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Ancient and modern

Ancient & Modern

We recently contrasted the Greek soldier Xenophon’s enthusiasm for encouraging more rich foreigners to settle in Athens (to help out the finances) with our own rather mealy-mouthed attitudes.

9 December 2009

12:00 PM

9 December 2009

12:00 PM

We recently contrasted the Greek soldier Xenophon’s enthusiasm for encouraging more rich foreigners to settle in Athens (to help out the finances) with our own rather mealy-mouthed attitudes.

We recently contrasted the Greek soldier Xenophon’s enthusiasm for encouraging more rich foreigners to settle in Athens (to help out the finances) with our own rather mealy-mouthed attitudes. But a work attributed (wrongly) to Aristotle illustrates that the Greeks were not generally short of scams to boost a state’s coffers.

Most of these are (legally) played by our government already. Thus, if your house has a patio with a nice view, you can expect to pay more council tax. Hippias of Athens likewise boosted the coffers by demanding that upper stories of houses that projected over the street be offered for sale. The owners promptly bought them up, making him a tidy sum. If you play the National Lottery, government will grab some of that money for its own projects. So did Mausolus, who told the citizens that the Persians were about to attack and would they please help him build a defensive wall? When they did, he announced that, ah, the god did not permit a wall to be built at that particular time, but thanks anyway.


But three strike me as especially worth policy wonks’ notice. One is the ‘blackmail’. Philoxenus, the governor of Caria (southern Turkey), was in need of funds, so proclaimed that he was going to put on a drama festival in honour of the god Dionysus, and would the richest citizens kindly stump up. When many of them refused, Philoxenus privately asked how much they would be willing to pay to avoid the burden. Far more, they said, than the actual cost, to avoid all the hassle. Philoxenus duly pocketed the proceeds, and tried it again on the second tier of the wealthy. Same result. Soon he had all the funds he needed.

The second is the ‘gull’, played by one Charidemus. He passed a law imposing a stiff fine on anyone keeping arms at home — and intentionally did nothing to impose it. So people, lured into a false sense of security, ignored it, and slowly the weapons piled up again. When he calculated that enough homes had weapons to make him a tidy sum, he pounced and exacted the penalty.

The last is the ‘debt transfer’. In Chios, all debts had to be publicly registered. Being in need of funds, the people demanded the debts be paid not to the creditor but to the state; the creditor’s interest would be met by the state until the economy recovered. Bingo!

You read them here first.


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