Protecting the Tax-Payer, Protecting the Tax Man

Jennifer Cromwell

On 17 April 731, an Egyptian priest John son of the late Victor wrote a declaration for the state treasury, represented by the Muslim official Rashid. He had paid two gold coins (holokottinos in the document) for his village’s taxes, representing the headman, Peter. However, it turned out that he – and so his village – had paid half a gold coin too much.

“I, the humblest priest John the son of the late Victor from Tpulê-nHobn in the northern district of this city, Shmoun, write to the state treasury, namely our lord Rashid the most famous amirof this city Shmoun and its nome. The deacon Peter, the head of Tpulê-nHobn, gave two gold coinsso that I could bring them to you and pay them for the stichos-tax of this village. I have paid them to you today, Parmoute 22 in this 14thindiction year, but I paid halfa gold coin too much, beyond what was incumbent upon me and what was assigned to me, and you returned it to me, so that I can take it and repay it to the deacon Peter, the headman.”

The particular tax here, the stichos, was not a regular tax but an exceptional one. It occurs infrequently in our records and the amount involved is only small, especially as this is on behalf of the whole village of Tpulê-nHobn, part of the city Hermopolis (Coptic Shmoun, modern el-Ashmunein) – even though John says ‘what was assigned to me’, it’s clear that the money is from his whole community.

Or 6201 – overpayments
British Library, Or. 6201/A2 (C) British Library Board (image from Schenke 2014)

The early decades of the eighth century witnessed a huge increase in the volume of taxation documentation throughout the country, written in each of the three languages used in Egypt at that time: Arabic, the language of the rulers (who had conquered Egypt in 642); Greek, the language of the previous rulers and for a millennium the language of Egypt’s administration; and Coptic, the last phase of the ancient Egyptian language. Tax payments didn’t always come in on time – in fact, a lot of our evidence shows that taxes were frequently paid in arrears and officials often had to resort to strong language and measures (see this threatening letter, for example). But, on the other hand, this document demonstrates that when Egyptians did pay too much, the excess was returned.

To make sure that the money was returned to Peter and the village – and that John didn’t take it and run – Rashid asked John to have this declaration drawn up. Not only would this document help ensure the money went back to the right place, it also protected the state treasury from accusations of unfair treatment. Such behaviour and careful recording of tax payments and overpayments may be the result of accusations of unfair tax allocation and mistreatment of Egyptian taxpayers.

“You asked for this declaration from me, in writing. Now, I declare, first, that you gave this half a gold coin to me, today – as already recorded – from your hand to mine. Afterwards, I am ready to take this half a gold coin and give it to the deacon Peter, the headman of my village, complete and without contempt, everything of mine being pledged.”

At the end of the document, the scribe of the document, the public notary Eustephios, signs on behalf of John, who is illiterate. Another man, Justa son of the late Mark, also witnesses the document.

As for the official named in the text, Rashid can be identified as the well-known official Rashid ibn Chaled, who was pagarch of Hermopolis at this time, having previously served as pagarch of Heracleopolis (the pagarch was the most senior official of a region, known as a pagarchy, or nome). It is very doubtful that he himself was involved in this situation, rather that his name is invoked as the senior local official and representative of the government. Both parties benefit from this declaration: the state can’t be accused of unfair behaviour, nor can it exact more money from the villagers for this particular tax. This is not to say that every Christian tax payer had the same experience of Muslim officials, but a series of checks and measures were clearly in place to help ensure that the system ran as smoothly as it possibly could.

Technical Details
Provenance: Hermopolis (el-Ashmunein), Egypt
Date: 17 April 731 CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect)
Collection: British Library, Or. 6201/A2
Designation: SB Kopt. V 2221 (siglum according to the Checklist of Editions); see also Trismegistos TM 322181.
Bibliography: Gesa Schenke (2014), “Rashid ibn Chaled and the Return of Overpayments,” Chronique d’Égypte 89, pp. 202–209

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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