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For centuries the monetary affairs of the Roman Republic had rested in the hands of the Senate. These elite liked to present themselves as steady and fiscally conservative, but as the 19th-century historian of Rome Wilhelm Ihne remarked:
|“||Though individually the Romans were exceedingly economical and careful in the management of their private property, the state as such was extravagant and careless with the state revenue. It was found impossible to protect the public property from being plundered by private individuals, and the feeling of powerlessness resulted in reckless indifference. It was felt that revenues which could not be preserved intact and devoted to the common good were of no value to the state and might as well be abandoned.||”|
The aerarium (state treasury) was supervised by members of the government rising in power and prestige, the Quaestors, Praetors, and eventually the Prefects. With the dawn of the Roman Empire, a major change took place, as the emperors assumed the reins of financial control. Augustus adopted a system that was, on the surface, fair to the senate. Just as the world was divided in provinces designated as imperial or senatorial, so was the treasury. All tribute brought in from senatorially controlled provinces was given to the aerarium, while that of the imperial territories went to the treasury of the emperor, the fiscus.
Initially, this process of distribution seemed to work, although the legal technicality did not disguise the supremacy of the emperor or his often used right to transfer funds back and forth regularly from the aerarium to the fiscus. The fiscus actually took shape after the reign of Augustus and Tiberius. It began as a private fund (fiscus meaning purse or basket) but grew to include all imperial monies, not only the private estates but also all public lands and finances under the imperial eye.
The property of the rulers grew to such an extent that changes had to be made starting sometime in the 3rd century, most certainly under Septimius Severus. Henceforth the imperial treasury was divided. The fiscus was retained to handle actual government revenue, while a patrimonium was created to hold the private fortune, the inheritance of the royal house. There is a considerable question as to the exact nature of this evaluation, involving possibly a res privata so common in the Late Empire.
Just as the senate had its own finance officers, so did the emperors. The head of the fiscus in the first years was the rationalis, originally a freedman due to Augustus' desire to place the office in the hands of a servant free of the class demands of the traditional society. In succeeding years the corruption and reputation of the freedman forced new and more reliable administrators. From the time of Hadrian (117-138), any rationalis hailed from the Equestrian Order (equites) and remained so through the chaos of the 3rd century and into the age of Diocletian.
With Diocletian came a series of massive reforms, and total control over the finances of the Empire fell to the now stronger central government. Under Constantine this aggrandizement continued with the emergence of an appointed minister of finance, the comes sacrarum largitionum (count of the sacred largesses). He maintained the general treasury and the intake of all revenue. His powers were directed toward control of the new sacrum aerarium, the result of the combination of the aerarium and the fiscus.
The comes sacrarum largitionum was a figure of tremendous influence. He was responsible for all taxes, examined banks, mints and mines everywhere, watched over all forms of industry, and paid out the budgets of the many departments of the state. To accomplish these many tasks, he was aided by a vast bureaucracy. Just below the comes sacrarum were the rationales positioned in each diocese. They acted as territorial chiefs, sending out agents, the rationales summarum, to collect all money in tribute, taxes, or fees. They could go virtually anywhere and were the most visible extension of the government in the 4th and 5th centuries.
Only the praetorian prefects who were responsible for the supply of the army, the imperial armament factories, weaving mills, the maintenance of the state post and the magister officiorum and the comes rerum privatarum could counter the political and financial weight of the comes sacrarum largitionum. The magister officiorum (master of offices) made all the major decisions concerning intelligence matters, receiving a large budget, over which the comes sacrarum largitionum probably only had partial authority. After the end of Constantine's reign the comes sacrarum largitionum gradually lost power to the prefects as the taxes of his department came to be collected more and more in gold rather than in kin. By the 5th century their diocesan level staff were no longer of much importance, although they continued in their duties.
Given the increased size of the imperial estates and holdings, the res privata not only survived but was also officially divided into two different treasuries, the res privatae of actual lands and the patromonium sacrae, or imperial inheritance. Both were under the jurisdiction of the comes rerum privatarum. He also took in any rents or dues from imperial lands and territories.
- Agentes in rebus
- Roman commerce
- Roman economy
- Wilhelm Ihne, The History of Rome (London, 1884), vol. 4, p. 156, full text online.
- Jean Andreau, Banking and Business in the Roman World, translated by Janet Lloyd (Cambridge University Press, 1999). Limited preview online.