Benjamin Franklin famously quipped “The only things certain in life are death and taxes.” These two constants of death and taxes apply not only to individuals, but also civilizations such as that of Ancient Rome. And while tax codes often seem complex, their complexity pales in comparison to that of attempting to understand and explain the decline of civilizations. For centuries, people have explored the reasons why civilizations fall, with explanations ranging from illness to environmental factors to political instability. One such possible factor is taxation, which Charles Adam explores in his book For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization, which argues that taxation is a major force in the rise and fall of civilizations. This paper investigates the role of taxes in ancient Rome and contends that an ineffective tax system was a major contributor to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Overview of Taxation in Ancient Rome
All known civilizations had some form of taxes (Adams 1999, 1). Ancient Rome was no exception. Because of detailed written records, first-hand accounts of the taxation process, and artistic depictions, modern scholars can gain insight into the workings of ancient Rome’s tax system.
Just as the Roman Empire evolved over time, so too did its tax system. Before the expansion of Rome following Italy’s unification in 272 BC, taxes were quite modest, less than a percent of land, money, animals, houses, and slaves (Bartlett 1994, 290). These low taxes were sustainable since major expenses, such as the army, were provided willingly by the citizens, such as serving one year without pay in the army (Adams 1999, 79). Furthermore, the government only provided minimal services, so it did not need substantial revenues (Hopkins 2009, 182).When new rulers came to power, they frequently lessened the tax burden to gain popular support (MacMullen 1987, 738). Furthermore, during times of war, citizens paid a war-tax, or tributum, out of patriotic duty. Taxes during this period were highly progressive, meaning that the rich paid an increasingly higher percentage of taxes (Adams 1999, 81).
After unification, taxation increased. At first taxes were just levied on communities instead of on individuals themselves and were collected by tax farmers. These tax farmers paid the state in advance so that they could collect taxes in a predetermined region. This practice became extremely profitable for the tax farmers who could personally pocket excess revenues. Interestingly, tax assessors had extremely high social status (Adams 1999, 82). However, this system of tax farming was replaced by direct taxation, referred to as the Augustinian system since it was enacted by Emperor Augustus, where provinces had to now pay a head tax on each adult, which necessitated the rise of a census In addition to written records of a census, there is also archaeological evidence, such as a relief found at Louvre where a censor is taking a...