“Nothing is certain but death and taxes” – this idiomatic expression generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin has long been synonymous with certainty in a constantly changing world. A testament to Franklin’s status as an iconic and prescient figure, the phrase is still an apt summary of most of human history. Not long after the beginning of civilization as we know it, people began to pay taxes in support of the things we now take for granted: food, housing, infrastructure, defense and much more. A history of taxation, therefore, reads almost like a history of society and culture in general. The Online Master of Science in Taxation program from Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business will make students more familiar with these concepts.
Origins of taxation
The first record of organized taxation comes from Egypt around 3000 B.C., and is mentioned in numerous historical sources including the Bible. Chapter 47, verse 33 of the Book of Genesis describes the tax collection practices of the Egyptian kingdom, explaining that the Pharaoh would send commissioners to take one- fifth of all grain harvests as a tax.
Tax practice continued to develop as Greek civilization overtook much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in the centuries leading up to the Common Era. The Rosetta Stone, a clay tablet discovered in 1799, was a document of new tax laws decreed by the Ptolemaic Dynasty in 196 B.C. Named after its leader Ptolemy V, this kingdom was a product of Alexander the Great’s legendary conquest of huge swaths of territory, resulting in a melding of Ancient Greek and other languages. The text of the Rosetta Stone was therefore written in both Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphic script, and its discovery served as a breakthrough in decoding one of the oldest forms of written language.
From the Roman age and through medieval European history, new taxes on inheritance, property and consumer goods were levied, and often played a role in war, either by funding them or provoking them. Other cradles of civilization, such as ancient China, also levied taxes under the authority of a strong centralized government. The Chinese T’ang and Song Dynasties employed a methodical census record to track their populace and impose the proper taxes on them. These funds and materials were then used to support armies and construct canals for transportation and irrigation, among other projects. The Mongol Empire that took control of much of Asia around 1200 instituted tax policy designed to influence large-scale production of certain goods like cotton.