Tribut. Une histoire fiscale de la conquête romaine

France, Jérôme
Anzahl Seiten
532 S.
€ 25,50
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Cristina Rosillo-López, Universidad Pablo de Olavide

Roman senators were used to receive countless embassies stemming from all parts of the empire; among all the questions brought forward before the Senate, taxation and fiscal immunity represented one of the common issues. In 74 BC an embassy from the Greek city of Oropos arrived at Rome and complained that the tax collectors were requesting contributions from the sanctuary of Amphiaraos. Sulla, they argued, had granted fiscal immunity to the temple, but the tax collectors argued that Amphiaraos was not a god, but a hero, and thus should not be subject to any exemption.[1] This affair was not an isolated instance; each province had a myriad of different tax situations, with several entities that enjoyed different degrees of tax immunities: temples, free cities, individuals and guilds. The taxation system of each province during the Republic was a result of the previous circumstances of the territory (the taxation of the previous political regime which controlled that territory), the events of the conquest, the treaties signed, the formula provinciae, and the privileges conferred. And yet it is fascinating to consider that, despite of this complexity and the lack of uniformity, the system worked for several centuries. Why was it so? The book under review provides answers for such a central question.

The subtitle of the book is explicit: France has not written a history of taxation in Rome, but a fiscal history of the Roman conquest. This shift in perspective is well explained in the introduction (pp. 17–30), in the line of the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s statement that taxation fashioned the structures and evolution of early modern States. Taxation is not only a matter of resources, but of policy-making, of administration, of consent, authority, control and integration. Why did cities, peoples and kings pay taxes to Rome, that symbolic act of submission and empire?

The structure of the book is chronological, following the fiscal history of Rome from its beginnings as a city-state (chapters 1–2) and tracing in several chapters the challenges and solutions brought about by the expansion first in Italy, later to Sicily, Hispania and the East (chapters 3–6). France devotes several subsections to the debate regarding the relationship between tributum and stipendium, and the imposition of the different types of taxation in the provinces. Was stipendium during the Republic an extraordinary contribution, next regularized, or did it retain an extraordinary character, in a kind of war economy? Chapter 7 addresses the proposals of the Gracchi who, for the first time, projected a program of reforms supported by provincial taxation. In chapter 8, France analyses the role of the publicani in the collection of taxes and their relationship, conflicted or cooperative, with the magistrates. Chapter 9 reviews the attempts at fiscal reform in the provinces in the 1st century BCE (Sulla, Pompey, Caesar). Finally, chapter 10 studies Octavian’s and later Augustus’ fiscal policy and the discourse that justified the payment of taxes to Rome. The author proposes two pivot moments in that evolution: first of all, 167 BCE when, after the defeat of Perseus of Macedonia, the tributum, the tax paid by male Roman citizens, was suspended. The second moment marks the end of the book: Augustus’ fiscal reforms, which monopolized tax redistribution on the princeps and imposed two taxes on the provinces (on land and a poll tax).

France’s book is very rich in subjects and questions and revises deeply the historiography in the most current languages of modern scholarship, what should always be praised. For that reason, it is impossible to address all salient points in this review, so I will restrict my comments to some questions.

According to the new fiscal history, there are four stages in the evolution of a State from an extractive perspective: conquest state, domain state, tax states and fiscal states. The latter appeared in the 19th century and is defined by progressive taxation and tax incentives to direct the economy and the redistribution of wealth. It was the evolution of the tax state, which, according to Schumpeter, appeared at the end of the Middle Ages and in which direct taxes were raised to pay for public spending. France confesses the difficulty to translate into French the nuances between tax state and fiscal state, and proposes a new concept: “cité contributive”, which, according to him, is what best described ancient Rome (he uses later the term “empire tributaire”). The almost continued situation of warfare made necessary to go beyond ordinary revenues by establishing a poll tax on citizens, what opened up possibilities of negotiation and transaction (pp. 64–65). Does this concept help for a better understanding of the situation of the Roman Republic? France does not devote a thorough analysis to it, but the term is suggestive. At least it goes beyond the path dependency of the four stages that lead to modern practices in a teleological drive.[2] Should be Rome considered a rentier state, in the sense that a high proportion of its revenues came from other territories, and not from Rome’s own economy? Warfare and global trade brought along relevant fiscal changes in the 18th century; what was the relationship between these three points in the Roman Republic? Would a comparative perspective of the fiscal policies of other states of the ancient world help to define these terms?[3]

It is not easy to present a balanced view of Roman imperialism. The conclusion of the book, entitled “Les bénéfices de la soumission”, brings us to a new discussion. In the last pages, France seeks the positive side of that trajectory: Rome used the tributary relationship which is found in the city and molded it into an empire. The author asserts that Rome, together with protection, offered an attractive cultural and political model to the communities that constituted its empire (p. 405); “en un mot, une civilisation”. That is a highly charged statement; the concept of civilization has been subjected to much criticism and such passing or off-hand remarks do not make justice to a much-debated question. Furthermore, many contemporary states and communities that were conquered by Rome could dispute such claim: from former Seleucid kingdoms to Greek poleis, from Celtiberian cities to Gallic communities, from Carthaginian domains to Sicilian towns. France is undoubtedly presenting a positive view of taxation, but concepts like civilization do not, in my opinion, add to that question.

I hope that the comments above do not give the wrong impression; this is a rich, thought-provoking and relevant book that should be read by all people working in the Roman Republic, imperialism, taxation and the Roman provinces. Money may be indispensable for war, but fiscal policies build states and define the relationship between the government and its citizens and subjects.

[1] R. K. Sherk, Roman Documents of the Greek East, 1969, no. 23.
[2] See criticism of these phases in B. Yun-Casalilla, “Introduction; the rise of the fiscal state in Eurasia from a global, comparative and transnational perspective”, in B. Yun-Casalilla, P. K. O’Brien (eds.), The Rise of Fiscal States: A Global History, 1500–1914, 2012, pp. 1–35.
[3] There are two collective monographs in this sense: A. Monson, W. Scheidel (eds.) Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States, 2015 and J. Valk and Irene Soto Marín, Ancient Taxation. The Mechanics of Extraction in Comparative Perspective, 2021, but the subject is worth pursuing further.

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