How the Roman Empire’s Tax System (Unintentionally) Stimulated the Ancient Economy


Among people who are both interested in ancient Rome and have a particular ax to grind against the tax code one will often hear the argument that excessive taxation destroyed the Roman Empire. You will find iterations of this argument bubbling up in the business media, conservative think tanks, and, for some reason, even the web pages of Baptist churches.

This argument, like most over-simplifications of complex, long-evolving historical phenomena, does contains a grain of truth. The disastrous fiscal state of the late empire brought about tax reforms that were quite severe, even tyrannical. After Emperor Diocletian reformed the tax code to require tax payments be made in kind rather than in the debased Roman currency, peasants could see as much as a quarter of their crop yields, or more, taken away by the tax collectors. By relying heavily on agriculture, produced by land-bound peasants, it was highly regressive. And, furthermore, peasants were denied freedom of mobility, essentially imprisoned on their land which they had no other choice than to work.

Apart from being a far from complete explanation of the ultimate collapse of the Roman Empire, however, this argument overlooks a significant economic benefit that the Roman tax network provided. If peasants had to give a large portion of their crops every year to the government, a robust and far-reaching transportation network was required to carry it.

According to historian Chris Wickham, in his book The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400–1000, although this transportation network was developed specifically for taxation, it had unintended beneficial consequences.

According to Wickham, it is likely that

… commercial exchange [in the late Roman Empire] was underwritten by the tax network. Ships left Africa for Italy every autumn, bringing state grain and oil to Rome as annona; doubtless they took commercial goods as well, ceramics and once again oil, the transport costs of which were thus covered by the state, and which could be sold on the other side of the Mediterranean more competitively, whether in Rome or in other ports. […] The tax network made commerce easier, and also contributed to the commercial prominence of certain regions.

But what started as an unintended but beneficial consequence of the tax system came to be an integral part of the Roman economy, so much so that, perversely, rather than taxes destroying the Empire, the dissolution of the tax network in the west actually contributed to its ultimate decline. Wickham indicates that it was the disruption of this tax network in the western Roman Empire that sent it into a tailspin:

When the empire began to lose fiscal homogeneity in the West, which was when the Vandals seized the heartland of North Africa in 439, breaking the Carthage-Rome tax spine, western Mediterranean commerce began two centuries of steady involution; but the East remained politically and fiscally strong, and eastern Mediterranean commerce was as active in 600 as in 400.

The reason why the taxes-killed-the-Roman-Empire theory is popular has nothing to do with ancient Rome, of course. As a glib, quasi-coherent historical argument it has a certain amount of persuasive thrust in the contemporary political debate in the United States. “Excessive taxation killedanother great power,” the implication goes, “just think of what could happen to us.”

But apart from being bad history, and not easily comparable to the state of modern-day fiscal policy, it is also worth emphasizing the significant benefits that the tax network brought to the the late Roman Empire. The Roman tax network, after all, was by no means the only example of a state-subsidized program that ended up spurring economic growth. The modern United States owes a significant portion of its economic and societal development to the U.S. Postal Service.

Unintended benefits accrue in the unlikeliest of places.

(Image: The Gleaners, by Jean-François Millet, 1857)

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