Taxes in the Ancient
this world nothing is certain but death and taxes."
Franklin, in a letter to M. Leroy, 1789.
and curators at the University of Pennsylvania Museum have dug
up some examples of how ancient civilizations have dealt with
taxes. These glimpses of the past are part of
E-Musings, the Museum's new electronic newsletter; see the
Museum's homepage to subscribe. For those who are still trying
to deal with the upcoming tax deadline and want to decipher their
see Almanac January 29, online.
Mesopotamia | Ancient Egypt | Ancient
in Ancient Mesopotamia
Sumerian tablet which records payment of the tax called "burden,"
circa 2500 B.C.
with ancient Mesopotamia, perhaps we suffer less than our ancient
counterparts. Since they didn't have coined money, ancient households
had to pay taxes in kind, and they paid different taxes throughout
the year. Poll taxes required each man to deliver a cow or sheep
to the authorities. Merchants transporting goods from one region
to another were subject to tolls, duty fees, and other taxes.
To avoid as many of these as possible, they frequently resorted
to smuggling. One letter from about 1900 B.C. recounts the consequences
of these evasive measures, when a trader from the head office
instructed his employee:
son sent smuggled goods to Pushuken but his smuggled goods were
intercepted. The Palace then threw Pushuken in jail! The guards
are strong...please don't smuggle anything else!"
everything was taxed--livestock, the boat trade, fishing, even
funerals--but probably the most burdensome obligation a household
faced was its labor obligation. This was called "going"
or "burden" in Babylonian languages. A free man, head
of his household, owed the government many months of labor service.
If he were lucky, his service might entail harvesting the government's
barley fields or digging the silt out of canals. If he were unlucky,
he had to do military service, leaving the security of home to
fight wars abroad, perhaps never to return. Not unnaturally men
who could afford it avoided this labor service: they either sent
a slave or hired someone on their behalf. Technically, substitution
was illegal, but we know it was widely practiced. Those who couldn't
afford a substitute took more drastic measures. Law No. 30 of
Hammurabi's Law Code begins, "If a soldier or sailor abandons
his field, orchard or home because of the labor obligation and
runs away"--and the consequence was forfeiture of his family's
land and livelihood.
one million cuneiform tablets which currently survive in museum
collections around the world--some 30,000 of these in the University
of Pennsylvania Museum--provide insights into topics like taxation.
We encourage you to come visit the Mesopotamian galleries again--after
all, it beats doing your taxes!
Tonia Sharlach, Research Assistant in the Museum's Babylonian
Section, is part of the team of scholars working on the Sumerian
Dictionary Project, the first dictionary of the world's oldest
known written language.
Dr. Sharlach received her Ph.D. in 1999 from
Harvard. Her dissertation focused on Babylonian taxes. The revised
version of the dissertation, Provincial Taxation and the
Ur III State, will be published in 2003 by Brill.
in Ancient Egypt
like the one shown here on the door jamb of the Palace of
Merenptah (1236-1223 B.C.), were powerful rulers who could,
and did, collect taxes as they saw fit.
Taxation, according to Dr. David Silverman, Curator, Egyptian section
of the Museum, was a fact of life for all the pharaoh's subjects
throughout ancient Egyptian times. Administrative texts, literary
texts, letters and scenes from tombs have provided archaeologists
and historians with definite but fragmentary evidence of taxes,
tax collectors, (unadvisable) whining about taxes, and oh yes, even
tax shelters--for the lucky few.
early as the first dynasty of the Old Kingdom (3000-2800 B.C.) there
is documented evidence of a biennial event, the "Following
of Horus," no less than a royal tour when the pharaoh appeared
before his people--and collected taxes. These revenues were due
to him in his dual, and indisputable, role, as the head of state
and the incarnation of the god Horus.
there is no evidence that April 15 was the day of reckoning, ancient
Egyptians had to contend with heavy taxes that were at least an
annual affair, and included levies on cattle, grain--and payment
in various kinds of human labor. Add to that ad hoc taxes that could
be imposed at any time that the pharaoh saw fit (a military campaign
or work on royal tombs might require extra revenue).
all the taxes that were imposed, it is not surprising that there
was a little bit of, well, whining about taxes. Examples of ancient
complaints about taxes have survived, though we don't know what
happened to those who complained. In one letter from the New Kingdom,
a priest protested what he saw as excessive taxes, saying, "It
is not my due tax at all!" (Sally L.D. Kadary, "Taxation,"
in D. Redford [ed.] Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, vol.
III [New York, 2001], pp.351-356).
shelters--royal charters of immunity from taxes--are documented
as early as the fourth dynasty in the Old Kingdom (2625-2500 B.C.).
The staff and the property of temples and foundations--often themselves
funded through tax revenues--sought and appeared to have received
such immunity from taxes, including immunity from compulsory labor.
David Silverman, the Eckley Brinton Coxe, Jr. Professor and
Curator of Egyptology, is Curator-in-Charge of the Egyptian
Section, and Chairman of the Department of Asian and Middle
A prolific writer, Dr. Silverman has published many books, articles
and reviews and he has presented his papers throughout the world.
He has completed extensive fieldwork in Egypt and has served
as a curator for many exhibits of Egypt and the Ancient World
for major museums in the U.S.
in the Ancient Roman Empire
coin with the head of Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 A.D.)
who, like many emperors, schemed to revise the tax structure.
paying your taxes in Roman times was as unpleasant as it is universally
perceived to be today depends on who you were and when you lived.
By 167 B.C. the Roman government had so successfully enriched itself
at the expense of its recently captured provinces and through revenues
from its Spanish silver mines that it no longer needed to levy a
tax against land owned by its citizens in Italy.
was a different story in the provinces, which were subject to every
unauthorized revenue-generating scheme known to man. The infamous
publicani were private tax-farmers hired by the provincial governors
to collect whatever taxes they could above and beyond the official
rate. Pocketing the difference they colluded with other Roman capitalists
to buy up grain at a low rate at harvest time and then sell it back
at inflated rates in times of shortage. They also lent money to
hard-pressed provincials at a usurious rate of 4% or more per month.
No wonder they are so persistently lumped in the New Testament with
emperor faced the challenge of meeting the soaring costs of administration,
and schemes to revise the tax structure came and went as the empire
rolled on. The biggest changes came late in the day. Diocletian
(A.D. 284-305) imposed a universal price freeze with mixed results
at the same time that he reinstated the land tax on Italian landowners
(mostly paid in kind rather than coin). He also imposed special
tolls in money on traders and corporate associations. While in theory
his scheme should have brought a degree of relief to the various
classes of taxpayers, in practice it did not, largely because additional
taxes were levied once the land tax had been paid. In addition the
burden of payment was shifted onto the members of the local senatorial
class who were subject to financial ruin in the case of any fall-short.
To make matters even worse, Diocletian's successor, Constantine,
made the municipal senatorial class hereditary, so that even if
your spendthrift father had pauperized you and your family, you
still inherited his rank as a senator along with his tax burden.
Visit http://www.penn.museum/ for more information.
Donald White, Curator-in-Charge of the Mediterranean Section,
is coordinating major renovations and a new installation of
the Etruscan, Italic and Roman galleries of the University of
to open October 26, 2002.
Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 28, April 2, 2002
April 2, 2002
Volume 48 Number 28