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This article is about Census in the ancient world. For Census in Nova Roma, see Census (Nova Roma).

The census was a register of Roman citizens and of their property, first established by Servius Tullius, the fifth king of Rome. After the expulsion of the kings it was taken by the consules, until censores were appointed for the purpose of taking it in 443 B.C.

The census, the first and principal duty of the censors, for which the proper expression is censum agere (Liv. III. 3, 22, IV.8), was always held in the Campus Martius, and from the year B.C. 435 in a special building called Villa Publica, which was erected for that purpose by the second pair of censors, C. Furius Pacilus and M. Geganius Macerinus (Liv. IV.22; Varr. R. R. III.2).

Conducting the census

An account of the formalities with which the census was opened is given in a fragment of the Tabulae Censoriae, preserved by Varro (L. L. VI.86, 87, ed. Müller).

After the auspicia had been taken, the citizens were summoned by a public cryer (praeco) to appear before the censors. Each tribe was called up separately (Dionys. V.75); and the names in each tribe were probably taken according to the lists previously made out by the tribunes of the tribes. Every paterfamilias had to appear in person before the censors, who were seated in their curule chairs; and those names were taken first which were considered to be of good omen, such as Valerius, Salvius, Statorius, &c. (Festus, s.v. Lacus Lucrinus; Schol. Bob. ad Cic. pro Scaur. p374, ed. Orelli). The census was conducted ad arbitrium censoris; but the censors laid down certain rules (Liv. IV.8, XXIX.15), sometimes called leges censui censendo (Liv. XLIII.14), in which mention was made of the different kinds of property subject to the census, and in what way their value was to be estimated.

According to these laws each citizen had to give an account of himself, of his family, and of his property upon oath, ex animi sententia (Dionys. IV.15; Liv. XLIII.14). First he had to give his full name (praenomen, nomen, and cognomen) and that of his father, or if he were a freedman that of his patron, and he was likewise obliged to state his age. He was then asked, Tu, ex animi tui sententia, uxorem habes? and if married he had to give the name of his wife, and likewise the number, names, and ages of his children, if any (Gell. IV.20; Cic. de Orat. II.64; Tab. Heracl. 142 (68); Dig. 50 tit. 15 s3). Single women (viduae) and orphans (orbi orbaeque), were represented by their tutores; their names were entered in separate lists, and they were not included in the sum total of capita (cf. Liv. III.3, Epit. 59).

After a citizen had stated his name, age, family, &c., he then had to give an account of all his property, so far as it was subject to the census. In making this statement he was said censere or censeri, as a deponent, "to value or estimate himself," or as a passive "to be valued or estimated:" the censor, who received the statement, was also said censere, as well as accipere censum (cf. Cic. pro Flacc. 32; Liv. XXXIX.15). Only such things were liable to the census (censui censendo) as were property ex jure Quiritium. At first each citizen appears to have merely given the value of his whole property in general without entering into details (Dionys. IV.15; Cic. de Leg. III.3; Festus, s.v. Censores); but it soon became the practice to give a minute specification of each article, as well as the general value of the whole (cf. Cic. pro Flacc. 32; Gell. VI.11;º Plut. Cat. Maj. 18).

Land formed the most important article in the census; but public land, the possessio of which only belonged to a citizen, was excluded as not being Quiritarian property. If we may judge from the practice of the imperial period, it was the custom to give a most minute specification of all such land as a citizen held ex jure Quiritium. He had to state the name and situation of the land, and to specify what portion of it was arable, what meadow, what vineyard, and what olive-ground: and to the land thus minutely described he had to affix his own valuation (Dig. 50 tit. 15 s4). Slaves and cattle formed the next most important item.

The censors also possessed the right of calling for a return of such objects as had not usually been given in, such as clothing, jewels, and carriages (Liv. XXXIX.44; Plut. Cat. Maj. 18). It has been doubted by some modern writers whether the censors possessed the power of setting a higher valuation on the property than the citizens themselves had put; but when we recollect the discretionary nature of the censors' powers, and the necessity almost that existed, in order to prevent fraud, that the right of making a surcharge should be vested in somebody's hands, we can hardly doubt that the censors had this power. It is moreover expressly stated that on one occasion they made an extravagant surcharge on articles of luxury (Liv. XXXIX.44; Plut. Cat. Maj. 18); and even if they did not enter in their books the property of a person at a higher value than he returned it, they accomplished the same end by compelling him to pay down the tax upon the property at a higher rate than others. The tax (tributum) was usually one per thousand upon the property entered in the books p263of the censors; but on one occasion the censors, as a punishment, compelled a person to pay eight per thousand (octuplicato censu, Liv. IV.24).

A person, who voluntarily absented himself from the census, and thus became incensus, was subject to the severest punishment. Servius Tullius is said to have threatened the incensus with imprisonment and death (Liv. I.44); and in the republican period he might be sold by the state as a slave (Cic. pro Caecin. 34). In the later times of the republic a person who was absent from the census, might be represented by another, and thus be registered by the censors (Varr. L. L. VI.86). Whether the soldiers who were absent on service had to appoint a representative, may be questioned. In ancient times the sudden breaking out of a war prevented the census from being taken (Liv. VI.31), because a large number of the citizens would necessarily be absent. It is supposed from a passage in Livy (xxix.37), that in later times the censors sent commissioners into the provinces with full powers to take the census of the Roman soldiers there; but this seems to have been only a special case. It is, on the contrary, probable from the way in which Cicero pleads the absence of Archias from Rome with the army under Lucullus, as a sufficient reason for his not having been enrolled in the census (pro Arch. 5), that service in the army was a valid excuse for absence.

After the censors had received the names of all the citizens with the amount of their property, they then had to make out the lists of the tribes, and also of the classes and centuries; for by the legislation of Servius Tullius the position of each citizen in the state was determined by the amount of his property [Comitia Centuriata.] These lists formed a most important part of the Tabulae Censoriae, under which name were included all the documents connected in any way with the discharge of the censors' duties (Cic. de Leg. III.3; Liv. XXIV.18; Plut. Cat. Maj. 16; Cic. de Leg. Agr. I.2). These lists, as far at least as they were connected with the finances of the state, were deposited in the aerarium, which was the temple of Saturn (Liv. XXIX.37); but the regular depositary for all the archives of the censors was in earlier times the Atrium Libertatis, near the Villa publica (Liv. XLIII.16, XLV.15), and in later times the temple of the Nymphs (Cic. pro Mil. 27).

Besides the arrangement of the citizens into tribes, centuries, and classes, the censors had also to make out the lists of the senators for the ensuing lustrum, or till new censors were appointed; striking out the names of such as they considered unworthy, and making additions to the body from those who were qualified. This important part of their duties is explained under senatus. In the same manner they held a review of the equites equo publico, and added and removed names as they judged proper.

After the lists had been completed, the number of citizens was counted up, and the sum total announced; and accordingly we find that, in the account of a census, the number of citizens is likewise usually given. They are in such cases spoken of as capita, sometimes with the addition of the word civium, and sometimes not; and hence to be registered in the census was the same thing as caput habere.

Census in the provinces

A census was sometimes taken in the provinces, even under the republic (Cic. Verr. II.53, 56); but there seems to have been no general census taken in the provinces till the time of Augustus. This emperor caused an accurate account to be taken of all persons in the Roman dominion, together with the amount of their property (Ev. Lucae, ii.1, 2; Joseph. Ant. Jud. xvii.13 §5, xviii.1 §1, 2 §1); and a similar census was taken from time to time by succeeding emperors, at first every ten, and subsequently every fifteen years (Savigny, Römische Steuerverfassung, in Zeitschrift, vol. VI pp375‑383). The emperor sent into the provinces especial officers to take the census, who were called Censitores (Dig. 50 tit. 15 s4 § 1; Cassiod. Var. IX.11; Orelli, Inscr. No. 3652); but the duty was sometimes discharged by the imperial legati (Tac. Ann. I.31, II.6). The Censitores were assisted by subordinate officers, called Censuales, who made out the lists, &c. (Capitol. Gordian. 12; Symmach. Ep. X.43; Cod. Theod. 8 tit. 2). At Rome the census still continued to be taken under the empire, but the old ceremonies connected with it were no longer continued, and the ceremony of the lustration was not performed after the time of Vespasian. The two great jurists, Paulus and Ulpian, each wrote works on the census in the imperial period; and several extracts from these works are given in a chapter in the Digest (50 15), to which we must refer our readers for further details respecting the imperial census.

Other meanings

The word census, besides the meaning of "valuation" of a person's estate, has other significations, which must be briefly mentioned:

  • 1. It signified the amount of a person's property, and hence we read of census senatorius, the estate of a senator; census equestris, the estate of an eques.
  • 2. The lists of the censors.
  • 3. The tax which depended upon the valuation in the census.
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