Ancient Egyptian Faced Massive Tax Bill

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March 15, 2015

A recently translated tax receipt from 98 B.C. suggests that the Egyptian who received it was ordered to pay a large (and heavy) sum of money.

The receipt, written in Greek on a piece of pottery, was for a land transfer tax of 75 "talents," plus a 15-talent charge tacked on. The receipt reported the successful payment of this sum, delivered to a public bank in what is now Luxor.

The receipt is dated the equivalent of July 22, 98 B.C. The Egyptians at that time did not have paper money. They did have coins, but one coin didn't equal a talent, which was a different kind of currency. People at the time used coins valued in drachma to pay sums listed in talents.

Experts say that one "talent" was equal to 6,000 drachma. The person who paid the 90-talent bill listed on the receipt would have paid the equivalent of 540,000 drachma.

Two other factors are these:

  • The average unskilled worker at the time would have earned 18,000 drachma in a year. That suggests that either that kind of worker was paying a 30-year tax bill or that the person who paid the bill had a lot of money.
  • The coin with the highest denomination in 98 B.C. was worth about 40 drachmas. One estimate of the number of individual coins needed to pay that 90-talent sum was 13,500. One of these 40-drachma coins at the time weighed about 8 grams, so the total weight of the coins would have exceeded 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The receipt doesn't say specifically that all coins were carried in at the same time.

Montreal's McGill University Library and Archives are displaying the receipt.

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