From Greece the scepter passed to Italy, and the glory of Greek thought became merged in the grandeur that was Rome's. No pause need be made to retail the very scanty information we have about early Roman thought, before the stimulus of Greek ideas had been received. Suffice it to say that aside from jurisprudence, the chief writings of the Romans were produced under the influence of Greek thought, and, as in the case of then-art, a notable lack of freshness and originality is apparent.
The Athenians were thinkers, keen and analytic. The Romans were men of action, warriors and statesmen. The former left a philosophy which profoundly affected the ethics and economics of later thinkers; the latter built institutions which as profoundly affected law and politics. The heritage of the one has been a direct and subjective force; the other, chiefly indirect and objective, conditioning the thought of the individual. As will appear in a moment, however, Roman thought has had more direct influence than its intrinsic depth would account for.
Of especial interest is the fact that the decay of Rome was well under way when her chief writers were engaged on their works. This fact colored their writings and conditioned their economic ideas. The state of decay was at least half perceived by them, and remedies were pointed out for the evils discerned. The causes and remedies as they presented themselves — say in the time of Caesar — were only in part economic; but the economic ideas of the Roman philosophers were largely palliatives for a declining state.
Roman economic ideas may be gathered from two main (1) the Jurists and writers on legal matters; (2) the philosophers. Of less importance are (3) a few writers on agriculture (de re rustica); their ideas were either purely technical or fall under the philosophical group.
Economic Thought of the Jurists
Among the jurists are found the most original Roman thinkers, and the laws express the best Roman thought. No system of economics is expressed or implied and ethical or political considerations outweigh those economic; but the following brief generalizations are of economic significance.
a Natural Law. — The Roman jurists made a distinction between human law and natural law which had much influence upon medieval and later thought. Their jus civile was a national law applicable to Roman citizens. On the other hand, a body of law known as jus gentium was developed for foreigners of whatever nationality. The latter was broader and less guided bv arbitrary local customs. It was more rational. Yet, at the same time being so founded on general principles, it contained within itself the capacity for abstract absolutism in thought. Later it was united with the Greek concept of the natural, and as a jus naturale colored succeeding thought.
b. Private Property and Contract. — In their ideas about two legal institutions, the jurists have had great effect in an objective way upon the development of economic thought; these are the institutions of property and of contract. Theirs was a somewhat narrowly individualistic idea of property. Under the stimulus of Stoic philosophy and the ideal of a jus naturale the thought of the jurists moved away from the clan or family as a social unit, and clearly defined individual rights replaced whatever community of property there had been.
And a corollary of this movement was the development of freedom of contract, including the right of the individual to dispose of his property. The importance of these institutions as a basis for all economic processes, and their liability to abuse, are apparent. As a great English economist has said, "to Roman . . . influence we may trace indirectly much of the good and evil of our present economic system; on the one hand much of the untrammelled vigour of the individual in managing his own affairs, and on the other not a little harsh wrong done under the cover of rights, established by a system of law which has held its ground because its main principles are wise and just."
An important characteristic of Roman economic thought is the separation of the non-personal elements in law from the personal, and the emphasis placed upon the former. In this it stands in contrast with the Stoic philosophy and with religious tendencies. In fact, one of the services of Roman thought was to divorce law from religion. This placing of the law upon a more impersonal basis doubtless facilitated the development of the Roman legal system in a scientific way. As a result, however, Roman juristic philosophy seems one-sided to us, in that it does not appear to attach sufficient importance to the human personality and to personal rights. This characteristic may be seen in the tendency to base right upon might, the law, in earlier stages of Rome's development, regarding conquest as giving the best title to property, and considering the enslavement of debtors as a just power of creditors. In private life the pater familias alone had full rights as a person; and the individualism of the Romans, like freedom of contract among them, applied only to certain favored classes of men.
It is evident that, in so far as it has affected economic thought, — and with the development of commerce after the Crusades it came to have an increasing influence, — Roman law lent itself to the tendency to make economics a science of exchanges determined by the working of impersonal laws.
c. Money and Interest. — Worthy of mention is the fact that Roman jurists had a good appreciation of money.1 Besides having a clear idea of its advantages for exchange purposes, they saw that it was, in a sense, merely a commodity of a more or less changeable value, — a value which is essential to its function and which cannot be established by law.
In the earlier periods of Roman history, the law appears on the whole to have opposed interest-taking. The Laws of the Twelve Tables fixed the interest rate, but condemned usury, thus recognizing a distinction between the two. In 357 B.C. the rate was changed to 10 per cent; in 347 it was cut to 5 per cent; and five years later interest was forbidden entirely by the Genucian Laws.
But with conquest and the growth of wealth things changed. Borrowing and lending were great in amount and widespread, large gains being made by borrowing at from 4 to 8 per cent in Rome and lending in the provinces at such enormous rates as, for example, 48 per cent. Finally, the Institutes of Justinian fixed rates of from 4 to 8 per cent, according to the character of the loan. Such legislation, however, seems to have been practically a dead letter, the actual rate varying with market conditions.