Posted by: ken98 | December 16, 2009

James Bond, Spies and Taxes

Day 96 – Ken here (W)
(DEF v.2, ch.17, pp.630-640)

I’m working quickly to get this out, get my house in order (literally) and get ready for a week off for Christmas – it’s fun to write this stuff but it TAKES UP SO MUCH TIME (and I’ve gotten behind on my reading ahead again). Besides which, writing just steals the hours away from spending time with family and friends (the real reason we’re down here for the short time we’re here – at least in my humble opinion).

But, it’s an amazing exercise for the mind, and extremely pleasurable too, in a bizarre, hard-to-explain-to-a-non-historian kind of way (there, I’ve admitted it). I think there’s actually only one or two people who read all this junk – so it’s kind of a Zen-like exercise: performing a useful, detailed, and extremely ephemeral, evanescent task (like sand painting) – the joy lies in the activity itself in the Now (I guess) (at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).

Gibbon finishes up with a review of the offices of Constantine’s empire with the Secret Agents, then examines Late Roman taxation for 9 pages.

The Story

  • Office: Agentes in Rebus – the feared secret agents of Constantine’s state – originally used to relay messages along the post system (somewhat like the pony express) throughout the empire, but morphed into the “eyes” of the emperor, and went from 1.500 agents to over 10,000
  • Torture and treason – although the Romans were originally more “humane” in their use of torture (limited to slaves), with the advent of treason and internal spies, torture became uses more frequently to citizen and slave alike

  • Tax: General Tribute or Indiction – originally a one-time tax to make up the difference between actual and budgeted revenues in an imperial tax year, it became an annual event (tax = currrent amount needed to fund state), with super-indictions (extra payments within a year) for extra-ordinary needs of the state. Gold alone was accepted (not the coins minted by the empire that were legal tender for all other transactions) (bad sign, that…)
  • Tax: Indictions and Capita – Indictions were very orderly, a census was taken at approximate 5 year intervals, and individuals were taxed as a percentage of a nominal “head” or capita – a very poor man might be only a 20th of a head, a rich man might be 1,000 heads – the “head” varied by region, depending on wealth available, and the quality of the land
  • Tax: Indictions and Decurions
  • – a Decurion was a leading man of a city – originally a source of great pride and status, in Constantine’s time, Decurions ran from their obligations as they became personally responsible for the tax bill of their entire state – and were forced to collect or make up the difference if the collection fell short. Being a Decurion became hereditary, and becoming a Decurion was sometimes the punishment for a particularly bad offense in the cities of Constantine’s (and later) time. One more example of the Empire killing the goose that layed the golden egg – the harder the empire squeezed, the faster rich men escaped into imperial (and tax-less) status and abandoned their cities to rot and decay into the Dark Ages.

  • Tax: Trade and Industry – Lustral Contribution – every 5 years – an occasion of torture and forfeiture as trade was a very up and down thing, and the tax very (imperially) inflexible. Yet another way the form of the tax drove trade and industry out of private hands and into the hands of the state – imperial workshops for industrial production, imperial shippers, traders, etc
  • Poster from 1st James Bond film, Dr. No (1962) - in the Later Roman Empire it was the Agentes in Rebus (Special Agents) who patrolled the empire in secret, gathering information, performing the odd special task, and generally being the eyes of the emperor

    Poster from 1st James Bond film, Dr. No (1962) - in the Later Roman Empire it was the Agentes in Rebus (Special Agents) who patrolled the empire in secret, gathering information, performing the odd special task, and generally being the eyes of the emperor

    Roman James Bond
    The empire was much more disorganized and decentralized as it lurched out of the Republic and into the Principate. The Roman spy organization was no different.

    At first, spying was a clan/client/family thing. Political information was used by man aspiring to office, or during military campaigns and collection was haphazard and varied greatly in method and quality. As the emperors consolidated their power, internal spies were needed more for civil war than barbarian expeditions. Spies developed out of the need for military intelligence and so the useful and mobile frumentarii (the providers of food, materiel, etc) were tapped on the shoulder and used to gather information from the populations they traveled through. Frumentarii were hated so much, that by the late 200’s, they were abolished by Diocletian (a great political coup on his part). Of course, the agents of the Secret Service didn’t just disappear. They morphed into Agentes in Rebus (Agents on a mission, Special Agents).

    Agentes in Rebus were originally messengers/representatives of the Empire, sent along the imperial post routes to give information, accompany specific persons, etc. As they were expected to report back everything they heard and saw, the opportunity was available for emperors to use them for the collection of all kinds of information – both externally, when visiting foreign princes/barbarians, and internally, when moving through the provinces. They were also available for missions, and all kinds of undercover work (apparently) – ancient writers hated the Agentes in Rebus, as much as they had hated their imperial ancestors, the Frumentarii.

    Seal of the Internal Revenue Service of the U.S. - the richest men in each city (the Decurions) were the IRS of the Late Roman Empire

    Seal of the Internal Revenue Service of the U.S. - the richest men in each city (the Decurions) were the IRS of the Late Roman Empire

    So what was it like being a Roman taxpayer in the time of Constantine? First, the old Roman distinctions between citizen and provincial (someone who paid a “tribute” to the Roman state) disappeared in the beginning of the 200’s (a century before Constantine’s time). Everyone paid tax (even the lands/slaves/peoples owned by the Empire and the emperors themselves were taxed – props to the Romans for being a thoroughly rule-by-law state). It was done rationally – the budget was estimated, the amounts calculated to meet the budget, and the individual amounts (amounts you pay) were calculated for you, for the year. What you paid was based on the 5-yearly “return” you filed – stating what your income/goods-producing assets were (stated in “capita” – nominal (imaginary) “heads” of people living in your province and owning the same kinds/classes/amount of things you own. A very flexible system.

    The Romans were a rational people, helpless (like the Germans) to NOT solve any problem set before them in engineering – they were obsessed in solving it and solving it well. If you asked a Roman to explain the difference between a Roman farmer and (let’s say) a barbarian farmer outside of the empire, it would be the invisible net of law, and the invisible structure and order of society surrounding their daily lives that they would say set them apart as civilized men. They probably would NOT say the difference was that Romans were more prosperous, or healthier, or smarter (which is what probably a US citizen would say was the distinguishing characteristics of the 1st world versus the 3rd world). Romans lived under law, barbarians didn’t. Tax (Tributes, Indictions, Lustrals) were an intrinsic part of the law, and therefor just one more wonderful part of being truly Roman.

    Unfortunately, the science of Economics was centuries (and a few HUGE paradigm shifts ) off in the future. The engine that drove the Antique economy was small, numerous, pride-motivated individuals/groups competing in small markets, adding up to a huge market that was efficient, flexible, and self-motivated. The problem with success is that it succeeds more and more, and eventually chokes itself on its own remarkable achievements. The Roman economy consolidated, monopolized, and destroyed its efficiency, flexibility, and motivation, to the point that when the West was conquered in the 400’s, most (former) Roman citizens were better off under the light hand of barbarian kings than under the absolute heavy hand of imperial protection/administration.

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