7 DECEMBER 2002, Page 28

Ancient & modern

TALKING about wills, St Augustine remarked on the paradox that 'while the dead man lies, insensible, under his tombstone, his words retain their full legal validity'. Time, surely, for New Labour to 'modernise' this transparent absurdity at a time when the Chancellor is desperate to grab money from any source he can to do what he does best and pour it into his latest, shiniest drain. But he had better watch out if he does.

The Romans adored wills. 'I hear that Sextus is dead. Let me know who his heir is, and when his will is to be opened,' says Cicero in a letter, one of many such requests; and Seneca the Younger talks of the time one spends drawing up a will, the internal debates about how much and to whom one shall give, and the pleasure yielded by the thought of enriching this or that person and adding lustre to their position. The reason is that Romans saw wills as an essential means by which family and society reciprocated, and a man's social networks constructed in life could be duly acknowledged and assured of continuing after death.

But, naturally, everyone wanted to know what those networks were, and that is why the contents of a will were so eagerly awaited. They gave the dead man the chance to tell the truth. As Pliny said, 'Wills are commonly believed to be the mirror of the man', since the dead testator (being dead) now had carte-blanche to reveal what he really thought about those who imagined they were his chums. The testator regularly declared who were his dearest and least dear children, who his rarest and most obnoxious friends.

One grande dame caused a stir by commending all the great and good of Rome, but passing over the emperor Tiberius in silence. Others went further. One will savagely indicted Tiberius and accused his prefect Macro of terrible crimes; Petronius, the 'arbiter of taste', ordered to commit suicide by Nero, listed Nero's debaucheries. Not surprising, then, that, for example, the emperor Augustus was paranoid about the last judgment of those friends he considered he had helped, downcast if they did not praise him enough, delighted if they talked of him 'gratefully and piously'. That latest judgment really counted.

If, therefore, the surly Scot does start ransacking the graves of the dead in his next Budget (after all, what could be more elitist than personal networks of chums; who knows how to spend money better than he?), those with the most money to lose might suddenly find an incentive to use their wills to unfold what they really know about him and the government he

works for. Peter Jones