Montesquieu

I leave the city now to glance a bit at the pro­vin­ces.

I have said elsew­here1 that the Roman pro­vin­ces were deso­la­ted by a des­po­tic and harsh govern­ment. That is not all : they were also deso­la­ted by dread­ful usu­ries.

Cicero says that the Salaminians wan­ted to bor­row money from Rome, and could not because of the Gabinian Law.2 I must find out what that law was.

When loans at inte­rest had been pro­hi­bi­ted in Rome, all sorts of means were ima­gi­ned to evade the law3 ; and as the allies and those of Latin natio­na­lity were not sub­jec­ted to the civil laws of the Romans,4 they used a Latin or an ally who lent his name and see­med to be the cre­di­tor. All the law had done was to sub­ject cre­di­tors to a for­ma­lity, and there was no relief for the peo­ple.

The peo­ple com­plai­ned about this fraud, and Marcus Sempronius, tri­bune of the peo­ple, by autho­rity of the senate, had a ple­bis­cite held bea­ring that, with res­pect to loans, the laws that pro­hi­bi­ted usu­rious loans bet­ween one Roman citi­zen and ano­ther Roman citi­zen would equally apply bet­ween a citi­zen and an ally or a Latin.

In those times, the peo­ples of Italy pro­per, exten­ding to the Arno and the Rubicon, and not gover­ned as Roman pro­vin­ces, were cal­led allies.

Tacitus says that ever new frauds were per­pe­tra­ted against the laws made to stop usury. When it was no lon­ger pos­si­ble to lend or bor­row under the name of an ally, it was a sim­ple mat­ter to pro­duce a man from the pro­vin­ces who lent his name.

A new law was requi­red against these abu­ses, and Gabinius, making the famous law of which the pur­pose was to halt cor­rup­tion in the voting, must natu­rally have thought that the best means to achieve that was to dis­cou­rage bor­ro­wing5 : these two things were natu­rally lin­ked, for usu­ries always increa­sed at the time of elec­tions,6 because money was nee­ded to acquire votes. It is clear that the Gabinian Law had exten­ded the Sempronian sena­tus consul­tum to the pro­vin­cials, since the Salaminians could not bor­row money in Rome because of that law. Brutus, under assu­med names, lent them some7 at four per­cent per month,8 and for that obtai­ned two sena­tus consulta, in the first of which it was said that this loan would not be regar­ded as an eva­sion of the law,9 and that the gover­nor of Cilicia would judge in accor­dance with the conven­tions sta­ted in the Salaminians’ note.

Lending at inte­rest being for­bid­den by the Gabinian Law bet­ween peo­ple of the pro­vin­ces and Roman citi­zens, and these lat­ter having at the time all the money in the world in their hands, they had to be temp­ted by ample usu­ries, which could make ava­rice blind to the dan­ger of losing the debt. And as there were power­ful per­sons in Rome who inti­mi­da­ted the magis­tra­tes and silen­ced the laws, they were bol­der in len­ding, and bol­der in deman­ding ample usu­ries. The result was that the pro­vin­ces were rava­ged in turn by all who had cre­dit in Rome ; and as each gover­nor issued his edict upon ente­ring the pro­vince, in which he put the rate he wished on usury,10 ava­rice lent a hand to legis­la­tion, and legis­la­tion to ava­rice.

Business must go on, and a state is lost if eve­ry­thing in it stops. There were occa­sions when the cities, the cor­po­ra­tions, the socie­ties in the cities, and indi­vi­duals had to bor­row ; and there was only too much need to bor­row, were it only to sup­port the rava­ges of the armies, the plun­de­ring of magis­tra­tes, the extor­tions of busi­ness­men, and the bad prac­ti­ces that were being esta­bli­shed every day ; for there was never such wealth nor such poverty. The senate, which held the exe­cu­tive autho­rity, would give by neces­sity, often by favor, per­mis­sion to bor­row from Roman citi­zens, and made sena­tus consulta on the sub­ject. But these sena­tus consulta were them­sel­ves dis­cre­di­ted by the law : these sena­tus consulta could give the peo­ple the oppor­tu­nity to demand new tables,11 which, increa­sing the dan­ger of losing capi­tal, fur­ther increa­sed the usury. I shall ever repeat : it is mode­ra­tion that governs men, and not the exces­ses.

He who pays later, says Ulpian, pays less.12 It is this prin­ci­ple that led legis­la­tors after the des­truc­tion of the Roman repu­blic.

Book XI, ch. xix.

Letters to Atticus, book V, letter 21.

Livy.

Ibid.

Roman year 615.

See the letters of Cicero to Atticus, book IV, letters 15 and 16.

Cicero to Atticus, book VI, letter 1.

Pompey, who had lent six hundred talents to king Ariobarsane, had himself paid thirty-three Attican talents every thirty days. Cicero to Atticus, book III, letter 21 ; book VI, letter 1.

Ut neque Salaminis, neque cui eis dedisset, fraudi esset. Ibid.

Cicero’s edict fixed it at one percent per month, with the usury of the usury at the end of the year. As for the republic’s tax farmers, he urged them to give their debtors a delay : if they did not pay at the set time, he granted the usury stated on the note. (Cicero to Atticus, book VI, letter 1.)

See what Lucceius says, letter 21 to Atticus, book V. There was even a general senatus consultum to set usury at one percent per month. See the same letter.

Law 12, following De verbor. signif.