Saturday, July 7, 2012

30th June 2012

The Chancellor is desperate to get more cash into his wallet. Why not try the old trick - a tax on luxuries, or rather, an even greater tax on luxuries? True, it might not bring in much, but it plays well with the voters. Suppressing luxury was always a big hit in the ancient world.

In 115 BC the Roman consul Scaurus fixed his beady eye on the yummy dormouse and, at a stroke of his pen, passed a sumptuary law banning them, together with shellfish and imported birds, from the menu at banquets. Not that there had been any campaigns to save them. The ancients had been doing this sort of thing for a long time.

The Greeks’ earliest law-code (7th C BC) legislated against women wearing gold and silk unless they were getting married, Rome’s against expensive funeral arrangements. In 184 BC, the stern Cato the Elder (‘Carthage must be destroyed’), as well as inveighing against pickled fish from the Black Sea, legislated that jewels and women’s dresses above a certain value be assessed for tax purposes at ten times their value, and then raised the tax on them by 300%.

Clothing, with banquets, seemed to be the major preoccupations. If males over-dressed, they could be thought to have become feminised, or at best, easternised. Offices, triumphs, priesthoods, spoils of war – that was their business. Women were different. Love of luxury and especially over-dressing could be seen as signs of vice, but at the same time it could be argued that ‘elegance of appearance, jewellery, clothes, these are badges of honour for women; in these they rejoice and pride themselves’. In other words, separate worlds had separate signs of distinction, but in women’s case, ambiguous ones.

Romans thought greedy love of luxury caused the downfall of the Roman Republic. These days, we are told it generates ‘social divisiveness’. Well, if the Chancellor cannot stop it or its display, he can at least look ‘tough’ and tax its products. This is the age of austerity, and he must ensure the rich are perceived to share in it, right down to the last dormouse.

23rd June 2012

During the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations, every Polly in the world chanted dispraise of Her Majesty, who is personally responsible (one claimed) for Trident, public schools, income difference, lack of job opportunities and tax havens. What they want is a Republic.

The Republic was invented in 509 BC (traditional date) by the Romans to replace a tyrant king, who ‘ruled neither by decree of the people nor authority of the Senate, had no right to the throne bar force ... instilled fear by executing, exiling, and confiscating the property of, many ... and governed the state through a private circle of advisers’. The parallel with the power of Her Majesty is obvious.

‘Republic’ is formed from two Latin words, res meaning ‘property, wealth, affair, interests, business, situation’; and publica meaning ‘of or belonging to the people corporately, official, universal, public’. So to a Roman, res publica carried with it meanings associated with affairs of state, the body politic, the public good, a state in which all citizens participated.

Romans expressed it another way. SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘Senate and Roman People’, was the acronym displayed on army insignia and inscriptions all over the Roman world. This added another element: the Senate. This was the body that advised the consuls (the annually elected heads of state) and other officials on the running of affairs. Admission to the Senate was automatic for those who had once held any of the top offices. It was therefore a body of huge experience. All legislation emanated from the Senate, but the People came into the equation because only they could ratify it, by vote. True, the voting system favoured the Senate; but there was still an element of democratic control. All this clearly made the point that the Republic was run by an equal partnership of Senate and People.

If any stray Polly could show how the introduction of a Republic would usher in greater democratic control of our closed oligarchic parliament, they might have a case. But their sole desire is to end the monarchy. They are oligarchs to a woman.