Tribute (from Latin tribuere, "to pay") refers to the regular payment of goods or services offered from a subordinate group or community to a dominant one because of the threat that the failure to pay will result in punitive sanctions by the dominant group or community.
Historically stabilized tributary relations often existed between nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoral peoples and settled agriculturalists, often at the peripheries of ancient states, such as the Mongol herders on the borders of China or the Semitic herders on the borders of the Sumerian states.
Some peoples who lived by raiding were willing to commute their occasional and unpredictable forays for booty (captured goods) into regularized payments of tribute, such as the "danegeld" payments collected by the Vikings from frightened and resentful communities on the coasts of the British Isles.
State-Level Tribute Relations
Throughout history it has been common for a conquering nation to extract payments from those it has conquered. The Romans did this —the payment was called a stipendium— as did the Assyrians of northern Iraq, the Persians of Iran, and the Hittites of Turkey. Through much of China's history, her relations with smaller surrounding peoples (such as Tibetans) depended heavily upon the rendering of goods from the smaller group to the Chinese throne, although in some cases the symbolism of the transfer seems to have mattered more than the actual value of the goods rendered.
In some cases, it was a controversial policy decision whether to exterminate a community or allow it to "buy" its continued existence through regular tribute payments. The Homeric Greeks, described in Homer's Iliad, expected continuing payments from the remains of any place they plundered, but they also exterminated some of these communities, rendering them useless as sources of tribute.
Given sufficient power at the center, whole empires —"tributary empires"— can be constructed based on relations of tribute. Among the best documented historical cases are the polities of pre-Columbian Mexico, where the growth of a state depended very much on its ability, among other things, to defend itself against such demands (or accommodate itself to them) and to make such demands upon others. Arguably the greatest of these was the brief Aztec empire, which subordinated most of central and southern Mexico, forcing tribute payments from a long list of subordinate towns to the Aztec "capital" at Tenochtitlan. The demands were greater than the subordinate towns themselves could accommodate, but that was "their problem," a problem solved by their own extractions from yet more subordinate towns, which necessarily passed the burden down the line to small villages and individual households.
Tributary empires have proven fragile for two reasons:
- They are based on coercion, the direct or implied threat of extreme violence, and hence lack political legitimacy. They are therefore subject to destruction through the rebellion of subordinate polities (especially united in coalitions) at any time when the central power is insufficient to enforce its threat of punishment. (It has been argued that the downfall of the Aztecs in the face of a coalition of rebels and enemies, would have occurred sooner or later whether or not the Spanish had arrived to precipitate and encourage it.)
- To the extent that the dominant population is economically dependent upon the flow of goods from subordinates, even minor disruptions in the flow of goods can result in serious deprivation. Much ancient trade involved luxury items used as symbols of elite status (so-called "powerfacts"). But a large population dependent upon trade for actual subsistence has normally proven inherently vulnerable.
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Content Revised: 2008-07-01
Software Last Modified: 2020-06-13
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