Defoe explained it in his book, The Political History of the Devil. He wrote that one could be sure of two things: Death and Taxes. Nearly every single discussion of political anything will eventually strike gold (ha.. gold standard, get it?) and shift to a discussion of taxation. It’s everywhere, it’s in religion, it’s in government, it’s in pop culture, and it’s most definitely in history. Al Capone was snagged on it, Robin Hood is famous for it, the American experience started with a couple pennies being added to each case of tea. There are however, some very strange and lesser known taxes that existed.
Vespasian’s Golden Shower:
Back in the first century of Rome, Emperor Nero came up with a tax on urine. The idea was that commoners and wealthy alike would produce it and it would be piped away into cesspools for sanitary reasons. What Nero decided to place a tax on was the use of the cesspool urine. Since it was a readily accessible acid, urine has been used for laundering, bleaching, tanning, and dozens of other chemical processes. In Rome, the heavy woolen togas would be washed several times in an ammonia laden sludge of urine and soaps to keep them white and “clean”. Nero taxed the fullers who would gather urine used in the cleaning process and tax their usage of the liquid.
While Nero’s tax did die out during his reign, when Vespasian took over in 70 AD, he did everything in his power to right the sinking ship of the Roman economy. Vespasian placed oppressive taxes on most things that he could, including urine. The story goes that his son, Titus, came to him one day disgusted about his scheme. Vespasian held a gold coin aloft and told Titus to smell it. When Titus answered that he smelled nothing, Vespasian replied, “but it comes from urine..” which is thought to be the origin of the phrase “Pecunia non olet” – “Money does not stink”. It is a Latin phrase that postulates that the origin of money has no effect on its worth, that blood money is as good as pee money. The French actually named their public urinal areas Vespassiannes after the Emperor.
In the year 991, Ethelred the Unready, King of England, had his military splattered by Viking invaders. He took the advice of his Archbishop and simply paid the Nordic raiders with 10,000 pounds of silver. Ethelred was again accosted by the Vikings in 994 when Sweyn Forkbeard and Olav Trygvasson sieged London. Ethelred stopped the Viking attacks by simply paying them an awe inspiring amount of silver, enough to convince the hardened sea raiders that it was actually economically in their interest to simply extort the British rather than to raid them. Over the next twenty years, Vikings would show up and strong-arm the Brits into paying them with silver out of fear of a Viking raid, a tribute that was known as the Danegeld. The Vikings would show up, sac a city and then request a huge sum of silver to resume the peace. They would hang out for a couple years, then whenever a Scandinavian king felt like he needed to fund another fleet, he would beat the war drums, sail an imposing number of bearded, ax wielding warriors to the British coast and blackmail them into sending silver.
There are even rune stones in Norway that commemorate the success of a king who could extort two or three Danegeld transactions out of the English. Archaeologists have literally found more English pence from that era in Scandinavia than they have found in England. The currency of England was being siphoned out of them so fast that there was more of it in Viking hands than in English ones.
Peter’s Modernization Methods:
When Peter I of Russia was trying to modernize his country, he did everything he could to forcibly press Russia into the modern world of 1698. He brought in western scholars, western clothes, western music and dance, but perhaps his most humorous decision: he tried to get Russian men to follow western European standards of keeping themselves closely shaven. He implemented a tax on all men who had a beard, forcing them to pay the tax or cut it off. Those who did pay the tax would get a small silver or copper coin with an image of the Russian Eagle on one side and a small beard and mustache on the other. Each side was accompanied with a phrase, “The beard tax has been taken” and “the beard is a superfluous burden”. You can even buy a replica beard coin for about $8 now if you want to own a piece of taxation and beardly history.
In Soviet Russia, Beards wear you.
Beard Taxes. England had one too:
Buy your own Beard tax token: