A census is an official count of population and property. Since ancient times, governments have used census information to determine people’s liability for taxation and military service. The Roman census is thought to have originated in the 500s B.C. during the reign of King Servius Tullius. In the city of Rome itself, kings and consuls* conducted the census until about 443 B.C. It then became the responsibility of officials called censors*. Local magistrates or officials, as representatives of the censors, conducted the census in other Italian cities and in Roman provinces.
In a census, adult male citizens had to report such information as their age, occupation, and residence; the estimated value of their property and wealth; and the names and ages of the wives and children in their families. This information was recorded in an official declaration called a professio, and the individual had to swear an oath that the information was correct. Penalties for failing to make a professio included seizure of property, public beatings, and enslavement. The information from the census determined an individual’s rank in society, and this became the basis for imposing taxes and determining military obligations.
* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year
* censor Roman official who conducted the census, assigned state contracts for public projects (such as building roads), and supervised public morality
The first censuses applied only to Roman citizens living in Rome and Italy. However, as the empire expanded, the Roman government extended the census to the provinces as well. In the early years of the Roman Republic, the census in Italy normally was held every four or five years. After 80 B.C., it became more infrequent and irregular as the tax burden shifted to the provinces. The last census in Italy was taken sometime between A.D. 69 and 79 during the reign of the emperor Vespasian. In other parts of the empire, censuses continued to be taken for hundreds of years. (See also Censor and Censorship, Roman; Class Structure, Roman; Government, Roman; Taxation.)