In the earliest days of the Republic Rome’s taxes were quite modest, and were not direct, but were a property tax or a wealth tax on all forms of property, including land, houses, slaves, animals, money and personal effects. The basic rate was just 1% and sometimes it would occasionally rise to 3%. This was to fund the pay for the army during war. The tax would often be rebated to the people out of the spoils of war. It was levied directly upon individuals, which required the government to conduct a census.
We have the Biblical account in Luke 2.1-5 where it reads that Caesar Augustus (27BC-14AD) decreed that the Roman Empire should be taxed and that everyone had to return to his own city to pay taxes. So Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem and there Jesus was born. In Egypt, we know that there was a 14 year cycle to the census from the time of Augustus. The inhabitants of Egypt were required to submit a declaration to local authorities containing the names, ages, and other identifying information of all co-inhabitants. Indeed, many declarations have survived on papyrus. There are a consistent run of documents showing every census between 33/34AD and 257/258AD, with evidence that this cycle extends back to 19/20AD at the very least.
Direct taxation was impossible in the Roman Empire so there was no income tax. Property taxes were more efficient and could be administered by census. Income taxes were not possible simply because there was not such mechanism at that point in time. Local communities would decide for themselves how to divide up the tax burden among their citizens. There were the hated Tax Farmers who would pay the tax to the state for a region and then they had the right to collect taxes. States today have taken past-due taxes and sold them to modern Tax Farmers to collect. Britain did that selling the student loans for pennies and the Tax Farmers collect and chase students. The Romans would sell the right to collect taxes to the highest bidder and how they collected the tax was not really the concern of the state. They also had the responsibility of converting provincial taxes, which were often collected in-kind taking property be it grain or animals, and then they would convert those assets into coin to pay the state. The Tax Farmers had to provide sufficient revenues to repay their advance to the state plus enough to cover the opportunity cost of the funds, the transactions cost of converting collections into cash, and the remainder was their profit. In fact, tax farming was quite profitable and
was a major investment vehicle for wealthy citizens of Rome.
Augustus ended tax farming that had dominated the Republican days due to complaints from the provinces of exploitation. The provinces were becoming deeply indebted. Cicero tells us that Brutus saw no problem exploiting others for profit. Brutus was a Tax Farmer and bid for the governorship of Cyprus. It was during this time period that Brutus enriched himself by also skimming taxes and then lent money to Ariobarzanes I (96-63BC) of Cappadocia (modern day Turkey) at 40%, well above the legal lending rate, which was confirmed by Cicero’s documents on Brutus.
The Augustinian tax system was far less progressive than the Republic. The shift moved to a flat tax type of assessment which was based on wealth and population. Tax Farmers had limited times to collect taxes, so they tended to extort the rich for that was easier than converting pigs and chickens from the poor. The Augustinian tax system greatly reduced the “progressivity” that is indicative in an income tax today. The Augustus flat tax was thus indexed so to speak to growth in taxable capacity where communities were only liable for a fixed payment. Thus any increase in income accrued entirely to the people as a whole and did not have to be shared with Rome. Individuals knew in advance the exact amount of their tax bill and that any income over and above that amount was entirely theirs. This tax system promoted economic growth rather than the exploitative system of the Republic. Indeed, in the civil war the people supported Julius Caesar because of the burden of taxes and the exploitation of Tax Farmers.
The flat tax of Augustus created the biggest economic boom in Roman history. Augustus once said “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Indeed, Augustus commissioned several large marble structures, some of which took 40 years to complete. There was evidence that massive marble blocks were constantly being moved through the city, causing congestion in the streets. Marble-paved public spaces began to appear where marble was previously reserved for sacred temples and houses of the elite. The flat tax system really did create the economic boom as people turned to peace and business – Pax Romano.
Of course, why would we ever consult history. That’s boring. After all, things are different – right? The benefit of the Roman Empire was also free trade and freedom of religion until the late 3rd century AD when the Christian Persecutions really took place under Diocletian (284-305AD). As taxation rose, the Roman Empire declined. The Roman Emperor Hadrian when he took the throne forgave back taxes and created an economic boom.