The History of Taxation

Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The tax collector's office, 1640

Paying taxes, and avoiding paying taxes, is an act older than the pyramids. The history of taxation is the history of civilization.

All forms of government rule through control of taxation revenues, it has been a necessity of civilization since time began. If we grant prostitutes their claim to be the world’s oldest profession, we can be certain they had dealings with a tax collector. “It is not my due tax at all” are the words written on tablets by a scribe of Ancient Egypt in the Old Kingdom period, one of the earliest examples of tax frustration.

Ancient Taxation Policies

The keeping of accounts was the main purpose for developing a system of writing. The earliest cuneiform samples of Mesopotamia circa 2500 BC describe the relevant poll tax and the types of tolls and fees that merchants had to pay when transporting goods from one region to another. The law codes of Hammurabi, made famous in the Old Testament, deal with the penalties for smuggling to avoid paying tax as well as the punishments of citizens trying to avoid the obligatory government service. This form of tax could take the form of hard labor on civil projects such as digging a canal or, at worst, military service. Although technically illegal, sending a hired surrogate to fulfill this obligation was a thriving trade in this ancient society, perhaps making getting out of paying your tax the world’s third oldest profession. Tax shelters have been documented as early as the fourth dynasty in the Old Kingdom of Egypt (2625-2500 B.C.E). The staff and the property of sacred temples, which were often funded through tax revenues, appeared to have been successful in gaining an exemption from paying taxes or compulsory labor

Roman Tax Collectors

The tax collector truly became a villain in the Roman Empire, when the function was given over to ruthless profiteers who employed gangs of thugs to ensure the colonials had rendered Caesar his due. By the time of the New Testament being written, tax collectors were considered to be amongst the lower professions. However Paul does put a divine induction on tax season saying in Romans 13:5 “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.”

Enlightened Taxation

In more modern times, as governments became more adept at collecting taxes, the revenue accrued increased dramatically. Unfortunately for the taxpayer, so did expenditure. As wars became more common and more expensive, the tax burden increased. Studies have confirmed that the tax burden of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries increased by 85% in England. No surprise then that this period gave rise to the first calls for what we know as Progressive Taxation. Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, wrote “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” The cry “No Taxation without Representation” was the shout heard around the world, the spark that ignited the American Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man has this to say about taxation: “A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.”

Paying your Taxes

Knowing that current taxation policies were founded on these principles should hopefully provide some reassurance when preparing to pay your taxes. When you are writing that check to the government consider that you are providing essential revenue to a system that is based on the highest principles of taxation theory, developed over centuries of evolution. Then be thankful you are not required to serve three months digging silt out of a royal canal instead!


  1. Tax History Project
  2. The Tax History Museum
  3. Tax Attorney:The World History of Taxation
  4. The University of Pennsylvania: Ancient History Curator