Taxes: seems like they’ve always been around

April 5, 1995

ANN ARBOR—Whether you’re wrestling with a 1040, IT40PNR, or 1120S, the annual ritual of paying taxes is no picnic. Nor is it new. Even folks from the second century had tax deadlines to meet.

Sheets of papyrus and pottery shards held in the University of Michigan’s Papyrus Collection reveal a number of similarities between taxes then and taxes now.

Current tax forms can be filed via the mails or computer, but in ancient Egypt, the method was the tax roll. One such roll held in the U-M collection is 106 feet long and lists 600 adult males who paid taxes during an 11-month period of one tax year. The official tax collector had agents working in villages, going house to house collecting what was due on a vast array of items, including capital, trade, and land.

When confronted by the collector, the head of the household would hand over the money required, and, in return, would get a receipt on the spot. However, says Traianos Gagos, curator of the U-M collection, that receipt was often written on a pottery shard. The collector would just reach into the street, pick up one of many broken pottery pieces and write the payer a receipt.

“There were cases,” Gagos says, “where people either didn’t pay or were in arrears, leading to their flight from the countryside to lose themselves in the more populous city of Alexandria.” Emperors could and did decree that people not move from city to city or even neighborhood to neighborhood, thereby assuring accurate tax collection.

The tax agents returned to their headquarters each day to enter the collections into what amounted to a daybook. Taxes in ancient Egypt could be paid in cash or “in kind” depending on what was being taxed.

As in today’s tax program there were exemptions to the general tax regulations. Some classes of people were exempt from paying certain taxes. No Roman citizen or physician had to pay a capital tax.

Keeping track of who lived where and how many in a household were to be taxed depended on the census report, a count taken every 14 years by reporters going house to house. If someone listed on the census was no longer a part of that household when the tax collector knocked, the agent came back to investigate, inquiring about death reports or new addresses.

“At that time,” Gagos says, “taxes were based on the whole community and then broken down as to what each family and then each individual owed. Citizens 14-62 years old were expected to pay their share of the assessed tax.”

Family members had to pay for a missing citizen or furnish birth, death, or any other records that would lead the collector to the person trying to evade paying his share. The census was a big help in these instances, Gagos says. Census reports not only included the names of people in a household, their material goods and slaves, but also listed individuals’ physical characteristics such as “long nose, dark skin” and the description and location of scars.

Tax rolls providing demographic information are just part of the varied information contained in U-M’s papyrus collection, the largest in the Western Hemisphere and considered by scholars to be the most prestigious.

EDITORS: Contact Traianos Gagos at (734) 764-9869, (734) 662-1543 or at


Papyrus CollectionTraianos