L'effondrement des revenus fiscaux, cause majeure de la chute de l'empire romain d'occident .

fall-of-the-roman-empire.jpgPeter Heather, The fall of the roman empire, a new history, Macmillan, 2005.

L’auteur évoque les conséquences de la perte des provinces africaines après l’invasion Vandale.

« The damage to the state itself could not be healed so easily. After 442, much of the revenue of North Africa, this crucial contributor to the western imperial budget, was lost outright, and the rest reduced by seven-eighths. Under the treaty, as we have seen, Byzacena and Proconsularis dropped out of central imperial control and, while some grain shipments did continue, most of their revenues were lost as well; the remaining provinces of North Africa either stayed under central control or were returned to it. On 21 June 445, Valentinian issued a tax edict covering these latter provinces, which reveals that Numidia and Mauretania Sitifensis were now producing only one-eighth of their previous land tax revenues.79 In addition, some further tax had normally been raised from them in the form of subsistence allowances for soldiers, and here too the Africans benefited from reductions. These allowances were formally assessed in terms of food and fodder, but often commuted into a gold payment, the Africans being awarded a special commutation rate of four solidi (gold coins) per unit assessed instead of the usual five – effectively, a 20 per cent reduction. The loss of its best North African provinces, combined with a massive seven-eighths reduction in revenue from the rest, was a fiscal disaster for the west Roman state. A series of regulations from the 440s show unmistakable signs of the financial difficulties that now followed. In 440 and 441, initial efforts had been made to maximize revenues from its surviving sources of cash. A law of 24 January 440 withdrew ail existing special imperial grants of tax exemption or reduction.8° In similar vein, a law of 4 June that year attempted to cut back on the practice of imperial officiais – palatines – taking an extra percentage for themselves when out collecting taxes.8′ On 14 March 441, the screw was tightened further: lands that had been rented annually from the imperial fisc, with tax privileges attached, were now to be assessed at the normal rate, as was all Church land. In addition, the law cast its glance towards a whole range of smaller burdens from which the lands of higher dignitaries had previously been immune: « the building and repair of military roads, the manufacture of arms, the restoration of walls, the provision of the annona, and the rest of the public works through which we achieve the splendour of public defence’. Now, for the first time, no one was to be exempt, and this was the justification offered: The Emperors of a former age . . . bestowed such privileges on persons of ilustrious rank in the opulence of an abundant era, with less disaster to the other landowners . . . However, in the difficulty of the present time this practice is obviously not only inequitable but also . . . impossible.82 Thus the west Roman state, run by and for its landowners, in the early 440s was forced significantly to reduce the splendid range of tax benefits it had offered for so long to its mort valued constituency. As the loss of tax base began to bite, the grandees at court were forced to cut down on the privileges and perquisites they had generally allowed themselves. Nothing could better illustrate the level of fiscal crisis. Roman historians tend to consider that the late Empire spent about two-thirds of its revenues on the army, and this figure can’t be far wrong. The army was bound to be the main loser, therefore, when imperial revenues declined drastically. There were no other major areas of spending to cut. And, as you might expect, the piecemeal measures of 440-1 were insufficient to compensate for the overall loss in African revenue. In the last quarter of 444, yet another imperial law admitted: We do not doubt that it occurs to the thoughts of all men, that nothing is so necessary as that the strength of a numerous army should be prepared for the . . . afflicted condition of the state. But we have not been able because of various kinds of expenditures to effect the arrangement of a matter . . . in which must be placed the foundations of full security for all . . . [and] neither for those who are bound by new oaths of military service, nor even for the veteran army can those supplies seem to suffice that are delivered by the exhausted taxpayers with the greatest difficulty, and it seems that from that source the supplies that are necessary for food and clothing cannot be furnished. Playing to taxpayers’ sympathies in recognizing their `exhaustion’ was a softening-up exercise: the law’s central provision was for a new sales tax of about 4 per cent, to be shared equally between buyer and seller. The law went on to state, quite straightforwardly, that the Empire could not afford, on its current tax revenues, the size of army that circumstances required. There is no reason to doubt that this was so. How big a fiscal hole the loss of North Africa made in the western Empire’s budget is impossible to say, but we can work out the reduction in the armed forces implied by the revenue lost from just Numidia and Mauretania Sitifensis. From the figures given in the law of 445 it is possible to calculate that the total tax lost from these provinces, because of the new remissions, amounted to 106,200 solidi per annum.83 A regular comitatensian infantryman cost approximately six solidi per annum, and a cavalry trooper 1 0.5.84 This means that the reduced tax from Numidia and Mauretania alone implied a reduction in army size of about 18,000 infantryman, or about 10,000 cavalry. This, of course, takes no account of the complete loss of revenue from the much richer provinces of Proconsularis and Byzacena, so that the total of lost revenues from all of North Africa must have implied a decline in military numbers of getting on for 40,000 infantry, or in excess of 20,000 cavalry. And these losses, of course, came on top of the earlier ones dating from the post-405 period. By 420, as we saw in Chapter 5, heavy losses in field army troops had already been papered over by upgrading garrison troops rather than by recruiting proper field army forces. We don’t have an updated version of the Notitia Dignitatum’s army lists (the distributio numerorum) for the early 440s, but if we did, they would certainly show a further substantial deterioration since 420. Only a massive new threat, therefore, could have made Aetius call off the joint east-west expedition and accept these disastrous consequences. Where had this threat come from? Merobaudes, in the surviving fragments of the panegyric of 443 at least, is allusive rather than explicit. Bellona, goddess of war, comments:85 ‘I will call forth nations situated far away in the North, and the Phasian stranger will swim in the fearful Tiber. I will jumble peoples together, I will break the treaties of kingdoms, and the noble court will be thrown into confusion by my tempests.’ Then she issues her orders to Enyo: « Force savage crowds into war, and let the Tanaïs, raging in its unknown regions, bring forth Scythian quivers.’ Arrow-firing hordes from Scythie In the middle of the fifth century, that could mean only one thing: Huns. And the Huns were, indeed, the new problem, the reason why the North African expedition never set sail from Sicily. Just as it was making final preparations to depart, the Huns launched an attack over the River Danube into the territory of the east Roman Balkans. Constantinople’s contingent for Carthage, all taken from the Danube front, had to be recalled immediately, pulling the plug on any attempt to destroy Geiseric. Yet all through the 420s and 430s, as we have seen, the Huns had been a key ally, keeping Aetius in power and enabling him to crush the Burgundians and curb the Visigoths. Behind this change in attitude lay another central character in the story of Rome’s destruction. It’s time to meet Attila the Hun ».


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