I'm working on integrating a microfiction story about a smuggler into the worldbuilding for my fantasy universe Verraine, so I had to do a little digging into tax codes in different cultures.
- Egyptian Pharaohs taxed cooking oil, which could only legally be purchased from the Pharaoh 🙃
- The earliest tax records known were from the ancient Mesopotamian city-state of Lagash — normally they kept the tax rate pretty low, but in times of crisis it could rise as high as 10%
- Hittite silos filed with grain from taxes represented the enormous wealth of the king — as long as they didn't burn 😬
- Ancient Assyria had a thriving market economy that relied on taxing passing merchant caravans in exchange for bridge maintenance and bandit suppression. This is a common model: West African kingdoms used similar tactics to gain power.
- Elites in the pre-Aztec city of Teotihuacan preferred to collect surplus by taxation and tribute, instead of exerting direct control over the labor force. It reduced administrative overhead.
The Inca and Maya collected "taxes" by periodically calling up corvée labor forces. The feudal European system was very similar and evolved from the Roman Empire's corvée system, in which tenant farmers and former slaves owed unpaid labor to the local estates. This kind of labor "tax" was often used for infrastructure projects and road repairs.
The English land tax ("geld") started out around 990 CE as tribute money paid to Viking invaders ("gafol" and then later "Danegeld") before Æthelred the Unready (what a name!) turned it into an annual tax used to pay for a standing Scandinavian fleet. Eventually, the kings of England used this tax collection method ("heregeld" or "army-tax") to fund standing armies. It was surprisingly efficient for its era.
One of the major advantages of collecting taxes in the form of surplus food is that when there's a famine due to bad weather or crop failure, government officials can empty the food stores to feed the hungry. Taxation at its best functions as a community kitty.
During Athens' "Empire" period, its citizens didn't really pay taxes. The city's government got its income from its allies in the empire and immigrants in the city. Their taxes funded the public assembly, juries, and public festivals.