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Taxing Status in the Republic? Re-evaluating the Origins of the Summa Honoraria

Drew A. Davis

University of Toronto

This paper reassesses the earliest evidence for the levying of fees on town magistrates entering local offices, a practice commonly referred to as the summa honoraria, in the Late Republic and its perceived role as a major factor in Italian urbanization. It argues that such an interpretation anachronistically retrojects the institution as it existed in the empire onto this earlier period and does not provide a satisfactory explanation for its origins. Instead, the evidence for this quasi-tax in the Late Republic suggests that the institution developed as a mechanism to maintain local cult practices, and thus was not regularly used to finance public construction.

Best attested in the Imperial period, the summa honoraria has featured prominently in the debates surrounding the nature of elite euergetism and its socio-economic role in the cities of the empire (Veyne, 1976; Duncan-Jones 1982; Garnsey, 1971; Lo Cascio, 2006; Zuiderhoek, 2009). For many scholars, it is assumed that the practice was already in place in the 1st century BCE, if not earlier, citing as evidence two clauses of the lex coloniae genetivae, which stipulate that magistrates had to fund certain festivals partially from their own resources (Crawford 1996, #25.70–71). By linking these clauses to a few contemporary scattered inscriptions which attest to public buildings being funded “in lieu of games” (pro ludis: e.g. CIL I².682, 1635, 1747), they claim that the summa honoraria financed much of the public building in Italy. Such assertions are used to support the idea that elite euergetism drove the ensuing socio-economic changes which accompanied municipal urbanization (Gabba, 1976; Frederiksen, 1976; Cébeillac-Gervasoni, 1990). This view persists in very recent scholarship (Roselaar, 2019).

Entering into the debate, I argue that evidence for a Republican summa honoraria as it currently stands cannot be used to show that the institution financed large scale public building. As pointed out twenty years ago, much of the epigraphic evidence for pro ludis constructions cannot be veiled references to the use of a magistrate’s summa honoraria, but rather clearly refer to legislation that controlled the allocation of other public revenue streams towards public building (Crawford, 1998; Pobjoy, 2000). Following up on this observation, I show that the other evidence for the taxing of office holders is best viewed within the broader context of the municipalization of Italy in the Late Republic and its effects on the municipal fiscal landscape, seen for instance in the lex Tarentina and elsewhere within the lex coloniae genetivae itself (Crawford 1996, #15 and #25). One goal of such legislation was to standardize and solidify a town’s budget, including the costs associated with cult. The regularization of religious revenues and expenses by public institutions has a long history with clear antecedents in earlier sacred laws. The codification of a tax on magistrates in the lex coloniae genetivae is best seen as part of increasing public regulation of local religious activity, itself a symptom of the local fiscal developments which accompanied municipalization.

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Roman History

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