Corruption in the Senate


by Arnold J. Toynbee

A Roman noble who went into politics needed an assured income, and this a large one by the standards then current in the Mediterranean World. A political career at Rome was a whole-time occupation for a whole working life-time; and public office was not only unremunerative; it made increasingly heavy calls on the incumbent’s private purse to pay for shows and festivals that were not fully payable out of public funds or even out of “ benevolences" extracted from Romes allies and subjects. The office-holder did, no doubt, have opportunities of recouping himself; but these openings for incidental profit from his office were all irregular; some of them were positively illegal; and. in resorting to them, he would be incurring the risk of being called to account. . . . In the rough game of Roman domestic politics, no holds were barred. The practice of damaging a political competitor’s personal reputation by exposing irregularities in his conduct of public affairs had the salutary effect of pulling some prudential restraint on a Roman office-holder when he was under temptation to make an improper use of his enormous official powers for his own personal advantage. . . .

In ‘218 B.C.. the opening year of the ffannibalic War, the Roman “Establishment’s” sources of income had been seriously curtailed by a piece of hostile legislation which they did not ever manage to get reversed. At the instance of one senator, C. Flaminius, the contemporary champion of the Roman peasantry’s demands for land-allotments, a tribune of the plebs, Q. Claudius, had carried a plebei scilum making it illegal for a senator or a senator’s son to possess a sea-going ship of more than three hundred amphoras’ burden. The intention — which seems to have been more or less effectively fulfilled— was to debar all members of the “ Establishment ' from engaging, not only in the shipping business, but in any profit-earning business of any kind. A ship of the tonnage that the law permitted would serve only to transport the produce of an estate to Us market.

Of course the provisions of this law could be evaded by legal devices such as investing in maritime trading ventures in an agent’s name instead of in one’s own. Every member of the Roman “Establishment" had agents at his command in the persons of his slaves and freedmen: and, by financing business activities of theirs and taking a share in the proceeds, a senator could engage, not only in maritime trading ventures, but in profit-making business of almost any kind. Cato will not hare been the only senator who resorted to this obvious expedient; and, if Cato resorted to it, it must have been regarded as being respectable in second-cenlury-n.c. Senatorial circles and must hare been found, by experience, to involve little danger of incurring a prosecution. Cato’s political position depended on the maintenance of a carefully built-up reputation for giving an example of old-fashioned honesty; and he could not afford to appear to be less than impeccable, considering the number of political and personal enemies that he had made. There were dozens of pairs of lynx-eyes on the watch to descry any chink in Cato’s moral armour. . . .

From HANNIBAL’S LEGACY by Arnold ]. Toynbee, vol. II. C) Oxford University Press, 1965. Reprinted by permission.