An Ancient Roman Tax Receipt
(P.Columbia 408)

From the Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection
at Columbia University, NY

Translation and Commentary by
Richard C. Carrier, Ph.D. (1999)


This was my papyrus project for Greek G6247 (Greek Papyrology), a year-long graduate-level course at Columbia University. This is an untranslated papyrus acquired by purchase from an unidentified vendor. Where it was found, and by whom, is unknown. Welcome to the wonderful world of the black market antiquities trade!

I attempted to transcribe and translate as well as analyze and edit this document, working under the masterful supervision of Professor Roger Bagnall. Unfortunately, after consulting several leading experts worldwide, the key item of value on this papyrus (the tax collector's name) is not only unique, but undecipherable. This has made formal publication futile. But the materials and my work can still be of use to the public. It will give you an idea of how hard this work is, as well as telling you a lot about ancient society and writing.

            P.Columbia 408

This is a collection of tax receipts from the village of Hephaistias, Egypt. Less than 20cm x 11cm in size, it contains four tax receipts from at least two different years (149 and 150 AD), each for several taxes, mostly concerning land, being paid at the same time. They are written in two hands: all are by one scribe, probably written in the same year, except one written the previous year by someone else (the writing in the upper right). A quarter of the document is missing: it is torn down the middle of the right column. In places there is further damage, and fading ink, but this papyrus is actually in fairly good condition as far as two-thousand-year-old papyri go. There is some writing on the back, in very faded ink, which I have not yet examined in detail, but it appears to be another tax receipt. All the hands (front and back) are professional, but cursive, small and hurried--the scrawl of a bureaucrat. Most of the key terms are abbreviated or stated with special symbols.

Why are four receipts written on one piece of pressed papyrus? In the Roman Empire it was the responsibility of the taxpayer to provide the writing materials for his own receipts. Poor or frugal taxpayers would use the much cheaper alternative of ostraca--broken bits of pottery, the "post-it notes" of the ancient world. The advantage of this much more expensive option (a sheet of papyrus is estimated by William Harris of Columbia University to have cost the equivalent of $50 in modern reckoning) is that it was more easily stored, and allowed the taxpayer to keep all his receipts in one place.

To see more, follow these links:

1) Larger image of the whole papyrus
2) Blowup of upper left, and translation of fourth receipt
3) Complete transcription and translation with commentary
4) Guide to reading Greek Script