While the administration of justice was one of the best features of the Eastern Empire, its fiscal system, likewise inherited from the early Empire, was one of its worst. If the government had been acquainted with the principles of public economy, which have not been studied till comparatively recent times, a larger revenue might have been raised without injuring the prosperity of the inhabitants. Taxes were injudiciously imposed and oppressively collected. The commerce of the Empire was one of its great sources of strength, but the government looked on the merchants as a class from which the utmost should be extorted.
The chief source of revenue was the land. The main burdens which fell upon the landed proprietors throughout the whole period were the land tax proper and the annona. The land tax (capitalio terrena = the old tributum of the imperial, slipendium of the senatorial, provinces) was based, not on the yearly produce, but on the capital of the proprietor, the character and value of the land being taken into account. In later times this seems to have become the hearth tax. The annona was an additional impost for supporting the army and imperial officials; it was originally paid in produce.
The province was divided into fiscal districts, and the total revenue to be derived from each was entered in a book of assessment. The assessment was in early times revised every fifteen years (the "indiction" period), but subsequently such revisions seem to have been very irregular. The collection of the taxes was managed through the curial system, while it lasted (till 7th century?). The decurions, or municipal councillors, of the chief town in each district were responsible for collecting and delivering the whole amount, and had to make good the sums owed by defaulters. This system of collective responsibility pressed very heavily on the decurions, and helped to cause their decay in the Western provinces. After the abolition of the curial organization, the principle of collective responsibility remained in the form of the "additional charge"; that is, if a property was left without an owner, the taxes for which it was liable became an extra charge on the other members of the district. The taxes were collected by praktores, who were under the General Logothete. The peasant proprietors were also liable to burdens of other kinds (corvees), of which the most important was the furnishing of horses, vehicles, postboys, &c, for the state post.
It may be noted that individual hereditary proprietorship was always the rule (on crown and monastic lands as well as in other cases), and that the commonly supposed extensive existence of communities possessing land in common is based on erroneous interpretation of documents. When imperial lands were granted to monasteries or as fiefs to individuals, the position and rights of the peasant proprietors on the estates were not changed, but in many cases the imposts were paid to the new master instead of to the fee. In the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries the cultivators were attached to the soil (colont, ascripticii), in the interests of the focus; it has been supposed, on insufficient grounds, that this serfdom was abolished for a time by Leo III, though it is probable that the condition of the peasants was largely changed by the invasions of the 7th century. In any case the system of compulsory attachment of peasants to their lands remained in force, and the class of adscripticii existed till the latest times. The chief sources for agrarian conditions arc, besides the imperial laws, monastic records, among which may be mentioned as specially valuable those of the Monastery of Lemboi near Smyrna.
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