Just in time for tax season, comes some news from ancient Egypt that gives a new meaning to the phrase “a heavy burden of taxation.” Papyrologist Brice Jones, a graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal, discovered and translated a tax receipt dating to 98 B.C.E., stating that the amount it showed was “incredibly high.”
The payment of a hefty 75 talents and a 15 talent surcharge was recorded in Greek writing on a potsherd. As there were no coins actually worth a single talent, the amount had to be made up in smaller coins like drachmas. One talent was worth 6,000 drachma, and the total payment of 90 talents would have required 54,000 drachmas. The 40-drachma bronze coin was the largest denomination available, and it would have taken 13,500 to make up the full amount.
Independent researcher, Catherine Lorber, estimates that this would be a weight of 220 lbs., probably carried to the bank in baskets, on donkey back. Four donkeys may have been needed to carry the load. The surcharge was a penalty for making the payment in bronze drachmas instead of silver coins, even though silver coins were scarce.
The payment, for a land transfer, was carried to a bank in the city of Diospolis Magna, also called Luxor or Thebes, which was the largest metropolis in upper (southern) Egypt at that time. This was a time of extreme political instability in Egypt, shortly before it was incorporated into the Roman Empire. It was ruled by the Ptolemies, descendants of the satrap appointed by Alexander the Macedonian to rule Egypt after his conquest in 323 B.C.E.
The Ptolemies had a reputation in the ancient world for huge wealth, and for a system of collection known as tax farming, which gave the task to whoever offered to deliver the largest amount. Political infighting didn’t affect tax collection.
The tax receipt and many other documents are part of a collection at McGill University in Montreal. These documents were unused and forgotten until now. Brice’s findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists.