It’s May and Americans are still thinking about their taxes. Most people will have received their federal income tax returns by now, but inflation, the war in Ukraine and the attendant shock to global energy markets have all put gas taxes at the center of public debate in states like New York, California – and Michigan, where I live. Nationally, gas prices are up a whopping 46.72% from a year ago, prompting the collective outcry from consumer-voters that has motivated a raft of tax policy proposals.
These days, the newscasts teach us about the difference between “tax holidays” and “tax rebates,” between federal and state fiscal interest in our purchases at the pump. Economists and pundits may emphasize that what really matters in the end is the bottom line – who gets the money and the overlooked, naked fiscal consequences of political expediency – but right now, what we call a particular piece of tax relief, the way we talk about taxation, and the modality of tax relief (checks, price controls, etc.), all seem to matter just as much. When Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan, vetoed a six-month suspension of an excise tax on gas in April, she justified her decision by asserting that the “misguided proposal does nothing for Michiganders facing pain at the pump right now.” Note the expression “pain at the pump.” I think it isn’t just alliterative – but signals empathy with constituents. Further justifications point to the public goods associated with specific taxes. Michigan roads are in a notorious state of disrepair, and the gas tax, the governor reminds us, is going to pay for their improvement. It’s just good politics to show people as precisely as possible which public goods are purchased with their taxes.
Did a similar discourse on just and equitable taxation exist in Classical Antiquity? Absolutely. Consider the Athenian Empire of the fifth century BCE – Athens of the Peloponnesian War, Socrates and the Parthenon. It met its fiscal needs through an exaction called phoros, a term from the Delian League, in fact. Now, transparency is key to effective taxation, and each community in the empire could find its annual bill inscribed on a slab of marble in Athens, but in time, the payment of phoros came to be perceived less as taxation and more as something closer to what we would call “tribute.” Indeed, these slabs are known to scholars today as the Athenian Tribute Lists. In the latter stages of the Peloponnesian War, facing rebellion and non-compliance, the Athenians changed the way they raised money, focusing instead on the time-honored fiscal practice of taxing movement of goods through the ports of the Aegean archipelago. Ultimately, though, they were forced to change the way they talked about taxation, too. When the Athenians lost the war and their empire, only to regain it a few decades later, they had a new name for their old exaction. In the so-called Second Athenian League, what had once been known as phoros (“that which is brought”) was reborn as syntaxis – “contribution.”
Taxation debates, it seems, aren’t just about the amount – “how much.” They are also about the means by which states and empires tax, i.e., the “how,” as well as the finesse with which they talk to people about taxation. If it seems obvious to the lay person that these factors have a significant impact on success in state formation or the acquisition of empire, scholars of Hellenistic history (321-31BCE) have only recently started to really pay attention to them again. In a sense, the Hellenistic fiscal apparatus is lying in plain sight. Take for example the announcement by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities on May 5 of discoveries at Gabal El Haridi, including a mudbrick tower on the Nile, used by tax collectors as a toll booth during the reign of Ptolemy III (246-222 BCE). I came to the subject of my book, the Attalid kingdom of Pergamon (ca. 280-133 BCE) by way of wanting to explain its success. Victorious Romans had handed the Attalid kings a new map of their neck of the woods in 188 BCE. In a sense, their empire had been born overnight. I was keen to understand how that map had become a reality – and how the Pergamenes had managed to punch so far above their weight in the cultural arena. A simple review of their correspondence with subject communities provided a clue. The Attalids were extremely involved in constructing the budgets of Greek cities and Anatolian villages. They were also of the habit of earmarking specific taxes for specific public goods. Some of these were very old documents, and I searched in pre-war scholarship for an explanation. The White Russian émigré Mikhail Rostovtzeff, in a 1923 article on Pergamene economic policy, described a Leviathan state, draining local communities with oppressive taxation. Meanwhile, a Hungarian scholar in 1992 had written of the Attalids as laissez-faire liberals. So, which was it? Was Pergamon a “hands-off” or a “hands-on” kind of a state? The evidence seemed to point to the latter, but I couldn’t quite make sense of it.
Compared to our own, the fiscal system of an ancient Hellenistic kingdom was of course a vastly simpler affair. Rulers hesitated to buck convention and provoke revolts. Yet these kings, who competed with each other and with Rome for various pieces of the empire of Alexander the Great, had a surprising number of fiscal tools at their disposal. Many of these also involved tinkering with currency systems and money supply, as highlighted by the pseudo-Aristotelian Oikonomika, a kind of early Hellenistic handbook of domestic statecraft. In places like Pergamon, where the kingdom was erected over a dense substructure of earlier Greek city-states, the city (polis) provided royal administrators with even more tools and a keener sense of the possible in taxation. From earmarking, to setting up foundations, using public banks, and creating a new, semi-closed currency zone, the Attalids made use of all these tools and possibilities in the cities where they had already existed and probably pushed them out into the Anatolian countryside where new civic organisms were just springing up.
My original goal was to explain the phenomenon and the success of Attalid imperialism with a thorough study of their fiscal system. Along the way, things changed. I have always been inspired by the bravery and intellectual honesty of historians who give an account of their research process as, “I set out to write a book about X, but the story turned out to be about Y.” For example, Robin Einhorn’s 2006 American Taxation, American Slavery: the author set out to write a book about slavery, which turned out to be a book just as much about taxation. I find that fascinating – trying to understand what we are really arguing about when we argue about taxes. In my case, I set out to write about taxation, to reassess the fiscal politics of the Attalids, only to find out that the dynasty’s cultural politics were equally misunderstood.
The line on these kings had long been that unlike other dynasties with real genealogical links to Alexander the Great and authentic Hellenic cultural credentials, the Attalids were unpedigreed outsiders from the hill country of western Anatolia. They had to “clean up their own origins” – so says a standard reference article from 2003 (A Companion to the Hellenistic World, p. 167). As a result of this supposed lack of cultural confidence, the Attalids, so it’s said, became Greek chauvinists, always clamoring on about the evil barbarian menace of Galatian invaders. This was a coping strategy, a means of papering over the fact that they weren’t really or entirely Greek, but Graeco-Anatolian hybrids. It was a grand strategy, by any measure, and it resulted in a slew of Attalid monuments in Panhellenic sanctuaries, the Athenian Agora and Akropolis. Imagine it – in 150 BCE, monuments of the kings of Pergamon would have obscured your view of the Parthenon in Athens from multiple different angles! Today, when you visit the Athenian Agora, the iconic Stoa of Attalos, reconstructed with American largess in the 1950s, houses the site’s museum.
But if a person wants to understand this vast Pergamene cultural output and goes to look for an explanation in a textbook or on a museum placard, they’re told, erroneously, in my view, that the Attalids were just Greek chauvinists with an underlying lack of cultural confidence. Take Adams’A History of Western Art (2011, fifth ed.), for example. The Great Altar of Pergamon is illustrated, with the explanation that it was “built to proclaim the victory of Greek civilization over the barbarians. Greece tried to reassert its superiority, as Athens had done in building the Parthenon after the Persian Wars. But Hellenistic art, especially in its late phase, reflects the uncertainty and turmoil of the period” (my emph). On this reckoning, the Attalids – and the rest of the post-classical Greeks – weren’t quite sure who they were and so needed their chauvinism to generate an identity. Note also how the Pergamenes bear the burden of speaking to us for the entire Hellenistic world, just like they did in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit of 2016, Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World. At stake in all this is our very understanding of the various ways of belonging in the Hellenistic empires that shaped the eastern Mediterranean and Near East at the end of the first millennium.
I am arguing in the book that the Attalids’ unexplained success at state formation turned not so much on the dynasty’s appropriation of a Classical Panhellenism of Greek triumph over barbarism, born of the Persian Wars; but rather, on the Attalids’ ability to project their own brand of big-tent Panhellenism, which was also actually Pan-Asian. It offered a sense of belonging to all of cis-Tauric Asia, including the inhabitants of rural Anatolia, those who lived in villages or young city-states and spoke non-Greek languages, such as Pisidian or Phrygian. The Attalids have been wrongly accused: they weren’t pretending to be the Classical Athenians but co-opting them. They had their own, internal Anatolian audience to speak to, which required a different set of messages. At home, they presented themselves as kings of Asia, the heirs of pan-Asian empires like that of Priam of Troy or Midas of Phrygia.
My goal was to try and get the reader to see the Attalid kingdom from the inside – from modern Bergama, Turkey, that is, not from Berlin! To literally see it that way, I mean. Therefore, on the cover of the book, I chose not to illustrate the Great Altar in Berlin, where it’s rested since the 1880s, but instead show the scar of the excavation pit on the Anatolian landscape in the photograph of the German excavator Carl Humann. In some way, with this perspective shift back to the terrain itself and with my recasting of Attalid cultural politics as creatively inclusive rather than regressively exclusive, I was hoping to contribute to the ongoing conversation about the relationship of the discipline of Classics to Euro-American identity. The field of Classics is currently undergoing a vast reckoning, whereby scholars have recognized that an idealized, racialized Antiquity, a so-called lily-white Classical World has been represented, either unwittingly, or in the case of white supremacist fans of the concept, quite deliberatively. The Attalids, in a sense, have long been conscripted into playing a strange role in the drama of the Classical Tradition. The idea that they don’t measure up as Greeks is founded on an untenable premise of cultural or even racial purity, one which they themselves would have found puzzlingly foreign. Yet lily-white Classics, so to speak, needs Pergamon as a vehicle for the preservation of a pristine Hellenism – across the expanse of time and space, transporting that Athens both to Berlin of the Second Empire and even to the United States and the rest of NATO. Niki Sakka, in a wonderful 2013 article on the American reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalus in the 1950s, publishes correspondence of excavator Homer Thompson, in which he proposes that the cornerstone of the building be inscribed, “Erected by Attalus of Pergamon (159-133 B.C); Destroyed by barbarian invaders from the North (267 A.D.); Rebuilt by Philhellenes of America (19530 A.D.).” And while that inscription never made it on to the reconstructed building, its ideology has nevertheless been grafted on to the Attalids. At a time when the boundaries of the West are being debated and struggled over once again, perhaps the rulers of this ancient Eurasian kingdom have something interesting to say.