The local assemblies of “decuriones” made the Roman Empire great and victorious. Tax injustice destroyed them—and the Empire itself.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*Conclusions of the webinar “How an Effective Democracy Can Protect Religious Liberty and Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on June 30, 2023, International Day of Parliamentarianism.
We heard in this and other webinars a good deal of comments and testimonies about how effective democracy requires tax justice. In turn, democratic institutions generally favor the prosperity of nations.
The word “democracy” had a different meaning in classic European antiquity, as only the wealthy participated in its assemblies. Yet, it would be a mistake to consider one of the most successful and victorious political organizations of all times, the Roman Empire, a totally non-democratic institution. While rarely capable of challenging the Emperors, the Senate in Rome remained a significant presence. However, what I want to discuss today are the less well-known local assemblies of decurions: how they powerfully contributed to the prosperity of the Empire, and how they were destroyed by tax injustice, finally leading to the end of the Empire itself.
A possible confusion may arise from the fact that “decurion” indicated in the Roman Empire two totally unrelated functions, which had in common only the name. In the army, a decurion was an officer commanding a squadron of cavalry. In the civil administration, a decurion was a member of a local assembly, the local version of the Senate, in charge of administering a city or a colony and its finances. I am dealing today with this second meaning of the word “decurion.”
The assemblies of decurions were recruited in different ways, either elected or appointed, and included the most prominent and richest citizens of the area they administered. That the decurions were authoritative citizens was generally recognized, and in the first two centuries of the Common Era their assemblies were remarkably effective. The decurions had their roots in the territory, and all interest in protecting it, including from the rapacity of the imperial tax officers.
Taxes were part of the decurions’ mandate, and often they collected them, but originally taxpayers perceived them as their representatives, as American scholar Benjamin W. Wells noted in the 1920s. If they collected more taxes than expected, they redistributed the surplus among the taxpayers, something which should remain to this day a principle of tax justice but one that not all countries practice.
However, by the second century of the Common Era, the Roman Empire had entered into a dramatic tax crisis, which had different causes: the demographic problems (the birth rate dropped dramatically, hence there were less citizens to tax), the corruption of the bureaucrats and the petty tax collectors (publicans), and the unwise and sometimes extravagant expenses of the Emperors and the Imperial court. The reaction was the same of all empires and states that march to their ruin without realizing it. Rather than tax reform, they introduced tax increases. Since decurions were rich, Emperor Caracalla in the third century decided that if a city did not reach its quota of taxes, they should pay from their own pockets.
The predictable result was that nobody wanted to be a decurion any longer, and in the fourth century two Imperial edicts made the position hereditary. The son of a decurion was compelled to become himself a decurion. They tried to avoid this by escaping from their towns, but they were arrested, tortured, and in some cases executed. This led to the end of the assemblies of decurions as effective “parliaments” ruling the Roman cities, which fell prey to warlords and the most dishonest among the bureaucrats.
Mark the date: fourth century. In the fifth century, as we all know, the Roman Empire in the West came to an end. The tax crisis emerged from a demographic and moral crisis. But it was the tax crisis that put an end to the Roman Empire. Although many historians have emphasized this point, few have noted how the end also came because the local “parliamentarianism” of the assemblies of decurions was destroyed by tax injustice and was no longer allowed to effectively administer the territory.
This is one among many historical proofs that tax injustice destroys countries and even mighty empires. There is often a short window of opportunity when tax reform may save them. The Romans missed this opportunity.
We keep hearing in our webinars similar stories about Taiwan. When we started these webinars, some of us had the impression that the Tai Ji Men case was a single, isolate one, arising from the craziness of a single prosecutor who even accused the movement’s leader of raising goblins. We have now learned that this is not the case.
The Tai Ji Men dizi (disciples), intelligently, took the opportunity of studying and protesting their case to uncover systemic problems of tax injustice in Taiwan. The Roman Empire, weakened by tax injustice, fell when aggressive neighbors decided to attack and put an end to it. If I were a Taiwanese politician, I would wonder whether there is not a risk that this ancient story may repeat itself in modern Taiwan.