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Ancient and modern

Ancient Rome’s fraudulent foreign students

Modern lessons from a fourth-century tax dodge

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

Foreign students getting on to courses under false pretences, overstaying their welcome and so on are nothing new. Ask the Romans.

In the 4th century AD, the Roman empire was tottering, and Diocletian decided to sort it out. The resulting increase in bureaucracy led to a large rise in taxation. This laid a particularly heavy burden on the wallets of the wealthy who ran local government (the decuriones), because it was their duty not only to collect local taxes but also to make up any shortfall. But there were tax exemptions, one of which was for students — a luxury only the rich could afford. The result was a sudden enthusiasm for education. So in AD 370 Rome put procedures in place to check up on credentials:


‘All those who come to the city in the desire to learn shall first of all present to the Chief Tax Officer letters from the provincial judges who gave them permission to come. These letters shall contain the student’s town, birth certificate, and reports of achievement. Second, the students shall declare on arrival which branch of study they propose to follow. Third, the Tax Office shall investigate in detail their places of residence, to ensure that they are devoting their effort to the subject they said they would study. These officials shall also warn the students that they shall all behave in gatherings as befits those who think it right to avoid a bad reputation and bad company, which we consider to be close to crime; nor should they make frequent visits to shows or seek out inappropriate parties. Indeed, we confer on you the power that, if anyone does not behave in the city as the dignity of a liberal education requires, he shall be publicly flogged and immediately placed on a boat, expelled from the city and sent home.’

Likewise, industrious students who practised a profession were given leave to stay for so long, but then they must return home, or be sent back ‘in disgrace’. The Tax Office kept records of where they came from and where they must go back to, ‘whether Africa or any other province’.

Plus ça change… But how about tax breaks for Labour supporters, eh, Ed?


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