Reading about the tax situation in the late Republic and Principate, puts the time period in a whole new light. The oppressive tax census that is mentioned in the Gospels, for instance, may have been part of an Augustan effort to improve the lot of the exploited tax-payers, according to “Taxation in the Roman State, by Roscoe Pulliam; The Classical Journal, Vol. 19, No. 9 (Jun., 1924), pp. 545-553, a pretty clear, if old, article on taxation of this period. Pulliam says that before the census, provinces were assessed tax figures that bore little resemblance to what the inhabitants could reasonably pay. In addition, before Augustus installed salaried tax collectors, procuratores Augusti, the tax collectors were not paid by the state; instead, tax collectors, publicani, took their pay from the tax-payers. This led to extortion and prohibitively high tax rates not justified by modest Roman needs so much as the needs of the tax farmers and the magistrates whose pockets they lined.
The right to gather the taxes from the provinces was auctioned in Rome prior to Augustus’ reforms. The contractors who bid were the manicipes. The men who went out into the provinces (publicani) were the manicipes’ representatives. The highest bidding contractor would be chosen. He paid up front and then relied on his representatives to recoup the expense and more by gathering taxes from the people in the provinces. These tax farmers were generally equestrians.
Pulliam says that in addition to the taxes in the provinces, there were four main sources of revenue for the state from 167 B.C to the Augustan reforms. The early date is when Rome stopped directly taxing Romans. The four areas were:
(1) Rent from the public land (ager publicus)
(2) Indirect taxes like tariffs, tolls, manumission tax, and auction sales tax.
(3) Royalties from people using state monopolies in mining, fishing, and lumber.
(4) Rare special taxes for war that were more loans than taxes.
Picture courtesy of Wikipedia: The Virgin and St. Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic c. 1315.