In this video, YouTube: Did Ancient Romans Use Tattoos? @ 4:35, the presenter mentions a "Taxes Paid" tattoo. I understand it's just YouTube but I believe this creator doesn't typically fabricate such things. If this is accurate, would the Latin simply be "Tributa Solvita"?

I believe abbreviations were common, so is there a way to infer how this phrase would be abbreviated or if it would be written in full?

Lastly, are there any remains of these utilitarian tattoos for visual reference?

I know this is an odd question but I appreciate any confirmation and insight that are available!

  • 4
    YouTube is notorious for fabricated material. Why should you believe this presenter?
    – Jos
    Oct 28, 2021 at 23:58
  • 14
    I shouldn't, thus I come here(: Oct 29, 2021 at 0:07
  • 5
    @jamesqf All you need for a tattoo is something pointy and some ink. You seem to be implying that modern equipment would bring the price down, rather than increasing the price in exchange for making tattoos easier, faster, and safer to apply.
    – chepner
    Oct 29, 2021 at 11:55
  • 3
    So you're saying modern context makes you think it's implausible that tax compliance was a burdensome hassle for someone running a business....?
    – Affe
    Oct 29, 2021 at 18:28
  • 3
    @jamesqf Romans had more free time than you might think, and often more slaves than they really knew what to do with them. (The number of slaves you owned was a status symbol, regardless of how many slaves you actually needed.)
    – chepner
    Oct 29, 2021 at 20:55

1 Answer 1


Apparently yes, that is one possible way of reading one surviving inscription. But it is not so clear cut easy.

This is evidenced by one find, a rather isolated appearance from Ephesos:

often interpreted as 'all slaves sold into the province of Asia had to be tattooed "tax paid" by the tax farmers.' As shown on

This tax/toll/customs law is found on one inscription detailing customs laws dating from the 1st century.

  • Helmut Engelmann & Dieter Knibbe: "Das Monumentum Ephesenum. Ein Vorbericht", EA 8, 1986, (p19–32) – Das Zollgesetz der Provinz Asia. Eine neue Inschrift aus Ephesos. EA 14, (p151) 1989. Epigraphica Anatolica

The inscription seems to be not in Latin but in Greek and sorted under "SEG 61-892. Ephesos. Customs law of Asia, 62 A.D. SEG XXXIX 1180; LVIII 1304" lex portorii Asiae (doi)

The relevant passage reads:

enter image description here

This text:

τῆι ϲφραγεῖδι ϲφραγίζειν

While not overly explicit, it seems to refer to 'the symbol/(security)seal of the tax farmers' — which then in effect would mean 'tax paid', but not directly state it?

Further, this is assumed by many scholars to be may very well be a tattoo. Or a branding, as Engelmann and Knibbe describe it. Or for sheer reason of practicality — imagine just the looks of slaves after multiple re-sellings — an iron ring around the head/neck, perhaps with a lead seal, as Schäfer argues, because the word sphragis might indicate something like a seal more than a tattoo, which would more likely be a stigma (ϲτίγμα):

  • Christoph Schäfer: "Zur Sphragis von Sklaven in der Lex Portorii Provinciae Asiae", ZPE, Band 85, 1991, p193–198. (link, screenshot from there, p193.)

Further discussion on this general theme:

  • Deborah Kamen: "A Corpus of Inscriptions: Representing Slave Marks in Antiquity", Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome Vol. 55, 2010, pp95–110. (jstor)
  • C. P. Jones: "Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity", The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 77, 1987, pp139–155 . (jstor)

This new find from the 1980s was edited in a rather recent book, with an English translation, which now reads:

enter image description here

ll. 117–122, §51–52. ad 5 117 The same (consuls) added: whoever imports a new male or female slave into the province of Asia, or exports him or her, is to register (him or her) with [the publicanus or] his [procurator,] with the person whose name is clearly displayed on the customs-office, in whatever places the publicanus has [a building for the sake of] exaction of telos, and he is to export or import this slave branded with the brand of the socii; if [neither the publicanus nor] the procurator is in the customs-office, then he is to register (the slave) in the nearest city, with the person who holds the highest office.

The editors explain:

117–20, §51 þ 120–2, §52 Second and third supplements made by the consuls of ad 5: Duty on untrained slaves.
See Jones 1987 and compare 50. The Wrst of the supplements, which are closely linked in their subject matter, focuses, for the special case of the nouicii serui (see Plaut. Capt. 718), on the basic regulation which in 75 BC already belonged to the core of the lex portorii (40–2, §16), that only the publicanus or his business manager was authorized to receive a customs declaration and that only the σφαγις of the societas established top-grade immunity. (Schäfer 1991 has shown it to be probable that this σφραγις meant not a brand or tattoo, but a neckband bearing a lead seal or something similar.) Only if the customs officer was away might and should the holder of the supreme magistracy in the neighbouring town (who at that time as a rule would not be a Roman citizen) legitimately take on this function as a substitute. The problem that prompted the supplement appears here to have lain in the fact that the basic rate of duty for nouicii serui was not in dispute, in contrast to the ueterani who had already been a longer time in the possession of their itinerant masters. (Marcian in Dig. 39. 4. 16. 3 makes the distinction between the two categories of slave through service in slavery in the city for one year, anno continuo in urbe; the question of its transference to the customs law of Asia can only be posed.) The opposite view resurfaces during the Severan age in Marcian’s opinion. According to this, undeclared introduction leads to sequestration in the case of nouicia mancipia, not however in that of ueterana. For Marcian the liability to customs depended probably on the utilization of the new slaves as uenalia siue usualia (see with reference to scholarly discus- sion Klingenberg 1977, 65–70, where the ruling of ad 5 obviously has no role to play). The δοῦλα σώματα whom the itinerants brought with them οἴκοθεν must be assigned to the category of these ueterani whose exemption from customs dues already belonged to the core of the lex portorii of 75 BC (62, 76, §§25 and 33). Apparently not all travellers were granted these exemptions, but only state transport agents in the Wrst place and publicani in the second.

— Michel Cottier & Mireille Corbier (eds): "The Customs Law of Asia", Oxford Studies in Ancient Documents, Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2008.

Illustrations 11 & 12 on p64–65 show the state this is in, damaged:

enter image description here enter image description here

  • 1
    Thank you!! Are you able to see what was specifically tattooed? I'm not very familiar with navigating such databases and I don't know German. Oct 29, 2021 at 0:04
  • 1
    I appreciate your search!! Oct 29, 2021 at 0:10
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    @MattWatson Bit doubtful. Perhaps, but for that, I'll have to dig deeper… ;) (If, I wouldn't be that surprised if they used either a pic/'icon' or indeed a letter sequence) Oct 29, 2021 at 2:32
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    @nick012000 No. Already pre-historic Ötzi was tattooed, and the Roman army came to tattoo even their soldiers (the Jones article above is quite comprehensive on Roman tattooing). Seems that the word tattoo got mixed up in common parlance after Cook's return and mainly soldiers had them at the time (speculative, but plausible etymology?). Oct 29, 2021 at 12:18
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    @MattWatson No prob. // It's certainly unknown to me (atm) (as stated above, may have been actual for a time & place, but evidence is scarce all around). What I do look into now is 'how did (any) publicani markings look like' (whether as tattoo, branding or 'stamp', seal…). May take a while now, but I'll ping… Oct 29, 2021 at 19:39

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