Prime Ministers and Proconsuls

12/04/2021

Whilst reading a short piece by Quintus Slide in the latest issue of my husband’s MoneyWeek (9/04/2021), I was struck by an interesting comparison between modern politics and those of the late Roman Republic. I quote the first two sentences of Slide’s article in full:


“’Over the past quarter of a century, as dangerous new belief has sprung up in political circles,’ says Stephen Glover also in the Daily Mail. It’s that former PMs have the right to enrich themselves on leaving office, exploiting the contacts they made during their time at No. 10.” (p.44).


A strikingly similar pattern can be observed in the actions of Roman magistrates, especially the consuls, the highest magistrates, upon leaving office: an assumed right they could increase their bank balances. However, Roman magistrates turned their desires on their unfortunate subjects.


The consuls had traditionally spent their year of office in the field, as the commanders-in-chief of the armies. Following the reforms of dictator Sulla between 82-80 BCE, the practice became that the consuls, one or both, would spend their year of office in Rome, and take charge of a province (area governed by the Roman empire) in the following year.[1] Not all provinces were equal in terms of their lucrative potential. The eastern provinces of Achaea (Greece) and those in Asia Minor were the most sought-after. And the most heavily exploited.


Having wealth and being seen to have wealth could make all the difference to one’s success in Roman politics. Wealth equalled power and it impressed the field of potential voters. Wealth meant the ability to beautify the city with statues and building works, the means to put on lavish games for public holidays, to make gifts to the poorer citizens (as did Julius Caesar in his will), and to buy splendid properties in visible or trendy locations like the Palatine (like M. Caelius Rufus of Cicero’s, pro Caelio) which marked out one’s wealth and status.


The provinces offered the opportunity further to line the pockets. Most often this was done through forcible exactions of both money and gifts, theft of art works, or fraudulent tax collections. Verres, the corrupt governor of Sicily, who was guilty of all of the above and convicted in 70 BCE, might seem like a standout example thanks to Cicero’s brilliant and devastating prosecution, but he was hardly atypical. Why? Because they were ambitious, greedy, and, well, because they could. It was extremely difficult for provincials to achieve any form of redress for abuse by governors and commanders. A further reason for their exploits was often to replenish cash expended on extravagant political campaigns and cover any debts incurred this way. Another way they could be exploited was through loans with exorbitant interest rates. A tribune named Cornelius had sought to ban this means of fleecing those in the provinces, but the senators, safeguarding their own financial machinations, found a tribune called Globulus to veto the measure. When Cicero was governor of Bithynia (51 BCE), he was genuinely shocked at the interest placed on loans to the people of Salamis by Brutus (yep, the one who killed Caesar). In a letter, he reports how, confronted by Brutus, he reluctantly felt unable to do anything to relieve them.


Just like the examples Slide gives of Blair and Cameron. Roman consuls believed they had the right to fill their coffers following their service. Blair and Cameron were not guilty of the unscrupulous means used by their ancient counterparts. But the spur to self-enrichment is certainly a valid comparison.

[1] It should be added that financial exploitation of provincials did not begin with Sulla. The history went far back. In 149 BCE, L.Calpurnius Piso Frugi passed a law which established the extortion court to redress the injustices committed in the provinces by Roman officials. Following Gaius Gracchus’ reform of tax collection in the provinces (123 BCE), an entirely new evil was unleashed upon the provinces in the form of the publicani, the Roman tax collectors. Extortion further escalated and contributed in no small measure to the angry slaughter of 80,000 Roman and Italian businessmen in Asia.

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