Taxes: Ancient and Modern

15 04 2010

Since today is April 15, Tax Day, I thought it might be appropriate to blog about taxes, especially in relationship to the ancient world.  Taxes, of course, are not modern phenomena.  The extraction of funds from the general public for use by the state (or elites) has a long history.  One specific tax related to the ancient Mediterranean world and the first century was the Fiscus Judaicus.  For an excellent overview of this tax and its implication in the first century, see the recent dissertation from Rijksuniversiteit Groningen by Marius Heemstra, How Rome’s Administration of the Fiscus Judaicus Accelerated the Parting of the Ways Between Judaism and Christianity:  Rereading 1 Peter, Revelation, The Letter to the Hebrews and the Gospel of John in Their Roman And Jewish Contexts (2009).  This dissertation has a fascinating thesis and is quite well done.  (We presented papers in the same section of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting last year in New Orleans).

The Fiscus Judaicus was the tax levied by Vespasian after the Judean War and the destruction of the Temple (Josephus, Jewish War, 7.218). This tax in essence replaced the Temple tax.  The money collected for this tax, ironically, helped reconstruct the temple of Jupiter in Rome which had been destroyed in the civil war of AD 69.  One can only image the chagrin of the Judeans who were force to pay this tax.  One of the differences between the Temple tax and the Fiscus Judaicus is that the Temple tax was only required of Judean men while the Fiscus Judaicus taxed men, women, children, and even Judean slaves.

This Temple tax consisted of a half shekel (or the equivalent, two Roman denarii or two Attic drachmas).  The Fiscus Judaicus tax, while based on the Temple tax, varied over the years.

This tax continued into the time period of Emperor Nerva at which point it was abolished (AD 96).  This event was of such importance it was commemorated on a coin minted in Rome.  See below.

The inscription on the reverse is FISCI IVDAICI CALVMNIA SVBLATA which translates as “the removal of the wrongful accusation of the Fiscus Judaicus.”  Note the date palm tree; a typical symbol used for Judea.




3 responses

17 04 2010

David, having written in my blog about income tax on April 15, it was interesting to read about the Fiscus Judaicus tax. Thanks for the helpful information.

30 12 2010
Laslo Medyesy


The fiscus judaicus was not abolished by Nerva, only the humiliation used to determine who was a Jewish male or not. (public examination of private parts)
The inscription on the coin indicates this.

1 01 2011
David May

Thanks for our reply. You are correct that the fiscus Judaicus did continue as is evidenced during during the reign of Trajan. Perhaps it was the abuse of the tax collection system that was being corrected. As Marisu Heemstra notes in his dissertation several groups could have reported to officials about not paying the tax: those living a Jewish life without being Jewish (God-fearers and Gentile Christian with sympathy towards Judaism) and those those concealing their Jewish origins (tax evaders, proselytes, apostate Jews, circumcised non-Jews, and Jewish-Christians). As Heemstra writes, “It must be stressed again that these categories were not made liable for the Jewish tax, but were ‘discovered’ during the proceedings of the fiscus Judaicus and could also be prosecuted to raise the revenue of the fiscus by means of the confiscations. They were not charged with tax evasion, but another ‘crime’ was detected of which they could be found guilty: ‘atheism.’ As a consequence the proceeds of these convictions also went to the fiscus Judaicus. This is probably the abusive situation that Domitian created, . . . . It is highly likely that this charge of leading a Jewish life improfessus and the ‘atheism’ connected to it, as prosecuted by the officials of the fiscus Judaicus under Domitian, is the calumnia that his successor Nerva removed” (pp. 70-71). It is interesting to note that Nerva moved the disputes over this tax from the authority of the procurator to that of the praetor. Perhaps Nerva hoped that the new jurisdiction would also eliminate the abuse of the system.

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