Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Mesopotamia and Classical Antiquity

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Mesopotamia and Classical Antiquity

Article excerpt


NO HISTORY OF taxation over the course of antiquity has been written, to say nothing of a satisfactory general economic history. Little wonder, then, that many economists and even historians still think about the early evolution of fiscal policy in ways that reflect modern practices more than those of antiquity. The first task in studying fiscal evolution is thus to understand how ancient social structures differed from those of today.

Although economies varied widely and often idiosyncratically, a number of fiscal characteristics can be traced through the first 4000 years, that is, from 3000 BC to feudal Europe. To start with, the most archaic communities did not support themselves by levying taxes either on the land or on income. Rather, they set aside designated lands for their temples and palaces to produce an economic surplus or usufruct to support their public activities.

The agrarian character of ancient societies made it natural for the land to provide the basis for public revenue. Most people lived on the land, including urban residents who held rural land (and often urban gardens as well) to provide their basic food needs. But most families lived near subsistence levels, producing crops mainly for their own consumption and some marginal barter. Money was used only for commodities that passed through the market.

Before labor for hire emerged, the land's occupants had to provide most public services themselves rather than paying money or crop taxes to governments to do so. Adult male citizens contributed their labor directly for military service and other communal needs. Because military and corvee labor was supplied directly rather than through government hiring in the marketplace, fiscal needs were much less than would be the case today. To be sure, many armies were built up largely through the levy of tribute, as warfare often was made a paying proposition through raiding and looting, capturing and ransoming of war prisoners (sold as slaves if not redeemed by their families or native towns), or demanding extortionate tribute for not attacking targeted towns.


The Nine Principles of Ancient Fiscal Evolution

THE FOLLOWING NINE principles may be generalized as characterizing ancient fiscal evolution:

1. Defraying the costs of military organization--including public outlays on naval vessels, chariots, and other heavy equipment--made warfare the largest absorber of the economic surplus, and hence a primary force shaping antiquity's social development.

The most important public service through the ages has been the military draft. Its economic importance is attested by the fact that the term "class" originated as a Roman word denoting military rank first and foremost, and economic status by implication. Each rank of the armed forces was apportioned to the ability of its members to arm and train themselves at their own expense. Their ability to do so was assumed to be proportional to the size of their landholdings. In this respect the land defined class distinctions, from Solon's five classes of Athenian citizens through those defined by Rome's Servian constitution.

2. Non-military temple and palace activities likewise were not financed by taxing the population in money or crops. First documented in Sumer, lands were set aside to produce a usufruct (usually on a crop-sharing arrangement) for the support of temples and, in time, the palace. Also dedicated were herds of animals, as well as dependent labor--war widows and orphans, the blind, weak and infirm, and anyone else who could not make a go of things on the land.

So important was this principle of self-support for public institutions that civilization's earliest documented land rents were produced by Sumer's temples and palaces on lands set aside for this purpose. (In the Old Babylonian period, 1900-1600 BC, these "prebend" usufruct rents were privatized, bequeathed to heirs and sold as civilization's first documented rentier securities. …

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