The Mechanics of Extraction

Comparing Principles of Taxation and Tax Compliance in the Ancient World

Workshop, organized by Irene Soto, PhD Student, and Jonathan Valk, PhD Student
September 30, 9:30am-5:00pm
October 1, 10:00am-4:00pm

This article first appeared in ISAW Newsletter 16, Fall 2016.

The exercise of power depends on the ability of governing structures to collect and reallocate resources—be they in the form of currency, labour, agricultural produce, raw materials, or processed goods. Systems of taxation are the basis for the collection of resources and the generation of revenue. Today, such systems are ubiquitous, embedded in the socio-political structures associated with the modern state. While there are ongoing arguments about who should be taxed and precisely how much, there nevertheless exists a widespread recognition of a social contract, whereby the state enjoys widespread tax compliance in return for the provision of a variety of services. To what extent is this true for ancient societies? Ancient polities often diverge in many important respects from modern states—not least in the practical tools at their disposal when assessing the availability of resources or enforcing tax compliance. How did ancient administrative systems determine the quantity and character of taxes that were to be levied? What were the procedures for the collection of said taxes? Numerous types of taxes and forms of tax collection are attested in the ancient world; what conditions determined the preference for certain types and forms over others? How much agency did ancient polities enjoy in the determination of preferred systems of taxation? Addressing these and related questions in the context of spatially and diachronically distinct ancient societies will serve not only to establish a foundation for comparative research, but also to sharpen thinking about taxation in the ancient world from a practical perspective.

The workshop is co-sponsored by ISAW, the NYU Center for Humanities, the NYU Center for Ancient Studies, the NYU Classics Department, and an anonymous gift.