Children of the Fatherland: The Devil and the Taxman

In Hell, so the bitter jest runs, the weather is Scandinavian, the nobles are Andalusian, the priests are Egyptian, and the tax collectors are Roman; while in Heaven, on the other hand, the weather is Egyptian, the nobles are Scandinavian, the priests are Andalusian, and the tax collectors are still Roman, for certainly they are not going to take the mere salvation of your soul or a trifling matter like the personal intervention of Jesus as any sort of excuse for not paying what you owe.

Another often-told anecdote speaks of the time when the Devil came to collect the taxman, but he pleaded so eloquently for his soul that at last the Devil agreed to take, in his place, the first person they should come across whom someone else damned. “But,” added the Devil, “it must come from the heart”. So they set out to find who might be damned, and they met a man struggling to plow his muddy field with an old nag of a horse. “Damn you,” cried the farmer, “don’t sit there like a lazy ass, pull!” And the taxman said, “There you go, that farmer has damned his horse.” “No,” replied the Devil, “a man does not speak from the heart when he curses the beast that works his fields; we must go on.”

So they went on, and they met a woman whose child cried for food; “damn you,” said the woman, “can’t you be quiet for once? Don’t you see there is no food in the house?”

“Ha,” said the taxman, “there is your victim; that child is damned, and by her own mother at that.”

“Nonsense,” said the Devil; “a mother does not damn her children from the heart; it was despair and hunger that spoke. We must go on; but perhaps not much further.” And as he spoke, the mother looked up and saw the taxman, and she cried out, “There’s the swine who takes the food from a mother’s hand! May he be damned!”

“Ah,” said the Devil. “Now that was from the heart.”

These tales illustrate the pervasive nature of Roman taxation, but also resignation to it. Lower and upper classes (exploited and exploiting, respectively) united in regarding taxes as a law of nature, as unalterable as the weather. The farmer may curse the hailstorm that destroys his crop, but he does not take up arms against it. In fact, the tax system did demonstrate a remarkable longevity; the land and grain taxes that were paid under the Komnenoi were the same as those reformed under Justinian, and could trace their lineage to the tribute payments debated by Cato and Crassus. A version of the system survived in the lands overrun by the Arabs during the crisis of the seventh century; the diwan that supported the early Arab garrisons was collected by a Roman bureaucracy. In the West, on the other hand, ownership of land replaced the right to tax as the source of state wealth under the Merovingians, leading eventually to the emergence of a full-blown feudal system.

It was the ability to extract surplus production in a centralised manner, and not any absolute difference in land productivity, that made the Middle Eastern states (Rome and Caliphate alike) so much wealthier, qua states, than the royal dynasties of the West. In per-capita terms their wealth was similar, but in the West the money, and with it the military power, was spread over far more hands. In particular, taxes (in money and kind alike) supported regular, paid armies, as well as glittering courts. In the last two centuries of the first millennium, it is true, Rome had been forced by repeated crises to support some of its armies on the production of the provinces they defended. All the same, a regular army, paid in cash collected by the central fisc, remained the ideal for which all Emperors strove, and under the Komnenoi the ideal was largely accomplished.

All this is not to say, however, that the Roman system was in any sense efficient. On the contrary, so ingrained was the corruption of the system that the taxmen, reporting their activities to the central fisc, routinely quoted their commissions on what they had collected in two categories: Legal and illegal! In other words, longstanding custom had completely overruled written law in what the tax collectors were paid, and as a consequence the revenue due to the fisc was reduced by one-fifth – before considering that this is what the taxmen felt they could report without fear, because everyone in the system considered it their just due. In addition comes whatever stuck to their fingers in a manner that was genuinely illegal, that is, which would have caused actual punishment if discovered; this has been variously estimated as between a fifth and a third of the monies actually extracted from the peasants.

There was room, then, for a reforming Emperor to vastly increase his real revenue (and consequently the army he could support) without any unpopular (and probably counterproductive, since taxes were already very high as a percentage of actual production) increase in the land dues or the grain tax. This required, however, a great deal of personal attention, a vast capacity for detail (details reported in Roman numerals, at that), and a fine judgement of exactly how far the bureaucracy could be pushed. These are quite different gifts from the martial genius of Konstaninos, or the flair for compromise and justice displayed by Mathias. The Emperor Alexios is famous for no victory in the field, and no law bears his name. But he possessed an intriguer’s talent for spying on his own bureaucracy, so as to find out what he ought to have been paid; an enormous patience for sitting through the flowery rhetoric and endless precedents of ministries hundreds of years old (one document, ostensibly listing the reasons why a village in Thrace has paid only twenty solidi, instead of the thirty-five the Emperor is demanding, begins with a three-paragraph invocation of the Muses, to sing of disaster and bad weather!), and a finely-tuned sense of when even the most entrenched civil servant would have to agree that a colleague had gone too far. By beginning with truly egregious cases, Alexios was able to “boil the taxmen slowly”; that is, by the time they realised that he was intent on reforming them thoroughly, rather than just reining in the worst abuses, the process was already far along, the worst obstructionists had been identified and targeted, and several exemplary heads had rolled. (The phrase is not to be taken literally; one of the first reforms was to rescind the death penalty for corruption in tax matters, replacing it with mutilation and fines. This counter-intuitive measure proved a stroke of genius, for it meant that relatively honest tax collectors would no longer be literally killing their colleagues by informing on their corruptions.)

Unfortunately, unlike the earlier reforms of Mathias and Konstantinos, of the laws and the army respectively, those of Alexios rested on a single lynchpin: The ability of Alexios himself to follow the enormous mass of detail that was the Roman tax system. His crackdown produced an enormous influx of revenue to the state’s coffers, but he could not in a single generation create an honest bureaucracy that policed itself. While he lived he could keep the abuses in check, and the institutional memory of the mutilations certainly produced some improvement for a few decades. But in the long run, the bureaucracy’s sense of entitlement to commissions that they had collected without fear for two centuries proved too strong for any one man to overcome; although Alexios had managed to prosecute several people for collecting the customary commissions (that is, the “illegal” ones openly reported as such), and thus roll back this form of corruption, the force of habit proved too strong, and the practice eventually bounced bac after his death. He is nevertheless the first Emperor to really grapple with the problem of creating an honest bureaucracy, and also the first to show what could be done by cross-checks and independent inspections. To him can be traced the eventual professionalisation of the Roman civil service, whereby civil service came to be regarded as a steady income rather than a spectacular source of wealth.


I repeat my earlier post on the demesne statistics, to show the effects of Alexios’s crackdown:

     HCav      LCav      HInf      LInf      Pike      Arch      Total
BOHE    0.20    0.23    0.08    0.39    0.03    0.06    314771
BULG    0.19    0.31    0.31    0.00    0.10    0.10    265450
CROA    0.16    0.20    0.11    0.40    0.07    0.06    98714
DENM    0.14    0.23    0.08    0.39    0.08    0.08    95063
LEON    0.15    0.19    0.14    0.36    0.06    0.09    172345
PERS    0.22    0.23    0.08    0.36    0.00    0.11    392447
RUSS    0.18    0.24    0.05    0.41    0.07    0.06    206824
MAML    0.12    0.24    0.13    0.39    0.05    0.07    72558
FATI    0.20    0.21    0.09    0.42    0.04    0.05    239072

HCav      LCav      HInf      LInf      Pike      Arch      Prod      Cult
BOHE    43.53    30.00    32.52    14.85    26.00    18.66    31.37    21.26
BULG    68.80    33.86    49.88     0.00    32.71    22.76    39.75    28.75
CROA    58.60    32.85    44.32    16.48    32.74    21.30    36.13    26.40
DENM    48.87    30.57    34.85    14.83    25.52    18.73    30.53    21.88
LEON    51.14    31.05    40.00    14.94    27.46    19.79    32.11    24.83
PERS    56.34    31.82    39.50    16.66     0.00    21.08    36.24    26.24
RUSS    56.11    31.56    42.29    16.36    33.10    21.64    36.14    25.81
MAML    43.65    29.93    33.08    14.30    23.91    18.02    29.69    21.46
FATI    60.79    32.27    42.57    16.41    32.10    21.13    37.05    28.75

Chief points to note: Rome has caught up with Egypt in cultural numbers as well as ineffable superiority. The Roman demesne host has more than doubled in size due to the new Emperor and his very effable superiority in stewardship; the combination of stewardship 19 and the richest province in the game means that the Byzantion regiment, alone, is about 65k strong. And none of it is militia. Long live the Emperor Alexios!


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