Urine Trouble: Taxes in Ancient Rome

ECONOMY

Taxes may be as certain as death, but they’ve changed a lot. Over the centuries, governments have levied taxes on everything from urine to beards. (Nat Geo News)

Use our resources to better understand how ancient Romans put those taxes to use in government.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

In ancient Rome, urine was valued for its ammonia, and the Emperor Vespasian taxed trade in urine collected from public toilets like these in Ephesus (today, Turkey). Vespasian put those taxes to work on big projects such as the Flavian Amphitheater—better known as the Colosseum. Photograph by Mykenik, courtesy Wikimedia. Public domain.

In ancient Rome, urine was valued for its ammonia, and the Roman Emperor Vespasian taxed trade in urine collected from public toilets like these in Ephesus (today, Turkey). Vespasian put those taxes to work on big projects such as the Flavian Amphitheater—better known as the Colosseum.
Photograph by Mykenik, courtesy Wikimedia. Public domain.

Just as today, toilets in ancient Roman sports arenas were not the fanciest facilities. This incredible restroom, complete with mosaic floor, is an indication of the ancient Roman 1%. It was part of a luxurious agricultural estate on the island of Sicily. Photograph by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-4.0

Just as today, toilets in ancient Roman sports arenas like the Colosseum were not the fanciest facilities. This incredible restroom, complete with mosaic floor, is an indication of the ancient Roman 1%. It was part of a luxurious agricultural estate on the island of Sicily.
Photograph by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-4.0

Discussion Ideas

  • The Nat Geo News article on oddball ancient taxes corresponds to “Tax Day” in the United States. What are taxes?
    • Taxes are money or goods citizens provide to the government in return for public services such as military protection.
    • There are many different types of taxes. Three of the most familiar are:
      • federal income tax. These taxes are imposed by the federal government on individuals and businesses based on their annual income. Most countries have progressive tax rates, meaning people and companies with higher incomes pay more taxes.
      • state and local income taxes. These taxes are imposed on people and businesses by political units such as states, provinces, or counties. Not all U.S. states have state taxes: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming don’t have income tax. In addition, New Hampshire and Tennessee only tax interest and dividend income, not wages, earnings, or other income.
      • sales tax. Sales taxes are imposed by the government at the point of sale on retail goods and services. Sales taxes are collected by the retailer and passed on to the government.

 

  • What is “Tax Day”?
    • In the U.S. Tax Day is the day income taxes are due to the federal government. Tax day is usually April 15, but can be pushed back when April 15 falls on a holiday or weekend. This year, due to Emancipation Day in Washington, D.C. (observed on the weekday closest to April 16), tax returns are due Monday, April 18.

 

  • Today, taxes are paid in money. What currencies could residents of earlier civilizations use to pay their taxes? Read through the Nat Geo News article for some help.
    • In ancient Mesopotamia, one tax was “seven kegs of beer, 420 loaves, two bushels of barley, a wool cloak, a goat, and a bed.” Another tax was 18,880 brooms and six logs. In yet 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.”

 

  • Read through the Nat Geo News article for a bizarre list of items that have historically been taxed. All all items on that list, what industries, goods, or services would probably still be taxed today?
    • Urine. In ancient Rome, urine was a valuable product used in the laundry industry. (Those togas didn’t wash themselves!) Today, there are valuable, million-dollar industries that trade in guano and manure. There is no reason modern urine-merchants would not be taxed on the income derived from the goods and services they provide.

 

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: Feeling Overtaxed? The Romans Would Tax Your Urine

Nat Geo: Republic to Empire: Government in Ancient Rome

Investopedia: Types Of Taxes

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