Peter Jones

Ancient and modern: Imperial tax brackets

Imperial tax brackets

Nick Clegg’s idea of taxing tycoons sounds very ‘modernising’, but tycoons need a pro quo for their quids, sorry, quae, as the Roman historian Livy knew.

For Romans, there was no such thing as a tax on income. Bar money raised from e.g. harbour dues, sales and inheritance taxes, the Senate got its money from the proceeds of empire. So Romans did not pay tax: they got others to pay it for them. (Come on, Ed. It’s a winner.)

Before the Romans gained an empire, however, the Senate taxed to pay for the army. This system divided citizens into seven classes (whence our ‘class’) by wealth. The top group, the equites, were the richest men in society. They were liable for the most tax. Then came five numbered classes, from first classis to fifth. Finally, there was an unnumbered group, the proletarii, with no wealth at all, only children (Latin proles, ‘child’). Regular censuses took place to determine your classis, with severe punishment for evasion.

This system baffled Livy: why were the rich willing to pay tax as a proportion of their wealth and therefore vastly more than anyone else? He found the answer in the same classis-based voting system for passing Senate legislation. This was collegiate, and the wealthiest two classes commanded 98 of the votes, while all the rest put together — the vast majority of the citizens — had only 95!

In other words, the return for the rich was effectively total control over the conduct of affairs on which the state spent their money. ‘No taxation without representation’, we say. Livy might emend that to ‘No more than anyone else’s taxation without more representation’.

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