Five… Terrible Taxes From the Ancient World


Roman Latrine

Just when we feel we can’t possibly hand over a penny more of our hard earned cash to those fellas at Westminster, we hear mention of a 31% flat tax rate. Think that’s unfair?

Well, before the riots break out, we’d like to remind everyone how lightly we’ve got off compared to people in the past: here’s a list of some of the worst and strangest taxes in history. Just don’t let Dave see or he’ll be getting ideas…

1. Cooking oil

This unusual Ancient Egyptian tax is one of the first on record.  The annoying bit was that not only did you have to pay tax on your cooking oil, you had to buy oil from the Pharaoh’s monopoly. Tax collectors even audited each household to check that they were using ‘appropriate’ amounts and not using leftover oil from cooking, which wasn’t allowed.

2. Beard

With recent fashion trends sweeping across the UK, the government would be raking it in with this one! What’s unbelievable about it is that it wasn’t just crazy Henry VIII who thought it was a good idea to tax beards in 1522 (despite sporting a considerable bush himself); a few rulers throughout history have taken advantage of these displays of masculinity, notably Elizabeth I and Russian Tsar Peter I in 1705.

3. Freedom

Slavery was commonplace in Ancient Rome, but it didn’t always have to last a lifetime. Slaves were sometimes freed by their owners after a certain number of years had been served and after a ‘freedom tax’ was paid. Although the possibility of this may seem to contradict the whole notion of slavery, many slaves did in fact earn enough to do so by doing paid work on the side of their slave duties. And we thought our working week was tough!

4. Breast

This terrible tax was thankfully abolished in the early twentieth century, but there was a time when some Indian women of lower classes had to pay a tax called ‘mulakkaram’ if they wanted to cover their breasts when they went out – such modesty was considered a privilege for upper class ladies. At the time, subjugation of the lower classes was achieved by placing heavy taxes on them, making them forever in debt to the higher classes. There were also taxes on wearing jewellery and having a moustache. The practice stopped after a woman named Nangeli cut off her breasts in protest and subsequently bled to death.

5. Urine

Perhaps the most unbelievable of our five is also the grossest. In the 1st century AD, Roman emperor Vespasian placed a tax on urine. At this time, urine from public urinals was sold to be used in industries such as tanning for which it is a vital component for chemical reactions, and by launderers who used its ammonia to clean and whiten their dirty washing. You’d have thought they’d be paying people to take the urine, not the other way round!

So it turns out there are many taxes which are worse (and stranger) than plain old income tax, read some more crazy taxes here.

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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