Ancient and modern

How ancient Athens made the rich love taxes

They didn’t just buy ships and put on festivals — they competed to do it best

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

18 March 2017

9:00 AM

Now that Philip Hammond is promising yet more tax hikes, he might consider how Athens managed it.

During the whole period of their direct democracy (which ended in 323 BC), the decision-making assembly was dominated by the poor. Their empire made Athens a wealthy place, and the poor ensured that wealth came their way, not that of the rich, in forms such as payment for jury service, rowing the triremes (which kept the empire together) and much more.


Meanwhile, tax was paid only by the rich. The 300 top richest every year paid property taxes to, for example, construct and maintain Athens’ triremes and fund state festivals for public enjoyment. Neither came cheap: to subside the Dionysia (a major drama and song festival), one would be paying for the training of no fewer than 1,165 men and boys for months on end. In the case of war, a tax was levied on the top 6,000. Consequently, Greeks admired those who kept their money intact: it meant the level of state support did not drop.

So what was in it for the very rich? The key is that the 300 did not give their taxes to the state. They provided the required services themselves; and (being Greeks) competed in ensuring they were better than anyone else’s. One boasted of funding 14 public events as well as paying for a trireme ‘which was the best in the fleet’, so good that it was the only one the great Alcibiades would travel on! That may explain why the wealthy tended to boast about what they did for the community (‘I rejoice in performing public services!’ said one rich man). The quid pro quo lay in the gratitude and respect they gained among their own people.

Conclusion: it might be helpful for Hammond to turn his attention to providing incentives to pay more tax. Even more so, ‘trust me’ shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who in 2012 said that the wealthiest 10 per cent in the UK ‘who created the [financial] crisis’ should help clear the deficit with a one-off 20 per cent tax hike, when an IFS study in 2012 showed that £700,000 (a modest home in London) put you in the top 5 per cent.

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