A Historical Note on Christian Taxation

When Constantine made the Roman Empire Christian, he did more than just change its religion. He not only confiscated a huge amount of private and (pagan) temple property, he restructured and greatly increased its taxes. A couple of centuries later, Justinian, that most Christian of emperors, further increased them. In his classic book, The Roman Economy (1974), A. H. M. Jones described the situation.

When Jones refers to the Republic, he means the era prior to Julius Caesar, when Rome built most of its empire. Rome raped its vanquished foes in virtually every conceivable way, including fiscally. In addition to a high rate of taxation, it imposed a very corrupt set of provincial leaders. Keep this in mind when Jones compares the Christian empire to the Republic.

“[Under Constantine], the increase in the army and the civil service necessarily involved a much greater weight of taxation, and the burden was increased by extortion, which in the western parts particularly became flagrant.… the authorized fees of collectors added about a third as much again to the amount of the taxes. To this must be added extortion and corruption by provincial governors which was stimulated by the sales of offices…. It appears that in Egypt under Justinian the taxes (including regular fees) came to … about one third of the gross yield of good average arable land. This is more than three times the demumae [taxes] levied under the Republic, and was a fixed rate moreover, which made no allowance for inferior land or bad crops as did the [Republican] tithe. Rather similar figures are attested for Italy under Justinian. Here the taxes amounted to nearly 60 percent of the gross rental…. The taxes absorbed nearly a third of the yield in Italy too and the land in question was church land which enjoyed certain immunities [from taxation].”(132-133)

Despite the very high taxes, the Christian emperors could no longer afford a large enough army to guard the empire’s frontiers. Nor was the army as professional as it was in pagan days. It wasn’t long before Rome and the Western Empire fell to the barbarians.


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