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Serfdom by Contract in the Late Roman Empire

Morris Silver, City College of New York (CUNY) - Economics Department


"Serfdom by Contract in the Late Roman Empire" Free Download

MORRIS SILVER, City College of New York (CUNY) - Economics Department

Legal codes and other documents of the late Roman Empire reveal a system, the colonate, which resembles serfdom in the Middle Ages. Farmers (coloni) had their (head and land) taxes paid by estate owners in whose census rolls they were registered. If the land changed ownership coloni were entitled to stay and were registered in the tax roll of the new owner. However, coloni and their offspring lacked the right to migrate. The paper argues that the pristine or original form of the colonate is a voluntary contractual arrangement among free farmers, estate owners, and the imperial Fiscus which acquired a public law dimension because it required a change in the personal status of the farmer. By means of this serfdom contract the contractors expected to share in the aggregate gains from reducing tax-collection costs and from stabilizing tax revenues. The paper goes on to suggest that a secondary or derived form of the serfdom contract probably emerged in response to the Roman state’s interventions in credit markets. The paper next considers the implications of the colonate for economic efficiency and concludes with some observations on the reasons for changes over time in its importance.


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This eJournal distributes working and accepted paper abstracts having a primary focus on the social history of Greece and Rome. The subcategory for Greek Daily Life has four subdivisions: Aegean Bronze Age, Greek Dark Ages, Classical Greece, Hellenistic Greece; and the subcategory for Roman Daily Life has six subdivisions: Etruscan & Early Italian, Early Republic, Middle & Late Republic, Early Empire, Middle & Late Empire, Late Antiquity. Papers covering more than one period will appear in as many as are appropriate. Papers that deal with society in the ancient world from a more comprehensive point of view will appear in the General category. Additional subcategories and/or subdivisions of them will be added as appropriate.


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