Taxing Times

The economic history of the Jews in Palestine in late antiquity

Print this page Print this page

When direct Roman rule was reasserted in the year 6 CE, taxation increased. The Roman historian Tacitus noted how "exhausted" Palestine and Syria were from the long years of taxation under the emperor Tiberius. Most taxes under the Romans were based on a poll tax, a tax on property, and a tax on agricultural produce. Associations of tax farmers bid on the right to collect the taxes; they kept whatever they could extract beyond what they needed to meet their bid.

Palestine during this period was marked by a tremendous gap in wealth. This was exacerbated by the high rates of indebtedness of the poor to the rich. The resulting economic tensions contributed to the civil unrest that took place in the context of the Great Revolt against Rome (66-70 CE) one of the first events of the war was the burning of the debt records (Jewish War 2:427).

After the First Jewish War (70-220 CE)

As a result of the Great Revolt and the siege of Jerusalem, Judea was impoverished. The emperor Vespasian appropriated much of the land, and many Jews became tenant farmers and hired laborers. With the destruction of the Temple, the Romans transformed the contributions to the Temple into the fiscus Judaicus (Jewish tax) levied on all Jews--men, women, children, and slaves. Much of Palestine was reduced to a subsistence-level economy.

The situation in Galilee, however, may have been quite different. With the exception of Jotapata, most of then northern towns surrendered rather quickly and were spared major disruption. Certainly there seems to have been a period of general peace and restoration in the Galilee until the outbreak of the Second Revolt (the Bar Kokhba Revolt, 132-135) under the emperor Hadrian. The Mishnah certainly gives the impression of a fairly broad class of small landholders, and even after 135 CE, this does not seem to have changed.

From the Publication of the Mishnah to the Byzantine Period (220-600 CE)

Jewish relations with Rome reached a high point during the patriarchate of Rabbi Judah. When the emperor Alexander Severus died (235 C.E.), the empire fell into economic and political chaos. Inflation debased the currency, and new forms of taxation were instituted, including forced labor, billeting soldiers, and providing supplies for the army.

Heavy taxation and inflation led to areas of economic collapse; rabbinic literature attests to the widespread phenomenon of land-abandonment in order to avoid taxation. This had two significant results: displaced rural farmers moved into cities like Sepphoris and Tiberias, and wealthy individuals began to purchase large tracts of land from people fleeing the countryside.

Toward the end of the third century and during the first half of the fourth century, the economy of the land of Israel expanded. Hundreds of new settlements were established during this period. Similar expansion occurred in many cities on the eastern side of the Mediterranean, including Antioch, Sardis, Tarsus and Corinth.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.