Taxes and tax collecting are as old as civilization itself. The issues about taxation raised in the story of Tarim-Dagan, the Babylonian "tax farmer," are fundamentally the same as those that emerged in American society thousands of years later after the passage of the 16th Amendment authorizing the federal income tax.
"To Give Light To The Land"
By the year 1760 B.C. during the 33rd year of his reign, King Hammurabi of the city of Babylon was the undisputed ruler of an empire of city-states extending more than 600 miles along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq. In less than five years, Hammurabi had crushed his chief rivals including a former ally, the king of Mari. Mesopotamia, the land where history began, was now called Babylonia.
Hammurabi is probably best remembered for his code of laws. Although he did not create the first law code in Mesopotamia, he was the first to impose his laws on a number of cities, each with its own customs and traditions. Evidently, he wanted to unify his newly won empire under a single legal system. He also sought justice for his subjects as shown by these words from the prologue of his code:
Hammurabi, the reverent god-fearing prince, to make justice appear in the land, to destroy the evil and the wicked that the strong might not oppress the weak, to rise like the Sun-god over the Black-headed Ones [humans], to give light to the land . . . .
Hammurabi also established a bureaucracy of government officials to administer his empire. Among these officials were tax collectors known as "tax farmers." They gave Hammurabi the means to pay for his army, palaces, temples to the gods Shamash and Marduk, and royal lifestyle. Hammurabi also needed tax revenues to maintain the irrigation canals that sustained all life in Babylonia. One of the canals he built was named, "Hammurabi-the-Abundance-of-the-People."
The Tax Farmer of Mari
Two years after Hammurabi conquered Mari, the assembly of elders of the city met and appointed as their tax farmer a merchant named Tarim-Dagan. Tarim paid a fee of 1,000 shekels to the assembly for the honor of collecting taxes for King Hammurabi. (A shekel was a quarter ounce piece of silver. Coins were not invented for another thousand years.) Of course, Tarim would keep a fair portion of the taxes he collected as his fee.
Following his appointment as the tax farmer of Mari, Tarim-Dagan received this letter from King Hammurabi:
To Tarim-Dagan say, thus says Hammurabi: When you see this tablet, begin collecting the taxes owed to me. The recent wars have emptied my treasury and have brought much destruction to my lands. The walls of Mari need to be rebuilt and the canals need to be cleaned of silt. My storehouses in Babylon need to be filled with barley, dates, sheepskins, bronze swords, and other products of your city. My palace requires new furnishings. Send me chariots of superior quality. Do all these things now or I will hold a grudge against you. But be careful not to allow the people to have complaint. May Shamash and Marduk keep you well.
In fulfilling his responsibility as tax farmer, Tarim first had to decide what to collect from the people of Mari. Since money was not yet in common use, most people paid their taxes with goods they produced. For example, a farmer would turn over some crops to satisfy his tax obligation. The poor who labored day-to-day simply to feed and clothe themselves usually had nothing to give the tax farmer. They gave the king his due by working a certain number of days on public projects like cleaning irrigation canals.
The custom of the land was for the tax farmer to take from one-tenth to one-third of a taxpayer's goods or labor each year depending on how prosperous times were. Tarim considered this custom, but chose this year to collect more. He thought this was necessary because of the demands made by King Hammurabi in his letter. Tarim also had to figure in his expenses such as the fee he had already paid to the assembly of elders. Moreover, he would have to hire assistants and guards, rent storehouses, and arrange for transporting the king's share of the tax goods down river to Babylon. Finally, there was the matter of Tarim's own fee. He wanted to make sure he would be left with a sizable profit. Therefore, he decided to set the tax rate at 50 percent for every household in Mari.
Tarim had trouble collecting taxes as soon as word spread that he was demanding half the income or labor of the people of Mari. The wealthy nobles objected first. Most had received large grants of farmland from the former kings of Mari, some from King Hammurabi himself. The nobles claimed their privileged position in society exempted them from paying any taxes at all.
The priests of Mari told Tarim that they, too, should not have to pay any taxes. They argued that Dagan, Adad, and the other gods would be angry if forced to give up some of their possessions even though the temple priests of Mari were among the largest landowners of the city.
The small farm owners, who made up the most of households in Mari, were even more upset with Tarim. They protested that while taxing half the barley or dates of someone who owned hundreds of acres of land was surely a burden, taking the same portion from those who farmed only a few acres would plunge them into poverty and starvation.
Others joined the growing unrest over Tarim's high tax rate. Shepherds denounced his demand for not only 50 percent of their sheepskins but also half of their newborn lambs. Mari's merchants and caravan traders, including some strong-minded women, complained that they would lose their businesses to foreigners if they had to turn over half their profits to the tax farmer. Artisans, like Mari's famed chariot makers, believed that Tarim kept their best work for himself while sending inferior goods to the king.
It was the lowest and poorest of Mari, however, who first acted against the oppressive tax. Laborers, expected to work half a year for the king, simply refused to show up to clean the canals or rebuild the city walls as ordered by Tarim. When he sent his guards to round up these common people, they hid or ran away. Desperate, Tarim commanded his chief assistants to capture a few workers, cut off their heads, and carry them on poles from place to place to stop the disobedience. But the canals remained clogged with silt and the city walls stayed in disrepair.
The farmers, both large and small, now added to Tarim's troubles by putting sand in sacks of grain or sending him dates that had rotted or were infested with rats and insects. Shepherds drove their flocks of sheep into the desert away from Tarim's prying eyes. Merchants and traders fixed their records to show that their profits were lower than they really were. Artisans hid their wares.
Now on the verge of panic, Tarim hired more armed guards and directed them to confiscate the tax goods still owed by the people. Violence flashed when Tarim's guards broke into storage areas, shops, and even people's homes. A tax revolt now threatened to turn into a rebellion.
A Perplexing Problem
The people now went to the governor of Mari to protest Tarim's excessive tax rate and highhanded actions. The governor was perplexed. On one hand, he knew that King Hammurabi expected the recently conquered city to flood Babylon with tributes of tax goods and services. On the other hand, the governor feared that a rebellion in Mari would so anger Hammurabi that he would send his army to destroy the city completely.
So the governor did what most Mesopotamian leaders would do in a difficult situation. He called upon the services of his diviner. A diviner was a priest who professed the ability to foretell the future and interpret omens. In this case, the governor's diviner sacrificed a lamb and carefully counted the spots on its liver. The diviner revealed that the gods intended King Hammurabi himself to settle the dispute between the people and the tax farmer of Mari.
Mesopotamian kings at this time tended to be hands-on rulers. Therefore, it is not surprising that King Hammurabi would agree to involve himself directly in the affairs of one of his provincial cities. Before he listened to all the parties in the case, Hammurabi asked for a report from his spy in Mari, Kibri-Adad:
To Lord Hammurabi say, thus says Kibri-Adad: The people of Mari complain much about their taxes, but when do taxpayers not complain? The harvest was good this year, and the city profits greatly from foreign trade. Tarim-Dagan takes half for taxes then takes half of that for himself. The richest merchants offer him shekels to reduce their taxes.
For Discussion and Writing
- What differences can you see between the tax system in Hammurabi's Babylonia over 3,000 years ago, and the tax system in the United States today?
- What do you think was unfair about Hammurabi's tax system?
- Who seemed to benefit the most from Hammurabi's tax system?
For Further Information
Ancient Civilizations: Mesopotamia From the British Museum's site for teachers.
ABZU A guide to information related to the study of the ancient Near East on the web.
Ancient Mesopotamia: 7000 to 500 B.C. A timeline
The Code of Hammurabi The story of the code. From Law Buzz.
The Code of Hammurabi (the text translated into English):
Hammurabi From the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Hammurabi From the Encyclopedia of the Orient.
The Code of Hammurabi Background on the code.
Spiritual Systems of Mesopotamia Overview of some of the gods.
Two web pages on cuneiform from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology:
Iraq History The complete history—from ancient to modern times.
Lessons and Teacher Resources:
Understanding Primary Sources: Hammurabi's Code of Laws From Houghton Mifflin.
Ancient Mesopotamia From the Core Values Internet Library, Oakland Unified School System.
A C T I V I T Y
Hammurabi's Tax Court
We do not know exactly how Hammurabi decided disputes that came before him personally, but we know that he established a court system that admitted documents and the testimony of witnesses as evidence. The following activity utilizes these familiar courtroom elements to settle the dispute described in the fictional story of Tarim-Dagan.
The class should be divided into the following roles:
Complainers: These are the taxpayer groups who each have a complaint to make about Tarim-Dagan and how he went about collecting the king's taxes.
a. wealthy nobles
b. temple priests
c. small farm owners
e. merchants and traders
g. common laborers
Defenders: Tarim-Dagan along with his chief assistants have been called to Babylon to defend themselves before King Hammurabi.
Judge: The outcome of this trial will be decided by King Hammurabi acting as the judge. He will listen to the complainers and defenders and then decide the following questions that have been raised in this case:
- Should any group be exempt from paying taxes?
- Should all the taxpayer groups pay the same tax rate? What should the tax rate(s) be?
- Should Tarim-Dagan, his chief assistants, or anyone else be punished for any of their actions? If so, what should the penalty be? (Major penalties would include drowning, burying alive, and impaling. Minor penalties would be fining, public whipping, and enslaving.)
- The members of each "complainer" group will, in turn, be given an opportunity to tell King Hammurabi why they object to the actions of Tarim-Dagan.
- The "defenders" will then be given their chance to answer the charges that have been made against them.
- Both sides may refer to and quote from the three documents in the case: the prologue to Hammurabi's Code of Laws, the letter from Hammurabi to Tarim-Dagan, and the letter from Kibri-Adad to Hammurabi.
- King Hammurabi should question the complainers and defenders as they speak. Hammurabi alone will then decide the three questions of the dispute.