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Impearls: CotRCS: Municipal revenues and expenditure

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Earthdate 2007-10-13

Municipal revenues and expenditure   by G. H. Stevenson

It is clear that no poor man could aspire to a magistracy or to membership of a local senate.  Even at Urso, where at first at least the standard of wealth cannot have been high, magistrates had to contribute 2,000 sesterces to the cost of public shows, and more was probably expected of them elsewhere.  Though Pompey, when he drafted the Lex Provinciae of Bithynia, had enacted that no entrance fees were to be paid by decurions, by the time of Trajan the custom had grown up of expecting them to pay considerable sums on their election.  At Comum a decurio had to possess 100,000 sesterces, a quarter of the equestrian census, but the sum required was probably lower in the provinces.  Municipal magistrates do not seem to have received any salaries, and it is unlikely that a man could be a decurion unless he belonged to the leisured class.

In a letter addressed by Hadrian to the magistrates and council of Ephesus asking that a friend should be admitted to the municipal senate he mentions not only the payment in money which was required of new members, but the docimasia to which a candidate had to submit.  Not only were certain age limits fixed, but certain qualifications other than wealth were required.  Probably in the provinces, as certainly in Italy, men who had practised degrading occupations were excluded from office.  Free birth was normally essential, though freedmen found some compensation in membership of a corporation called the ordo of Augustales, which spread from Italy to the western provinces.  It was vaguely associated with the worship of the emperors, and consisted mainly of freedmen, who were granted certain insignia and privileges, in return for which they were expected to put some of their wealth at the disposal of the community.

The prejudice against direct taxation characteristic of antiquity existed in provincial cities, and there is no evidence that regular “rates” were paid by their inhabitants, though more was done for them by the municipal authorities than was the case in England till fairly recent times.  It is clear that the cities possessed considerable sources of revenue.  In Bithynia under Trajan they had so much spare money at their disposal that Pliny was led to suggest that the decurions might be forced to take it on loan, whether they wished to do so or not, a proposal for which he received a snub from the emperor.  The main source of municipal revenue was land, the occupiers of which paid rent to the community.  Some of this land was not in the immediate neighbourhood, and Italian cities might even own land in the provinces.  Less important were fines, monopolies, and the fees paid by magistrates and decurions, the last of which were quite an important item in the budget.  Pliny mentions a Bithynian city which devoted the money derived from newly-appointed decurions to the erection of a public bath on an unsuitable site.  There is some evidence for a water-rate paid by those at least who made an unusually large use of the supply.  To what extent money was raised by octroi dues is doubtful, and the elaborate tariff imposed by Palmyra on goods entering its territory was probably abnormal.  The portoria were imperial taxes levied at the frontiers of provinces.

On the side of expenditure the cost of administration must have been a small item, as the officials were unpaid and menial work was performed by public slaves.  Even the cost of the public games was defrayed to a large extent by the magistrates and by public benefactors.  Pliny’s letters to Trajan show that enormous sums were spent on buildings, often very wastefully.  At Nicomedia three million sesterces had been expended on an aqueduct which had to be abandoned, and Nicæa had spent ten millions on an unsatisfactory theatre.  We need not assume, however, that such waste of money was typical.  Enough remains of Roman provincial towns to-day to show that public buildings were often of admirable construction.  The city authorities considered themselves bound to provide an adequate water-supply and facilities for bathing which can only be paralleled in quite modern times.  {Footnote:  Plin., Ep. IV, 13, suggests that schoolmasters were sometimes paid by the city authorities, but there is no evidence that this was often done.}

The generosity of private individuals did much to assist the finances of Roman cities, and hundreds of inscriptions record gifts for such purposes as the erection and repair of halls, theatres, baths, and aqueducts.  In the early days of the Principate these gifts seem to have been mainly voluntary, though the donors may have been influenced by thoughts of the statues and votes of thanks which they frequently received from grateful communities.  The generosity of Pliny the Younger to his native city of Comum, parallels to which may be found in the provinces, were inspired primarily by loyalty and affection.  But there is good reason to think that from the second century a.d. at least these gifts were not so spontaneous as the inscriptions suggest.  Men who held certain official positions or who were obviously wealthy were expected to perform definite munera, which could scarcely be distinguished from honores.

In the east ever since the great days of Athens the “liturgies” imposed on wealthy individuals as a kind of surtax had formed a regular part of the municipal revenue.  Though these “liturgies” or munera were not such a heavy burden as they became later, it is probable that even before the age of the Antonines there was some unwillingness to enter the governing class in municipal towns because of the financial demands which such membership involved.  Even the charter of Malaca, which belongs to the reign of Domitian, makes provision for a shortage of candidates for municipal magistracies, and Pliny’s letters from Bithynia show that in that province some entered the city-councils against their will.  How far this tendency had gone in the first two centuries a.d. it is difficult to say.  It was not till later that exemption from the burdens of the decurionate was regarded as the highest favour which a man could receive, and so long as the municipal system was allowed to function freely there was probably no great difficulty in finding men able and willing to undertake the duties and expenses which it involved.

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