Taxation was a primary industry of the governor and his aides. Under the Empire a census was taken of every province for the purpose of assessing the tax on land and the tax on property- which included animals and slaves. To stimulate production a fixed tribute was substituted for the tithe. “Publicans” no longer gathered these taxes, but they collected port duties and managed some state forests, mines, and public works. The provinces were expected to contribute towards a golden crown for each new emperor, pay the cost of provincial administration, and in some cases send heavy shipments of grain to Rome. The old custom of liturgies was maintained in the East, and spread through the West, by which the local or the Roman government might “ask” rich men to provide loans for war, ships for the navy, buildings for public purposes, food for famine victims, or choruses for festivals and plays.
Cicero, having joined the Ins, contended that the taxes paid by the provinces barely covered the cost of administration and defense; “defense” included the suppression of revolts, and “administration” presumably embraced the perquisites that made so many Roman millionaires. We must reconcile ourselves to the probability that whatever power establishes security and order will send taxgatherers to collect something more than the cost. Despite all levies the provinces prospered under the Principate.
The emperor and the Senate exercised a more careful supervision over provincial staffs and severely punished those who stole beyond their station. Ultimately the excess taken from the provinces flowed back to them in payment for their goods; and in the end the industries so supported made the provinces stronger than a precariously parasitic Italy. A government, said Plutarch, ought to give a people two boons above all: liberty and peace. “As to peace,” he wrote, “there is no need to occupy ourselves, for all war has ceased. As to liberty, we have that which the government [Rome] leaves us; and perhaps it would not be good if we had any more.”
Corsica and Sardinia were classed together as a province, not as parts of Italy. Corsica was for the most part a mountainous wilderness, in which Romans hunted the natives with dogs to sell them as slaves. Sardinia provided slaves, silver, copper, iron, and grain; it had a thousand miles of road and one excellent harbor, Carales (Cagliari). Sicily had been reduced to an almost purely agricultural province as one of the “frumentary supports” of Rome; its arable soil was largely taken up with latifundia devoted to cattle raising, and manned by slaves so poorly clothed and fed that they periodically revolted and escaped to form robber bands. The island had in Augustus’ days some 750,000 souls. (In 1930 it had 3,972,000.)
Of its sixty-five cities the most flourishing were Catania, Syracuse, Tauromenium (Taormina), Messana, Agrigentum, and Panormus (Palermo). Syracuse and Tauromenium had magnificent Greek theaters, still in use today. Despite Verres’ depredations Syracuse was so full of impressive architecture, famous sculptures, and historic sites that professional guides prospered on the tourist trade, and Cicero considered it the finest city in the world. Most well-to-do urban families had farms or orchards in the suburbs, and the whole Sicilian countryside was fragrant with fruit trees and vineyards, as it is today.