Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.08

James Tan, Power and Public Finance at Rome, 264-49 BCE. Oxford studies in early empires.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xxx, 214.  ISBN 9780190639570.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Catherine Steel, University of Glasgow (

Political historians of the Roman Republic tend to acknowledge the importance of money with a passing reference to Crassus and his army (Dio Cass. 40.60.1) and an absence of much other credible detail. Fortunately, excuses for such vagueness are diminishing. Philip Kay recently offered a comprehensive economic analysis of the late Republic (Rome’s economic revolution, Oxford 2014) and now James Tan has produced a stimulating study of the role of public finance and its relationship with elite wealth in the last two centuries of the Republic.complete by

Tan’s argument, in brief, is that the Republican system involved a three-cornered struggle between the state, the political elite, and the people, which was fundamentally shaped by the destination of revenue flows from Rome’s conquests. The Roman elite kept the state poor by devising ways to ensure that the profits of empire came to them as individuals in place of the Treasury. The Roman people, meanwhile, suffered a drastic loss in power and influence when the tributum was abolished in 167 B.C.; since they no longer funded wars, their collective voice in political decision-making diminished.

To build this argument, Tan divides his book into two sections. The first and longer half sets out the general discussion under three headings. Chapter one addresses the relative wealth of the state (Tan is refreshingly dismissive of the theoretical difficulties in using this term of pre-modern societies, xx-xxv) and of its richest individual members, concluding that elite wealth increased hugely in the last century of the Republic to the extent that the very wealthiest controlled resources comparable to that of the state as a whole and that there was a corresponding failure on the part of the state to expand its functions or even to maintain existing ones (the census being a prime example). The figures are inevitably based on anecdote, many of them familiar, but the overall effect is convincing. Chapter two turns to tax farming at Rome, exploring both the way that it functioned (with some illuminating cross-cultural comparisons) and the reasons why the Roman elite might have chosen (and the people accepted) a system which was in many ways unsatisfactory (above all in its acceptance that only a proportion of tax collected would become tax revenue to the Treasury), concluding that tax-farming took the form that it did in Rome because that suited elite interests. Chapter three turns to ways in which individuals, particularly magistrates, could profit from imperial conquest, with a focus on exactions that were regarded as legitimate and on lending of money at interest.

The second half of the book offers three cases studies of situations in which the fiscal set-up drove political decision-making. The first in chapter four is the First Punic War, and in particular the popular decision in 253 to stop funding the building of fleets; Tan argues that this was possible because the voters were the ones who paid the taxes which built the ships. Without their consent, the elite had to find other ways, such as privateering and allied naval power, with which to continue war at sea. Chapter five considers the second Punic war, when the payers of tributum were crushed by endless tax demands and, in consequence, the Senate was willing to defer to the popular assemblies at key moments of decision. Finally, in chapter six, Tan considers the fiscal elements in the reform programmes of the Gracchi and in the opposition those reforms aroused. He argues that by the later second century and as a result of imperial conquest the problem was no longer how to raise money, but how to spend it. The Gracchi proposed that the state should be allowed to spend it in the interests of the community as a whole; that was so unacceptable to the Senate that it provoked lethal violence. Brief conclusions follow.

Parts of this book are revelatorily good. Highlights for me included a brilliant analysis (61-64) of why Gaius Gracchus thought tax-farming was the answer to collecting the revenues of Asia, where Tan argues that the advantage of tax-farming was that it made no demands on the competence of magistrates whilst not subordinating them to the knowledgeable and expert state officials which a state-run tax system would inevitably create. Since members of the elite had no significant personal interest in the amount of money in the Treasury, they were not exercised by the reduction in state revenue which follows from allowing private contractors to take a share of taxes as their profit. Others are a discussion of the tax advantages of enlistment in the Second Punic War (123-126) and a compelling reading of Scipio Aemilianus’ musings on libertas (161-162). Tan does an excellent job, too, in showing that historians of the Republic can and should take their analysis back into the third century.

At the level of overall contribution, there is perhaps less by way of a startling challenge to current views: an elite who put personal profit over state revenue fits neatly enough with what seems to be the current consensus on the nature of Roman Republican politics, where the pendulum is swinging back from popular control towards an elite capable of exercising control through a whole variety of media. Economic power can co-exist alongside social, cultural and religious capital. The challenge which Tan’s work now sets up is to think in detail about the ways that different forms of control interacted with each other, the kinds of expectations that drove elite decision-making, collective and individual, and the importance of money relative to other factors in explaining those decisions and their outcomes.

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