About those claims that only the richest ancient Athenians paid taxes…

A benefit of studying Ancient Greek again and diving into the literature is that when someone comes out with an “ancient Greeks did X/were Y/said Z” type of claim, I can judge whether that claim is bullshit.

One of those claims I occasionally see is “in ancient Athens, only the richest of the rich paid taxes.” Though it’s not bullshit, it requires a lot of qualifications.

I recently stumbled on this article. Since it’s written by a Classics professor, it does a good job of being factually accurate, but boy is the presentation of those facts skewed. It tries to cast the rich people of ancient Athens as having a strong public spirit and willing to share their wealth democratically with progressive taxation, unlike rich people in the United States today who try to avoid/evade taxation. I think this view is…distorted.

For example, the headline is “Only the richest ancient Athenians paid taxes – and they bragged about it” but the first phrase in the article itself is “In ancient Athens, only the very wealthiest people paid direct taxes” (emphasis is mine). That word ‘direct’ is doing a lot of work in that phrase. It’s like turning the phrase ‘only corporations pay corporate taxes in the United States’ into ‘only corporations pay taxes in the United States.’

A few paragraphs into the article we get:

Much of this income came from publicly owned farmland and silver mines that were leased to the highest bidders, but Athens also taxed imports and exports and collected fees from immigrants and prostitutes as well as fines imposed on losers in many court cases. In general, there were no direct taxes on income or wealth.

I don’t know what proportion of the government’s funding came from land/mine leases, import/export duties, and the ‘fees’ from immigrants and prostitutes, and what proportion came from the ‘direct taxes’ paid by rich people. I don’t know if anyone alive today knows the proportions. I recall reading in a book that not enough government financial records from ancient Athens have survived to calculate such things, but maybe that book was wrong or archaeologists have found more financial records since that book was published.

I’d like to point out that immigrants and prostitutes could not vote in ancient Athens. There was no process by which immigrants could become Athenian citizens, and their children could only (maybe) become citizens if their father was an Athenian citizen. I don’t remember whether male prostitutes could keep their citizenship (update: according to <em>Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle</em> by K.J. Dover, yes, any male citizen who had ever done sex work permanently lost citizenship), but all female prostitutes were stripped of citizenship even if they had been born as Athenian citizens (though females citizens couldn’t vote either so it was a moot point as far as voting rights were concerned). These ‘fees’ (which I would simply call ‘taxes’) were imposed on people who had no official voice within the Athenian government.

(One could argue that high-class prostitutes were the most powerful group of women in ancient Athens ~because~ they paid taxes. I agree that high-class prostitutes were the most influential group of women in that place and time, but I attribute that to their freedom of movement among politically powerful men, not their status as taxpayers).

During the coup of the Thirty (a group of rich people who overthrew Athenian democracy in 404 B.C.), did the Thirty fund their new oligarchy by spending their own wealth, or did they kill immigrants so their property could be seized for government use? Here is the answer.

The article misses something huge: the tributes paid by city-states within the Athenian empire. The rationalization was that, because Athens protected these other city-states, they had to fund Athens’ military. I don’t know the exact passage offhand, but if I’m remembering what I’ve read from Thucydides correctly, the tributes were a key source of revenue for the Athenian government.

The article makes it clear that these rich Athenians weren’t just paying taxes, they were directing how those taxes were spent. They were not simply adding money to a public treasury controlled by voting citizens; they were running (or at least had an overwhelming say) in the government projects they were paying for, and getting publicity. And this is something that totally happens in the United States today. Bill Gates has effective control over what the Gates Foundation does, including when the Gates Foundation interacts with public institutions, and it has been a tremendous boost to his reputation. The general hospital in San Francisco, which is owned by the local government was renamed ‘The Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center” after Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan donated $75 million dollars.

In other words, “leitourgiai” allowed the wealthy to concentrate political power into their own hands, which went against the purpose of Athenian democracy: diffusing political power into many hands.

The wealthy people of Athens were generally anti-democracy. They preferred tyranny/aristocracy/oligarchy (run by themselves). There were multiple tyrannical/oligarchic coups (such as the coup of the Thirty which I already mentioned). Plato, one of ancient Athens’ most famous philosophers, was from a wealthy family and anti-democracy. He thought that the rule of the Thirty was so terrible that even democracy was better, but it’s clear that he preferred aristocracy over democracy (I’m not sure if he preferred oligarchy over democracy, since I don’t have that good a grasp on Plato’s political ideas. Maybe one day I’ll read The Republic).

There was some coercion in getting these “leitourgiai” from the rich citizens in ancient Athens, but that is also true of contemporary billionaire philanthropy. Donating to nonprofit foundations reduces the amount of taxes billionaires pay i.e. taxation is a way to coerce billionaires to donate more than they would otherwise.

Another point which the article fails to mention is that, according to ancient Greek religion, the gods, especially Zeus, loved to punish conspicuously wealthy people with various kinds of curses. The problem was not being wealthy, it was being so wealthy that you stood out. Therefore, many wealthy people in ancient Greece (both in and out of Athens) spent a lot of their wealth so that the gods would not perceive them as being the #1 wealthiest person ripe for divine punishment.

I’ve thought about what would happen if the First World were swept up with a religion like that, and how it would change the behavior of the rich. My conclusion is that we would just see more organizations like the Gates Foundation. That would probably be a net improvement for the average person’s material living conditions, but it would not change the balance of power in our political economy. If anything, it would make billionaires even more powerful because they could choose, say, which public health initiatives got funding, even if they lack expertise in public health and are not the people who will be directly impacted.

Does it really matter if people today have an accurate understanding of taxation in ancient Athens? No, it does not. What does matter is understanding how wealth, reputation, taxation, and political-economic power operate today. The reason the “only the wealthiest 1% in Athens paid taxes” meme is so popular is that it is a critique of the 1% wealthiest people and the taxation systems in our world today. But it important to understand the difference between pushing billionaires to set up foundations where they keep control over how the money is spent (and thus keep most of the disproportionate political-economic power of being dramatically wealthier than 99% of people) and a taxation system which takes that political-economic power away from the 1% wealthiest people so that political-economic power can be shared among citizens more equally. It is also important to understand when taxes are regressive, and when they are forced on people without representation in the government. Passing around the “only the wealthiest 1% in Athens paid taxes” meme without critical examination muddies these distinctions.

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