The Rosetta Stone is mostly just a tax document: The Rosetta Stone is the most important Egyptian archaeological discovery of all time. It was first unearthed by Napoleon’s officers near the northern Egyptian town of Rosetta in 1799, and seized shortly after by British troops when they defeated the Napoleon in 1801. A year later it was moved to the British Museum in London, where it has been on display ever since.
The Rosetta Stone is a slab of black basalt inscribed in three languages: hieroglyphics at the top, demotic (a lost Ancient Egyptian script) in the center, and Greek at the bottom.
The familiar Greek writing gave archeologists the ability to translate the other two mysterious languages, and helped to unlock the mystery of Ancient Egyptian artifacts and culture. But, what does the Rosetta Stone actually say?
It must say something really significant, like the meaning of life, right?
No, actually, like most surviving ancient documents, a lot of what is written on the Rosetta Stone is about taxation.
Here’s more about why the Rosetta Stone was created, and why Egyptian scribes took considerable time to write an important message on a number of huge stones.
The Rosetta Stone Was Mostly About Taxes
Recently Donald Trump has gotten a lot of support (or at least attention) for his well-publicized tax cuts. Well, that’s kind of what Egypt’s king, Ptolemy V, was going for over 2000 years ago.
You see, back when the Rosetta Stone was inscribed in 200 B.C., Egypt was mired in a decade-long civil war. The war started when Egyptian soldiers returned from a long military campaign in the east and found Egypt plagued with new taxes. The soldiers would have none of these taxes, and revolted, starting an ugly civil war.
In a desperate attempt to end the in-fighting, the boy king Ptolemy V issued a “Proclamation of Peace.” The most significant part of it was general amnesty for the rebels including freedom for tax debtors who had filled Egypt’s prisons. Tax debts were forgiven, and fugitives were invited to return to Egypt to reclaim their confiscated property.
Another important provision was that their would once again be tax amnesty for the temples, as in the earlier days of the pharaohs. This meant that priests would pay no taxes including on their crops, vineyards, and land.
The proclamation was basically Ptolemy capitulating to the masses; especially the wealthy priests, who now stood to benefit immensely from the tax cuts. You could think of it as his, “Make Egypt Great Again“ campaign. (What about trickle-down economics?)
“Let this decree be copied… And let it be inscribed upon a tablet of stone in the writing of the hieroglyphics, and in the writing of books (Demotic), and in the writing of the Greeks….”
Oh, and Ptolemy also declared himself a god in the Proclamation of Peace, and ordered that his statue be worshipped three times a day in all the temples of Egypt. (more)
So… I guess it was a little bit about him, too!
Rosetta Stone Translation: “I’m a God… You’re Welcome for the Tax Cuts!”
After the Proclamation of Peace, a number of Rosetta Stones were carved to thank the king for the tax immunity to be placed at the entrance of every temple. Here’s a translation of what the Rosetta Stone says:
“Whereas king Ptolemy… has been a benefactor both to the temples and to those who dwell in them, as well as all those who are his subjects, being a god sprung from a god and goddess… has dedicated to the temples revenues in money and corn and has undertaken much outlay to bring Egypt into prosperity, and to establish the temples, and has been generous with all his own means; and of the revenues and taxes levied in Egypt some he has wholly remitted and others he has lightened, in order that the people and all the others might be in prosperity during his reign
and whereas he has remitted the (tax) debts to the crown being many in number which they in Egypt and in the rest of the kingdom owed…
and whereas he has directed that the gods shall continue to enjoy the revenues of the temples and the yearly allowances given to them, both of corn and money, likewise also the tax revenue assigned to the gods from vine land and from gardens and the other properties which belonged to the gods in his father’s time;
and whereas he directed also, with regard to the priests, that they should pay no more as the tax for admission to the priesthood than what was appointed them throughout his father’s reign and until the first year of his own reign, blah, blah, blah.” full translation
Basically, much of the Rosetta Stone translates to, “I’m a god, and you’re welcome for the tax cuts!” Hmmm… sound familiar?
Temples Displayed a “Rosetta Stone” to Ward Off Tax Collectors
Egyptian temples were asked to display a statue of Ptolemy V along with one of the Rosetta Stones at their entrance. Each temple also placed a sign above their entrance that read, “No Entrance to Those (tax men) Who Have No Business In the Temple.” The Rosetta Stones served to resound this “no trespassing” warning to tax collectors by displaying a proclamation of the king’s tax cuts… in three languages, and in stone!
So, anyone who came to the entrance of a temple trying to collect taxes would be greeted by a “no trespassing” sign, a statue of Ptolemy V, and a large Rosetta stone thanking the king for tax immunity.
It seems that even the most ambitious agents of ancient Egypt’s IRS must have been deterred from trying to collect taxes at a temple!
The Rosetta Stone Was Part of an Ancient Public Relations Campaign
The Rosetta Stone would go on to be the most significant artifact of ancient Egypt, finally enabling archaeologists to translate their mysterious lost languages.
The success of Ptolemy V’s tax cuts, outlined on the Rosetta Stone, have no doubt inspired politicians throughout history to promise tax relief in an effort to appease their angry and defrauded public. Hey, it usually works!
That is, until greed and taxes increase again, turmoil ensues, and the cycle repeats!
Related: Did you know the Civil War was fought over taxes? (Not slavery)