Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

THE Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, obviously thrilled by Robert Mugabe's policy of nationalising productive white-held farms by burning and wrecking them before handing them over to incompetent squatters - so Old Labour! - has given him L36 million to carry on the good work. Tiberius Gracchus' solution was less thrilling.

As Rome conquered its neighbours one by one across Italy, it annexed their territory as ager publicus - `state-- owned land'. Here the Romans built new cities, or assigned, sold or rented the land to individuals who applied to work it (a grant of land was a much-- prized reward for military service). The purpose was to encourage honest peasant farmers, who had always formed the backbone of Rome's all-conquering citizen army. But - and this is crucial -- unworked land, or a farm which was unworked because its owners were serving in the army, could be taken over by anyone who wanted to, in return for a rent based on produce.

The problem was that, by the 2nd century BC, aristocrats had come to monopolise the ownership of this category of land, and they proceeded to farm it not with free men, who might be called up for military service, but with slaves. It is true that a law had been passed laying down that no one could own more than 300 acres of such land, but it was disregarded. …

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