Hadrian’s cancellation of tax-arrears (CIL VI, 967)

Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Original Location/Place: 
Forum of Trajan, Rome
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Capitoline Museums, Rome. inventory no. 783, F. T. 8
118 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
Front of a marble statue base.
Height: 62cm  
Width: 128cm  
Depth: 22cm  
letter height: 9-12cm  
CIL VI, 967
The above inscription comes from a statue base that was set up in Trajan’s Forum to honour the emperor Hadrian. It is an important source that reflects an aspect of imperial policy within Italy, and also demonstrates the new emperor’s attempt to gain support for his reign from the Roman public, following a series of unfavourable events that occurred following his succession. 
The inscription records an honorific dedication to the emperor Hadrian from the Senate and the People of Rome (Senatus populusque Romanus). It originally adorned a base for a monument, presumably a statue, which was set up in Trajan’s Forum. The text of the inscription states the reason for which the inhabitants of the capital city wished to honour the emperor: he had ‘remitted the number 900,000000 sesterces owed to the fiscus’ (remittendo sestertium novies / milies centena milia nummum debitum fiscis). This referred to the tax arrears owed to the Roman treasury by private debtors in Rome and Italy, the cancellation of which was an extraordinary act of generosity on the part of the emperor. It was related in the Historia Augusta, which included the detail that the tax records that contained the lists of debts were ceremonially burned publically in Trajan’s Forum, eliminating the debts accrued over the fifteen year period between 104-118 CE (Historia Augusta. Life of Hadrian, 6.5 and 7.6; Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXIX.8.1). The inscription claims that Hadrian was the “first and only of the emperors” (primus omnium principum et / solus) to have made such a gesture, and that his generosity ensured not only the future of those debtors so concerned, but also that of? their future descendants (non praesentes tantum cives suos sed / et posteros eorum praestitit hac / liberalitate secures). The cancellation of the debt was clearly an extraordinary and exceptional event; it was recorded not only in the inscription but also in coinage, which depicted the lictor setting fire to a pile of tax records, and also in a series of reliefs, one of which survives, showing a group of soldiers carrying the tax documents past a portico (Coins e.g. BMC III, 417. For the relief, which is now in the collection at Chatsworth House, see Birley, Hadrian, p. 98; Boschung, Hesberg and Lifert, Die antiken Skulpturen in Chatsworth, p. 77-79). Enormous arrears were also cancelled for the provinces, indicating the emperor’s concern for the entirety of the empire, not simply the capital city where his influence was most tangibly felt.
Several reasons for the cancellation of the debt have been proposed; Anthony Birley suggested that it was in response to his now coming “face to face with public opinion,” which in Rome certainly was not especially positive; following Hadrian’s accession four senators in Rome had been accused of a conspiracy against him and put to death, leaving a difficult relationship between Hadrian and the Senate that would endure throughout his reign (Birley, Hadrian, p. 88. For the conspiracy, see Historia Augusta. Life of Hadrian, 7). Aside from the obvious popularity that such a gesture would incur amongst the inhabitants of Rome and the provinces – and which the inscription acknowledges with the correct degree of gratitude – cancelling the debt also reflected Hadrian’s understanding of the fiscal implications of the empire; economic development was a key factor in guaranteeing political stability, and therefore manipulated as a significant part of imperial propaganda (Rovira-Guardiola, “Reshaping the Empire,” p. 120). Public finances had been hit hard by Trajan’s Dacian and Parthian campaigns, and there was a real need to mitigate their impact and create long-lasting resolutions in order to sustain the breadth of Rome’s reach and the infrastructure upon which she survived. Although perhaps appearing to be counter-intuitive, Richard Duncan-Jones has demonstrated that by cancelling the debt, Hadrian’s measure provided much needed stimulus to the Roman economy, with private individuals now feeling encouraged to spend; he argued that the economic peaks that emerged from Hadrian’s fiscal strategy was not so much an advance or development of Rome’s economic policy, but rather evidence for the successful dialogue between emperor and subjects, whose content could be both political (e.g. change of municipal status) and economic (Duncan-Jones, Structure and Scale, p. 66-67).
The cancellation of the debt was, indeed, one factor in a much larger series of reforms instituted by Hadrian, which brought economic relief to the empire. He also cancelled the public contribution for accession to public office in Italy (Historia Augusta. Life of Hadrian, 6.5), and changed the rules regarding the property of condemned persons, so that its value was now added to the public treasury of Rome (aerarium publicum) rather than to the emperor’s private purse (fiscus privatus) (Historia Augusta. Life of Hadrian, 7.7). In Egypt there were significant reductions to taxation on imperial land-holdings and passed the lex Hadriana de rudibus agris in order to better regulate how vacant imperial property might be cultivated by tenant farmers in the whole province of Africa (Rovira-Guardiaola, “Reshaping the Empire,” p. 121-2, n. 17). He undertook further measures to guarantee the production of ‘staple’ foodstuffs across the empire, including measures to ensure that certain quantities of olive oil produced in Attica were reserved for the needs of the city of Athens, and to reinforce the alimenta scheme set up by Trajan in Italy (for detailed discussion of these various measures, see Trajan and the ‘tabula alimentaria’; Boatwright, Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire, p. 83-107).
Hadrian’s strategies to rejuvenate the economic health of the empire were not perhaps as innovative as his building schemes and legal reforms, but they were crucial to his success. Not only did they advertise his liberalitas – generosity – on both a personal and public scale, but they also went some way to ensure the long-term success of Roman power across her varied provinces. There was no unified ‘economic policy,’ but the decisions taken across the empire, which brought meaningful changes to the particular needs of local communities, are reflective of a common aim: to ensure the continuation of production and distribution of products essential for life in the Roman Empire (Rovira-Guardiola, “Reshaping the Empire,” p. 126). Hadrian established a successful economic dialogue with the different inhabitants of the empire, which helped to prevent civil unrest and rural decline; his economic reforms met the needs of the empire pragmatically, with his ideological platform and vision of empire finding more creative expression through architecture and the law. 
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