The Role of Women in the Tax System of Ancient Egypt

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Posted on:Jul 6,2021


The aim of the paper is to give an overview of the tax system of Ancient Egypt with regards to the special situation of women. The article begins with describing the basic factors of the tax system, including property rights, the role of residence and wealth. Afterwards the special rules on women is being elaborated on an era-by-era basis. It can be concluded that a recurring theme was the strong dominance of males and that the tax situation was highly dependent on the economic factors.

I. Introduction

The relationship between individuals and the ruling power is well reflected in the enforcement of tax liabilities, the conditions of which are determined jointly by the cultural and economic factors of the society making the rules. Starting from this idea, my study, synthesizing the results of the relevant literature, examines how the tax and economic role of women evolved during the thousands of years of existence of the ancient Egyptian civilization (3500 BC – 476 BC), from the archaic period through the Hellenistic state until the era of Roman occupation. Taking a superficial view of the historical role of Egyptian women, it may seem that only a few of them played a leading role. However, digging deeper in the details of the past, it is revealed that the economic and political involvement of broad strata of women became generally accepted in the different stages of history making it possible for women to succeed the throne from the age of the Second Dynasty. After the death of Thutmose II, his wife and half-sister Hatshepsut, successfully ruled the country for more than twenty years from 1502 to 1481 BC, and even during the New Kingdom, the state was run several times by women and the economic participation of wealthy women increased. In my opinion, the notion whereby women in ancient Egypt were merely submissive and passive actors in male-dominated systems needs re-considering. In presenting the economic situation of ancient Egyptian women, I relied on the idea of Weber, who put it the following way: “The organization of ancient states has always been characterized by a diverse differentiation of property rights of the population rooting in politics.” From this, it follows that women’s tax obligations, like those of men, were not determined by a single factor, i.e.: their legal status, income or the value of the property they own, but by their position within the social hierarchy, their biological status, ethnic classification, wealth and the legal designation of their place of residence together.

II. The property-law situation of Egyptian women

The most important factor influencing the economic situation of Egyptian women was their full property equality. Of the ancient women, it was the Egyptian women with free status who were provided the greatest political and financial room for manoeuvring by their state. As Wilson put it: “Egyptian women enjoyed such degree of independence and freedom that could have been envied by the women in the Middle East and classical Greece, but even by women in medieval Europe. In terms of inheritance and property law, Egyptian women were in a better position than married women in Victorian England.” The truthfulness of his finding is confirmed by the surviving epigraphic data as well as papyrus fragments, and works of art. This social situation was created by the rulers of Ancient Egypt primarily following the commandments of moral and religious principles, that is, the order established by the gods on earth, the “Maat,” and could rely on legal norms only secondarily. Pharaoh Ramses III reports on the results of his reign as follows: “I have arranged that all the women of Egypt may go with their heads held high wherever they wish, and that no stranger may harass them. I kept the land alive for everyone, may that be a foreigner, a simple man or a citizen, a man or a woman alike.” In terms of property, inheritance and civil rights, unlike the women living in other contemporary states (Babylon, Greece, Roman Empire, and the Jewish Kingdom) as well as the Egyptian women of the 19th century, ancient Egyptian women were completely equal to men. According to ancient Jewish common law, women, like slaves, could not even be witnesses at court “because of the superficial and gossipy character of their gender,”. Flavius ​​remarked. Contrary to this, the Egyptian women living at the time did not need the assistance of a guardian for their legal acts to be valid. All free women, even married ones, could have unlimited property, start businesses , and take out loans. However, it has to be borne in mind though that this favourable legal situation only applied to free and wealthy women. Foreign women or women having a slave status could not enjoy these benefits in the dynastic period and were expected to work continuously and hopelessly and had little social esteem.

III. The role of residence in ancient taxation

The second factor determining an individual’s tax obligations was residence. In most of the states of the period under study, residents of priority settlements enjoyed tax exemptions. It was common practice in the Greek city-states, as well as in the Jewish, Assyrian, and Persian kingdoms, and in the Egyptian empire, to grant tax breaks to residents of some settlements and districts for political or economic reasons, and thus they had to endure much lower tax burden than residents of other regions. Throughout the whole period under review, Alexandria and Thebes in Egypt as well as the citizens of full rights of Ptolemais, Antinoopolis and Naucratis during the Hellenistic period enjoyed tax exemptions, while in Greece, residents of Sparta and Athens were exempt from paying “tributum capitis” (λαογραϕία) during the Roman occupation. Ulpian mentions that Vespasian exempted Kayseri of ​​Cappadocia from the head tax, while Tiberius exempted Aigai in Greece affected by the earthquake for three years from paying it. Even in the Roman period of Egypt, the residence in tax administration was still important, as, at the beginning of the Roman occupation, a large group of residents of the most important commercial centre, Alexandria, received Roman civil rights granting them the greatest tax privilege. It was also common practice in Rome in the Principate era that citizens of exempt communities did not have to pay either a “tributum capitis” or a property tax. These tax reliefs were also available to women living in cities with special legal status. As far as taxation was concerned, regardless of their biological gender, it was the rural farmers who had the worst situation throughout the era under review. In the period between the establishment of the empire and the Macedonian occupation, 85-90% of the burden of maintaining the state was borne by rural men and women cultivating the land with their own work or by means of contracted workers, while in the period of Roman oppression, the same index number was of 60-65%.

IV. The role of wealth in ancient taxation

In the Egyptian empire, the differences between free people and slaves, men and women, fundamentally determined the legal possibilities of natural persons, but the wealth status of the persons was at least as important factor as the former ones. It was the tool that could eliminate the disadvantages arising from the birth situation of individuals. Anyone with significant wealth could become an active player in local or national politics or the economy, regardless of their slave status or gender. The tax-bearing ability of Egyptian women, with a few exceptions, was also determined by the fact that they could have property, inherit, run businesses without legal restrictions, but they also had to fully comply with direct tax paying requirements on their movable and immovable property. Women rarely appeared as independent taxpayers in the epoch of independent Egypt as the economy was based on agricultural production, farms of small-farmers aristocrats and temples, and large estates owned by the pharaoh, and they could be involved in their management and representation in taxpaying matters only in exceptional cases. Due to the gruelling character of physical work in small farms, women could not work independently; they could only participate in production as a helping family member. It is also important, that in this era, individuals were most likely to become landowners through the donation of the pharaoh in exchange for performing military, administrative, or clerical functions that were generally inaccessible to women.

They could own such assets only through purchase, inheritance or gift. However, if they independently owned real estate or other taxable movables (chariots, jewellery, livestock, horses, and other draught animals, and boats), their tax burden was the same as that of men in the same position. Given that Egyptian women had unrestricted access to land, which was the most important tax base of the era, their tax obligations were the highest among ancient women, in other words, this was the country where women could participate in the operation of the state most actively.

V. Occupational bans on women

Another feature of the legal system of the ancient states was that women were banned from engaging in many occupations (borrowing money, taking up political and military roles, long-distance trade, fishing, and navigation). Examining the Greek city-states of the era and the political system of the Roman Empire, Finley included in the essential features of the societies concerned “the exclusion of women from all forms of political or governmental activity”. As far as this issue is concerned, the situation was not much better even in Egypt, and gender discrimination prevailed here as well. Not even free and wealthy women were exempted from these activity restrictions, whereby only few professions were available for them. In addition to official positions, some private occupations were also unavailable for women, although it appears that no general prohibition was imposed by law on their business activities. They could not be bankers because it was considered a male occupation in all the states of the region throughout the period, and they could not participate in long-distance trade either, due to its physical dangers, until 2nd-3rd century AD. However, the real reason for this restriction may have lain in the fact that this type of trade was carried out by capital-intensive, influential and wealthy male entrepreneurs enjoying a state monopoly. However, this cannot be considered an Egyptian characteristic as this practice was also followed in the Sumerian and Assyrian and Hittite kingdoms. In ancient Greece, too, a clear distinction was made between a local market merchant, a retailer, a “capelos,” and an “emporos,” engaged in long-distance overseas trade. According to Polanyi, gender differences may have played a role in the regulation of trading taking place at the agora. In his view, traveling, long-distance merchants were, with rare exceptions, men, while market vendors were most often women. He also points out, as another ancient occupational feature, that in Babylon under Hammurabi, innkeepers could only be women, and in Sardis and Halicarnassus of Greece, almost exclusively women could work as market vendors until the middle of the 6th century. In the period of the independent empire, there were only few women among scribes and high priests, but their position changed after the 3rd century AD, and the educational opportunities for affluent women improved. The evidence revealed in many cases depicts educated and successful women, such as the portrait of a female teacher made in Hawara in the 1st century AD. By this time it had become accepted that women could work as doctors, philosophers, poets and teachers in Alexandria, the most developed city of Egypt. In contrast, the tax situation of Egyptian men was further improved by the fact that they were granted significant tax breaks for the intellectual occupations (i.e. teacher, priest, clerk) were predominantly carried out by them, in all the periods I reviewed. This is evidenced by the text of a letter of privilege from the 3rd millennium BC, whereby farmhands and officials living and working on temple estates were exempted from public labour or compulsory labour duties from this early period. As women could not normally perform administrative functions, they could not benefit from the tax reliefs involved. In contrast, one can also find economic areas where the role of women was dominant throughout the era. These include midwifery, dressmaking, certain artistic activities, and prostitution. Midwifery, practiced almost exclusively by women, played a prominent role in the Egyptian society throughout the period under review. Midwives not only supervised birth, but also supported the child’s later life with magical rituals and, from the time of the Middle Kingdom (2030-1650 BC), helped to keep in touch with the gods. Poorer Egyptian women could work as mothers responsible for the household; could find employment as agricultural workers, and as temple auxiliaries, and enjoy tax exemptions. In contrast, pursuers of certain occupations typically associated with female workforce, such as weavers, dressmakers and wigmakers, tax was paid in kind, i.e. in the goods they produced, while victuallers , prostitutes, midwives, and dancers met their taxation duties by an annual lump sum tax payment paid in money substitutes, and later in actual money.

VI. The tax situation of women in the age of the independent Egyptian empire

In the first and longest period of the Egyptian empire, between 3000 BC and 332 BC, the economy and tax system were characterized by the exchange of natural products “where every farm, and every district, every region, produced almost everything it needed.” Despite the fact that each element of the Egyptian was regulated, no country-wide free market was established and interregional trade remained very small, lacking the general use of money. However, this did not mean that the various forms of trade were not known either. In the calm stages of the development of the empire, there were obviously local markets where surplus crops and products produced by family farms were sold. Women could also be actively involved in this work as artisans, retailers or market vendors. As early as in the early days of the empire, like in most eastern civilisations, state-controlled foreign trade developed, where only members of the aristocracy and professional merchants (tamkaru) contracted with the ruler could participate. As I have already mentioned, women were excluded from this activity and it was legally, physically and economically impossible for them to carry out such an undertaking. The reason for this was, on the one hand, that in this era, and this is clear from contemporary texts, for members of public order of both sexes, leaving home was an unpleasant, dangerous option which was not promoted by the authorities. On the other hand, during this period, foreign trade was a royal monopoly, and the products transported were the property of the king. In contrast, the male members of the licensed elite were able to organize the military and economic background of the expeditions, and conducting foreign trade was a lucrative opportunity for them, earning respect at the same time. From as early as the time of the Old Kingdom, from 2150 BC., correspondence between the Egyptian royal court and the king of Byblos survived, in which trade issues were regularly discussed. The first trips of specifically commercial purposes to Arabia and Somalia were organized probably under the direction of Sankhkare, the last king of the eleventh dynasty. It is also known that one of the senior officials of Mentuhotep III (1958-1947 BC), the third ruler of the Middle Kingdom, Treasurer Henu, led a royal trade expedition to Punt across the Red Sea. Weber also confirms that the Egyptian pharaohs, as the largest ship owners, were engaged in very extensive export-import trade. Taxation and barter throughout this whole era were carried out by means of archaic money substitutes, i.e. the fair market values were marked with sealed grain sacks and metal bars. It must be seen, however, that the lack of using minted money did not indicate the economic underdevelopment of imperial Egypt. Currency in the modern sense appeared as late as in the last stage of the independent empire in the 7th century in Lydia and Ionia, and was used more widely in developed economies as late as in the 5th-4th centuries BC.

In the dynastic age, the entire population of Egypt was, in theory, a servant of the ruler and most of the lands were directly owned by the pharaoh and they had to pay taxes or, in other words, land rents for their use. The freehold estates were not cultivated solely by independent peasants but wealthy families had them cultivated from the time of the first dynasties, and it is likely that in both the Old and Middle Kingdoms these “oikos,” farming on lands not owned by the pharaoh and perhaps home land communities, survived. Taxes were levied on the basis of land size and were paid in crops. The grain, meat, canvas, wine, and olive oil supplied were piled up and distributed from the district collection centres. Allowances due for pharaohs, temples, and government officials were also paid in kind. These burdens, together with the cost of transporting the crops, had to be paid in the same way by all land users, regardless of their biological sex. Public labour service was a tax liability known from the time of the Old Kingdom, whereby farmers were assigned to build and maintain canals, dams, bridges, and pyramids. The fulfilment of these physical burdens of a physical nature was imposed on the families and was performed by the head of the family, while women were involved in public work only in exceptional circumstances. Since neither income tax on natural persons nor sales tax existed during this period, and no regular head tax was applied, most Egyptian women did not pay any tax. Women who were engaged in some kind of craft activity such as spinning wool, weaving canvas, sewing clothes, or pressing oil, paid by some of the products they produced themselves in the form of crop taxes. From the time of the Old Kingdom through the Roman period to its collapse, the Egyptian tax system applied the tax on canvas (ἀναβολικὸν) flax, and even tax on first products (τὸ πρωτîον), which can be classified as taxes in kind. At that time, Egyptian women working in agriculture could become subjects to land tax only in exceptional cases, as it was the men responsible for land use who were registered in the tax register. In contrast, women holding lands independently were not granted any tax relief. In the Egyptian tax system, a land cadastre for the registration of taxes and taxpayers was created during the Old Kingdom, which included the exact size of the parts of the estate, the details of the owner, and even the names of the neighbours. This was important not only because a preliminary tax estimate was made based on this, and it determined the exact rate of crop taxes, but labour tax or compulsory labour service was also levied according to this.

VII. The tax liability of Egyptian women in the Hellenistic period

Only minor changes in the Egyptian tax system can be observed in the Ptolemaic era, i.e. between 304 BC and 30 BC. This form of state was created when the Macedonians overthrew the XXXI. dynasty and the descendants of Alexander the Great, using cultural and legal means of Greek and Persian origin, transformed and “Hellenised” the Egyptian empire, whose financial system was reformed by Cleomenes. The most important change was that the use of money became widespread in the economy and economic exchange became free throughout the empire. Some of the taxes were assessed and collected in money from that date, but the predominance of crop taxes remained the same in case of agricultural taxes. In addition, a number of confusingly various small taxes were levied on many agricultural crops and handicrafts, which Egyptian women also had to pay. The activity of farmers was centrally managed, and they had to surrender the entire crop. During this period, the land ownership of the ancient inhabitants of Egypt was limited to smaller plots where grapes, fruit, and olive oil were produced. By donating agricultural lands and having ethnic groups of foreign origin settle down, the main goal of the Ptolemaic estate policy was to create a new stratum of landowners to support the monarchs of Macedonian descent, who owed the monarchy a lifetime of military service in exchange for the lands provided. The stratum of newly settled Greek-born soldiers not only received lands, but also enjoyed a full tax exemption. In contrast, Egyptian farmers were even burdened with a duty of free public labour. Wealthy Egyptian women were also adversely affected by this estate policy as they could not provide military and administrative services, so they could not receive estate donations, and as a result, the proportion of women landowners and their involvement in the economy decreased. In the third century BC, a head tax, also levied on women, was introduced throughout Egypt, regardless of the wealth and marital status of the taxpayers. It was the “halike” or salt tax which was levied on men and women alike. A wide range of intellectuals, teachers, artists, musicians, priests and probably Alexandrian women and men were also exempt from paying it. Even the exact rate of this tax is also known. Between 263 and 254 BC, men paid 1.5 silver drachmas, while women paid 50% less, 1 silver drachma per year. Subsequently, from 254 BC, the tax rate was significantly reduced so that the tax liability of women decreased considerably. As early as at that time, a head tax or poll tax only for men, called “epikephalion” (λαογραϕία) in Greek, was applied. According to Rathbone, this may have been the same as the annual tax, “obol”, which Macedonians had already applied in other provinces before. Interestingly, Hellenics, Persians, teachers, and possibly priests as well were exempted from paying for this for specific ethnic and occupational considerations. The main burden of taxation during this period was also related to land ownership, and it was levied on men and women alike. In this era, the tax-bearing position of taxpayers was also determined by their ethnic classification. Despite the fact that the influx of foreign ethnic groups started as early as in the age of the Late Period (664-332 BC), a significant change was made only in the 4th century BC., when the influx of Macedonian-Greek mercenaries accelerated, and the ethnic character of Egypt was transformed. By the middle of the 3rd century BC, 5% of the population of four million was already of Greek origin, but many came from the provinces of the Middle East, too. It is also known that Ptolemy I settled a hundred thousand Jewish prisoners, including a lot of women. The Greek population, settled mainly in district centres, referred to in contemporary sources as “Hellenes” or “Metropolitan,” had preserved the Greek legal order and enjoyed a comprehensive tax exemption. In contrast, Egyptians, Asians, and Jews also often paid ethnically determined head taxes. An ethnic group called the Hellenics could retain its previously acquired tax privileges even in the Roman period. Women born as Egyptian citizens could only be included in this privileged group through marriage. It was this practice that was to be abolished later by a decree prohibiting mixed marriages between persons of Roman or Greek legal status and locals between 50 and 73 AD. It also must be seen that throughout this era there was a part of the Egyptian elite who unconditionally accepted Greek culture and many elements of the rule of law and sought to take advantage of the economic benefits provided by the new power.

VIII. Tax Obligations of Women in the Age of Roman Taxation

A slowly unfolding but significant change in Egyptian taxation was also brought about by the fact that in 30 BC the Roman army occupied Egypt, and it lost its status as an independent state to become the territory of the empire enjoying a special legal status, the “first province” of the emperor. It must be borne in mind, however, that the occupation and operation of the Roman provinces are not comparable to the practice of modern conquests. The conquered territories were not colonies in the modern sense, neither in terms of their societies or their economies. The Egyptian tax system was not completely transformed either, as “the Romans based the obligation to pay taxes on the traditions of the occupied territory and the previous system of government.” This meant that the Hellenistic features of the Egyptian tax system were retained and members of the local elite were also involved in the tax administration system. This method was not applied to show their respect for the history of Egyptian taxation, but merely followed the old practice of relying on taxes previously applied in the conquered territory, and initially they introduced few new types of taxes. Such a, seemingly strange, archaic but still levied tax during the Roman occupation was the nail tax in Asia, or the pelt tax provided by the Frisians in kind, and women’s tax reliefs were maintained in Egypt as well. However, the Egyptian tax system was transformed by the third century AD, and more than 450 different taxes and duties were mentioned in the relevant documents.

The occupying power also transformed the ownership structure of the Egyptian land system. One third of the conquered territories were left to the original owners according to the “dominium ex iure gentium”, while the former state-owned lands were expropriated and thus became part of the “ager publicus”. A part of these lands was leased out, for which an annual rent or direct tax “tributum” was levied. Where possible, the historically established system of land use rights was respected and the Ptolemaic model hitherto applied in the taxation of both private land and leased public land were taken over, and the basic units of the tax administration, “nemeses” i.e. districts created in the Pharaonic era were maintained. The rate of tax on leased public land was determined annually and collected in cash.

There is no consensus among scholars as to what extent the Egyptian tax system, tailored to the needs of the Roman Empire, can be considered unusual compared to imperial practice. While Wallace, Neesen and Brunt were in favour of unique status, Vandorpe, Jördens and Eich were against it. The debate is not expected to end in the near future either, due to the new sources constantly being revealed. This issue is important for the taxation of women because if the known rules of the Egyptian tax system were applied throughout the Roman Empire, it could result in a reassessment of the situation of women. However, if newer evidence showed that the tax status of Egyptian women was unique, the assessment of the situation of women in other provinces would not change significantly. Based on the evidence known so far, it can be said that the tax rules for women may have differed in different provinces of the empire. As an example, as opposed to Egyptian women, those living in the Syrian province had to pay a head tax equal to 80% of the tax levied on men. It is also known from Syrian data that the age limit for capacity to act and tax in this province was set at 12 for women and 14 for men and lasted uniformly until 65 years of age. At the same time, the picture may be misleading, because of all the Roman provinces, most of the archaeological finds for taxation were found in Egypt. The fact that archaeologists have, since 1788, excavated and published fragments of tens of thousands of official documents recorded on papyrus since 1788 helped to gain a better understanding of the financial and social conditions of this period. More than 60,000 papyruses were discovered during the construction of the Aswan Dam alone. These pieces of evidence provide a detailed description of Egypt’s tax administration and tax burdens, but they are not able to give a true picture of the taxation of the empire as a whole.

The Romans introduced few new types of taxes, but the most important of these was “tributum capitis” (λαογραϕία) a poll tax or head tax introduced by Augustus, known in Egypt as “laographia” and then introduced in other provinces of the empire. This fact, as well as the exact definition of the scope of taxpayers, is questioned by several authors. It is for certain that this tax was regarded by the locals as a symbol of the Roman Empire and was first applied in Thebes, Egypt, in24 BC, and archaeological evidence has survived to confirm this fact. Roman citizens and their slaves, as well as some local officials, were exempt from paying the tax, and residents of some large cities received tax reliefs, too. This tax was levied solely on men between 14 and 65 years of age, including slaves. The rate of the tax varied within Egypt, depending on the districts, but it was also applied differently in different provinces of the empire. I should note here that the head tax or poll tax is a collective term that includes “tributum capitis” paid by adult men or “halike” imposed on members of both sexes as well as taxes levied on certain occupations. A special head tax was levied on men undergoing military training, which was imposed as “ephebi”. Its use is confirmed by papyri from the area of Oxyrhynchus from 16/15 BC. According to a fragment of a 2nd-century “halike”, a salt tax certificate, during the reign of Augustus, this tax, introduced three hundred years earlier, was still levied on men at a rate of 4 obols / year. This also proves that there could not have been significant inflation in the economy of the age if, after hundreds of years, the imposition of the previous tax rate proved to be sufficient to perform public tasks. Historical data revealed so far confirm that women in Egypt were exempted from paying some types of head taxes. However, there is no uniform scholarly position on this general exemption. According to Rathbone, since the time of the Roman occupation, women also paid an annual head tax called “syntaxi,” but he does not rule out the possibility that they were later exempted from it. It seems likely that, as far as we know, taxes on long-distance traders such as Indian money (τὰ ἀργυύρια της Ἰνδίας), which is part of the “annona”, have not been levied on women. As I have pointed out earlier, this activity was probably rarely performed by women until the Roman occupation. Surviving data from Koptos (Quift) dating back to 3rd century BC show that trade with India grew exponentially, and female traders already took part in this boom, too. Rathbone mentions wealthy ladies who made significant temple offerings as Red Sea ship owners and merchants. In the tax system of Roman Egypt, in addition to those mentioned earlier, there were taxes that only men were required to pay. They included the gold of newcomers, aurum tironicum (χρυσὸς των τιρώνων) or the gold of fishermen (ὁ ὸρυσὸς των ἁλιέων), as well as the considerable tax of public labour, which was no imposed on women either. As far as other taxes are concerned, it cannot be ruled out that they may have been paid by women as well. They could have included the tax on premium products, the tax on mules (ὁ χρυσὸς των βουρδώνων) or the “chrysargyron” (τὸ χρυσάργυρον).

The introduction of the head tax was closely linked to the “census” aimed at determining the number of taxpayers and their wealth. It was a census that also had an original Egyptian meaning of “registration of citizens”. This legal institution is considered by some authors to be of Judean origin. It seems certain that King David ordered a census to be conducted in his country at least once, which was extremely unpopular, and was considered a “sinful act” even by The Second Book of Samuel XXIV. as “those who are counted are more exposed to the effects of harmful magic.” However, it is more likely that this was created in Egypt not by following a Jewish practice, because as early as the time of the first pharaohs, a tax register was used in which the details of the taxable object and the ethnic classification of its owner were recorded. No names of female taxpayers have been revealed in these early documents yet. The indirect purpose of the census establishing the tax base was also to facilitate the application of other taxes. Trade tax (χρυσάργυρον) and Jewish tax as well as other head taxes were levied based on the census, too. In order to keep the register of taxpayers up to date, the property census was repeated every 14 years and supplemented with the names of men who had reached the age of majority in the meantime. A papyrus issued in Egypt’s Oxyrhynchus district on October 1, 89 AD proves that the “praefectus” of Egypt, at its own discretion, could order the registrations at shorter intervals: “in order to make further declarations unnecessary, I order the inspectors of the archives to review the deeds of possession every five years and include the current financial situation of each person by municipality and type in the transcripts.”

In accordance with the decree by Augustus, from 14 AD on the census register was extended to women and children. This practice was maintained later as well, as evidenced by a fragment from AD 91. In some cases, the tax return even included a personal description of the taxpayer, so that the taxpayers who had fled the tax could be identified.

The most important type of tax of the era was land tax or annona that all adult men and women had to pay on the land they owned. Its importance is illustrated by the fact that more than 60% of the Empire’s income came from the lands, and in essence, this provided the source to finance the operation of the army and the imperial administration, and it was also used to take care of the urban poor. However, this tax did not have a single use; its essence is better described when it is considered as a group of target taxes with the same purpose. During the late Roman era, in the 4th century AD, there was a significant change in the calculation of the tax base; the way how land tax was calculated was amended, and the system of “capitatio-iugatio” was introduced. The essence of this was that the total amount of the land tax was not determined solely on the basis of the size of the land, but the real income-generating capacity of the tax object was estimated by using a multi-factor formula. It was therefore not a new type of tax, but a novel system of criteria used to calculate the tax and its elements may have differed among the “Nomes” of Egypt and in other provinces of the Roman Empire. In determining the capacity of an agricultural estate, several factors specified by the law were taken into account including the location of the land, fertility, branch of cultivation, and the size of the available human and animal labour. A distinction was made between “capitatio humana” (slave labour), “capitatio plebeia” (labour of a free person) and “capitatio animalum” (animal labour), as well as between the male and female labour used. The efficiency of women’s work was considered lower and was therefore treated as a factor reducing the income. The term “heads” in the tax records was a unit of account for human labour, which was equivalent to the labour of a man or two women. As the Codex Theodosianus formulated it: “As before, an estimated head unit for one man or two women has to be applied”. Although this regulation seems to devaluate female workforce, in fact it provided a tax relief to the land user in terms of female workforce. Perhaps, Papyrus no. SB 7756 is related to this land tax as it is about a female taxpayer and the term used in line 14 probably refers to land tax. However, due to the incompleteness of the text revealed, it cannot be ruled out that it is about the obligation of women to pay head tax, contrary what has been assumed so far.

IX. Enforcement of Fairness and justice for female taxpayers in Roman Egypt

The Romans, especially during the financial reforms of Diocletian, sought to create a tax system that seemed fair from their own point of view. However, this was not done in order to protect taxpayers’ rights, but to preserve the ability of taxpayers to pay taxes and to achieve a proportionate and therefore more efficient tax burden. Some authors believe that in the age of the Principate, tax liabilities were set according to proportion to proposed tax-paying capacity, and thus much of the tax was borne by the wealthy members of communities. The existence of this tax policy objective is also confirmed by a decree defining that the public responsibilities of Roman citizens, which stated: “The governor of the province shall ensure that public duties and positions are distributed in the cities, equally, alternately, according to age and dignity, in order to prevent the wealth of the settlements from diminishing in terms of men and strength due to the same and frequent oppression, without alternation.” The fairness of tax justice is also evidenced by paragraph 3 (3) of the same document, which specifically stated in order to protect women: “Women are precluded from carrying out “corporalia munera” i.e. public service obligations involving manual labour due to their sex itself.” Tax obligations to be fulfilled by citizens through manual labour were an important part of the tax in Egypt, which could be demanded in several forms, such as dam construction, road maintenance, threshing and transportation of crop taxes. An exceptionally important step was the exemption of women from public service duties, a measure that became an early example of positive discrimination of female taxpayers. The significance of this exemption can be understood from the tax certificate issued to Paphnutius in the fourth century, which required men to extract and carry one cubic meter of land a day. Continuing to accomplish this in Egyptian climatic conditions could have been a gruelling task even for very fit men. This tax relief was also referred to by a woman named Apollinarion, in a letter submitted by her in 200 AD. In her petition addressed to the “Dioiketes”, she specified decree 145/5 issued by Tiberius Alexander as the legal grounds for her request for fair treatment, which prohibited women from being forced to farming. For a long time, women were indeed exempt from the obligation to undertake the compulsory lease of land, which was a heavy burden of public labour duties on people with a semi-free legal status tied to land. This benefit probably disappeared by the end of the period because another petition survived from a late Roman era by a female taxpayer in which she asked to be made exempt from the obligation of to cultivate the land because she was too weak to do it in the absence of male labour. The petition could therefore also have meant that the universal exemption for women from public labour no longer existed in this era. The importance of this Egyptian benefit is indicated by the fact that in the early days of the Sumerian and Akkadian and Mesopotamian kingdoms, slave women were not exempt from even the hardest physical labour. They were exempted from their labour obligations only during their “unclean” days , and only the wives of royal employees were not subject to personal labour obligations.

As evidenced by the tax collection protocol made in the first century, in the Egyptian city of Koptos in 90 AD, women entrepreneurs could not enjoy tax exemptions. Based on thousands of years of tax administration practice, the “praefectus” of Egypt determined the amount of tax revenue planned for the province as a whole each year in advance, and district and municipal governors distributed it among districts and municipalities based on the presumed tax capacity. Subsequently, the exact payment obligations of local taxpayers and taxpayer groups were established by village or city mayors or committees, and from the third century onwards by city councils. A protocol on the distribution of such a tax burden has survived from the city of Koptos. Based on this, it is known that “the annual tax burden to be borne was 8 drachmas for craftsmen, 108 drachmas for prostitutes, 20 drachmas for victuallers, 4 drachmas for every woman, 2 obols for asses, 4 drachmas for chariots in good condition”. It could also have meant that there is no doubt that women with gainful employment were taxpayers in this region during this period. The exact tax-paying content of the wording “all women” designating taxpayers may be disputed. This may mean that all other women pursuing occupations not specified in the list are also liable to pay 4 drachmas as a flat-rate tax, so the scribe just simplified the list of women in gainful employment. But it can also mean that the protocol reports a head-tax obligation on women, whose existence has so far not been proven by other sources. A further curiosity of the fragment quoted is that it records the tax obligations of two occupations essentially pursued by women, i.e. victuallers and prostitutes. Victuallers were traveling merchants who followed the marching armies and provided various services to the soldiers. In this case, it can be clearly established that the basis of their tax liability was not determined by the value of the goods and services they sold, similar to the present-day taxes levied on consumption. On the contrary, they applied a flat tax to their activities. As for the tax on prostitutes, its curiosity lies not in the existence of this activity, but in its taxation. As Weber has already pointed out, there has been neither a historical era nor society in which prostitution failed to exist. However, most ancient societies did not want to benefit from this activity, only tolerated it because of its sacral origin. This occupation was not banned in ancient Egypt either. Herodotus reported on an Egyptian father who, getting into a poor financial situation due to his construction, sent his own daughter to work in the brothel so that he could pay the builders from the income she earned. However, no information survived as to this activity would have been taxed earlier, during the independent Egyptian empire. This type of tax was proven to be used in Egypt and other provinces under Roman jurisdiction during the time of the Principate. According to some opinions, this type of tax survived until 498 AD. On the other hand, Sven reckons that Claudius abolished this payment obligation.

In the Roman era of the Egyptian tax system, female taxpayers had several opportunities to seek fairness that is unique treatment, in their tax affairs. It seems that the archaic Egyptian tax system against taxpayers, in which the performance of public works and the payment of taxes were strictly controlled, and the slightest delay was punished, was transformed by Roman jurisprudence, which provided an opportunity to apply fairness. The Roman legal system was in many cases surprisingly empathetic about the vulnerable position of women. In criminal law, Emperor Constantine instructed for positive discrimination regarding women when imposing a penalty for counterfeiting money. Numerous other legal texts and papyrus also prove that between the first and fourth centuries in Egypt, too, it was worthwhile for women to refer to their alleged unfavourable individual life circumstances in their official submissions. Grubbs cites a papyrus from the era of Roman occupation, in which female taxpayers referred to their inherent weakness in their petition to the tax authorities and requested special treatment. During this period, orphans losing their father and widows could succeed in receiving special treatment. Egyptian law in this area was similar to the practice of other ancient states (Assyria, Jewish kingdoms, Mesopotamia) and women, in their widowhood status and in the legal process of inheritance, could count on the legal and moral support of the community and the power. The theoretical grounds of this procedure was established thousands of years earlier, and the support of widows and the poor was a moral command generally followed in ancient societies. Pharaoh Khety of the Ninth Dynasty when looking back on his life in 12th century BC, he considered it important to record that: “I was rich in grain, so when it was necessary, I gave many sacks and baskets of grain to the city. I distributed my portion to each citizen, as well as to their wives, to widows and their children. I gave up all taxes levied by my predecessors.” Egyptian Governor Sesostris I, who lived in the 20th century BC, boasted as follows: “I did not rape the daughters of any citizen, I did not torture any widows, I did not obstruct any peasants in their work. In my time, they were no poverty or starvation. I supported widows just as I supported married women, and I never gave preference to the mighty at the expense of the poor when goods were allocated.” One of the rulers of the 12th dynasty wrote of his reign, “I have taken care of the needy and raised the orphan.” The best known Egyptian religious text, the Book of the Dead written between the 14-13th century BC also included as one of the elements of the testimony of those passing away from life that “I did not torture the widow”. This attitude is also directly reflected in other ancient religious-legal texts. Moses 5, stated as a commandment to be followed by the Jews, “when you reap your harvest in your field and leave a sheaf in the field, do not return to pick it up, let some widow have it.” A similar example is found in Mesopotamia, where a fragment of a codex was unearthed in which Urukagina, the despot of Lagash around 2400 BC, stated that one of the aims of his reign was “to restore justice” and did not allow “widows and poor to be oppressed by the mighty”. Hammurabi, the founder of the Old Babylonian Empire, professed to follow similar values in the 13th century BC “I was not lazy and I was not negligent when I had to take care of the people whose guarding was entrusted on me by Marduk. I took care of them in peace and protected them with my wisdom. I wrote my precious words on this memorial stone to enforce the rights of widows and orphans. ”

X. Summary

If the economic role of ancient Egyptian women compared to the possibilities of 19th century Egyptian women, many surprising parallels can be found. Both systems were basically dominated by men, and few women were able to overcome the indisputably existing obstacles, and only educated and wealthy women could expect significant social room for manoeuvring and economic self-determination. Tucker’s finding i.e. that the position of women was determined primarily by their social class and their occupation and place of residence may be true for both periods. The other similarity between the two eras is that the situation of poor women was characterized by total subordination. In addition, the tax systems themselves showed the same features. Women in both periods remained in the shadow of the tax administration because the tax burden was put not on individuals but on families, and in both antiquity and the nineteenth century, women could only appear as taxpayers only in exceptional cases. Another characteristic worth noting is that, similarly to the ancient tax system, taxpayers paid most of their taxes in kind, i.e. in grain, cotton, oil in the 19th century as well.

There are also some important differences between the two systems. In the Islamic culture of the 19th century, male dominance over women’s wealth and economic resources prevailed more markedly, because the role of women in this society was not social and economic fulfilment, but keeping the family together, and, first of all, upbringing the children. Although women had some limited ability to inherit, they could obtain only half of the inheritance due to men. This legal practice also reflects the influence of Islamic culture whereby the purpose of a woman’s property is to take care of herself, while material care for a family is a man’s duty. However, Al-Sayyid Marsot believes the picture is not that simple and that women could be active economic stakeholders, and they could trade and be involved in other enterprises as well in that age. He mentions as an argument that 30-40 per cent of the registered contracts were concluded by women in the 19th century. In the second half of the twentieth century, and middle-class women could have economic activity and the wealthy ones could be investors and entrepreneurs the same way as men could. The author believes that women’s social influence may have increased in proportion to their wealth. It must be seen that the social and societal relations in the 19th century were transformed by rapid economic change. Egypt was transformed by European influences of French and later of English origin. Although the country retained a lot of its former feudal characteristics, modernization began. Despite that fact that at the beginning of the century production was still performed in the traditional structure, large farms were already producing for export, while small farms were supplying the local and national markets, but the rhythm of the economy was already given by Europe. By the last third of the century, these family production units had lost their economic importance and the role of large estates specializing in cotton production had increased. The state also set crop prices and wages centrally and controlled production. These economic changes also affected the legal status of women, and the importance of their ethnic classification and place of residence has diminished, and education and wealth have become authoritative. The economic activity of affluent women has strengthened, which was helped by the fact that some legal standards following the European models were entered into force. It can be concluded that in the two societies separated by at least 14 centuries, the economic role of women, despite their religious and technological differences, show more similarities than differences. It can be seen that the situation of a large mass of poor or medium-income women did not become more favourable over the nearly one and a half millennia passed.

In summary, it can also be concluded that the tax position and role of women in the Egyptian tax system, which has been operating for more than three thousand years, has been crucially influenced by the economic development of the state. At a time when subsistence farming transformed and the market evolved, and the use of money became commonplace, the economic and taxation involvement of women of equal financial status has also increased. In the tax system of ancient Egypt, there was a consistent distinction whereby the tax obligations of active and inactive women were sharply separated. Women who took part in economic life could not expect any benefits and their property, business and profits were taxed at the same rate as those of men’s. In contrast, self-employed or economically inactive women and widows were supported with tax exemptions and reductions. They did not have to pay some head taxes at all, while they could pay others could at a reduced rate, and they were exempt from paying public labour taxes for a long time and could expect fair treatment in the tax administration. When judging the tax reliefs granted to Egyptian women thousands of years ago, it must be taken into account that women’s political and civil rights could not be fully enforced even in developed states until as late as the middle of the twentieth century, and their personal and property status was less favourable than that of men’s. In France and Switzerland, only after World War II were married women allowed to have unrestricted access to their own bank accounts without their husbands countersigning. In Germany husbands were able to terminate their wives’ employment until 1953, and in the United States women were given worse credit ratings until the 1970s. “Married women didn’t get credit even if they had a job, but their husbands didn’t.” By this measure, a taxation policy sensitive to some human characteristics in a state based on archaic slavery is undoubtedly remarkable. With the positive treatment of women, Egypt was ahead of the world’s tax systems by millennia and had created conditions in antiquity that was unmatched for a very long time.


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Csaba Szilovics
Professor, Head of Department
University of Pécs, Faculty of Law Department of Financial and Business Law