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May 30, 2024 9 mins

Let's go back in time for a pair of curious tales. Enjoy the tour!

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild.

Speaker 2 (00:12):
Our world is full of the unexplainable, and if history
is an open book, all of these amazing tales are
right there on display, just waiting for us to explore.
Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities. Let's talk taxes now.

Of course, you note the gist right. The government collects
taxes so that it can provide services to its citizens.
That's the idea, at least, But we all know that
it's not that simple. Taxes cause a lot of disgruntlement.
People can't agree on what tax money should go toward.
What they can agree that filing taxes is a pain.
And we also know that the founding of the United
States had a lot to do with tax But what

about before all of this, how did the concept of
taxation even come about? Well, as with most topics we
discuss on this show, we've got to go back to
ancient Egypt. Taxation in Egypt was as ingrained in the
fabric of society as the Nile itself, shaping the course
of its civilization. At the heart of Egypt's tax system
was a levee on goods and services, in which officials

collected dues in the form of grain, textiles, cattle, or labor.
The amount someone owed was tied to their agricultural output.
Successful harvests were subjected to higher percentages. In other words,
a person's wealth determined their tax burden, just like today now,
this harvest based tax served as a vital revenue stream.
A portion of each harvest went to state granaries or

storage centers. And yet the Egyptian state demanded more than
just goods. It required labor too, which further bolstered the
state's resources.

Speaker 1 (01:55):
Some citizens might be required to do field work, quarrying,
or construction. The evolution of tax collection methods mirrored the
nation's governance structure too. Initially, during the Old Kingdom, taxes
were levied on communities collectively, and as the government became
more centralized, the pharaoh assumed a more direct role. He
would tour the kingdom to collect taxes himself and insure

accurate reporting. And then with the Middle Kingdom came a
shift to individual taxation. This period marked a departure from
those royal tours, replaced by bureaucratic oversights. This was caused
by a rise in literacy. As people's ability to read
and write increased, the government began employing scribes who meticulously
recorded tax obligations. Now, the zenith of Egypt's tax system

coincided with the new kingdom. At this point, tax collectors
and scribes shrewdly managed the royal treasury. In fact, we
know this today because the new kingdom also ushered in
a wealth of record keeping. But what's more important to
this story is the fact that taxes levied during this
era funded grandiose monuments and celebrations showcasing the way, health
and power of the Pharaohs. And for that reason, it's

no surprise that alongside these advancements arose familiar pitfalls of governance,
tax fraud, tax evasion, and corruption. Scribes and local officials
colluded to under report taxes. Meanwhile, taxpayers devised inventive methods
to avoid payment. State officials used scales to collect grain
from farmers, so some farmers would add small stones to

their grain to tamper with its weight. Outside forces further
complicated matters. Persian and Macedonian occupiers introduced metal coinage, then
imposed taxes on them, and this sparked discontent among the
native population. Complaints about corruption and unfair taxation fueled rebellions
against Macedonian rule. In particular, in a bid to placate

influential groups such as high priests, Macedonian king Ptolemy the
Fifth exempted certain temples from taxation. As a result, these
temples became lucrative enterprises. But this only made things worse.
But here's the truly wild part. You see, the dubious
nature of this ancient tax system goes back to the
start of our story. It was influenced by a force

more powerful than any pharaoh or king. Because the true
roots of Egypt's taxation can be traced back to the
Nile River itself, where mechanisms known as nilometers were used
to gauge flood levels, which in turn signaled the success
or failure of the harvests. Nilometers were massive columns with
marked lines chiseled all up and down it. They were

surrounded by sprawling staircases so that rulers could identify water levels,
which they used to predict harvest conditions. If the water
rose above a certain point, that indicated flooding, If it
was below a certain point that meant drought. Studying ancient
civilizations always reveals enduring patterns. The world might have evolved
and grown, but some things never go away. The tax

man cometh, he always has and he always will. Everyone
has to start somewhere. Before he was Han Solo, Harrison

Ford was a carpenter working on film sets. Katy Perry
was a gospel singer before she ever recorded a pop album.
It may feel like some artists were born to do
what they do, but the truth is it often takes
a lot of trial and error before someone gets their
big break. And on top of that, many artists draw
from their experience working odd jobs before fame, and in

the case of Piero, being a jack of all trades
kind of became his calling card. From his earliest days,
Piero learned that he had to make his own opportunities.
He was born in fourteen fifty two, the product of
an affair between his father, a wealthy notary, and his mother,
a poor woman from town. Although his father took him
in to raise him, he wasn't treated the same as

other sons of nobles in Tuscany. They were tutored in
Greek and Latin and read the Great thinkers of the
ancient world and learned complex equations. Piero was lucky to
learn to read and do basic math. He was a
smart kid, though, with a talent for fine arts and figures,
but he quickly saw that without the resources other wealthy
boys had, he to have to think outside the box

if he wanted to get by. So by the age
of fourteen in fourteen sixty six, Piero had become an
artist's apprentice. This gave him the opportunity to learn many skills,
from painting and sculpting to carpentry and metal work. Over
the years, he used those skills to fully embrace the
Renaissance system of patrons and commissions. It was a medieval
gig economy, and Piero was king of the side hustles.

Like many aspiring artists, Piero got a job at a
restaurant to make ends meet. In fourteen seventy two, at
the age of twenty, he worked at a tavern called
the Three Snails. His time in the kitchen inspired him
to sketch fantastical kitchen gadgets, from giant whisks to a
horsepowered nutcracker, and later on, when he redid the kitchen, menu.

It was something out of a modern fine dining dream,
with delicate card figures made of polenta and fresh vegetables.
But the patrons at these Three Snails weren't exactly the
Michelin Star type. They wanted big, hearty meals, not delicate portions,
and soon the Three Snails went under. Piero continued with
his art career into his twenties, painting things like an

altar for a chapel or frescoes for a church, but
his brain was always buzzing for new side hustles. Instead
of painting what he'd been commissioned for, he kept spending
time designing fantastical inventions and architecture. He would make engineering
sketches of war machines, which he sold to the many
powerful city states that made up Italy. He was so

into his passion projects that he often had trouble focusing
on one project at a time. That altar and fresco
he never finished them. Rather than doing his actual job,
he was building up yet another side business, master of
feasts and banquets for Milan, and here Piero let his
talent for extravagance really shine. One wedding he planned involved

a humongous diorama of the planets, in the middle of
which stood the happy couple. As the bride and groom
walked by, each planet opened to reveal an actor dressed
as the planet's namesake, delivering a poem. Other events didn't
go so swimmingly, though. In one Piero created a two
hundred foot long edible altar made of cake and polenta.
On the morning of the wedding, he discovered that rats

had already had their own wedding feast. Over the years,
Piero wore a lot of hats. When he wasn't planning
weddings and running restaurants into the ground, he was cutting
up cadavers to study anatomy I hope he washed his
hands in between, though, He designed machines far ahead of
their time, and he even found time to finish a
painting or two. One of them took direct inspiration from

his time as a wedding planner. For example, when he
was asked to paint a scene of Jesus and his
disciples during their final passover Satyr, he remembered a reception
that he had planned for the Duke of Milan back
then to make guests feel like equals. He had put
out one incredibly long table with all of the guests
seated on the same side, and so he decided to

do the same with this painting. Today you can see
the products of his brilliant, scattered mind in some of
the finest art institutions in the world. Just be sure
to look under his full name, Leonardo di ser Piero
da Vinci. I hope you've enjoyed today's guided tour of

the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts,
or learn more about the show by visiting Curiosities podcast
dot com. The show was created by me Aaron Mankey
in partnership with how Stuff Works. I make another award
winning show called Lore, which is a podcast, book series,
and television show, and you can learn all about it

over at the Worldolore dot com. And until next time,
stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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