St. Paul and Roman Statism

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

So writes Saint Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his epistle to the Christians in first century Rome. Sounds words, and, to Christians, divinely inspired words. Like his Saviour's weighty reply to the Herodian Statists some twenty years earlier on the matter of taxation, he balances his discourse between duties to God and duties to Man in a world altogether different from our own and yet so familiar in the outworking of fallible human nature.

Truly, it was a world of hurt and pain, yet the Pax Romana continued to rule over millions. A state of the art communications infrastructure meant efficient Roman roads and seaways free from piracy. The pro-choice brigade had their way, as today, with new born babes being left to die of exposure on refuse heaps and the local sports stadia offered the latest in base savagery as men fought to the death and wild animals ripped apart State offenders.

The Empire ruled with an iron hand and gained vast revenues from fields afar off to indulge itself in the glory and grandeur that was Rome. Caesar Augustus had said that he found Rome stone and left it marble, he was also a shrewd tax strategist who exacted what he wanted as absolute monarch but knew the destabilising effect of tax revolts by subjugated provinces.

Paul, himself, writes in an uncertain period for Jews exemplified by their recent expulsion in AD 51 by Claudius for Messianic agitations. This leaves him treading carefully on the matter of obligations to the State. With the emperor carefully watching any cult of Jewish origin, it is not so much what Paul says on the State, as what he does not say, despite every incentive to speak well of it that should interest us. With this in mind, Paul exhorts his readers to pay their taxes in due submission to the State. What were these taxes?

Finding information on specific state taxation policy for a narrow time range is a difficult task. We can make various assumptions; since changes to taxation policy were not as volatile as today, being rather influenced by the last major war or the last corrupt emperor to plunder the aerarium (the treasury).

There was the decumae, or 10% tax paid by all who occupied State owned land. The scriptura tax paid by all who kept their cattle on public pasture land. The portorium tax paid on all imported and exported goods from harbours. The occasional tributum, which Romans paid from 0.1% to 0.3% of their total assets in times of war.

We have the salinae revenues gained from salt mines as well as the metalla revenues from the various metal mines. Unsurprisingly, there was the centesimal rerum venalium or sales tax which extracted 1% from the sale of all goods.

The vicesima manumissionis tax was 5% on the freedom of any slave whilst the quinqagesima tax took 2% on their sale. This was a considerable instrument of revenue in an Empire whose economy was so dependent on slave labour.

The State, presuming itself to be an heir, demanded the vicesima hereditatium, or 5% on certain inheritances gained by a Roman citizen.

As an example of Statist attempts to encourage population growth and discourage over building in Rome, we had the aes uxorium tax on those who reached old age without marrying and the ostiarium and columnarium taxes on doors and columns. Some things never change.

Property tax has an antiquarian pedigree in the octavae, which was an Italian 12.5% tax on any property valued above 200 sestertia.

Finally, and more importantly to Paul and others of Jewish origin, were the tributum soli and tributum capitis paid by conquered nations to Rome. These land and head taxes were paid from the tribute penny (or denarius) of the gospels and was levied on all adults up to the age of 65 years. The denarius was probably equivalent to the average daily wage and was paid on top of some of the indirect taxes (or vectigalia) mentioned above.

However, what is important to this present discourse is not so much where the revenues came from but the expenditure to which they were committed. Socialist commentators on Romans 13 see in it nothing but a blanket obligation on subjects to pay their taxes and an endorsement to let government do as it pleases with the revenues (except, of course, when abortion funding is withdrawn).

On the matter of Imperial expenditure, there were three treasuries.

The public aerarium was devoted to the administration of the senatorial provinces in and around Rome. To this would be added the supply of water and grain to the city, maintenance of the roads and public buildings (such as bath houses and games stadia). The education system was primarily voluntary, but under state supervision. Nevertheless, the aristocratic oligarchy would undertake for the maintenance of poor children in their native towns in an embryonic form of State education.

Particular mention must be made of the massive welfare state system of Rome so clearly demonstrated in the free grain that all 200,000 Roman male citizens enjoyed and the subsidised prices that others also took advantage of. Most of this grain came from Sicily and the fertile banks of the Nile in Egypt as direct taxation paid in kind.

Including families, this swept about 40% of the Roman population into the role of welfare dependants who idly passed their times eating their free grain and attending the free games laid on by their Statist hosts. Predictably, the free imported grain was the ruin of local farmers who gave up and headed for the good times in Rome.

The emperor had his own budget devoted to maintaining Rome's great legions and fleets, administering the provinces and whatever project of largesse the imperial ego turned to. This last expenditure led to the erection of many a fine building, statue and bust. The State, via the emperor, was a great patron of the arts.

Finally, the military aerarium introduces us to the Roman State's welfare pensions scheme, which was paid out to retired soldiers as parcels of land or money. Heroic tributes were likewise financed from this budget, which drew on revenues from inheritance and sales tax plus any booty of the day.

So, as to the context of Saint Paul's letter, we find a Rome, which funded a benefits system, a pensions system, venues for public relaxation and entertainment, patronised the arts, maintained the roads and water supplies and had a primitive education system.

To this we can add the support of the state pagan religion and even a fire service in Rome.

We can understand why Paul may be reticent to name gladiatorial events and public temples devoted to false gods as a reason to pay taxes. But, why be silent on the matter of safe roads and water or free grain to the readers of his epistle?

As I said, with the current agitation amongst his fellow Jews, now is a time to write a treatise on the State which bends over backwards. Now is the time to praise the Roman aqueducts and straight roads, now is the time to endorse the fine public amenities and provision for battle-weary soldiers (especially Christian ones!).

Not a word of it, not so much as a syllable which may give credence to the socialist mantra that the State can interfere in all and any affair of men so long as it benefits the public good. With that in mind, we may attempt to answer some objections on this point.

First, the charge may be made that Paul was silent on these matters because they all involved corrupt, unchristian practises. One may wonder at this in connection with roads and water, especially since these peaceful roads were indispensable to the propagation of the gospel.

I would rather say that the penal system which Paul alone endorses in the passage to maintain the public peace was also corrupt insomuch that the cruellest of punishments could be exacted for the least crimes. If Paul can be pragmatic with that, he can also be with the others.

Secondly, it may be said that a lot of the State expenditures may not have been relevant to Paul's readership. Admittedly, it is not likely that there were many Christians who took advantage of the State-funded pagan festivals.

However, the bulk of Romans were the plebeians (who only paid indirect taxes), slaves (who paid no taxes), non-citizens and travellers (who paid the full taxes exacted in their home provinces). To this, it is not unreasonable to add the odd retired Roman soldier living off his State pension.

Based on a population of a million and a half, of which 200,000 males received the free grain (13% of the population), it is safe to assume that a fair number of these people attended the Christian meetings. They regarded this state benefit as an important aspect of their lives.

Paul ignores them all and says, "For this cause pay ye tribute," that is, to pay the State to repress evildoers. The Sicilians amongst them must have wondered why their relatives were paying tax in kind as myriad bushels of grain.

Finally, as a last resort, our socialist interpreters may reply that Paul does not say, "For this cause only pay ye tribute." I admit that, at a logical extreme, I cannot prove beyond doubt that Paul intended the world only to be implicitly understood. Indeed, no more that they can prove beyond doubt that the words amongst others should be implicitly understood either.

The mere grammatical or semantic form of the phrase offers us no direction either way. For this cause, I appeal to the fiscal and political context of the day to understand why Paul did and did not say certain things.

But, I would say that Paul also binds the conscience of his readers in this respect of penal authority ("ye must be subject … for conscience sake") and yet deems it not fit enough to bind their conscience on other matters of Imperial expenditure.

In other words, whatever else the State does with your taxes, it certainly has no moral compulsion upon any of us to obey it or agree with it!

And, if I may be so bold as to answer why Paul does not hold up the Roman Welfare State as a reason for taxation. He says only a few verses earlier, "Distribute to the necessity of the saints and be given to hospitality." Observe that Christian and private welfare is the mandate of Paul, not the inefficient, politicized, and impersonal way of the Statists!

Personal duty and personal responsibility. Paul brings in the State because he previously exhorted Christians not to seek vengeance. They are commanded to do what many a State has sought to monopolize and control, but to the State alone belongs the power of the sword and nothing else.


September 3, 2001