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Taxation and the Formation of the Late Roman Social Contract

  • Author(s): Clark, Patrick
  • Advisor(s): Norena, Carlos
  • et al.


Taxation and the Formation of the Late Roman Social Contract

By Patrick E. Clark

Doctor of Philosophy in History

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Carlos Noreña, Chair

“Taxation and the Formation of the Late Roman Social Contract” offers a novel interpretation of the function of taxation in late Roman society. I argue that the tax policies introduced by Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century facilitated the negotiation of a social contract between the rulers and the ruled that stipulated that all Roman citizens had rights under and responsibilities to the Roman Empire. The late Roman social contract contrasted with the social contract of the Principate, which sought to reduce the responsibilities on the emperor’s political coalition while also enabling this group to enjoy more rights under the empire. Taxation was, on the one hand, one of the citizens’ responsibilities, whose specific provisions, rates, and institutions were subject to intense negotiation between the ruler and the ruled. On the other hand, taxation functioned as a forum where state actors and taxpayers interacted, engaged in performances of the “public transcript”, and negotiated with each other, and as a medium for communication that enabled the emperor to give real world realization to his values, ideals, and normative conceptions of citizenship. Thus instead of interpreting late Roman sources for taxation individually as accurate statements of the nature of late Roman taxation, I situate them in a larger discursive context that led to a broad consensus on the social contract and the nature of citizenship.

The first chapter builds on recent work by Walter Scheidel, Gilles Bransbourg, Andrew Monson, and Carlos Noreña and demonstrates that tax policies under the Principate worked to reinforce and make visible the social and legal hierarchy that underpinned the social contract of the Principate. Tax expenditures by the state on senators, soldiers, the local elite, and the city of Rome created financial incentives for these groups to support the Roman monarchy.

Chapter 1 also serves as a point of contrast for chapters 2 and 3. In chapter 2 I reconstruct Diocletian’s vision for state-society relations from his imperial constitutions, arguing in particular that Diocletian continued a 3rd century development in which all Roman citizens were expected to be concerned with the survival of the emperor and empire. In addition to requiring his subjects to demonstrate their commitment to the empire through empire-wide displays of traditional religious devotion, as 3rd century emperors had, Diocletian proliferated obligations on certain occupations, decurions, tenant farmers, and, most importantly, taxpayers. At the same time, Diocletian insisted that his policies would be fair, rational, useful, and legal. Chapter 3 examines Diocletian’s tax policies in greater detail and concludes that by and large they reflected the vision for state-society relations outlined in chapter 2. Taxation under Diocletian would be fair, rational, useful, and legal, and, most importantly, it would locate individual taxpayers in a universal hierarchy of fiscal responsibility that defined each taxpayer as owing a discrete portion of the state’s budgetary requirements.

Chapter 4 then explores the impact that these tax policies, as a powerful medium for communicating imperial ideology, had on taxpayers’ conception of the empire and their place in it. My close reading of 477 Egyptian papyri, including many valuable petitions, demonstrates that petitioners asserted their acceptance of the legitimacy of their fiscal burdens, only if those burdens corresponded to the petitioners’ census documents. This acceptance had two main consequences. First, it confirmed the legitimacy of the imperial ideology, outlined in chapters 2 and 3, that in part structured fiscalité under Diocletian. Second, petitioners’ payment of their taxes enabled them to argue that they were enthusiastic members of the imperial community who deserved the state’s legal protection. This second claim transformed the label “taxpayer” into a positive moral quality of an ideal citizen. In this way, petitioners tried to use their payment of taxes to secure for themselves legal rights in the social contract.

If the observations from chapter 4 represent a constructive engagement with and acceptance of Diocletian’s ideology and policies, chapter 5 is an example of the polemic criticism the emperor’s policies could provoke. In his Divine Institutes and On the Deaths of the Persecutors Lactantius argues that the Tetrarch’s persecution of Christian, which deprived them of the state’s legal protection, revealed the ideology and institutional basis of the Tetrarchy to be unjust. On closer examination, other Tetrarchic policies appear unjust as well. Tapping into a deeper Graeco-Roman philosophical tradition, Lactantius demonstrates that Tetrarchic tax policies had a deleterious effect on social relations in the Roman Empire. Contrary to justice, taxation introduced inequality, war, violence, and discord. It would be more just, Lactantius maintained, for Romans to give charity instead, because charity would reduce inequalities and strengthen the bonds of Roman society. Rather than being the outpourings of righteous indignation, however, Lactantius’ polemics should be read, like the petitions from chapter 4, as a contribution to the negotiation of the late Roman social contract.

My observation that the communicative nature of 4th century tax policies facilitated the negotiation of a social contract represents an advancement in scholarly thinking about taxation in the later Roman Empire because it reveals the ideological and ethical pronouncements that tax policies and statements about taxation could make. Taxation enabled the emperor and his subjects to communicate their conception of state-society relations and to critique what they saw as flaws in others’ conceptions. This observation also has analytical value outside the narrow temporal bounds of dissertation. For example, when viewed through the lens of my dissertation, the emperor Julian’s reduction of the Gallic provinces’ tax rate should be seen as his attempt to communicate his commitment to a just social contract in advance of his planned revolt against Constantius II. Julian’s tax policies signaled to the whole empire that he intended to be a prototypical good emperor. Herein lies the main take-away from this dissertation: when emperors, intellectuals, and petitioners mentioned taxation, they were talking about much more than taxation; they were making normative claims about how best to organize their society.

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