Curiosities of taxes through its history

Income tax return, VAT, Corporate Tax… Today there are many different taxes that companies and citizens must pay. In fact, taxes are seen as business as usual. However, it would be convenient to remember what the origins of this daily reality are.

The need for man to organize and live in society is found in the genesis of taxes. Already in Ancient Egypt, nothing more and nothing less than 5,000 years ago, the rulers collected taxes from their subjects in exchange for providing them with a series of public services.

In any case, taxes have always been the subject of debate and controversy. Some have provoked more than protests, as they have brought uprisings and wars. Take for example the increase in taxes by the British government on the Thirteen Colonies in the 18th century. The fact of having to pay taxes and not having parliamentary representation would end up being one of the great causes of the war of independence of the United States.

Well, to learn about the origin of taxes, their evolution through great civilizations and the most unexpected taxes, at Economipedia we invite you on a journey through history.


Already in the Hellenic peninsula the first city-states arose and with it one of the first civilizations to collect taxes from its citizens. Moreover, in ancient Greece, only those who contributed to the support of social expenses with their assets were considered citizens.

Nor should we forget that the Greeks were one of the most outstanding civilizations in trade. Thus, this economic activity ended up becoming a source of public income, since customs were established.

Although it is true that most of the public income came from the contributions of real assets, this was not enough to cover all public expenses. Public works were demanded, religious events had to be paid for, the celebration of festivals paid for and the streets kept clean. Hence, the Greeks established indirect taxes that fell on the consumption of families.

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Likewise, in Greece something very similar to what today could be the Treasury is also emerging. This is the case of the Delos Treasury, which ended up moving to Athens. Initially, this Treasury was in charge of obtaining income to finance an army and a navy. However, over time it also collected taxes to finance such emblematic constructions as the Parthenon.

The State not only collected public revenue, but also exercised a wealth distribution function. In this sense, the wealthiest citizens, when attending certain festive events, had to make a contribution. This, so that the most disadvantaged could also attend the shows.

The nature of taxes is based on counterparts, that is, a certain amount is paid to the State in exchange for receiving a series of public benefits. Thus, in Greece, public revenues were used to finance health and education, so the salaries of doctors and teachers were covered by the State.


Undoubtedly, the Roman administration stands out for the important role of its Public Treasury. Precisely in this sense, it is worth highlighting the role of the quaestors, who played a key role in collecting taxes.

The famous Roman legions reaped numerous victories and with them the territory controlled by Rome increased, which allowed its finances to obtain important income thanks to the leasing of the conquered lands and also thanks to the spoils of war.

Among the most prominent taxes of Roman civilization are land taxes, which depended on the valuation of real estate. Also worth mentioning are the portazgos, which were taxes that allowed access to certain cities or the pontazgos, which when paid granted the right to cross a bridge. Even the sale and liberation of slaves was subject to the payment of taxes.

If there is a phenomenon that characterizes the Middle Ages, that is feudalism. Through vassalage, the peasants obtained protection in exchange for providing a series of services (military, maintenance of fortresses, etc.) and the payment of income that was usually paid in kind (for example, a part of the harvest).

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However, the rights of nobles and kings went beyond agriculture, since those who carried out commercial and craft activities had to pay the so-called royalties.

As we indicated earlier, taxes could cause uprisings and wars, so, on certain occasions, the monarchs consulted with their subjects to establish a tax.

The origin of the Public Budget and the Modern Age

The heavy tax burdens that Castile had to bear during the reign of Carlos I were one of the great causes that motivated the uprising of the comuneros.

It was here that the Cortes arose, in which the different cities were represented. Through the Cortes, the people could oppose the establishment of taxes. In fact, the monarchs and the Cortes maintained strong disputes and it became necessary to reach agreements. To make a consensus possible, these agreements were reflected in written documents that are the origin of what we currently know as the public budget. Through these documents the forecasts of expenses and income of the State were reflected.

However, direct taxes seemed to be limited mainly to land taxes. This made direct taxes an insufficient source of revenue. For this, new indirect taxes were established and stamped paper was created, which was paid by official documents. Even tobacco, salt, lead and lotteries were taxed.

The strangest taxes in history

Not paying taxes in Ancient Egypt was something that could mean facing torture or even death. To do this, the Egyptians had a large body of scribes who were in charge of controlling the payment of taxes. It is especially striking that it was forbidden to recycle oil in Ancient Egypt. And it is that the pharaoh had a monopoly on the oil trade, so all subjects had the duty to acquire the monarch’s oil. In case of being discovered recycling oil, they had to pay the corresponding tax.

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As we previously pointed out, taxes were very present in Roman society. It is curious that urine, used in laundry activities for bleaching and also for tanning leather, was subject to taxation. Thus, the emperor Vespasian decided to establish a tax on urine.

Something as banal as wearing a beard became a source of public income for monarchs such as Henry VIII of England and Peter I of Russia. In the case of the English monarch, the beard was intended to be synonymous with distinction and social position, while what Peter I of Russia (with a tax of 100 rubles per year) intended was to change the appearance of his subjects, so that his aesthetic resembled that of Western European men.

History never ceases to amaze us and back in 1696, in Great Britain a tax was implemented for exceeding a certain number of windows. Therefore, the greater the number of windows, the greater the amount of taxes to be paid. In view of that situation, there were many who chose to cover windows. The poor ventilation of many British homes was disastrous, facilitating the spread of typhus and cholera. Finally, around 1851, this absurd fiscal measure was eliminated.

Now, the peculiarity of certain taxes is not limited to the distant past. For this, it is enough to take a look just a few years ago, when certain countries of the European Union implemented a tax on flatulence emitted by cows. According to studies, the methane released by cow gases has a very detrimental effect on global warming. For this concept, the Danish treasury reaches up to 110 dollars for the flatulence emitted by each cow.

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