April 15 is fast approaching. Federal and state income tax returns will soon be due, though some are pushing for a delay due to COVID related difficulties.

Tax season can be stressful. With the help of a popular software program, I compile and file our tax returns each year, and it’s always a great relief when they are done. Thankfully, I managed to complete the task this past weekend, so I can breathe easier.

At tax time, our W-2 forms remind us how different our salaries and our “take home pay” can be.

When paid by direct deposit, we no longer get physical checks with itemized pay stubs. To know what’s coming out, we need to be savvy enough to go online, find the correct website, remember how to log in, then work through the menus to find our “pay advice” with the breakdown.

It’s not just three or four tax items, either. Insurance payments, retirement deferrals, and other expenses can reduce our stated salary by as much as half or more.

If you think that’s bad, though, consider the case of one Gaius Messius, a native of Beirut who served in the Roman army during the siege of Masada, probably between 73 and 74 CE.

A view from Masada, overlooking the valley floor and the Dead Sea below. (Credit Tony W. Cartledge)

Masada was a desert fortress on the southwest coast of the Dead Sea. It was built by Herod the Great as a potential redoubt, though he never used it. After Jewish rebels took over Jerusalem in 66 CE, a group known as the Sicarii also overpowered the Roman garrison at Masada and took command of the fortress.

The Romans responded with overwhelming force. By 70 CE, they had retaken Jerusalem, destroying much of the city, leveling the temple, and evicting all Jews from Jerusalem.

Some Jews fled to Masada and joined those who were holed up there. They proved difficult to dislodge; less than a thousand Jews held out against the Roman army for several years. Finally, the Tenth Roman Legion was sent to lay siege to Masada, building a series of camps around the steep mountain fortress.

The remains of a Roman army camp, viewed from the fortress of Masada. (Credit: Tony W. Cartledge)

One of those soldiers, apparently, was Gaius Messius, and, at some point, he lost track of one of his military pay slips. Given what it revealed, he may have decided to just throw the sheet of papyrus away.

According to a translation at the “Database of Military Inscriptions and Papyri of Early Roman Palestine,” Gaius Messius acknowledged receipt of a stipend of 50 denarii for an unstated period.

The pay slip acknowledged deductions of 16 denarii for “barley money” (probably beer), 20 denarii for food, five denarii for boots and two for leather straps, plus another seven denarii for a linen tunic.

If you’ve been doing the math, that’s 50 denarii. Gaius Messius was fighting for free.

The document included a second period in which his total pay was 62 denarii, from which similar deductions for “barley money,” food, and clothes were taken, though the papyrus is fragmentary and the remainder is lost, so we don’t know if he actually pocketed a few denarii from that one.

Poor Gaius Messius was likely at the bottom of the pay scale: higher ranking military officials fared much better.

Recent excavations in Turkey, in an ancient Greek city known as Aizanoi, turned up a large cache of coins thought to have been squirreled away by a high-ranking Roman soldier sometime between 27 BCE and 4 CE.

The stash was packed in a jug and buried near a river, covered by three protective terra cotta plates.

When archaeologists examined and cleaned the coins, they found 439 Roman denarii and 212 cistophori, silver coins minted in the old Greek city of Pergamum, now part of Turkey (you can see a nice picture of them here).

The coins featured a variety of Roman emperors and politicians, with different scenes on the reverse, as if the owner had been collecting them for their appearance as well as their value.

We have no way of knowing for sure who owned the treasure trove, or how long it took to accumulate it after whatever deductions came from the owner’s paycheck.

The one thing we can be sure of, after two millennia, is that he never got to spend it.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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