Matthew at the Toll Gate: Part 6

roman-roadMatthew was a toll taker, not an ordinary collector of taxes. So what did it entail being a toll taker?

  1. Origin of the Word Portorium and its Meaning

First, toll which were collected in  what we would call today the middle eastern provinces was the largest single source of revenue for the Roman government.  The collection of tolls was of ancient origin in the Roman state.  the word in Latin is portorium.  This word originally meant the cost applied to goods which were carried over a bridge.  In Matthew’s era, the portorium was the duty paid on imported and exported goods, as well as goods carried through the country and over bridges.  (NB: The plural of portorium is portoria.)  The persons who collected the portorium were called portitores.  Portitores were also known as publican, although the later term applies to anyone under contract to provide goods and/or services to the Roman state.

From time to time portoria were abolished and then were later imposed yet again, as the need arose.  Thus the republic for a time only levied import and export duties in the provinces, until Julius Caesar restored the duties on commodities imported from foreign countries . During the triumvirate new portoria were introduced , and Augustus partly increased the old import duties and partly instituted new ones. The subsequent emperors increased or diminished this branch of the revenue as necessity required, or as their own discretion dictated.

  1. What Goods Were Subject to the Portortium

Portoria applies generally to all goods.  Thus, all commodities, including slaves, which were imported by merchants for the purpose of selling them again, were subject to the portorium; whereas things which a person brought with him for his own use, were exempted from it.  Many things, however, which belonged more to the luxuries than to the necessities of life, such as eunuchs and handsome youths, had to pay an import duty, even though they were imported by persons for their own use . Things which were imported for the use of the state were also exempt from the portorium.   The portitores had to fight against smuggling, for smuggling appears to have been as common among the Romans as in modern times.  Thus, the portitores had the right to inspect persons and good passing through their toll stations,.  Typically, there were Roman soldiers stationed at the tool station to enforce the orders of the portitores. If goods subject to a duty were concealed, they were, on their discovery, confiscated..

  1. Rate of the Portorium

Respecting the amount of the import or export duties we have but very few statements in the ancient writers. In Cicero’s era, the portorium in the ports of Sicily was one-twentieth (vicesima) of the value of taxable article.  This was also the customary rate in Greece.

In the times of the emperors, the ordinary rate of the portorium appears to have been the fortieth part (quadragesima) of the value of imported goods  At a late period, the exorbitant sum of one-eighth is mentioned as the ordinary import duty; but it is uncertain whether this is the duty for all articles of commerce, or merely for certain things.  See below, in the collections process for further information concerning the rate at which goods were taxed.

  1. Evidence of the Portorium

Customs were omnipresent in the Roman Empire. Under the designation of portorium, a lot of inhabitants of the Roman Empire and Roman citizens were involved in paying customs duties or in administration—either as taxpayers (mostly tradesmen) or within the administration process as tax collectors or state authorities.

Nonetheless, the source material for this important revenue factor in the Roman State is scattered; only a few texts concern portoria, while the main evidence comes from inscriptions and papyri, and a small amount from numismatics.

Monuments and inscriptions in Ephesus,  Kaunos, Andriake, Zarai, Myra, and Palmyra  give us information as to rates charged on various goods, goods that were taxed, as well as the collections process.

Next week we will continue starting with a review of the collections process.



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