CHAPTER XIV. LIFE IN THE MIDDLE AND LOWER CLASSES

Silius was a noble, with a nobleman's privileges and also his limitations. The class next in rank below his consisted of the "knights," of whom something has already been said. It will be remembered that these men of the "narrow stripe" were the higher middle class, who conducted most of the greater financial enterprises of Rome and the provinces. While the senatorial order could govern the important provinces, command legions, possess large estates, and derive revenues from them, but could make money in other ways only through the more or less concealed agency of knights or their own freedmen, the knights were free to act as bankers, money-lenders, tax-farmers, and merchants or contractors in a large way, and to take charge of such third-rate provinces as the Caesar might think fit to entrust to them. Money-lending at Rome was an extremely profitable business. Not only was the nobleman often extravagant in his tastes, but when once elected to a public position he was practically compelled to spend money lavishly in giving shows and exhibitions of the kind which will be described immediately, or upon some public building, or otherwise. In consequence he often incurred heavy debts. Meanwhile the smaller traders and agriculturists, who were in competition with slave-labour and other false economic conditions, to say nothing of bad seasons, were frequently in the hands of the usurers. Though efforts were repeatedly made to check exorbitant rates of interest, they were apparently quite as ineffectual as with us. An almost standard charge was at the rate of one-twelfth of the loan, or 8-1/3 per cent, but another common rate was that of one per cent per month. Rates both higher and lower are known to us from particular cases. Naturally the question depended on the security, when it did not depend upon the greed of the one side and the ignorance of the other. Much, however, of what the books call money-lending was only what we should consider legitimate banking. Be this as it may, the knights made large fortunes from the practice. They were also the tax-farmers, who operated in the case of those imposts which were still left indirect. The practice was to make an estimate of the amount of such a tax derivable from a province, to purchase it from the government at as large a margin of profit as possible, and so relieve the state of the trouble and cost of collecting it. For this purpose "companies" were formed, with what we should call a "legal manager" at Rome. The managers would bid at auction for the tax, pay the purchase-money into the treasury, and proceed to get in the tax through local managers and agents in the provinces concerned. It has already been explained that the more important taxation of the empire was at this date direct - a community in Gaul, Spain, Asia Minor, or Syria knowing what its assessment was, taking its own measures, and using its own native or local collectors. The knights at Rome might still advance sums to such communities, but they were not in this case tax-farmers. It is unfortunate that the word "publicans" - bracketed with "sinners" - is used in the New Testament translation for the local collectors like St. Matthew. Not only does the word convey either no notion or a wholly incongruous one to the ordinary reader, but it is apt to mislead those who know its origin. Because the financial companies at Rome, in purchasing the taxes, were taking up a public contract, they were called publicani. But it is not these men who were themselves acting as petty collectors - in any case they had nothing to do with the native collectors appointed by the communities - and it is not these who enjoyed an immediate association with "sinners." The fact is that the Latin word applied to the great tax-farming companies, who were acting for Rome, was afterwards transferred to even the smallest collecting agent with opportunities for extortion and harshness.