Ancient History & Civilisation

VIII

THE ENTR’ACTE

1. THE PROVINCE OF SICILY

The most obvious result of the First Punic War was that Rome had gained control of territory lying outside Italy. By driving the Carthaginians from Sicily she had become arbiter of the island’s fate, and her decision opened a new chapter in her history. Two courses were open: either to apply in Sicily the methods that she had used in Italy or else to maintain the forms of administration with which the Sicilians were already conversant from the rule of Carthage and Syracuse.

In Italy the Romans had applied no theory of state ownership to conquered land; apart from the ager publicus, they exacted no tribute in the form either of the products of the earth or their equivalent in cash. Instead, they had demanded military service from the conquered whom they called allies and whom they allowed thereafter to share their victories and spoils. In Sicily they had at first adopted a similar policy, entering into alliances with Messana and Syracuse. Were they then to extend this system to the whole island, many of whose inhabitants differed from themselves in race, language and tradition? There were serious objections. The experience of many of the natives in political life was small, while their military qualifications were doubtful. Further, the Sicilians themselves would have considered it an intolerable burden to be dragged from their villages and farms to fight in wars about which they had no interest or knowledge. It would be easier for them to pay tribute as they had long been accustomed. And the existence of the practice was a strong factor in determining the policy of the Romans, who preferred to assimilate rather than to destroy; within limits, they were ready to adapt their machinery of government to current needs. To impose tribute was the line of least resistance; it was chosen perhaps without much thought of its implications or possible consequences, but in time it revolutionized the whole conception of government and changed the leader of an Italian federation into an imperial power which ultimately dominated the civilized world.

By establishing a new tribute-paying area Rome sowed the seeds from which her whole provincial system was to develop. But some parts of Sicily fell outside this district. The kingdom of Hiero, which comprised about a quarter of the island, was immune from taxation. By the alliance which he had concluded with Rome ‘for ever’ in 248, he was not even obliged to supply troops, though he voluntarily gave loyal support; but after his death in 215, and the revolt of Syracuse from Rome, Syracuse together with several of her subject cities was made tributary. Another ally of Rome was Messana, which, like many of the Greek cities of southern Italy, had to supply one warship; after the fall of Syracuse (212) Tauromenium and Netum were added to this class of civitates foederatae. To certain other cities Rome had promised autonomy and freedom from obligations in return for their help during the war; and she kept her promise. Halaesa, Centuripa, Segesta and Halicyae from the beginning of the war, and Panormus twelve years later, were all free from taxation though not allied to Rome (civitates immunes); this privilege, not confirmed by treaty, was dependent on their good behaviour and did not free them from Roman jurisdiction. At the other extreme from these free cities and allied cities was any land which the sovereign people of Rome might declare public property, ager publicus; the Roman censors then rented it on leasehold to its former holders. Probably, however, no territory apart from certain official Punic residences was disposed of in this way before the fall of Syracuse.

All these districts comprised about one half of the island. On the other half Rome imposed a regular annual tax, such as some cities had paid to Carthage, others to Syracuse. The dominant powers in Sicily had long collected tithes; Syracuse had done so from the days of Gelon. More recently Hiero had reorganized the assessment and administration of the taxes of his kingdom on very capable lines. He drew up a revenue code which in many respects resembled those of the great Hellenistic monarchies, especially Ptolemaic Egypt; yet it was probably his own work rather than a mere copy or adaptation of existing codes. So efficient was this Lex Hieronica that the Roman magistrates who first went out to govern Sicily decreed that the tithe should be collected on the lines laid down by this code, and the succeeding praetors maintained this practice, which was not embodied in law till the Lex Rupilia was passed in 131. But though Rome followed it in practice, she did not accept, nor perhaps realize, the theory on which it and the Oriental codes rested: that conquest involved full ownership of the conquered soil (dominium in solo provinciali). Instead, she regarded the revenue derived from Sicily as a tax paid by the governed to the state, not as rent paid by tenant to owner.1

The main form of taxation was a tithe on harvested crops (decumana). This system was very fair for an agricultural country, especially one that was subject to drought, for the amount of tithe would fluctuate with seasonal variations. Pasture land, which could not be taxed in this way, was liable to an annual monetary tax levied on every head of grazing stock (scriptura). Harbour-dues (portoria) were imposed on all imports and exports at the rate of 5 per cent. The Romans also reserved for themselves prior rights to buy additional wheat for the plebs at Rome (frumentum emptum), or for the Roman governor’s household (frumentum in cellam). Such requisitions were later regulated by legislation (73 BC).

The collection of the tithe, which followed the methods of Hiero, was equitably managed and prevented Sicily from becoming the prey of Roman tax collectors, who later exploited other provinces. It was not farmed out by contracts let at Rome to individuals or companies, as were the harbour-dues; nor was it administered by state officials, which would have involved the creation of a civil service. Instead it was farmed out to the highest bidder in the province, whether native or Roman; agents of Roman companies were not allowed to bid. Local city magistrates were responsible for listing the farmers, their land and produce. On the basis of such schedules the contractor – often the town itself – could bid in the presence of the Roman magistrate with the prospect of ⅖ per cent profit. He then fixed the exact amount of the tithe with the various farmers, who were protected against injustice, and deposited with the city magistrate copies of all agreements made. The local authorities thus became responsible for the correct delivery of the produce due, which was then paid to a Roman official. So efficient was the system that Cicero could write (in Verr., II, iii, 8, 20): ‘The law of Hiero is so carefully framed that neither in the cornfields, nor on the threshing floors, nor in the barns can the cultivator defraud the collector of one single grain without the severest punishment; nor is it possible for more than the tenth to be extorted from the cultivator against his will.’

The necessity of upholding law and order in the island led to the gradual creation of an administrative system. After her conquest of Italy Rome had administered the annexed districts through the central government at Rome, not by installing permanent officials with imperium in the various localities. But it had been found necessary in the fourth century for judicial reasons to send to various districts legates of the urban praetor (praefecti iure dicundo); and in 267 four quaestors (quaestores classici) had been appointed to given districts to protect the financial interests of the state and to guard the coast. After the First Punic War one of these Italic quaestors was apparently sent to Lilybaeum, whence he could direct the administration of the island. But soon it became clear that the duties of such a governor required the possession of full imperium, which was not inherent in the quaestorship. A magistrate, such as the consul or praetor, was needed. And so in about 227, after Rome had gained control of Sardinia as well as Sicily, the annual number of praetors was raised from two to four; two of them continued to serve in Rome, while two went to the islands. From this time the word provincia, which meant the sphere within which a magistrate exercised his imperium, began to be applied more particularly to these foreign spheres outside Italy: her overseas provinces.

The provincial praetor exercised wide powers. He controlled the general administration of the province, the local authorities and all public works; he commanded all the land and sea forces within his province; and he was the supreme judge in civil and criminal cases. He was supported by a large staff, consisting of one subordinate magistrate, the quaestor (there were two in Sicily after 210), one or more senatorial legati, to whom he might delegate any business, and a number of ‘comrades’ (comites), young men whom he initiated in the routine of official life. Theoretically he remained the colleague of the other praetors and exercised less authority than the consuls. In practice, however, being far from the control of these magistrates, unchecked by the principle of collegiality, unhampered by the tribunician veto, with his judgments not subjected to the right of appeal (except in the case of Roman citizens), he wielded almost kingly power. And Verres proved to the unfortunate Sicilians towards the end of the Republic that a provincial praetor could become a local tyrant. But on the other hand his tenure of office was short, so that he could soon be called to task at Rome; he was checked by the local liberties granted to privileged cities under the official charter of the province (the lex provinciae); while the peaceful condition of a quiet province like Sicily precluded the use or abuse of much military power.

Under the strong hand of Rome, which had crushed the ancient struggle of Greek and Carthaginian in Sicily, the natives prospered. Their cities remained autonomous in local administration and they continued in increasing number to issue their own coinage. Within each city the popular assembly and the council still transacted business. Little attempt was made to adapt the municipal authorities to the Roman form, although the smaller membership of the councils made them easier bodies to deal with than the assemblies, thus giving a slightly anti-democratic bias. It is uncertain how far members of one community were forbidden the right to deal or hold property (commercium) or to marry (conubium) in another; Segesta was not allowed commercium, probably to safeguard her, while Centuripa was granted the somewhat doubtful privilege. The judicial machinery which was gradually created illustrates the fairness of the Roman rule. Cicero records (in Verr., II, ii, 13, 32) that in a suit between citizens of the same state the trial should be held in that state and in accordance with the native code; this would not preclude an appeal to the governor. When a Sicilian sued a member of another state, the praetor chose the judge by lot (he could be a Roman citizen). In suits between an individual and a state not his own, the Senate of a third state became judge. In litigation between natives and Roman citizens, the judge was to be of the nationality of the defendant.

Such in brief was the scheme of taxation and administration which the Romans adopted in their first province, though many of the details were naturally only elaborated in the course of time and the quarter of the island which Hiero ruled was not added to the tithe-paying portion till after his death. With their interests protected the Sicilians prospered, and many must have realized that they were receiving considerable compensation for the tithe they now paid to Rome. They were freed from the heavy hand of Carthage who had sought to monopolize their trade; they were immune from exploitation by tax-gatherers; they were ruled efficiently by governors who for many years were just and honourable men; and when Rome again entered the lists with Carthage, their loyalty to Rome showed which of the two Republics they preferred as mistress.

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