Ancient Taxes from Around the World

There are few things in this world that are, without debate, a necessary evil. Taxes fall all too well within that description. This “necessary evil” has been around for nearly as long as human civilization. By definition, taxes are an obligatory financial charge or duty imposed upon a taxpayer by a state or ruling body in order to fund various public expenditures. The taxes you pay and the taxes your ancestors paid thousands of years ago are used by the government to invest in technology and education. Taxation has held many forms throughout history. Before the existence of a monetary system, taxes were paid as a percentage of crops harvested. This societal requirement dates back to as early as 6,000 B.C. and was first transcribed in clay tablets in the ancient city-state of Lagash in modern day Iraq. Other accounts of early tax implementation were found in Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago where payment took the form of livestock. Here’s a quick look at three major ancient civilizations that imposed taxes as a means of supporting its people:


In ancient Egypt, pharaohs were viewed as gods and were tasked with ensuring the safety and health of the people. Egyptians did not have a monetary system and instead taxes were levied on property and harvest. The Pharaoh relied on the surplus goods received as taxes during times of drought, famine, and war. Manual labor was also a form of tax that supported the Egyptian army and building projects. Documentation suggests that Pharaohs appeared before the people in order to collect taxes. Viziers kept records of taxes collected and ensured that requirements were met.
  • Cooking oil was taxed heavily in Egypt, furthermore people had to buy their taxed cooking oil from the Pharaoh’s monopoly, and were prohibited from reusing previously purchased oil.


Ancient Greece was comprised of numerous city-states, essentially independent states and its surrounding territories. These city states each had their own collection of tribes, clans, and families which were referred to as kinship groups. The early form of taxation in Greece required these kinship groups to provide food, materials, and manpower to wage war and maintain religious monuments. In 500 B.C. coinage was implemented, which brought a huge economic change as well as the growth of trade and commerce. These Greek city-states raised revenue from numerous sources – some owned mines while others profited from conquering other states. Taxation was the most dependable way for Greek city-states to raise money.
  • The Greeks believed that a wealthy citizen was ethically obligated to contribute back to his city because the city and its laborers allowed the man to achieve those riches. The honor associated with giving back to your city was so great that there was an ongoing competition between the wealthiest of citizens in Athens.


The Roman tax system changed many times over the years, and varied quite a bit from region to region. Once the Romans conquered Egypt, they adopted the currently-existing taxation system. The government collected taxes on people, livestock, land, oil, olives, wine, beer, fish, and more. Nearly every business exchange was taxed. The most prominent tax in ancient Rome was the tributun, which was a tax on material wealth. Citizens of Rome did not need to pay this tax, aside from times of financial need, while all noncitizens living in the Roman territory were required to pay tributun on all their property.
  • It was fairly common for slave owners to free their slaves after a certain number of years and/or payment in Ancient Rome. Many slaves were ultimately able to pay the fee because they were able to work in several places, allowing them to earn the money used to obtain their freedom. Strangely enough, the Roman government required the newly freed slave to pay a tax on his or her own freedom.