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p944 Portorium

Article by George Long, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College
on pp944‑945 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

PORTORIUM was one branch of the regular revenues of the Roman state, consisting of the duties paid on imported and exported goods: sometimes, however, the name portorium is also applied to the duties raised upon goods for being carried through a country or over bridges (Plin. H. N. XII.31; Sueton. Vitell. 14). A portorium, or duty upon imported goods, appears to have been paid at a very early period, for it is said that Valerius Publicola exempted the plebes from the portoria at the time when the republic was threatened with an invasion by Porsenna (Liv. II.9; cf. Dionys. V.22). The time of its introduction is uncertain; but the abolition of it ascribed to Publicola can only have been a temporary measure; and as the expenditure of the republic increased, new portoria must have been introduced. Thus the censors M. Aemilius Lepidus and M. Fulvius Nobilior instituted portoria et vectigalia multa (Liv. XL.51), and C. Gracchus again increased the number of articles which had to pay portoria (Vell. Pat. II.6). In conquered places and in the provinces the import and export duties, which had been paid there before, were generally not only retained, but increased, and appropriated to the aerarium. Thus we read of portoria being paid at Capua and Puteoli on goods which were imported by merchants (Liv. XXXII.7). Sicily, and above all, Asia furnished to the Roman treasury large sums which were raised as portoria (Cic. c. Verr. II.75, pro Leg. Manil. 6). In some cases, however, the Romans allowed a subject nation, as a particular favour, to raise for themselves whatever portoria they pleased in their ports, and only stipulated that Roman citizens and socii Latini should be exempted from them (Liv. XXXVIII.44; Gruter, Inscript. p500). In the year 60 B.C. all the portoria in the ports of Italy were done away with, by a lex Caecilia carried by the praetor Q. Metellus Nepos (Dion p945Cass. XXXVII.51; Cic. ad Att. II.16). It appears, however, that the cause of this abolition was not any complaint by the people of the tax itself, but of the portitores, i.e. the persons who collected it, and who greatly annoyed the merchants by their unfair conduct and vexatious proceedings [Publicani]. Thus the republic for a time only levied import and export duties in the provinces, until Julius Caesar restored the duties on commodities imported from foreign countries (Suet. Caes. 43). During the triumvirate new portoria were introduced (Dion Cass. XLVIII.34), and Augustus partly increased the old import duties and partly instituted new ones. The subsequent emperors increased or diminished this branch of the revenue as necessity required, or as their own discretion dictated.

As regards the articles subject to an import duty, it may be stated in general terms, that all commodities, including slaves, which were imported by merchants for the purpose of selling them again, were subject to the portorium; whereas things which a person brought with him for his own use, were exempted from it. A long list of such taxable articles is given in the Digest (Dig. 39 tit. 4 s.16; cf. Cic. c. Verr. II.72, 74). Many things, however, which belonged more to the luxuries than to the necessities of life, such as eunuchs and handsome youths, had to pay an import duty, even though they were imported by persons for their own use (Suet. De clar. Rhet. 1; Cod. 4 tit. 42 s.2). Things which were imported for the use of the state were also exempt from the portorium. But the governors of provinces (praesides), when they sent persons to purchase things for the use of the public, had to write a list of such things for the publicani (portitores) to enable the latter to see whether more things were imported than what were ordered (Dig. 39 tit. 4 s.4); for the practice of smuggling appears to have been as common among the Romans as in modern times. Respecting the right of the portitores to search travellers and merchants, see Publicani. Such goods as were duly stated to the portitores were called scripta, and those which were not, inscripta. If goods subject to a duty were concealed, they were, on their discovery, confiscated. (Dig. 39 tit. 4 s.16).

Respecting the amount of the import or export duties we have but very few statements in the ancient writers. In the time of Cicero the portorium in the ports of Sicily was one-twentieth (vicesima) of the value of taxable articles (Cic. c. Verr. II.75); and as this was the customary rate in Greece (Böckh, Publ. Econ. p325, 2d edit.), it is probable that this was the average sum raised in all the other provinces. In the times of the emperors the ordinary rate of the portorium appears to have been the fortieth part (quadragesima) of the value of imported goods (Suet. Vesp. 1; Quintil. Declam. 359; Symmach. Epist. V.62, 65). At a late period the exorbitant sum of one-eighth (octava, Cod. 4 tit. 61 s.7) is mentioned as the ordinary import duty; but it is uncertain whether this is the duty for all articles of commerce, or merely for certain things.

The portorium was, like all other vectigalia, farmed out by the censors to the publicani, who collected it through the portitores. [Vectigalia, Publicani.] (Burmann, De Vectigalibus Populi Rom. pp50‑77; R. Bosse, Grundzüge des Finanzwesens in Röm. Staat, Braunschweig 1803, 2 vols.; Hegewisch, Versuch über die Röm. Finanzen, Altona, 1804.)

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