Civilisations of every era have recognised the need to collect information on their most valuable asset - their people. While the modern population census began to evolve only in the 17th century, before that time inventories of people or taxpayers were made. The methods and purposes of these inventories were very different from modern ones.
The Babylonians and the Chinese held censuses mainly for military and taxation purposes (i.e. identifying who should be inducted into military service and those who should be taxed). The Egyptians collected information on the population so that they could plan armies of people to build their giant pyramids and to redistribute land following the annual flooding of the Nile. These inventories were highly inaccurate as it was generally not in an individuals best interest to provide correct information. Additionally only people falling into particular categories such as family heads were counted, thereby resulting in a non-representative sample of the population.
The Greeks and Romans held censuses of population many years before the birth of Christ. The Romans enumerated their citizens and property every five years to determine their liabilities. Initially this was conducted only in Rome but was extended to the entire Roman Empire in 5 BC. It was the five-yearly census ordered by Caesar Augustus which required every man in the Roman Empire to return to his place of origin, thus ensuring that Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.
Upon the collapse of the Roman Empire the practice was discontinued in the West until the 17th century with the exception of the completion of the Domesday Book. This detailed inventory of land and property was completed in 1086 in the British Isles when William the Conqueror ordered its production as a method for acquainting him with the landowners and holdings of his new domain. It was a massive undertaking at the time and took several years to complete.
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