How the peasants became serfs


The difference between a peasant and a serf is that the serf is ‘tied to the land’. The peasant can, at least in theory, move around, to another land holding or more frequently to the town; but the serf may not, he is tied. And this difference came about in the reforms of Diocletian.

The story is a complex one, which began in the efforts to collect taxation.  In many ways, Diocletian’s reforms can be presented as a tidying up of the old system.The great 19th-century historian J. B. Bury said that it was it was aimed at ‘equalisation and uniformity’ and indeed many aspects of the new system were a regularising of changes which had already been partially made before, changes that had been gradually brought about by the chaos of the third century. But in the reforms of Diocletian, these temporary arrangements were made permanent, and in the interests of the efficient collection of taxation, the freedom of a large part of the population was lost.

It is often held against the Romans that they introduced taxation. This is a little unfair, because it assumes that before taxation was invented, people had no obligations to their rulers. In fact we can be sure that in pre-market economies, there would have been an elaborate network of obligations generally considered under the headings of tribute, or dues, or more generally gift exchange. Not only would there have been an obligation to give up a portion of one’s harvest to the rulers, but there would also have been obligations for service, to serve on the lord’s land two days in the week (or however time was calculated), or a week every month, and to accompany him when he went on his annual raids against his neighbours every spring. (Click here for an account of how the British tried to assess taxation in 19th century India).

These obligations underlie what is often called the feudal or manorial system in Medieval Europe, but they are the norm among all pre-market economies. When markets and money are introduced, these obligations can be replaced by a tax paid in money, and a great burden is lifted. The break was not always complete and money taxes never completely replaced tax in kind. Nevertheless the principle existed and as far as one can make out in the golden age of the Roman Empire, in the first two centuries following Augustus, money taxes formed the major source of revenue for the state and the major burden placed on its subjects.

Admittedly in the Republican era, the effect was somewhat tarnished by handing the collection over to tax farmers, the publicani. This was a system whereby the publicani bid for the right to collect taxes from a province and the highest bidder won. But since any excess they collected from the farming was theirs, they became rapacious and many of them became very rich indeed. But it was left up to them to determine how and in what form the tax was to be collected. It is possible that they sometimes acted as intermediaries and accepted produce which they converted into money or arranged with the state to deliver the produce direct to the army. But they did not impose the corvee, the duty of labour, and being outsiders it probably meant that the often stifling nexus of family and kinship ties were broken.

As in so much else, Augustus reformed the system, replacing the publicani by paid officials and regularising the direct taxes into a poll tax and a tax on land. There were also indirect taxes, some of which seem familiar, others not: there was a death duty on large estates if left to persons other than the next of kin; but instead of the 40% payable today, it was only 5%; and then there was a 1% tax on goods sold at auction, which was the equivalent of our 17.5% VAT. There were also what are to us rather unusual taxes, such as a 4% tax on the price of slaves when they were freed. Nevertheless it is essentially a system of taxes rather than dues, and although in practice the tax on land may sometimes have been paid in kind, there is little hint of the extraction of labour duties: your time was your own.

But taxation runs into problems at a time of inflation. Inflation at first is a great benefit to the state, as debasement enables more money to be coined at no cost. But it soon runs into problems, for taxes are paid in the debased coins at amounts set in the old coinage. Admittedly this to some extent balances itself out, as the state then pays the soldiers at the old rates. But the soldiers soon object and taxes must be raised yet again. It is a circular process. And by the end of the third century, constant inflation meant that taxation was raising ever smaller amounts of real value. How could it be replaced?

The answer is to revert to the financial arrangements of the pre-money or non-money economy and to replace money tax by with a tax in kind, which is just what happened in Diocletian’s reforms. The old taxes still continued to be levied: there was the poll tax and the old land tax known as tribute, but both were overshadowed by a new tax called the annona. Annona was originally a goddess of the harvest, and in times of crisis, a special emergency tax would be levied to feed the army. But during the third century, such emergency taxes were levied ever more frequently and ever more heavily: with inflation, the soldier’s salary no longer covered the cost of food, so they began to receive an allowance of food instead. This practice was systematically organised by Diocletian. The supply of provisions, — consisting of corn, oil, wine, salt, pork, and mutton — necessary to feed a soldier for a year, was calculated and was called the annona. In the course of the fourth century, the principle was extended and even civil officials received salaries in kind.

This is the crucial break. The tax is now collected in kind and not in money and this marks the reversion to a non-market economy. This will become clear if we consider the way in which taxes were collected. A census had to be taken to assess the basis on which the tax was levied. This was in places extraordinarily complex. In Syria for instance the land tax was assessed in various bands, with three different bands for arable, and quite separate bands for vineyards and olive groves. It was assessed on the basis of a iuga, which was the amount of produce that one man and his family could be expected to produce.

The census became the basis on which peasants became tied to the land. In a document from Egypt it is laid down that for the purposes of this census every body must return to their home village. But once the census had established the taxation to be levied, as the produce of so many people, then there was a tendency to insist that once one was recorded on a census, that was one’s legal place of residence. One could not move away from it, and furthermore your children had to continue to cultivate the land and provide the taxes. This completely breaks with the right of migration that had been granted so many years ago by the ius Latinum, the Latin right.

This is the classic definition of serfdom. A serf is someone tied to the soil and who cannot move away. It is sometimes remarked that communist Russia still remained a serf society because permission was needed for travel and one could not move away from your registered place of residence. Certainly in 19th century Russia, this was very much the basis of serfdom and all its problems. Some authors, notably Professor Keith Hopkins have argued that serfdom existed throughout the Roman Empire, but this is patently not true for the Golden Age. Indeed the ius migrationis is one of the core features of Latin rights, and was one of the aspects that made membership of the Roman world so attractive.

But all this came to an end with Diocletian when the right to migrate no longer existed. True, Latin rights had long been a dead letter and had been to a certain extent replaced by the Ius Italicum, the Italian right, which meant that towns in Italy and certain towns outside Italy, notably the colonies, did not have to pay taxes, or at least as many taxes as did other towns. But again the ius italicum was made a dead letter by Diocletian when all cities in Italy were subject to taxation. Thus the reforms of taxation marked two different stages in the descent from civilisation to barbarism, in that they both replaced a money tax by a tax in kind and also replaced the right to migrate by a system that reduced much of the free population to a state of serfdom.

At the same time, the balance was changing between town and countryside. The towns were traditionally the centre of Greek and Roman civilisation. Your citizenship depended on your belonging to a town, and within the towns the leading citizens vied with each other to provide facilities for their town, often in the form of games, sometimes more usefully in the form of architecture, and many of the leading features of classical architecture that we see in the towns were paid for by individual members of the town council.

In the third century, all this changed. The town council was expected to maintain the town and indeed to collect the taxes and the decurions, or magistrates, were responsible for the taxes to which the estates and farms of the district were liable, and thus being a decurion ceased to be a privilege, but became a heavy burden which people sought to avoid.

But if the towns were losing their importance, there were changes too in the countryside. Here the gap between rich and poor widened. One realises how great a leveller is the market place, where one depends for one’s prosperity largely on one’s own ability, and not on the land or position that one has inherited. But in the fourth century, land and its inheritance became all important and land holdings became consolidated into huge estates often with a great villa at their centre; in Roman Britain we have a number of these great fourth century villas which were basically palaces in form.

The crucial question is the position of the tenant farmers, or colonus. In the first and second centuries, tenant farmers flourished, as big landowners found it more profitable to lease out their property to small farmers who paid a rent. Such small farmers were perfectly free to give up their farms at the end of their tenancies, normally for five years, though inevitably for most one stayed on the same farm for all one’s life. But the option to move was always present.

In the 3rd century however, the terms of trade moved against the small farmers, in particular the ever increasing tax demands meant that many of the small farms became unprofitable and the tenants were tempted to give them up and slide away to the cities. Thus many small farms became deserted and the solution was to tie the tenants down and forbid them to move. What happened in practice is that some of the smaller individual farms were abandoned and the cultivators moved into villages.

The same thing was happening in many other trades and professions. In the army in particular recruitment became difficult. In the second century, it was still possible to offer attractive service in the Roman army to Barbarians living beyond the frontier. Many of the troops that served on Hadrian’s Wall had been recruited in Germany and one suspects that in the 2nd century German was heard as frequently on Hadrian’s Wall as was the British language, or Latin. But by the third and fourth centuries, this was no longer possible and it was necessary to lay down that the sons of veterans were obliged to serve in the army too.

Trades were affected too, particularly those concerned with the vital necessity of feeding the population of Rome, that is the shippers and the bakers. The ship owners who owned the ships that brought grain to Rome from Egypt and North Africa had always had a close relationship with the government both in paying extraordinary taxes and having special duties placed on them, and at the same time having extraordinary privileges from the government. Bakers too became a hereditary trade. In many ways the baker is the archetypal capitalist, the touchstone of the existence of the market economy, someone who buys flour from the farmers and then sells it as bread to the end users, and thus a restriction on the bakers signalled in many ways the breakdown of the market economy.


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