Kingdoms, nations, and empires need to pay for such items as armies, roads, and building projects. Like modern nations, the states of the ancient world relied on their inhabitants for funds. Taxation is the general term for the many different ways in which states collect revenue from individuals. It has long been part of history. Even before money existed, people paid taxes to their rulers in the form of labor or goods, such as crops, gold, or livestock. Conquered peoples paid tribute* to their conquerors. The Greeks and Romans, like other ancient peoples of the Mediterranean world, gradually developed formal systems of taxation. As states grew larger and required more revenue, their tax systems became more complex.
* tribute payment made to a dominant power or local government
Greek Taxation. The Greek city-state* grew out of kinship groups— collections of tribes, clans, and families descended from the same ancestor. In an early system of taxation, these kinship groups required their members to contribute food, other materials, and the manpower to wage war and maintain religious shrines. Coinage, which became common in the Greek world during the 500s B.C., brought widespread economic changes, such as the use of mercenaries* and the growth of trade and commerce. Around the same time, roughly between the 700s B.C. and the 300s B.C., the city-states developed into central political powers that needed to raise revenue in order to provide public services. These services included police, temple building, grain distribution to the people, offerings to the gods and goddesses, and rewards for killing the wolves that threatened some communities.
Greek city-states raised revenue from many sources. Some owned profitable mines, while others seized the wealth of cities they conquered. Athens forced its weaker allies to pay huge amounts in tribute. Taxation, however, was the most dependable way for Greek city-states to raise money. Metics* had to pay a direct tax to the state each year, and those who could not pay were enslaved. Citizens did not have to pay this direct tax. Although everyone who bought goods in a market paid a market tax, because metics could not own land and had to buy everything in the markets, they paid more market taxes than anyone else.
Greeks paid indirect taxes in two forms—customs duties and excise taxes. Customs duties were fees for traveling or carrying goods into and out of the state. They included harbor fees and gate tolls. Excise taxes were similar to present-day sales taxes. Consumers paid these fees when they bought goods. Each article had its own fee. For example, the tax on eels was different from that on other seafood. Most items carried a tax of about 1 percent of their cost. Many common business transactions, including prostitution, also carried excise taxes.
Two special taxes raised revenue from wealthy citizens. The liturgy was a special tax, often paid willingly and with pride, that made an individual responsible for the expenses of a single public event, such as a dramatic festival or a ship for the navy. Originally voluntary, liturgies were later imposed. The eisphora was a tax on rich people during periods of emergency, such as wartime.
Unlike modern nations, Greek city-states did not maintain large staffs of tax collectors. Instead, city-states auctioned contracts to collect taxes. The individual or group who bought the contract from the state then collected the taxes. Tax farmers, as these people were called, kept everything they collected over the original cost of the contract. Tax collecting was frequently very profitable. Tax farmers had the power to take people to court and to enslave them for failure to pay taxes.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* mercenary soldier; usually a foreigner; who fights for payment rather than out of loyalty to a nation
* metic free person living in a Greek city-state who was not a citizen of that state
THE CRUELTY OF TAX COLLECTORS
Philo, a man who lived in the Egyptian dty of Alexandria shortly after Egypt came under Roman rule, wrote an account of a brutal raid by a tax collector and his agents. They rounded up and savagely beat people who owed taxes but were too poor to pay them—and then beat the taxpayers' wives, children, and parents as well. When the beatings failed to produce payments or information about other people who had fled because they could not pay their taxes, the collector and his agents resorted to torture and even murder. Similar events occurred throughout the Roman empire. Because of such occurrences, people naturally despised and feared the tax collectors.
This relief shows a Roman tax collector at work. The Roman treasury relied heavily on tribute raised by provincial taxation to fill its coffers.
Roman Taxation. The Roman tax system changed over the centuries, and it also varied from region to region within the Roman world. At its worst, the system was a bewildering maze of hundreds of different taxes. After the Romans conquered Egypt, they largely adopted the Ptolemaic tax system already in use there. Records show that the government collected taxes on people, land, livestock, olives, oil, beeswax, grain, wine, beer, fish, bread, flour, salt, and even pigeons and pigeon nests. People paid taxes for irrigation ditches, for prison guards and ferry police, for land measurement, and for maintaining public baths. People who wanted to free their slaves had to pay a tax to do so. Fishermen, prostitutes, tailors, builders, bankers, bakers, and people in many other professions paid special taxes. Nearly every business exchange was taxed. Yet this array of taxes is only a partial list of the ways in which the Roman government raised tax revenue.
The major tax throughout Roman history was the tributun, which was a tax on material wealth, including land, slaves, and goods. This tax depended on a person’s citizenship—or lack of it. In theory, Roman citizens did not have to pay tributum, although during financial crises the state often imposed taxes on citizens. Citizens also paid tributum on land they owned outside of Italy. All noncitizens living in Roman territory paid tributum on all of their property.
The Roman government developed two important tools to support its system of taxation. The first was the census, which was a detailed list of the populations of each region that showed the status and wealth of every citizen taxpayer. The census not only identified citizens and noncitizens but also indicated other tax categories. All Jews, for example, paid a special tax, as did unmarried Egyptian women with property above a certain value. The state’s second tool was the land survey. The Romans developed an elaborate system for measuring and mapping property. Their goal was to know exactly who owned each piece of land and who had the obligation to pay the taxes on it.
Like the Greek city-states, the Roman Republic* farmed out the chore of tax collecting. Wealthy people paid the state for contracts that allowed them to collect taxes and keep some of what they collected. Some tax collectors extracted huge profits from the taxpayers. In North Africa, for example, the state set a tax rate of 10 to 12 percent, but tax officials could legally collect as much as 33 percent from the people. Tax contracts were so costly, however, that few individuals could afford them. Investors formed associations to buy the contracts and collect the taxes. Tax collectors were generally greedy, often corrupt, and sometimes cruel. The emperors later replaced the contract system with a network of local and imperial* officials who worked for the state. They may have been as hard on the taxpayers as the private collectors had been, but they were more efficient and brought greater revenue to the imperial treasury. (See also Land: Ownership, Reform, and Use; Money and Moneylending.)
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire