of slaves. More lands in the countryside were transformed into pasture, vineyard, and olive orchards - more suited to Italian soil and climate than was the growing of grain. The richest lands were converted to vineyards and the poorer tracts to olive groves, while ranching was the most profitable for capitalist landowners. Holdings that were a mix of ranching and farming grew to more than 300 acres, found mostly in southern and central Italy, the area most heavily devastated by the Second Punic War.

Many small farmers found themselves unable to compete with the larger farms and their more numerous slaves. Moreover, a greater importation of grain from Sicily and North Africa brought a drop in grain prices, and many small farmers gave up, sold their farms to the wealthy and joined the migration to the cities.     Thus, many of Rome's small farmers, who had been the backbone of the Roman Republic, became city-dwellers living off welfare - free bread and circuses.

The new arrivals in Rome enjoyed the festivals and other public entertainment that were created to maintain public morale during the dark days of the war. Newcomers developed a preference for the city over the life of drudgery they had known working on farms. And after the war ended, many veterans from farming families preferred settling in cities, especially Rome, rather than return to the countryside. Cities in Italy became overcrowded, and Rome became the most populous city in Europe and West Asia.

Meanwhile, most freemen who lived in Rome and other Italian cities had no work - as most physical work being done by slaves. Ambition for most of the freemen was limited to getting enough to eat - which in the city was primarily boiled wheat, or what was becoming a staple diet of baked bread.

Common Romans were packed closely together in rows of poorly-built tenement houses separated by narrow alleyways. Their only heat was the small charcoal brazier they used inside their homes and fires were common. For a toilet they had a chamber pot. They had to haul their water, which was often polluted. Most Romans passed their time on their porches or in the marketplace.

Rome had no theatres or restaurants. Dancing was associated with the insane. There was, however, some makeshift street-corner theatre. And the poor were entertained by the occasional circuses and public festivals that included sensational and exciting duels between slaves - paid for by politicians who sought approval from grateful citizens.

Prostitution and thievery flourished. Outcasts from smaller communities migrated to the big cities, especially to Rome, which had no police force. In Rome, feuds and violence between families were frequent, with the participants calling on friends and neighbours for assistance. There were no medical professionals to attend the injured or the ill or to help combat epidemics. Few Romans lived past the age of forty. The poor who died were buried in common pits in the public cemetery on Esquiline Hill.

But most Romans continued to enjoy what they believed was the glory of Rome's eminent position in the world.

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