When the Coffers Overflowed

When the Coffers Overflowed

The scourge of taxes has always been a fact of civilization, but some methods of ancient tax collecting were so diabolical that they would make the U.S. Internal Revenue Service seem almost like a charitable organization.

In ancient Egypt the wealthy were buried in elaborate tombs along with many of their earthly possessions on the supposition that they would take and enjoy all of their wealth in the afterlife. However, by 2500 B.C. the pharaohs had challenged the old belief that you can take it with you by taxing everything except the imagination and no doubt would have included it if they could have found a way.

One ancient tomb, dated about 2400 B.C., has a series of reliefs depicting tax collectors at work. It shows the official sentencing of a lineup of tax delinquents and also illustrates some of the punishments. A standard penalty was flogging, and if the tax dodger did not mend his ways and pay his taxes, as all good Egyptians should, he was thrown to the royal crocodiles!

Remarkable as it seems, the Egyptian investigators kept check on taxpayers very much as the IRS does today, by maintaining a tight record on individual property and income. Perhaps the IRS studied the strategies of the ancient tax collectors. Among a number of tomb paintings that portrayed record taking, one showed a clerk off to the side, reed pen in hand, listing the size of the crop, recording meat cuts in slaughterhouses, and documenting production in workhouses. The dry climate has helped preserve not only painted tomb records but also written records. Taxation and collection are preserved in facts and figures on numerous rolls of papyrus.

A great number of papyrus records have been unearthed dating from 300 B.C., with the beginning of Egyptian domination by foreign powers. First there were the fifteen Ptolemies, who were the Macedonian—Greek rulers, followed in 30 B.C. by the Romans, the most powerful and enduring of the foreign conquerors.

The Romans were even more efficient taxers than the pharaohs. One can say unequivocally that the inhabitants of the valley of the Nile owed their souls to the "company store." There was nothing more certain in life than the taxes they had to pay to their Roman conquerors. The Roman tax bureaus, at least as far as the Egyptians were concerned, were as complete and thorough as those of the modern IRS, despite the sophisticated electronic instruments of present—day collectors. They had a record of every single taxpayers, present and potential, and managed to tax every tangible asset, with collection methods characterized by ruthless efficiency.

House—by—house registration kept a running record on all occupants. These records included such data as age, profession, tax status, and property owned. Official tax clerks saw to it that all the rolls were kept up to date. Land registration encompassed all farms and orchards, including the likely value of the yield. A tax was levied on each individual cow, sheep, and pig. Craftsmen and tradesmen registered with the tax collector all their craft and trade goods. Even prostitutes had to register their nightly take so that it could be taxed.

Tax offices were absolutely jammed with record ledgers of past, current, and future taxes. A portion of one record survived. It documents taxes levied against a small village for a three—year period. Scholars note that this single remnant of a tax record is a long as Homer's Iliad.

Taxpayers were issued receipts for the taxes they had to pay. The one major difference from the modern IRS is that they had to supply their own writing material. To save the cost of paper most taxpayers instead scribbled their receipts on chunks of broken pottery.

Failure to give Caesar his due resulted in very stiff penalties. Since flogging was no longer practiced, local toughs were hired to collect delinquent taxes. They would break into the house of a tax dodger and clean out everything in sight. If the landlord or his family protested, they were either beaten up or, as in many cases, sold into slavery. These tax raids occurred frequently, because the salary of the collectors consisted of a percentage of the take.

The methods of ancient tax collectors are in no way meant as suggestions or encouragement to the "untiring resources" of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service!

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth