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Taxes, petitions, and the formulation of the ideal relationship between citizen and state in the late Roman empire

Patrick Clark

Using papyrological evidence, my paper argues that through the tax system the late Roman state and Roman citizens reached a consensus that there existed something akin to a legal contract between the state and Roman citizens. In accordance with this “contract,” Roman citizens would pay taxes on the property cultivated by and registered to them, as well as perform the relevant services, and the Roman state would guarantee that citizens would pay only the amount required by their registered property. This consensus was reached through a cumulative process. The first step was the census and land registration, which determined tax responsibility. By paying their taxes and other levies, subjects at least “performed” an acknowledgment of the emperor’s right to levy taxes and the legitimacy of his method for calculating liability. Taxpayers then used administrative documents to hold the emperor’s administration accountable and to ensure that they only paid what was required of them. Reference to administrative documents in petitions not only reinforced the emperor’s right to levy taxes but also transformed taxation into a quasi-legal contract between the state and taxpayers, and administrative documents into the physical form of the contract (P.Col.VII 174 [325-350], P.Sakaon 43 [327], P.Cair.Isid. 68 [309/10]). The final step in this cumulative process, and the focus of my paper, was the citation of one’s tax credentials, including the payment of taxes and other levies as well as the performance of services and liturgies, in missives, especially petitions, to administrative officials. 

Petitions could involve issues related to taxation but often did not, as is the case in the two that form the core of my analysis, P.Sakaon 38 (312) and P.Cair.Isid. 62 (296). In the former, Sakaon’s nephew mentions his son’s performance as sitologos, and the debts he incurred as a result, in order to recommend the son for the state’s help in recovering his wife from Sakao; the latter concerns a dispute over inheritance. Similar examples include CPR 17.1 9b (320), P.Oxy. I.71 (303), and P.Sakaon 36 (c. 280). Citing one’s tax credentials in other contexts to justify a wider range of claims on the attention of the state expanded the social meaning of the contract of taxation; the regular payment of taxes became a quality of the ideal Roman citizen (Bryen, Violence in Roman Egypt  [2013], 13) and a chief reason for the state to fulfill its end of the contract and intervene on the citizen’s behalf. 

This argument has two main consequences for our understanding of late Roman government and society. The first consequence pertains to how historians use petitions. We should interpret citations of tax credentials as claims by petitioners that they have fulfilled their part of the “contract” and therefore deserve the state’s intervention on their behalf, rather than as attempts to play on officials’ fears that they will be held accountable for unpaid taxes. The latter, though certainly true, was mitigated by various legal mechanisms for distributing tax burdens throughout the community. Second, building on recent work by Roman historians who have observed much more agency from Roman society in the development of Roman law and taxation (Connolly, Lives behind the laws [2010]; Grey, Constructing communities [2011]; Bryen [2013]), this argument shows that taxation was not merely a ritual through which subject populations expressed their consent in the emperor’s version of the normative order (Ando, Imperial ideology [2000]). As the principal point of contact between the state and society (Grey [2011], 181), taxation also facilitated the negotiation and harmonization of conceptions of ideal governance and the ideal citizen, in which the state made claims on its subject populations, and subject populations also made claims on the state.

Session/Panel Title:

Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

Session/Paper Number

9.3

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