I was somewhat pleasantly surprised by an article which recently appeared at Allvoices concerning, of all things, taxation in Ancient Greece. In particular, as mentioned in that article, the period of the fifth century BC in Athens.
I would like to address eisphora (ει’σϕο
Essentially one could divide this period, as most of my Classics professors did, into the early part of the century which dealt with Themistocles and the defeat of the Persians in 490 BC at the battle of Marathon; and then at Salamis and Platea in 480-479 BC. Of whichis the main historian of note and major, original source.
Those events mostly under the leadership of Themistocles established Athens as both a participatory democracy and as a nascent, dynamic, military and commercial empire. But Athens expanded and truly became even more powerful under Pericles (ca. 472-429, or according to, from 469 till his death in 429 BC).
However most Classical historians of Ancient Greece refer to the entire century as the Age of Pericles or the Periclean period. Moreover, one could reasonably compare Themistocles to FDR and Pericles to JFK. Where the former, rightly or wrongly, has been very much overlooked, while the latter has received all the “good press” and “good ink” throughout the ages. Thucydides is also the major, original source and main historian of record in this period.
Sorry to rain on this article’s parade, but as most Marxist ideologues and propagandists, the author of this article has gotten this one egregiously wrong. As I see it, Rhonda R. Cook, PhD., the author’s source; either failed to explain eisphora adequately, or the author of the article misinterpreted or purposefully misrepresented eisphora and the tenure and nature of the times in order to suit her own ideological purposes. Which I maintain is the bane of our Marxist colleges and universities and the death knell of true scholarship in America today.
Nevertheless, let us examine the word eisphora which literally means “a carrying or bringing into or forward” which eventually came to mean a “contribution.” What the author of her article and her source as well, failed to explain to her audience; is that this contribution was for all intents and purposes, totally voluntary. That’s a very important distinction and factor, and an egregious omission from the article.
There were essentially two ways of collecting this “contribution.” Again, the first was totally voluntary and relied upon the personal and civic honor, integrity and virtue of the upper crust and nobility of Athens. Athenians of substance were simply expected to pledge some of their wealth as a matter of civic virtue and honor; in order to help pay for some public project, no matter whatever it might be. Whether it be of a civic, religious or military nature and character.
These benefactions, these good deeds, consisted of sponsoring and paying either in part or in whole (mostly in part, because the cost of these projects was truly enormous and beyond the capacity of most individuals, even for the very rich): for the religious and philosophic, intellectual and cultural pageantry of the tragedies and comedies; and for the construction of theaters, public buildings, fora and agoras, temples, etc.; and for the building, outfitting and rigging of warships, and for their maintenance and upkeep and for the pay of their sailors and oarsmen.
The middle class were expected to pay for their own hoplite armor which was quite expensive. Which left the poor to man their ships. But for which they were paid more than adequately and which in fact made for more democratic participation in the state - not less. For it was in their vested self-interest to elect archons who would pay them reasonably or more than adequately for their mandatory, military service. One must also understand that military service was required of each and every single male citizen - often for long periods of time. Well, in actuality, for most oh his adult life.
However this sort of expected public and civic largesse created a bit of a dilemma for many Athenians of the upper middle and upper classes who were not as civic minded as others thought they should have been. Simply stated, many of these were quite averse to giving their wealth away to the polis (πóλις), to the city-state, i.e., nation; for various reasons besides just mere personal greed.
But because of their conspicuous affluence and business dealings, many were simply not capable of hiding their wealth and consequently were “easy pickings” for the jealous and envious, and for the collectivist and statist predators amongst them.
As one would expect, this created a cottage industry in hiding wealth; lest they be shamed or forced into parting with their civic share, whether supposedly “fair” or confiscatory. Unfortunately for them, even as clever and as shrewd as the Athenians were, they were nowhere near as sophisticated in this regard as the prosperous and wealthy amongst us are today.
Consequently, in the latter stages of the Peloponnesian War, when the national treasury had all but been depleted and drained; the Athenians resorted to a second method of raising revenues; they essentially instituted a system of confiscatory taxation which was quite totalitarian and fascistic in nature. They in essence resorted to a system of both paid and unpaid informants and sycophantic “busy bodies” to fill their treasury.
The voluntary method of eisphora (of contribution motivated by civic pride, duty and obligation) worked quite well, even deep into the Peloponnesian War; but when the war effort consumed their public treasury, the rapacious appetites of the statists and collectivists simply could not be slaked and so they resorted to the long knives of predatory confiscation and the heavy hand of wealth redistribution.
Now, please allow me dear readers, this one last but extremely significant point, which unfortunately was not at all addressed in the previous article - again, a rather glaring omission. From the period right after the defeat of the Persian invasion, with at first, fits and starts; Athens, through shrewd statecraft and alliances, and through very shrewd and dynamic commercialism, became one of the most powerful and wealthy poleis (πóλει&sig
They were in essence, the America of their day. However unlike America, most of their revenue and wealth, in fact the vast majority of it, came not from petty taxation and the institution of eisphora; but rather was supplied by and derived from tribute paid to them by their vassal, subject allies and from a fortuitous discovery of a massive silver lode on two nearby islands in the Aegean Sea both of which they owned. In essence, a state monopoly which allowed them to coin money - lots and lots of it.
The burning question and all-consuming issue in Periclean Athens, was not how to fund the state with its voracious appetite for civic work-projects and social spending, and of course, above all else, its need to fund its military with the massive spending required to maintain its vast navy - truly the best and mightiest of its day.
No, the main controversy was whether to fund all these government programs in order to sustain their empire; or simply to return all, or at least most of this wealth derived from those massive windfalls - to each and every single citizen - or not.
Well, the former position was championed by Pericles and to cut to the quick and omit all the gory, gruesome details - he won the day. Consequently Athens became the most powerful and wealthiest empire of its day. However it did not last very long, for after Pericles’ death in the second year of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians then managed to squander all their wealth and power - and then some.
(Just as President Obama and the liberal progressives and the leftists are attempting to repeat in America today. The parallels are striking, but that’s subject to another essay entirely different from this.)
In summary, Athens did not fail because its citizens purportedly were not paying enough taxes, i.e., their supposed “fair share.” Athens failed for reasons too numerous, complicated and significant to address herein. Which will have to be subject to another essay.
However, my complaint is with the author of the previous article. Which I maintain, was a rather shallow attempt to hide behind the imprimatur of the expertise of another; in order to justify and promote, her (the author’s) own narrow political and ideological agenda of a rather Marxist nature, tinge and flavor.
I have no truck with her basic right to express her Marxist aspirations and claims per se; but I do with her obvious lack of scholarship and her rather transparent propaganda and spin.
There, I said it. So, if you actually read this article of mine, let the slanders and ad hominem attacks against me - begin. And oh BTW, it has been my experience on the internet, that you really don’t have to read what I have to say in order to slime me - all one need do, is disagree with my opinion. So much so for intellectual freedom, freedom of speech and dissent and reasonable and valid debate on the internet.
Copyright © 2012 by Irvin F. Cohen