Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Addenda: The Provinces

This is the second and (in theory) last addendum to our series on Roman civic governance (I, II, IIIa, IIIb, IIIc, IV, V, A1). Having discussed how Rome handles those parts of Italy it controls but which were not part of the Roman Republic itself, we now look at how the Romans govern their overseas provinces. When Rome first expands overseas in 264, they opt not to continue replicating the socii-system as they go, but rather through a gradual and ad hoc process, develop a separate system of governance-by-magistrate for these provinciae or ‘provinces,’ though as we’ll see the exact meaning of this word changes over time as well.

While the Romans mostly improvise this system for just a handful of provinces – most of the basic patterns of Roman provincial governance develop in just the first four provinces1 – that system becomes the customary way Roman magistrates and promagistrates handled the overseas provinces they were assigned to. Consequently, it was replicated over and over again through Rome’s steadily expanding empire. By the time the Republic collapses into the Empire, Rome will have not four provinces but fourteen; by the end of the reign of Augustus, as the Roman Empire largely took the borders it would mostly hold for the next for centuries, there were just under thirty provinces. Yet the way Rome will govern these provinces largely continued to hold to model established in the Republic, at least through to the Severan Dyansty (193-225 AD), if not further.

As a result, the improvised system the Romans developed for those first four provinces would end up being how the vast majority of people in the Roman empire would experience Roman governance.

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From the Ancient World Mapping Center, Rome’s provinces in 60 BC; this map (and the one at the end of this article) also appear in Boatwright, Gargola, Lenski and Talbert, The Romans: From Village to Empire (2011).

Acquiring Provinces

Much like what we generally suppose about the socii-alliance system, the Roman system of provincial governance emerged as a set of ad hoc practices which eventually hardened into a coherent system of administration. Unlike the development of the socii-alliance system, the development of provincial administration happens firmly in the historical period where our sources allow us to observe it fairly clearly, so we can document the stages of its development. I should note here in this argument I am quite reliant on F.K. Drogula’s Commanders and Command in the Roman Republic and Early Empire (2015) which works over these points in great detail.2

The first Roman province acquired was Sicily, which to the Romans (and indeed, to many Italians today) was not part of Italy proper, but its own distinct geographic and cultural space. The war over Sicily, the First Punic War (with Carthage) started in 264 and ended in 241, leaving Rome in control of the whole island. Extending the socii-system over the island would have posed immense difficulties and the Romans do not attempt it. For one, whereas the socii of Italy could walk to their musters, Sicilians would have to sail. But perhaps even more pressing was that while Italy had undergone a long process of cultural and institutional convergence which left the various Italic peoples as good fits for the Roman military system, Sicily was a quite different place. Roman intervention in Sicily started in 264; before that the Romans had only minimal involvement in the island, whose affairs were instead defined by conflicts between the Carthage and the Greek colonies, Syracuse in particular.

Via Wikipedia, the extent of the Roman Republic in 218, showing the two provinces at the time, Sicily and Corsica et Sardinia.

The ingredients for the socii system were thus missing, if the Romans ever even thought of employing the system (we have no evidence they did): the large population of decently affluent freeholding farmers who could fight as heavy infantry in the Roman style and thus make up the contributions wasn’t there. At the same time, even during the First Punic War, the Romans clearly recognized that Sicily had other things to offer, namely grain. Indeed, when Syracuse surrenders in the opening days of the First Punic War (Heiro II, its tyrant, having found himself suddenly wildly in over his head), the main Roman concern is that Syracuse provide provisions for the army in their operations against the Carthaginian holdings in the West of the island (Polyb. 1.18). So the deal was struck: the Romans would leave Heiro in place and in exchange, he paid an indemnity and supplied their armies with grain.

And it is worth stopping at this point to note a few key features of Rome’s first provinces (which will in turn set the mold for later ones. These provinces do not begin as administration divisions, but as military theaters. Indeed, the Latin word for ‘province,’ provincia has a root meaning which is ‘assignment, office, duty’ – not a region or a place. The idea started as a task or sphere of activity within which a magistrate’s imperium (or other powers, for magistrates without imperium) functioned, so a provincia could be a specific war or domestic problem, assigned by the Senate to a particular magistrate. You might have a provincia of fighting the Samnites, or administering the courts in Rome, or generally dealing with all of the problems ‘over there’ (wherever ‘there’ might be) and so on. Consequently what will be Roman administrative norms emerge initially out of military necessity in what were active combat zones.

But holding the island would require some kind of permanent military force there, so each year after active hostilities ended, Rome dispatched a magistrate – typically a praetor – with the job of commanding a small residual Roman force on Sicily, as a direct continuation of the larger-scale military operations on the island during the First Punic War (264-241). That praetor naturally had the job both of keeping an eye on Syracuse (which remained, for the moment, a Roman treaty ally, though not one of the socii) and collecting the tribute. We’ll talk in a moment about how ad hoc military contributions ended up formalized as the Roman provincial tax system, but we ought to assume that’s happening here as well.

In 238, Rome took advantage of Carthaginian distraction (they were at war with their own mercenaries and subjects in North Africa) to seize Corsica and Sardinia. These required fewer troops and so generally got a single commander and thus end up as a single provincia (still understood as an assignment, later to be a province), Corsica et Sardinia. In 218, Rome and Carthage go to war anew and Rome sends armies into Spain to capture Carthage’s territory there. The area is large enough that command is eventually split between the north-eastern coastal area and the southern area, which become Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior (Nearer and Further Spain). The Romans have moved out the Carthaginians there by 205 and by 197 the ad hoc military command has transitioned into an effectively permanent provincial one, again usually assigned to praetors.

Via Wikipedia, a map of the two Spains. This provincial division would in turn be revised by Augustus late in the first century into a three-province system covering the whole of the Iberian peninsula.

And the rest of the provinces follow, bit by bit, though after a long pause. Macedonia in 147, absorbed after the Fourth Macedonian War (150-148), and the province of Africa in 146 after the Third Punic War. That fifty-year pause from 197 to 147 sees the Roman ‘standard operating procedures’ in the provinces become codified into strong norms that influence how later provinces are governed. Asia is incorporated as a province in 133 after being bequeathed to Rome by its last king, Attalus III, who doubtless expected the Romans to pick a successor, but politics in Rome made its annexation convenient, so annexed it was. Then Gallia Narbonesis in 120, followed by a slew of eastern provinces in the 60s, most a result of Pompey’s campaigns: Creta et Cyrenae (Crete and Cyrenaica), Bithynia et Pontus, Syria and Cilicia. Exactly when Cisalpine Gaul became a regular province is unclear, but the Romans had control of it from the 220s onward, with a brief interruption after 216.

In each case, those neat ‘years of incorporation’ can be deceptive, because they typically come at the end of years – and in some cases decades – of regular military activity in the region. While Macedonia is regarded as ‘becoming a province’ in 147, Roman generals had been being assigned the provincia of Macedonia on-and-off since 200 and the start of the Second Macedonian War.3 Moreover, even after this point the province remained an active combat zone with its outward-facing borders ill-defined and offering Roman magistrates assigned there considerable latitude for offensive action, as Cicero can quip as late as 55 that the borders of Macedonia “were those of swords and javelins” (Cic. In Pisonem 38), which is to say, they projected as far as the Roman army could take them.

Via Wikipedia, a map of Roman territory at c. 55 BC. Note that at this point, Greece (later to be the province of Achaea) was not yet a province, though it was very much under Roman influence, so the map is somewhat deceptive in that regard.

That isn’t to say these geographic distinctions are entirely informal, though. Boundaries between one provincia and the next were important to establish, since they delineated the bounds of a magistrate’s authority. The first such intentional delineation comes in 197, when the Senate dispatches to the praetors with orders to establish a geographic division between their provinces (Livy 32.28.11). In subsequent provinces, when they made the transition from being areas of active conquest to permanent geographic assignments, we see commissions of Senators dispatched to define the borders of the permanent province. We may note that it is only the borders between the two Roman provinciae that are being established here: when thinking about the boundaries of a province, it is useful to image hard boundaries between provinces and on coasts, but far looser boundaries inland as a Roman magistrate might well press their authority as far as, to borrow Cicero, “swords and javelins” might reach.

So to pull all of this together, the third and second century see a steadily evolution in the Roman conception of what a provincia was. At first, a provincia was a temporary assignment, which came into existence when assigned and ceased to exist when completed. As the Romans decide to permanently garrison their overseas possessions, that creates permanent provinciae (still assignments), which then by necessity as we move into the second century come to be geographically defined to establish a boundary for the magistrate’s imperium. At the same time, what the magistrate is doing is changing as these provinciae increasingly transition from being active war zones (though they often have militarily active frontiers) to primarily administrative jobs governing territory that has been conquered and subdued for some time.

Roman Taxes in the Provinces

Whereas the Romans drew soldiers from the socii, on whom they imposed no taxes or tribute, in the provinces, the Roman Republic did impose taxes or what we may more correctly call tribute. This tribute was generally collected as money, though it could also be collected ‘in kind’ as bulk staples, generally grain for the armies.

This tribute itself seems to have evolved from the logistics needs of the army – remember that Roman ‘governors’ are in fact just magistrates with imperium sent to a provincia with an army: these all begin as military commands. We can see this evolution rather clearly in Nearer Spain, but it probably proceeded similarly elsewhere. Now as you will recall, Roman military operations in that province begin early in 218 and continued through the war. Roman armies will have needed to gain supplies locally, through a mix of foraging and demanding contributions of grain from the communities in the areas they controlled. That ad hoc system of contributions continued to the establishment of permanent provinciae in 197. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (the elder, cos. 177, 163; father of the famous Tiberius Gracchus) serves as the commander in Nearer Spain in 179 and 178 pro consule and during that time seems to have codified these ad hoc contributions into a regular system of tribute (App. Hisp. 43). This seems to be similar to the way that Sicilian contributions of grain to Roman armies in the two Punic Wars develop into a taxation system.

In other cases, the Romans effectively inherited an existing taxation system (for instance, in the province of Asia and arguably conquered parts of Carthaginian Sicily). In that case, generally speaking, the Romans simply redirected those royal or imperial taxes to the Roman treasury (the aerarium Saturni) without making major underlying changes. Roman taxes thus differed substantially from one province to the next or indeed between communities within provinces. However there were a fairly standard set of taxes that appear frequently. The largest tax was a tax on agricultural production, which the Romans called tributum; a tithe (10%) seems to have been fairly normal. Then there were customs duties on the import or export of goods to other provinces or outside of Roman controlled territory, which the Romans called portoria; rates varied, but were generally low (5% in Sicily, for instance). Finally, the Roman state might come directly to control certain economic ventures, especially mines, but also previously royal lands which might be rented out, that sort of thing. The Romans called revenue from these sources vectigalia and these revenues tended to be ‘farmed out’ (see below) rather than administered directly.

The administration of taxes is a bit more complex. Each province is being assigned two officials: a magistrate with imperium (praetor, consul, propraetor or proconsul) and a quaestor (or proquaestor). The quaestor’s job is to handle the finances of the army and its supplies, which must have included local contributions, used first to pay the armies own expenses and then the remainder sent back to Rome. But because the quaestor operated under the imperium of the magistrate, the imperium-holding magistrate also has a responsibility to make sure the taxes are collected, which will matter in a moment.

In practice, neither of these officials have the administrative support necessary to directly collect taxes from individual farmers or individual ports (for tariffs on imported and exported goods, a common form of tax in the Roman world called portoria). Here instead of developing such a bureaucracy, the Romans relied on two expedients: devolution and tax farming. In the former, sometimes taxes might be assessed not on individuals, but on whole communities. Thus, Tiberius Gracchus above, when codifying the tribute in Spain, isn’t setting of a bureaucracy, but negotiating a series of treaties with the subject tribes of his provincia, specifying what each tribute is liable to contribute each year. So long as the proper amount was delivered – perhaps with a few extra ‘gifts’ (read: bribes) for the magistrates – no one very much cared how it was collected. In this case, local communities were left to make their own arrangements.

For taxes that needed to be directly administered – like those aforementioned port dues – the Romans used a system of ‘tax farming,’ essentially privatizing tax collection. Every five years when the censors were elected, one of their jobs would be to let out public contracts; of old, those were for things like road maintenance and so on. But they would also, as Rome’s empire expanded, let out contracts on taxes. The form of these contracts was that the public contractor (publicanus, almost always in its plural, publicani) would put a bid of the estimated five-year tax revenue of the province in question. The winning bid – whichever was highest – would then put up property as surety equal in value to the bid and then have to deliver annually one fifth of the bid each year until the whole amount was discharged. Of course then any amount collected above the value of the bid was profit which the publicani – the tax farmers – could keep. In turn, they were expected to run the entire complex apparatus of tax collection.

Now as you might imagine, five years of tax income for an entire province might be an enormous amount of money, requiring a tremendous amount of property be put up as surety. In order to manage that, aspiring publicani would band together into companies called societates (sing. societas) to pool enough wealth together to bid on the contracts. These weren’t quite joint-stock corporations, in part because Roman law doesn’t recognize corporate persons, but to some degree liability was limited because the societas only risked the property put up as surety. That said, having such a societas go bankrupt could be absolutely ruinous to the investors and indeed the prospect of one such societas going bankrupt (it is the societas of tax farmers for the vectigalia of the province of Asia, which would have been a massive venture) is a major motivator of the political tensions leading up to Julius Caesar’s election as consul in 59.

The apparatus of tax collection managed by these tax farmers could be vast. We actually have most of the law governing the collection of portoria in the province of Asia and it details dozens of required tax collection points in both ports (49 total are listed in the inscription) and overland crossings from one province to the next.4 From our evidence in Egypt, we know that the staff of these posts would have included a slew of employees of the societas, including overseers (vilicus), deputies (vicarii), collectors (portitores), gate-keepers, inspectors (scrutatores) and a bewildering array of clerks and accountants (tablurarii, arkarii, librarii, commentarienses, dispensatores) – because this process generates both written records for the company and receipts for the merchants paying their taxes – and armed ‘private security’ of various types. Some of these would have probably been free workers being paid, but many were slaves. We also know that by Cicero’s day, one might also use the companies of tax farmers to send letters back to Rome, as the Romans had no public postal system but the companies had to be regularly moving money and records between Rome and the provinces.

As a result, these could be absolutely massive companies with a large number of extremely wealthy Romans financing the whole thing at the top (senators generally only as silent and secret investors, since a man of senatorial dignity wasn’t supposed to sully himself with this kind of activity), a substantial number of Roman and Italian businessmen working as their agents in the province in questions, who in turn employed large numbers of local agents to actually manage the day-to-day taxation. In turn, the revenues that flowed through these provinces could be absolutely massive. According to Plutarch, prior to Pompey’s conquest, Roman revenues were ’50 million drachma,’ which we should probably understand as ~50 million denarii (=200,000,000HS). For comparison, the annual pay of a Roman soldier in the Middle Republic was probably three asses a day or just short of 450HS a year (minus food).5 So these are absolutely massive flows of money.

Of course that created some odd incentives. Naturally managing those huge flows of money, successful publicani could become extremely rich. On the other hand, they are incentivized to extract as much tax revenue as possible. There is a reason that ‘tax collector’ in the New Testament implies ‘the worst sort of sinner,’ because these fellows tended to squeeze every last drop they could get out of the provincials and as a result were profoundly disliked by them. Publicani, because they had the financial resources, might also essentially run banking on the side too; can’t pay your taxes? Well they can make you a loan on your taxes, at an exorbitant rate of interest.

Now the publcani weren’t supposed to have just free rein to exploit the provinces however they liked; they were supposed to collect taxes according to the laws and customary arrangements. In practice, the person who was in theory supposed to make sure the publicani didn’t exceed their remit was, again, the magistrate or promagistrate with imperium in the province. In the end it was the magistrate’s job to ensure that taxes were collected smoothly and lawfully, by whatever means. And that in turn meant it was his job too to ensure that the province was orderly enough to allow for the collection of those taxes and all of this creates the pressure for administration that leads to Roman generals becoming de facto governors and administrators. Which leads us neatly to:

The Job of a Roman Governor

As you may have grasped, essentially all legal Roman authority in a provincia compresses down to a single point and that point is the Roman governor, the magistrate or promagistrate with imperium who is in charge of the province. Ostensibly, because the provinces are militae, not domi and the governor has imperium, his power is effectively absolute and indeed being a governor in a province was about as close as a Roman aristocrat could get to the experience of being king. Nevertheless, the actual activities of Roman governors were limited by the lack of a bureaucracy, Roman customs regarding what was expected of governors and the threat of prosecution back in Rome for misconduct when a governor’s term ended.

Roman governance is extremely thin on the ground in the provinces. That’s not to say governors had no administrative support. Like any Roman magistrate or promagistrate, they were assigned apparatores, including lictors, messengers, heralds and scribes, to handle a lot of the booking and administrivia their job entailed, although we should understand that this isn’t some huge group, but perhaps a dozen or so officials. Added to this, Roman governors were, almost definitionally, Roman aristocrats and so brought their own entourages with them, including household slaves, freedmen acting as agents and so on; that probably supplemented the administrative capabilities around the governor. Finally, governors might also bring friends, business associates and so on with them. Still, all told, you should be thinking about a governor’s encourage as more like 50 people than 500.

Apart from this, the governor really only had access to the Roman army in his province. For provinces without an active military campaign, this might often consist of only one or perhaps two legions, often under-strength and frequently dispersed to some degree through the province guarding various key locations and in some cases engaged in minimal policing duties (though many of those jobs would instead be handled by local communities).

Consequently, the day-to-day implementation of law and order, the running of local courts, the administration of markets, the collection of taxes and so on – this was all handled by local communities, with the exception of those taxes that were handled by the publicani. So the governor’s administrative role was not managing lots of individual bureaucracies, but troubleshooting problems between these communities (often cities with their territory) and the publicani.

And you can see how naturally a Roman governor would become a sort of court of last resort if two communities had a dispute with each other, or there was an issue with the taxes. He has imperium and so has the legal power to deliver judgement and in any case his career through the offices he’s held and his own experience being a patronus resolving disputes between his clientes have all conditioned him to be comfortable delivering judgments and resolving disputes. To this, one additional layer was added: the Romans largely didn’t bother with the administration of local justice, but they became concerned if crimes carried exile or death – that is, any sort of capital punishment. The concern here seems to be the potential for the courts to be used to destroy pro-Roman political factions within communities, but in any case, provincial governors were required to ‘sign off’ on any capital charges. Sometimes this was a rubber-stamp, but in some cases the governor would themselves hold a hearing or trial.

Rather than doing all of this in one place Roman governors generally moved through their provinces. We see this practice very clearly in Cicero’s day in his letters, but it seems to have been standard from the beginning and remain standard well into the empire. By Cicero’s day, the ‘route’ the governor would take through the province was customary and essentially formalized, but it must have been ad hoc in the early days. In any case, what a governor aimed to do – again, assuming there was no major campaign to manage – was to enter their province at the start of their year in office and begin moving through the major settlements of the province in turn. If you did it right, you returned back around to where you started right as the year was ending and, assuming your command wasn’t prorogued another year, hopped on the boat back to Rome.

In each settlement, the local community would be required to host the Roman governor. Julius Caesar passed legislation in 59 BC placing limits on exactly how much transiting governors could demand of their hosts, but it seems to have been fairly normal in practice for Roman governors to expect extravagant ‘gifts’ and expensive lodging. Moreover, some governors or their aids seem to have gotten into the habit of collecting the ‘allowance’ at every town they passed through, even if they didn’t stop. Nevertheless at major towns, the governor would stop for a few days, perhaps a week or two at most. During that stop, they would meet with community leaders, make sure the taxes were being delivered to the quaestor or publicani as required and resolve any legal disputes brought to them, including the aformentioned capital cases. Because the route was fairly standard and smaller settlements might not warrant a visit, you could, if you had a dispute for the governor, anticipate their route and meet them at one of these stops and present your case there.

It seems that very often these disputes involved taxes and the publicani who had farmed the right to collect them, with the local communities naturally complaining that the publicani were collecting more than they were owed, while the publicani wanted the governor to use his legal and military power to compel collection. A Roman governor might have a fine line to walk here: on the one hand the publicani were, almost definitionally, wealthy, politically connected Roman voters. On the other hand, letting the publicani run wild (often in exchange for them leaving some of the profits in the governor’s pockets) created a legal risk in Rome, especially after the establishment of the quaestio de repetundis – a permanent court over official corruption – established in 149 BC by the Lex Calpurnia.

Still it is clear that even following the rules a Roman governor could become fantastically wealthy exploiting their provinces. By all accounts, Cicero – who governed Cilicia in 51 BC – was a model Roman governor who kept to his legal obligations, refusing all illegal bribes and never took more than the law allowed (according to his letter, he took quite a bit less). Yet Cicero reports (ad Att. 11.1.2) to taking 2.2 million sesterces (550,000 denarii) out of Cilicia. If that is what a good and clean governor could profit from a year in a relatively small and poor province, one can only imagine what a corrupt governor in charge of a wealthy province could do.

Of course on top of all of this, the Roman governor was also the Roman military commander in the province, and so their route through the province might be dictated by the needs of military activity. Cicero, for instance, while in Cilicia engages in some relatively small desultory actions against the Pindenissitae, who had evidently been engaged in brigandage in the province (Ad. Att. 5.20) and as winter comes he has to consider military positioning against the possibility of a Parthian invasion (which never comes, to his great relief). But of course in more militarily active provinces – or just provinces with larger armies and greater options for military glory (to the political benefit of the governor) – matters of governance might take a back seat to military necessity, because the governor and the general were the same man. And as far as the Romans were concerned, that was as it should be.

Conclusion: Character of Roman Provincial Governance

With all that said, it is worth stepping back and discussing briefly the character of the sort of governance this ad hoc system creates. And the first thing to note is how minimal it all is. There is no legion of Roman bureaucrats swarming over the countryside. For the most part, so long as the taxes are collected, Roman governors were content to let local communities be. Indeed, the attitude we get from the sources we have is that Roman governors greeted local disputes and problems not as opportunities to make their mark but as annoyances that kept them from doing the things – like military activity, or personal enrichment – they might actually want to be doing.

For many provincials, the ‘face’ of Roman governance was instead the publicanus, the private-enterprise tax collection, and it is no surprise that in risings against the Romans – the ‘Asian Vespers‘ come to mind – Italian businessmen seem to have been prime targets. But even these tax collectors would have been relatively thin on the ground and focused on around economic activity. The Romans by and large did not interfere with the functioning of local courts or local laws or local customs or local religion.

Meanwhile, the administrative overhead costs of running all of this were relatively minimal beyond the military force necessary to retain control and even that was often fairly small in provinces that didn’t have active military theaters: often just a single, under-strength Roman legion. This leads to a trend where majority security problems, like the Sicilian Slave Revolts (135-132 and 104-100) or renewed major fighting in Spain (143-133) tend to start with some poor praetor and his small, under-strength army getting badly mauled by the sudden problem (with the result that a larger, consular army is then sent the next year). But it also means that Rome continues to run a relatively ‘lean’ government, with most of its revenues flowing back into military activity, well into the empire.

At the same time, this minimal approach doesn’t mean that Roman governance was kind. Roman governors, operating in the provinces – which were, again, militae, not domi – with imperium had very broad powers, including the ability to order summary executions and engage in military campaigns against local communities. And it is clear that quite a lot of Roman senators once in the provinces behaved quite badly. This was evidently compounded by the requests of the publicani; Cicero at one point notes a detachment of cavalry assigned by his predecessor (who, admittedly, is a political opponent) pillaging a community in order to force them to pay up on an overdue loan.

Roman efforts to curtail this sort of thing with the quaestio de repetundis are remarkable in that many empires might not have bothered very much to police how much governors could steal from provincials (so long as they didn’t steal from state revenues), but they were also not necessarily very effective. The juries of the repetundae courts, composed variably over the years of equites or senators, were famously reluctant to convict and usually only had limited penalties to impose. And as we’ve seen with Cicero, even a ‘ivory soap’ sort of politician, obeying all the laws, could pull huge sums out of their province, entirely legally. So there is a paradox that one the one hand the Romans seem to have wanted ‘good governance’ in their provinces more than most tributary empires, but we ought not overstretch this to assume they always got it.

Nevertheless, the system clearly worked. The relatively low burdens it places on local communities and the relatively minimal interference in local affairs meant that revolts against the Romans were comparatively rare, while the tax money flowed into Italy, both powering the first century Roman war machine and making the Roman elite fantastically wealthy. As time marches into the imperial period, the Romans increasingly begin thinking of the provinces as Roman, rather than merely areas of conquest and exploitation and the number of Roman citizens there expands, which leads to new governance challenges, but that’s a topic for another day.

From the Ancient World Mapping Center, a detailed map of the Roman provinces in c. 170 AD, at the rough maximum extent of the Roman Empire.
  1. Sicily, Corsica et Sardinia, Nearer Spain and Further Spain, gained in the period from 241 to 197 and Rome’s only provinces until the addition of Macedonia in 147.
  2. It is a readable but quite dry volume; very good at what it does but clearly pitched at a specialist audience.
  3. The provincial assignments for the First Macedonian War in Livy, at least, usually specify Greece or Illyria as the area of activity, rather than Macedonia proper, though I admit I haven’t done a detailed check to see if any of them specifies Macedonia.
  4. On this, see Cottier, Crawford, Crowther, Ferrary, Levick, Salomies and Worrle, eds., The Customs Law of Asia (2008).
  5. In the late Republic, this is raised for a far more reasonable 225 denarii (=900HS).

84 thoughts on “Collections: How to Roman Republic 101, Addenda: The Provinces

  1. I know the answer is ultimately ‘badly’, but how did the dilectus, mass conscription model work out in these province assignments? How was a given legion’s term of service decided? How did the Romans rotate out assignments when one ended, because I’m assuming they didn’t just leave the places unguarded. I know one of the things the senate did was try to make sure that someone good for the job was assigned to a particular province, but did they do the same thing with specific legions, or were they all viewed as interchangeable?

    1. If I recall correctly, they actually didn’t raise legions from the provinces until after the transition from conscription to a long-service professional force. So the answer might actually be “they didn’t”

      1. Pardon me if I wasn’t clear. I didn’t mean to imply that they were raising forces in the provinces. I meant that you had say a Praetor or a Propraetor running things in a province. And he’s got a legion with him to help enforce his decrees. Does that legion disband when his term of office is up? If it’s a Praetor and he becomes a Propraetor, does that extend his legion? Did the same legions stay in place through multiple appointed officers? When their term of service was up, what sorts of arrangements were made to get them home? Did the Senate (or any other government official) view Italian raised legions as interchangeable, or was it “hey, these guys are good at dealing with the problems we’re likely to face over in province X, so let’s send them”?

        1. I believe the legions typically served multiple years in the provinces. (This is why for instance there were already two veteran legions available for Caesar to use when he arrived in Further Spain as a propraetor, and four veteran legions available to him when he arrived in Transalpine Gaul as proconsul.) Legions stationed in the provinces for several years would naturally weaken over time as they lost men to disease, desertion, and fighting, so newly appointed governors would sometimes bring some additional troops with them to the province to reinforce the legions stationed there. Likewise when a governor completed his time in the province and was returning to Rome he might take the soldiers who had completed their term of service back with him. (Which gave him a bodyguard for the return trip and a contingent of troops to march in his triumph if he happened to have earned one.)

        2. Legions were assigned to magistrates, not provinces, so presumably the legion disbands when the officer does, *however*, wherever possible legions had at least a core of experienced soldiers, since the liability for conscription wasn’t limited to a single tour od duty (so to speak)

          As for what arrangements were made to get them home, recall that you were supposed to disband your Legion before crossing back into Italy if you were a provincial governor, so presumably it varied, but I *presume* that it tended to be the case that legions tended to be disbanded either just before crossing back into Italy, or once on the boat back to Italy.

          1. I believe most of the legions did serve for multiple years in the provinces and thus might serve through several governors. Certainly when Caesar arrived in Further Spain to serve as propraetor there were already two veteran legions there waiting for him and similarly when Caesar took over the Gallic provinces as proconsul in 58 BC there were already four veteran legions in those provinces. (Similarly when Cicero become the proconsul of Cilicia and Bibulus the proconsul of Syria, they took over the existing legions that were already stationed in those provinces.)

            A newly assigned governor might bring additional legions to the province with him. (As examples of this Caesar recruited two new legions to supplement his four veteran legions when he took over the Gallic provinces and Crassus raised additional legions to supplement the existing garrison in Syria when he took over that province from Aulus Gabinius), but if the province doesn’t have an active war or rebellion happening then a newly assigned governor might just bring replacement troops to bolster the provinces’ existing legion(s). (Those legions would naturally weaken the longer they were in the provinces due to desertion, disease, combat, and enlistments expiring and thus would be in need of replacements). Peter Brunt’s book, Italian Manpower, suggests that Pompey did this in 55 BC when he was assigned the Spanish provinces with many of the new troops he raised that year being used to bolster the four existing legions that were already in the Spanish provinces. (Pompey did raise a new legion of troops that year as well, but he ended up loaning that legion to Caesar rather than sending it to Spain.)

            As for how the troops would return to Rome, sometimes the provincial governors would bring them back. (Per Brunt’s book again, when Pompey completed his eastern campaign, he brought eight of his twelve legions back with him to Italy while leaving the other four to garrison the new eastern conquests), but on other occasions a governor might just take the troops that had completed their tour of duty back with him. (Which would give the returning governor a bodyguard for his return trip as well as a contingent of troops to march in his triumph should he have earned one while in the province.)

    1. Yes. It’s originally an IIS with all three characters struck through, presumably for the two and a half asses the sestertius was worth (the II being two and the S for semi). The H stands in for a struck-through II.

      1. I am deeply disappointed, because until I went and looked it up, I truly believed that I was being told this coin was worth two and a half asses. Like donkeys. And both the questions and the jokes were coming thick and fast.

    2. Yes, Sestertius. Comes from it being IIS (2 in numerals, then s for semi) as it means 2 and a half.

  2. …hold for the next for centuries…

    I’m assuming the second “for” should be “four”. That’s in the second paragraph.

  3. Sounds like provincial governance could play a big role in how the Republic fell apart, following the “a big territory can’t contain ambitious people like a city state can.” Far less checks and balances for a provincial governor/commander, a chance for money and lots of soldiers, longer terms, etc. And the internal conflicts started up right as Roman expansion really ramped up. How common is this argument?

    (It doesn’t look like our author wants to get too into theories of why the Republic fell apart. Probably for good reason, a part of a blog post, even a complete post, isn’t a great place to write about a subject that’s very uncertain and somewhat complex to analyze. So no questions beyond “is this talked about.”.)

    1. The big provinces, plus professionalization of the army, giving you long term soldiers with little stake in the existing system (because they were proletarii armed by the state, with basically no vote even if they were in Rome to vote). Add to that those soldiers getting their retirement funds/lands from their general (though I’m not sure if that’s personal disbursement or him getting the Senate/assemblies to cough up), and there being perhaps far more active soldiers than real voters, and the republic looks doomed.

      1. This Marian-reforms-style professionalisation doesn’t happen. See Cadiou 2018. The soldiers never fight for lands (except as a pretext for money; see Keaveney 2008). Lands are given by the senate and people, not generals, and when the generals can’t make it happen their soldiers largely just go away.

    2. Except it wasn’t provincial commanders that got the republic in trouble. It was guys like pompey and caesar with big extra-cursus commands that stood outside the normal system. the problem was in rome.

      A big part of the problem, I think, was law Gracchus passed that fixed provincial assignments before the election. that meant that magistrates couldn’t haggle in the senate for the jobs they wanted, which created large incentives to go outside the normal system (and straight to the people) to get desirable commands, which short circuited around a lot of traditional restrictions and attitudes towards offices like the consulship.

      that, combined with the sheer amount of money in the eastern conquests (the cambridge history says that pompey came back with 2 years worth of revenue for the entire roman state, after paying his soldiers something like 10 years worth of wages) meant that any state would have a challenge to contain overmighty subjects. But then sulla goes and cuts the heart out of the system by murdering most of the senators, and, well, at that point it was just a matter of time before someone copied him.

  4. Well, the real problems here were the provinces which came with major military commands, large armies; especially when they were prorogued for multiple years under one governor. This generated the warlords, like Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, and this was the primary driver of constitutional government breaking down in the first century BC.

  5. IIUC, Sicily had large, Roman-owned agricultural estates from a fairly early date, which was a key bit of background for the two slave revolts there you briefly allude to. How did they fit into the taxation system? Or were they just entirely untaxed?

  6. Was it during Cicero’s action against the Pindenissitae that he was hailed as imperator?

    Generally, to get a feeling for provincial life in the Empire, I guess one can (besides the Gospels) read Josephus for the 1st century, and the Second Sophistic writers for the 2nd (and Pliny’s letters I suppose).

  7. Thanks for this description of tax farming; I’ve always been kind of baffled by how it functioned.

    My picture now is that some publicani were essentially legitimatized brigands with the backing of the Roman state, and so the only way to push back on them collecting more tax than they should was to appeal to the governor. To what extent were they overcollecting; do we know? A few percent on top of the legal amount? 50% of your harvest?

    To what extent would a rural population being taxed be able to pay their taxes in cash? I’m picturing rural Judean farmers, for instance, who have to pay the tributum but only have grain and not money.

    1. In the case of Sicily, Cicero’s In Verrum suggests the decumani (the local tax collectors) were taking 16% of the harvest to pass 10% along to the Roman administration, and it could be paid either in kind or in cash. That doesn’t directly address overcollecting, but gives at least some idea of what was expected to happen.

    2. I recall reading that there was a legion permanently stationed in Judea, possibly the most turbulent of all Roman provinciae, which naturally would have had to be fed, so perhaps contributions in kind were accepted.

      1. I mentioned Judean farmers in particular because I have some vague notion of how hated the publicani were there, but the question could be for anywhere.

  8. “If that is what a good and clean governor could profit from a year in a relatively small and poor province, one can only imagine what a corrupt governor in charge of a wealthy province could do.”

    Not ONLY imagine.
    Allegedly corrupt governor in charge of a wealthy province was Gaius Verres of Sicily.
    Cicero specifies the earnings of Verres. Twice.
    At very different sums. One of them was HS 100 millions, the other 40 millions.
    Plutarchos, in Cicero´s biography, discloses the final judgment. It was
    HS 3 millions. And this is described as the total due for repayment, which was supposed to be 3x the damages. Which means the actual damage Verres did was mere HS 1 million.

    Which of these was correct – HS 100 millions, HS 1 million or neither?

    1. The actual damage Verres did which was proven to have occurred and be gained illegally by the office investigating corruption that was famously really bad at convicting because it was staffed with people who did the same job as Verres in the past?

      Yeah that’s always going to be a lowball. That’s like saying ‘the police union only says maybe one person per decade got killed by police so we don’t have a police agression problem’. No, these offices have incentives to say “uh we can’t prove either way so we’ll stand by our man”

  9. Probably the 40 millions in the sense of “that’s how much Verres extracted” with the 1 million representing just the amount over what the Romans would tolerate. Or, to put it another way, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the official amount they owed the Governor was 30 millions, but that extraction of up to 39 millions was tolerated.

  10. Another solid entry! It’s surprising that the system worked, I would have expected a constant cycle of overtaxing/rebellion until the central government decided on firmer rules. But I guess the publicani figured out how to keep the extortion to just below that level.

    On a different topic, does anyone have an online resource on how to critically read Roman histories? I encounter a lot of people who take the most lurid and unlikely stories as being things that definitely happened because they’re right there in the original sources. How can an average person read a bit Livy or Suetonius or Cassius Dio or the Historia Augusta and have a rough idea how likely it is to have actually happened?

    1. The writers of the Cambridge Ancient History were quite critical of Roman historians. They did have their own biases, as do most of us (mea culpa), but that is still a good place to start. I think Moses Findley wrote a small book which I’ve not yet read, about evaluating past records.

    2. There’s A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography (2010), edited by John Marincola, or Greek and Roman Historiography (2011) by the same editor.

    3. Well, if you take way too much in the first year of a five-year term, there’ll be problems from that before the term is up, and if you wait until the last minute to start strip-mining, the locals will know they only need to hold out a little while until your replacement takes over.

  11. What, if any, relationship in etymology do the terms “provision” and “province” have?
    (And is it a false etymology to decompose “province” into pro and vinces – IE, “for victory”)

  12. The last sentence of the second paragraph under the heading The Job of a Roman Governor:
    Still, all told, you should be thinking about a governor’s encourage as more like 50 people than 500.
    ‘Encourage’ ?

    I would like to see a comparison between revolts in the Roman Empire and the Achaemenid Empire. It seems to me that the Persians get quite a lot of good press from some of the 20thC historians as benign overlords who protected all religions and presided over a peaceful multicultural society. The Egyptians seem to have revolted about once every generation, and welcomed Alexander, who was at pains to emphasize his reverence for Zeus-Amon. Xerxes returned to Asia after Salamis, not because he lost a battle, but because he had to suppress yet another revolt in another part of his empire.

  13. Ah, tax farming, the most “I can’t believe they did that” thing which keeps reoccurring. I mean, it’s an outright incentive to overcollect and you don’t get any extra state money out of them overcollecting. It’s less of a burden on the central government, but if the upthread 16% collection on a 10% base is right that’s 38% of tax revenues spent on the tax system. That is a lot of money you could use to pay civil servants to collect the taxes, and if these systems are wildly profitable that means the actual cost of running a tax system is a lot lower.

    Of course, at least for Rome setting that up would require a significant change in the structure of government to have a large-scale civil service.

    1. My impression is that tax-farming is usually ad-hoc stuff. “We don’t have the administrative capacity to collect but we need money *now*” And it’s no use thinking about the income you’re missing from hiring civil servants if you can’t afford to hire civil servants in the first place.

    2. Well yes, there’s a reason why tax farming tends to come up in situations where there’s a reason why they *can’t* collect the taxes directly and tends to get abandoned sharpish when they *could* (Indeed, IIRC towards the end of the Roman Empire, the Romans were able to make the tax farmers public officials who could no longer overcollect.)

      1. This actually happens very early in the imperial period. Augustus gets rid of most of the tax farmers, keeping them only for a handful of functions (portoria, in particular) and instead collecting most taxes through local communities.

    3. Divide!
      For something like a mine (a vectigalia), the subject is not so much taxation as operation of a state-owned enterprise. If the publicani somehow increase production volume, that is an unalloyed benefit to the state, even if for the first period they receive no extra money.

      Even for actual taxes (e.g. customs fees), the state does get money out of overcollection. Once it becomes known that overcollection by X% is possible in [province], next time both the incumbents and their competitors will submit correspondingly higher bids. The problem with customs fees is that the incentive is to float them upwards, limited by the volume of locals complaining to the governor, and the point where the governor tells the tax collectors to tune it back bears an uncertain relationship to the point where the customs fees start strangling commerce.

      It appears to me that it would have been a relatively small change for Rome to send a second (pro)quaestor into a province, with an expanded staff (and the expectation of hiring locals / buying local slaves) with which to manage vectigalia or customs. Maybe part of the reason this wasn’t done is that while Roman elites could be relied on to know how to lead an army or hold a speech in court, managing a mine requires a kind of domain knowledge they don’t have (or are ashamed about having).

      1. Major industries tend to come under state control over time (mines, olive oil in Spain, trapping animals for the circus …), but this is in the imperial period.

      2. Presumably they didn’t send a second (pro-)Quaestor because there were 132 Quaestors and ex-Quaestors that didn’t hold higher rank, while there were 30 provinces, meaning that if two were sent to every province, you now have nearly half the Quaestors out of Rome at a time, combined with the 30 Praetors and Consuls that were governors of provinces, meaning 90 of the 300 members of the Senate would be out of Rome at a time, Not ideal.

        1. The obvious solution would be to elect more quaestors each year, or possibly for longer terms for the provincial stations, so you have a tax man for each province on the regular election.

          This would, however, expand the size of the Senate and competition in the Cursus Honorum, which the only people who can propose legislation probably don’t want.

    4. Tax farming persisted up to the 18th century in Europe, and payment of officials via perquisites (a percentage of fees or charges )into the early 19th even in places as tightly-run as Britain. It avoided state expenditure, built a patronage network and did not put in place an alternate centre of power.

    5. > Ah, tax farming, the most “I can’t believe they did that” thing which keeps reoccurring. I mean, it’s an outright incentive to overcollect and you don’t get any extra state money out of them overcollecting

      it’s a very sensible plan when you (A) don’t have a lot of bureaucracy or (B) don’t have a competent one.

      If, legally, you can collect 100 money units in your province but in reality, after expenses, are collecting 30, then you’re better off selling the rights off for 40. and collection rates that bad aren’t entirely uncommon in the modern world. In the ancient world they’d be downright abysmal.

    6. Adding to what others have mentioned, tax farming also has the advantage (for the state) of being insured, preventing sudden shortfalls in revenue. If the tax farmer can’t collect because of a famine, angry locals, etc, then the state can collect on the security and keep spending at expected levels without having to risk surprise extra taxes or try to cut military pay.

    7. I guess it feels like an atrocity in our post-absolutism-era world but governments in the past have astonishingly low power over their subjects according to modern standards. I guess one of reason for the rise of liberalism is because of increasingly powerful government so people needs to counter it. Before, every subject is “relatively free”er so one doesn’t really have to force legal right for it.

      1. This is pretty right – although the lower power of the state was offset by the higher power of local elites. Augustus famously made the world safe for oligarchy, because the oligarchs were the crucial lower millstone to Rome’s upper, both grinding away.

      2. Expanding on Peter’s remark, in many cases the reason that central governments had strikingly little power was because most of the real power over the average peasant was in the hands of local aristocrats, oligarchs, city aldermen, and so on. Directly reducing the power of the king usually meant more power for local barons, not more independence and lower taxes for the peasants.

        1. However the closer the authority to subject the the more awareness of local conditions and the more openess to input. Exceptions occured but what most barons etc. wanted was their rents they were considerably less interested in micromanaging their estates. And they had to live near these people, concessions for the sake of peace made a lot of sense. In England at least agricultural villages were surprisingly self directed.

  14. “The form of these contracts was that the public contractor (publicanus, almost always in its plural, publicani) would put a bid of the estimated five-year tax revenue of the province in question. The winning bid – whichever was highest – would then put up property as surety equal in value to the bid and then have to deliver annually one fifth of the bid each year until the whole amount was discharged.”

    TIL that tax farmers had to pledge collateral. Interesting.

    “That said, having such a societas go bankrupt could be absolutely ruinous to the investors and indeed the prospect of one such societas going bankrupt (it is the societas of tax farmers for the vectigalia of the province of Asia, which would have been a massive venture) is a major motivator of the political tensions leading up to Julius Caesar’s election as consul in 59.”

    I’d love to hear more about this.

    1. Very short version, Pompeius Magnus conquers what became the province of Asia. He then spends several years sorting his conquests, settling veterans, confirming local magnates, etc. Shortly thereafter, a societas of publicanorum covertly backed by Crassus bids suxxessfully for the rights to collect taxes there. Turned out that they overbid, badly, and were entirely unable to recover enough money to break even, much less make a profit.
      Crassus thus wants Rome to lower the amount of money expected from the publicani. Pompeius wants Rome to confirm his settlement of Asia, particularly the land grants he’d given to his veterans.
      Problem is, Pompeius and Crassus hate each other’s guts (it’s very much personal between those two). Caesar, who is on good terms with *both*, manages to reconcile them, and cut a deal: they throw their weight behind his run for the consulship, and he will see to it that both get what they want.
      So, Pompeius throwas his significant auctoritas behind Caesar, Crassus funds the election campaign with a very friendly loan. Caesar wins election as planned, and does as promised.

      First Triumvirate, basically. And then it falls apart. Crassus leads a few legions into Parthia and dies there, Pompeius and Caesar have a falling-out, and things go downhill from there.

  15. Regarding the renewal of the tax outsourcing contracts every 5 years: What level of continuity can we imagine there?
    Are the existing societates always the same? Does their composition (of senators or rather their strawman clients) change or stay the same for the new bidding? And the vast apparatus for the actual extraction work (however small compared to other empires) would be a company bound to that societas and sent somewhere else every 5 years, or rather a “local to the province” operation which payd its revenue to whoever won the contract back in Rome?

    1. Almost certainly it would have been the latter, behaving somewhat like a modern corporate takeover — “new name, new CEO, some other C-levels, but otherwise not much changes”. Even if in principle the company was dissolved and a new one formed, they needed a lot of clerks. The majority of currently unemployed clerks in the area are those who had until recently been employed by the previous company. (I’m not distinguishing between free locals and slaves. The former would presumably line up to be hired to do the same job they have been doing; the latter would be sold to the new management, because their former owners wouldn’t have a better use for them now that they no longer have a bureaucracy to run.) Thus even in a completely ad hoc case, there would be a lot of continuity. And given that these publicani were The Modernity Company (postal system! mass banking! sending money by check! in the 1st century BC!), almost certainly they would have worked out the low-friction takeover system.

  16. The tax farmer is ultimately backed by the Roman army somehow, but how does that work in practice?

    Does one guy come to demand you pay up, and if you defy him he’ll come back with private goons or soldiers?

    Does the tax collector bring a couple of private goons he hires out of his own pocket?

    (If you’re paying in kind he’ll need people to transport it anyway, right?)

    Does the tax collector have a couple of soldiers with him?

    Can you round up neighbors to drive off any private goons?

    I assume that you can’t round up neighbors to drive off any soldiers because that is rebellion, and the Roman army doesn’t like rebellion.

    If he has soldiers are the from the Roman army, or would they be from the locals who act as a police force or militia?

    1. A combination of private security forces for more minor issues (shaking down individuals that were tardy, for instance) and bringing matters to the Governor if things were getting a bit beyond what you could deal with yourself, I imagine.

      And the Governor obviously had their army, if it was a Praetor governing the province and they got defeated, Rome would send a Consul with a Consular army (the full 2 legions+Socii. Needless to say, that tended to end matters)

    2. Presumably, if a minor act of rebellion you describe here can be resolved peacefully by the praetor, then the praetor will be happy to resolve it that way. Brutal suppression of overtaxed locals invites the same conflict to flare up harder and strains the limited army even more. It surely could and would happen, since humans don’t always make rational decisions or simply lack good information, but it makes sense for the locals to resist taxation by all available means.

  17. Now as you might imagine, five years of tax income for an entire province might be an enormous amount of money, requiring a tremendous amount of property be put up as surety.
    Indeed, my question would be — the total value of tax contracts (just the portoria+vectigalia) added up across all the provinces would have been a significant fraction of the total value of all property in Rome, no?

    Publicani, because they had the financial resources, might also essentially run banking on the side too [alongside the postal system]
    Their administrative resources, with their presence at all ports and major cities, would also naturally allow them to branch out into niches such as freight forwarding and commodities exchanges. I don’t suppose they had names like Hermes Group?

    1. Bear in mind that it doesn’t have to be property in Rome itself, presumably- there was a significant percentage of land in Italy that was specifically Roman land, where the inhabitants had actual Roman citizenship. Which would provide potential collateral.

      That, and it might be deliberate- if failing to forward the tax revenues to Rome was guaranteed to leave you with nothing, that’s going to be a significant incentive to actually do it.

      1. Who precisely WERE the members of the Honourable Asia Company and the other Companies of Publicans and Sinners?
        Senators were ineligible. They could and did invest indirectly – but the property specifically mortgaged could not be theirs.
        There are mentions of knights. Major landowners who did not sit the Senate. But were there anyone else?
        Seeing how the companies had to handle multiple small members, were small investors, of the peasant/legionary rank, eligible to join?
        How about freedmen, provided they owned land to mortgage?
        Was membership of the societies of publicans restricted to Roman citizens, or were Italians allowed to join?
        Note that of all the land in Italy registered in census, the land of senators was not available. And the land of the societies that bid and lost was also not available to underwrite the taxes of the next 5 years.

        1. At least freedmen worked as publicans: Pliny the Elder tells of one who worked near Arabia as his former enslaver had a contract for the Red Sea (Natural History 6.84). Since *liberti* could become very wealthy it is not surprising they would invest in such business, in fact before the reign of Tiberius they could even become knights (they could later too if they were declared freeborn by the emperor, as was for instance Galba’s advisor and supposed lover Icelus Marcianus)

  18. “Roman efforts to curtail this sort of thing with the quaestio de repetundis are remarkable in that many empires might not have bothered very much to police how much governors could steal from provincials (so long as they didn’t steal from state revenues)”

    If this is true, then why did Romans bother with good government when other empires didn’t? Philosophical reasons, practical reasons etc?

    1. Possibly a combination of both. In the Eastern provinces, Rome faced peer competitor Parthia, later Sassania, whose forbears, Assyrians and Persians, had reached the Mediterranean Sea, and I doubt memories of those empires had faded. There was for Romans the memory of the Punic Wars, existential wars which they might well have lost. Modern historians might dispute Polybius’ explanations, but I rather think Romans believed that their superior (in their minds) methods of organization and governance had prevailed.

    2. I think a large part of it was the way Rome cycled its governors in and out of the provinces every year. Most empires seem to have been more a satrapy-style system where provincial governors are sent out for very long periods of time, if not for life, so there’s little incentive from the central government to keep them in line as long as they keep the money flowing back from the provinces into the imperial treasury. Meanwhile, in Rome, the guy going out to be governor of Macedonia or wherever will be coming back to Rome next year, his political enemies will want to limit the amount of money, and therefore political power, he’ll be bringing back with him.

      And, at a minimum, there’s an incentive to reduce corruption just so there’s something left over for you when your turn at being governor comes around.

  19. So, why was running a province (cleanly) so profitable? I’m failing to clearly see where the governor is getting personal revenue from if he’s not taking bribes.

    1. From reading the text, I believe they expected to receive a large quantity of gifts when arriving in a settlement, completely separate from any bribes they may or may not have decided to take to settle matters in an appellants favor. The article also mentions that governors in a hurry might collect these gifts even when “skipping over” settlements for time and just passing through.
      Multiplied by the expected wealth of the settlements they moved through over however many settlements the governor visited a year, it seems obvious that you could get a lot of money out of the system through this alone.

  20. Were not governors of provinces also expected to pay for public buildings?

    All the aqueducts, fora, theaters, coliseums and so on, the ruins of which can be seen all around the Mediterranean Sea, how were those funded?

    1. Largely by local elites as signs of their wealth, seeking to boost their prestige and attract clients. Really big stuff was done under imperial aegis.

  21. I was going to ask why we trust that Cicero was not corrupt, given that the central source on his public acts seems to be his own writing. I still think the question is interesting (and presumably the answer is embedded in the clause “By all accounts” above); but it occurs to me that we don’t need to know necessarily that Cicero wasn’t corrupt in order to use his reported income as a benchmark for a “straight-and-narrow” governor’s income—even if he WERE corrupt, he’d report the income consonant with permissible behavior to his audience.

  22. One thing I’ve never understood is that while the publicani were able to set up a bureaucracy to extract taxes, why couldn’t the Roman government create such a bureaucracy themselves?

    1. Consider the guy in charge of taxes at a port.

      If from a publicani group, his incentives align reasonably well with what he is supposed to be doing (collect lots of taxes for the group, your personal income goes up; rob people too much, and someone rebels or complains to the governor). His bosses are likely close by and paying a lot of attention to him, because their income also depends on the money to the company.

      State bureaucracies rarely work that way, unless they simply accept a level of corruption that could easily be worse than tax farming or make pay proportionate to extractions (which is largely equivalent to tax farming but with at least one added layer of bureaucracy).

      A bureaucrat’s official income depends on the government not going bankrupt, his actions are pretty well irrelevant to that, so he has little incentive to do a good job or to not act so as to maximize side income rather than official income. His ultimate bosses are far away and inattentive, his immediate supervisors are in the same situation as he is, pay + bribes to ignore the money disappearing in route is better than pay without bribes.

      The tax farmers also provide a ready made source of “auditors” to check that extractions for the government track with extractions from the province and are at a high but sustainable level. The bids will be based on expected extractions, rather than on some 50 year old treaty or census or appraisal. Sure, the tax farmers are taking over a third, but the five year auctions mean that the appraisal or expected income updates regularly, with the updates from people with a strong incentive to get it right.

      1. Bureaucracy has its own incentives and disincentives, not purely monetary. And its own internal rationale, which bureaucrats assimilate. The admin overhead of a good bureaucracy is usually the same or lower than that of a comparable private enterprise. For Republican and early imperial Rome, the problem was that without a bureaucratic tradition, competent administrators were in short supply, The same problem bedevils Russia’s history.

    2. Counter question, why should the roman state have done that? Why set up, and pay for several layers of institutions to collect taxes, when there are loads of enterprising citizens bidding for the chance to do it? Espacially when those new institutions weren’t part of the path of the ancestors.

      1. They did. By the mid-late empire there were enough (mostly equestrian) administrators for the empire to do much of the job itself.

    3. As Bret points out in a comment above, the Imperial Roman government did create their own bureaucracy.

      Before that, the Romans are doing something new, at least to them. Uh, we’ve conquered Sicily. Now what? They could maybe have copied the Greek/Phoenician model, or the Macedonia Successor state model, but either would probably have required major changes to the governance of Rome itself.

      And as others have pointed out, states at this time have much fewer resources with which to impose laws, bureaucracies, etc. So there is a very strong incentive, at least in Rome, to find a solution with a minimum of new government expenditure.

  23. Thank you very much for this entire series. This is something that I’ve almost never seen anywhere else. You’re truly an authority on this topic.

    So far I still don’t see anything special Romans do regarding empire building. They have military tributaries, and economic tributaries, like anyone else? And those are not even extraordinarily more effective. It seems like their only mean to big empire is their unreasonable effectiveness of their military.

    1. As Bret has pointed out in earlier posts in this series, the unreasonable effectiveness of the Roman military is directly linked to their social structure and form of government. Can’t remember whether it was an earlier post or a podcast, but Rome can raise much larger and on average more heavily armoured infantry armies than the theoretically richer Macedonian Successor states.

  24. The Twitter/Xitter links on the side of the blog are tantalizing glimpses into a world that I, and I assume many others, don’t really have access to anymore. Any chance these discussions will get reposted to another, more open, social media site or even be expanded upon for proper blog posts (putting aside those that have already been topics, such as Sparta)?

    1. If you replace ‘’ with ‘’ in a URL, that will sometimes let you read a thread.

      For long threads by Bret, he could use threadreaderapp to generate a compendium.

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