Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online


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We are now brought to the consideration of the methods by which this huge empire was organised and governed.

And first let us observe that the Romans--strict disciplinarians and great lawyers as they were--never sought to impose upon the subject provinces any uniformity. They never sought, any more than Great Britain has sought, to erect one code of law, one form of administration, one standard of rights, one rate of taxation, one religion, and to make it equally applicable to Spain and Britain, Greece and Africa, Gaul and Asia Minor. There were, of course, common to all the empire certain rules essential to civilisation, certain natural laws and laws of all nations. Murder, violence, robbery, deliberate sacrilege, and so forth were punishable everywhere, though not necessarily by the same authority nor in the same manner. Necessarily it was held everywhere that contracts must be fulfilled and debts paid. Beyond the fact that Rome demanded peace and order and the essentials of civilised life, and provided machinery to secure those ends, she troubled little about differences of local procedure and varieties of local law, so long as the Roman rule was duly recognised and the Roman taxes duly paid. As with Great Britain, her care was for results, not for machinery, or, as the great Roman historian puts it, she "valued the reality of the empire, not the show."

Outside Italy there spread the provinces. These had been conquered or peacefully annexed at various times. A number of small states had come in by perpetual alliance. Some provinces, such as Gaul, had formerly been divided among tribes and tribal chiefs. Some, such as Greece, had consisted of highly civilised city-communities with small territories and managing their own affairs, although they might all alike be acknowledging the suzerainty of some powerful prince. Some, such as Cappadocia, Syria, and Egypt, had been under their native kings. Judaea was a peculiar example of a small theocratic state, in which the chief power lay with the priests.

Rome was too wise to meddle more than she need with existing conditions. She preferred as far as possible to accept the existing machinery and to use it, with only necessary modifications, as her instrument of administration. To the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, for example, she conceded a large criminal jurisdiction over ecclesiastical offenders, so long as that jurisdiction did not limit the universal rights of a "Roman citizen."

When a province was conquered, all its territory became technically the property of the Roman state. Some of it was kept as such, and mines of gold, silver, lead, iron, and salt, or quarries of marble, granite, and gravel, were commonly annexed as state property. If it was expedient to allot some portion of the conquered land to a Roman settlement--commonly a settlement of veteran soldiers called a "colony"--that was done. Such a settlement meant the founding of a town, to which was granted a certain environment of land. Those who took part in its formation were "Roman citizens" and forfeited no rights as such. As the native people came in from the surrounding districts to reside in it, they also, it appears, somewhat easily acquired similar privileges. Here the Roman law existed in its entirety. A colony was almost exactly a little Rome in respect of its system of officers and its legal procedure. Sometimes a town which had not originally been so founded might be made a "colony" by receiving a draft of Romans, and sometimes it was made such in sheer compliment. In the Eastern half of the empire such settlements were comparatively rare; they were but dots upon the map, as at Corinth, Philippi, Antioch in Pisidia, or Caesarea. In the West they were much more numerous. The south of France contained many; a number also existed in southern Spain. So many indeed were planted in these parts that they became, as has been already remarked, completely romanized. Farther north Cologne still perpetuates its Roman name of Colonia. Nevertheless in the West the bulk of the land of the provinces is far from being taken up, in the year 64, by colonies.

Apart from the lands thus appropriated, what happens to the rest of the conquered territory which is theoretically Roman property? Generally it is handed back to its original inhabitants, on condition that they pay rent for it, whether in money or in kind, or partly in each. Egypt pays in kind when it sends to Rome the corn in the great merchantmen; Africa pays in kind when it does the same; the Frisians of Holland pay in kind when they supply a certain quantity of hides. Before the days of the Emperor Augustus there had existed for the empire in general the abominable system of tithes, which were farmed by companies. But after him, and at our date, for the most part the payment is by a fixed sum of money, which has been calculated upon the basis of those tithes. In the imperial Record Office there is a register of the area of land in a given province, and an assessment of its producing value. The amount of the land-tax to be paid into the Roman treasury is therefore fixed. Those who read in the New Testament that Augustus Caesar sent forth an order that "all the world--that is, the Roman world--should be taxed" need find no difficulty in understanding what it means. "Taxed" is Old English for assessed, as when we speak of "taxing a bill of costs." The Greek word means simply that a register should be made. The order of Augustus was that a census should be taken throughout the provinces; that a return should be made of population, property, trades, and all that a reasonable government requires to know; and that payments should be determined thereby. All the world had been "taxed" in the modern sense long before Augustus, and it has been taxed, unfortunately without much promise of respite, ever since.

The chief revenues of Rome were derived from this land-tax; but, when combined with other taxes, a large proportion of it was spent in the administration of the province from which it was obtained. No error could be greater than to suppose that Roman officers simply came and carried off all this money as booty to Rome for the pampering of its emperor and populace. Naturally the balance which accrued for the feeding of Borne, for Roman enjoyment and Roman buildings was very large; and doubtless this fact was bad for the morale of Rome itself and requires considerable casuistry to defend it. But it would be a monstrous misconception to imagine that all the "tribute paid to Caesar" was absolutely drained, by an act of sheer oppression, clean out of the province year by year. No country can be protected, policed, and have its justice administered without taxes, and the provincials were not paying more, and were often paying much less, as well as paying it in a more just and rational way, than when they were being taxed by their own kings, their own oligarchies, or their own socialistic democracies. The Roman settlements--the colonies--unless specially exempted, had to pay the land-tax as much as any other community. The only land which was exempt from it was Italy, and Italy paid sundry other taxes to make up for it, at least in part. But though Italy was first and foremost in the imperial regard, the emperor was by no means indifferent to the welfare of the provinces. If an earthquake, a fire, or other great calamity befell a town, it was by no means rare for the emperor to send a large sum of money in relief.

Besides the land-tax there was also a tax on persons and personal property. The tax on persons was not precisely a poll-tax, except in places like Britain and Egypt, where it was difficult to make proper estimates otherwise, but a tax on occupations and trades. This, if we choose, may be put down as a crude form of income-tax, although it was not actually assessed on income. In another sense it may be regarded as a tax on a license, assuming that we demand a license for every kind of occupation. Italy again was exempt from this taxation also. Obviously a census, and a regularly revised census, was necessary to carry out this system; and Rome required a whole army of agents, just as a modern state would require one, for assessing and collecting these dues.

The land-tax and the person-tax were the two chief sources of Roman revenue. These were regular and direct. There were others, subject, like our own taxes, to increase or decrease according to circumstances, but for the most part kept at very much the same standards under several consecutive emperors. For instance there were customs duties, paid on the frontiers of the empire and also on those of provinces or natural groups of provinces, not as part of any protective system, since the empire is all one, but as a means of raising money from commodities. In Italy there was a duty of 2-1/2 per cent. Luxuries from India and Arabia via Red Sea ports were specially taxed at 25 per cent. If you sold a slave, you would pay from 2 to 4 per cent on the purchase-money. Occasionally there was a tax on bachelors. In Italy, but not elsewhere, 5 per cent legacy duty was paid when the recipient was not a near relative, and when the legacy was not under £1000.

Add to these revenues the rents of state pastures, state forests, and state mines. Into the treasury came also unclaimed property and the property of certain classes of condemned criminals.

So much for the nature of the taxation. In point of government, the Romans were singularly liberal. When a province was conquered or annexed, the Senate sent out a commission of ten persons, who carefully considered the existing state of things, the laws and forms of administration actually in vogue, and drew up a constitution for the province, embodying as much of these as was possible or at all commendable; as much, in fact, as was compatible with the Roman connection. This constitution, when sanctioned by the Senate, was binding, whatever governor might be appointed by Rome to the province. Such a governor might interpret the law; he could not alter it.

But though a province was a unit in so far as it was under one governor, the Romans were firm believers in strictly local administration. Their policy in this, as in conquest, was "divide and rule." It did not suit their ends to make any large part of the empire conscious of a corporate existence. The unit of administration was, therefore, a town and its district--a "community." In Gaul there were about sixty such divisions, each roughly corresponding in size to a modern French "department." Such a community had its own local council and officials, who were ultimately responsible to the governor. So long as they performed their municipal or communal functions correctly and honestly they were not interfered with. The chief principle upon which Rome insisted was that their local government should be aristocratic, or rather that office should be based on wealth. The governor, of course, stepped in when he felt it to be his duty. He was required to suppress all secret societies or political unions. A strike of the bakers in one city of Asia Minor was promptly put down by the governor as interfering with social order and social needs.

The communities made their own by-laws, they collected the land-tax of their own district and handed it over to the financial representative of the Roman government. This was done by men of their own people, often of a low class, known in the Gospels as the "publicans," who were so commonly associated with sinners. St. Matthew had been one of the minor agents for such collection in Galilee. Other taxes--those which were indirect--might be collected by the great tax-farming companies of Roman "knights," who offered a lump sum for them to the government, and made what they could out of the bargain.

One incidental consequence of this systematic division into communes was that there spread throughout the empire a strong municipal patriotism, especially in the Greek world. This was followed by liberal local expenditure on the part of rich provincials in beautifying their centres with public buildings and works of art, chiefly, no doubt, given for the sake of the local honours with which they were repaid, but given nevertheless.

Most of the towns or communities throughout the empire were in the position described. Some communities, however, such as Thessalonica, though situated inside a province, were for some special service in the past exempted from the interference of the governor, and were allowed to exercise their own laws to the full, even upon Roman citizens who might happen to reside there. These were called "free" towns. In other cases the community, having come into voluntary alliance with Rome at an earl; date and before conquest, was still treated as an "allied" state, and was exempted from either interference or taxation, so long as it supplied its quota of soldiers when called upon. Such cities, however, were distinctly the exception, and most of them in the end preferred to come directly within the Roman sphere of administration. They often found their burdens smaller and less capricious than when they taxed themselves through their own authorities.

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The function of the governor was to see that the various local bodies did their work, kept within their rights, and paid their taxes. He also, either in person or by his deputies, administered justice wherever the Roman laws were concerned. Where they were not concerned, he necessarily acted as Gallio did with the Jewish charges against Paul at Corinth; he dismissed the case as not demanding his jurisdiction. Said Gallio: "If it were a question of a misdemeanour or a crime, I should be called upon to bear with you; but if they are questions of (mere) words and names and of your (Jewish) law, you must see to it yourselves." When the Greeks who were standing by proceeded to beat the chief of Paul's Jewish accusers, the governor shut his eyes to the matter. This may have been a laxity, but it would almost appear as if Gallio liked their behaviour.

For the purposes of justice a province was divided into "Assize Districts," and the governor or his deputies went on circuit. In the court he sat upon a platform in his official chair and with his lictors in attendance. The official language of the court and of its records was of course Latin, but in the Eastern half of the empire the bench cannot always have pretended not to understand Greek. Since it would not, however, understand Hebrew, the Jews would need to speak through a representative who knew Latin, and this is apparently the reason for the appearance of Tertullus against St. Paul at Caesarea. A Roman citizen--that is, a person possessed of full Roman rights--if he either denied the jurisdiction or was in danger of being condemned to capital punishment, might, unless he had been caught red-handed in certain heinous crimes, appeal to Caesar and claim to be sent to Rome. Unless the governor had been expressly entrusted with exceptional powers, or unless the case was so self-evident that he had nothing to fear from refusing, he had no alternative but to send the appellant on to the metropolis. Arrived there, the prisoner was taken to the guardrooms or cells in the barracks of a special prefect who had charge of such arrivals from abroad, and his case would in due course be taken either by the emperor himself, if it was sufficiently important, or by magistrates to whom the emperor delegated his powers for the purpose.

Meanwhile, provincials other than full Roman citizens enjoyed no such privilege. They could make no appeal. The governor was supreme judge, and his verdict or sentence was carried out. In matters of doubt, whether administrative or judicial, the governor might refer to the emperor for direction or advice, and we have at a somewhat later date a considerable collection of letters and their replies which passed in this manner between Pliny and the Emperor Trajan.

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A glance at the map will show some provinces named in heavy type and some in italics. Those in italics are the provinces to which the Senate has the right to appoint the governors, in this case called "proconsuls." Of course His Highness the Head of the State is graciously pleased to approve the choice of the Senate; which means that the Senate will not attempt any appointment which the emperor would dislike. The revenues of these provinces go into a treasury controlled by the Senate. Of those named in heavy type the emperor is himself the governor or proconsul. Theoretically he is made governor of all these simply because they contain, or may need, armies, and he is the commander-in-chief of those armies. But since he is at Rome, and in any case cannot be everywhere at once, he governs all such provinces by means of his deputies, whom he appoints for himself. They are his lieutenants, and are so called--to wit, "lieutenants of Caesar" and "deputies of the commander." The revenues of these imperial provinces are collected by an "agent" or "factor" of Caesar, and go into a treasury controlled by the emperor. In any one of his provinces the emperor would be its governor, and would exercise the usual military and civil powers of a governor. His lieutenant to each province simply acts in his place, receives the same powers, and is the governor of that province exactly as the proconsul sent by the Senate is governor in his. But whereas the governors in the senatorial provinces wear the garb of peace, and are appointed, like other civil officers, for one year only, the "deputies of Caesar," the commander-in-chief, wear the military garb, and are kept in office just so long as their superior thinks fit. It is as if in modern times the governor of the one kind of province made his public appearances in civilian dress, and the governor of the other kind in uniform.

The actual outcome of this system was that the provinces of the emperor were on the whole better administered than those of the Senate. In the latter, changes were too frequent, and a governor might sometimes strain a point to enrich himself quickly. But it must on no account be imagined that at this date a governor could with impunity be extortionate or oppress the provincials, as he too often did in the good old days of the republic. He was paid his salary, which might be anything up to £10,000; his allowances and power of making requisitions, such as of salt, wood, and hay when travelling, were strictly defined by law; any pronounced extortion, oppression, or dishonesty laid him open to impeachment; and such a charge was tolerably certain to be brought. Among so many governors it was inevitable that a number should have been impeached. We know of twenty-seven instances, resulting in twenty condemnations and only seven acquittals. The emperors at least looked sharply to their own provinces; nor would they readily tolerate any gross irregularity in those other provinces which were nominally controlled by the Senate. On leaving his province every governor must make out duplicate copies of his accounts, one to be left in the province, one to be forwarded to Rome.

In the Acts of the Apostles we have mention of two governors of senatorial provinces--in other words, two "proconsuls"--Gallio in Achaia (or Greece), and Sergius Paulus in Cyprus. It is instructive to compare the lenient and common sense attitude of these trained Roman aristocrats with that of the turbulent local mobs who dealt with St. Paul in Asia Minor, Judaea, or Greece. Of the minor governors of smaller provinces--styled "agents" or "factors" of Caesar--we meet with Pontius Pilate, Felix, and Festus.

It remains only to remark that, while the Senate's treasury, which received the revenues from the senatorial provinces, paid the expenses of their management and also of the administration of Italy, the emperor's treasury, which received the revenues from the other provinces, provided for their administration, for the pay of the army, for the corn and water of Rome, for public buildings, for the great military roads, and for the imperial post. Nevertheless the emperor could handle all this latter money exactly as he chose, and it is upon this chest that Nero was drawing for all his lavish prodigalities and his undeserved and wasteful bounties. Yet even Nero was scarcely so bad as Caligula, who managed to spend £22,000,000 in less than one year.

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