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Taxation in the Later Roman Empire

December 9th, 2012
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Taxation in the later Roman Empire: a study on the character of the late antique economy

By Johannes Alexander Boek

MPhil Thesis, Leiden University (2008)

Abstract: In this MPhil-thesis the author examines the nature of the later Roman economy by focusing on a papyrological archive from the 4th century A.D. The late antique economy is a combination of a monetary economy and a barter economy, which is reflected in the papyrological material. The Roman empire had to adapt itself to rapidly changing circumstances from the 3rd century onwards, the fiscal system from the reign of Diocletian onwards is a perfect example of the way the Romans adapted their economy to the new circumstances. The main focus in this thesis is on an archive of ca. 50 papyri from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, called the archive of Papnuthis and Dorotheus; two brothers levying taxes in the Oxyrhynchite nome.

Introduction: Before we will concentrate on the actual subject of this thesis – as is unambiguously indicated in the main title – it is necessary to take a closer look at the subtitle of the present work: ‘a study on the character of the late antique economy’. Clearly, this subtitle presupposes the existence of a debate on the nature of that economy. And so there is: the discussion on the character of the ancient economy is one of the most vehement debates in the field of ancient history, having occupied the minds of generations of scholars and still doing so. Therefore, I consider it necessary to elaborate on the way scholars have looked at this historical controversy over the last 250 years, before discussing the later Roman system of taxation and – by means of that system – late antique economy in general.

Roughly, there are two completely different kinds of late antique historians – by which I mean modern scholars specialised in Late Antiquity, not men from antiquity itself writing about (near-)contemporary events. The first subspecies is still closely related to the nineteenth-century German school of historicism, mainly emphasizing the role of the state in history and focusing on the elite members of society. Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) is being considered as one of the precursors of this movement because he ‘placed the Roman state in the foreground of his study.’ In the twentieth century, famous late antique historians as J.B. Bury, E. Stein, A.H.M. Jones and A. Demandt have used this approach.

Click here to read this thesis from Leiden University

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  1. Joanne
    December 9th, 2012 at 23:15 | #1

    I didn’t read all of this, but was excited to see how the word liturgy was used twice in the text (actually the second occassion of a liturgy doesn’t use the word).

    The first use is an involuntary liturgy that falls upon a younger man of the council class (vouli). He is selected as part of a group of his class, then he is chosen by lot by the governor of the area to be in charge of collecting the taxes. If there is some kind of shortfall, he will be expected to pay the shortfall himself, so he had to have some capital of his own, and the vouli was mandatory. This man’s public service (liturgy) was mandatory after he was chosen by lot.
    He himself did not collect the taxes, apparently tax owers came in voluntarily or goons were sent out to find them and bring them in. If the taxes collected were much better than expected he could expect to make a large sum of money from this involuntary liturgy.

    The other non-mention of the word liturgy is when the economy is good, the wealthy are fat and happy, even though they do pay the largest part of the taxes, a magnanimous well to do man might step forward and declare that he will pay the taxes for all the people in his town and rural area. This is the voluntary liturgy where the great man pays our tax debts. We laud and magnifiy you of Pamphilios for your kindness in paying our debts for us.

    I’m still curious about how the term liturgy wiggled its way into being God’s service to us by paying all that we owed using blood/body, instead of wheat/grapes. (taxes were also paid in kind).

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