As we prepare for colder weather and the upcoming holiday season, many people are already working on getting their documents organized for the pending tax season. Taxes may be unavoidable, but they have changed a lot over the centuries. The government has found a way to make money off of people in a number of creative ways. And the officials would accept payment in other currencies aside from paper money, in the form of beer, beds and even broomsticks.
Here are a few taxes from ancient history that we should all be happy that we no longer have to pay.
The Toilet Tax in Rome
In Ancient Roman times, urine was valued for its high ammonia content. It was discovered that ammonia was a natural enemy of dirt and grease, which made it valuable for laundering clothes and even, whitening teeth…And like everything that has value, it could be taxed.
The Emperor Vespasian earned a large sum by taxing the trade of urine that would be gathered inside of public restrooms. But even some of the wealthiest Romans considered this tax to be revolting.
When Vespasian’s son Titus blamed him for laying a tax on urine, he applied to his nose a piece of money he received in the first installment. He then asked him if it stunk. Titus replied that it didn’t, and yet, he said “it is derived from urine.” (wrote Suetonius in The Lives of the Caesars circa A.D. 120).
The Beard Tax in Europe
Several times in European history, rulers sought to tax their subject’s facial hair. Henry VIII introduced a tax on facial hair in 1535. The fee increased based on the beard owner’s place in society. But of course the beard-wearing Henry was exempt from the rule.
The Russian reformer Peter the Great also issued a beard tax in 1698. He considered the Russian beard to be a symbol of the nation’s backward character. Therefore, all bearded gents had to pay out a large fee and they were also required to carry a special token to prove that they had bought the right to keep their beard.
The Ottoman Blood Tax
While it isn’t as gory as it may sound, the Ottoman Blood Tax was still an atrocious ordeal. The Ottoman rulers made all non-Muslim subjects to pay taxes for the one thing that they held most dear, their children. This was known as the blood tax among many of the fearful families.
From the 15th century to the late 17th century, officials would occasionally take young Christian boys from their homes based on the Ottoman rule. They would convert them to Islam and hand them over to the sultan.
The boys would go through five to eight years of military training, while they also worked for the state at workshops, farms, ships and on construction sites. “Of course they were also the base of the elite Janissary army, explains Gulay Yilmaz, a historian at Akdeniz University in Turkey. “And the administrative bureaucratic elite of the empire were mostly from those boys who were levied and spared for a special education in the palaces to become administrators.”
The young men at least received a tax exemption for their services. Those where were selected as devshirmes did not have to pay a cizye, a head-tax that all the able-bodied adult Christian men had to pay.
Payment Accepted in Brooms, Stones or Beer
Taxes have been around so long that they even predate money. In ancient Mesopotamia times, this led to some strange ways for people to pay. For example, the tax on buying a body in a grave was “seven kegs of beer, 420 loaves, two bushels of barley, a wool cloak, a goat, and a bed, according to historian Tonia Sharlach.
Taxes applied to practically everything and could be paid for with almost anything. Around 2,000-1,800 B.C., there is a record of a man who paid his taxes with 18,880 brooms and six logs. That had to be some type of arrangement where he provided needed goods to the government.
This type of in-kind payments helped many subjects to cheat the tax man as well. “In another case, a man claimed he had no possessions whatsoever except extremely heavy millstones. So he made the tax man carry them off as his tax payment.”
The Breast Tax Sparked an Act of Protest
Perhaps the strangest tax of them all was the Breast Tax or mulakkaram, that was once enforced by those who ruled India’s Kerala state. Women had to pay if they wanted to cover themselves in public. And the humiliating tax turned into a financial burden for lower class women, at which it was aimed.
The breast tax sparked a legendary act of protest. While there are few verifiable facts on the event, the story is often told in the town of Cherthala, which was the home of a woman named Nangeli two centuries ago. She was unable to pay and incensed at the tax. Nangeli is said to have severed her breasts and presented them to an astounded tax collector. The act cost the woman her life, but is claimed to have led to the repel of the tax.