Debt and Democracy

While this was written by Cicero in 44 BCE, after the assassination of Caesar and a year before Antony had Cicero murdered, the sentiment can be heard in today’s Republicans–particularly those associated with the Tea Party. Any attempt at redistribution, according to Cicero, threatens the very foundation of the republic, which, he points out, was instituted to protect the sanctity of private property:

‘Those who wish to present themselves as populares, and for that reason attempt agrarian legislation so that landholders are driven from their dwellings, or who think that debtors ought to be excused from the money that they owe, are undermining the very foundations of the political community: in the first place, concord, which cannot exist when money is taken from some and bestowed upon others; and secondly, fairness, which utterly vanishes if everyone may not keep that which is his. For, as I have said above, it everyone a free and unworried guardianship of his possessions (On Duties 95).’

Political projects of debt relief undermine the fides or ‘faith’ that is the glue of the republic and must be resisted by any means necessary.

‘Again, what is the point of wiping slates clean, unless it is that you can take my money in order to buy a farm, which you will have, while I non longer have my money? For that reason provision must be made to avoid any debt that may harm the political community. There are many methods of guarding against this; but if it does occur do not let the rich lose that which is theirs while the debtors profit at others’ expense. For there is nothing that holds together a political community more powerfully than good faith; and that cannot exist unless the paying of debts is enforced (On Duties97).’

The threat to the republic, is in fact democracy. The important point contrast of which Cicero is fully aware, is the historical development of Athenian democracy. While the class conflicts of the early Roman republican period were unable to seriously challenge by the power of the aristocracy, those of the classical period in Athens were able to challenge aristocratic power. And the ability to cast of the burdens of debt was instrumental in the process of democratization. Here is Aristotle in his The Constitution of Athens:

‘The constitution [of pre-democratic Athens] was in all respects oligarchic, in particular in that the poor, together with their wives and children, were the slaves of the rich; they were described as pelatai and hektemoroi, which referred to the terms on which they worked the fields of the rich. The whole land was under the control of a few men, and if the ordinary people did not pay their dues they and their children could be seized. Further, all loans were made on the security of the person of the debtor until the time of Solon—he was the first champion of the people. The harshest and most resented aspect of the constitution for the mass of the people was this slavery, although they had other complaints, for they had virtually no share in any aspect of government (II 2, 3).’


‘When he had taken power, Solon freed the people both then and for the future by making loans on the security of a person’s freedom illegal; he passed laws, and instituted a cancellation of debts both private and public which men call the seisachteia, for they shook off their burdens (VI 2).’

The times may change but the struggles remain the same.


One thought on “Debt and Democracy

  1. Yet the hands that wrote these things and the head that spoke them wound up on display on the Rostra. Absent those hands I suspect Cicero wasn’t able to hang on to very much of his riches.

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