Ancient and modern

The ancient Athenians knew how to soak the rich

21 August 2021

9:00 AM

21 August 2021

9:00 AM

Oxfam is arguing that if all billionaires forked out 99 per cent of their profits made during the Covid pandemic, the whole world could be vaccinated and every unemployed worker given a handy payout. Dream on. The ancient Athenians had rather more intelligent ways of soaking the rich.

They raised annual taxes only for specific, stated ends (‘hypothecation’). These were funded by the 300 richest property-owners. A typical wealth-level was four talents (2,400 drachmas; an average wage was about 350 a year) and around 100 events a year needed to be covered. The tax was called a leitourgia (literally ‘work for the public’) from which we get our ‘liturgy’.


The annual liturgies covered the cost of public entertainment — the tragic and comic festivals, gymnasiums, various games and assorted public dinners, delegations and a religious procession. When Athens was at war (three quarters of the time during the democracy), the liturgists had another, very expensive burden to shoulder: the equipping, maintaining and paying for a trireme and its crew. The richest 6,000 were roped in to fund the rest of the war effort.

For many Athenians, a liturgy was regarded as a great honour: if done well (a fine stage production, a superbly equipped trireme), it served the interests of the liturgist — everything from patriotic display to political self-advancement — as well as those of the city. There are indeed records of Athenians who, though failing to qualify, actually volunteered to carry out a liturgy for the prestige it might bring.

But others tried to avoid it. If A was appointed to carry out the duty but thought B was richer, A could challenge B to a property exchange. If B agreed, property was exchanged and A carried out the duty; if B refused — surely because he knew he really was richer — B carried out the duty.

That is the way to soak the rich: put their money into defined public programmes that allow the state to flourish, and ensure they receive due public acclaim for their generosity. If charities could do it… Oxfam?

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