A new tax from Tebtunis?

So yesterday, on my way to CTP, I had to stop at the payroll office to submit some forms. For a few days now I have been reading about taxes, tax exemption and filling out numerous forms. You might wonder now what this has to do with papyri and Greek at Tebtunis. Well, the whole experience has put me in a particular ‘tax mode’, and the result of this is the post you are about to read.

We all pay taxes, but taxes are not a modern invention. During the Roman empire, for example, the population paid a variety of taxes to the central government, both in money and in kind, and Egypt was not exceptional in this. Taxation was an essential component of the economic and social life of Egypt, not only during the Roman domination but also during the Ptolemaic kingdom (indeed it was the Ptolemies that introduced taxes in money in the third century BCE). A large number of tax related documents have survived from Egypt, which enabled studies of various aspects of taxation in the country. Every now and then new papyri are published, and new information is added to our knowledge of the taxation system and of how the tax burden affected the different strata of the population. Taxation is also one of my favourite research fields, so deep-down I hoped that sooner or later I would come across a tax-papyrus in my search for new texts at CTP. And yesterday I did.

These are the two pieces that first caught my eye yesterday morning.

Both belonged to the same sheet of papyrus, which originally included two columns (at least). What is so particular about this text? The slanting check-marks, of course. This type of check-marks are found in numerous tax and contract registers in Roman Egypt, and are annotated to the left of the line to mean that that entry had been checked off by the scribe – one possibility is that the scribe, in the copying process, was checking these entries against another record. I looked at the text more closely, and found that the format is typical of tax registers: each entry included the tax-payer’s name and patronym (the name of his/her father), and a curious abbreviation, followed by the month and day. What did this abbreviation mean? Given the format of the text and the position of the word/symbol, I concluded that it was a tax that was paid in monthly instalments. I then started to look for a possible match in other papyri, but with no luck. Unfortunately part of the abbreviation is lost, which makes the reconstruction difficult, and what can still be read doesn’t seem to be attested anywhere else. Was it a special tax only paid by certain people? Or was it a local tax?

I turned the papyrus over to see whether more could be said about it, and found lines of another tax-register. The format is simple: a list of tax-payers, for each of whom the amount of money paid is indicated. Money is computed in drachmas, which was the Greek currency introduced in Egypt by the Ptolemies, and kept by the Romans in the centuries of their domination. Again, the name of the tax is lost.

The small and very cursive hand-writing suggests that this was a draft document, maybe notes which were to be copied in another register. It is difficult to tell whether the two sides were written by the same scribe, but they were certainly close in date. This is a good example of how the back of some papyri were often reused to write notes, letters, and so on.

The story about this papyrus is still not over. After examining the texts on both sides, I decided to move on with my search. Only three papyri later, though, I came across a fragment written in the same hand-writing as the tax-register with the slanting check-marks. A quick check revealed that the two texts perfectly joined together and belonged to the same sheet of papyrus.

Here is an image of how the fragments are pieced together.

Now it is possible to read the names of a few tax-payers: Apianos (or Apiane), Akousarion daughter of Heron, Anoubion son of Areos. With the exception of the name Anoubion, which is a combination of Greek and Egyptian, the others are all Greek names. The abbreviation still remains unknown, which means that the nature of the tax has to be remain obscure to us, at least for the time being…or until another papyrus comes up and solves the puzzle.