Every ten years there’s a rumbling in Washington. The machinery of government begins to churn, and soon people with notebooks are scurrying about everywhere, trying to take a reckoning of the American body politic.
This familiar civic ritual, the census, has a distinguished lineage, one that goes back at least to ancient Rome. According to the Gospel of Luke, it was even a Roman census that was responsible for Jesus’ being born in Bethlehem:
“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:1–7).
Although practically every detail in this passage is disputed, it does reveal that first-century C.E. subjects of the Roman Empire were familiar with the census. In fact, the census was more than well-known; it seems to have been widely understood as an instrument preparatory to taxation. Indeed, the passage quoted above has at times been translated in a fashion that makes this association clear. The King James version of the Bible, for example, renders it thus: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”
The earliest Roman censuses date back to the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., when the small, central Italian city-state of Rome sought to gain accurate counts of male citizens for military levies. These censuses were not very different from mechanisms used by other ancient states to record the names of their citizens. In Athens, for instance, records were kept of male citizens for the purpose of defining citizenship—though Athenian records were not systematically updated, nor did they include financial and demographic information.
In time, however, the Roman census developed 007into an information-gathering tool that makes it the true ancestor of our modern census. Not only did Roman census-takers (or “censors,” as they were called) collect a wide variety of demographic and economic data, but they also expanded the census to cover the entire body of Roman citizens and, later, the residents of the Roman provinces. The census thus became a tool for collecting information necessary to shape policy. Perhaps even more importantly, it performed essential ideological work in making different peoples and ethnic groups feel that they belonged within the greater Roman Empire. To be counted, one might say, was to count.
Ancient sources from the period of the Roman Republic (fifth to first century B.C.E.) relate that citizens had to present themselves before one of two elected censors—or, in the case of Italian municipalities, before a delegated magistrate—and declare (1) the members of their household, (2) their liquidity (by subtracting outstanding debts from current assets) and (3) their real estate holdings and durable goods (particularly agricultural implements). This information was required principally to place individuals in the appropriate class, for purposes of taxation or different forms of public service, including voting.
The earliest known provincial censuses were conducted under Augustus, who effectively served as Rome’s first emperor from 31 B.C.E. to 14 C.E. These censuses were part of an extraordinary effort to organize and stabilize the vast conquests made by Roman generals in the final decades of the Roman democracy. In many territories, the census must have been a radical novelty. Indeed, its importance and dangers were such that Augustus himself supervised the first censuses in Gaul and Spain. The emperor Claudius (41–54 C.E.) praised Gallic nobles for cooperating with the first census in their province; and he even argued that, because of their cooperation, some Gallic nobles should be admitted to the Senate.
Things did not always work so smoothly, however. The Romans themselves thought that foreign peoples resented the census because they did not want to pay the head tax that inevitably followed. That was no doubt true, but they probably also resented Rome’s arrogating to itself the power to tax, and the claim to mastery over the land that this power embodied. Roman rule represented a change, even a rupture, in the social fabric, and this change was manifested in the census and the taxation that followed. Not for nothing did the historian and senator Cassius Dio (c. 164–229 C.E.) describe the census of Gaul under Augustus as an “ordering of their way of life and manner of government” (Roman History 53.22).
Such resentment also arose in connection with the census mentioned by Luke—apparently in 6 C.E., though Luke wrote his gospel some 70 years later. After the Romans annexed Judea to the province of Syria, they took a census of the population and imposed head and property taxes. According to Josephus, a first-century C.E. Jew who lived in Rome after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and wrote historical works in Greek, a Galilean named Judas and a Pharisee named Saddok then sought to incite a rebellion. They believed the census represented a form of slavery to which Jews should not submit.
The mechanics of the census are best attested in Egypt, whose arid climate has preserved a vast number of public and private texts on papyrus. There the census was conducted every 14 years (the span it took for boys to grow to their majority); censors registered arable property, agricultural yield, livestock production and the births and deaths of slaves. Armed with this information, Roman officials could assess a person’s tax liability. (People could also report events that reduced their liability—the death of a slave, the sale of taxable land. If, for instance, the Nile failed to inundate their fields, their lands could lie fallow without liability until they were inundated once again.)
These vast efforts in collecting data, and the censors’ scrupulous desire for precision, suggested to provincials that the Roman government was rational—which is not to say reasonable. That is, residents of the empire knew what to expect (even if they didn’t like it); they understood the empire’s rules and could adjust their actions accordingly. Even though they were subject to foreign laws, they were not the hapless victims of arbitrary power. They simply had to obey laws that everyone else—Roman and alien alike—had to obey.
The power the census exercised upon the ancient imagination is suggested by its role in efforts to date the birth of Jesus. In the Syrian city of Antioch in 387 C.E., John Chrysostom, later the bishop of Constantinople, delivered a Christmas sermon on the birth of Jesus. Beginning by quoting Luke 2:1–7, he continued:
“From these verses it is clear that he was born at the time of the first census. From the ancient records in the public record house at Rome, it is possible, for one who desires to know accurately, to learn precisely the time of the census … For Augustus did not publish his edict on the census of his own accord, but God aroused his spirit to do so, so that even unwittingly he might minister to the birth of Christ … Christ was supposed to be born in Bethlehem: Therefore the edict came forth, on God’s urging, that compelled them, even unwillingly, to that city.”
Every ten years there’s a rumbling in Washington. The machinery of government begins to churn, and soon people with notebooks are scurrying about everywhere, trying to take a reckoning of the American body politic. This familiar civic ritual, the census, has a distinguished lineage, one that goes back at least to ancient Rome. According to the Gospel of Luke, it was even a Roman census that was responsible for Jesus’ being born in Bethlehem: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was […]