ancient civilizations

The Menace of Privilege, by Henry George Jr.
Installment 56
Roman Empire

We are pleased to present, in installments, a very rare yet significant book written by former Congressman Henry George Jr. in 1905.

Earlier installments are available at the Progress Report Archive.


Special Privilege in America Same as in Imperial Rome

Are we not beginning to show some points of similarity with the Roman Empire?

Mr. Andrew Carnegie, after donating $100,000,000 toward public library buildings and other purposes, probably has remaining more than twenty times the sum Julianus paid for the purple. The mere interest at four per cent. on Mr. John D. Rockefeller's reputed fortune would have paid for the purple two or three times over!

Eleven men owned the 'Province' of Africa. Half-a-dozen men control and practically own the railroads and the coal and oil deposits of the State of West Virginia. Do we not commonly speak of this or that individual, or this or that corporate combination, as owning such and such town, or county, or State?

"The great estates have ruined Italy." And shall the still greater estates - square mile after square mile of agricultural country, of timber region, or mineral resources and the large and augmenting holdings in towns and cities - make for the health and prosperity of this Republic?

The ager publicus, or Roman common lands, were for most part seized by the Roman nobles. Has not the last of what is available of our seemingly limitless public domain gone into the hands of large speculators and great corporations of one kind or another?

Heavy taxes, exorbitant rents and debts destroyed the small holdings and swelled the latifundia throughout the Roman Empire. Have not great loan companies in New York, Boston, Chicago and other cities plastered our Western country with mortgages, and are they not, through foreclosure, absorbing it?

Huge fortunes were rolled up for a few Roman citizens by the operation of the jus commercii. Does not our tariff law center trade and manufacturing in a few favored hands?

The $4,500,000 that Rabirius could at short notice lend would be held a small loan for some of our citizens like a Stillman, a Clarke, or a Ryan; while Mr. Morgan in the course of a dinner arranged the plans that within a few weeks resulted in the formation of the $1,400,000,000 Steel Trust.

Have we not palatial private residences that recall the gilded roofs, the colonnades, the baths, the statues of bronze mixed with gold and silver of the "Golden House" that once stood upon the Palatine Hill, where the Emperor Nero ruled in the very madness of pride - the Golden House wherein the beautiful Poppaea, with her wondrous garments of "woven air," charmed the masters of mankind?

Nor are we unlike the imperial Romans touching game preserves. They turned into solitudes for breeding and hunting extensive tracts where agriculture had decked the earth and population had nestled in happy hamlets. With all our wealth of unused land, hamlets and villages are being cleared from some parts of the Adirondack Mountains in upper New York State, and chosen spots west of the Mississippi are being divested of all habitations, save those of keepers, to make vast game preserves for foolish pride and restless desire.

If there are not here now, as there were in Rome, large fortunes founded upon conquest, we may see that parallel soon develop out of our centralizing movement and foreign aggression.

Our power of producing wealth is far greater than that which the ancients enjoyed. With that fair distribution that would occur through observance of equal rights, our people generally might and would live in comfort and harmony. But special privileges are preventing just distribution. While robbing the many, they are heaping into the hands of a few men, far, far larger private and corporate fortunes than the masters of the Roman world possessed.

Certain it is that we have among us Princes of Privilege who wield a power over their fellow-citizens in some respects as imperious as had those ancient masters of civilization who discussed world politics in the Forum, argued philosophy in the porticoes of Octavia, loitered in the luxurious baths of Caracalla, sat in the man-killing theater of the Flavians, or reclined far into the night at Lucullan feasts, as about them fountains breathed forth perfumes, lutes played, poets sang, historians told of longgone days, or garlanded girls glided in the dance.

To those belonging to the privileged classes of Rome the surface aspect of things must have been fair enough. "For," says Froude in his "Caesar," "it was an age of material civilization; an age of civil liberty and intellectual culture; an age of pamphlets and epigrams, of salons and dinner parties, of senatorial majorities and electoral corruption. The highest offices of state were open in theory to the meanest citizen; they were confined, in fact, to those who had the longest purses, or the most ready use of the tongue on popular platforms."

Does this not fit our own case after a short century and a quarter of national life?

The name of Maecenas, the great minister of state under Augustus, is a synonym for patron of literature. He was the host and friend of wits and poets. By his encouragement and bounty Virgil and Horace, Propertius and Domitius Marsus flourished, to the delight of the contracted world of culture of their day.

Maecenas did this with riches flowing from privileges conferred upon him by the Emperor. He has in some respects an after-type in the person of our compatriot, Mr. Andrew Carnegie, who, from privileges under our laws, draws a revenue that could outdo the Roman Maecenas's munificence tenfold.

Perhaps most of us require a repetition of all outward conditions to realize a true historical parallel. We disregard the underlying principles. But no truth is more clearly printed on the pages of history than that social and political changes of great and lasting moment often occur without violent outward circumstance. The transition from a democratic-republican form of government to that of an imperium necessarily needs no dramatic coup d'etat to be effective. The change that occurred in Rome was not so. Augustus made the transformation, but not as a revolutionist. It was as a conserver of the old institutions that were falling into disrepute.

He directed the government ostensibly not as a self-raised autocrat, hostile to the laws. He protested that he desired not to destroy, but to preserve. He feigned to shrink from the responsibilities and burdens of state, and with outward reluctance consented to have various established powers conferred temporarily upon him, so that he should be the embodiment of the law in its various functions. He contrived to be made Consul, Tribune, Censor, Pontifex Maximus, military Imperator and Dictator all at one time.

These several powers did no violence to the old forms and they were centered in his person on the plea that he could thereby best bring "peace" and "order," and protect "rights" and "property." He frequently reminded the public that he accepted these responsibilities and labors but for a temporary season, and he once did actually abdicate. But those about him trembled and the outside world stood spellbound until, with great show of sorrowful bowing to the call of duty, he resumed his powers. To the end of his long life he professed to defer to the Senate, whereas that body really cringed before the master of the legions. He professed always to be a servant of the Roman people, but that people had become careless or incapable of calling him to account.

It was the new order under the old forms. It introduced the Empire while pretending to preserve the Republic. And what followed was only what could be expected. The Empire rested not upon the will of a free people, but upon the swords of soldiers. The soldiers learned of the secret and took possession of their own.

Telling of the murder of Galba and the acclamation of Otho as Emperor, Tacitus says: "Two common soldiers engaged to transfer the Empire of the Roman people and they did transfer it. . . . The walls and temples all around were thronged with spectators of this mournful sight. Yet not a voice was heard from the better class of people or even from the rabble."

Later Vespasian came with the veterans from Palestine to overthrow the brief usurpation of Vitellius and to found the Flavian line. The fighting continued even into Rome itself. "The populace," observed Tacitus, "stood by and watched the combatants, and, as though it had been mimic combat, encouraged one party and then the other by their shouts and plaudits. Whenever either side gave way, they cried out that those who concealed themselves in the shops or took refuge in any private house, should be dragged out and butchered, and they secured the larger share of the booty; for, while the soldiers were busy with bloodshed and massacre, the spoils fell to the crowd."

That crowd was composed mainly of Roman citizens and slaves. To what a depth had fallen that proud name! Roman citizens had become mere vultures of the battlefield!

Next Week: The Price of Privilege

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