How Taxes Helped Destroy the Roman Empire

Published March 2, 2010 by terri in featured

taxes.jpg  What caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Historians have debated this question for centuries and offered numerous and varied explanations. One has a strangely contemporary ring: Rome collapsed because the vitality of her empire and the loyalty of her subject peoples were extinguished by big government and oppressive taxation.1

Although Roman rule was never popular among her subjects, it initially brought them the benefits of peace and order, the rule of law, and freedom of movement throughout the empire. What Rome lacked, however, was an effective culture of technical innovation and wealth-creation. Instead, the empire relied on the plunder and looting of newly conquered territories and the enslavement of their people. The muscle-power of forced labor was never in short supply for mining, manufacturing, agriculture, and construction. But by stigmatizing the work ethic and undermining the competitive position of free peasant-farmers and artisans, slavery prevented the emergence of a large and vigorous, wealth-creating middle class.2

Real problems began when the limits of imperial expansion were reached in the second century. With no new territories to loot, the Roman treasury became seriously overstretched, and the emperors resorted to a policy of debauching the currency to fill the gap between falling revenues and rising expenditures. By A.D. 210, the silver content of the previously pure Roman denarius was only 50% of what it had originally been; 60 years later it was a mere 5%.3 The inevitable inflation that followed raised the price of a bushel of wheat from ten denarii in A.D. 200 to two million denarii in A.D. 344. As the official Roman currency became increasingly worthless, soldiers refused to be paid in it, and tax collectors refused to accept it in payment of taxes.4

This collapse of the financial system led to the adoption of totalitarian solutions by a succession of Roman emperors during the third and fourth centuries.5 Starting under the reign of Diocletian (A.D. 284-305), Roman citizens living in Italy lost their traditional immunity from direct taxation. Following exhaustive censuses, a new system of imperial taxation was introduced based on payment in kind – wheat, barley, meat, wine, oil, and clothing – rather than worthless coinage. To impose and police this new system, which included arbitrary classification and valuations of land, a vast and ever growing central bureaucracy was created, which itself necessitated more taxes. And the increased military forces required more taxes both to quell internal revolts and to resist the barbarian tribes who were by then threatening the frontiers of the empire.

Not only were the taxes onerous but harsh new tax avoidance measures were introduced: farmers were prevented from simply abandoning their work by laws which tied them and their descendants to the land in perpetuity; similarly artisans and merchants living and working in the towns (who had to pay their direct taxes in gold and silver) were herded into state-controlled guilds and also tied to their occupations and localities forever.6 Indeed, taxes became so crippling that parents were commonly forced to sell their children into slavery to raise the funds needed to satisfy the taxman, whilst non-payment of taxes was punished by torture (by the scourge and the rack) and even burning alive.7 Tax collectors also faced the death penalty if they failed to collect sufficient revenue.

The third-century Christian historian Lactantius wrote that “the resources of the farmers were exhausted by outrageous burdens of all taxes, the fields were abandoned, and the cultivated land reverted to waste.”8 Eventually people started starving. Many fled the Roman Empire for barbarian territory—as one group said, “We will flee to some place where we may live as free men.”9 They welcomed and assisted the final and victorious barbarian invasions of the fifth century, but it was the burden of taxes as much as the barbarians which had caused Rome’s destruction.
1  For a detailed analysis of this, see Charles Adams, For Good and Evil: The Impact of Taxes on the Course of Civilization, 2nd ed. (New York: Madison, 2001), 111-128. For a more wide-ranging analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman Empire, but reaching similar conclusions, see Paul Johnson, “Cancers of the Ancient World,” in Enemies of Society (New York: Atheneum, 1977), 10-27.
2  Johnson, 15-19.
3  Johnson, 19-20; Adams, 111.
4  Adams, 111-112.
5  Johnson, 19-23; Adams, 112-118.
6  This effectively destroyed a thousand-year-old tradition of freedom of movement for Roman citizens. Adams, 112-118; Johnson, 20-22.
7  Adams, 116-117, 121.
8  Quoted in ibid., 126.
9  One contemporary scholar, Salvian of Marseilles in France, wrote in A.D. 440 that the justice and humanity of the Goths [French barbarians] greatly exceeded that of the Romans. Quoted in ibid.
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