Friday, January 6, 2012

Julius Caesar: multiculturalism, social welfare, fraud

Listening today to Mike Duncan's excellent History of Rome podcasts, I was pleased to hear Julius Caesar struggling to come to terms with issues that still puzzle us today.

Refugee crisis
The Helvetii Gauls in Switzerland were under pressure from raids of Germanic tribes and decided to migrate en masse into Roman territory. Julius Caesar responded by promising to consider their desire to enter, and instead built a defensive wall to block them off. The Gauls hit the wall and Caesar attacked, driving them about France until they were crushed.

Citizenship for ethnic minorities
For a long time citizenship was granted only to Romans, with other Italians finally fighting a war to secure their political rights too. Caesar, despite his brutal rejection of the Helvetii Gaul migrants, extended Roman citizenship to formerly conquered Cisalpine Gauls and other non-Roman peoples. This was Caesar's way of dealing with Rome's increasingly multiethnic and multicultural population. Today people debate the ease with which immigrants should be free to adopt the citizenship of their new countries; Caesar thought civic inclusion was sensible.

The social question
Rome had long been divided between the wealthy ruling patrician class and the poor plebian underclass. Deep conflicts had disrupted the state in early centuries and the plebians had managed to seize some political representation. The poverty of the Roman slums turned to crisis whenever war, slave revolts, or locusts interrupted the grain supply. Gaius Gracchus intervened during one crisis to buy expensive grain and sell it cheap, at a loss, to the plebs. Populist leaders expanded this proto-welfare system into a permanent grain dole for the poor.

When Caesar came to power he found widespread fraud and tried to cut the massive cost by reforming it. Social welfare, income inequality, fraud, and reform - 'Occupy' and 'austerity' might as well have been the buzz words of ancient Latin as today.

Cheap labour
Before the rise of Caesar Rome's drastic expansion into Greece, Africa, and the Middle East swamped Rome with hundreds of thousands of slaves. The poor Roman peasants who had worked the soil for the patrician landlords were rendered unnecessary by the free labour supplied by slaves. Duncan seems to see the comparable situation today, he says the Roman experience was less of "outsourcing" jobs to cheap labour abroad to "insourcing" jobs to slaves. Either way the Roman poor were forced into deeper poverty and underemployment.

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