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Taxes in the Ancient World

"In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes."
--Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to M. Leroy, 1789.

Scholars 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 W-2 form, see Almanac January 29, online.

Ancient Mesopotamia | Ancient Egypt | Ancient Roman Empire

Taxes in Ancient Mesopotamia

Sumerian tablet which records payment of the tax called "burden," circa 2500 B.C.

In comparison 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:

"Irra's 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!"

Almost 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.

The almost 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!

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Dr. 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.

Taxes in Ancient Egypt


Pharaohs, 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.

As 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.

While 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).

With 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).

Tax 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.

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Dr. 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 Eastern Studies.
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.

Taxes in the Ancient Roman Empire

Bronze coin with the head of Roman Emperor Diocletian (284-305 A.D.) who, like many emperors, schemed to revise the tax structure.

Whether 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.

It 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 the "sinners."

Each 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.

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Dr. 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 Pennsylvania Museum,scheduled to open October 26, 2002.


Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 28, April 2, 2002


April 2, 2002
Volume 48 Number 28

Peter Skirkanich W '65, and his wife, Geri, have pledged $10 million to build a new home for bioengineering; it is the largest gift by an individual donor in the history of SEAS.
Dr. Jim O'Donnell will give the Baccalaureate address next month, his swan song at Penn after two decades, before becoming provost at Georgetown.
Have something you want to say about Penn's plans for the future? The open forum on the new strategic plan, Building on Excellence: The Next Agenda, is this afternoon.
Taxes have been around a long time, according to three of the Museum's experts on ancient civilizations. No wonder Franklin knew we could count on them!