Economy of ancient Greece
The economy of ancient Greece was characterized by the extreme importance of importing goods, all the more so because of the relative poverty of Greece's soil. Beginning in the 6th century BC, craftsmanship and commerce (principally maritime) developed and became increasingly more important in the classical period.
The idea of an "economy" as it is understood today is relatively anachronistic when used to refer to ancient Greece. The Greek word oikonomia (οἰκονομία) designates mainly the oikos (οἶκος), meaning the home or hearth. Thus Xenophon's dialogue entitled Oeconomicus is concerned with household management and agriculture. The Greeks had no precise term to designate the processes of production and exchange. The economist Murray Rothbard, however, notes that ancient Greek philosophers grappled with questions that today would be identified as economy.
Greek soil's "stinginess" or "tightness" (Ancient Greek: stenokhôría, στενοχωρία) explains Greek colonialism and the importance of the cleruchies of Asia Minor in controlling the supply of wheat. The olive tree and grapevine were complemented by the cultivation of herbs, vegetables, and oil-producing plants. Husbandry was badly developed due to a lack of available land. Sheep and goats were the most common types of livestock. Woods were heavily exploited, first for domestic use and eventually to build triremes. Bees were kept to produce honey, the only source of sugar known to the ancient Greeks.
Since it was so labor-intensive, agriculture employed up to 80% of the Greek population. Agricultural work followed the rhythm of the seasons: harvesting olives and trimming grapevines at the beginning of autumn and the end of winter, setting aside fallow land in the spring, harvesting cereals in the summer, cutting wood, sowing seeds, and harvesting grapes in autumn.
In the ancient era, most land was held by the aristocracy. During the 7th century BC, demographic expansion and the distribution of successions created tensions between these landowners and the peasants. In Athens, the crisis was resolved by Solon's reforms, which eliminated debt bondage and protected the peasant class. Nonetheless, the Greek aristocrat's domains remained small compared with the Roman latifundia.
The Greeks would cut down all their enemies' olive trees to deprive them of olive oil. Highlighting the importance that olives held in ancient Greece both as a symbol of wealth and monetary value.
Much of the craftsmanship of ancient Greece was part of the domestic sphere. However, the situation gradually changed between the 8th and 4th centuries BC, with the increased commercialization of the Greek economy. Thus, weaving and baking, activities, so important to the Western late medieval economy, were done only by women before the 6th century BC. After the growth of commerce, slaves started to be widely used in workshops. Only fine dyed tissues, like those made with Tyrian purple, were created in workshops. On the other hand, working with metal, leather, wood, or clay, was a specialized activity, and looked down upon by most Greeks.
The basic workshop was often family-operated. Lysias' shield manufactory employed 120 slaves; Demosthenes' father, a maker of swords, used 32. After the death of Pericles in 429 BC, a new class emerged: that of the wealthy owners and managers of workshops. Examples include Cleon and Anytus, noted tannery owners, and Kleophon, whose factory produced lyres.
Free workers were paid by assignment, since the workshops could not guarantee regular work. In Athens, those who worked on state projects were paid one drachma per day, no matter what craft they practiced. The workday generally began at sunrise and ended in the afternoon.
The potter's work consisted of selecting the clay, fashioning the vase, drying and painting, baking it, and applying varnish. Part of the production went to domestic usage (dishes, containers, oil lamps) or for commercial purposes, and the rest served religious or artistic functions. Techniques for working with clay have been known since the Bronze Age; the potter's wheel is a very ancient invention. The ancient Greeks did not add any innovations to these processes.
The creation of artistically decorated vases in Greece had strong foreign influences. For instance, the famed black-figure style of Corinthian potters most likely was derived from the Syrian style of metalworking. The heights to which the Greeks brought the art of ceramics is therefore due entirely to their artistic sensibilities and not to technical ingenuity.
Pottery in ancient Greece was most often the work of slaves. Many of the potters of Athens assembled between the agora and the Dipylon, in the Kerameikon. They most often operated as small workshops, consisting of a master, several paid artisans, and slaves.
Deposits of metal ore are common in Greece. Of these, the best known are the silver mines of Laurium. These mines contributed to the development of Athens in the 5th century BC, when the Athenians learned to prospect, treat, and refine the ore. Fortuitously, the composition of the earth below the mines rendered drainage unnecessary, an important provision given that ancient mine drainage techniques did not allow for excavation below the level of subsoil waters. The passageways and steps of Greek mines were dug out with the same concern for proportion and harmony found in their temples. The work was extremely difficult, due to the tunnels' depth—they were sometimes more than 100 metres (110 yd). The miner, armed with his pick and iron hammer and hunched over in two, labored to extract lead ore. The Laurium mines were worked by a large slave population, originating for the most part from Black Sea regions such as Thrace and Paphlagonia. With these metals, weapons, armor tools and a variety of other goods were created.
Other Greek mines include:
- Gold: Sifnos, Thasos
- Silver: Cyprus, Sifnos
- Iron: Euboea, Rhodes
- Copper: Chalcis, Euboea, and Cyprus
The main participants in Greek commerce were the class of traders known as emporoi (ἕμποροι). The state collected a duty on their cargo. At Piraeus (the main port of Athens), this tax was set initially at 1%, then at 2%. By the end of the 5th century, the tax had been raised to 33 talents (Andocides, I, 133-134). In 413, Athens ended the collection of tribute from the Delian League and imposed a 5% duty on all the ports of her empire (Thucydides, VII, 28, 4) in the hope (unrealized) of increasing revenues. These duties were never protectionist, but were merely intended to raise money for the public treasury.
The growth of trade in Greece led to the development of financial techniques. Most merchants, lacking sufficient cash assets, resorted to borrowing to finance all or part of their expeditions. A typical loan for a large venture in 4th century BC Athens, was generally a large sum of cash (usually less than 2,000 drachmas), lent for a short time (the length of the voyage, a matter of several weeks or months), at a high rate of interest (often 12% but reaching levels as high as 100%). The terms of the contract were always laid out in writing, differing from loans between friends (eranoi). The lender bore all the risks of the journey, in exchange for which the borrower committed his cargo and his entire fleet, which were precautionarily seized upon their arrival at the port of Piraeus.
Trade in ancient Greece was free: the state controlled only the supply of grain. In Athens, following the first meeting of the new Prytaneis, regulations on trade were reviewed, with a specialized committee overseeing the trade in wheat, flour, and bread.
The number of shipwrecks found in the Mediterranean Sea provides valuable evidence for the development of trade in the ancient world. Only 2 shipwrecks were found that dated from the 8th century BC. However archeologists have found 46 shipwrecks dated from the 4th century BC, which would appear to indicate that there occurred a very large increase of the volume of trade between these centuries. Considering that the average ship tonnage also increased in the same period, the total volume of trade increased probably by a factor of 30.
Greece's main exports were olive oil, wine, pottery, and metalwork. They brought into the city pork, cheese, perfumes, glass, barley, wheat, rugs, and ivory. They traded these objects from places like Sicily, Arabia, Egypt, Carthage, and Ethopia.
While peasants and artisans often sold their own wares, there were also retail merchants known as kápêloi (κάπηλοι). Grouped into guilds, they sold fish, olive oil, and vegetables. Women sold perfume or ribbons. They paid a fee for their space in the marketplace. They were viewed poorly by the general population, and Aristotle labeled their activities "a kind of exchange which is justly censured, for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another."
Parallel to the "professional" merchants were those who sold the surplus of their household production, be it vegetables, olive oil, or bread. This was the case for many of the small-scale farmers of Attica. Among townsfolk, this task often fell to the women. For instance, Euripides' mother sold chervil from her garden (cf. Aristophanes, The Acharnians, v. 477-478).
Direct taxation was not well-developed in ancient Greece. The eisphorá (εἰσφορά) was a tax on the wealth of the very rich, but it was levied only when needed — usually in times of war. Large fortunes were also subject to liturgies, that is, the support of public works. Liturgies could consist, for instance, of the maintenance of a trireme, a chorus during a theatre festival, or a gymnasium. In some cases, the prestige of the undertaking could attract volunteers. Such was the case for the choragus, who organized and financed choruses for a drama festival. In other instances, like the burden of outfitting and commanding a trireme, the liturgy functioned more like a mandatory donation. In some cities, like Miletus and Teos, heavy taxation was imposed on citizens.
On the other hand, indirect taxes were quite important. Taxes were levied on houses, slaves, herds and flocks, wines, and hay, among others. The rights to collect many of these taxes were often transferred to publicans, or telônai (τελῶναι). However, this was not true of all cities. Thasos' gold mines and Athens' taxes on business allowed them to eliminate these indirect taxes. Dependent groups such as the Penestae of Thessaly and the Helots of Sparta were taxed by the city-states to which they were subject.
Coinage probably began in Lydia around 600 BC, and circulated in the cities of Asia Minor under its control; early electrum coins have been found at the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. The technique of minting coins arrived in mainland Greece around 550 BC, beginning with coastal trading cities like Aegina and Athens. Their use spread, and the city-states quickly secured a monopoly on their creation. The very first coins were made from electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), followed by pure silver, the most commonly found valuable metal in the region. The mines of the Pangaeon hills allowed the cities of Thrace and Macedon to mint a large quantity of coins. Laurium's silver mines provided the raw materials for the "Athenian owls", the most famous coins of the ancient Greek world. Less-valuable bronze coins appeared at the end of the 5th century.
Coins played several roles in the Greek world. They provided a medium of exchange, mostly used by city-states to hire mercenaries and compensate citizens. They were a source of revenue: foreigners had to change their money into the local currency at an exchange rate favorable to the State. They served as a mobile form of metal resources, which explains discoveries of Athenian coins with high levels of silver at great distances from their home city. Finally, the minting of coins lent an air of undeniable prestige to any Greek city or city state.
- Scheidel, Walter, Ian Morris, and Richard P. Saller, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (2008) 958pp