Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 30 September 2020

Taxation in the Greco-Roman World: The Hellenistic East

Abstract and Keywords

This article surveys taxation in the Hellenistic kingdoms of Asia Minor in the Near East, focusing on the Seleukid Empire and the Attalids of Pergamon. It argues that the study of Hellenistic systems and habits of taxation can tell us much about the distribution of sovereignty in these composite, multiscalar kingdoms. The negotiation of fiscal rights and privileges in these kingdoms drew cities, kings, courtiers, priests, and soldiers into frequent, even ritualized interactions. The article discusses taxation’s role in the competition over territory and resources, both interstate and internal, while also highlighting the role of taxation in the articulation of each state’s sovereignty claims on communities and individuals. Key sources are reviewed, both epigraphic and archaeological, including cuneiform documents from Hellenistic Babylonia and Greek inscriptions from Asia Minor (Anatolia) and Coele-Syria (Levant).

Keywords: Seleukids, Attalids, Pergamon, Hellenistic kingdoms, taxation and sovereignty, Asia Minor, Coele-Syria, Babylonia


The Hellenistic kingdoms were the successor-states of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which had been shattered by Alexander the Great toward the end of the fourth century BCE. Initially, the successors of Alexander benefited from the monetization of enormous stocks of precious metal stored in the coffers of the Near East. The release of this wealth into circulation in the eastern Mediterranean contributed mightily to the scale of in-fighting, lasting two full generations, as Alexander’s generals and their sons fought over territory after his death in 323 BCE. The successors shared no principle of territorial sovereignty. While Alexander’s generals had become his governors, each charged with the administration of one of the former Persian satrapies, in the scramble that ensued, as the governors proclaimed themselves kings, each simply vied to take control of as much territory as possible. Adding to the chaos, a king could lose his territory but remain politically relevant, like Demetrios Poliorketes, who retained his status as a peer while he wandered among his rivals’ domains. In the end, an enduring geopolitical order emerged, with three major kingdoms that lasted until decisive Roman intervention produced a fourth: one rooted in the Macedonian heartland, another based in Egypt, and the two that are the focus here—the multifocal Seleukid kingdom, which sprawled from the Bosporus to Central Asia; and the Attalid kingdom of Pergamon, which encompassed much of Anatolia in the second century BCE.

The system of taxation in these kingdoms was an amalgam of, on the one hand, practices and institutions inherited from the Achaemenids, and on the other, the fiscal habits of the Greek polis operating in the new environment; see Bickerman (1938) and Aperghis (2004) on the amalgam, Kleber (2015) on the Achaemenid background, and Migeotte (2014) on public finance in the polis. Traces of this heterogeneous and malleable system at work survive in the form of written texts and archaeological remains, and however fragmentary, they can tell us much about the nature of sovereignty in the Hellenistic kingdoms of Asia Minor and the Near East.

In other words, by studying taxation, we can expose the foundations of Hellenistic sovereignty and make implicit comparisons with our own experience derived from the (late) nation-state. Hellenistic sovereignty (kyreia) was not a principle of exclusive authority on a politically unified, neatly demarcated territory, nor a concept of mutual noninterference between states. Nor was it the absolute, exhaustive property right of an omnipotent king on land and people. Sovereignty in taxation meant control or mastery over specific aspects of producers’ economic lives, over aspects of production, and over the appropriation of the all-important surplus.

Traditionally, the scholarly discussion around Hellenistic sovereignty has focused on the kings’ empty sloganeering about doriktêtos chôra (i.e., land won by the arms of their ancestors). Alternatively, sovereignty has been explored chiefly in relation to the problem of understanding the scope of the kings’ domination of the city-states that fell under their sway, particularly the Greek poleis. Much ink once was spilled on the topic of whether the cities were formally allies of the kings or subjects. Today, a large segment of scholarship has left off such formalism. We tend to see Hellenistic kingdoms as, to borrow a term from historians of early modern European empires, multiscalar monarchies of layered sovereignties (Elliott, 1992; Romaniello, 2012). Indeed, they were far more multiscalar and layered than the Roman Empire that succeeded them; and compared to their Persian predecessor, there seems to have been a far greater degree of interpenetration among the different layers—between royal authority and the various polities notionally subject to it, of which the polis was but one privileged type (cf. Mann, 1986: 247; Briant, 2002: 411). A focus on taxation promises the possibility of glimpsing hierarchy in sovereignty, however fleeting and contingent.

I do not provide a comprehensive survey of fiscal institutions here; instead, I focus on the points in the system at which sovereignty was at issue. The evidentiary basis of our knowledge is the first topic discussed. I then examine the extent to which fiscal sovereignty maps onto territorial sovereignty in these kingdoms. From territory, we move to taxation’s mark on population—on subjects—first as constituted individually, and second, collectively. In conclusion, I highlight the importance of appreciating the modalities of taxation, as how and in which manner Hellenistic kings chose to tax could have the effect of shoring up their fragmented and contested sovereignties.


The machine of taxation and redistribution in the Hellenistic East must have generated countless documents such as receipts, rolls, petitions for privileges, and the letters that might have confirmed them. However, unlike contemporary Ptolemaic Egypt, with its arid climate, these lands have not preserved much of the paper trail. A certain amount of information is preserved on clay from Seleukid Babylonia. Cuneiform tablets written in Akkadian, long overlooked by classicists, contain fascinating hints of fiscal policy, such as an ordinance (diagramma) of Antiochos III that may have incentivized the cultivation of dates (Van der Spek, 2004: 322; Van der Spek, 1995: especially 227–234, text 7:34 and 38). Another key document is the Chronicle Concerning Antiochos and the Sin Temple, which depicts the crown prince Antiochos I performaning an animal sacrifice to the moon-god Sin and resettling the inhabitants of Babylon in the new royal city of Seleukeia-on-the-Tigris. We hear that “[Antiochos imposed] a heavy taxation (share of the yield) upon Babylon” (BCHP 5 Rev. 10, The scribes’ charge has plausibly been interpreted to reflect Seleukid efforts to push the population out of Babylon and into Seleukeia (Kosmin, 2014: 193).

Interventions and possible reconfigurations of the ancient temple economies of both Babylon and Uruk are evidenced by clay sealings, devices for fastening shut documents that are now lost (Johannès, 2012; Messina, 2005; Lindström, 2003; Doty, 2012). These clay sealings, the paraphernalia of taxation, received the imprint of official seals, thereby recording the names and titles (e.g., chreôphylax) of Seleukid taxmen, as well as the names of the taxes themselves: the slave tax (andrapodikon); a sales tax (eponion), perhaps associated with the transfer of property claims on the temple; and an enigmatic “salt tax (halikê).” Of these levies, we only know the names, and even then, it is difficult to determine whether the “salt tax” was a poll tax, a sales tax, or a fee to exploit salt pans.

The bulk of our evidence comes from inscriptions on stone in Greek, as the epigraphic habit spread deeper and deeper into both Anatolia and the Near East during this period. Again, some texts simply list names and titles, such as a dedication by a religious association found near Pergamon in the Kaikos Valley (SEG LII 1197) that lists an entire series of titles: hêmiolios, ho epi tês poleôs, dioikêtes, archeklogistês, oikonomos, and eklogistês. All of these were financial administrators of the Attalid Empire, no doubt, but what did all these men tax—and how much of it? Occasionally, the decrees of the subject cities mention the impact of royal taxation, either by honoring a citizen who successfully negotiated or defended privileges (e.g., SEG LIII 1312) or by showcasing civic institutions designed to mitigate the risks involved with fiscal interactions with the king (e.g., the fund for “honors for kings” in Teos, SEG XLI 1003, line 63). However, the most illuminating sources of this kind by far are the many inscribed letters and other forms of correspondence that passed among Hellenistic kings, cities, temples, and the royal fisc (Welles, 1934; Virgilio, 2011). They show a highly responsive and flexible approach to taxation and a keen awareness of the size and character of the local resource base, especially in thin times. The major interpretive problem with these texts is that they tend to be grants of tax immunity (ateleia), thus representing a kind of negative image of the system as it normally functioned.

Ongoing work in archaeology holds the potential to add greatly to our knowledge of Hellenistic taxation and can be successfully integrated with the written evidence. Through archaeology, we see the tax system of the kingdom from the ground up. In the long term, the story of Mediterranean taxation is largely one of capturing mobile resources by taxing movement (Purcell, 2005). For that reason, archaeological work that points to the royal fiscal presence on roads and waterways is crucial (for the Attalids, e.g., see Pirson, 2004; Mitchell, 1999: 17–21).

For the presence of the fisc on the land, we can point to an impressive administrative building used by both the Ptolemies and the Seleukids on Tel Kedesh (Israel), in the hinterland of Tyre, overlooking the fertile Hula Valley. This large building (about 1,850 m2) housed and hosted tax officials while also storing grain and perhaps other commodities levied from the Hula (Herbert and Berlin, 2003; Berlin and Herbert, 2012). It is the palace and the headquarters of an official, dispatched from the court or recruited from among the local Tyrians, who took charge of taxation in a strategic region. It is clear from its layout and contents that taxes were collected and recorded in its confines. Granaries and an archive containing 2,000 clay sealings were discovered around the open-air courtyard (Ariel and Naveh, 2003). From places like Kedesh, we can measure the fiscal reach of the Hellenistic state.


For the Hellenistic king, there existed a bloc of largely contiguous territory that his peers might conventionally recognize as his sovereign patrimony—a widely shared sense of where his kingdom began, if also a rather weaker sense of where it ended. Thus, according to a decree of the city of Pergamon, the Attalid kings are said to have escorted the future Antiochos IV, scion of the rival Seleukid dynasty, “up to the boundaries of his own kingdom” (OGIS 248, lines 15–16). Yet within these territorial blocs lay a variegated patchwork of different fiscal regimes. This was more than simply a common inconsistency in fiscal arrangements, frequently ad hoc and tailored to local conditions. The sovereignty of the king (kyrieia) over different taxes, or over different parts of taxes, fell unevenly over the natural and human resources of the land.

As it happens, we know least about how taxation worked in those areas in which royal sovereignty was greatest. Yet we can imagine that in many places beyond the cities and the ancient sacred institutions, nothing but limited bureaucratic capacity curbed the king’s reach. This was land that the king claimed, quite literally, as his own, demanding its taxes directly, eliding any discernible difference between a fiscal right and a property right (Ma, 2013: 341; Chaniotis, 2004). Historians have long taken pains to understand the administration and the role of this extraurban royal land in the political economy of the kingdoms. The evidence is lamentably poor and the terminology frustratingly inconsistent. Yet we can be confident that it produced the bulk of royal revenues, funding interstate competition in both war and gift giving.

In one fragmentary royal document from the Aeolis region, which is rather characteristic of our evidence in that it is a list of taxes, we hear just how far the king’s claims extended: from every deer and boar hunted, he demanded a leg (SEG XXXIII 1034). In these parts, at least, corvée labor was also demanded. Most taxes took the form of percentage tithes, while cash is absent: an eighth from the orchard, a fiftieth from the flock, and so on. However, the all-important tax on arable land, which here seems to go by the conventional name dekatê (literally “the one-tenth”), was in fact likely to have been at a much higher rate than the 10% figure often cited on the plain reading of the name (Monson, 2015: 190; SEG XLVII 1745, lines 43–47).

Some of this land and the population on it were packaged into so-called gift estates (dôreai) and parceled off to military commanders, courtiers, and members of the royal family. Estate-holders exercised considerable power over their fiefs. For example, a Ptolemaic governor-general in the Levant named Ptolemaios son of Thraseas, who managed to retained his position and his estate in the Jezreel Valley under the Seleukids, was authorized to judge all disputes between the local peasants and try all criminal cases beneath murder (Virgilio, 2003, no. 27). Yet in fiscal terms, certain aspects of the sovereignty of the king survived the transfer of property rights.

To take the paradigmatic case, the famous Mnesimachos inscription records the contents of a large gift estate in the vicinity of Sardis (I.Sardis 1). The text is inscribed on the inner wall of the cella of the Temple of Artemis in Sardis because the estate fell into the hands of the priests when the descendants of Mnesimachos, who had originally received the estate from an early Hellenistic king named Antigonos (the “One-Eyed”), defaulted on a loan. What we see being transferred to the priests is not just the usufruct of the land and the obligations of the peasants, but also a series of tax liabilities to the crown, assessed in many cases according to cash figures attached to different villages and plots of land within the estate. There is, however, one pocket of the estate that escaped royal taxation: a threshing floor of two men was singled out for exemption. Their fiscal privileges seem to go back to Achaemenid times, perhaps Lydian. This tiny tax shelter was carried over with the succession of sovereign. On the one hand, the possibility was entertained that the king would summarily repossess the entire estate; on the other, the privileges awarded by his predecessor still carried weight (cf. RC 15).

The concession of a gift estate, then, did not mark the end of the fiscal gambit. In fact, where we possess something like the recipient’s title to the estate in the form of a royal letter, we learn that, to a certain extent, the estate-holders themselves decided upon the fiscal status of the land. Consider the gifts of Antiochos I to Aristodikides of Assos (RC 10–13) and of Antiochos II to the divorced queen Laodike (RC 18–20)—technically a sale—both from northwest Asia Minor. In each case, land was removed from the scope of direct royal taxation, but the recipient was instructed to attach the land to the fiscal territory of a nearby city. For Laodike, it was a contractual condition of the transfer of the estate: she was not to pay any taxes to the royal treasury, and she was to be sovereign (kyria) in her assignment of the land to the territory of the polis of her choice. In fact, should she sell the land, the buyer would only be able to pick a city to receive the taxes, provided that Laodike has not yet decided the matter.

It has been suggested that the dossier for Aristodikides implies wrangling over terms between the city of Ilion and the lord of the estate (RC 13). Ultimately, the land was taxed by the crown, but indirectly, through annual payments made by the cities. The size of these payments was determined by assessments of the productive capacity of the cities’ territories (timêmata), a process that is obscure, even though the Laodike dossier does illuminate how land was registered in royal archives.

Inscriptions like these were long thought to show a strict division of the kingdom into two categories of land: crown territory and city land (the chôra of the polis), with private property confined to the latter. Recent studies have critiqued that view, although the notion has persisted that all land either belonged to the crown or was attached to some community that paid tax or tribute (Schuler, 1998). Yet outside of densely urbanized regions, we may be misled by an ideological construction.

How much of the kingdom and its economic life went untaxed simply because, in fact, it was invisible to royal administrators (Thonemann, 2013a)? Kings sometimes lacked important information about the fiscal status of the terrain. For example, Antiochos I added this caveat to his land grant to Aristodikides: “if it has not already been given to someone else.” Yet it is especially important that we recognize the extent of nonroyal fiscal sovereignties beyond the polis. We can leave aside peripheral regions that paid tribute in exchange for autonomy, or even the recognition of their rulers as kings.

Within the core territories of the Seleukid and Attalid kingdoms lay a range of polities that collected their own taxes. The recent discoveries of two customs laws from Asia Minor confirm the point long ago made by Elias Bikerman that these kingdoms lacked a unified customs regime (Bikerman, 1938, especially 115–117; Takmer, 2007; Cottier et al., 2008). The Customs Law of Asia, a Roman imperial document, but one that preserves the lineaments of the Hellenistic system, shows royal (Attalid) customs stations dotting the Anatolian interior, as well as those of so-called free cities and rural communities called ethnê and dêmoi.

This checkerboard of customs regimes comes into play when we try to explain the kings’ strategies of fiscal intensification and size up the role of indirect taxes in the royal tax portfolio. While cities might make deals with each other to try to reduce the number of customs barriers running across their regional economies, the kings never seemed to have gone to that trouble. This was because the lack of a single customs regime was not an affront to their sovereignty. On the contrary, it produced opportunities for revenue collection on the constant movement of goods and people among interconnected ecologies. For example, despite his protestations, Antigonos I was to benefit in this way from the contiguity of his land and the territory of a new Ionian city. His grain was to be imported into the city for its reserve stock (RC 3–4).

In the case of the Attalids, we see investment in a physical infrastructure for customs—buildings later taken over by Roman tax collectors. This is also why we find the Attalids positioning paramilitary guard units called paraphylakes and horophylakes in the interior (SEG XXIX 1516; XLVIII 1532; XLVII 1601). Their purpose in these outposts was the surveillance of movement—specifically, movement in the name of trade (ep’emporiai).

Thus, as an expression of sovereignty, occasional royal gifts of tax-free movement across wide swathes of the empire come to look like strong statements when viewed against this background of deference to the prerogatives of subject communities in the collection of customs. If we may believe that Antiochos III authorized the export of cedar tax free from Lebanon through to Jerusalem, or that Demetrios I was willing to decree that Jews may travel tax free throughout the kingdom before holidays, taxation becomes a domain in which territorial integrity could be affirmed (1 Macc. 10:34; also see Wise, 1990; Joseph. AJ 12.142; Polyb. 5.89).

It remains to be considered how taxation might figure in the negotiation of sovereignty among foreign states (specifically, among the various kingdoms). If within their notional borders, the kings would countenance a multitude of lesser tax authorities on the territory, would they also, under the right circumstances, allow another kingdom to take from the royal tax base? Since the nineteenth century, the report of Flavius Josephus (AJ 12.154–55) that the Ptolemies and the Seleukids shared the tax revenue of the provinces of Coele-Syria, Samaria, Judea, and Phoenicia has been dismissed as a legend.

One oft-repeated objection to the testimony of Josephus was that territorial sovereignty and control of taxes ought to have gone hand in hand. This revenue-sharing arrangement, the so-called Dowry of Kleopatra I, was deemed illogical. However, the logic of taxation, as evidenced in contemporary documents from smaller states, Greek poleis and their dependencies, and Greek koina (federal leagues) and their members, is precisely to treat the question of sovereignty (kyrieia) over specific taxes (or over different revenues (prosodoi)) without regard for a transcendent principle of territorial sovereignty.

The report of Josephus is unique evidence of revenue sharing among kingdoms, but therein lies its value, not the basis for its exclusion (Kaye and Amitay, 2015). Moreover, in a comparative historical perspective, it may appear less unusual. To take a proximate example, one can look to the Arab-Byzantine Condominium, whereby the revenues of Cyprus were shared by two states in the early Middle Ages (Zavagno, 2013).


Taxation is also a means by which the sovereignty of the state over individuals is articulated. Historically, states have used taxation to produce recognizable subjects. To approach the question of the extent to which tax authorities in the Hellenistic kingdoms of Asia Minor and the Near East had direct access to individuals, one must consider the problem of the poll or head tax. This is a notoriously regressive form of taxation, which the Greek cities tended to shun except in times of crisis (Gauthier, 1991; Mackil, 2015: 473–477). However, it was widespread in Ptolemaic Egypt, which possessed well-honed tools for counting its people (Clarysse, Thompson, and Luft, 2006). An early Hellenistic treatise on taxation puts it squarely on the menu of royal fiscal options ([Oec.] 2.1.4). Indeed, from the transitional period between Achaemenid and early Hellenistic rule, evidence exists for the collection of a head tax in the form of ostraka from Khirbet el-Qom in Idumaea (Lemaire, 2004).

Yet this tax is very sparsely attested in the Attalid and Seleukid kingdoms. The bureaucrats may have bowed to those populations’ strong distaste for this particular form of taxation. The citizens of the polis were nearly ideologically allergic to it. Revenue collection depends on a certain degree of voluntary compliance, and the population’s sensitivity to the mode, as much as to the measure of taxation, counts. The practicability of a poll tax in these kingdoms is a separate issue. It seems to be significant that we find such taxes exclusively in two contexts: in well-defined settlements of soldiers and in communities strongly dependent on temples. The inhabitants of these soldier-towns (katoikiai) were men who had received or inherited their land on the condition of continued service to the crown.

Western Lycia, the modern bay of Fethiye, has produced two examples of kings lifting or reducing the poll tax to reinforce or prod these communities (Maier, Mauerbauinschriften 76; SEG XXIX 1516). We learn of a poll tax in the Attalid fortress of Apollonioucharax in Lydia, which seems to be permanent and annual (SEG LVII 1150). The inscription from Apollonioucharax also contains a clue as to why soldiers bore the brunt of these taxes. As subjects, they were uniquely visible to the Hellenistic state. We know that the soldier-settlers in Apollonioucharax were registered on official rolls, a practice now paralleled in an inscription from Kleonnaeion, home of some of the Attalids’ Galatian mercenaries (SEG LV 1401; Thonemann, 2015). Further, one can easily imagine that the tax status of such men’s land depended on their identification as members of the military class. By following their bureaucratic footprints, the kings could tax these subjects.

The other key context for taxing bodies (whether slave, free, or semifree) was the temple, especially for persons with political authority and economic control over the surrounding population, such as in Babylonia and in Jerusalem (Joseph. AJ 12.138–44). This suggests that there were certain institutional preconditions for the collection of the head tax. We should not, as some have done, postulate its collection for every inhabitant outside the cities (Mileta, 2008: 208–218). Without the “social cage” of Egypt and the Nile, this was unfeasible (Manning, 2009: 44). Interestingly, the only evidence for the royal poll tax in a polis in Asia Minor can be found in Ptolemaic territory: SEG XLII 994 (Kildara). On the other hand, the sparseness of the evidence seems misleading—this tax must have been more widespread.

Precisely those village-dwellers who were liable for head taxes may have had an interest in asserting Greek ethnic identity in order to improve their fiscal lot. Behind the process that historians call (often with trepidation) Hellenization lies a complex mix of reactions, attractions, aspirations, and incentives. If Peter Thonemann is correct in his bold rereading of Alexander’s letter to Priene (I.Priene 1), one of those incentives was, from early on, favorable treatment when it came to taxes (Thonemann, 2013b: 28–29, 36). Alexander, it seems, offered settlers living in Naulochon, a satellite of the city of Priene, the property rights and tax remission that citizens of Priene itself enjoyed, “as many as are Hellenes.” This implies that the ethnic identity of taxpayers was the primary determinant of which bundle of economic rights they received.

The conqueror’s cultural preferences undoubtedly would have had a marked effect on how individuals (and indeed entire communities) represented themselves. Over time, the fact of domicile seems to have become more important than the claim of identity, as the Attalids later would appear as benefactors of “all those inhabiting Greek cities” (RC 52, lines 8–12). Yet at this crucial juncture in the cultural history of the Mediterranean, fiscal policy may have both moved entire populations and caused individuals to change their identities.

On the opposite end of the spectrum of status were certain super-wealthy individuals, courtiers positioned in the highest echelon of power, who played a part in revenue creation beyond taxation. In particular, Rudolf Strootman has called attention to their role in funding warfare (Strootman, 2011: 73). In fact, the Hellenistic kings counted on these men to provide war financing personally, several anecdotes preserved by ancient authors seem to show. When Ptolemy V was asked how he would pay for a campaign against the Seleukids, for instance, he is said to have pointed to his courtiers and said, “There are my money-bags, walking about” (Diod. Sic. 29.29).

In an earlier round of the same conflict, Antiochos III was unable to pay his troops, who then mutinied. A famously dominant courtier named Hermeias intervened to pay from his own funds, and the campaign went forward (Polyb. 5.50.4–5). Strootman believes that courtiers and satraps were leaned upon routinely to provide compulsory loans or raise armies as liturgies. We have no confirmation that any of these loans (if that is what we should call them) were ever paid back, although the spoils of war may have occasionally amounted to adequate compensation.

Alternatively, one could see in the personal wealth of the courtiers a reserve of cash that was in origin tax revenue redistributed to a very narrow circle of subjects. As we know from the Zenon Papyri, these men then plowed that money into intensive agriculture. When the time came for war, they were asked to contribute. The point is that we must factor these individuals into account when considering the nexus of taxation and war in the Hellenistic kingdoms, the limits of royal sovereignty in public finance.


By this point, the major taxable units, the various communities that made up these multiscalar monarchies, have all entered the discussion in one way or another: the privileged poleis, the military katoikiai, the rural dêmoi and ethnê, and the temple communities. None of these collective designations, however, should be understood to translate directly into a fixed fiscal status. Historians at times have been overly schematic in attempting to reconstruct the Attalid and Seleukid fiscal systems from, for example, city titles alone. The literary sources term them “free” and “autonomous” cities. Yet these same cities do not appear to have been unequivocally free from royal taxation, nor were they autonomous in the organization of their finances (Mitchell, 2008: 184–187).

This is made plain if one investigates the fate of cities in Asia Minor after the Settlement of Apameia (188 BCE), whereby Rome assigned much of the former Seleukid territory in Asia Minor to the Attalids (Bikerman, 1938). Polybius tells us that according to the terms of the Settlement: “Whichever of the autonomous cities had earlier paid tax (phoros) to Antiochos III, and had then kept faith with the Romans, the Romans released them from taxes (phoroi). Those cities which had paid tax (syntaxis) to Attalos I, the Romans ordered them to give the same tax (phoros) to Eumenes II” (Polyb. 21.46.2–3). In addition, the Attalids received some cities—and they would ask for more—as “gifts (dôreai).” Tralles and Ephesos were the original so-called gift cities of the Settlement of Apameia. Attalos II later requested as further gifts two cities in Aegean Thrace: Ainos and Maroneia (Polyb. 30.3.3). Putting aside the question of the institutional reality behind the various terms for tax or tribute, the Apameian titles “free and autonomous” and “gift” do not seem to explain fully the fiscal behavior in the kingdom in the decades to follow (Chankowski, 2007: 303; cf. Allen, 1983: 109–114). Concessions were surely wrought from this language, but they are better understood as parameters for ongoing negotiations, in what Laurent Capdetrey and other French scholars term “enjeu de la souveraineté” (Capdetrey, 2007: 395–427).

Teasing out some of the rules to this high-stakes game is a fascinating study in the relationship of taxation to sovereignty. If titles were no guarantee of fiscal immunity, there were still ways for cities to try and blunt the impact of the royal taxation. Chief among them would be to obtain the relatively rare grant of aphorologêsia, by which the king seems to permanently renounce revenues drawn from the city and its territory (Capdetrey, 2007: 111–115).

It is significant that such a grant could be, as in the case of Antiochos III and Teos, folded into a wider recognition of city and territory as inviolable and sacred, as though these assurances were needed for the agreement to stick (SEG XLI 1003). More commonly, king and city may have negotiated seriatim sovereignty over the different taxes drawn from the full range of local resources, a process that we catch sight of in the dossier from Herakleia-under-Latmos (SEG XXXVII 859; Wörrle, 1988). Now, if a form of sovereignty (kyrieia)—literally meaning “control, mastery”—was conceptualized as neatly divisible into claims over different revenues, this did not mean that the cities could count on the kings to preserve these partitions of the tax base. An anxiety comes through when cities bestow their own grants of tax immunity on individual benefactors, which often include a proviso: the immunity covers all those taxes over which the city is sovereign (kyria) (e.g., I.Iasos 62, lines 5–6; I.Iasos 31, line 1; also see Migeotte, 2006). Since it is understood that both civic taxes (politika telê) and royal taxes (basilikê telê) will come due, the city does not promise more than it can deliver (Gauthier, 1989, 33–34).

We sense here the uncertainty. Some portion of the city’s tax burden arrived periodically, but another portion arrived unexpectedly. This took the form of precious crowns demanded by the king or contributions to the kind of temporary war fund that we learn of in a letter of Antiochos II to the city of Erythrai. Antiochos freed Erythrai from “all the other taxes and also from the Gallic [war] tax” (RC 15, lines 27–28). One way to hedge against such demands was to require an oath from the king’s representatives, as the city of Iasos did under Ptolemy I, which guaranteed the city’s sovereignty over certain revenues (I.Iasos 3).

Similarly, by treaty, cities swore to protect not just each other’s laws, but also each other’s revenues, and they stood prepared to go to war on each other’s behalf (TAM III 2, lines 13–15). In general, the threat of royal fiscal authorities negatively affecting the budgets of the cities will have engendered an adaptation. In the end, this affects the shape of the institutions of the city, whence the aforementioned fund for “royal honors” in Teos, which is simply part of the city’s year-to-year financial planning (SEG XLI 1003). Its purpose was not to provide spontaneous gifts, but rather insurance against arbitrary demands. The presence of royal fiscal authority was a permanent fixture on the horizon.

It has occasionally been suggested that the sociopolitical form polis commands too much attention in scholarship (e.g., Van der Spek, 1987). On the other hand, in fiscal terms, the survival of the ideology of the polis into the age of monarchy had demonstrable consequences. In some ways, the nonpolis settlement called the katoikia, a kind of soldier-town, did come to resemble the polis. It is worth emphasizing that the polis was not the only civic organism with a fiscal structure. These soldier-towns are less well documented, but when documents do surface, as they did in 2007 in Lydia (Apollonioucharax), we see that towns possessed their own revenues, some of which were drawn from even smaller, dependent communities.

The katoikia soldier-settlement, we know, still had open lines of communication to royal authorities, and it might obtain some of the same assurances as the polis: for the benefit of the soldier-settlers of the Lydian town, a nearby village under their control was to remain “holy and tax-free” by order of Eumenes II (SEG LVII 1150). However, if the king recognized the community as a polis, the fiscal advantages were enormous, not least of which was the right to tax the surrounding hinterland (chôra). Two other advantages are worth noting because they clearly distinguish the two types of communities on the spectrum of sovereignty. Billeting, outside of extraordinary, punitive circumstances, seems to have been severely curtailed in the polis, but in the towns of the countryside was cumbersome and commonplace (Gauthier, 1989: 97–101). In general, the polis regulated relations between a local garrison or mobilized troops and its own civilian population (RC 30; Chaniotis, 2005: 124–125). Moreover, we never find a polis liable for corvée labor—the exaction seems to have been beyond the pale (cf. SEG XXXIII 1034, Face B, lines 2–3; I.Sardis 1 Column I, line 12; Maier, Mauerbauinschriften 76, lines 17–20). Again, these are fiscal incentives for Hellenization insofar as certain recognizably Greek cultural attributes were a prerequisite for political recognition as a polis.

Temples in this world were repositories of great wealth and centers of production. In Asia Minor, certain temples fell within the orbit of a polis, but in inner Anatolia, as in Syria or Babylonia, these were theocracies with a body politic that related to royal fiscal authority through the intermediary of the priestly class. Kings subsidized the cults directly, while also buoying the religious communities with tax privileges. Thus, in the grant of a Seleukid king to Zeus of Baitokaike, the everlasting “power (dynamis)” of the god over the village was confirmed, ensuring that revenues for fitting, regular sacrifices, and festivals also were declared tax holidays (RC 70). When priests were enlisted as tax farmers for their domains, as royal agents, they remained fairly autonomous in their administration of sacred monies, although priestly competition over succession could increase their dependence upon the crown.

The sovereignty of the temples, however, seemed to have been undermined in the first half of the second century BCE, when the administrative framework for monitoring sacred finance was tightened up. Antiochos III appointed Nikanor as high-priest for Asia Minor to be responsible for “the sanctuaries and their revenues” (SEG XXXVII 1010). In turn, the Attalids may have added another layer of supervision in the form of “the treasurer of sacred revenues” (SEG XXXII 1237).

In the Levant (and surely beyond), similar appointments were made, as the so-called Heliodoros inscription shows (SEG LVII 1838). That text was probably set up in a sanctuary in the Idumaean town of Marisa/Maresha. A fragment of a second copy of the same inscription was recently recovered from storerooms (Ecker, Gera, and Cotton, 2014). It very likely stood in yet another sanctuary in the same city. Storerooms in Lebanon (Byblos and Beirut) have now produced yet two more copies (Yon 2015).

These documents point to an intensified overlay of supervision of temples, primarily as a response to mounting pressure on the kings to find revenue. Yet this was not simple temple robbing, even if the faithful might remember it that way (2 Macc.; also see Honigman, 2014). It is not inconceivable that in addition to identifying and confiscating certain revenues, royal authorities settled fiscal disputes between priests and other local contenders in other cases (Dignas, 2002).


It bears recalling that while these kings inherited fiscal structures from the Achaemenid Empire, they also faced a choice: to preserve tradition or to innovate? In the choice of how to tax and which fiscal modality to employ, sovereignty was always at stake (if by sovereignty, we also mean the legitimacy of the ruler’s claim to surplus). In matters of taxation, innovation could provoke the most destabilizing kind of dissent, or it could engender voluntary compliance, born of a credible sense that public goods were promised in return (Levi, 1988: 48–70). Tax farming, for example, had deep roots in both the Greek polis and the states of the ancient Near East. So it is no surprise that it was preserved in the new fiscal regimes.

What is curious is that unlike in the contemporary Ptolemaic empire, or later in the Roman province of Asia, there do not appear to have been royal tax farmers, buying their contracts at a central royal tax auction or working in close coordination with agents of the royal fiscal administration (cf. Joseph. AJ 12.156–222). The auctions were meant to be local, as were the tax farmers—and when they were not, it is then that we hear the outcry against the injustice of taxation (I.Metropolis 1; SEG XLVIII 1404; App. B Civ. 5.1.4; also see Étienne and Migeotte, 1998).

One can discuss taxation, and not tribute alone, here because many a taxpayer in these Hellenistic kingdoms was actually able to see the redistribution happening. Cities and sanctuaries were decorated with royal gifts, but even more important, the mechanisms by which taxes were rerouted from royal coffers into public goods were made consciously visible (Bringmann, von Steuben, Ameling, and Schmidt-Dounas, 1995). These were the earmarks that our sources publicize: everything from a piece of land set aside in order to fund sacrifices, to an annual disbursement of cash from the royal treasury directly into the budget of a polis (e.g., I.Prusa 1001, lines 11–12). The taxpayer could trace the circuits of the royal fiscal apparatus. Institutional and ideological integration went hand in hand. In the end, when we consider holistically the way that taxation distributed royal sovereignty throughout the kingdom, the territorial manifestations of this effect seem truly secondary.


Allen, R. (1983). The Attalid Kingdom: A Constitutional History. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Find this resource:

Aperghis, G. (2004). The Seleukid Royal Economy: The Finances and Financial Administration of the Seleukid Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Ariel, D. T., and J. Naveh. (2003). “Selected Inscribed Sealings from Kedesh in the Upper Galilee.” BASOR 329: 61–80.Find this resource:

Berlin, A. M., and S. C. Herbert. (2012). “Excavating Tel Kedesh.” Archaeology 65.3: 24–29.Find this resource:

Bikerman, E. J. (1938). Institutions des Séleucides. Paris: P. Geuthner.Find this resource:

Bikerman, E. J. (1938). “Notes sur Polybe, 1: Le statut des villes d’Asie après la paix d’Apamée.” REG 50: 217–239.Find this resource:

Briant, P. (2002). From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Trans. P. Daniels. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.Find this resource:

Bringmann, K., H. von Steuben, W. Ameling, and B. Schmidt-Dounas. (1995). Schenkungen hellenistischer Herrscher an griechische Städte und Heiligtümer. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.Find this resource:

Capdetrey, L. (2007). Le pouvoir séleucide: Territoire, administration, finances d’un royaume hellénistique (312–129 avant J.-C.). Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes.Find this resource:

Chaniotis, A. (2005). War in the Hellenistic World: A Social and Cultural History. London: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Chaniotis, A. (2004). “Justifying Territorial Claims in Classical and Hellenistic Greece: The Beginnings of International Law.” In: E. Harris and L. Rubinstein (eds.), The Law and the Courts in Ancient Greece. London: Duckworth, 185–229.Find this resource:

Chankowski, V. (2007). “Les catégories du vocabulaire de la fiscalité dans les cités grecques.” In: J. Andreau and V. Chankowski (eds.), Vocabulaire et expression de l’économie dans le monde antique. Pessac, France: Ausonius, 299–331.Find this resource:

Clarysse, W., D. J. Thompson, and U. Luft. (2006). Counting the People in Hellenistic Egypt. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Cottier, M., M. H. Crawford, C. V. Crowther, J. L. Ferrary, B. M. Levick, O. Salomies, and M. Wörrle, eds. (2008). The Customs Law of Asia. Oxford Studies in Ancient Documents. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Dignas, B. (2002). Economy of the Sacred in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Doty, L. (2012). Cuneiform Documents from Hellenistic Uruk. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

Ecker, A., D. Gera, and H. Cotton. (2014). “Preliminary Report on the Finding of another Copy of the Decree of Seleucus IV at Maresha (Heliodorus/Olympiodorus Inscription).” New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and Its Region 7: 153–160.Find this resource:

Elliott, J. H. (1992). “A Europe of Composite Monarchies.” Past and Present 137: 48–71.Find this resource:

Étienne, R., and L. Migeotte. (1998). “Colophon et les abus des fermiers des taxes.” BCH 122: 143–157.Find this resource:

Herbert, S. C., and A. M. Berlin. (2003). “A New Administrative Center for Persian and Hellenistic Galilee: Preliminary Report of the University of Michigan/University of Minnesota Excavations at Kedesh.” BASOR 15: 13–59.Find this resource:

Gauthier, P. (1991). “Ateleia tou somatos.” Chiron 21: 49–68.Find this resource:

Gauthier, P. (1989). Nouvelles inscriptions de Sardes II. Geneva, Switzerland: Droz.Find this resource:

Honigman, S. (2014). Tales of High Priests and Taxes: The Books of the Maccabees and the Judean Rebellion Against Antiochos IV. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Johannès, F. (2012). “L’enjeux de l’enregistrement officiel des contrats à Uruk.” In: B. Legras (ed.), Transfer culturels et droits dans le monde grec et héllenistique. Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 241–254.Find this resource:

Kaye, N., and O. Amitay. (2015). “Kleopatra’s Dowry: Taxation and Sovereignty between Hellenistic Kingdom.” Historia. Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 64: 131–155.Find this resource:

Kleber, K. “Taxation in the Achaemenid Empire.” In: Oxford Handbooks Online. Classical Studies. Online Publication Date: Nov. (2015). DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935390.013.34.Find this resource:

Kosmin, P. (2014). The Land of the Elephant Kings. Cambridge, UK: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Lemaire, A. (2004). “Taxes et impôts dans le sud de la Palestine.” Transeuphratène 28: 133–142.Find this resource:

Levi, M. (1988). Of Rule and Revenue. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Lindström, G. (2003). Uruk: Siegelabdrücke auf hellenistischen Tonbullen und Tontafeln. Mainz, Germany: Verlag Philipp von Zabern.Find this resource:

Ma, J. (2013). “Hellenistic Empires.” In: P. F. Bang and W. Scheidel (eds.), Oxford Handbook of the State in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 324–360. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195188318.013.0013.Find this resource:

Mackil, E. (2015). “The Greek Polis and Koinon.” In: A. Monson and W. Scheidel (eds.), Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 469–490.Find this resource:

Mann, M. (1986). The Sources of Social Power. Volume 1: A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Manning, J. G. (2009). The Last Pharaohs: Egypt Under the Ptolemies, 305–30 BC. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Messina, V. (2005). “Da Uruk a Seleucia: Pratiche amministrative e Archivi della Babilonia Seleucide.” Mesopotamia 40: 125–144.Find this resource:

Migeotte, L. (2014). Les finances des cités grecques: aux périodes classique et hellénistique. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.Find this resource:

Migeotte, L. (2006). “La gestion des biens sacrés dans les cités grecques.” Symposion 2003: Vorträge Zur Griechischen und Hellenistischen Rechtsgeschichte, 233–246.Find this resource:

Mileta, C. (2008). Der König und sein Land: Untersuchungen zur Herrschaft der hellenistischen Monarchen uber das königliche Gebiet Kleinasiens und seine Bevolkerung. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.Find this resource:

Mitchell, S. (2008). “Geography, Politics, and Imperialism in the Asia Customs Law.” In: M. Cottier et al. (eds.), The Customs Law of Asia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 165–201.Find this resource:

Mitchell, S. (1999). “Archaeology in Asia Minor 1990–98.” AR 45: 125–199.Find this resource:

Monson, A. (2015). “Hellenistic empires.” In: W. Scheidel and A. Monson (eds.), Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 169–207.Find this resource:

Romaniello, M. P. (2012). The Elusive Empire: Kazan and the Creation of Russia, 1552–1671. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Find this resource:

Schuler, C. (1998). Ländliche Siedlungen und Gemeinden im hellenistischen und römischen Kleinasien. Munich: Verlag C.H. Beck.Find this resource:

Strootman, R. (2011). “Hellenistic Court Society: The Seleukid Imperial Court Under Antiochos the Great, 223–187 BCE.” In: J. Duindam (ed.), Royal Courts in Dynastic States and Empires. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 63–89.Find this resource:

Takmer, B. (2007). “Lex Portorii Provinciae Lyciae: Ein Vorbericht über die Zollinschrift aus Andriake aus neronischer Zeit.” Gephyra 4: 165–188.Find this resource:

Thonemann, P. J. (2015). “Pessinous and the Attalids: A New Royal Letter.” ZPE 194: 117–128.Find this resource:

Thonemann, P. J. (2013a). “The Attalid State: 188–133 BC.” In: P. J. Thonemann (ed.), Attalid Asia Minor: Money, International Relations, and the State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1–49.Find this resource:

Thonemann, P. J. (2013b). “Alexander, Priene, and Naulochon.” In: P. Martzavou and N. Papazarkadas (eds.), Epigraphical Approaches to the Post-Classical Polis: Fourth Century BC to Second Century AD. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 23–36.Find this resource:

Pirson, F. (2004). “Elaia: Der maritime Satellit Pergamons.” IstMitt 54: 197–213.Find this resource:

Purcell, N. (2005). “The Ancient Mediterranean: The View from the Customs House.” In: W. Harris (ed.), Rethinking the Mediterranean. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 200–228.Find this resource:

Van der Spek, R. J. (2004). “Palace, Temple and Market in Seleucid Babylonia.” In: V. Chankowski and F. Duyrat (eds.), Le roi et l’économie. Autonomies locales et structures royales dans l’économie de l’empire séleucide. Actes des rencontres de Lille (23 juin 2003) et d’Orléans (29-30 janvier 2004). Paris: De Boccard, 303–332.Find this resource:

Van der Spek, R. J. (1987). “The Babylonian City.” In: A. Kuhrt and S. Sherwin-White (eds.), Hellenism in the East: The Interaction of Greek and non-Greek Civilizations from Syria to Central Asia after Alexander. London: Duckworth, 57–74.Find this resource:

Van der Spek, R. J. (1995). “Land Ownership in Babylonian Cuneiform Documents.” In: M. J. Geller and H. Maehler (eds.), Legal Documents of the Hellenistic World: Papers from a Seminar Arranged by the Institute of Classical Studies, the Institute of Jewish Studies and the Warburg Institute, University of London, February to May 1986‬. London: Warburg Institute, 173–245.‬‬‬‬Find this resource:

Virgilio, B. (2003). Lancia, diadema e porpora: Il re e la regalità ellenistica. 2nd ed. Pisa, Italy: Giardini.Find this resource:

Virgilio, B. (2011). Le roi écrit: le correspondance du souverain hellénistique, suivie de deux lettres d’Antiochos III à partir de Louis Robert et d’Adolf Wilhelm. Pisa: Serra.Find this resource:

Welles, C. (1934). Royal Correspondence in the Hellenistic Period. New Haven: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

Wise, M. (1990). “A Note on the ‘Three Days’ of I Maccabees X 34.” Vetus Testamentum 40: 116–122.Find this resource:

Wörrle, M. (1988). “Inschriften von Herakleia am Latmos I: Antiochos III, Zeuxis und Herakleia.” Chiron 18: 421–476.Find this resource:

Yon, J. B. (2015). “De Marisa à Byblos avec le courrier de Séleucos IV. Quelques données sur Byblos hellénistique.” Topoi Suppl. 13: 89–105.Find this resource:

Zavagno, L. (2013). “Two Hegemonies, One Island: Cyprus as a ‘Middle Ground’ Between the Byzantines and the Arabs (650–850 A.D.).” Reti Medievali Rivista 14: 1–32.Find this resource: