Was the Roman patronage system a form of corruption?

Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
Less susceptible? The whole system operated on a form of public largesse that invited corrupt behaviour. People went to their local patrican, senator or not, to ask for favours, money, or simply 'lick his rear'. The patron, for his part, didn't give money away for nothing, expecting compliance or favours. Since this form of feudal control was based on individual relationships and was conducted in the atriums of the patrons private homes (exactly what Nero didn't like for instance), the advantage to the patron was that private deals could be concluded and information traded. There was no regulation of this behaviour. And they understood corruption very well. They had laws against it, and those found to be corrupt were in danger of punishment.

Romans thought of 'the state' as the city of Rome, not its empire. They had in the way of constitution but instead relied on their system of law. something Romans were generally very proud of. I do agree that Romans had far less awareness of spacial division, but their awareness of social relationships was more finely honed than our own, and fundamental to their society.
I am not saying the Roman system didn't encourage the kind of behaviour you're speaking about, but I do think that it's easy to be blind to the advantages of their system and the downsides of our's. What is it that makes a certain behaviour be "corrupt"? To me there seems to be quite a lot of large scale behaviours that we moderns have essentially formalized as parts of our political systems, and we call them "checks and balances" or "party interests" or "lobbying". All of these things phenomena might be different but what they have in common is that they are some kind of concession to the social reality that people and groups are self-interested, and that people with power also risk taking that self-interest and screw everybody else over unless there is some kind of way in which these interests can be legitimately channeled. So, to restate the examples from my previous post: If in a parliamentary democracy the "chief-whip" makes the individual members "follow the party line", or a party leader does something which he knows is not in the national-interest (or more commonly, refrains from doing something that is in the national interest but would rock the boat) but which would make his constituents, donors, party members or the party elite happy.... what would you call that kind of behaviour? I would call it corruption. Maybe it's not corruption in the legal sense of being for example bribery, but it is still a bunch of self-interested assholes sitting around refusing to their duty to the public and only caring abour their own personal or group gain, to the detriment of the citizens and taxpayers of the country.

Isn't that the actual essence of corruption, and not whehter or not a transaction has taken place, or whether or not something fits the formal requirements for "transparency"?

I am sure the Romans had these issues as well, but my idea is that they seem to have been much less hypocritical about these things than we are. Maybe I'm wrong though - as I said, I'm not an expert on this. It's just my general feeling. I'm curious, how would you say that the Romans understood corruption? How did the laws look, more specifically? I believe they had laws for mishandling public funds and not doing your job properly, and they had laws against treason obviously - but what kind of laws did they have against corruption, and how did it they work?
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,325
There were two layers. One was the visible for which they had the laws you mention. But corruption on the hidden layer was part of accepted behaviour within the client/patron relationship. If anything, the Romans were completely hypocritical about corruption because whilst they tutted and moaned in public at those caught in the act, there weren't many senior Romans without a hand in someone elses pie.
 
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
There were two layers. One was the visible for which they had the laws you mention. But corruption on the hidden layer was part of accepted behaviour within the client/patron relationship. If anything, the Romans were completely hypocritical about corruption because whilst they tutted and moaned in public at those caught in the act, there weren't many senior Romans without a hand in someone elses pie.
Right! But was this Roman behaviour really a sign of hypocricy - or well, some of it anyway, all human beings are a bit hypocritical - per se? It might look that way to us I agree, but did it look that way to them? I'm supposing it's more a case of the Romans looking upon these as two different kinds of realms, governed by different norms, where this layer you call "the visible" was where all forms of public actions were taken - ergo, that is the layer that is regulated. This is why I speculated that the Romans mainly cared about actions that are in the public interest/ those that hurt the public interest, and therefore regulated such actions but not specific behaviours that one might think can lead to such actions (unlike us).

So then the question becomes whether "having a hand in someone elses pie" automatically hurts the interests of the res publica. One could also look at that as stabilizing the entire citizen body, creating relationships (those which you call feudal) and networks of mutual obligations that enable autonomy for the citizens who run the country. This is a danger to those who want to centralize power (like Nero, as you brought up) but in a more decentralized system of politics it makes sure that the people in charge are likely to have 1) actual legitimacy for their decisions 2) the means to actuate them expediently 3) some kind of experience in being The Boss.

As you rightly pointed out, it's about low level social control (EDIT: Nevermind, I reread your original post and saw this is not what you're saying - is that corruption in and of itself). Is that necessarily more prone to corruption than a system where all forms of control go through the "filter" of government, and are being regulated according to the same (easily manipulable) standards? Perhaps it is just that the ways of "corruption" are different...

Certainly the downside of the patronage system is that there is literally no oversight or public "transparency" in the modern sense. But I think any Roman who heard that argument might have asked (to misuse the words of Juvenal) Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
 
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caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,325
What you have to remember in this sort of discussion is that the Romans graded their society according to the wealth of the individual. Their mercantile system was basically free market, famously caveat emptor "Let the buyer beware". I recall how a Carthaginian captain was honoured for running his ship aground deliberately - it transpired a Roman ship was following to see where he was trading. There's even an anecdote of one patrician in Rome who held so many lavish banquets he went bust - and so committed suicide.

Juvenal's quote is worth a thought or two. It underlines the unreliability of power bases and armed force that the Romans experienced daily. Theirs was not a system designed for loyalty to the political system, but rather, a system geared for exploitation and opportunity which affected the behaviour of their armed forces as much as wealthy patricians. Nonetheless, I do note how ancient authors bemoan the loss of the republic. But are they talking about a regime? A political system? Tradition? To some extent, all of these, but their regret at the imperial system is the loss of personal integrity in favour of that very same exploitation and opportunity that the imperial era offered by pushing past traditional expectations. The issue is compounded by ther weakness of Roman law. They were proud of their legal system, regarding it as an indentifier of civilisation, but to modern observation litigation and law in Roman society appears unable to restrain behaviour or even to demonstrate any significant longevity.