Peter Jones

When Rome’s 99 per cent stood up

Revolt against the rich can happen — sometimes

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In the UK the richest 1 per cent — 300,000 — of the working population control 23 per cent of the nation’s total wealth. Austerity and cuts loom. Oxfam says there are 13 million ‘relatively’ poor in the country. But the poor seem rather relaxed about it.

The ancients, however, knew the poor could not be ignored. In the Athenian radical democracy, the poor were in fact the bosses, having total control of Athens’ courts and sovereign assembly. They could have voted themselves pensions for life had they so wished, or stripped the rich of everything they owned. They did not. Instead the rich were taxed in times of war and made to pay for festivals — games, theatre, poetry, music — and the running of the state navy. On one occasion, the assembly had the chance to divide up among themselves the proceeds of a rich silver strike; Themistocles persuaded them to put the money into enlarging the fleet to control the sea and build an empire.

The Romans were more top-down, but the senate was still aware that the poor were not to be trifled with. Early on in their history, the poor decided to down weapons and refuse to fight. A Plebeian assembly was formed to appease them, which in time became as powerful as the other assemblies. In the second century BC, a serious land shortage arose, which the senate, dominated by wealthy landowners, refused to do anything about. This was serious for the poor, and Tiberius Gracchus, an aristocrat with an eye to power, took a proposal for redistributing land straight to the Plebeian assembly, bypassing the senate. Amid chaotic scenes, it was passed. Even when the first emperors dissolved the assemblies, they knew that if they crossed the poor, they were in trouble.

In the Roman empire, perhaps 40,000 out of 55 million owned an astronomical 80 per cent of the wealth. In that light, the spread of our wealth seems positively liberal. But if there really are 13 million ‘relatively’ poor in the UK, it is extraordinary they do not somehow exert their numerical muscle. Perhaps it is all a matter of perception; or the welfare state has got something right after all.