Taxation in Classical Athens

Classical Athens is famous for its oratory, architecture, democracy and philosophy, but how was this financed? This question was addressed by Peter Fawcett in a fascinating illustrated talk which covered not only the taxes themselves but also tax administration and tax policy. What Peter revealed was a sophisticated tax structure, with a number of elements that are familiar to us today, including evidence of an early tax treaty between Athens and the Crimea.

Taxes were levied in Athens on wealth, imports and exports, silver, foreigners (often foreign grain merchants trading in the Agora) and there were also local and religious taxes. Peter explained how these taxes fitted into the aims of a modern tax system, with the wealth taxes raising revenue and redistributing income and wealth, whilst import and export taxes helped to stabilise economic activities. In modern terms, Athens was effectively a tax state, raising taxes to pay for public expenditure, although as there is some evidence of state borrowing, features of a fiscal state were also present.

The evidence for Athenian taxes is found in the literature (for example Aristotle, and Thucydides) and also in inscriptions, some of which were used by Peter to illustrate his talk. Most notable was a stele detailing the Grain Tax Law of 374BC, which was found covering the Great Drain in the Agora. It sets out, in 61 lines, the purpose of the tax along with administrative provisions; Peter pointed out that although sophisticated tax legislation it suffers from the age old problem of vague drafting!

This is an area of ongoing study as further archaeological excavations, particularly around the Great Drain, may yield details of more taxes. Peter gave us an insight into the fiscal system of Athens and, I am sure, whetted our appetite for more.

Caroline Turnbull-Hall

October 2014