Ancient Egyptian Economy: Barter, Taxation & Trade

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we discover key parts of the ancient Egyptian economy. This includes its trading practices, tax system, and the measurements it used instead of currency.

Tax Season

Tax season is annoying for everybody; you have to fill out IRS forms with information from other forms the IRS has a copy of, and if they find you made a mistake, you could face a big penalty in the form of compensation fines.

But in ancient Egypt, where the concept of currency was not as evolved as it is today, taxes involved the government coming and taking away your stuff!

This lesson will be all about that process, as well as trade in ancient Egypt. We'll also look at the Egyptian barter system.

Taxes in Ancient Egypt

For most of the history of ancient Egypt, the Egyptians did not have a currency in the same way we have one today. There was, however, still a government, headed by the Pharaoh, that taxed the public. Without a currency, taxes were collected in kind, in the goods produced by regular Egyptians.

This generally happened once a year, in what is referred to by historians as the Cattle Count. Called the Shemsu Hor or Following of Horus, by the Egyptians, the Cattle Count was an annual tour taken by the Pharaoh and his officials to each district to collect taxes. The head of each district was in charge of assessing the property value of each Egyptian in the district, and then charging them with a certain amount of whatever they produced to be paid in taxes.

These resources were stored and used to feed Egypt's population in times of crisis and also traded to amass wealth with which the Pharaohs built their famed temples and pyramids. The cattle count's significance waxed and waned in importance throughout the history of ancient Egypt; weaker rulers often had difficulty commanding taxes from districts, and in some reigns or periods of prolonged weakness, the cattle count ended altogether.

In later periods, such as the New Kingdom, the cattle count was replaced by a system of tax collectors who traveled the land to collect from the districts and transmit taxation back to the central government.

Trade & Currency

Trade was an important part of ancient Egyptian civilization, and without it the Pharaohs would not have been able to acquire the wealth necessary for their expensive building projects. The Egyptians were expert agriculturalists, and in most years they produced far more grain than they could consume or even store. This made trade of that excess grain possible.

Without a currency, trade within Egypt and with other states was done via the barter system. Rather than buying goods from other countries, like nations around the world do today, trade was, quite literally trade.

Egypt might trade 1000 bushels of grain for 500 yards of wood, but they wouldn't pay for wood with currency. While Egyptians did not use currency, they did use a unit of measure that made trading easier. This was the deben.

Literally a small token of copper, the deben was used as a measurement to facilitate trade of different items. For example, if a deben was considered to be worth 100 bushels of grain, then those 100 bushels of grain could be traded for anything else that was also considered to be worth one deben.

A small weight equal to five deben

Though this sounds kind of like the deben was currency, it was not. Debens themselves could not be exchanged, and were intrinsically worthless. An Egyptian couldn't, for example, buy 300 bushels of grain just because they happened to have three debens lying around; they had to have another amount of another good that was considered to worth three debens.

This system persisted throughout much of ancient Egyptian history. A currency system like the one we use today was only adopted in Egypt after the Persian invasion in the 6th century B.C.E.

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