Peter Jones

What would the Romans have made of the Budget?

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Accounting systems have apparently existed since the Mesopotamian period (c. 5000 bc). But what about ‘budgets’?

Early Romans had no such concept because, in the absence of a welfare state, self-reliance was the order of the day. They did however pay an annual tax, fixed by the Senate and collected locally, to refund (for days lost on the farm) every Roman who was either fighting to defend Rome (and so his own property) or growing Roman power on campaign, conquering others for their land, their resources and their manpower.

That is what they did from the late 3rd century bc onwards, conquering Carthage, its Spanish holdings, Sicily and the Greek world, and in the process bringing in wealth beyond the dreams of avarice from indemnities, booty and the gold and silver in Spanish mines. Most of this was either ploughed back into the military or vanished into the pockets of the elite.

But there were members of the elite who saw advantage in using such wealth to help the poor. One of these was Gaius Gracchus. He decided that the revenues from the vast wealth of Pergamum (i.e. the western half of modern Turkey/Asia, which had been bequeathed to Rome) should be spent on the people. So against much opposition he passed laws ordering the consortia that collected taxes abroad to bid for the Asian job in Rome, and in public (to avoid any dodgy deals), and at a fixed rate, not a percentage of takings, to maximise returns (much later Cicero said Asia’s taxes were ‘the sinews of the state’.)

He then drew up Rome’s first ever ‘budget’, to use that money to give the poor access to public land, provide subsided wheat, public granaries and free clothing to soldiers, send out colonies and build superb roads (straight, pavements of quarried stone, proper substructures, ravines bridged, each mile measured off with a stone pillar). But his later policies became all too much for the elite. Gaius was accused of tyranny and killed in a riot (121 bc), but his work was done.

Gaius’s ‘budget’ was designed to solve problems. And what problem does Jeremy Hunt’s solve?