Taxation and Slavery in the Roman Empire – an Excerpt from The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts

The following is an excerpt from The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts, by Karl Allen Kuhn.


Rome heavily taxed its subjects. Scholars estimate that between one-quarter and one-third of the goods harvested or produced by peasants, artisans, and tenant farmers were required for various taxes, tolls, and tithes.

A. Ben-David estimates the combined Roman and Israelite taxes for Roman Palestine at 33.1 percent. Such heavy taxation on the underclass resulted in a precarious existence for peasants and artisans, with the vast majority of them living slightly above, at, or below a subsistence level. Speaking of Roman Palestine in particular, Rohrbaugh writes, “The wealth of the elite was based primarily on land ownership and taxation, which effectively drained the resources of the rural areas. The ‘redistributive’ economic system, as it is called in economic anthropology, served to expropriate peasant surplus and redistribute it among those in control.”

Cover ArtAggressive taxation also contributed to the high rate of debt suffered by peasant farmers. This debt, combined with onerous lending policies and unmercifully high rates of interest established by the elite, resulted in a massive foreclosure of ancestral landholdings in the years leading up to the Common Era. Keith Hopkins estimates that from 80 to 8 BCE, about 1.5 million people, roughly half the peasant families of Roman Italy, were forced from their ancestral lands. These figures are likely representative of conditions throughout the provinces of the empire, including Roman Palestine.

Still another resource that greatly benefited the elite was their control of relatively cheap labor. Slavery was the engine that drove the economy, as Rome “created an institutionalized system of large-scale dependence on slave labor for the major portion of basic production.” Estimates on the number of slaves in the Roman Empire vary among anthropologists, ranging from 25 to 40 percent of the population. But the number of slaves could have easily swelled to the higher end of that range during the years surrounding the Common Era due to Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean (including Palestine) and beyond, augmenting the ranks of those enslaved because of debt.

As more and more arable land shifted to the elite, tenant farming, sharecropping, and day labor also became central to agricultural production throughout the empire. Along with many other peasants, these field laborers migrated at or below a subsistence existence, and sharecroppers were in perpetual danger of becoming slaves themselves. Gildas Hamel notes that “especially in the case of sharecropping, the factors of production provided by landowners (land, seeds, traction, tools) were set at a very high rate, usually amounting to half of the total value of the crop, a circumstance which, together with the smallness of the acreage under contract, guaranteed the fall into indebtedness.”

In sum, aggressive taxation, an elite-controlled market system that “nickeled and dimed” the underclass through rents and tariffs, lending policies that routinely resulted in the foreclosure of peasant landholdings, and the cheap labor of slaves, artisans, and agricultural workers all ensured the flow of wealth and resources from the underclass to the elite. This was, as declared by G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, “a massive system of exploitation of the great majority by the ruling class.”

©2015 by Karl Allen Kuhn. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.


For more information on The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts, click here.