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Taxes in ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman gold coin of Vespasian
Roman gold coin of Vespasian


Taxes in Rome were a very old institution. Initially, it was not a too burdensome matter, as they amounted to approximately 1% of the value of the subject of taxation. They encumbered the property of the citizen, including slaves who were included in a special group (instumentum vocale). During the war, or in other situations requiring greater investment, they could jump to 3% of the value of the taxable good.
One of the oldest, it was paid until 167 BCE. by citizens’ land tax. It was only restored by Emperor Diocletian in the 3rd century CE.

Generally, there were distinguished between ordinary taxes (tributum ordinarium) and extraordinary (tributum extraordinarium), which were imposed in certain situations for example to cover war costs. They were generally paid in money, although during crises it was decided to collect them in kind.
A land tax was levied in all provinces (tributum Salt). In addition, a personal tax was also collected (tributum capitis).
Tax reform was only carried out under Diocletian. For the weaker, less wealthy strata of society, the so-called top dressing (capitatio). The value of this fee was not, however, the same for everyone. The basis for the calculations was the so-called caput, which determined the value of the work of one colony. Depending on the value of the work of the farmers, the caput had a different number of heads (capitatio humana). Cattle keepers paid tax according to the number of animals (capitatio animalium). On the other hand, the impoverished plebeian population was charged with a fee set annually (capitatio plebeia). Certain categories of people were entitled to exemptions from taxes, e.g. widows, children.
The land tax was calculated in relation to the value of the land. The basis was iugum, an area that could be maintained and worked on by one man with a team.
Among the special taxes, the inheritance tax should be distinguished. Its value was determined by 5 percent of the value of the inheritance. However, there were also exemptions from this, in particular in the case of inheritance from the closest relatives and with small decreases to the value of 100,000 sesterians.

In addition to taxes, the treasury made profits from the customs (portorium). All things were subject to him. Only items needed for the journey and for personal use were excluded from such charges, and could not, in the official’s judgment, be intended for commercial purposes. In order not to introduce confusion, there was a legal obligation to declare these items. Failure to do so could result in the seizure of the transported goods.
The duty was charged as a percentage of the value of the commodity, and it differed not only in relation to a certain type of thing, but its value could be different in different parts of the country.


It is also worth mentioning the contribution (contributio) that occurred during the early republic and possibly the royal period a kind of tribute imposed on opponents who were defeated in war. This tribute did not have to be the only financial burden imposed on the defeated, but separating it from the other wealth obtained from the victory was important, as the only purpose of contributio was to reimburse the Roman people for additional, special taxes imposed on them. to finance the cost of the war. These taxes, called tributum, were imposed on individual tribus (hence the name of the tax) – Roman “families” (tribal), in proportion to their wealth and importance, and then the chiefs distributed further on individual curias, then on the proper families, and finally on individual citizens, according to wealth and importance. After a possible victory, the money collected in this way was fully returned, which was what the institution of contribution was for.

Later, when tributum lost its loan character and became a mere tax, the name “contribution” simply meant a tribute imposed on a defeated opponent.

  • Zbigniew Sułżycki, Tomasz Wołowiec, Joanna Rogozińska-Mitrut, Ewolucja systemu danin publicznych T. Wołowiec (red.), Wybrane problemy teorii i praktyki opodatkowania, 2012

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