Why the Census is Important

By Joseph

Every 10 years there is a census that is taken within the United States. However to truly understand the purpose of the census, one has to look into the census that was taken in Ancient Rome. During Ancient Roman times every five years every male Roman citizen in the empire had to register in Rome for the census.

First he had to give his full name and that of his father, or if he were a Libertus (freedman) that of his patron, and he was likewise obliged to state his age. He was then asked, You, declaring from your heart, do you have a wife? 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; Cicero de Oratore ii.64; Tab. Heracl. 142 (68); Digesta Iustiniani 50 tit.15 s3.

If he had any single women and orphans in the family they were placed on separate lists and were represented by their guardians. They were also not included in the sum total of the people in the family.After a citizen had stated his name, age, family, etc., he then had to give an account of all his property.

Land formed the most important article of the census, but public land, the possession 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 according to the Quiritarian law. He had to state the name and location of the land, and to specify what portion of it was arable, what meadow, what vineyard, and what olive-ground: and of the land thus described, he had to give his assessment of its value. Digesta Iustiniani 50 tit.15 s4.

Once the details of his land were documented, then if the Roman citizen had any slaves or cattle, they too had to be added to the register. Registering for the census also meant freedom and one could not be sold into the bondage of slavery. Fathers made sure their sons were placed on the citizen registries. Businessmen would also place their employees on the census registries too. Even if one was a slave, the master putting them on the census was freedom for them. This was because in the eyes of the Roman Republic any male that was placed on the census, was no longer a slave, but a free Roman citizen, (manumissio censu).

If a male Roman failed to register for the census, all of his possessions were to be confiscated and he would be sold into slavery.

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. Livy xxxix.44; Plutarch Life of Cato the Elder 18.

So the censor taker had a very important job within the Roman Republic government. It was overseen by two censors. These two men had to be “incorruptible and noble-blooded men” of substance. They were also appointed for their proven integrity and authority. Both of these men were responsible for maintaining the census, supervising public morality, and overseeing certain aspects of the governments finances. For they had to scrutinize each man, carefully evaluating his riches and his rank and placing him in his rightful place within the civic hierarchy of Rome.

What is interesting about this scrutiny they did was, if the census takers saw citizens of higher positions in the hierarchy turning a blind eye to his wifes adulteries, committed perjury, fathered no children, appeared on the stage (actors were seen with contempt by Roman society) or failed to cultivate his land properly, the census takers might move them down a few rungs in the social ladder.

The high rank and dignity which the censorship obtained was due to the various important duties gradually entrusted to it, and especially to its possessing the regimen morum, or general control over the conduct and the morals of the citizens. In the exercise of this power, they were regulated solely by their own views of duty, and were not responsible to any other power in the state. Dionys. in Mai, Nova Coll. vol. ii p516; Livy iv.24, xxix.37; Valerius Maximus vii.256.

When 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. Cicero de Legibus iii.3; Liv. xxiv.18; Plut. Cat. Maj. 16; Cic. de Leg. Agr. i.2.\

Image used with permission from Andre Bach via Creative Commons 3.0. Obtained from Flickr.com.

Yes it is true that the census was used to count the number of citizens in the Roman empire , the potential military strength of the empire to attack other countries, and for tax revenue purposes. However the most important function of the census was to transform the city of Rome into a political and military community.

You see to the Romans the census made them more than a crowd, or citizens to be ignored. They became the “populous.” A group of people that were capable of collective action.

Indeed, a nation or city is ruled by the people, or by an upper class, or by a monarch. A government system that is invented from a choice of these same components is sooner idealised than realised; and even if realised, there will be no future for it. Tacitus

Image used with permission from Eric Huybrechts via Creative Commons 3.0. Obtained from Flickr.com.

The Roman government did this because the Romans believed that all authority came from the people. This is why the Roman officials placed the acronym SPQR (Senatus Populus Que Romanus) on everything Roman. The translation from Latin means the Senate and People of Rome or the government of the people. SPQR was written on Ancient Roman public buildings, military gear, armor, money, and public places. This was a technique used in Ancient Roman society to ensure citizens felt involved and secure. So when the Roman citizens saw the SPQR, it would make them feel they had a voice and control in the government. With citizens backing the government, Ancient Rome was on its way to building a great empire.

This also put enormous pressure upon the Roman Senate. Since all authority came from the people, they had to continuously placate and satisfy their voters. This is why the census was held every 5 years. From the census the Senate and the Emperor could see how many people constituted the different classes of people. Who they needed to ease restrictions on, give freedom to, start a welfare system for , even the Roman circuses.

What this all boils down to is this: The Ancient Roman Republic feared the “populous.” They feared that someday they might rise up and overthrow the government. So everyone got something. This way everyone would be happy and no one would rebel.They also wanted Rome to become a Utopian society. The perfect Empire for everyone to live in. By doing so, they wanted to make everyone “bricks” and not “stones.” So when the Roman Empire began to fall, to keep the lower classes of society happy, they gave them welfare. Then when it really began to crumble, the circuses , and the games everyone attended. As a diversion and they would forget about overthrowing the Roman government.

While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand; / When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; / And when Rome falls the World.” Lord Bryon

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