Political Real-Estate In Ancient Rome

During the life of the ancient Roman lawyer, bureaucrat and statesman, Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), the Roman senate—with the emperor’s blessing—acted to reform the requirements and election practices involving candidates who wished to run for public office in Rome. The reforms restricted many unscrupulous methods that had been used in the past by figures such as Julius Caesar to buy political and public support before an election. Pliny the Younger, in a letter he wrote to his friend Maecilius Nepos, wrote of how the senate addressed the issue. An edict was passed, claimed Pliny, that read, “Candidates should be prohibited from providing entertainments, distributing presents, and depositing money with agents” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.19). When it came time for the emperor (presumably Emperor Trajan, r. 98-117) to chime in to add suggestions and amendments to the senate’s work, the emperor agreed with the spending limitations and anti-bribery legislation, but he also wanted to add a curious new section of his own about residences in Rome.

To would-be candidates for office in Rome, the emperor suggested that rather than spend their money on bribes, they should instead use their money to buy properties in Rome, because any official running for public office should have a proper residence in the capital city or, at least, in Italy. Regarding the political candidacy reform and the real-estate amendment, Pliny the Younger stated that the emperor took action by “applying the law against bribery to force candidates to limit their scandalously gross expenditure; and he has also compelled them to invest a third of their capital in real estate, thinking it unseemly (as indeed it was) that candidates for office should treat Rome and Italy not as their native country, but as a mere inn or lodging house for them on their visits” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.19). Of course, the new requirement that a candidate for office should have property in the vicinity of Rome eventually caused waves in the Roman economy. Demand for Italian real estate went up, causing the price of the coveted properties to rise. Similarly, prospective politicians from the frontier regions of the empire were selling their provincial lands if they needed extra capital to purchase a residence in the neighborhood of Rome. For wealthy statesmen with multiple Roman properties, such as Pliny the Younger, it was a great time to buy low and sell high in the land market. Yet, the price increases on Roman land also added to the inflationary troubles that Rome began to experience during the reign of Emperor Trajan.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cropped Emperor Trajan Giving An Audience, produced in the studio of Noël Coypel (c. 1628-1707), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Artvee).



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