Roman finance

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‘Taxes are the sinews of the state.’ So claimed both Cicero and Domitius Ulpianus (Ulpian). Despite this recognition of the central importance of taxation, no systematic ancient treatment of Roman public finance survives. Extended financial documents are also rare. Many details about (e.g.) the allocation and collection of taxes or about the character of fiscal institutions remain obscure. Even so, the broad features of the history and development of Roman public finance through the republic and the Principate can be delineated with some confidence.

In the republic there were two major types of revenue namely the regular vectigalia and the tributum, an extraordinary (in principle) levy on the property of Roman citizens. The total size of this levy was decided by the senate and varied from year to year. The earliest detailed account of republican public finance survives in the sketch of the Roman constitution in bk. 6 of Polybius, reflecting conditions in the mid‐2nd cent. bc. The aerarium, the central depository of the state for both cash and documents, was managed by two urban quaestors; but all decisions as to payments from it were made by the senate. On setting out on campaign a consul could draw funds on his own responsibility. But further payments, for the supplies, clothing, or pay of the army, had again to be authorized by the senate. The senate also made a quinquennial grant to the censors, on the basis of which they let out contracts for building and repairs of public buildings in Rome and the municipia and colonies of Italy and for the exploitation of public properties—rivers, harbours, gardens, mines, and land. Ultimate control of the contracts, e.g. in altering the terms, again lay with the senate.

The most important development, not reflected in Polybius' account of the last two centuries of the republic, was the acquisition of a territorial empire overseas. At first resources were extracted from the conquered via booty and war indemnities, in the medium term by the imposition of regular taxation (tribute) in cash or kind. Provincial governors (and their quaestors) were responsible for the supervision of the collection of tribute and for expenditure in their province. After 123 in Asia certainly (and perhaps elsewhere) the process of collection of tribute was contracted out to publicani. Two prime consequences ensued from this development. First, the levying of tribute on Roman citizens in Italy was abandoned from 167 onwards. Secondly, the revenues of the state were greatly increased. On one estimate annual revenues in the early 2nd cent. were 12.5 to 15 million dēnārii. By the late 60s they had increased to 50 million; and acc. to a difficult passage of Plutarch, Pompey's great conquests in the 60s further increased revenues to either 85 or 135 million. The continuing access of new revenues both ensured that Rome's continuous wars were in the long term self‐financing and allowed the creation of novel forms of public expenditure such as the distribution of subsidized, later free, corn to Roman citizens. (See food supply.) Even so, public revenues remained modest in relation to the private wealth of the élite. The fortune of Crassus alone amounted to 48 million denarii.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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