All Commentary
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rome and the Great Depression

Commentators on the present financial crisis have noted some interesting parallels to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Even if we survive Washington’s spending spree, Congress and the Obama administration could still tip us into catastrophe if they sharply raise taxes or tariffs as Congress did in 1930 and ’32. But more ominous parallels to an earlier age should not escape our notice.

Monumental sums for bailouts. Staggering increases in public debt. Concentration of power in the central government. A mad scramble by interest groups with endless claims on the treasury. Demagogic class warfare appeals. These things ring familiar in the ninth year of 21st century America just as surely as they dominated the ill-fated Roman welfare state of two millennia ago.

In the waning years of the Roman republic, a rogue named Clodius ran for the office of tribune. He bribed the electorate with promises of free grain at taxpayer expense and won. Thereafter, Romans in growing numbers embraced the notion that voting for a living could be more lucrative than working for one. This set into motion Kershner’s First Law, named for the late economist Howard E. Kershner: “When a self-governing people confer upon their government the power to take from some and give to others, the process will not stop until the last bone of the last taxpayer is picked bare.”

Candidates for Roman office spent huge sums to win public favor, then plundered the population afterwards to make good on their promises to the rent-seekers that elected them. As the republic gave way to dictatorship, a succession of emperors built their power on the huge handouts they controlled. Nearly a third of the city of Rome itself received public relief payments by the time of the birth of Christ.

In response to a severe money and credit crisis in 33 A.D., the central government extended credit at zero interest on a massive scale. Government spending in the wake of the crisis soared. 

In 91 A.D., the government became deeply involved in agriculture. Emperor Domitian, to reduce the production and raise the price of wine, ordered the destruction of half the provincial vineyards.

Following the lead of Rome, many cities within the empire spent themselves deeply into debt. Beginning with Emperor Hadrian early in the Second Century, municipalities in financial difficulty received aid from Rome and lost a substantial measure of their political independence in the bargain.

The central government also assumed the responsibility of providing the people with entertainment. Elaborate circuses and gladiator duels were staged to keep the people happy. The equivalent of a hundred million dollars per year in the city of Rome alone is one modern historian’s estimate of what was poured out on the games.

Under Emperor Antoninus Pius, who ruled from 138 to 161 A.D., the Roman bureaucracy reached mammoth proportions. Eventually, according to the historian Albert Trever, “the relentless system of taxation, requisition, and compulsory labor was administered by an army of military bureaucrats. . . .Everywhere were the ubiquitous personal agents of the emperors” employed to crush tax evaders.

There were plenty of taxes to evade. Emperor Nero is said by Roman historian Gaius Suetonius in De Vitae Caesarum to have once rubbed his hands together and declared, “Let us tax and tax again! Let us see to it that no one owns anything!” Taxation ultimately destroyed the wealthy first, followed by the middle and lower classes. “What the soldiers or the barbarians spared, the emperors took in taxes,” according to historian W. G. Hardy. 

Late in the Third Century, Emperor Aurelian declared government relief payments to be a hereditary right. He provided recipients government-baked bread (instead of the old practice of giving them wheat and letting them bake their own bread) and added free salt, pork, and olive oil. 

Rome suffered from the bane of all welfare states, inflation. The massive demands on the government to spend and subsidize created pressures for the multiplication of money. Roman coinage was debased by one emperor after another to pay for expensive programs. Once almost pure silver, the denarius by the year 300 was little more than a piece of junk containing less than five percent silver. 

Prices skyrocketed and savings vanished. Businessmen were vilified even as government continued its spendthrift ways. Price controls further ravaged a battered and shrinking private economy. By 476 A.D. when barbarians wiped the empire from the map, Rome had committed moral and economic suicide.

Another Great Depression should indeed concern us. The one that followed the Roman welfare state is known as the Dark Ages and it lasted for several hundred years.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is