Peter Jones

Ancient and Modern: A tax on luxury

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The Chancellor is desperate to get more cash into his wallet. Why not try the old trick — a tax on luxuries, or rather, an even greater tax on luxuries? True, it might not bring in much, but it plays well with the voters. Suppressing luxury was always a big hit in the ancient world.

In 115 bc the Roman consul Scaurus fixed his beady eye on the yummy dormouse and, at a stroke of his pen, passed a sumptuary law banning them, together with shellfish and imported birds, from the menu at banquets. Not that there had been any campaigns to save them. The ancients had been doing this sort of thing for a long time.

The Greeks’ earliest law-code (7th-century bc) legislated against women wearing gold and silk unless they were getting married, Rome’s against expensive funeral arrangements. In 184 bc, the stern Cato the Elder (‘Carthage must be destroyed’), as well as inveighing against pickled fish from the Black Sea, legislated that jewels and women’s dresses above a certain value be assessed for tax purposes at ten times their value, and then raised the tax on them by 300 per cent.

Clothing, with banquets, seemed to be the major preoccupations. If males over-dressed, they could be thought to have become feminised, or at best, easternised. Offices, triumphs, priesthoods, spoils of war — that was their business. Women were different. Love of luxury and especially over-dressing could be seen as signs of vice, but at the same time it could be argued that ‘elegance of appearance, jewellery, clothes, these are badges of honour for women; in these they rejoice and pride themselves’. In other words, separate worlds had separate signs of distinction, but in women’s case, ambiguous ones.

Romans thought greedy love of luxury caused the downfall of the Roman Republic. These days, we are told it generates ‘social divisiveness’. Well, if the Chancellor cannot stop it or its display, he can at least look ‘tough’ and tax its products. This is the age of austerity, and he must ensure the rich are perceived to share in it, right down to the last dormouse.

A self-indulgent howl of anguish, if you prefer it.