All analyses of the Early Roman Republic identify the problem of debt as a major issue underpinning the political unrest that characterized Roman society in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Yet both ancient and modern narratives have often tended to yield single-faceted conceptions of debt that focus primarily on legal categorizations which often examine the overall problem from its endpoint. We are lacking when it comes to constructing a thoughtful picture of what agrarian debt, particularly its origins, actually looked like in functional terms during this period.
Since debt represented a volatile precondition for agitation and reform in the Roman community during this period, this study explores its practical origin, qualities, and function in an agricultural community. This dissertation develops and employs a heuristic model of agriculture, what we term “peasant domestic economy,” in order to determine the factors contributing to the generation and inception debt, the characteristics of its maintenance, and its overall function in economic contexts. The model of agriculture developed in this work demonstrates the variety, sophistication, and overall complexity of peasant domestic economy, the small farm, and its relation to the environment. The causes of agrarian debt were correspondingly complex and arose from a large variety of factors. Questions of life cycles and birth and marriage patterns help inform our analysis and add intricacy to the question of how debt was generated in agricultural communities. A thorough analysis of the early Roman law code of the Twelve Tables (c. 450 BC) complements our heuristic model of agriculture by illuminating the thought-world of the Roman farming community and highlighting the logics of mutual dependence and cooperation that coexisted alongside those of competition and a need to regulate scarce resources.
The dissertation demonstrates that debt interactions, from low-level borrowing and cooperation between neighbors, to forms of dependency with deep asymmetries of status, were inherently written into the fabric of agriculture and the early Roman community in its process of survival. During the fifth century, the Roman community was characterized by a pre-coinage economy and a low level of state development, both of which encouraged the production of a societal fabric marked by self-help groups or dependency networks in which debt played out as a relational process of service, subordination, and reciprocity. This work demonstrates that over the course of the fourth century in particular, a new civic fabric emerged which reoriented members of the community towards a state-center as citizens, taxpayers, and legionary soldiers, imposing new burdens and transforming the character of debt from a relational process to a calculated transaction involving principal balances and interest rates.
Overall the dissertation provides three major contributions: 1) a thoughtful critique of the ways that both ancient and modern narratives have described debt in early Rome, 2) a heuristic model of agriculture and the thought-world of the ancient peasant that demonstrates the complexity and relational character of debt in an agrarian community, and 3) an agricultural, economic, and environmental lens for the study of the process of state-formation in the Roman community from c. 450-287 BC.