Tax time – but things could be worse

By Rudman Winchell Attorney

By: Rudman Winchell Attorney Erik Stumpfel

Taxes are onerous and the IRS can be harsh, but things used to be even worse.  The following account is extracted from the ancient historian Josephus, and recounts events during the reign of Ptolemy III in Egypt, in the third century B.C.  Municipal property tax collectors, take note.

“And when the day came on which the king was to let the taxes of the cities to farm, and those that were the principal men of dignity in their several countries were to bid for them, the sum of the taxes together, of Celesyria and Phoenicia, and Judea with Samaria, came to eight thousand talents.  But Joseph accused the bidders, as having agreed together to estimate the value of the taxes at too low a rate; and he promised that he himself would give twice as much for them; but for those who did not pay, he would send the king home their whole substance; for this privilege was sold together with the taxes themselves.  The king was pleased to hear that offer; and, because it augmented his revenues, he said he would confirm the sale of the taxes to him . . .

“But Joseph took with him two thousand foot-soldiers from the king, for he desired to have some assistance, in order to force such as were refractory in the cities to pay. . . .  And when he was at Askelon, and demanded the taxes of the people of Askelon they refused to pay anything, and affronted him also:  upon which he seized upon about twenty of the principal men, and slew them, and gathered what they had together, and sent it all to the king; and informed him what he had done.  Ptolemy admired the prudent conduct of the man, and commended him for what he had done; and gave him leave to do as he pleased. 

“When the Syrians heard of this, they were astonished:  and having before them a sad example in the men of Askelon that were slain, they opened their gates, and willingly admitted Joseph, and paid their taxes.  And when the inhabitants of Scythopolis attempted to affront him, and would not pay him those taxes which they formerly used to pay, without disputing about him, he slew also the principal men of that city, and sent their effects to the king.  By this means he gathered great wealth together, and made vast gains by this farming of the taxes . . .”   


Ancient history, but it has echoes in Maine’s property tax laws today, with our annual commitment lists, tax collector reports and the (little-used) statutory remedies of “distraint” and arrest upon non-payment.  (See Title 36 Maine Revised Statutes sections 991-998.)  Josephus’s full account also discusses a requirement that tax collectors give sureties for their promised collections, very similar to a tax collector’s bond today.

An even stronger echo is found in Maine’s County Tax law, in Title 36 of the Maine Revised Statutes, section 891:  

§891. Collection of delinquent state and county taxes

When the time for the payment of a state or county tax has expired and it is unpaid, the Treasurer of State or of the county shall give notice thereof to the treasurer of any delinquent municipality, and unless such tax shall be paid within 60 days, the Treasurer of State or of the county may issue his warrant to the sheriff of the county, returnable in 90 days, requiring him to levy by distress and sale upon the real and personal property of any of the inhabitants of the municipality. The sheriff or his deputy shall execute such warrants, observing the regulations provided for satisfying warrants against delinquent collectors prescribed by sections 803, 896 and 897.

Joseph would have been perfectly happy operating under this section, if a “summary execution” provision were added.

As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  Sometimes, as in ancient Askelon, they are the same thing. 

Editor’s Note:  Attorney Stumpfel’s undergraduate degree (B.A. Roanoke College, 1975) was in history.  He currently practices law as a member of Rudman Winchell’s municipal law practice group, including municipal and individual property tax issues.


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