If you are a wargamer (odds are if reading this blog) then you are probably aware of the Marian Reforms of 107 BC. If you have so much as played the computer game Rome: Total War you are almost definitely aware of them in some sense. Just in case you have strolled in here by chance, I shall explain that they were a set of changes to the structure of the Roman army. These changes made the army much more professional. Today I want to talk about why these reforms came about, and why those reasons fill me with alarm for our future.
First, I want to lay out some basic elements of this story. The city of Rome rose to prominence as a result of waging and winning an awful lot of wars. For the purposes of this story, we have to consider three elements within Rome herself. First, the patrician class, the acknowledged leaders of the city. In times of war they provided Rome with her generals and (initially) her cavalry. Rather like the Greek hoplite's armour showed he was a wealthy member of his city state, so did the nobleman's ability to keep a horse show off his wealth. Second, the plebeians, the lower orders, who provided the footsoldiers of the army. The younger, poorer ones comprised the light infantry, and those who got older and wealthier advanced in seniority, providing the medium and heavy infantry. Third, the slaves, who generally played no role in combat.
The infantry were "yeomen farmers", a term which was still being applied to "salt of the earth" soldiery in Australia in the Great War, I believe. In a word, they had a plot of land, which they and their families farmed. When there was a war, they left their families to tend the land, and took up arms for the Republic. Obviously, if you have one fewer able-bodied man to run a farm, it will do less well. I mentioned that Rome enjoyed victory in a string of wars. That means that rather than the occasional year when the homesteader was unavailable, it began to be the case that he was off campaigning for years at a time.
If you were a poor man, you just had yourself and your family. If you were a rich one, then even if you were away, you could buy slaves to tend your property in your absence. These slaves were not part of the normal army, so had no obligation to serve. So you can see how the rich man's farm, running at full capacity, is going to out-produce the poor man's. Sometimes the poor man's farm will fail, and he will have to sell up. Something we see in the press today about farmers is them complaining that supermarkets do not pay them enough to make their work viable. Many leave the job because of this. It was the same in the time of the Republic. If one could not make a living, why keep trying?
Gradually, the wealthy forced out many farmers. Like the baddies in many Westerns, they would buy up the smallholdings, consolidate them into their large estates, and make even more money. In Britain it has long been a saying that one can make one's fortune on the gold-paved streets of London. The Romans felt the same. The erstwhile farmers would head for Rome. Legally speaking, the Republic had land which belonged to the State itself, conquered in war. Gradually, the rich had taken all this over for their grand estates, too. This was the beginning of a crisis. The Roman Army relied upon recruiting men who could pay for their own equipment, but fewer and fewer were available.
Into this crisis stepped Tiberius Gracchus. Some saw him as a man on the make, aiming to use the support of the plebeians to make himself consul. Others saw him as a saviour, who would return to them the lands they had lost, give them back their dignity, and restore the balance of power in the state. He attempted to pass legislation that would have take public land, which the rich held illegally, and returned it to the one-time farmers, who now filled Rome. Political manoeuvring followed, and the Senate decided Tiberius was an existential threat to the Republic. A senatorial mob fashioned clubs, then beat him and three hundred of his followers to death. To mollify the people, they accepted Tiberius' propositions. However, this did not solve the problem.
About a decade after Tiberius' murder, his younger brother, Gaius, rose to prominence.He was a cannier man than his brother, and succeeded in a whole host of reforms. However, in the end the Senate won again, Gaius fled and committed suicide, as was the Roman way. Within fifteen years the situation was worse than it had been for the poor at the beginning of Tiberius' attempts. Marius enacted his reforms as the army would otherwise have no soldiers.
The result of this was that the security of these soldiers was tied to the political success of whoever their general was. If their general did poorly, their future was at risk. If he did well, they were safe. Their loyalty was to their generals, not to the state, for the state, run by the wealthy, had given them no reason to love it. This led to rather a lot of civil wars.
The rich were supposed to rule the state for the benefit of all, but instead used their power to accumulate more riches to themselves, while allowing the poor to become poorer, disenfranchised and desperate. Eventually, the poor discovered that the rich did not have the best interests of the poor in mind, and threw their support behind anyone who might be able to provide for them personally.
I see the same pattern today. The disparity between the wealthy and the poor has been growing since before I was even born. The powerful in America have refused to root out the problem, and now America has President elect Trump. The powerful in Britain refused to do anything about the problem, and many of those who voted for Brexit did so to stick two fingers up at the Establishment. It matters not to these people that the man in America who is supposedly opposing the Establishment is a billionaire. The powerful in Britain show no signs of awareness of the road they are on. Just now the Work and Pensions Secretary has lied about the nature of jobs in the UK.
Mr Green said in a speech at the Reform think-tank on Wednesday
morning: “Just a few years ago the idea of a proper job meant a job that
brings in a fixed monthly salary, with fixed hours, paid holidays, sick
pay, a pension scheme and other contractual benefits.
“But the gig economy has changed all that. We’ve seen the rise of the
everyday entrepreneur. People now own their time and control who
receives their services and when.
“They can pick and mix their employers, their hours, their offices,
their holiday patterns. This is one of the most significant developments
in the labour market. The potential is huge and the change is
I had one of those jobs he was talking about for over a year. We employees did not own our own time. We did not control who received our services and when. If our boss needed us in at a particular time on a particular day, we were there. Two of my fellow employees took the post because it was convenient because of their childcare arrangements. When those arrangements fell through, through no fault of their own, it imperilled their jobs. They were women, and women often take such jobs precisely because of childcare. Green lies that one can pick and mix employers and hours. I shall not pretend to believe that he is mistaken. He is just lying. When taking on new employees, my employers would check that they weren't also working other jobs, as those hours could interfere with their availability to work whenever the employers wanted.
The point is made. He shows no awareness of the hardships of the people he and his government crush beneath their exquisitely-made boots. I very much fear we are on course for a repetition of something terrible. The wealthy will not stop it because it is not immediately profitable to do so, even though in the long term it could save much more of their wealth.