“On Tax Day, Render to Caesar….”

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Today is one of my favorite holidays—Rubber Eraser Day. But that celebration tends to be overshadowed by the dreaded deadline on April 15.

In honor of tax day, I invited the Smithsonian's numismatics experts, who study coin history, to share a little ancient tax lore. Smithsonian expert Karen Lee referred me to a rare item in the collection that dates back to times biblical.

Variations of the Roman denari were known as a tribute penny, used to pay taxes to the emperor from 211 B.C. to around 275 A.D. They were even customized for each rulers' likeness. For example, the inscription on the denarius (left) in the Smithsonian collection reads, "Ti Caesar Divi Avg F Avgvstvs" or "Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus" and it features the portrait of Emperor Tiberius, who ruled between AD 14 to 37.

Lee pointed me to a Bible story from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus Christ was asked about paying taxes to the Romans. The coin in the biblical account was the Roman denarius picturing Tiberius.

  • Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it.
  • And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar's. And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mark 12:15-17)

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