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Will Durant, Civilizing the West

CHAPTER XXII, from the third volume of the Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325

Copyright by Will Durant. See the book at Amazon


THE blot on Italian prosperity- aside from a system of slavery common to ancient states- was its partial dependence upon provincial exploitation. Italy was free of taxation because the provinces had yielded so much in plunder and tribute; and to them could be traced some of the wealth that came to flower in the Italian towns. Rome, before Caesar, frankly classed the provinces as conquered territory; all their inhabitants were Roman subjects, only a few were Roman citizens; all their land was the property of the Roman state and was held by the possessors on revocable grants from the imperial government. To lessen the likelihood of revolt Rome cut conquered regions into smaller states, forbade any province to have direct political dealings with another, and favored the business classes against the lower classes everywhere. Diside et impera was the secret of Roman rule.

Cicero perhaps exaggerated when, in excoriating Verres, he pictured the Mediterranean nations as desolate under the Republic: “All the provinces mourn, all free peoples cry out, all kingdoms protest against our cruelty and greed; from one ocean to another there is no place, however hidden or remote, that has not felt our lust and our iniquity.” The Principate dealt more liberally with the provinces, not from generosity so much as from husbandry. Taxation was made bearable, local religions, languages, and customs were respected, freedom of speech was allowed except for attacks against the sovereign power, and local laws were retained so far as they did not conflict with Roman profit and mastery. A wise flexibility created a useful diversity of rank and privilege among and within the subject states. Certain municipalities, like Athens and Rhodes, were “free cities”; they paid no tribute, were not subject to the provincial governor, and managed their domestic affairs without Roman interference so long as they maintained social order and peace. Some old kingdoms, like Numidia and Cappadocia, were allowed to keep their kings, but these were “clients” of Rome- dependent upon her protection and her policy and required to aid her with men and materials at her call. In the provinces the governor (proconsul or propraetor) combined in himself the power to legislate, to administer, and to judge; his power was limited only by the free cities, by a Roman citizen’s right of appeal to the emperor, and by the financial supervision exercised by the provincial quaestor or procurator. Such near-omnipotence invited abuse; and though the lengthening of the governor’s term under the Principate, his ample salary and allowance, and his financial responsibility to the emperor considerably lessened malfeasance, we may see from the letters of Pliny and some passages in Tacitus that extortion and corruption were still no rarities at the end of the first century.

Taxation was a primary industry of the governor and his aides. Under the Empire a census was taken of every province for the purpose of assessing the tax on land and the tax on property- which included animals and slaves. To stimulate production a fixed tribute was substituted for the tithe. “Publicans” no longer gathered these taxes, but they collected port duties and managed some state forests, mines, and public works. The provinces were expected to contribute towards a golden crown for each new emperor, pay the cost of provincial administration, and in some cases send heavy shipments of grain to Rome. The old custom of liturgies was maintained in the East, and spread through the West, by which the local or the Roman government might “ask” rich men to provide loans for war, ships for the navy, buildings for public purposes, food for famine victims, or choruses for festivals and plays.

Cicero, having joined the Ins, contended that the taxes paid by the provinces barely covered the cost of administration and defense; “defense” included the suppression of revolts, and “administration” presumably embraced the perquisites that made so many Roman millionaires. We must reconcile ourselves to the probability that whatever power establishes security and order will send taxgatherers to collect something more than the cost. Despite all levies the provinces prospered under the Principate. The emperor and the Senate exercised a more careful supervision over provincial staffs and severely punished those who stole beyond their station. Ultimately the excess taken from the provinces flowed back to them in payment for their goods; and in the end the industries so supported made the provinces stronger than a precariously parasitic Italy. A government, said Plutarch, ought to give a people two boons above all: liberty and peace. “As to peace,” he wrote, “there is no need to occupy ourselves, for all war has ceased. As to liberty, we have that which the government [Rome] leaves us; and perhaps it would not be good if we had any more.”

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