Photograph by travelbild, Alamy
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The Roman Emperor Vespasian taxed the trade of urine—which was valued for its ammonia content—from public restrooms.

Photograph by travelbild, Alamy

Feeling Overtaxed? The Romans Would Tax Your Urine

Governments have always found creative ways to collect cash.

Taxes may be as certain as death, but they've changed a lot. Over the centuries, governments have levied taxes on everything from facial hair to the right to cover up—and officials accepted payments of beers, beds, and even broomsticks. 

Here, from history, are a few taxes we’re glad to not have to pay anymore:

Rome's Toilet Tax 

Ancient Romans valued urine for its ammonia content. They found the natural enemy of dirt and grease valuable for laundering clothes and even whitening teeth. And like all valuable products, there was a scheme to tax it.

Emperor Vespasian (r. A.D. 69-79) earned a pretty penny by taxing the trade in urine that was gathered at public restrooms. But even some wealthy Romans considered this odious.

“When [Vespasian's] son Titus blamed him for even laying a tax upon urine, he applied to his nose a piece of the money he received in the first installment, and asked him if it stunk. And he replying no, 'And yet,' said he, 'it is derived from urine,'” wrote Suetonius in The Lives of the Caesars circa A.D. 120.

Hirsute Europeans Harried by Beard Tax

Several times throughout European history, rulers sought to tax their subjects’ whiskers.

Henry VIII introduced a tax on facial hair in 1535. The fee increased relative to the beard owner’s place in society. The beard-wearing Henry was exempt, of course. 

Russian reformer Peter the Great also instituted a beard tax in 1698. The European-leaning Peter considered the ubiquitous Russian beard to be a symbol of his nation's stagnant and backward character. Bearded gentlemen had to pay a substantial fee and were required to carry a unique token to prove that they'd bought the right to remain bearded.  

Ottoman "Blood" Tax's Heavy Toll

Ottoman rulers made non-Muslim subjects pay taxes with what they held most dear—their children. This was known as the “blood tax” among fearful families.

From the early 15th to the late 17th centuries, officials periodically took groups of young Christian boys from families living under Ottoman rule, converted them to Islam, and handed them over to the sultan.

The boys endured a five-to-eight-year military training while also laboring for the state at workshops, farms, ships, and construction sites. “Of course they were also the base of the [elite] Janissary army,” explains Gülay Yılmaz, a historian at Akdeniz University in Turkey. “And the administrative bureaucratic elite of the empire were mostly from those boys who were levied and spared for a special education in the palaces to become administrators.”

At least the young men received a form of tax exemption for their service. “Those who were selected as devshirmes did not have to pay cizye, a head-tax that all the able-bodied adult Christian men had to pay,” Yilmaz adds.

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Tsar Peter I sought to make Russia more European in part by eliminating beards. Men with beards were taxed. 

Please Remit Beer, Brooms, or Stones

Taxes have existed for so long, they even predate coin money.

In ancient Mesopotamia, this led to some rather bizarre ways to pay. For instance, the tax on burying a body in a grave was “seven kegs of beer, 420 loaves, two bushels of barley, a wool cloak, a goat, and a bed, presumably for the corpse," according to Oklahoma State historian Tonia Sharlach.

Taxes applied to almost everything, and might be paid with almost anything. 

“Circa 2,000-1,800 B.C. there is a record of a guy who paid with 18,880 brooms and six logs,” Sharlach adds. “That had to be some kind of arrangement where he provided needed goods to the government.” 

Creative accounting of in-kind payments helped some cheat the tax man as well. “In another case, a man claimed he had no possessions whatsoever except extremely heavy millstones. So he made the tax man carry them off as his tax payment.”

Breast Tax Breeds Ultimate Defiance

Among the strangest taxes of all was a breast tax or mulakkaram, once levied by rulers in India's Kerala state. Women had to pay if they wanted to cover themselves in public, and the humiliating tax was a financial burden on the lower class women at which it was aimed.

The breast tax sparked a now legendary act of protest. Though verifiable facts are few, the story is often told in the town of Cherthala, which was home to a woman named Nangeli some two centuries ago. Unable to pay and incensed at the tax, Nangeli is said to have severed her breasts and presented them to the astonished tax collector. The act cost the woman her life, but is claimed to have eventually led to the tax's repeal. 

A Brilliant Idea—Tax Amnesty for Life

In India's Mauryan Empire (ca 321-185 B.C.) an annual competition of ideas was held—with the winner receiving tax amnesty. “The government solicited ideas from citizens on how to solve government problems,” Sharlach explains. “If your solution was chosen and implemented, you received a tax exemption for the rest of your life.”

The Greek traveler and writer Megasthenes (ca 350-290 B.C.) gave an astonished account of the practice in his book Indica.

Like most tax reform efforts the system was far from perfect, Sharlach notes. “The problem is that nobody would have any incentive to ever solve more than one problem.”