How a failure to secure property rights caused the decline of Ancient Rome

This essay follows the logic and arguments made by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their book “Why Nations Fail.” All research was conducted by Acemoglu, Robinson and their team.

At its height the Roman Empire spanned much of the known world from modern day Iraq in the east, Portugal in the west, Scotland to the north and Egypt to the south. It was one of the most successful empires to exist both territorially and economically. However, The Roman Empire split in two and collapsed – but how did this collapse come about? To explain this, we must discuss how the empire expanded to the heights it experienced.

The early Roman Republic began with the overthrowing of Tarquinius, the last king of Rome and the foundation of a new groundwork on which to build a nation. The overthrowing members of the republic had two potential paths to follow, one of extraction for their own personal gains or one of inclusion, using the state as a protector of individual rights; the former was chosen. By around 150BC, 350 years after the nation’s founding, almost all power, land and wealth were in the hand of the senators. The government prevented men of ability from rising up. This was achieved by a total restriction of both rights and any protection of the few freedoms that were afforded to regular citizens.

By 133BC Tiberius Gracchus had risen through the ranks to stand as the Plebeian Tribune, a position designed to represent the common people of Rome. He used his new-found power to propose revolutionary land reform, particularly to the effect of protecting citizens’ rights to property and restricting the power of the senate. Using the threat of a full-scale revolt and the power of the masses of individuals that supported Gracchus, the reforms were passed. Unsurprisingly Tiberius and his brother Gaius were murdered by the ruling classes, but their legacy remained. As a result, common Romans were able to make a fortune for themselves thus increasing the prosperity of the nation as a whole. The rise of Rome can be tracked by the number of trading vessels found sunk in the Mediterranean as an indication of Rome’s commercial power. Only 20 wrecks have been dated to the time of the early years of the republic, but this number rapidly grows to 180 around the birth of Christ. Atmospheric levels of lead and copper surged during this period indicating an era of mass productivity in the Mediterranean region. Not only did the Republic succeed commercially but also militarily. More wealth in the economy meant that the army could be expanded and developed with new military technologies produced by men of ability who now had the resources and protections that facilitate advancements. Rome saw some of its largest territorial expansion over this period.

The creation of this republic draws parallels from the formation of the United States of America. The founding fathers, however, chose a different path to Rome from its inception and instead wrote their constitution based on inclusivity and individual freedoms. As a result, the USA quickly became the world’s most prosperous nation just as Rome had done 2000 years earlier after their revolutionary reforms. A definite correlation between individual freedom and prosperity can be seen in not only these two examples of Ancient Rome and the USA but dozens of other nations around the world including colonial Australia, medieval Venice and medieval England. The correlation is developed in ‘Why Nations Fail’ by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson which also gives plenty examples of extractive regimes that restricted individual rights that have failed to develop as the today’s wealthiest nations have. The likes of Spanish South America, the Ottoman Empire and medieval Russia failed to provide protection to the individual and as a result did not take advantage of key turning points in history that could have provided wealth and prosperity to the citizens of these nations. As a result these states are some of the poorest in the world today.

Whilst the USA was enshrined in individual freedom, the Roman Republic was not. Under Augustus and Tiberius, from 27BC to 37AD, fundamental political changes saw the gradual erosion of the progress the Gracchus brothers had made. The Roman Republic became the Roman Empire and efforts to reduce the influence of the common people in the upper classes were swift and successful. Augustus reorganised the army so that secession was impossible thus removing the crucial element which had won the plebeians the freedoms they had only gained only 100 years previously. Under Tiberius, the Plebeian Assembly was disbanded and taken over by the Senate, giving government power over individuals and eroding personal freedom. Instead of these political rights, commoners were given free handouts of wheat, wine, olive oil and pork.

As the Empire grew Augustus and his entourage would confiscate land, claiming it for themselves thus growing the government’s power. With influence in the centre growing to levels similar to those before the Gracchus brothers and plebeian powers falling, property rights became increasingly insecure. As a result, several members of the elites would vie for the power now presented to the Emperor – unconstrained power to take that which they wanted without the fear of plebeian rebellion.

Despite several years of peace after the reforms, the results of such an extractive system can be observed as early as 69AD, commonly referred to as “The Year of the Four Emperors”. Following the suicide of Emperor Nero, a year of intense civil conflict between Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian (the eventual victor) began, with each participant claiming various parts of the Empire and declaring themselves to be the rightful Emperor. Intrigue and civil war would become the greatest threat to stability within the Roman Empire because of the new unrestricted power of the government; 70 Emperors would rule between Augustus in 27BC and Romulus Augustulus in 476AD, only 20 died from natural causes and as many as 23 died from assassination alone. Secured property rights for all individuals would have meant that the state could not have taken absolute power and thus individual property without backlash. However, by denying plebeians from being represented and by confiscating land, the common people had no power to resist and thus resulting in a struggle for power by the elites and continual shifts in the nation’s internal stability.

Not only did infighting cause the Romans to focus on internal threats, ignoring external threats such as the Huns, Vandals or Goths that would eventually sack Rome, but the desire to rule with absolute power meant that further extraction and a total destruction of individual property rights was implemented. Under Diocletian in 284AD to 305AD the first seeds of feudalism were sewn. Farmers would work under an absent land owner, often a military veteran or statesman, and would be bound to work the land with no ability to change profession or move farms. In addition, tax collectors had to pay the difference between what they collected and what the state wanted, meaning that taxation was often brutal work of extraction and provided no incentive for individuals to produce as their work would not benefit themselves, only going to fund the state’s continuous civil wars. By securing the individual’s rights to that which they produced and the land that they worked, individual incentives would have allowed exponentially increased production. This correlation between individual rights and production is again observed in the examples throughout history given by Acemoglu and Robinson and is seen to be one of, if not the most, important requirement for a nation to succeed. Ancient Rome after Augustus lacked such incentives and as a result was doomed to fail.

Incentives to produce are not only the driving force behind prosperity but also provides motivation to innovate. Without innovation a nation will stagnate and fall behind competing nations, losing out both commercially and militarily. Because Ancient Rome lacked incentives, innovation was sparse and for those that did attempt to innovate, the ideas were quashed by the elites. Under Tiberius it was said that a man came to him with an invention of unbreakable glass, thinking he would be rewarded handsomely. However, Tiberius asked if the inventor had told anyone about it and when the man replied no, Tiberius had him killed. Under Vespasian another inventor came with a contraption that could transport columns from the mines to Rome with little cost and with much less effort. Although Vespasian did not have him killed, he refused to use the innovation because he was more concerned about feeding the populace of Rome and rebellion than the transportation of stone. Not only this but Vespasian was also concerned that the inventor himself may acquire too much power, perhaps rising through the ranks to challenge those in the elite classes. This threat of ‘creative destruction’, the replacement of current upper classes with the new that have risen up, is a trend throughout history seen in many nations’ past. This is the same reason Tiberius had the inventor of the unbreakable glass killed. Because the Roman elites feared creative destruction they were unwilling to approve innovation achieved by anyone other than the Emperor or his most trusted friends. As a result, the very best inventions of the time never came into existence and the nation fell behind competing kingdoms and empires both economically and technologically. Rome then suffered as other nations grew richer and more powerful until eventually Rome itself was destroyed by its enemies.

Had Augustus continued the trend set by the Gracchus brothers in implementing more rights for the individual and using the senate to protect those rights, the story of Rome’s existence may have been very different indeed. It is likely that political instability would have been reduced as the position of Emperor would not have held as much power as it did and thus the position would not have been so lucrative. The civil wars that resulted caused the Emperors to ignore external threats and to further reduce the rights of individuals. It is also very likely that the Roman Empire would have been exponentially more productive and thus more economically stable. As a result of these incentives to produce, vital innovations would have been made, with intellectual property protected, to keep Rome aligned if not more advanced compared to its competing nations. Rome did not secure property rights and fell in 476AD.

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