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A societas liberorum (engl.: society of the free) is a specific legal person in Roman law. It is similar to the OTL concept of a farmers` co-operative.
It is the dominant rural socioeconomic structure of the Second Roman Republic and still an important element of Roman society.
Societates liberorum formed in the Roman revolution, which in turn resulted from the Crisis of the Third Century..
Long before the crisis, large agricultural compounds had formed across the empire, owned by a very small elite. The work was done by large numbers of half-free coloni, to a smaller extent also by slaves.
As the old public order of the Principate cracked, rebellions were common both in the countryside and in the cities - motivated by religious, economic and political reasons. At the end of the 250s, public order was about to collapse - and the coloni and slaves on the latifundia dealt it the fatal blow by rising up in rebellion, especially in the important provinces of Africa and Aegyptus.
During the revolution, the Societates Liberorum forged alliances with the Plebeian Councils in the towns and cities and with the comitia of mutinous soldiers. In this "war economy", the S.L. continued to provide the resources required for the victory of the revolutionary forces.
The Second Roman Republic began as an alliance of the above-mentioned victorious revolutionary groups. The early years of the Second Republic could also be labelled a continuation of the revolution: the victorious groups slowly reproduced and enforced their structures and their socioeconomic and political model across the rest of the Empire.
Thus, the Second Roman Republic emerged as a federation of civitates, who were, in turn, formed by cities (pomeria) and the politically organised countryside, where the form of the S.L. dominated. Logically, most civitates recognised and formalised the land claims of the S.L. to the latifundia they had formerly been employed on. As the new Republican structures consolidated, even those latifunia which had still not been collectivised - neither during the hot phase of the revolution, nor in its immediate aftermath - were often given into the hands of ad hoc-S.L., as the S.L.s were seen as pillars of the republic.
Such legally created S.L.s were often formed by impoverished townsfolk and not necessarily by the former coloni, unless the landowners had played important and positive parts in the revolution.
As a result, 80 % of the arable land in the Roman Empire and 25 % of the forests became owned by a number of approximately 90,000 S.L. by 285. Already in 274, the Conventum Romanum passed the "Lex Societatum Liberorum", which defined the legal nature of the S.L. The political background of the law was to secure the social structures which formed the support base of the revolution.
- Membership of a S.L. was to be equal, i.e. all members held equal shares of the S.L. and enjoyed equal voting rights on the matters of the S.L.
- The comitium sociorum could admit new equal members. (In most cases, newcomers had to pay for their share.)
- Socii could quit their membership. (Often, they presented the comitium with a proposed "replacement", who paid both the former socius for his recommendation and the societas for admission.)
- Individual membership could pend, if the socius was absent e.g. on military duty, serving as a magistrate of member of the Conventum Romanum, or for other, more private reasons. In those cases, the socius did not receive a share of the societas` income and was not counted as "absent" in votes of the comitium.
- Direct transmission and inheritance of membership were possible among relatives (including adopted children), but required confirmation from the comitium sociorum.
- The property of a S.L. was indivisible: its members could not sell a part of the S.L.`s property, unless they were commissioned by the S.L. to do so, in which case the revenue went to the S.L.
- Commissions had to be issued by the general assembly (comitium sociorum) and initially expired after one month. (This period was later prolonged to three months, then six months, then a whole year.)
- The S.L. was allowed to acquire new land and movable property, but initially, it was not allowed to sell the land with which it was entrusted by the civitas at the moment of legislation (the "ager sociorum"). The last provision was modified in 423, though: now, S.L. could sell parts of their ager sociorum to the civitas (because in the meantime it had become evident that other forms of conversion necessary e.g. for infrastructural improvements, mostly the expropriation of the S.L. by the comitium civitatis and its remuneration with a sum of money determined by judges, were too controversial).
- The S.L. was not allowed to hire employees (conclude a contract of the type "locatio conductio operarum") if it did not make them socii. They were allowed to conclude contracts of the type "locatio conductio operis", though, e.g. paying a company of craftsmen a fixed amount of money for the construction of a mill on the premises of the S.L.
When the Roman Republic incorporated new lands, e.g. the lands East of the Pyretus during the Pontic Campaign, the largest portion of the land was usually declared "ager sociorum", and the establishment of new S.L.s (often mixtures of veteran soldiers from towns across the empire and colonists from nearby border towns) was given equal attention as the definition and delineation of new civitates. The only notable exception - when the Quadi, Markomanni and Western Vandals joined the Republic in the early 7th century - where this was not done, led to a sharp increase in social inequality, which posed a serious challenge for the republic throughout the 7th century, and thus later colonisations, e.g. of parts of Atlantis, followed the model of the simultaneous establishment of S.L.s and civitates again.
S.L. were very powerful economic entities from the beginning. Many amassed enormous wealth in the following centuries: Among their initial capital was not only the land, but also the mines and quarries on it. . Many S.L. were able to invest in new technologies like windmills, textile manufactures etc., so that agriculture became a minor branch of some S.L.`s economic activities. In later centuries, some S.L. grew as big as 10,000 members or more. Some S.L., on the other hand, went bankrupt - in such cases, their movable property was sold off to the creditors, and the socii had to start from scratch with nothing but their immovable property. In such cases, socii often left their societates and moved into towns, while their membership and share were taken over by more solvent people who then moved into the countryside and became socii. In rare cases of S.L.s becoming incurably unproductive - e.g. when the arable land became desertified, the mine depleted and the brook which drove the mill had dried out -, civitates agreed to dissolve them, which meant that the land became "ager desertus", which could be claimed by anyone who was interested.
S.L.s fulfilled the social, economic and political functions which the Second Republic`s Founding Fathers had hoped for very well, perhaps better than anyone had imagined. They brought forth a large, stable, economically comfortable and very pro-republican peasantry, from Egypt over Italy to Dacia. They prevented both over- and de-urbanisation for many centuries, maintaining a balance between town and countryside. As the republic consolidated itself, S.L.s increasingly pursued their economic interests openly in the Conventum Romanum and in regional federations like the Panhellenion, the Sanhedrin or the Conventum Africanum. To this end, they formed regional and supra-regional associations. In the parliaments, the "factiones" which pursued the interests of the S.L. came to be called "Sociales". Together with their strongest competitors, the "factio" of the "Collegiales", who represented the urban guilds, they were forerunners of the modern Roman political parties.
Main political objectives of the Sociales in the Second Republic were:
- opposition to the protection of more and more job segments (instigated by the Collegiales), which meant higher work contract costs for the S.L. and excluded unexamined socii from operating some of the S.L.`s economic activities.
- support for the conversion of ager privatus and ager publicus to protected ager compascus (most often woodland), which prevented desertification, salinisation, swamping and other devaluations of the S.L.´s land.
- relatively tolerant immigration and border policies; compared to the Collegiales, the Sociales also tended to be more supportive of foreign military interventions.
While the Sociales were open towards immigration, newcomers rarely managed to become members of a S.L., as this often required great sums of money as admission payments. Thus, the S.L., which had, during the revolution of the 3rd century, been one of the major factors which united populations of very diverse ethnic, linguistic and cultural backgrounds behind the Republic`s banners, became, over time, strongholds of long-established families, who could trace their membership back many generations, and of a culture of "pure Romanity" - often with idealised references to the period of expansion and stability of the First Roman Republic and its backbone, the free Roman peasantry.
In the 13th-14th centuries, when a faster industrialisation was driven by investments of capital accumulated by families with a long commercial tradition, the S.L.`s slower pace of investment and innovation lead to their beginning marginalisation. Some participated in the industrialisation processes, and many of these S.L.s were partly disowned during the Communist Interlude in the 14th century. The S.L. were restituted in the Third Republic, but had become marginalised in the industrial sector, where tycoons dominated the market until late into the 19th and in some parts even the early 20th century. In the 14th to 17th centuries, a part of the ager sociorum was expropriated for the construction of public infrastructure like railroads, as well as for the extension of urban settlements. Climate change, becoming acute since the 16th and 17th centuries, affected the S.L., too, with almost a quarter of the ager sociorum being lost for profitable agriculture due to increased aridity or frequent flooding.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the S.L. retained stable numbers of members, but had acquired the social image of an outdated model, a relic from the distant past. One reason for this was that inner legal structures of the S.L.s had remained centered around exclusively male membership for a very long time, i.e. into the 18th century, long after Roman women had obtained equal legal, contractual, professional and voting rights in the general public.
Post-capitalist developments of the 20th century and the popular "return to nature" have brought a relative renaissance and further inner reforms of Roman S.L.s.
Today, 13 % of the Roman population (14 % of males and 12 % of females; but only 1 % of Romans with a first- or second-generation peregrini background) are members of one of the approximately 150,000 Societates Liberorum. The S.L.s contribute 10 % to the Roman Republic`s Gross Domestic Product, mostly in the domains of agriculture, viticulture, tourism and the processing of victuals.