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Past present: Lords of the land

January 13, 2013

In an agrarian society, owning land is not only a source of income but also a symbol of social status and prestige. It has created a privileged class which has power, authority and economic resources.

This elitist class of land owners not only dominates the political scenario but uses its privileges to safeguard their property and vested interests. They do not want to change the social set up of the society and oppose any attempts to bring about reformation.

This kind of attitude is fully reflected in the history of Rome. The Roman Empire expanded as a result of conquests while the ruling classes emerged politically and financially powerful as war booty enhanced the wealth of generals and senators. Commercial opportunities further developed traders and merchants who became rich and resourceful.

With surplus wealth, these two classes invested in land. Being politically powerful, they got hold of public land as well as gobbled up land owned by small farmers and, in this way, they established large agricultural plantations. To cultivate this land they used slaves captured and brought to Rome as war prisoners. This disrupted the entire social structure.

The poor and unemployed peasants arrived in the city of Rome, creating a disturbance in the smooth city life. However, the ruling classes were hardly bothered and continued to enjoy their luxurious lifestyle.

Realising the misery and the dismal condition of the homeless and landless peasants, Tiberius, who belonged to the illustrious family of Scipio Africanus (236–183 BC), raised his voice against this injustice. As a reformer, he tried to obtain more rights for the landless peasants of Rome and was strongly resisted by the wealthy landowning class, who refused to give up their privileges. In 133 BC Tiberius was elected tribune, and worked to pass laws that would reduce the concentration of wealth and lands in the hands of a few nobles. It created panic and anger in the senate and among the trading classes. The issue became critical when Attalus III, the king of Perganum, died and bequeathed a great deal of property to Rome. There was much at stake when Tiberus ran for tribune again the following year, but the elections were postponed. Eventually a riot was incited against Tiberius and his followers, and in the tumult that followed, Tiberius was killed and thrown into the river. Hence the first attempt to promote the cause of poor peasants in the history of Rome came to an end.

Tiberius’ brother Gaius, deeply influenced both by the reformative policy of his older brother, and by his death at the hands of the senatorial mob silently watched the situation. It is said that one night his brother appeared in his dream and asked Gaius to take up the cause of peasants and resist the injustice of the ruling classes. When he decided to contest the elections for tribune, the senators came along with their soldiers. In the ensuing fight, he was defeated and nearly three thousand of his followers were killed. He escaped and took refuge in a temple but the soldiers violated the sanctity of the temple, killed him and cut his head to be presented to a senator who promised to give gold against the weight of his head. The soldier who killed him put metal inside the head to make it heavy and got rewarded in gold. This gory chapter ended the second attempt to reform the system.

Historians point out that one of the reasons of the fall of the Roman Empire was the agrarian system through which petty farmers were evicted from their small land holding while powerful landlords used slave labour for cultivation. As the slaves had no interest in working hard nor to increase agricultural production, the decline gradually set in.

As unemployment increased in the city of Rome, it created conflicts and riots which could not be controlled by the ruling classes. Civil wars among ambitious, political groups weakened the roots of the empire which led to its collapse.

In Pakistan, the feudal class is not ready yet to understand the changes in our society and resists all attempts for land reforms. They are unwilling to share power and exclude all other classes from active politics. Hence the results are disastrous.

A new leadership is emerging not on the basis of merit and intelligence but on the basis of dynasty. The ruling classes dominate all aspects of society, with no space for the common people to play their role which leaves them with no choice but to become involved in ethnic and sectarian conflicts, further deteriorating the law and order. Our ruling classes need to study and understand the decline of societies and learn lessons from history.