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Research Papers

Paper: How taxes led to the rise of serfdom in ancient Rome

September 6, 2017
Photo of Roman columns by Joshua Rodriguez on Unsplash

A recent paper by CUNY economics professor Morris Silver looks at how tax considerations evolved into a form a serfdom in ancient Rome.

Although Silver writes about tax systems that are thousands of years removed from our own, many of the systems (and the resulting human responses) should be very familiar to modern audiences.

Here’s the paper’s abstract:

“Legal codes and other documents of the late Roman Empire reveal a system, the colonate, which resembles serfdom in the Middle Ages.

Farmers (coloni) had their (head and land) taxes paid by estate owners in whose census rolls they were registered. If the land changed ownership coloni were entitled to stay and were registered in the tax roll of the new owner. However, coloni and their offspring lacked the right to migrate.

The paper argues that the pristine or original form of the colonate is a voluntary contractual arrangement among free farmers, estate owners, and the imperial Fiscus which acquired a public law dimension because it required a change in the personal status of the farmer. By means of this serfdom contract the contractors expected to share in the aggregate gains from reducing tax-collection costs and from stabilizing tax revenues.

The paper goes on to suggest that a secondary or derived form of the serfdom contract probably emerged in response to the Roman state’s interventions in credit markets. The paper next considers the implications of the colonate for economic efficiency and concludes with some observations on the reasons for changes over time in its importance.”

Full paper: Morris Silver, “Serfdom by Contract in the Late Roman Empire,” SSRN, Aug. 29, 2017.

Photo: Joshua Rodriguez.

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