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From the faint glimmerings of such doubtful and scattered lights, we should be inclined to believe, 1st, That (with every fair allowance
for the differences of times and circumstances) the general income
of the Roman provinces could seldom amount to less than fifteen
or twenty millions of our money; 96
and, 2dly, That so ample a revenue
must have been fully adequate to all the expenses of the
moderate government instituted by Augustus
, whose court was the modest family of a private senato
r, and whose military
was calculated for the defense
of the frontiers, without any aspiring views of conquest
, or any serious apprehension
a foreign invasion.
Footnote 96: Lipsius de magnitudine Romana (l. ii. c. 3) computes the revenue at one hundred and fifty millions of gold crowns; but
his whole book, though learned and ingenious, betrays a very heated imagination.
Notwithstanding the seeming probability of both these conclusions, the latter of them at least is positively disowned by the language
and conduct of Augustus
. It is not easy to determine whether, on this occasion, he acted as the common father of the Roman world,
or as the oppressor
of liberty; whether he wished to relieve the provinces, or to impoverish the senate and the equestrian order. But no
sooner had he assumed the reins of government, than he frequently intimated the insufficiency of the tributes, and the necessity of
throwing an equitable proportion
of the public burden upon Rome
In the prosecution of this unpopular design, he
advanced, however, by cautious and well-weighed steps. The introduction of customs was followed by the establishment of an excise
and the scheme of taxation
was completed by an artful assessment on the real and personal property of the Roman citizens, who had
been exempted from any kind of contribution above a century and a half.
Footnote !: It is not astonishing that Augustus held this language. The senate declared also under Nero, that the state could not exist without the imposts as well augmented as founded by Augustus. Tac. Ann. xiii. 50. After the abolition of the different tributes paid by Italy, an abolition which took place A. U. 646, 694, and 695, the state derived no revenues from that great country, but the twentieth part of the manumissions, (vicesima manumissionum,) and Cicero laments this in many places, particularly in his epistles to ii. 15. - G. from W.
In a great empire
like that of Rome
, a natural balance of money must have gradually established itself. It has been already observed,
that as the wealth of the provinces was attracted to the capital by the strong hand of conquest
, so a considerable part of it
was restored to the industrious provinces by the gentle influence of commerce and arts. In the reign of Augustus and his successors,
duties were imposed on every kind of merchandise, which through a thousand channels flowed to the great centre of opulence and
luxury; and in whatsoever manner the law was expressed, it was the Roman purchaser, and not the provincial merchant, who paid the
The rate of the customs varied from the eighth to the fortieth part of the value of the commodity
; and we have a right to
suppose that the variation was directed by the unalterable maxims of policy; that a higher duty was fixed on the articles of luxury than
on those of necessity, and that the productions raised or manufactured by the labor of the subjects of the empire
were treated with
more indulgence than was shown to the pernicious
, or at least the unpopular commerce of Arabia
There is still extant a
long but imperfect catalogue of eastern commodities, which about the time of Alexander Severus
were subject to the payment of
, and the whole tribe of aromatics a great variety of precious stones, among which the
diamond was the most remarkable for its price, and the emerald for its beauty; 99 Parthian
leather, cottons, silks, both
raw and manufactured, ebony ivory, and eunuchs. 100
We may observe that the use and value of those effeminate slaves gradually
rose with the decline of the empire
Footnote 97: Tacit. Annal. xiii. 31. Note: The customs (portoria) existed in the times of the ancient kings of Rome. They were suppressed in Italy, A. U. 694, by the Praetor, Cecilius Matellus Nepos. Augustus only reestablished them. See note above. - W.
Footnote 98: See Pliny, (Hist. Natur. l. vi. c. 23, lxii. c. 18.) His observation that the Indian commodities were sold at Rome at a hundred times their original price, may give us some notion of the produce of the customs, since that original price amounted to more than eight hundred thousand pounds.
Footnote 99: The ancients were unacquainted with the art of cutting diamond.
Footnote 100: M. Bouchaud, in his treatise de l'Impot chez les Romains, has transcribed this catalogue from the Digest, and attempts to illustrate it by a very prolix commentary. Note: In the Pandects, l. 39, t. 14, de Publican. Compare Cicero in Verrem. c. 72 - 74. - W.
, introduced by Augustus after the civil war
s, was extremely moderate, but it was general. It seldom exceeded one per
cent.; but it comprehended whatever was sold in the markets or by public auction, from the most considerable purchases of lands and
houses, to those minute objects which can only derive a value from their infinite multitude and daily consumption. Such a tax, as it
affects the body of the people, has ever been the occasion of clamor and discontent. An emperor
well acquainted with the wants and
resources of the state was obliged to declare, by a public edict
, that the support of the army depended in a great measure on the
produce of the excise. 101
Footnote 101: Tacit. Annal. i. 78. Two years afterwards, the reduction of the poor kingdom of Cappadocia gave Tiberius a pretence
for diminishing the excise of one half, but the relief was of very short duration.
III. When Augustus resolved to establish a permanent military force for the defense
of his government against foreign and domestic enemies, he instituted a peculiar treasury for the pay of the soldiers, the rewards of the veterans, and the extra-ordinary expenses of war. The ample revenue of the excise, though peculiarly appropriated to those uses, was found inadequate. To supply the deficiency, the emperor
suggested a new tax of five per cent. on all legacies and inheritances. But the nobles of Rome
were more tenacious of property than of freedom. Their indignant murmurs were
received by Augustus with his usual temper
. He candidly referred the whole business to the senate, and exhorted them to provide for
the public service by some other expedient of a less odious
nature. They were divided and perplexed. He insinuated to them, that their
obstinacy would oblige him to propose a general land tax and capitation. They acquiesced in silence. 102.
The new imposition on
legacies and inheritances was, however, mitigated by some restrictions. It did not take place unless the object was of a certain value,
most probably of fifty or a hundred pieces of gold; 103
nor could it be exacted from the nearest of kin on the father's side. 104
When the rights of nature and poverty were thus secured, it seemed reasonable, that a stranger, or a distant relation, who acquired an
unexpected accession of fortune
, should cheerfully resign a twentieth part of it, for the benefit of the state. 105
Footnote 102: Dion Cassius, l. lv. p. 794, l. lvi. p. 825. Note: Dion neither mentions this proposition nor the capitation. He only says
that the emperor imposed a tax upon landed property, and sent every where men employed to make a survey, without fixing how
much, and for how much each was to pay. The senators then preferred giving the tax on legacies and inheritances. - W.
Footnote 103: The sum is only fixed by conjecture.
Footnote 104: As the Roman law subsisted for many ages, the Cognati, or relations on the mother's side, were not called to the
succession. This harsh institution was gradually undermined by humanity, and finally abolished by Justinian.
Footnote 105: Plin. Panegyric. c. 37.
Such a tax, plentiful as it must prove in every wealthy community, was most happily suited to the situation of the Romans, who could
frame their arbitrary
wills, according to the dictates of reason or caprice, without any restraint from the modern fetters of entails and
settlements. From various causes, the partiality of paternal affection often lost its influence over the stern patriots of the
commonwealth, and the dissolute nobles of the empire
; and if the father bequeathed to his son the fourth part of his estate, he removed
all ground of legal complaint. 106
But a rich childish old man was a domestic tyrant
, and his power increased with his years and
infirmities. A servile
crowd, in which he frequently reckoned praetors and consuls, courted his smiles, pampered his avarice
applauded his follies, served his passions, and waited with impatience for his death. The arts of attendance and flattery were formed
into a most lucrative science; those who professed it acquired a peculiar appellation
; and the whole city, according to the lively
descriptions of satire, was divided between two parties, the hunters and their game. 107
Yet, while so many unjust and extravagant
wills were every day dictated by cunning and subscribed by folly, a few were the result of rational esteem and virtuous gratitude.
Cicero, who had so often defended the lives and fortune
s of his fellow-citizens, was rewarded with legacies to the amount of a
hundred and seventy thousand pounds; 108
nor do the friends of the younger Pliny seem to have been less generous to that amiable
Whatever was the motive of the testator, the treasury claimed, without distinction, the twentieth part of his estate: and in
the course of two or three generations, the whole property of the subject must have gradually passed through the coffers of the state.
Footnote 106: See Heineccius in the Antiquit. Juris Romani, l. ii.
Footnote 107: Horat. l. ii. Sat. v. Potron. c. 116, &c. Plin. l. ii.Epist. 20.
Footnote 108: Cicero in Philip. ii. c. 16.
Footnote 109: See his epistles. Every such will gave him an occasion of displaying his reverence to the dead, and his justice to the
living. He reconciled both in his behavior to a son who had been disinherited by his mother, (v.l.)
In the first and golden years of the reign of Nero
, that prince, from a desire of popularity, and perhaps from a blind impulse of
benevolence, conceived a wish of abolishing the oppression of the customs and excise. The wisest senators applauded his
: but they diverted him from the execution of a design which would have dissolved the strength and resources of the
Had it indeed been possible to realize this dream of fancy, such princes as Trajan
and the Antonines would surely have
embraced with ardor the glorious opportunity of conferring so signal an obligation on mankind. Satisfied, however, with alleviating the
public burden, they attempted not to remove it. The mildness and precision of their laws ascertained the rule and measure of taxation,
and protected the subject of every rank against arbitrary interpretations, antiquated claims, and the insolent vexation of the farmers of
the revenue. 111
For it is somewhat singular, that, in every age, the best and wisest of the Roman governors persevered in this
pernicious method of collecting the principal branches at least of the excise and customs. 112
Footnote 110: Tacit. Annal. xiii. 50. Esprit des Loix, l. xii. c. 19.
Footnote 111: See Pliny's Panegyric, the Augustan History, and Burman de Vectigal. passim.
Footnote 112: The tributes (properly so called) were not farmed; since the good princes often remitted many millions of arrears.
The sentiments, and, indeed, the situation, of Caracalla
were very different from those of the Antonines. Inattentive, or rather averse,
to the welfare of his people, he found himself under the necessity of gratifying the insatiate avarice which he had excited in the army.
Of the several impositions introduced by Augustus, the twentieth on inheritances and legacies was the most fruitful, as well as the
most comprehensive. As its influence was not confined to Rome
, the produce continually increased with the gradual extension
of the Roman City. The new citizens, though charged, on equal terms, 113
with the payment of new taxes, which had not affected
them as subjects, derived an ample compensation
from the rank they obtained, the privileges they acquired, and the fair prospect of
honors and fortune
that was thrown open to their ambition. But the favor which implied a distinction was lost in the prodigality of
, and the reluctant provincials were compelled to assume the vain title, and the real obligations, of Roman citizens. *
was the rapacious son of Severus
contented with such a measure of taxation as had appeared sufficient to his moderate predecessors.
Instead of a twentieth, he exacted a tenth of all legacies and inheritances; and during his reign (for the ancient proportion was restored
after his death) he crushed alike every part of the empire
under the weight of his iron sceptre. 114
Footnote 113: The situation of the new citizens is minutely described by Pliny, (Panegyric, c. 37, 38, 39). Trajan published a law very much in their favor.
Footnote *: Gibbon has adopted the opinion of Spanheim and of Burman, which attributes to Caracalla this edict, which gave the right of the city to all the inhabitants of the provinces. This opinion may be disputed.
Footnote 114: Dion, l. lxxvii. p. 1295.
When all the provincials became liable to the peculiar impositions of Roman citizens, they seemed to acquire a legal exemption from the
tributes which they had paid in their former condition of subjects. Such were not the maxims of government adopted by Caracalla
his pretended son. The old as well as the new taxes were, at the same time, levied in the provinces. It was reserved for the virtue
Alexander to relieve them in a great measure from this intolerable grievance
, by reducing the tributes to a thirteenth part of the sum
exacted at the time of his accession. 115
It is impossible to conjecture the motive that engaged him to spare so trifling a remnant of
the public evil; but the noxious weed, which had not been totally eradicated, again sprang up with the most luxuriant growth, and in
the succeeding age darkened the Roman world with its deadly shade. In the course of this history, we shall be too often summoned to
explain the land tax, the capitation, and the heavy contributions of corn, wine, oil, and meat, which were exacted from the provinces
for the use of the court, the army, and the capital.
Footnote 115: He who paid ten aurei, the usual tribute, was charged with no more than the third part of an aureus, and proportional
pieces of gold were coined by Alexander's order. Hist. August. p. 127, with the commentary of Salmasius.
As long as Rome
were respected as the centre of government, a national spirit was preserved by the ancient, and insensibly
imbibed by the adopted, citizens. The principal commands of the army were filled by men who had received a liberal education
well instructed in the advantages of laws and letters, and who had risen, by equal steps, through the regular succession of civil and
military honors. To their influence and example we may partly ascribe the modest obedience
of the legions during the two first
centuries of the imperial
history. But when the last enclosure of the Roman constitution
was trampled down by Caracalla
, the separation of professions gradually succeeded to the distinction of ranks. The more polished citizens of the internal provinces were alone qualified to act as
lawyers and magistrates. The rougher trade of arms was abandoned to the peasants and barbarians of the frontiers, who knew no
country but their camp, no science but that of war no civil law
s, and scarcely those of military discipline. With bloody
manners, and desperate resolutions, they sometimes guarded, but much oftener subverted, the throne
of the emperors.
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To cite original text:
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
1st ed. (London : Printed for W. Strahan ; and T. Cadell, 1776-1788.), pp. 164-170.