Levies were put on entire provinces payable by their governors, and what they taxed and how much, was up to them.

Suppose you're the governor of a province that has a large city in it. Living in this city is a wealthy landlord who owns a number of rent-paying insulii.

What would your relationship with him be like? Would he pay you a tax every month? Every quarter? Every year? What would happen if he refused to pay you, citing repairs, lack of paying tenants, fire damage, etc? Would you have him arrested? Would you confiscate his property? Would you, as the governor, have accountants working for you, keeping track of all revenues? Would the landlord have an accountant? Would records of payments be kept by either of you?

  • So, did the Governor give the wealthy landlord a receipt once the money for an agreed period of time was collected, by whatever actions, and delivered to him? How did the landlord keep track of what he collected from tradesmen, farmers, etc, as well as from his tenants? That's a whole lot of accounting, and a tall stack of receipts. Some systematic records would have to be kept, if only to prevent embezzlement of funds by the agents who collected the money physically, publicans and such.
    – Ricky
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 16:51

1 Answer 1


Please read Roman Tax Farming. The best strategy for the governor is to appoint the wealthy landlord as the tax farmer, and authorize the tax farmer to take whatever actions are necessary to collect the required tax. aside: I haven't actually double checked this against the reign of Hadrian; someone more skilled in Roman history could potentially serve me up....

The governor set a tax level for the province - I want a million sesterces this year. You go get it. The publicani could write a check for a million sesterces, or he could go out and shake down all left handed red haired me, or whatever he wanted. Note that the Publicani was expected to make a profit - if the Publicani needed to collect a million sesterces, then it was legitimate to collect a million and ten thousand and call that a profit. Under this system embezzlement was fundamentally impossible. Aside: there was a limit - publicani competed for the privilege, and the candidate with the slimmest margin was theoretically selected.

The actions of the publican were prima facia legal because they were authorized by the governor. Anyone who complained about the procedure of tax collection was referred to the governor. I don't recall off the top of my head, but I believe that there was no right of appeal (there were informal channels to Senatorial patrons, but no formal right of appeal)

Remember that by law the governor was immune to prosecution during his term of office. The one time that a governor was prosecuted after his term of office, his defense lawyer had him acquitted on the basis (rough summary)"Each of you would have done the same; it cannot be corruption if it is common practice"

Why keep receipts and records at all? Competition between publicani was fierce, and those who kept records tended to be more efficient. They didn't fear audits or embezzlement - those concepts were meaningless.

Please also consult - for a fairer, more complete, less cynical treatment:

  • @MarkC.Wallace You're knowledge of Roman law etc way exceeds mine but IIRC, Cicero successfully prosecuted Verres for his gross corruption in Sicily?
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 20:05
  • Thank you for your very helpful answer. Please elucidate two minor points for me: 1. What did the publicani do to protect themselves against people who opposed excessive shakedowns? 2. Why does Luke (or his interpreters, anyway) describe the publican as unkempt drunkard (in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican)?
    – Ricky
    Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 9:56
  • With respect to the first question, the publican was acting on behalf of the state; any attacks on the publican in the execution of his duties were effectively attacks on the state. I'm afraid the second question is outside my expertise.
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 13:46
  • 1
    @TheHonRose - You are correct; a better answer would compare In Verrum (the case to which you refer) and the case to which I allude but cannot source at the moment - they kind of serve as bookends of the Roman view of authority and accountability. A better answer would also address actual practice with examples, rather than my theoretical overview.
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 13:48
  • 1
    I suspect you've hit the spot precisely. If I had time, I'd develop the answer to prove those very points. At my current schedule, I think I have a few moments in July of 2017.....
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 17:10

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