The Economic Consequences of Late Antique Tax Policy

Dennis P. Kehoe

Tulane University

In previous CAMWS papers, I have sought to come to a better understanding of the role that law played in the Roman economy by applying some of the lessons from the current debate about the relationship between the law and the economy, especially in the field of the New Institutional Economics. I have argued that the legal policies of the Roman government had complex effects on the Roman agrarian economy. On the one hand, the Roman government's enforcement of legal rules surrounding land tenure tended to promote the type of bargaining between landowners and tenants that would lead to greater productivity in agriculture. On the other hand, the government's efforts to maintain the authority of its legal institutions to resolve disputes involving the rural economy were stymied by a number of factors, in particular, the sheer difficulty of altering long-standing tenure arrangements that were the product of social relationships in the Roman countryside. In this paper, I would like to continue this investigation of the role of law in the rural Roman economy by focusing on the economic implications of late antique fiscal legislation, which involved, beginning in the fourth century CE, the binding of certain categories of farmers to the land they cultivated.

The efforts of the Roman government to restrict the movement of coloni had important consequences both for the incentives to invest in agriculture by landowners and tenants and more broadly for the role that law played in defining relationships in the rural economy. The government bound coloni to their land to establish a more certain and reliable basis for taxation, and its development was linked with the tendency in the early empire for many tenants to remain on their estates for long periods of time. The problem was that the government's fiscal policy ran up against the realities of the late imperial economy: market forces often induced powerful landowners and even some coloni to defy this legal order with apparent impunity. Their defiance of this legal order indicates their efforts to bargain around a legal institution that at times hampered potentially more efficient allocations of resources.

This situation had unintended consequences for the role of the state in the rural economy. The need to maintain the empire's tax base compelled the government to intervene in the rural economy repeatedly, and it is likely that law and legal institutions played a greater role in the rural economy in late antiquity than they had in previous centuries. At the same time, the contradiction between the binding of coloni to their land and the realities of the agrarian economy drove much of the bargaining beyond "the shadow of the law," in that tenure arrangements between landowners and tenants who left their land were not enforceable in Roman courts of law.

The distortions in the market surrounding land tenure represented a considerable cost that the late Roman fiscal system imposed on the empire's economy. The government was apparently willing, however, to accept this cost if binding coloni to their land helped to assure more stable revenues for the state. So even if the late antique fiscal system imposed substantial costs on the economy, the state may have had good reasons to maintain it if it provided a way to collect of revenues vital to the empire's stability. Certainly, the Roman state was not in a position to experiment with other forms of taxation, and it is doubtful that any other system could have been easily devised that would have assured the state the same degree of stability and predictability in its sources of revenues.


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