Bribery, the Roman Empire and modern civilizations.

I was watching “Kingpin” (gangster drama set in Mexico) on NBC last night and it occurred to me how much bribery is a part of the institutional fabric of some fairly mature cultures (India-Russia-Mexico) while in others it exists but is a blip at best (Canadian- British-Swedish) .

Historically, the Roman Empire is generally seen as one of the most successful civilizations in terms of the territory they acquired and ruled, relative efficiency of their institutions, military and technological prowess, how long they stayed in power and the influence of their institutional models on subsequent civilizations.

In modern terms bribery is generally seen as being a fairly inefficient way to conduct business, and something that is not particularly conducive to institutional strength, socio-economic development or political stability. In this context was the Roman Empire able to have efficient both instutions and bribery or was it relatively bribe free… or what?

Far as I can tell, bribery was perfectly accepted in ancient Rome. I think there were laws against bribery in criminal trials, but they usually weren’t enforced, and in the Republic, at least, bribery was pretty much expected in politics. It was acceptable to be bought, but not to stay bought…someone who was bribed who turned against the briber was looked down upon.

Even the system of tax collection in the Republic was prone to bribery (and the provincial tax structure was eventually reformed because it led to too much dissent). The government didn’t collect taxes itself. Instead, it let out contracts, based on sealed bids. A person would put in his bid on a province. The government would then give the province to the highest bidder, who would pay the treasury up front, and then have a year to collect whatever they could out of the province.

Provincial governors were also expected to profit, because of bribes, and speculation, from their provinces, and if someone was assigned to a rich province, he’d be set.

I was in Lagos, Nigeria, on a business trip in about 1996. Bribery is a way of life there, they have a word for it (“dash”). It was an experience.

When I arrived, the customs inspector looking through my luggage asked me, “Did you bring any presents for me or my friends?” My colleague was stopped at every point, and told that his visa wasn’t in order (he said yes, it was), that he needed a letter of invitation to come into the country (he showed it to them, but he needed it to get a visa), etc. All stalls, hoping that he’ll slip them some “dash” to smooth the process.

We had been told NOT to give any money to anyone, so we didn’t. We were met by a representative of our client, and got our luggage, and then headed out, when an eight-foot-tall football-player-type soldier, with full ammunition and weaponry, stopped us at the door and said our papers were not in order. (Clearly, he had been told by one of his friends that we didn’t pay any dash earlier in the process.)

I was frightened out of my wits. A person standing nearby motioned for me to slip the guy some cash. But our client rep – about a four foot tall woman – started chewing this guard out, yelling at him that everything was in order and that he should be ashamed of himself for creating such a terrible impression on American visitors. She barely came up to his belt buckle, and here she was, scolding him like a child. He gave way.

You have to know what you’re doing and how to do it.

Roman politics (at least in Republican times) was heavily based on a patron-client system. In modern terms, parts of this system would definitely be described as bribery.

However, it wasn’t destabilizing to society as that was how society worked. For example, an equestrian, whose father was the client of the senator’s father, would approach the senator, offering money or support in some other way if the senator would support a law that would enable him to make more money. Definitely sounds like bribery to us.

And yes, as Captain Amazing noted, one of the things the equestrians would as for from their patrons would be contracts to collect tax in the provinces. There was, I’d say, pretty good balance to make sure no Romans got mistreated, but those provincials, they were on their own.