Ancient and modern

When Rome’s 99 per cent stood up

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

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.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • Aquartertoseven

    In Rome and Athens, everything was so close to the people that they could go out their doors and protest, whereas we don’t have that luxury. How much would it cost these poor people to get trains to and from London? How many times would they need to do this in order to get results? Where would they be able to get this money, being poor?

    That said, great article, history’s always interesting.

    • English_Independence_Movement

      Those poxy nations are hardly worth emulating

  • “1 per cent … of the working population” Of course! Billionaires don’t work anymore.

  • Just wait until the poor go hungry. Poverty is the gun. Hunger is the trigger.

    • pyard

      Stealing that quote.

  • biffula

    These discussions are sooooo stupid. If the 1% didn’t have this wealth, its not like the great unwashed would have it. The 1% created it. If they didnt have it, no one would. Everyone would just be poor. Its not as if the 1% are keeping the great unwashed from wealth, the 1% have just created their own. You could take all the wealth from the 1% and give ti to the 99% and in 10-20 years things would be back to the way they were before. Some just aren’t capable folks. Face the facts. Equality is the biggest scam ever perpetrated on mankind.

    • Sulla Felix

      ^ Roman historian right here, LOL

    • Iulian

      So real

    • Anne Elke

      You’re the worst.

    • CommonSense Matters

      How did the 1% ‘create’ this wealth? you can’t be one of the 1% as you would know it is impossible to create wealth without the involvement of other people. Your likely slave-owing ancestors knew that, they taught you some things but not everything it would seem.

  • Alex Powell

    Interesting that this article doesn’t mention what happened to Gracchus and his brother, who tried to do a similar thing a little later. Basically, seeing that too much of their power was going to be lost to the poor, the senate murdered him and many of his followers on the streets, then threw the bodies in the river. The laws went in to effect for a while but many were quietly repealed a few years later and they made no significant impact.

    So what’s the moral here?

  • CommonSense Matters

    “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 poor seem relaxed about it? Perhaps because they know just over a month to go until Labour move in and make things a lot better – no point letting axiety kick in when they’ve had to wait five years for this moment to come.

  • Dan O’Connor

    Mirroring the Liberal political, media and academic elite that our people in the West rely upon for their sense of morality and values , our poor are intellectually, culturally and spiritually poverty stricken
    The creed of modernity is inherently hostile to collective identities.
    Being fundamentally slanted towards the future, it demonises the notions of
    ” tradition ” ” custom ” of ” rootedness” and ” continuity ” and sees these notions as ouidated superstitions and obstacles on its truimphant march towards progress
    The dynamics of modernity tears man asunder from his natural communal ties
    It aspires to the lowest state of human existence which is based on economic gain and material aquisitions .

Close