During the early Republic, many Romans owned land and lived on it. To support their families, they would cultivate their farms and sell surplus goods in Rome or nearby cities. This was usually territory that the Roman army had conquered.
At this stage, the army was made up entirely of landowners who would buy their own equipment and fight for no compensation. In exchange, any land conquered was divided up and handed to Roman citizens for free.
The Romans who were given this land would build small wooden or stone homes as well as other buildings to help manage the land.
As time passed, the dynamic shifted. The rising length of battles and the distances troops would travel, along with the infusion of cheap slave labor, drove many small landowners out by the late Republic and Empire period.
The wealthy began to buy up most of the land that these small landowners had previously owned, and they began to migrate to the city in greater numbers. This resulted in an economic class system consisting primarily of rich and impoverished individuals.
One would never buy a house in Rome. You would either acquire the land on which the house is built or buy the land and build a house on it.
Most Romans would never be able to afford to buy land in Rome. They would rent low-cost apartments from landlords and live in them. These weren't ideal living situations, but they kept people off the streets.
Insula was the name given to these apartments. It would be hired out in the same way that current apartments or hotel rooms are rented out. The owner of these structures frequently enlarged, demolished, refurbished, or shrunk them. Land was scarce in Rome, and the city never extended far beyond its apex. A large portion of Rome's property had been owned by the same families for generations.
Land and large estates would be owned by the wealthy in both the city and the countryside. Country estates were all the rage among wealthy Romans. The best and most straightforward method to become wealthy was to own land and slaves. Most of the wealthy owned immense country estates and massive plantation farms staffed by slave armies. Their rural villa would be built on this plot.
Other wealthy Romans who worked in trade or in government did not have plantation estates, preferring instead to live on normal parcels of land with enormous villas.
Rich Romans would own smaller dwellings called Domus in prime locations when they were in the city. The Palatine or the Esquiline would have been the appropriate locations.
These were Rome's "rich neighborhoods," where goods, entertainment, and government facilities were all within easy reach.
The aristocracy who made up the senate would prefer to dwell close to where they worked because all government functions took place on the palatine. Some senators who were less well-off only lived in the city and did not own a country home. Others possessed both.
The rich non-aristocrat elite would usually not own homes in Rome, preferring to live entirely on their land outside of Italy's cities.
A mortgage did not exist in the contemporary sense, since the average Roman could never afford to borrow the money required to purchase land. However, Romans could borrow money, if they so desired.
No one would give much to the impoverished, but wealthy Romans would frequently borrow fortunes to help them gain office or build their own armies. The impoverished might borrow tiny sums to start businesses or pay their rent, but it was never enough.
The wealthy, on the other hand, did not require financing to construct their homes. They frequently owned the land, so constructing a large home was not a significant expense. Typically, these villas were erected over several generations, with each new patriarch adding to the structure.
Essentially, you were either wealthy enough to not require a loan to purchase a property, or you were impoverished enough to never be able to borrow that much money.
Land was still conquered on a regular basis during this time of Roman history. This land was frequently granted to poor Romans to relieve overpopulation in the cities, as well as veterans as a token of gratitude for their service.
Note that one of the major political and economic challenges Rome faced was the issue of the wealthy buying up land and the middle class becoming poor city residents. Caesar's whole political platform revolved around reclaiming land from the wealthy and distributing it to the poor. He was successful in this quest, but it had little effect on the situation. In the end, Rome's economic structure was permanently damaged, and it would only worsen as the imperial period progressed.
Finally, I'll tell you a story. After defeating Pompey in the civil war, Caesar returned to Rome to find it in shambles. Debt absolvement, or the forgiveness of all debts, had become a rallying point for populists. Rome's citizens had taken on too much debt and were having difficulty repaying it. This was a ticking bomb, and people were rallying around it.
Caesar was so bright that he went out and borrowed as much money as he could from as many wealthy Romans as he could. Then he came forward and basically claimed that, while debt absolution was excellent, he was Rome's richest and most indebted citizen, and that absolving debt would not be fair to him.
This worked well, and the problem was shortly resolved. But now that all of Rome's wealthy had granted him large sums, they had no choice but to watch him succeed or risk never seeing their money again.
As a result, the wealthy would only support political candidates who agreed with Caesar. In essence, every single politician in office was pro-Caesar. If there were any remaining checks on Caesar's power, this effectively eliminated them.
Guest blogger AnThony Legins is host of 'How To Buy The Hood' now streaming on 4BiddenKnowledge TV. He also enjoys writing on topics relating to mindset, money, real estate, finance and motivation. Read more articles and posts by AnThony at: www.anthonylegins.com and follow on IG @anthony_legins
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