Beware the Ides of April - Or a Little Tax History



Tax day is upon us. If you haven’t already fired up the Turbo Tax software, then you have some homework to do tonight. While you’re slogging through numerous forms more complicated than quantum physics, take heart, our tax system is much better, and far more forgiving than the ancient methods.  Today, I’m going to give a very, very quick and dirty history of ancient civilization and medieval English taxation.

If you were living in the ancient world, you would be squeezed not by Rome or Thebes directly but by “tax-farmers”. Men who’d bid to obtain the office and whose job it was to make you pay. These men were loathed across the ancient world because if they came up short, they were required to make up the difference themselves. Since they were not usually from the ruling classes, they didn’t have the social clout to make the rich pay. As a result, they tended to squeeze every last denarii out of the middle class and the poor. Later in the empire, the office of tax collector became hereditary, so some people were bound by birth to be the most unpopular person on the block. When the Roman Empire finally collapsed in 480 AD, the knowledge, learning and complex civil service of Rome disappeared, but taxes remained.


Under the Anglo-Saxons, land was taxed and the proceeds paid to the king. When the Vikings showed up, the money was used to either fight them or pay them to go away (the “Danegeld”).  Once the Normans arrived, William the Conqueror instructed his men to find out what everyone owned and how much they owed him. Thus, the famous, or should I say infamous, Domesday Book was compiled. Landowners were taxed based on how much land they held, but, if they were friends with the king, the king could grant them exemptions. As time went by, too many exemptions meant too little tax money, and the monarch started getting testy. The testiest monarch was King John, but his nobles weren’t having it. They rose up and forced him to sign the Magna Carta which forced the king to get permission from the nobles before he could raise taxes.

So, when you’re filling out your 1040 tonight, be thankful the Vikings aren’t at your door, King John isn’t seizing your land, and you weren’t born into a tax collecting family in ancient Rome.

8 comments:

Jacana said...

Not a super fun task but better than it use to be!

Eleise Hale said...

Now they are as soft as they could be. I have been doing my accounts this week, my least favourite part of my business.

Yolanda Renee said...

This was the first year I waited till the last minute to finish things. I do the taxes for the family and everyone owed money, but I don't like waiting, even if sending it in earlier than the 15th. But since it wasn't my money . . .

Hard to believe humanity has been paying through the nose all these years, guess that's why the politicians win - and we lose. They know how to make a fast, easy buck without having to work for it! Almost wish we had to use swords, they'd deserve a few cuts now and then. Of course, as usual we'd be the ones paying with blood!

Kylie Purtell said...

I have often complained about having to do our tax once a year, so glad I don't have to do it every quarter as well.

Annd definitely glad to not be living in the Roman Empire!

Thanks for stopping by my blog today. Your books look great and I am off to check them out.

Josefa Pete said...

I loathe tax time - but certainly prefer our version to that of history!! Thanks for linking up to IBOT
Josefa from #teamIBOT xx

www.boyeatsworld.com.au said...

I'm meeting my tax accountant tomorrow and feel somewhat less stressed knowing she hasn't been trained in the Ancient Roman style! :-)

theviblog said...

My post for IBOT also touches on tax anxiety but you have actually managed to make tax funny which was something I never thought I'd see in my lifetime! Great work on an informative and entertaining post xx

EssentiallyJess said...

I knew tax collectors weren't liked from Bible Stories, but I wasn't sure quite why.
My father in law in an accountant, and I'm glad that vocation isn't hereditary either