High taxes have always been a problem in the Roman Empire, so what’s new? – HeritageDaily
The inscriptions tell us that throughout history people have always complained about the high taxes imposed by the central government.
The Roman Empire produced a number of inscriptions which record these complaints, one of the best preserved and most revealing has been found in the Roman city of Rhodiapolis.
The Roman city of Rhodiapolis, located in Turkey, has a long and varied history. Excavations at the site were started by Prof. Nevzat Çevik, head of the archeology department at Akdeniz University in 2006, after the site was exposed during forest fires in 2000.
Located near the village of Sarıcasu, Rhodiapolis received its name from the Rhodians, who colonized the city.
The city’s best-known figure was Opramoas, who lived during the time of Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD). He was the richest man in Lycia and the most renowned philanthropist.
Most of the visible ruins of the ancient city date from the Roman and Byzantine periods. The remains included a theater, public baths, a public forum, temples, a church, cisterns, a cenotaph (a statue commemorating the dead), a necropolis (a structure for graves), and houses.
One of the most interesting discoveries concerned the taxation of the inhabitants of Rhodiapolis, which was recorded in an ancient inscription.
The inscription was written on a stone and erected as a stele in the agora. It describes complaints from citizens of the city over high income and sales taxes and a petition to Emperor Septimius Severus for relief from the burden imposed.
Emperor Septimius Severus responded to the petition and unexpectedly promised to reduce taxes. This was very unusual, especially considering that the Emperor was funding his military campaigns during this period.
The inscription records that on his return to Rhodiapolis, the messenger informed the chief with great joy, and in honor of the message and the messenger, an inscribed stele was erected in the agora.
Tax turmoil was not unusual in the Roman Empire. In the 3rd century, it was a major cause of civil unrest, dissatisfaction and, in some cases, revolt.
ZOSIMUS, A LATE 5TH CENTURY WRITER TELLS US “FOLLOWING THIS TAX EXACTION, THE CITY AND THE CAMPAIGN WERE FULL OF LAMENTATIONS AND COMPLAINTS, AND ALL… SEEKED HELP FROM THE BARBARIANS.
Many Roman peasants even fought alongside their invaders when they devastated the empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries. This was the case when the Balkan miners defected en masse from the Visigoths in 378. Others simply left the Empire to avoid crippling tax rates as well as the debasement of the glowing currency which was devastating to the Empire. economy of the Empire.
In fact, by the end of the 3rd century the situation had become so dire that Emperor Diocletian had no choice but to introduce price and tax reforms. These included a universal price freeze, capping maximum prices, while restoring the property tax on Italian landowners that had been removed in 167 BC. Special tolls on silver traders and corporations have also been imposed to help increase tax collections.
The tax reforms were so rigid and unwavering that many people were condemned to starvation and bankruptcy. The state has gone so far as to expel widows and children without deducting taxes owed.
WHEN WE LOOK AT THE SPENDING WE SEE THE IMPERIAL GOVERNMENT SPENDED THE MAJORITY OF TAXES ON BOTH MILITARY OR FREE BREAD AND ENTERTAINMENT FOR THE POOR. ACCORDING TO THE HISTORIAN JOSEPH TAINTER, “THOSE WHO COME FROM THE TREASURE WERE MORE THAN THOSE WHO PAY THERE”.
In an article entitled “The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire”, published in the Journal of Roman Studies in 2009, Walter Scheidel and Steven Friesen estimate the size and distribution of the economy and the tax system Romans.
They concluded that in the Roman Empire as a whole, they had a middle class of around 6-12% of the population that controlled around 20% of the income generated within the empire. Just over 1.5% of the population controlled 15-25% of the empire’s income. In addition, almost 10% received an additional 15-25%, leaving little more than half of all income to all remaining households.
While the Empire’s tax rate was low, at around 5-7%, the large number of people not paying it meant the submissive taxpayers of Rhodiapolis had to pay more.
This would have been very apparent in more rural and less developed regions like Rhodiapolis where citizens had to compensate for the failure of others to pay their fair share. This would have been vigorously enforced by the hated Imperial tax collectors and other middlemen, showing no mercy or remorse in ensuring that taxes were fully collected in every region.
Written by Diarmaid Walshe
Header image – Rhodiapolis – Image credit: