A society within a society


On the one hand, nothing links ruler and subject more obviously than taxes. On the other hand, nothing could have been more remote from the inhabitants of the Roman Empire than tax policy. This chapter describes the distance between ruler and subject represented by the late Roman tax system and the deep regressivity of that system. It then addresses the few explicit Christian perspectives on taxation that the period produced, before turning to ways in which Christians reimagined and began to model a new kind of relationship between the rich and the poor. The chapter then places these developments in a more theoretical political-theological context.

Taxation in the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries

The institution of taxation dramatically represented the absolute power of the Roman emperor in the fourth and fifth centuries. Each year, in January, the emperor determined the tax budget. The emperor wrote the budget in his own hand. Since the emperor Diocletian’s time, the tax budget had ceased to be fixed. It was determined entirely according to the state’s needs.1 Circumstances such as poor harvests were irrelevant; the emperor’s revenue target was unimpeachable. It admitted no exceptions, negotiation was an impossibility, and no tax relief was available.2

The background to this centrality of taxation in the fourth and fifth centuries lies in the third century. The Roman tax system that emerged during that century of war and economic crises was more burdensome than earlier imperial systems. Tolls were imposed on goods moving from one part of the empire to another; heavier duties were imposed on goods crossing the imperial frontier itself.3 Some provinces imposed a form of sales tax.4 Levies imposed on senatorial estates were easily evaded, but those imposed on craftsmen were not.5 The taxes, moreover, came to be more ruthlessly extracted. By the time of the emperor Diocletian, fiscal official imposed the general assessment and the annonae (the systems of providing Rome, certain other cities, and the armies

A society within a society 41 with grain and other food6) “in the spirit of armed conquerors,” freely using physical force to elicit disclosure of ever}' detail of the wealth of both Italians and provincials.7

Diocletian, that “imperial drill-sergeant,” proposed coercion as the only means of equating supply and demand in the interest of a “common good.”8 His exactions were consistent with his new administrative structure, which was a matter “not of right but of grace,”9 and a “new theory’ of sovereignty” that “admitted no limit to the powers claimed by' the state as against the subject.”10 This new theory, though undoubtedly' prompted by the end of Rome’s expansion early' in the second century, leaving taxes as the sole means of supporting the government,11 nevertheless received philosophical support from what was sometimes interpreted as the turn to political absolutism, on the part of Ulpian (170-223) and other jurists.12 Diocletian’s reign was characterized by an apotheosis of the person of the emperor (domintts et deus') on the one hand and, on the other, an “intolerable financial burden” imposed on the taxpayer.13

Constantine’s conversion did little to mitigate the firmness with which taxes were extracted or the singularly' prominent place that taxation occupied in the imperial government. As the system stood in the fourth century', once the emperor had written out the tax budget for his praetorian prefects, they' passed on copies to the provincial governor. The town councils in each province were then summoned to the governor’s palace, where a demand for specific levies was read out. Each city' in the Empire was presented with a lump sum that it was responsible for collecting in its territory’.14 The town councilors, the curiales, were typically of modest backgrounds in the early' part of the fourth century’. It was an honor for them to be admitted to public service, but the honor came with a great price. They' were the ones who were given the “grim task of collecting the imperial taxes” from the urban plebs and the rusticuli—the “little farmers” in the surrounding countryside that comprised their city’s territory'.15 Worse, they’ were responsible for any' shortfall in tax collections and were subject, in the event of such a failure, to both “afflicted poverty” and the lash.16

Peter Brown has shown that the Empire of the fourth century was not a “melancholy' epilogue to the classical Roman Empire” but rather the “climax of the Roman state.”17 It emerged as a successful state after the crises of the third century' largely' because the emperors Diocletian (284-305) and Constantine (306-337) bequeathed it “an ambitious tax system” and a culture of constant tax demands from the imperial administration. The terms on which Rome survived the crisis of the third century’ and emerged from it included a stern “rationalization” of taxation, “exacted with unprecedented determination.”18 The impression that churches were largely exempt from these insistent demands is incorrect. The bishops, the clergy, and the churches were only' briefly' exempt, in the last years of the reign of Constantins II (337-361) from the land tax, “the most important tax of the Empire.” Privileges for the church were cut back again after the emperor Julian’s ruinous defeat in Persia in 363. Only' with such a system could the state maintain the military and bureaucratic structures needed to promote stability and, in the process, great wealth.

Rome needed the wealth of Africa and obtained it through taxation. The Vandals’ conquest of Carthage, in 439, was a turning point in the Roman state’s ability to dictate the terms of the political arrangement in the west. The civil wars that erupted as a consequence of the Roman state’s use of barbarian militias in Britain, Spain, and Gaul had destabilized those provinces, but the fall of Carthage did much more: it “broke the ‘tax spine’ of the Western empire.19 Even before 439, the Empire’s tax revenues had probably decreased by 50 percent. After the fall of Carthage, the respublica, as it was increasingly known, was left with about a quarter of the resources it had enjoyed during the reign of Valentinian I, in the 360s and the 370s.20 As revenue dwindled, the state found it more and more difficult to pay for regular troops. Without regular troops, the government had no choice but to turn to “barbarian” armies as allies. These armies, to understate the matter, proved hard to control.21

In the eastern Empire, in contrast, taxes continued to be collected efficiently throughout the fifth century. The state’s institutions and structure had changed little since the days of Constantine and Theodosius I.22 Once again, taxation remained untouched by the bishops’ rise to prominence. The collection of taxes depended on collaboration between local governments and the “local elites,” with the result that bishop’s role could only be peripheral at best.23 The story of that peripheral role in the West and how it came to reshape western Roman society’s view of the poor and practice of distributive justice follows.

A model of regressivity

In one sense, the late Roman tax system was strikingly efficient. By delegating tax collection (and all other functions except “high justice” and control of the military) to about 2,500 cities “scattered like fairy dust over the surface of an immense empire,” Rome was a ‘“truly minimal state.’”24 It is not surprising that the system was rife with abuse. Constantine and his successors had tried to combat collusion by removing the collection of taxes from the hands of the town councilors and entrusting it to the provincial governors and magistrates. The inevitable result was an increase in public servants and expense. After 371, collection of the capi-tatio—the head tax on individuals—from the little farmers who worked as tenants on the large praedia reverted to the owners of the praedia themselves.25

The structure of the land tax and the head tax themselves was deeply regressive. “The wealthiest man in Ephesus,” David Potter writes, “paid the same head tax as the poorest laborer.”26 Although no one was exempt from transport taxes, Roman citizens were exempt from the capitatio. This feature could only have magnified the sense that the poorer members of society bore the greatest tax burden. After the great landowners descended twice—once as tax collectors and then as rent collectors—the little farmers probably faced the year before them with one-third or less of their harvest.27 If there was a sense of equity in late Roman taxation, it lay in the idea, which was frequently communicated to the Empire’s subjects, that only as much tax as necessary for operations of the state would be collected each year.28

Roman tax rates were, in fact, relatively low compared to those of eastern Mediterranean governments that the Empire had absorbed, and certainly compared to modern rates.29 As the fourth century proceeded, however, taxes increased. Typical of mature empires is an effort toward renewal that pushes in the direction of compulsion and higher taxation. Beyond certain limits, high taxes nurture corruption, evasion, “and often a redistribution of income in favour of powerful bureaucrats and of people close to those in power.”30

Rome was no exception. The price of a manageable tax collection system was large-scale collusion in the shifting of the burden of taxation. Even during Alaric’s blockade of the city of Rome in 408-409, when the Senate had to resort to taxation of its own members, noble families continued to prove “notably selfish.”31 Moreover, already regressive, the system became “a source of profit and a basis for local power.”32 By involving themselves with state power, the wealthy emerged during the fourth century as an aristocracy unparalleled in the history of the Empire.33 The government’s unflinching tax policies and ruthless, though delegated, tax collection procedures were turned to the advantage of those close to the center of power and created “seemingly unchallengeable social hierarchies” stretching to Gaul, Spain, and southern Britain “in the glory’ days of the fourth-century’ age of gold.”34

As the Empire crumbled around its edges in the early fifth century’, the “network of villas” that had held the population together and linked them to the cities and its curiales scattered into more informal groupings of farms and villages. These groups were not free from the burden of taxation, but, in regions where this change occurred, it became “next to impossible to extract. . . the high level of wealth that had supported the affluent residences” of the fourth century.35 To the extent wealth was to be had in the “gray’ areas” of the disintegrating Empire, it came from plunder and the slave trade, not from tax revenue.36 On the other hand, in most of Italy, southern Gaul, coastal Spain, and North Africa, tax revenue continued to come in with “surprising regularity” and the affluence of the villa owners endured until Carthage fell.37

The bishops and taxation

For all their growing influence in the fourth century, the Christian bishops could not touch the state’s tax policy. Ambrose, though an “insider” to the workings of the imperial government, was unable to attack the fiscal system that contributed to the inequity' he saw and decried. The explicit Christian criticism of taxation and its abuses would have to wait a century' and a half.38 Peter Brown writes: “In the one crucial area of taxation and the treatment of fiscal debtors, the late Roman state remained impervious to Christianity.”39

If anything, taxes and their collection were even more unassailable in the next generation. Numidia, Augustine’s province in North Africa, was a land known for “dangerous shortages.”40 In the late fourth and early’ fifth centuries, grain production was pushed by tax demands, as well as the hope of profit, to its ecological limits. During the course of the fourth century', moreover, town councils became oligarchies, as the wealthier councilors and holders of imperial privileges forced the poorer and less privileged councilors out of power. The rich and powerful maintained their positions by controlling how taxes were allocated. Brown considers manipulation of local alliances to ensure smooth functioning of the tax system to have been the “ultimate test” of a provincial governor’s skill.41 Augustine could not attack this system. Even at the provincial and local levels it “was identified with the emperor” and “out of bounds to criticism.” For the most part, Augustine prudently held back. A denunciation of “the actual mechanics of taxation” was coming, but not for another few decades.42

A few small breaches of the fortress of imperial taxation did occur. Augustine’s lifelong friend and fellow bishop Alypius returned from Africa to Rome in his seventies and hovered around the emperor’s court, then in Ravenna, petitioning the authorities concerning the needs of the African provinces and clergy. Augustine wrote to him, in mid-March 420, complaining that tax debtors “were unceremoniously dragged out of church” and that anyone who helped them resist was sued for “obstructing ‘necessities of state.’”43 Augustine asked Alypius to point out to whomever would listen “that fiscal oppression had sapped the clergy of Africa” and suggested that defensores—legal advocates who were authorized to challenge tax abuses—should be appointed in Africa as they had been in other parts of the Empire.44

Success was limited. Although the Christian bishops grew bolder in the early fifth century and ventured into the area of taxation, they had to accept, for the most part, that taxes were literally the price that had to be paid for a solid empire that could and did provide protection and, at times, privileges to the churches.45 Despite the high-flown rhetoric of imperial edicts regarding heresy and other religious matters, the one thing that really mattered to the government “was the gigantic annual spasm connected with bringing in the taxes.”46

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