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article imageOp-Ed: Taking a lighter look at paying taxes through the ages

By Karen Graham     Apr 16, 2016 in Business
In the United States, paying income tax is a right of passage once a person becomes old enough to work and draw a salary. We also earn the right to complain about how much we have to shell out to the government every year. But we have it easy.
Income tax time in America is like a birthday, it comes around every year like clock-work. And unlike birthdays which some people like to forget, the government is happy to remind us when they want their money.
But all complaining aside, and that is something all of us have done about our taxes at one time or another, we actually have it fairly easy today. Digital Journal decided to take a look back in time to see if our ancestors had as rough a time of it as we think we do now.
Taxes and tithes in ancient Egypt
In ancient Egypt, the job of collecting taxes was the duty of scribal tax-collectors. Scribes knew how to write and it was their job to keep written records of who owned a field and what kind of crop was raised and how much the field produced.
Ancient Receipt Shows Taxes in Egypt Were Literally Heavy.
Ancient Receipt Shows Taxes in Egypt Were Literally Heavy.
Taxes were usually obtained by coercion, with payment demanded on the spot, or the luckless taxpayer would be brought before the court where the punishment could be very harsh. Cooking oil, beer, and most farm produce were taxed, but the most important tax was on grain. The pharaohs did find it difficult to tax individuals, though. They figured out how to accomplish this by decree.
"It was Amasis too who established the law that every year each one of the Egyptians should declare to the ruler of his district, from what source he got his livelihood, and if any man did not do this or did not make declaration of an honest way of living, he should be punished with death." (Herodotus, Histories II Project Gutenberg)
Tax time in Ancient Rome
The Romans were pretty smart cookies. And they taught us a lot about taking advantage of the value in things we think have little or no value. Take urine, for example. In the 1st century A.D., Roman emperor Vespasian (A.D. 69-79) placed a tax on urine from the public urinals, and with very good reason.
Ancient Roman public toilets
Ancient Roman public toilets
public domain
Urine was a great source of ammonia and was collected, sold and used for several chemical processes including tanning, whitening teeth, and cleaning the laundry. The emperor was able to make a pretty penny, or denarius. In general, taxes were about five percent of gross product, regardless of what that happened to be.
There was a tax on slaves, import and export taxes, inheritance taxes, and property taxes. But it was a little different in the provinces and countryside of the empire. Basically, low taxes were a boon to the aristocracy at that time. They were able to increase their wealth and quite often, ended up being wealthier than the central government. Sort of like today, where one percent owns all the wealth?
Merry old England is a story all by itself when it comes to taxes
If anyone wants to blame somebody for inventing income taxes, blame the British. In England's war against the French and to raise money for the military campaign, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger imposed the first Income Tax in 1798. All income above £60 was taxed at a rate of 10 percent. Actually, I wish our tax law was as simple as that.
Window Tax - This is how property owners circumvented the Window Tax in the 17th and 18th Century. P...
Window Tax - This is how property owners circumvented the Window Tax in the 17th and 18th Century. Photo - Portland Street, Southampton, England SO14. This row of properties was constructed in 1830, and is a Grade II listed building.
However, some of the strangest tax laws ever written have come out of England. Of course, Henry VIII can't be left out of the tale. Besides changing the church from Catholic to The Church of England so he could divorce and remarry, he imposed a tax on facial hair, the higher up in society one was, the more he paid, except the king, of course.
Then there was the English law on fireplaces enacted in 1660. In 1696, windows were added to the tax. Taxation depended on the number of windows a house had. Of course, people started building homes with fewer or even no windows, but eventually, that resulted in health problems. Strangely, it took 150 years before the tax was repealed in 1851.
While some taxes and the reasons behind them may seem strange today, it is good to know that mankind has always looked for a way to fund their governments, wars, and ultimately, their own pockets. And maybe what Benjamin Franklin said is true: "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about tax time, History, ancient romans, Slavery, urine tax
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