Roman Tax Dodgers

Have I been party to any tax-avoidance schemes, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs asks me, as I trawl through 30 pages of annual self-assessment. I haven’t, nor am I guilty of tax evasion. And if I were, it would not be a glamorous affair. A hole in the ground would suffice for my petty cash, as it did for whoever buried the ancient hoard being uncovered in Jersey, providing archaeologists with jokes about offshore savings and a mass of coins to unpick.

The hoard was discovered beneath a field in 2012, but only now are conservators making real progress with separating the estimated 70,000 coins and unexpected pieces of gold and silver jewellery fused to them. At first, it was believed that the collection dated to the period surrounding Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain, in 55 and 54 BC, when the Romans conquered the Gallic tribes who inhabited northern France. But then one of the coins transpired to be from England, circa 40 BC. In 39 BC, the Roman military commander Agrippa was campaigning in the outer reaches of Gaul.

The hoard might have been an offering to the gods, or a private bank that someone forgot about. More likely, it was deliberately hidden from the eyes of the taxman. Notoriously grasping Roman asset-strippers and generals had mined the provinces to raise revenue for decades. The people of Jersey knew that the Romans would be covetous of their gold and silver.

In 2013, another hoard was discovered in Devon. This one dated to the period of Constantine (who visited Britain) and his immediate descendants, up to the mid-fourth century AD. In 2010, a slightly earlier trove was found, the so-called Frome Hoard. It included coins dating from the third century AD, when the Britons established a series of forts along the coast of the North Sea. We may never know for certain why these hoards were buried, but they may paint a portrait of our ancestors’ anxiety to safeguard their wealth by stealth. 

Not much has changed. £35 billion in taxes owed went unpaid in the UK in 2013. No sooner had new powers been announced for HMRC to collect debts automatically from the tax-shy from next year than fears were voiced that people would revert to hiding cash under their mattresses. If we did not trade in paper money, the ground would have been a more tempting hiding place. 

The situation is worse in Italy, the Roman homeland, where, last year, a staggering 285 billion euros in taxes went unpaid. The same instinct to preserve our earnings lives on between Rome, Jersey, Somerset and Devon. If only, like the ancient owner of the Jersey hoard, today’s would-be tax evader had the forethought to store in time of plenty.

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