Scarcely less urgent than the question of the treatment of the debtor was that of the occupation and ownership of land. It was fiercely debated for hundreds of years.
The earliest attempt to settle it was made, it would seem, about twenty-four years after the expulsion of the Kings; it came up again and again while the Republic lasted; it remained still calling for settlement when the Republic gave place to the Empire.
Many laws dealing with it were passed, but all were more or less evaded. It would be too much to say that no good was done by them, but it is certainly true that the abuses which they were intended to remove, still remained, and in the end did much to bring about the ruin of the State.
The property in dispute was the land which belonged to the State (ager publicus). This land had been acquired by conquest. The spread of Roman power was gradual, the neighbouring towns with their territories becoming subject to it on different terms.
There was no such wholesale change of ownership as took place in England when it passed into the hands of the Norman conquerors. Then, as we learn from the great survey known as the Domesday-book, practically the whole of the land of England, that only excepted which belonged to the Church, passed into the hands of William I., and was distributed among his kinsmen and followers.
In the case of Rome, on the contrary, part of the land was retained by the old proprietors, part was given back to them on terms, part was sold at once, but a large portion was reserved as public property.
It was this last portion that was the chief subject of dispute. The abuse complained of was that it was monopolised by persons whose birth or wealth made them persons of influence; the remedy proposed was that no one should occupy more than a certain amount, and that the surplus should be divided among those citizens who needed it. (It should be observed that in all cases the land was occupied, not owned, being rented for long periods, with a general custom of renewal when the lease came to an end.)
The greatest amount was fixed at 500 iugera, about 310 acres.
Later on, a certain relaxation was granted. A man might hold the five hundred iugera in his own name, and half as much in the name of a son, but not more than one thousand were to be held by any one family. Another provision was to the effect that on every holding a certain amount of free labour, in proportion to its size, should be employed.
It may be said that all the great social and economical questions with which the ancient world was troubled are still with us in one shape or another. This is certainly true of the land question. The small holding and the large domain still represent opposing interests. In Australia the squatter, occupying huge territories on which he keeps hundreds of thousands of sheep, looks jealously on new settlers. In Ireland the large grazing farms are at this very time an object of popular hostility.
Slave labour is happily banished from a large part of the world, but even of this something still survives. The white man complains that he is driven out of the field by the competition of inferior races, who are able to live on wages which mean for him something like starvation.
In Rome, as I have said, the matter was never settled. A curious illustration of the difficulties which faced the reformer is supplied. A certain Caius Licinius Stolo was one of the principal promoters of a proposal for restricting the amount of the ager publicus which might be held by any one man. The struggle lasted for ten years; the proposal then became law.
Before two years had passed, however, Licinius himself was fined for evading it. He held the maximum of land in his own name, and he contrived to get possession of as much more by taking it in the name of his son, whom, for this purpose, he made independent. (A father had by the Roman law something like absolute power over his children. This was known as the "father's authority," patria potestas. He could give this up, if he saw fit, and the son became independent, free, for instance, to hold property in his own name. Licinius released his son with a secret understanding that the profits of the property should come to himself.)
The punishment inflicted on Licinius did not put a stop to the practice. In this and in other ways the law was made ineffective. Two centuries afterwards the evil had grown to such a height that another agitation was commenced in the hope of doing away with it. The Licinian law was passed in 367 b.c. In 133 b.c. Tiberius Gracchus proposed the very same restriction, getting it passed into a law, having officers appointed to carry it out, and yet, it would seem, really accomplishing very little.
It is certain that as time went on Italy was more and more occupied by large domains, vast farm-holdings worked by the labour of slaves. The Italian yeoman who had been the backbone of the Roman armies, the man who lived on "the ancestral farm with its modest home," had disappeared.