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“If we have always considered the revenues as the sinews of the commonwealth…” (si vectigalia nervos esse rei publicae semper duximus…) (Cic. Manil. 17).

It was with these strong words that the famous politician and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero not only supported a bill designed to give extraordinary powers to the most influential commander of his time, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, against Mithridates VI of Pontus in 66 BC, but also pointed out one – vulnerable – foundation of Roman rule: fiscal income.

A complex tax-collection system

Together with the preservation of an army’s loyalty, the extraction of revenues was one of the main concerns of ancient authorities. The Roman emperors were particularly skilled in using fiscal possibilities to ensure and stabilise their rule. However, they did not start from zero. The Roman Republic before them already saw the institution of different taxes and custom duties. They can be classified into:

  • taxes that were raised on the basis of a census or tax list, so-called tributa (often but wrongly named “direct taxes” as modern conceptions are different);
  • custom duties (portoria) that were not raised on the basis of (census) lists but on advent.
  • all taxes where only the ratio could be defined in advance but not the exact amount of income, so-called vectigalia (wrongly: “indirect taxes”).

Roman citizens were exempted from tributa since 167 BC, except in some rare situations during the Civil Wars in the Late Republic. Consequently, tributa, together with stipendium (a military guerdon to be paid by the conquered), was then exclusively paid by inhabitants of the Roman provinces. It consisted mainly of a poll tax (tributum capitis) and a land tax (tributum soli), calculated on the basis of a census list. Vectigalia, on the other hand, were imposed on all persons in a given framework, for instance in a community or due to a specific status, as long as they had no exemption status (immunitas).

At first sight, it seems that the Romans did not have an efficient and effective tax collection system. In most cases, the Romans tied the collection system to the tradition of the former regime, hence how taxes were collected was varied by status of land and persons. Additionally, the collection involved many different Roman and local institutions as well as officials, and private tax farmers who leased tributa in Republican times and vectigalia both during the Republic and the Empire.

However, this complexity can be explained by historical circumstances and constant negotiation processes between different groups in respect of power, influence and performance. For instance, the strongly defended domain of the Roman equestrians – who did not only generate wealth but also influence on the Senate and political decision makers during the Republican period – became a field of action for the emperor, who nevertheless had to fulfill the different roles and expectations ascribed to him by various interest groups within the Roman Empire.

Thus, the emperor could not just abolish the public treasure (aerarium Saturni) but had to report the accounts of the imperial treasure (fiscus Caesaris) to the Senate, which nominally appointed the imperial provinces to him. Provincial inhabitants, on the other hand, expected their ruler taking care of their needs and problems, so we see imperial interventions in case of greater misconduct, most notably by the emperor Nero (reg. AD 54-68), who enforced a detailed publication of tariff regulations for portoria at every collection-station in AD 58.

Inheritance tax: The ruler takes on the elites

A showpiece of how an emperor could combine fiscal provision, care of important social groups and his own interests is the 5% inheritance tax (vicesima hereditatium) introduced by Augustus (reg. 27 BC – AD 14).

After a first, but short-lived tribute on legacies in 40 BC where Octavian, the later Augustus, learned about the possibilities of and resistance to such a tax from the elite – where testamentary cumshaws were an important instrument to maintain networks – he enforced an establishment of inheritance tax in AD 6 by a formal statute (lex). The main purpose of this tax was not an equalisation of burdens, as often suggested, between Roman citizens and the provincial inhabitants, who were not liable to this vectigal but to tribute. It was to provide security for his rule because Augustus needed the loyalty of the army.

To secure the loyalty of the army, along with other measures that led to a professional standing army, Augustus also had to take care of possibly dangerous veterans. However, the traditional allotment of land to them in the 1st century BC, especially in the Civil Wars, became more and more unpopular among inhabitants suffering from confiscations. Therefore, Augustus established a special treasure, the aerarium militare in AD 5, to pay for the discharge money (praemia militiae) to his veterans instead. The inheritance tax was a main source of revenue for this new treasury, besides a tax on auction sales (centesima rerum venalium) and some deposits from the patrimony of Augustus. Strong resistance to this new vectigal from the rich classes (senatorial and equestrian orders) in both AD 6 and later AD 13 was cleverly broken by Augustus by threatening the elite with a re-institution of land tax, which would have been the first permanent tributum since 167 BC.

The regulatory framework for the inheritance tax reflects the different goals of Augustus. He mainly aimed at improving the flow of revenues into the aerarium militare. Regulations concerning the opening of a testament accelerated the enforcement of the last will of a decedent, and thus the payment of the tax. For example, strong “encouragement” to open the testament before an official promised legal certainty for the heirs, especially if there are possible legal cases. However, the procedure had the main purpose of recording these wills for the (private) tax collectors who were present in these bureaus. So, the traditional possibilities of “private” testaments and of inheriting without a written will were gradually replaced.

Similarly, the exemption for small heritages (perhaps up to 1,000 sestertii) was a beneficence of the emperor to the ‘normal’ citizens only secondarily. Primarily, transaction costs for measuring and collecting the tax for these wills probably led to the exemption. The second exemption was for relatives up to the second degree. It was not only a matter of costs, but also served the purpose of strengthening the traditional family in accordance with Augustan family laws, and of inhibiting traditional networking in the upper classes.

Administrating and communicating taxation policy: equally important roles

The importance of these taxes for the imperial “state” is further reflected in the gradual expansion of control, and in the partially direct tax collection through officials, whose mostly epigraphic remains reveal a complex hierarchy of administration. Details of the taxation process and of the cooperation between private tax collectors and public officials were laid down in a statute, although only a few details are known. For instance, one can observe an attempt to reduce transaction costs and to improve the efficiency of tax collection by the combined lease of the 5% tax for setting a slave free (vicesima libertatis vel manumissionum) and the 4% sale tax on slaves (quinta et vicesima venalium mancipiorum), or by a tax-collecting station for the inheritance and manumission tax, the statio vicesimae hereditatium et manumissionum, in Egypt.

Equally important was the public communication and performance of taxation policy. In this respect, the tax measures of Caligula (reg. AD 37-41) are particularly instructive. On the one hand, he propagated the abolishment of the sales tax with an emission of a specific coin-type that circulated mainly in Rome and Italy, where the tax was mainly raised before. On the other hand, literary sources record the introduction of various taxes, for instance on edibles, litigation and trials, daily income of load carriers, and prostitution (Sueton, Caligula-Vita 40).

However, the whole record is intentionally composed to construct the “bad” emperor Caligula, at least in the eyes of the senatorial class whose interests Caligula clearly neglected, for example by calling these taxes “tributa”, threatening the pride of Roman citizens, although they were in fact all vectigalia, or by the reference to socially disdained groups. Thus, shortly after the murder of Caligula, the new emperor Claudius (reg. AD 41-54) tried everything to overcome such an ill-famed imperial image.

Roman taxes and their policy were thus a fiscal concern and a public as well as political issue, on many levels and with many, intended or unintended, synergies.


Further reading:

Günther. 2016. “Taxation in the Greco-Roman World: The Roman Principate.” In: Oxford Handbooks Online, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935390.013.38.

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