Death and Taxes: An Imperial Revenue Office in Byzantine Caesarea

Few people are particularly eager to pay their taxes. Whatever worthy causes one’s taxes go toward, most people would prefer to keep the money in their own pockets. This sentiment is hardly new, though the governor of Byzantine Caesarea had a particularly clever way of discouraging resentment.

In 77/8 CE, the emperor Vespasian and his son Titus built a gubernatorial palace in Caesarea, alongside one built by Herod the Great a century earlier.1 By the fourth century, Herod’s palace had dilapidated to the point where it was unusable and all administrative functions were transferred to Vespasian’s building.2 These new inhabitants included a number of bureaucrats who worked with imperial income. As part of the move, a number of mosaic floors were laid, several of which mention these revenue officers and their work. One inscription, for instance, uses the technical terms of the time to ask the Christian god to oversee their work: “Christ, help Ampelios the chartoularios (i.e., clerk) and Mousonios the noumerarios (i.e., accountant) and the rest of the chartularioi of the same skrinion (i.e., provincial office).”3 Another mosaic asks the same divine favour for a magister named Marinos. In a time where separation of church and state is highly valued, it can be striking to see how overtly theological this phrasing is!

It is also peculiar that relatively low-level functionaries have been immortalized in a permanent mosaic – these men are otherwise unknown and were merely low-level bureaucrats. It is not obvious why these particular men were named, but another inscription gives the impression that at least some other low-level administrators acted as patrons for a refurnishing of the building. One such mosaic reads, “The hypoboethoi (subadjutors) made this in thanksgiving.”4 Hypoboethoi were assistants of lower rank in the judicial or fiscal administration, but the particular phrasing here suggests that they played a role in funding the mosaic that mentions them. It is not certain, but Ampelios, Mousonios, and Marinos may be mentioned for similar reasons.

With this in mind, we might turn to two inscriptions where it becomes clear how these bureaucrats tired to link civic responsibility with godly behaviour. A schedule of fee indicate that the building housed a bureaucrats that served the range of society: the praefectianus, for instance, tended to adjudicate litigation involving society’s elite, even if they merely served as the staff of the prefect; by contrast, the dux oversaw cases involving soldiers and other military men; the civil governor oversaw cases involving most people (i.e., those without the legal privilege term praescriptio fori).

Two waiting rooms that served as the public entrance to the building survive, which would have held this diverse array of litigants. An inscription found in one of these waiting rooms reads, “Do you wish have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will receive its approval.”5 If this quotation sounds familiar, it is because it is a direct citation of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans (13:3). In the other waiting room, Paul’s quotation is paraphrased to make it even more direct: “Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do good!”6 It is hard to imagine that this location was accidental, as it implicitly links the Caesarean administrators with the civil authorities for which Paul demands respect. In effect, the inscriptions assure those waiting that civic responsibility entails a clean conscience and are part of a godly life. There are several other explicitly Christian inscriptions found throughout the building (e.g., CAES0140).

In terms of the actual labour done at the office, another inscription gives us a clear sense of what went on, listing the fees for various services proffered. Most of these were various forms of paperwork, such as transcripts of legal hearings, payments for memoranda, and the like. Particularly interesting is how certain staff members were given tips; the inscription specifies: “In the prefecture of Orient, the praefectianus sent to collect taxes shall receive as a sportulae one solidus for each hundred collected.”7 Sportulae had been illegal for much of Roman history, but by the 5th century CE, it made more sense to legalize and regulate such income than force it entirely under the table. During earlier periods, sportulae were tips to the adjudicator for successful legal cases, thus acting as de facto bribes, but by the 5th century they were understood as a mandatory fee that were subject to legal regulations.8 Even so, the maximum income via sportulae was substantial; the solidus was a gold Byzantine coin of considerable value (about a month and a half’s pay for a soldier), which led sportulae to be capped at eight solidi in the region. Sportulae put most holiday bonuses to shame!


Chitwood, Zachary. 2017. Byzantine Legal Culture and the Roman Legal Tradition 867-1056. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Habelt, Rudolf. 2003. “A Schedule of Fees (sportulae) for Official Services from Caesarea Maritima, Israel.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 145: 273-300.

Jones, A. H. M. 1953. “Inflation Under the Roman Empire.” Economic History Review 5: 293-318.

Patrich, Joseph. 1997. “A Government Compound in Roman-Byzantine Caesarea.” Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies 1997: 35-44.

Patrich, Joseph. 2010. “The Praetoria of Caesarea Maritima.” In IMPERIUM – Varus und seine Zeit: Beiträge zum internationalen Kolloquium des LWL-Römermuseums am 28. und 29. April 2008 in Münster, edited by Rudolf Aßkamp and Tobias Esch, 175-186. Veröffentlichungen der Altertumskomission für Westfalen Landschaftesverband Westfalen-Lippe 18. Münster: Aschendorff.

Patrich, Joseph. 2011. Studies in the Archaeology and History of Caesarea Maritima: Caput Judaea, Metropolis Palaestinae, Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity 77. Leiden: Brill.

Patrich, Joseph. 2014. “The Architectural Evolution of the Late Antique Revenue Office at Caesarea Maritima.” In Knowledge and Wisdom: Archaeological and Historical Essays in Honour of Leah Di Segni, edited by Giovanni Claudio Bottini, Leslaw Daniel Chrupcala and Joseph Patrich, 63-87. Publications of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum: Collectio Maior 54. Milan: Terra Santa.

  1. Patrich 2014: 181 
  2. Patrich 1997 
  3. Caes0088 
  4. Patrich 2010 
  5. Patrich 2011: 213 
  6. Patrich 2010: 181 
  7. Chitwood 2017: 53-54 
  8. Habelt 2003: 283; Jones 1953: 308 

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