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The Economy of Ancient Greece

Darel Tai Engen, California State University – San Marcos

Introduction 1

The ancient Greek economy is somewhat of an enigma. Given the remoteness of ancient Greek civilization, the evidence is minimal and difficulties of interpretation abound. Ancient Greek civilization flourished from around 776 to 30 B.C. in what are called the Archaic (776-480), Classical (480-323), and Hellenistic (323-30) periods.2 During this time, Greek civilization was very different from our own in a variety of ways. In the Archaic and Classical periods, Greece was not unified but was comprised of hundreds of small, independent poleis or “city-states.” During the Hellenistic period, Greek civilization spread into the Near East and large kingdoms became the norm. Throughout these periods of ancient Greek civilization, the level of technology was nothing like it is today and values developed that shaped the economy in unique ways. Thus, despite over a century of investigation, scholars are still debating the nature of the ancient Greek economy.

Moreover, the evidence is insufficient to employ all but the most basic quantitative methods of modern economic analysis and has forced scholars to employ other more qualitative methods of investigation. This brief article, therefore, will not include any of the statistics, tables, charts, or graphs that normally accompany economic studies. Rather, it will attempt to set out the types of evidence available for studying the ancient Greek economy, to describe briefly the long-running debate about the ancient Greek economy and the most widely accepted model of it, and then to present a basic view of the various sectors of the ancient Greek economy during the three major phases of its history. In addition, reference will be made to some recent scholarly trends in the field.

Sources of Evidence

Although the ancient Greeks achieved a high degree of sophistication in their political, philosophical, and literary analyses and have, therefore, left us with a significant amount of evidence concerning these matters, few Greeks attempted what we would call sophisticated economic analysis. Nonetheless, the ancient Greeks did engage in economic activity. They produced and exchanged goods both in local and long distance trade and had monetary systems to facilitate their exchanges. These activities have left behind material remains and are described in various contexts scattered throughout the extant writings of the ancient Greeks.

Most of our evidence for the ancient Greek economy concerns Athens in the Classical period and includes literary works, such as legal speeches, philosophical dialogues and treatises, historical narratives, and dramas and other poetic writings. Demosthenes, Lysias, Isokrates, and other Attic Orators have left us with numerous speeches, several of which concern economic matters, usually within the context of a lawsuit. But although these speeches illuminate some aspects of ancient Greek contracts, loans, trade, and other economic activity, one must analyze them with care on account of the biases and distortions inherent in legal speeches.

Philosophical works, especially those of Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle, provide us with an insight into how the ancient Greeks perceived and analyzed economic matters. We learn about the place of economic activities within the Greek city-state, value system, and social and political institutions. One drawback of such evidence, however, is that the authors of these works were without exception members of the elite, and their political perspective and disdain for day-to-day economic activity should not necessarily be taken to represent the views of all or even the majority of ancient Greeks.

The ancient Greek historians concerned themselves primarily with politics and warfare. But within these contexts, one can find bits of information here and there about public finance and other economic matters. Thucydides, for example, does takes care to describe the financial resources of Athens during the Peloponnesian War.

Poems and dramas also contain evidence concerning the ancient Greek economy. One can find random references to trade, manufacturing, the status of businessmen, and other economic matters. Of course, one must be careful to account for genre and audience in addition to the personal perspective of the author when using such sources for information about the economy. The plays of Aristophanes, for example, make many references to economic activities, but such references are often characterized by stereotyping and exaggeration for comedic purposes.

One of the most extensive collections of economic documents is the papyri from Greek-controlled Egypt during the Hellenistic period. The Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt developed an extensive bureaucracy to oversee numerous economic activities and like all bureaucracies, they kept detailed records of their administration. Thus, the papyri include information about such things as taxes, government-controlled lands and labor, and the unique numismatic policies of the Ptolemies.

Epigraphic evidence comes in the form of stone inscriptions from public and private institutions. Boundary markers placed on land used as security for loans, called horoi, were often inscribed with the terms of the loans. States such as Athens inscribed honorary decrees for those who had done outstanding services for the state, including economic ones. States also inscribed accounts for public building projects and leases of public lands or mines. In addition, religious sanctuaries frequently inscribed accounts of monies and other assets, such as produce, land, and buildings, under their control. Although accounts tend to be free of human biases, honorary decrees are much more complex and the historian must be careful to consider the perspective of their issuing institutions when interpreting them.

Archaeological evidence is free of some of the representational complexities of the literary and epigraphic evidence. Pottery finds can tell us about pottery manufacture and trade. The vase types indicate the goods they contained, such as olive oil, wine, or grain. The distribution of finds of ancient pottery can, therefore, tell us the extent of trade in various goods. Finds of hoarded coins are also invaluable for the information they reveal about the volume of coins minted by a given state at a given time and the extent to which a state’s coinage was distributed geographically. But such archaeological evidence is not without its drawbacks as well. The same “muteness” that frees such evidence from human biases also makes it incapable of telling us who traded the goods, why they were traded, how they were traded, how much they cost, and how many middlemen they went through before reaching their find spots. Furthermore, it is always dangerous to attempt to extrapolate broad conclusions about the economy from a small number of finds, since we can never be sure if those finds are representative of larger phenomena or merely exceptional cases that archaeologists happened to stumble upon.

Some of the most spectacular and informative finds in recent years have been made under the waters of the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas by what is known as marine (or nautical) archaeology. Ancient shipwrecks containing goods for trade have opened new doors to the study of ancient Greek merchant vessels, manufacturing, and trade. Although the field is relatively new, it has already yielded much new data and promises great things for the future.

The Debate about the Ancient Greek Economy

As stated above, the ancient Greek economy has been the subject of a long-running debate that continues to this day. Briefly stated, the debate began in the late nineteenth century and revolved around the issue of whether the economy was “primitive” or “modern.” These were a poor choice of terms with which to conceptualize the ancient Greek economy and are to a great extent responsible for the intractability of the debate. These terms are clearly normative in character so that essentially the argument was about whether the ancient Greek economy was like our “modern” economy, which was never carefully defined, but apparently assumed to be a free enterprise, capitalistic one with interconnected price-making markets. In addition, confusion arose over whether the ancient Greek economy was like a modern economy in quantity (scale) or quality (its organizing principles). Lastly, such terms clearly attempt to characterize the ancient Greek economy as a whole and do not distinguish differences among regions or city-states of Greece, time periods, or sectors of the economy (agriculture, banking, long distance trade, etc.).

Seeing extensive trade and use of money in Greece from the fifth century B.C. onward, the modernists extrapolated the existence of a market economy in Classical Greece. On the other hand, seeing traditional Greek social and political values that disdained the productive, impersonal, and industrial nature of modern market economies, the primitivists downplayed the existence of extensive trade and the use of money in the economy. Neither primitivists nor modernists could conceive of the existence of extensive trade and the use of money unless the ancient Greek economy was organized according to market principles. Moreover, neither side in the debate could call activities “economic” unless such activities were productive and aimed at growth.

Historical methods were also a factor in the debate. Traditional ancient historians who relied on philology and archaeology tended to side with the modernist interpretation, whereas historians who employed new methods drawn from sociology and anthropology tended to hold to the primitivist view. For example, Michael Rostovtzeff assembled a wealth of archaeological data to argue that the scale of the ancient Greek economy in the Hellenistic period was so great that it could not be considered primitive. On the other hand, Johannes Hasebroek used sociological methods developed by Max Weber to argue that the ancient Greek citizen was a homo politicus (“political man”) and not a homo economicus (“economic man”) – he disdained economic activities and subordinated them to traditional political interests.

A turning point in the debate came with the work of Karl Polanyi who drew on anthropological methods to argue that economies need not be organized according to the independent and self-regulating institutions of a market system. He distinguished between “substantivist” and “formalist” economic analysis. The latter, which is typical of economic analysis today, is appropriate only for market economies. Market economies operate independently of non-economic institutions and their most characteristic feature is that prices are set according to an aggregate derived from the impersonal forces of supply and demand among a group of interconnected markets. But material goods may be produced, exchanged, and valued by means other than market institutions. Such means may be tied to non-economic social and political institutions, including gift exchange or state-controlled redistribution and price-setting. Hence, other tools of analysis, namely “substantivist” economics, must be employed to understand them. Polanyi concluded that ancient Greece did not have a developed market system until the Hellenistic period. Before that time, the economy of ancient Greece did not comprise an independent sphere of institutions, but rather was “embedded” in other social and political institutions. Thus, Polanyi opened the door through which scholars could begin to examine the ancient Greek economy free from the normative parameters originally imposed on the debate. Unfortunately, the grip of the old parameters has been very strong and the debate has never completely freed itself from their influence.

The Finley Model and Its Aftermath

At present the most widely accepted model of the ancient Greek economy is that which was first set forth by Moses Finley in 1973. This view owes much to the Weber-Hasebroek-Polanyi line of analysis and holds that the ancient Greek economy was fundamentally different from the market economy that predominates in most of the world today. Not only was the ancient Greek economy much smaller in scale than economies today, it also differed greatly in quality.

Although the ancient Greek word oikonomia is the root of our modern English word “economy,” the two words are not synonymous. Whereas today “economy” refers to a distinct sphere of human interactions involving the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, oikonomia meant “household management,” a familial activity that was subsumed or “embedded” in traditional social and political institutions. True, the Greeks produced and consumed goods, engaged in various forms of exchanges including long-distance trade, and developed monetary systems employing coinage, but they did not see such activities as being part of a distinct institution which we call the “economy.”

According to Finley’s model, the subordination of economic activities to social and political ones was a byproduct of a Greek value system that emphasized the wellbeing of the community over that of the individual. Economic activity was necessary in this system only in so far as the individual male citizen had to provide sustenance for himself and his family. This could be accomplished simply by farming a small plot of land. Beyond that, the male citizen was expected to devote himself to the wellbeing of the community by participating in the public religious, political, and military life of the polis.

On the other hand, ancient Greek values held in low esteem economic activities that were not subordinated to the traditional activities of managing the family farm and obtaining goods for necessary consumption. So-called banausic work, which included manufacturing, business, and trade (which were not tied to the land and the family farm), and what we would call “capitalism” (investing money to make more money) were considered to be incompatible with active participation in the affairs of the polis and even as unnatural and morally corrupting. A life on the land, farming to produce only so much as was needed for consumption and leaving enough leisure time for active participation in the public life of the polis, was the social ideal. Production and exchange were to be undertaken only for personal need, to help out friends, or to benefit the community as a whole. Such activities were not to be undertaken simply to make a profit and certainly not to obtain capital for future investment and economic growth.

Given the limits put on economic activity by traditional values and the absence of a modern conception of the economy, agriculture comprised the bulk of production and exchange. Most production, therefore, was carried out in the countryside and cities were net consumers rather than producers, living off the surplus of the countryside. With limited technology and no understanding of economies of scale, cities were not hubs of industry, and manufacturing existed only on a small scale. Cities were mainly places for people to live as well as religious and governmental centers. Their contribution to the economy was only to demand the surplus produce of the countryside, manufacture limited amounts of goods, and provide market places and ports of trade for the exchange of goods.

Since the bulk of economic wealth was produced from the land and banausic occupations were not esteemed, the elite of ancient Greek society were landowners who consequently dominated politics, even in democratic poleis like Athens. Such men had little interest in manufacturing, business, and trade and, like their society as a whole, did not consider the economy as a distinct sphere separate from social and political concerns. Thus, their official policies with regard to the economy were much different from that of modern states.

Modern states undertake policies with specifically economic goals, desiring in particular to make their national economy more productive, to expand or grow, thereby increasing the per capita wealth of the state. Ancient Greek city-states, on the other hand, had an interest and involvement in what we would call economic activities (trade, minting coins, production, etc.) that, like oikonomia on the household level, were consumptive in nature and fulfilled traditional social and political needs, not strictly economic ones.

Finley’s model also holds that there was neither a “market mentality” nor interconnected markets that could operate according to impersonal price-setting market mechanisms. Individual city-states certainly had “market places” (agorai), but such markets existed largely in isolation with minimal connections among them. Thus, prices were set according to local conditions and personal relationships rather than in accordance with the impersonal forces of supply and demand. This was so in part because of the Greek socio-political emphasis on self-sufficiency (autarkeia), but also because the physical environment and industry of the eastern Mediterranean tended to produce similar goods, so that there were few items that a city-state needed which could not be obtained from within its own boundaries.

Moreover, according to Finley’s model, the interests of Greek city-states in trade were likewise limited by traditional political concerns to the consumptive goals of ensuring the import of adequate supplies of “material wants,” such as food at reasonable prices for their citizens, and revenue which could be obtained from taxes on trade. The former goal could be fulfilled by making laws that required or provided incentives for traders to bring grain into the city. Laws such as these were merely extensions of traditional political policies, like conquest and plunder, but in which a less violent form of acquisition would now be undertaken. But though the means had changed, the ends were still political; there was no interest in the economy per se. The same holds true for the traditional need of city-states for revenue to pay for public projects, such as temple building and road maintenance. Here again, old and often violent methods of obtaining revenue were augmented through such things as taxes on trade.

Finley’s model has had a great impact on those who study the ancient Greek economy and is still widely accepted today. But although the general picture it presents of the ancient Greek economy has not been superceded, the model is not without flaws. It was inevitable that Finley would overstate his model, since it attempted to encompass the general character of the ancient Greek economy as a whole. Thus, the model makes little distinction between different regions or city-states of Greece, even though it is clear that the economies of Athens and Sparta, for example, were quite different in many respects. Finley also treats the various sectors of the economy (agriculture, labor, manufacturing, long-distance trade, banking, etc.) as if they were all governed equally in accordance with the general tenets of the model, despite the fact that, for example, there were significant differences between the values that applied in the landed economy and those that prevailed in overseas trade. Lastly, Finley’s model is synchronic and hardly acknowledges changes in both the quantity and the quality of the economy over time.

Some close examinations of the various sectors of the ancient Greek economy in different places and at different times have supported Finley’s model in its general outlines. But they have been matched by just as many studies that have revealed exceptions to the model. Thus, one recent trend in the scholarship has been to try to revise the Finley model in light of focused studies of particular sectors of the economy at specific times and places. Another trend has been simply to ignore the Finley model and bypass the old debate altogether by examining the ancient Greek economy in ways that make them irrelevant. Basically, given the quantity and the quality of the available evidence, our attempts to understand the ancient Greek economy are greatly affected by the perspective from which we approach it. We can choose to try to characterize the entire ancient Greek economy in general, to see the forest as it were, and debate whether it was more or less similar to our own. Or we can focus in on the trees and undertake narrow studies of particular sectors of the ancient Greek economy at specific times and places. Both approaches are useful and not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The Archaic Period

Finley’s model holds most true for the Archaic period (c. 776-480 B.C.) of ancient Greek history. Archaeological evidence and literary references from such works as the epic poems of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey), the Works and Days of Hesiod, and the works of the lyric poets attest to an economy that was generally small in scale and centered on household production and consumption. This is not surprising, since it was during the Archaic period that Greek civilization was re-emerging from a “Dark Age” of upheaval and forming its basic social, legal, political, and economic institutions. The fundamental political unit, the polis or independent city-state, appears at this time as do non-monarchal governments allowing for at least some degree of political participation among a broad swath of citizens.

For the most part, governments did not actively involve themselves in economic matters, except during the occasional political upheavals between “haves” and “have-nots” in which land might be confiscated from the few and redistributed to the many. Despite the fact that much of the Greek mainland is mountainous and the rivers generally small, there was enough fertile land and winter rainfall so that agriculture could account for the bulk of economic production, as it would in all civilizations before the modern industrial era. But unlike the large kingdoms of the Near East, Greece had a free-enterprise economy and most land was privately owned. Agriculture was carried out primarily on small family farms, though the Homeric epics indicate that there were also some larger estates controlled by the elite and worked with the help of free landless thetes whose labor would be needed especially at harvest time. Slaves existed, but not in such large numbers as to make the economy and society dependent on them.

As the populations of cities were fairly small, crafts and manufacturing were largely carried out within households for internal consumption. Both literary accounts and material remains, however, indicate that there was a certain amount of specialization. Artisans are referred to in the Homeric epics and the level of craftsmanship seen on items, such as metal work and painted pottery, was not likely to have been accomplished by non-specialists. Nevertheless, without large-scale manufacturing, safety from brigands on land and pirates at sea, and a monetary system employing coinage (until late in the sixth century), markets were necessarily small, devoted to local products, and certainly not interconnected into a price-setting market economy. Trade was limited mostly to local exchanges between the countryside and the urban center of city-states. Farmers might load up their surplus goods on a small ship to sell them in a neighboring city, as Hesiod attests, but long-distance sea-borne trade was devoted almost exclusively to luxury items, such as precious metals, jewelry, and finely-painted pottery. Moreover, gift exchanges in accordance with social traditions were as prominent if not more so than impersonal exchanges for profit. In general, those who engaged in banausic occupations on more than a part-time basis and sought profit from such activities were looked down on and did not hold positions of prestige in society or government.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the scale of the Greek economy grew during the Archaic period and if not per capita, at least in proportion to the clear growth in population. Population increases and the desire for more land were the primary impetuses for a colonizing movement that established Greek poleis throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions during this period. These new city-states put more land under cultivation, thereby providing the agriculture necessary to sustain the growing population. Moreover, archaeological evidence for the dispersal of Greek products (particularly pottery) over a wide area indicate that trade and manufacturing had also expanded greatly since the Dark Age. It is probably no coincidence that the end of the Archaic period witnessed for the first time a divergence between the designs of merchant vessels and warships, a distinction that would become permanent. Also, after the invention of coinage in Asia Minor in the early sixth century B.C., even though various other forms of money and barter continued to be employed throughout the course of ancient Greek history, the Greeks were quick to adopt coinage and it became the predominant means of exchange from the end of the sixth century onward. The aforementioned economic trends are traced in an important recent book by David Tandy, who argues that they had a fundamental impact on the development of the social and political organization and values of the Archaic polis.

Key Economic Sectors of the Classical Period

During the Classical period of ancient Greek history (480-323 B.C.), continued increases in population as well as political developments influenced various sectors of the economy to the extent that one can see a growing number of deviations from the Finley model. Evidence concerning the economy also becomes more abundant and informative. Thus, a more detailed description of the economy during the Classical period is possible and more attention to the distinctions between its various sectors is also desirable.

In light of the cautionary statements made earlier in this article about overgeneralization, it is important to note that great variation existed among the regions and city-states of the ancient Greek world, especially during the Classical period. Athens and Sparta are famous examples of two almost polar opposites in their social and political organizations and this is no less true with regard to their economic institutions. Given, however, the fact that Athens is the best documented and most studied place in ancient Greek history, the various sectors of the ancient Greek economy during the Classical period will be discussed primarily as they existed in Athens, despite the fact that it was in many ways exceptional. Significant variations from the Athenian example will be noted, however, as will some recent trends in scholarship.

Public and Private Economic Sectors

It is first necessary to distinguish between the public and private sectors of the economy. Throughout most of ancient Greek history before the Hellenistic period, a free enterprise economy with private property and limited government intervention predominated. This places Greece in sharp contrast to most other ancient civilizations, in which governmental or religious institutions tended to dominate the economy. The main economic concerns of the governments of the Greek city-states were to maintain harmony within the private economy (make laws, adjudicate disputes, and protect private property rights), make sure that food was available to their citizenries at reasonable prices, and obtain revenue from economic activities (through taxes) to pay for government expenses.

Athens had numerous laws to protect private property rights and had officials and law courts to enforce them. In addition, there were officials who oversaw such things as weights, measures, and coinage to make sure that people were not cheated in the market place. Athens also had laws to ensure an adequate supply of grain for its citizens, such as a law against the export of grain and laws to encourage traders to import grain. Athens even had agreements with other states in which the latter gave favorable treatment to traders bound for Athens with grain.

On the other hand, Athens did not tax its citizens directly except in cases of state emergencies (eisphorai) and in requiring the wealthiest citizens to perform public services (liturgies). Most taxes were indirect: market taxes, port taxes, import-export taxes, and taxes on foreigners who took up long-term residence in Athens. Taxes were collected by companies of private tax farmers who bid on contracts issued by the state. In addition to taxes, Athens obtained revenue from leases of publicly owned lands and mines. Revenue was necessary for various government expenditures, including administrative costs, public festivals, and maintenance of widows and orphans of soldiers who died in battle as well as building ships’ hulls for the navy, walls for the city, and temples for the gods. Such state expenditures could have a significant impact on the economy, as is clear from the large quantities of money and labor that appear in the inscribed accounts of the building projects on the Athenian acropolis.

Although the Finley model is right in many respects with regard to the limited interest and involvement of the state in the economy, one recent trend has been to show through carefully focused examinations of specific phenomena that Finley pressed his case too far. For example, Finley drew too sharp a distinction between the interests of non-citizen (and, therefore, non-landowning) traders and the landed citizens who dominated Athenian government. It is true that the latter might not have exactly the same economic interests as the former, but the interests of the two were nevertheless complementary, for how could Athens get the grain imports it required without making it in the interest of traders to bring it to Athens?. Moreover, it has been argued that the policies of Athens with regard to its coinage betray a state interest in the export of at least one locally produced commodity (namely silver), something completely discounted by the Finley model.

But again, Finley was probably right to argue that during the Archaic and Classical periods the vast majority of economic activity was left untouched by government and carried out by private individuals. On the other hand, by the Classical period a self-sufficient household economy was an ideal that was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain as the various sectors of economic activity became more specialized, more impersonal, and more profit oriented as well.


As in the Archaic period, the most important economic sector was still tied to the land and the majority of agriculture continued to be carried out on the subsistence level by numerous small family farms, even though the distribution of land among the population was far from equal. Primary crops were grains, mostly barley but also some wheat, which were usually sown on a two-year fallowing cycle. Olives and grapes were also widely produced throughout Greece on land unsuitable for grains. Animal husbandry focused on sheep and goats, which could be moved from their winter lowland pasturage to the moister and cooler mountainous regions during the hot summer months. Cattle, horses, and donkeys, though less numerous, were also significant. While usually sufficient to support the population of ancient Greece, unpredictable rainfall made agriculture precarious and there is much evidence for periodic crop failures, shortages, and famines. Consequently, competition for fertile land was a hallmark of Greek history and the cause of much social and political strife within and between city-states.

One recent trend in the study of ancient Greek agriculture is the use of ethnoarchaeology, which attempts to understand the ancient economy through comparative data from better-documented modern peasant economies. In general, studies employing this method have supported the prevailing view of subsistence agriculture in ancient Greece. But caution is necessary, since there have been changes in the physical environment of and settlement patterns in Greece over time that can skew comparative analyses. Ethnoarchaeology has also been used to show that Greek farmers in both ancient and modern times have had to be flexible in their responses to wide variations in local topographical and climatic conditions and, thus, varied their crops and fallowing regimes to a significant degree. Rational exploitation of fluctuations in production brought on by such variations might have been the means by which some farmers were able to obtain enough wealth to rise above their peers and become members of a landed elite and this might point to a productive mentality at odds with the Finley model.

Metals were another important landed resource of Greece and so mining occupied an important place in the economy. Ancient Greeks typically used bronze and iron tools and weapons. There is little evidence that copper, the principal metal in bronze, was ever mined in abundance on mainland Greece. It had to be imported from the island of Cyprus, where it existed in large quantities, and other more distant regions. Tin, the other metal in bronze, was also rare in Greece and had to be imported from as far away as Britain. Iron is relatively plentiful throughout Greece and there is archaeological evidence of iron mining; however, literary references to it are few and so we know little about the process.

Precious metals were used in jewelry, art, and coinage. Athens had an abundance of silver and we know much about its mining industry from surviving inscriptions of government mine leases to private entrepreneurs. The mines were extremely productive, providing Athens with an income of 200 talents per year for twelve years from 338 B.C. onward. One talent was the equivalent of around nine year’s worth of wages for single skilled laborer working five days a week, 52 weeks a year, according to the wage rates we know from 377 B.C. Though productive in silver, ancient Greece was not as rich in gold, which was found primarily in Thrace and on the islands of Thasos and Siphnos.

Recent scholarship continues to focus on the silver mines of Athens, drawing not only on the inscribed mine leases, but also on extensive archaeological investigation of the mines themselves. They tend to indicate that, contrary to the Finley model, mining in Athens was specialized enough and extensive enough to constitute an “industry” in the modern sense of the word and one geared toward growth. In a study of mine-leasing records Kirsty Shipton has shown that the elite of Athens preferred mines leases, with their potential for greater profits, to land leases. Thus, the traditional preference of the elite for the consumptive acquisition of land and disdain for productive investments for profit postulated by the Finley model might be a characteristic feature of the ancient Greek world as a whole, but it does not entirely hold for Athens in the Classical period.

Stone for building and sculpture was another valuable natural resource of Greece. Limestone was available in abundance and fine marble could be found in Athens on the slopes of Mount Pentelikos and on the island of Paros. The former was used in building the Parthenon and the other structures of the Athenian acropolis while the latter was often used for the most famous ancient Greek free-standing and relief sculptures.


It is notoriously difficult to estimate the population of Athens or any other Greek city-state in ancient times. Generally accepted figures for Athens at the height of its power and prosperity in 431 B.C., though, are in the range of approximately 305,000 people, of which perhaps 160,000 were citizens (40,000 male, 40,000 female, 80,000 children), 25,000 were free resident foreigners (metics), and 120,000 were slaves. Athens was the largest polis and the populations of most city-states were probably much smaller. Citizens, metics, and slaves all performed labor in the economy. In addition, many city-states included forms of dependent labor somewhere in between slave and free.

As stated above, much of the agriculture of ancient Greece was carried out by small farmers who were exclusively free citizens, since non-citizens were barred from owning land. But although being a farmer was the social ideal, good land was scarce in Greece and it is estimated that in Athens about a quarter of the male citizens did not own land and had to take up other occupations for their livelihoods. Such occupations existed in the manufacturing, service, retail, and trade sectors. These “business” occupations were not only socially disesteemed, but they also tended to be small scale. Wage earning was very much looked down upon, since working for another person was thought of as an impingement on freedom and akin to slavery. Thus, free men doing the same work side by side with metics and slaves on the Acropolis building projects earned the same wages. Yet wages appear to have been adequate to make a living. In Athens the typical wage for a skilled laborer was one drachma per day at the end of the fifth century and two and a half drachmai in 377. In the fifth century a Greek soldier on campaign received a ration of 1 choinix of wheat per day. The price of wheat in Athens at the end of the fifth century was 3 drachmai per medimnos. There are 48 choinices in a medimnos. Thus, one drachma could buy enough food for 16 days for one person, four days for a family of four.

One thing that made up for the limited number of free citizens who were willing or had to become businessmen or wage earners was the existence of metics, foreign-born, free non-citizens who took up residence in a city-state. It is estimated that Athens had about 25,000 metics at its height and since they were barred from owning land, they engaged in banausic occupations that tended to be looked down upon by the free citizenry. The economic opportunities afforded by such occupations in Athens and other port cities where they were particularly abundant must have been significant. They attracted metics despite the fact that metics had to pay a special poll tax and serve in the military even though they could not own land or participate in politics and had to have a citizen represent them in legal matters. This is confirmed by the numerous metics in Athens who became wealthy and whose names we know, such as the bankers Pasion and Phormion and the shield-maker Cephalus, the father of the orator, Lysias.

Foreign-born, free non-citizen transients known as xenoi also played an important role in the ancient Greek economy, since it is apparent that many, though certainly not all, those who carried out long-distance trade were such men. Like metics, they too were subject to special taxes, but few rights.

Slaves comprised an undeniably large part of the labor force of ancient Greece. In fact, it is fair to say, as Finley did, that ancient Greece was a “slave dependent society.” There were so many slaves; they were so essential to the economy; and they became so thoroughly embedded into the every day life and values of the society that without slavery, ancient Greek civilization could not have existed in the manner it did. In Classical Athens it has been estimated that there were around 120,000 slaves. Thus, slaves comprised over a third of the total population and outnumbered adult male citizens by three to one.

The slaves of Athens were chattel, that is the private property of their owners, and had few, if any, rights. The demand for them was high as they performed almost every kind of work imaginable from agricultural labor to mining labor to shop assistants to domestic labor even to serving as the police force and secretaries for the government in Athens. About the only thing slaves did not normally do was military service, except in emergencies, when they did that too.

Slaves were supplied by a variety of sources. Many were war captives. Some were enslaved for failure to pay debts, though this was outlawed in Athens in the early sixth century B.C. Some were foundlings, abandoned children rescued and reared in return for their labor as slaves. Of course, the children of slaves would also be slaves. In addition, there was an extensive and regular slave trade that trafficked in people who had become slaves by all the means mentioned previously.

In part because of the diverse means by which slaves were supplied, there was no particular race that was singled out for enslavement. Anyone could become a slave if unfortunate enough, including Greeks. It does appear, however, that a large percentage of slaves in Greece originated in the Black Sea and Danubian regions. In most cases they were probably captives from internecine tribal wars and sold to slave traders who shipped them to various parts of the Greek world.

The treatment of chattel slaves varied, depending on the whims of individual slave owners and the types of jobs done by the slaves. Slaves who worked in the silver mines of Athens, for example, worked in dangerous conditions in large numbers (as many as 10,000 at a time) and had virtually no contact with their owners that could result in human bonds of affection (they were usually leased out). On the other hand, slaves who worked in households assisting the matron of the family in her household tasks were probably treated much better as a rule. Their labor was less strenuous and since they worked in close proximity with their owners’ families, at least some human bonds of affection were likely to form between them and their owners. Some slaves even lived on their own and ran their owners’ businesses largely unsupervised.

One aspect of ancient Greek slavery that is often cited as evidence for it being more “humane” than other slavery regimes is manumission. There is enough evidence for slaves being freed to make us believe that manumission was not uncommon and many slaves could probably hope for freedom, even if most of them never actually obtained it. But manumission was quite self-serving for slave owners, since it made slaves much less likely to risk rebellion in the hope that they might some day be given their freedom. As it turns out, there were only two noteworthy large-scale rebellions of chattel slaves in the history of ancient Greece. Moreover, inscriptions from the religious sanctuary of Delphi from the Hellenistic period show that slaves almost always had to compensate their owners for their freedom, either in the form of cash or some other valuable commodity, like their own children, who would also be slaves of the master and eventually replace their aging parents with young labor. So it is a dubious matter to say that the manumission of slaves is a testament to the humanity of ancient Greek slavery. Individual slaves might benefit, but the practice allowed the institution of slavery to flourish throughout Greek history.

When slaves were freed, they did not become citizens, but rather metics. Yet even though they still could not possess the full rights and privileges of citizens, they could prosper economically, just as other metics could. In Athens the prominent and wealthy metic banker, Pasion, for example, was originally a slave who assisted his masters Antisthenes and Archestratus. By the terms of his will, Pasion in turn manumitted his own slave assistant, Phormion, and not only left him his bank, but also stipulated that Phormion marry his widow and manage the inheritance of his son, Apollodorus.

In addition to chattel slavery, there were other forms of dependent labor in the ancient Greek world. One famous example is helotry, known principally from the city-state of Sparta. The helots of Sparta were agricultural serfs, indigenous peoples conquered by the Spartans and forced to work their former lands for their Spartan overlords. They were not the private property of the individual Spartans, who were allotted the former lands of the helots, and could not be bought or sold. But their mobility was completely restricted; they had very few rights; they had to turn over a large percentage of their produce to their Spartan overlords; and they were routinely terrorized as a matter Spartan state policy. The one drawback for the Spartans of using helot labor, though, was that the helots, living still on their former homeland and having a sense of ethnic unity, were prone to revolt and did so on several occasions at great cost both to themselves and to the Spartans.

With the exception of Sparta and a few other city-states, women in ancient Greece, free citizens or otherwise, could not control land. They could own it in name only and were not allowed to dispose of it as they saw fit, but were legally obliged to yield control of it to a male representative. Since land was the chief source of wealth in the ancient Greek economy, the inability to control it severely constrained the economic role of women. The ideal was for women to get married, have children, raise them, and carry out the indoor tasks of the household, such as cooking and textile production.

Of course, not all women could live up to such an ideal at all times. Women undoubtedly helped outdoors on the farm during harvest time. Those of poorer families might by necessity have to sell in the market place what little surplus produce their households could generate or perform service-oriented jobs for others for wages. Female metics and slaves did similar work and also comprised the majority of the prostitutes of Athens, which was a legal profession. Prostitutes, though, ranged from lowly brothel workers to high-class call girls, the latter of which, such as Aspasia, sometimes obtained prominence in Athenian society.

Despite their disdain for certain types of work and their dependence on slave labor, most Greeks had to work hard to make a living. Yet they did not develop a “work ethic” and did not consider work to be ennobling, but simply necessary. Hence, if one could afford a slave to do one’s work, then one bought a slave. The availability of cheap slaves was a major factor in Greek attitudes toward labor and may also explain why there were no labor unions in Greece. For how could wage-earners pressure their employers for better conditions or wages when the latter could always replace them with slaves if necessary?


Slavery also affected manufacturing in ancient Greece. It is often said that technology and industrial organization stagnated in ancient Greece because the availability of cheap slave labor obviated any imminent need to improve them. If one wanted to produce more, one merely bought a few more slaves. Thus, most manufactured products were literally hand-made with simple tools. There were no assembly lines and no big factories. The largest manufacturing establishment we know of was a shield factory owned by the metic, Cephalus, the father of the orator, Lysias, which employed 120 slaves. Most manufacturing was carried out in small shops or within households. Hence, in comparison with agriculture, manufacturing comprised a small part of the ancient Greek economy.

Nevertheless, documentary and archaeological evidence attests to a wide variety of manufactured items and some in large quantities. Among the most extensively manufactured products was clay pottery, the remains of which archaeologists have found scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. The wheel-made pots took many shapes appropriate for their contents and use, which ranged from hydria for water to amphorae for olive oil and wine to pithoi for grain to aryballoi for perfume to kylikes for drinking cups. Finely painted vases were also manufactured for decorative and ritual purposes. The finest, most numerous, and widely dispersed of these were made in Corinth, Aegina, Athens, and Rhodes.

Literary accounts as well as scenes from painted vases make it clear that the ancient Greeks left textile production largely to women. The principal material they worked with was wool, but linen from flax was also common. Textiles were used in turn in the manufacture of clothing. Again, women were largely responsible for this and it was done primarily within the household. Textiles were often dyed, the most desirable dye being a reddish purple color derived from aquatic murex snails. These had to be harvested, mashed into a jelly, and then boiled to extract the dye.

Although the trees of Greece were for the most part not particularly good for woodworking materials and especially not for large-scale building, the Greeks did use wood extensively and, therefore, had to import good timber from places like Macedonia, the Black Sea region, and Asia Minor. Given the countless islands of Greece, it is not surprising that shipbuilding was an important sector of manufacturing. Vessels were needed for commercial as well as military uses. In Athens the state obtained the necessary timber for the ships (and oars) of its navy, but it contracted with carpenters who worked under the supervision of state officials to craft the timber into the warships that were so vital for Athenian power in the Classical period.

Buildings ranged from private houses to monumental stone temples. The former tended to be rather humble, made of unbaked mud brick laid on a stone foundation and covered by a thatched or tiled roof. On the other hand, the great temples of ancient Greece required much organization, many resources, and incredible technical skill. As is evidenced by the extant accounts for the construction of the buildings of the Athenian acropolis, the work was normally contracted out in small units to private individuals who either worked alone or in charge of others to do anything from quarrying marble to transporting wooden beams to sculpting facades. The degree of specialization varied. In some cases we see contractors carrying out a variety of tasks, whereas in others we see them specializing in only one.

Metal crafts were highly specialized. The Greeks smelted iron, but only in wrought form. They were unable to achieve furnace temperatures high enough to make pig iron and did not have the technical know-how to add carbon to the smelting process with enough precision to make steel with any consistency. Blacksmiths crafted body armor, shields, spears, swords, farm implements, and household utensils. Bronze casting reached the level of fine art in Classical Greece. Sculptors used the lost-wax method, in which they first made a clay model of a statue, then covered the model with a layer of wax, which they then covered again with another layer of clay. Small openings were left in the outer clay covering, into which molten bronze was poured. The hot molten bronze melted the wax, which then flowed out another opening in the outer clay covering. After the bronze cooled the outer clay covering was broken off, leaving the cast bronze.

It is clear that in the Classical period in Athens there was much specialization in manufacturing and that the quantity of goods was far greater than that which could have been produced in a purely “household economy.” At the same time, however, the scale and organization of manufacturing was a far cry from those of industrialized civilizations of recent centuries.

Markets and Prices

According to the Finley model, there was no network of interconnected markets to form a price-setting market economy in the ancient Greek world. Although this is true for the most part, like other aspects of the Finley model, the case is overstated. There do, for example, appear to be connections between markets for some commodities, such as grain and probably precious metals as well. In the case of grain, it can be shown that supply and demand over long-distances did have an impact on prices and traders sought to take advantage of the lag-time between price adjustments in order to make a profit. Obviously, though, this is nothing like the modern world in which the price of crude oil changes instantly worldwide in reaction to a change in supply from one of the major producers. For the most part in ancient Greece, prices were set in accordance with local conditions, personal relationships, and haggling.

Government price-fixing was limited. Although there is evidence that Athens, for example, fixed the retail price of bread in proportion to the wholesale price of grain, there is no evidence that it fixed the price of the latter. Even in times of severe grain shortages, Athens was content to allow traders bringing grain to Athens to charge the going rate. In such cases, the state alleviated the crises for its citizens by paying the going rate for the grain and then reselling it to its citizenry at a lower price.

Despite the general absence of interconnected markets, however, there were market places. Each city-state had at least one market place (agora) in the heart of city and a port market (emporion) as well, if it had a good harbor. The agora was a place of much activity, serving not only as a center of economic exchange, but also as a political, religious, and social center. In the agora one could find law courts, offices for public officials, and coin mints as well as shrines and temples. In fact, agorai were considered sacred places to the degree that they were marked off with boundary stones across which no one who had the stain of religious pollution could cross. Within the agora economic activities were segregated by types of goods, services, and labor so that there were specific places where one could regularly find the fishmongers, blacksmiths, money changers, and so on.

Ancient Greek city-states regulated the economic activities that took place in their markets to a certain degree. Public officials oversaw weights, measures, scales, and coinage to limit and resolve disputes in exchanges as well as to ensure state interests. For example, Athens employed a publicly owned slave to check coins and guard against counterfeiters. In this way, Athens protected the integrity of its own coinage as well as the interests of buyers and sellers. The state ensured the affordability of key goods, such as bread, by fixing its retail prices relative to the wholesale price of grain. Various activities in the market place were also taxed by the state. Port and transit taxes affected exchanges in emporia like the Piraeus of Athens and xenoi had to pay a special tax for engaging in transactions in the agora.


Local trade between countryside and urban center and on the retail level within cities continued largely as it had in the Archaic period. But rather than producers transporting and selling their surplus goods directly in city markets, specialized retailers (kapeloi) who profited as middlemen between producers and consumers became more the norm. Local trade goods could be probably transported over short distances on land. But long-distance trade over land was difficult and time consuming, given the mountainous topography of Greece and the fact that the fragmented city-states of Greece never built an extensive system of paved roads that tied them together in the manner of the Roman Empire. Most “roads” between cities were single track and suitable only for pack animals, though there were some on which wheeled carts could be pulled by oxen, donkeys, or mules.

Long-distance trade was primarily done by merchant ships over the waters of the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Black Seas. Evidence from the Attic Orators indicates that during the Classical period overseas trade developed into a specialized and important sector of the economy. Trade was carried out by private individuals and not organized by the state. A typical trading venture involved a non-citizen trader (emporos) who either owned his own ship or rented space on a ship owned by another (naukleros). In most cases described by the orators, the traders typically borrowed money from a citizen lender to finance the venture. There is some dispute among scholars whether such loans constituted productive borrowing on the part of the traders or were just a type of insurance, because the loans would only have to be repaid if the ship and cargo reached their contracted destinations. From the perspective of the lenders, the loans were certainly productive, since they charged interest at a rate much higher than that which applied to loans on the security of land, anywhere from 12 to 30%.

Marine archaeology has recently increased our knowledge of merchant vessels and their cargoes tenfold by the discovery of several ancient shipwrecks. The ships appear to have been generally small by modern standards. In 1968 the well-preserved wreck of a merchant ship from c. 300 B.C. was found off the coast of Kyrenia in Cyprus. Being only 35 feet long and 15 feet wide with a capacity of 30 tons, it is probably the kind of merchant vessel that made short hauls and kept within sight of the coastline. But other shipwrecks as well as evidence from the Attic Orators seem to indicate that the typical capacity of merchant vessels that traveled over long distances on the open sea was some 80 tons.

Many of the goods traded throughout ancient Greek history were luxury goods, manufactured items, such as jewelry and finely painted vases, as well as specialty agricultural products like fine wine and honey. Necessities were also traded, however, for without long-distance trade, many Greek cities would not have been able to obtain metals, timber, wine, and slaves. One of the most extensively traded necessity items was grain, which came to Athens typically from the Black Sea region, Thrace, and Egypt. According to the orator, Demosthenes, Athens imported some 400,000 medimnoi (approximately 4,800,000 liters) of grain per year in the late fourth century from the Crimean kingdom of the Bosporus alone.

Chiefly because of the need for certain imports, such as grain and timber, and for revenue drawn from taxes on trade, many cities did have an interest and involvement in overseas trade. Athens in particular made laws that prohibited the export of grain produced in Athens and required that loans on trading ventures be for cargoes of grain and that ships bringing grain into the Piraeus sell one-third of it on the spot and the remaining two-thirds in Athens. Athens also instituted special courts to expedite the adjudication of disputes involving traders, granted honors and privileges to anyone who performed extraordinary services relating to trade for the city, and made agreements with other states to obtain favorable conditions for those bringing grain to Athens.

In all the aforementioned examples Athens’ chief interest was to supply itself with imported grain so that its citizenry could obtain food at reasonable prices. Athens was not particularly concerned with helping traders and enhancing their profits per se or in obtaining a trade surplus or to protect home produced goods against imported foreign ones. To this extent, then, the Finley model holds true, even if it is clear that the Athenian state recognized that its interests were complementary with those of foreign traders and, thus, had to help them in order to help itself.

Moreover, it does appear that Athens had some concern about its home produced products as well, at least in the case of silver. Xenophon, an Athenian writer from the fourth century, noted that Athens could always be assured of traders bringing their goods into Athens, because traders knew they could always get a valuable trade commodity, namely silver in the form of Athenian coinage, in exchange. To ensure the demand for its silver, Athens took great care to maintain the reputation of its coinage for high quality and to associate that reputation with a familiar design that went unchanged for several centuries. Such a policy attests to a state interest in production and exports, at least in this sector of the economy.

Athens was also motivated to encourage trade to obtain revenue from taxes. Both transient and resident foreigner traders had to pay poll taxes in Athens that citizens did not. Athens also had various port, transit, and market taxes that would benefit by increased trade, including a two percent tax on all imports and exports.

Money and Banking

With few exceptions (Sparta being the most famous), the Greeks of the Classical period had a thoroughly monetized economy employing coinage whose value was based on precious metals, principally silver. The value of the coinage was commensurate to the value of the precious metal it contained with a small mark-up, since the value of the metal was guaranteed by its issuing state. The tie of the Greek monetary system to the supply of precious metals limited the ability of governments to influence their economies through the manipulation of their money supplies. However, we do know of cases when states debased their coinages for such purposes.

Ancient Greek coins are similar in appearance to modern ones. But like other manufactured products in ancient Greece, they were made by hand. A blank metal circular “flan” was placed on an obverse die that rested on an anvil and then was struck with a hammer bearing a reverse die. The nature of the process naturally produced coins in which the image was often poorly centered on the flan. Nevertheless, the issuing authority, usually a government, was clear as the designs or “types” of the coins expressed an image symbolic of the issuing authority and were often augmented by a “legend” of letters that spelled out an abbreviation of the issuing authority’s name.

Coinage was issued in a variety of denominations and weight standards by various city-states. The chief weight standards of the Classical period were the Attic, Aeginetan, Euboiic, and Corinthian. The basis of the Attic standard was the silver tetradrachm of 17.2 grams, which retained the design of the head of Athena on the obverse and her symbolic owl on the reverse throughout the Classical period. It was the most widely circulated coinage during this time and appears in large numbers of hoards found throughout the Greek world and beyond. This was due not only to the far reach of Athenian trade, but also to Athenian imperialism. Athens used its coinage to pay for its military operations abroad and even issued the “Standards Decree,” which for a few decades of the fifth century required the many cities of the Aegean Sea under its control to discontinue their local types and use only Athenian coinage. The local coinage had to be turned in, melted down, and re-struck as Athenian coinage for a fee. Unlike that of Athens, most city-states’ coinages circulated only locally. When such local issues were taken abroad, they were probably treated as bullion, as can be inferred from test-cuts often found on them.

A recent debate among scholars concerns the degree to which coinage was an economic or a political phenomenon in the ancient Greek world. Finley’s model, of course, holds that coinage had strictly political functions. Finley believed that coinage was merely a tool designed to reinforce and project a city-state’s civic identity. States minted coins not to facilitate economic transactions among their citizens, but merely for state purposes so that, for example, it had a convenient medium through which to collect taxes or make state expenditures. Athens’ “Standards Decree” was not undertaken for economic gain, but for political purposes to facilitate tribute payments and to show Athens’ subjects who was boss.

But here again Finley goes too far. Although the type of a Greek coin certainly expressed political symbols and could, therefore, serve as a political tool, such symbolism was largely lost on people who used the coins in places like Egypt, the Levant, Asia Minor, and Mesopotamia, where hoards of Greek coins have been found in abundance. The fact that they could use the coins independently of their original political context (and for what else besides economic purposes then?) is a good reason to believe that the Greeks could do so as well. Moreover, as Henry Kim has recently argued, the minting of large quantities of small-denomination coinage from the outset in Greece shows that the state did have a concern for the wide use of coinage at the micro-level by common people in day-to-day economic exchanges, not just for large-scale public and political purposes.

Nevertheless, one of the most active areas of research on ancient Greek money and coinage today concerns its representational nature and place within sectors other than the economy, including religion, society, and politics. Both Leslie Kurke and Sitta von Reden have argued that the advent of a monetized economy employing coinage need not have undermined traditional values or led to a disembedding of the economy. Rather, the symbolic aspect of coinage could be manipulated to reinforce traditional social and religious practices that were non-economic in the modern sense. In her analysis of the poetry of Pindar, for example, Kurke argues that the poet re-embedded money within traditional social values, thereby allowing the landed aristocratic elite to embrace money and its potential for de-personalizing social interactions without discarding the old social ties and values that bolstered their privileged place in society. Although von Reden believes that the use of coinage arose within an embedded economic context and, therefore, did not have to be re-embedded, she has argued that coinage and other forms of money did not have an intrinsically economic use or meaning in ancient Greece, but rather multiple meanings that were determined by the context within which they were used, which could be social, religious, or political as well as economic.

Given that the ancient Greeks did have a monetized economy, it is not surprising that they also developed banking and credit institutions. It is generally agreed that at the very least, bankers, who were metics as a rule (note Pasion and Phormion above), performed various functions from money-changing to securing deposits in cash and other assets. The question whether bankers lent out money deposited by others at interest, however, is the subject of some debate. Paul Millett, a student of Finley, not surprisingly argues in his book, Lending and Borrowing in Ancient Athens, that bankers did not loan out other peoples money for interest and he formulates a model in which lending and borrowing were predominantly done for consumptive purposes and, therefore, thoroughly embedded in traditional social relations. In contrast, Edward Cohen’s book, Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective, employs a close philological analysis of the evidence in his assertion that productive lending and borrowing, divorced from concerns for personal relationships, were common in Classical Athens and that bankers did indeed lend out deposited money at interest. Although Millett may be right that much of the lending and borrowing in Athens was for consumptive purposes, particularly those secured by landed property, it is hard to deny that the evidence of productive lending and borrowing from banking practices, numerous maritime loans, and even temple loans in the Classical period constitute something more than just exceptions to the rule.

Economic Changes during the Hellenistic Period

In large part owing to the Near Eastern conquests of Alexander the Great, but also because of social and economic changes that had already been occurring during the Classical period, the economy of the Hellenistic period (323-30 B.C.) grew immensely in scale. The Finley model is probably right in general to hold that the essentially consumptive nature of the economy in the traditional Greek homelands changed little during this time. But it is clear that there were significant innovations in some places and sectors on account of the collision and fusion of Greek notions of the economy with those of the newly won lands of the Near East. Thus, we see greatly increased government control over the economy, as evidenced most strikingly in the surviving papyrus records of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt.

A large percentage of the land and, therefore, agriculture, was controlled by the Greek royal dynasties that ran the Hellenistic kingdoms. Peasants whose status lay somewhere between slave and free not only worked the king’s lands, but were also often required to labor on other royal projects. The Ptolemies of Egypt dominated agriculture to such an extent that they instituted an official planting schedule for various crops and even loaned out the tools used by farmers on state-owned lands. Almost all produce from these estates was turned over to the government and redistributed for sale to the population. Some crown lands, however, were assigned to government officials or soldiers and though technically still the property of the state, they often came to be treated as de facto private property.

The Ptolemaic state also involved itself in various manufacturing processes, such as olive oil production. Not only were the olives cultivated on state-controlled lands by peasant labor, but the oil was extracted by contracted labor and sold at the retail level by licensed dealers at fixed prices. However, the state probably had no intention to improve efficiency or to provide better quality olive oil at lower prices to its citizens. The Ptolemies instituted a tax on imported olive oil of 50 percent that was essentially a protective tariff. The goal of the government seems to have been to protect the profits of its state-run business.

Yet for all its interference in the economy, the Ptolemaic government did not assemble a state merchant fleet and instead contracted with private traders to transport grain to and from public granaries. It also left it up to private traders to import the few goods that Egypt needed from abroad, including various metals, timber, horses, and elephants, all of which were essential for the Ptolemies’ standing mercenary army and fleet. But although the Ptolemies also exported wheat and papyrus, for the most part, the economy of Egypt was a closed one. Unlike the other Hellenistic kingdoms, Egypt minted coins on a lighter standard than the Attic one universalized by Alexander the Great. Moreover, in 285, the Ptolemies barred the use of foreign coins in Egypt and required them to be turned in to government officials, melted down, and re-minted as Egyptian coinage for a fee. Although Egypt controlled gold mines in Nubia, it did not produce silver and had chronic shortages of silver coins for daily transactions. Thus, many exchanges were performed in kind rather than in cash, even though value was always expressed in cash equivalents.

Despite its chronic shortages of silver coins and its closed coinage system, Egypt still had a coin-based economy largely because of Alexander the Great, who flooded the economies of the eastern Mediterranean with coins and monetized some places in the Near East for the first time. Along with coinage, Greek banking practices also made their way into these areas. Thus, the general scale of economic activities increased as large kingdoms of the Near East and the Greek mainland and islands became more interconnected. Although this was offset to some degree by political instability and warfare during the Hellenistic period, in general we do see economic activity on a larger scale and increased specialization as some places, such as Tyre and Sidon in Phoenicia, became renowned for particular products, in this case purple dye and glassware respectively. Moreover, thousands of amphorae whose handles were stamped with names of issuing magistrates have been found that, if nothing else, reveal a very high volume of pottery production and may also allow scholars some day to reconstruct in more detail other aspects of the economy, such as agricultural production, land tenure, and trade patterns.

The Hellenistic period is known for its technological innovation and some new technologies did have an impact on the economy. Archimedes’ screw-like pump was used to remove water from mines and to improve irrigation for agriculture. In addition, new varieties of wheat and the increased use of iron ploughs improved yield while better grape and olive presses facilitated wine and oil production. Unfortunately, some of the most impressive technological innovations of the Hellenistic period, such as Heron’s steam engine, were never applied in any significant way. Thus, most production continued to be low tech and labor intensive.

All in all, then, although the scale of the economy increased during the Hellenistic period, consumption still seems to have been the primary goal. Technology was not applied as much as it might have been to increase production. States were much more involved in economic affairs, both in controlling production and in collecting taxes on countless items and activities, but mostly just to extract as much revenue from them as possible. The revenue was spent in turn in royal benefactions (euergetism), but mostly only for ostentatious display that threw money into non-productive sink holes.


The foregoing survey shows that the Finley model provides a reasonable, if simplified, general picture of the ancient Greek economy. Overall, the ancient Greek economy was very different from our own. It was much smaller in scale and differed in quality as well, since it generally lacked the productive growth mentality and the interconnected markets that are so characteristic of most of the world economy today. With regard to the details, however, recent studies are showing that the Finley model does at least need to be revised. As more research is done, it may even be necessary to replace the Finley model altogether in favor of one that fits the evidence better. In the meantime, though, we can still use Finley’s model as a basic description while being careful to acknowledge the contradictory evidence provided by recent studies and continuing to investigate the various sectors of the ancient Greek economy at various times and places.

Select Annotated Bibliography

The bibliography on the ancient Greek economy is enormous and it would be counterproductive to list all works here. Therefore, I list only a selection of the essential primary and secondary works, preferring more recent works in English for the sake of students. Further and more specialized works may be found within the bibliographies of the works listed below.

Primary Sources

Literary Works

Many of the literary works listed below are available in the Loeb Classical Library and Penguin Classics series in English translations.

Aristotle, Politics (particularly 1.1258b37-1.1259a5)

In his study of the polis, Aristotle devotes this section to modes of acquisition and criticizes what we would call “capitalism.”

[Aristotle], Oikonomikos (Economics – “household management”)

Book 2 shows how states obtain revenues. The methods are largely coercive, not productive, such as cornering the market in grain during a famine, debasing coinage, etc.

Demosthenes and [Demosthenes], speeches

Especially useful are several speeches for lawsuits involving economic matters.

Hesiod, Works and Days

A poem containing advice and attitudes about farming in the early Archaic period, c 700 B.C.

Homer, Iliad and Odyssey

Two great epic poems with much information about economic practices at the outset of the Archaic period, c. 800-750 B.C.

Isokrates, speeches (especially Trapezitikos and On the Peace)

On the Peace argues for economic activity rather than warfare as a means of obtaining revenues for the state. Trapezitikos concerns a lawsuit involving trade and banking.

Lysias, speeches (especially On the Grain Retailers)

Plato, Republic and Laws

These two dialogues concern the organization of the polis. Although the Republic represents the ideal city-state and the Laws presents a more realistic picture, both betray an elitist disdain for non-landed economic activities.

Xenophon, Oikonomikos (Economics – “household management”) and Poroi (Revenues)

Two extended essays on household management and the means by which the state may obtain more revenues, respectively. The latter is one of the most important documents concerning state interests in trade and mining.

[Xenophon] “The Old Oligarch” (or “Constitution of the Athenians”)

This is an anonymous mid-fifth-century B.C. political pamphlet that argues that the life-blood of Athenian democracy is the economic exploitation of the so-called “allies” of Athens.

Collections of Primary Sources: Documentary, Epigraphic, and Material

Burstein, S.M. The Hellenistic Age from the Battle of Ipsos to the Death of Kleopatra VII. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

A collection of documents, including inscriptions, translated into English.

Fornara, C.W. From Archaic Times to the End of the Peloponnesian War, second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

A collection of documents, including inscriptions, translated into English.

Harding, P. From the End of the Peloponnesian War to the Battle of Ipsus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

A collection of documents, including inscriptions, translated into English.

Meijer, F. and O. van Nijf. Trade, Transport, and Society in the Ancient World. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

A sourcebook of documents translated into English.

Thompson, M., O. Mørkholm, and C.M. Kraay, editors. An Inventory of Greek Coin Hoards. New York: American Numismatic Society, 1973.

Essential listing of all discovered hoards of ancient Greek coins up to 1973.

Wiedemann, T. Greek and Roman Slavery. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

Excellent collection of documents on Greek and Roman slavery translated into English.

Secondary Sources

General Works and Surveys

Austin, M.M. and P. Vidal-Naquet. Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Provides both a survey of the subject and excerpts from the primary sources of evidence. It adheres to the Finley model in general.

Austin, M.M. 1988. “Greek Trade, Industry, and Labor.” In Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome, volume 2, edited by M. Grant and R. Kitzinger, 723-51. New York: Scribner’s.

Often insightful overview of the ancient Greek economy primarily from the Finley perspective.

Cambridge Ancient History (CAH), second edition. Several volumes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The standard encyclopedia of ancient history with entries on various subjects, including the ancient Greek economy at different periods, by leading scholars.

Finley, M. I. The Ancient Economy, second edition. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1985. (Now available in an “Updated Edition” with a foreword by Ian Morris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.)

The most influential book on the subject since its initial publication in 1973. It takes a synchronic approach to the Greek and Roman economies and argues that they cannot be analyzed or understood in terms appropriate for modern economic analysis. In general, the ancient Greek economy was “embedded” in “non-economic” social and political values and institutions. Heavily influenced by Weber, Hasebroek, and Polanyi.

Hasebroek, J. Trade and Politics in Ancient Greece. Translated by L.M. Fraser and D.C. MacGregor. Reprint. London, 1933. (Originally published as Staat und Handel im alten Griechenland [Tübingen, 1928].)

A classic that greatly influenced Finley.

Hopper, R.J. Trade and Industry in Classical Greece. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.

Survey of various aspects of the ancient Greek economy in the Classical period.

Humphreys, S.C. “Economy and Society in Classical Athens.” Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa 39 (1970):1-26.

An important survey that also argues for focused studies on individual sectors of the ancient Greek economy at particular times and places.

Lowry, S.T. “Recent Literature on Ancient Greek Economic Thought.” Journal of Economic Literature 17 (1979): 65-86.

Michell, H. The Economics of Ancient Greece, second edition. Cambridge: W. Heffer, 1963.

Slightly dated, but useful survey.

Morris, Ian. “The Ancient Economy Twenty Years after The Ancient Economy.” Classical Philology 89 (1994): 351-366.

Excellent survey of new approaches to the study of the ancient Greek and Roman economies since Finley, to whose model the author is generally sympathetic.

Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD), third revised edition, edited by S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Includes brief entries by leading scholars on various aspects of the ancient Greek economy.

Pearson, H.W. “The Secular Debate on Economic Primitivism.” In Trade and Market in the Early Empires, edited by K. Polanyi, C.M. Arensberg, and H.W. Pearson, 3-11. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957.

A concise statement of the influential ideas of Karl Polyani about the ancient Greek economy.

Rostovtzeff, M. The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941.

Monumental “modernist” approach to a wealth of archaeological evidence about the economy during the Hellenistic period.

Samuel, A.E. From Athens to Alexandria: Hellenism and Social Goals in Ptolemaic Egypt. Lovanii, 1983.

A good survey with an important discussion of ancient Greek attitudes toward economic growth.

Starr, C.G. The Economic and Social Growth of Early Greece, 800-500 B.C. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Modernist survey.

Weber, M. Economy and Society. Translated by E. Fischoff et al. Edited by G. Roth and C.

Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. (Originally published as Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Tübingen, 1956].)

A classic that greatly influenced Hasebroek and Finley.


Archibald, Z.H., J. Davies, and G. Oliver. Hellenistic Economies. London: Routledge, 2001.

Collection of articles that take the study of the economy in the Hellenistic period beyond Rostovtzeff.

Cartledge, P., E.E. Cohen, and L. Foxhall. Money, Labour, and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece. London: Routledge, 2002.

Finley, M.I. Economy and Society in Ancient Greece. Edited by B.D. Shaw and R.P. Saller. New York: Viking, 1982.

Garnsey, P. Non-Slave Labour in the Graeco-Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, 1980.

Garnsey, P., K. Hopkins, and C.R. Whittaker. Trade in the Ancient Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

A collection of articles along Finley lines.

Mattingly, D.J. and J. Salmon. Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World. London: Routledge, 2001.

A collection of articles that focuses on the non-agrarian sectors of the ancient Greek and Roman economies with a mind to revising the Finley model.

Meadows, A. and K. Shipton. Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

A collection of articles on the use of money and coinage in ancient Greece.

Parkins, H. and C. Smith. Trade, Traders, and the Ancient City. London: Routledge, 1998.

Scheidel, W. and S. von Reden. The Ancient Economy. London: Routledge, 2002.

An excellent collection of some of the most important articles on the ancient Greek and Roman economy from the last 30 years with a helpful introduction, notes, and glossary. Especially useful is their “Guide to Further Reading,” pp. 272-278.

Specialized Works

Brock, R. “The Labour of Women in Classical Athens.” Classical Quarterly 44 (1994): 336-346.

Burke, E.M. “The Economy of Athens in the Classical Era: Some Adjustments to the Primitivist Model.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 122 (1992): 199-226.

A good argument that attempts to adjust the Finley model.

Carradice, I. and M. Price. Coinage in the Greek World. London: Seaby, 1988.

A brief, accessible survey.

Cohen, E. E. Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

A close philological study of the evidence for banking practices in Classical Athens that argues for a disembedded economy with productive credit transactions.

Engen, D.T. Athenian Trade Policy, 415-307 B.C.: Honors and Privileges for Trade-Related Services. Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA, 1996. (This dissertation is currently being revised for publication as a book tentatively entitled, Honor and Profit: Athenian Trade Policy, 415-307 B.C.E.)

Examines Athenian state honors for those performing services relating to trade and argues for a revision of some aspects of the Finley model.

Engen, D.T. “Trade, Traders, and the Economy of Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.E.” In Prehistory and History: Ethnicity, Class, and Political Economy, edited by David W. Tandy, 179-202. Montreal: Black Rose, 2001.

Argues for the diversity of those responsible for trade involving Classical Athens.

Engen, D.T. “Ancient Greenbacks: Athenian Owls, the Law of Nikophon, and the Ancient Greek Economy.” Historia, forthcoming(a).

Argues that the numismatic policies of Athens may indicate a state interest in exports.

­­­­­Engen, D.T. “Seeing the Forest for the Trees of the Ancient Economy.” Ancient History Bulletin, forthcoming(b).

A review article of Meadows and Shipton, 2001, and Scheidel and von Reden, 2002, that argues for the mutual compatibility of broad and detailed studies of the ancient Greek and Roman economies.

Finley, M.I. The World of Odysseus, revised edition. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

A brief and highly readable survey of the early Archaic period.

Fisher, N.R.E. Slavery in Classical Greece. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1993.

A brief survey.

Garlan, Y. Slavery in Ancient Greece, revised edition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

The standard survey of slavery in ancient Greece.

Garnsey, P. Famine and Food Supply in the Greco-Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Examines private and public strategies to ensure food supplies.

Isager, S. and J.E. Skydsgaard. Ancient Greek Agriculture: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 1992.

Kim, H.S. “Archaic Coinage as Evidence for the Use of Money.” In Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World, edited by A. Meadows and K. Shipton, 7-21. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Argues that the existence of large quantities of small-denomination coins from the earliest of coinage in ancient Greece is evidence of the economic use of coinage.

Kraay, C.M. Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Long the standard survey of ancient Greek coinage.

Kurke, L. The Traffic in Praise: Pindar and the Poetics of Social Economy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Takes the new cultural history approach to analyzing the poetry of Pindar and how it represents money within the social and political value system of ancient Greece.

Kurke, L. Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece, 1999. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Millett, P. Lending and Borrowing in Ancient Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Reinforces the Finley model by arguing that lending and borrowing was primarily for consumptive purposes and embedded among traditional communal values in Athens.

Osborne, R. Classical Landscape with Figures: The Ancient Greek City and Its Countryside. London: George Philip, 1987.

Explores rural production and exchange within political and religious contexts.

Sallares, R. The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World. London: Duckworth, 1991.

Interdisciplinary analysis of a massive amount of information on a wide variety of aspects of the ecology of ancient Greece.

Schaps, David M. The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Shipton, K. “Money and the Elite in Classical Athens.” In Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World, edited by A. Meadows and K. Shipton, 129-44. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Argues that the elite of Athens preferred leasing high-profit silver mines to public land.

Tandy, D. Warriors into Traders: The Power of the Market in Early Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Traces developments in the economy of the Archaic period and argues that they had an important impact in the formation of the basic social and political institutions of the polis.

Von Reden, S. Exchange in Ancient Greece. London: Duckworth. 1995.

Employs the methods of new cultural history to argue that exchange in ancient Greece was thoroughly embedded in non-economic social, religious, and political institutions and practices.

Von Reden, S. “Money, Law, and Exchange: Coinage in the Greek Polis.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1997): 154-176.

A cultural historical study of the representational uses of coinage in the social, political, and economic life of ancient Greece at the advent of the use of coinage.

White, K.D. Greek and Roman Technology. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

1 Portions of this article have or will appear in other forms in Engen, 1996, Engen, 2001, Engen, Forthcoming(a), and Engen, Forthcoming(b).

2 This article will not discuss the preceding Mycenaean period (c. 1700-1100 B.C.) and “Dark Age” (c. 1100-776 B.C.E.). During the Mycenaean period, the ancient Greeks had primarily a Near Eastern style palace-controlled, redistributive economy, but this crumbled on account of violent disruptions and population movements, leaving Greece largely in the “dark” and the economy depressed for most of the next 300 years.

Citation: Engen, Darel. “The Economy of Ancient Greece”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. July 31, 2004. URL

Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece

Author(s):Amemiya, Takeshi
Reviewer(s):Engen, Darel Tai

Published by EH.NET (April 2009)

Takeshi Amemiya, Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece. London: Routledge, 2007. xxiv + 184 pp. $160 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-415-70154-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Darel Tai Engen, Department of History, California State University ? San Marcos.

The economy of ancient Greece continues to be a fruitful area of research for both economic and ancient Greek historians. There has been an average of more than one major publication per year over the last twelve years that represent what can be described as the Post-Finley era of scholarship on the topic.[1] These studies have called into question various aspects of M.I. Finley?s influential yet oversimplified conception of the ancient Greek economy by offering focused examinations of particular economic sectors at specific times and places. The damage done to Finley?s model has been significant enough to prompt some to call for a new model (or at least a substantially revised version of Finley?s) that can better account for the fundamental features of the ancient Greek economy.[2] Takeshi Amemiya, a Stanford professor of economics known for his work on econometrics, has attempted to fill this void with his book Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece, which offers what he asserts is a new model of the ancient Greek economy within a survey primarily intended for use as an undergraduate textbook. However, a model should illuminate both the ends and the means of economic activity, as well as the types and quantities of wealth it creates, while a textbook should describe and explain the complexities of a rather specialized field in an accessible manner for the novice. Thus, although Amemiya is to be praised for attempting such a daunting task and for succeeding to the point of producing a useful collection of evidence concerning the economy of Classical Athens, Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece ultimately comes up short of achieving its goals in both conception and execution.

Amemiya organizes his book into three parts. The first is a brief overview of the history, society, and culture of ancient Greece that is intended to provide undergraduate students with the context necessary for understanding the ancient Greek economy, but Amemiya?s rather idiosyncratic choice of topics undermines its effectiveness. Although the focus of the book is the economy of Athens during the Classical period (which Amemiya dates 510-322 BCE), Amemiya chooses to begin his survey in 1600 BCE with descriptions of the Mycenaean, Dark, and Archaic Ages that have little to do with the subsequent text. The survey is most effective and relevant in Amemiya?s description of ancient Greek values, such as honor and shame, and attitudes toward wealth and poverty. Also cogent is an informative section on slavery in which he describes the various servile occupations and provides insightful analysis concerning slave productivity and rate of return. Unfortunately, there are also sections on such topics as religion (with unhelpful analogies drawn from Japanese Shinto, about which most American students are likely to know nothing), drama, art, Pre-Socratic philosophy, women, and homosexuality that do not appear to have any relevance to economic matters. The section on Athenian democracy is potentially quite relevant and draws heavily on the analysis of Josiah Ober concerning the mediation of tension between the masses and the elite, but it is diverted by a discussion that attempts to answer the tangential and rather subjective question, ?Was Athenian Democracy a Success?? By such digressions, Amemiya leaves himself insufficient space to treat the relevant sections adequately enough to be useful for undergraduates.

Part 2, which is devoted to a description of the Athenian economy per se, is the most useful part of the book, but it too ultimately disappoints, since it largely eschews analysis in favor of a quantitative accounting that is pretty much left to speak for itself. Amemiya rather summarily dismisses Finley?s model and its predecessors, which rest on an understanding of culturally constructed ?superstructures? or ?behavioral assumptions? that in his view amount to little more than ?cultural relativism? (pp. 58-61).[3] Although Amemiya rightly acknowledges that no economies, including that of ancient Greece or even our own, exist completely independently of society and politics, he nevertheless asserts that ?accounting identities,? such as the notion that in the long run imports and exports must balance each other, are sufficient to explain economic behavior (p. 61). Amemiya?s assumptions allow him to dispense with sustained analysis in favor of an extensive compendium of quantitative data that he promises will be incorporated into ?a model of the Athenian economy? (p. 62). Among such data are the prices and the quantities produced, consumed, and traded (without reference to Reed?s book on traders)[4] of various goods and services, mostly drawn from isolated references in ancient literary sources but some also from the estimates of modern scholars (which are presented without comment). Amemiya describes the public finance of Athens through a collection of ancient references concerning the sources and amounts of the city?s revenues and expenditures, while ancient references to loans and their interest rates (but no reference to Millett?s book on lending and borrowing) and a reiteration of Cohen?s description of banking comprise a section on private finance.[5] Amemiya then concludes Part 2 with his ?model,? which consists of an exposition of five accounting identities, a balance sheet of revenues and expenditures among the following sectors: ??Poor,? ?Rich,? ?M[anu]f[acturin]g,? ?Gov[ernment],? and ?Import and Export Account?? (p. 107). Aside from the fact that the numbers in this accounting are open to question (having been based on isolated ancient references and speculative modern estimates), the ?model? fails to explain their significance. In fact, the chapter ends without a conclusion. There is simply a figure for the GDP of Athens (4,430 talents). Thus, the primary usefulness of Part 2 is not in the supposed model of the Athenian economy, but rather in its qualitative description for non-specialists of the variety of goods produced, consumed, and traded and of the revenues and expenditures of Athens.

But just when it seems that Amemiya would have us believe that the ancient Greek economy was similar to our own market economy, he then devotes Part 3 to the economic thought of Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle and emphasizes their overriding ethical concerns, which contrast markedly with the self-interested Utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill that he identifies as the ?philosophical foundation of modern economics? (p. 117). Although Finley also stressed the ethical nature of ancient Greek economic thought, Amemiya attempts to contradict Finley?s assertion that the ancient Greeks had nothing akin to modern economic analysis by arguing that they understood such sophisticated concepts as the distinction between the use and exchange values of goods, division of labor, the notion of utility to make different goods commensurable for exchange, and a pre-figuring of Edgeworth?s contract curve, in which an exchange will take place only along the tangents of two people?s indifference curves. In Amemiya?s view the many perceived differences between ancient Greek and modern economic analysis are largely a matter of perspective: whereas the ancient Greeks were concerned with how people should act, modern economic analysis focuses on how people do act. Amemiya?s characterization of ancient Greek economic thought is reasonable, but his treatment of Utilitarianism seems overly subjective in its criticism and loses sight of the ancient Greek economy almost entirely. Amemiya may believe that an action is moral only when its intent is completely selfless (regardless of any good outcome and contrary to the tenets of Utilitarianism), but this is not an objective fact. Moreover, whatever the deficiencies of Utilitarianism, it is not clear what this has to do with the ancient Greek economy. The discussion may be useful to show students that the ancient Greeks may have had fundamentally different goals for economic activity from us, but Amemiya needs to make this clearer throughout. If this is indeed the purpose of Part 3, however, then it would seem to undermine his assertion in Part 2 that one can create a model of the ancient Greek economy with accounting identities alone without the need to establish superstructures and behavioral assumptions.

Amemiya states that ?we can safely say that the scholarship of the last ten years has decisively supported the modernist?s [sic] view regarding fifth- and fourth-century Athens? (p. 60, my emphasis), thereby rejecting Finley?s model of an ancient Greek economy that was very different from our own; however, his book does not make clear what we should put in its place. It puts too much weight on dubious numbers that are left to speak for themselves with too little analysis or explanation to serve as a useful model for the specialist. At the same time, the book also contains an idiosyncratic selection of information about the history and philosophy of ancient Greece that does not always appear to be relevant to the economy, making it an ineffective textbook for undergraduates. Still, Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece does contain a good overview of the ancient evidence concerning the variety of goods produced, consumed, and traded and of the revenues and expenditures of Athens, which makes it a useful introduction and reference for those who are already familiar with the history of ancient Greece but who are not specialists on its economy.


1. David W. Tandy, Warriors into Traders: The Power of the Market in Early Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Helen Parkins and Christopher Smith, eds., Trade, Traders, and the Ancient City (London: Routledge, 1998); Zofia H. Archibald, John K. Davies, and Graham J. Oliver, eds., Hellenistic Economies (London: Routledge, 2001); Paul Cartledge, Edward E. Cohen, and Lin Foxhall, eds., Money, Labour, and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece (London: Routledge, 2002); David J. Mattingly and John Salmon, eds., Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World (London: Routledge, 2001); Andrew Meadows and Kirsty Shipton, eds., Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Walter Scheidel and Sitta von Reden, eds., The Ancient Economy (London: Routledge, 2002); Charles M. Reed, Maritime Traders in the Ancient Greek World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); J.G. Manning and Ian Morris, eds., The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005); Alfonso Moreno, Feeding the Democracy: The Athenian Grain Supply in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Graham J. Oliver, War, Food, and Politics in Early Hellenistic Athens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Walter Scheidel, Ian Morris, and Richard P. Saller, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); and William V. Harris, ed., The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

2. John K. Davies, ?Ancient Economies: Models and Muddles? in Helen Parkins et al. 1998 (see note 1) 225-256 and ?Hellenistic Economies in the Post-Finley Era,? in Zofia H. Archibald et al. 2001 (see note 1) 11-62.

3. Darel T. Engen, ?The Ancient Greek Economy,? EH.NET Encyclopedia (2004),

4. Reed 2004 (see note 1).

5. Paul Millett, Lending and Borrowing in Ancient Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Edward E. Cohen, Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

Darel Tai Engen earned a BA in Economics and a PhD in Ancient Greek History from UCLA. He is currently an Associate Professor of History at California State University San Marcos. He has published articles on the ancient Greek economy, including “Trade, Traders, and the Economy of Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.E.,” in D.W. Tandy, editor, Prehistory and History: Ethnicity, Class, and Political Economy (2001) and “Ancient Greenbacks: Athenian Owls, the Law of Nikophon, and the Greek Economy,? Historia 54: 4 (2005). His book, Honor and Profit: Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 B.C.E. is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Ancient

The Open Sea: The Economic Life of the Ancient Mediterranean World from the Iron Age to the Rise of Rome

Author(s):Manning, J.G.
Reviewer(s):Harper, Kyle

Published by EH.Net (October 2018)

J.G. Manning, The Open Sea: The Economic Life of the Ancient Mediterranean World from the Iron Age to the Rise of Rome. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018. xxvii + 414 pp. $28 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-15174-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kyle Harper, Department of Classics and Letters, University of Oklahoma.

We could easily imagine the equivalent of 1066 and All That for ancient economic history. First, following the technological advances and entrepreneurial audacity of the Phoenicians, the Greeks set sail and became traders and colonizers across the Mediterranean; they flourished until Alexander brought an end to the age of creativity and experiment. Then the Romans strode onto the scene. With a combination of military power and legal expertise, they not only came to rule the Mediterranean but unified it into a common economic zone. That lasted for a while too, before the rot set in and another Dark Age arrived. This caricature probably has more purchase than we would care to admit. J. G. Manning’s The Open Sea is in every way the opposite of such a potted view of classical economic history, one that asks us to consider everything before and in between the traditional highlights. It is a geographically, chronologically, and thematically expansive treatment of economic history in the millennium or so between the Bronze Age collapse and the ascent of Rome.

Manning’s expertise is in Ptolemaic Egypt, and he asks us to consider the economic history of Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Near East on their own, not simply as sources (e.g. of coinage or the alphabet) or precursors to the glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome. Although the treatment is still strongly tilted toward the eastern Mediterranean (there is little here on the Celts or Etruscans), the lens is wider than usual. Of course, it is not simply prejudice or notions of “the classical heritage” that cause historians to focus on Athens and Rome. That is where much of the evidence is. Manning is often forced to work from limited sources, but he ably makes the most of the exiguous record, particularly calling upon the papyrological remains from Hellenistic Egypt. He convincingly argues that many of the institutional and technological developments that facilitated economic progress happened outside the classical zones or perhaps along the margins, in the exchange between various cultures around the sea. Change was gradual and evolutionary, and often happened in response to stress — in the interplay between growth and instability.

The Open Sea is thematically organized. There is no overarching narrative, and the reader is presented a series of essays reflecting on various interconnected themes. The first part of the book, “History and Theory,” might be of more interest to scholars of antiquity than economists; the lengthy debate (by all accounts put to bed more than a generation ago as overly “Manichean,” Manning’s own term on pages 5 and 269) between “primitivists” and “modernists” is recounted — competently but at some length. Economists might want to start with the end, by reading Chapter 8, “Growth, Innovation, Markets, and Trade.” Manning argues that there were periods of genuine, intensive growth — what Goldstone called “efflorescences” — but these were not sustained in the long run. Growth was due to technical innovation (e.g. better ships and irrigation devices or even plant stock) or institutional advances (e.g. better legal frameworks or monetary systems or credit markets). The New Institutional Economics is an important influence throughout. Growth was interrupted or reversed by Malthusian stagnation, interstate violence, or environmental shocks. Was there real growth overall in the period covered by The Open Sea? Here the book is equivocal — or restrained. There were more people, and better technologies, in 200 BC than there had been in 1000 BC, and Roman advances would build directly on the platform created by the late Hellenistic states, but whether per capita incomes had changed overall remains a challenging and perhaps intractable question. What we cannot doubt is that even though incomes may have remained close to subsistence on a per capita basis, this was a period of dynamism and development. Societies were larger, more complex, and more interconnected at the beginning than at the end.

The truly new ground explored in The Open Sea lies at the intersection of environmental and economic history. The Open Sea fits in with other recent work that underscores the importance of exogenous shocks in cycles of development and disruption. Manning provides a thoughtful overview of the challenges and prospects we face in integrating the paleoclimate into the study of ancient economies. He reviews the kinds of evidence now at our disposal in the form of paleoclimate proxies, surveying their strengths and limitations. The focus is heavily on volcanism, one of the most important mechanisms of short-term forcing in Holocene climate variability and change. Volcanic eruptions could trigger sudden, sharp cooling as well as disturbance in the Nile inundation, and Manning carefully teases out the causal pathways through which this particular kind of environmental shock could reverberate throughout economic and socio-political systems. Of course, The Open Sea also shows how much work remains to be done, particularly in trying to measure the impact of climate change on agricultural productivity (which must have been significant not only in the Nile Valley but elsewhere) and therefore economic performance. Readers can hope this study prepares the way for testing bold hypotheses about the direction and magnitude of relationships between the environment and the economy.

In a synthesis this broad, any reader is likely to find a theme that could have received a deeper engagement. Given the book’s exciting openness to environmental history and the natural sciences, more attention might have been given to the role of biological change, and infectious diseases in particular, as a source of instability. This possibility is repeatedly recognized but never pursued, yet given the fundamental importance of demography and demographic movements in premodern economic systems, and the role of mortality shocks in demographic movements, a clearer provisional map of what we know and don’t know about the first millennium BC remains a major desideratum. There is a passing reference to the Plague of Thucydides (overconfidently diagnosed as typhus or smallpox) and “a series of plagues” from the 420s to 360s BC (p. 179). It could be pointed out that these “plagues” are probably not bubonic plague, but rather pestilences with unidentified pathogenic agents. Similarly, the Justinianic Plague is called “the first recorded pandemic,” and while it was the first recorded pandemic of bubonic plague, it was not the first major pandemic, considering the scope of the Antonine Plague (from 165 AD) and the Plague of Cyprian (from ~249 AD). The evidence for infectious disease in the first millennium BC is not as good as for the Roman Empire and early Middle Ages, so this will be a challenging research frontier, but we need fresh hypotheses about how to conceptualize the first millennium in the broader history of health and mortality.

The Open Sea is an expert and bracing survey of what we can know from traditional, current, and cutting-edge approaches to ancient economies, particularly in times and places that fall outside the canonical “Golden Ages” of the classical past.

Kyle Harper is Professor of Classics and Letters — and Senior Vice President and Provost — at the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on the social and economic history of the period spanning the Roman Empire and the early middle ages. He is the author of Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton University Press, 2017).

Copyright (c) 2018 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (October 2018). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient

The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models

Author(s):Manning, Joseph G.
Morris, Ian
Reviewer(s):Moeller, Astrid

Published by EH.NET (December 2007)

Joseph G. Manning and Ian Morris, editors, The Ancient Economy: Evidence and Models. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005. xiii + 285 pp. $60 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8047-4805-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Astrid Moeller, Seminar fuer Alte Geschichte, Freiburg University.

For more than one hundred years the economic history of ancient Greece and Rome has been a battlefield of passionate disagreement. First, there was the Buecher-Meyer controversy; then it was Moses I. Finley in the 1970s and 1980s whose analysis of the ancient economy remained highly controversial. This book under review belongs to the still ongoing debate concerning the question about the most adequate approach to the study of ancient economic history. The book has a high aim in being published with the intention to change the field by building a generalizing and comparative ancient economic history, connected both to discussions in the social sciences as well as those in the humanities. On the other hand, the editors’ self-assessment of what the book really achieves is much more modest. It is neither a systematic review of ancient Mediterranean economies nor a fully developed model, but a deliberate attempt to open up further dialogue. The book is a valuable stocktaking of the discussions in the fields into which the history of the ancient Mediterranean is traditionally divided and which constitute separate parts of the book: the Near East, the Aegean, Egypt and the Roman Mediterranean. It is, nevertheless, not yet an economic history of the ancient Mediterranean. Its most valuable aspect for readers of EH.Net consists in the fact that it does offer up-to-date insights for non-specialists in each field treated: The history of research is spread out by a number of examples illustrating different theoretical approaches and model-building. The kinds of evidence that vary in each field such as literary texts in Greek economic history, supplemented by inscriptions in the case of Roman economy, non-literary papyri in Egypt and a wide variety of texts from palaces and temples in the Near East are discussed in a lucid manner and open questions are identified. All this gives a good impression of the current discussion among scholars in the various areas of the Mediterranean.

Finley’s mark on the field has not yet disappeared. Most of the contributions take his views on the ancient economy as a starting point. Even the whole book owes its title to two of Finley’s most important works: The Ancient Economy (1973) and Ancient History: Evidence and Models (1985). Since Finley wrote on the ancient economy, perspectives have changed and there is a desire among scholars to break free from his overpowering influence. Nearly all contributors acknowledge how much they owe to Finley, but insist that it is high time to develop the field of ancient economy in new directions.

Ian Morris’ and Joe Manning’s introduction not only defines the framework, but here the most programmatic statements of the book are given. Their methodological credo holds that theory, method and data are inseparable and that it is not enough to classify and analyze primary sources without building models and relating them to the empirical material. They analyze the current state of ancient economic history as economic history without economics, holding on to a divided-Mediterranean model due to the separation of scholarly fields by language and types of evidence. This is well within the framework of Finley, who had once maintained that the Greco-Roman economy was entirely different from those of the Ancient Near East and Egypt. The impression from recent research in these fields indicates that the reality was more complex than Finley’s model suggested.

The editors’ other major concern lies in establishing a more explicitly social science history that will provide the precision needed for the comparative study of ancient Mediterranean economies. The greater accuracy should be achieved by definition of key terms and clarification of underlying assumptions, extra explicitness about processes of model building, the presentation of clear propositions with testable implications, clear statements of methods and standards of falsification, indication of causal relationships, quantification whenever possible, and formulation of descriptions and explanations in ways that can be generalized to allow comparisons between different regions and periods. One may wonder why the statement of such methodological guidelines is at all necessary. The editors analyze the current state of ancient Mediterranean studies as based on the humanistic methodology of understanding, instead of the explanation of the social scientist. These approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Since Max Weber, however, there have been attempts to bring both approaches together. Nevertheless, the editors’ quest for explanation, falsification and quantification is a necessary methodological step towards a new economic history of the ancient Mediterranean.

Mario Liverani’s overview of the Near Eastern Bronze Age concentrates on the history of interpretations in this field, a genus, according to Liverani, not yet established. The lines of tradition do not seem to be in the minds of the scholars, since the traditional philological approach considers the latest reading the best and previous ones obsolete. For the study of economic history, he demands the consideration of cultural forms in economic behavior: Economic activities depend on social and cultural conditions, not only on economic laws.

Peter Bedford treats the economy of the Near East in the first millennium BC. He discusses the influence of Weber, Polanyi, Finley and Marxist approaches on the scholarship in this field. Finley’s divided-Mediterranean model is criticized in that the conditions in the Near East were not as fundamentally different from the Greco-Roman world as Finley assumed. Bedford’s discussion of the evidence gives a very good impression of the material available for model building to every non-Near-Eastern scholar. He points out that regions and periods are different and that the Syro-Palestinian coast has to be considered in any modeling.

Both Liverani and Bedford are commented on by Mark Granovetter who points to the fact that the discussions in ancient economic history are framed, on the one hand, by the ideas of Weber, Polanyi and Finley and, on the other, by the rational actor – optimal outcome argument. He emphasizes the one-sidedness of both Polanyi and rational-choice interpretations. According to him, to play off politics dominating a society against rational economic action or vice versa is unproductive. One better asks how political, economic, and social activities and institutions fit together and how they produce the great variability of outcomes we see in history. Models to cover this wealth of possibilities certainly need to be complex.

Ian Morris’ contribution on archaeology, standards of living and Greek economic history deals with the limitations and perils of the archaeological material. Unlike most of the other papers that are rather pieces of secondary scholarship, he works from empirical evidence. His proposal for doing economic history after Finley is to concentrate on economic growth. Finley and the substantivists paid little attention on economic growth assuming that this did not much occur earlier than 1800 AD. Nor did Finley pay attention to standards of living, which are, however, a central issue in doing economic history according to Morris. In identifying an increase in household sizes in Greece by five to six between 800 and 300 BC, Morris identifies sustained improvement in standards of living, albeit across a rather long period of time together with a roughly ten-fold increase in population. To link this increase in the standard of living to quantified changes in economic output per capita does prove difficult. Morris is convinced that we deal with a surprisingly high level of economic growth that calls for new models and constitutes a challenge to the current orthodoxy that agrarian economies were essentially static before 1750 AD.

John Davies gives the third paper of his triad on ways of modeling ancient economies visually. He points to several instances that need to be incorporated into a realistic model of ancient economy in contrast to the standard discourse of economic analysis: A significant portion of production and consumption took place within family farms and never reached markets. Elements of ostentation, largesse, or euergetism played a major role that leaves the problem of tracing the intended return, but to ignore social returns means to ignore a major component of ancient economic interaction. Neither the homo oeconomicus with his psychological profile nor assumptions of effective price mechanisms can be applied across the spectrum of ancient societies. No ancient economy can be defined, or was dominated, by one particular mode without change. In creating his highly complex model diagram, Davies concentrates on the tracing of flows. The result drives the complexity of a two-dimensional diagram too far; it is difficult to distinguish the important features from the less important ones. He seems to feel the limits of such an endeavor and suggests, among other things, exploring the possibilities of mathematizing the language of description.

This point is called into question by Takeshi Amemiya who comments on Davies. He is less optimistic about mathematically sophisticated models, since they tend to distract from the important details of historical reality. The mathematically inexperienced person has less chance to see its weaknesses. According to him, most econometricians are content with estimating reduced-form statistical models, which might be useful for analyzing the Athenian economy, if there were enough data. Amemiya expresses sympathy with Davies’ quest for models that show a high degree of intricacy, complexity, instability, and disarticulatedness; he suggests that every economist should strive for that.

Joe Manning explores the relationship of evidence to models in the Ptolemaic economy. He believes that one can write an economic history of Ptolemaic Egypt, but he is less confident about proposing a dynamic, testable model. To him, the nature of the ancient economy renders it more descriptive than analytic. His main question is: How does the type of evidence shape the way of model building? The well-known evidence from Egypt is papyri whose study remains the domain of specialists; Greek and Demotic are generally treated as two different fields without much communication. The Ptolemaic economy once neither received much treatment in the context of broader issues of economic history, nor in an Egyptological context, since for Egyptologists this was part of the less interesting Late Period. Over the last two decades, however, a renewed general interest was driven by Sa?d’s Orientalism (1978) and papyrological studies made the evidence more accessible. Moreover, there was a revival of reading Demotic texts. In contrast to Finley’s approach to the ancient economy, the study of the Ptolemaic economy has been driven by the study of documents. It was Michail Rostovtzeff who created the influential model of the state-centralized economy which can no longer be sustained; Finley did not consider any change from the old system in Egypt by the new foreign rulers. A new model is emerging through a regional approach (Fayyum looks rather more special than the Nile valley) that shows local power alongside state power and considers institutional change.

Roger Bagnall treats evidence and models for the economy of Roman Egypt. Starting with criticism of Finley for his tendency to consider Egypt unique on the assumption that papyri had no relevance to other parts of the Mediterranean, Bagnall considers the uniqueness argument obsolete: Egyptian-style documentation has been found in other places and Egyptian papyri can be used for major issues of Roman economy. Not yet presenting a new model, Bagnall describes areas where real progress has been made: the models of colonate and feudalism, the use of tenancy in agriculture and the operation of large estates have been under close scrutiny. We now know that Oxyrhynchos had more textile industry than Finley thought. The producer/consumer dichotomy in the urban economy, transportation and social status has recently received study. The Romans did not leave the Ptolemaic system untouched: They set out to dismantle the remains of the Ptolemaic state; professional bureaucracy was largely replaced by liturgical service; land was turned over large scale to private ownership, in particular the old Ptolemaic military allotments. The aim should be a working model of the economy of Roman Egypt, of a particular Roman province, with both its universal and its particular dimension. This task should be possible as there is enough evidence.

R. Bruce Hitchner makes a case for economic growth in the Roman Empire. He describes the empire as the most stable, resource-rich, culturally integrated, and economically developed state of antiquity. Thus, the conditions for real economic growth between the later first century BC and the early third century AD were favorable. Economic growth refers to a rise in the average real income per head and a corresponding rise in population, but it is not so easy to determine whether growth occurred in historical societies where statistical information on income and population is lacking. Hitchner does not seek refuge in the creation of proxy statistics, but in the application of what is called the “cliometric methods of debate.” He supports his case for economic growth by analyzing environmental conditions, infrastructure, the rule of law and secure institutions, technological advancement without spectacular innovations, the development of a non-agricultural production sector, and increased trade. Surely, economic growth was not universal in the Roman Empire, but Hitchner’s set of indications is impressive and calls for models of the pre-modern economy that are able to incorporate such growth. Yet again, the Finley orthodoxy is called into question.

Richard Saller contributes to the debate on economic growth in the Roman Empire, but is far less optimistic than Hitchner. He starts by asking why the thought of Rostovtzeff and Finley, who had much more in common than is generally believed, has been distorted. According to him it was the polemical tone that characterized the reaction to Finley’s Ancient Economy that encouraged polarization. The lack of data to find a satisfying conclusion and the debate over the value of new archaeological finds does not help either to find a more objective view of what the representatives of both directions in ancient economic history actually said. Saller looks at five points that are commonly identified as causes for growth in per capita production by modern economists and applies those to the Roman Empire: Development of trade compared to the importance of the agricultural sector remained restricted; capital investment was restricted by the rentier mentality; technological improvement was not remarkable; improved living standards in the urban sector, education and training remained a reserve of the elite without much benefit to increased productivity; while the institutional framework might be a test case for Douglass North’s neo-institutional theory. However, he concludes that in Italy there was a less consistent growth than one would expect. The little growth that we detect between 100 BC and 200 AD was significant from the perspective of the period of Roman annexation of the Mediterranean. From the perspective of the industrial age the growth was, however, imperceptible.

Finally, Avner Greif comments on Hitchner and Saller and suggests that we should look at Rome’s positive contributions. To him, the Roman waterwheel constitutes a conceptual breakthrough, and the legal tradition as well as the language left a long-term and significant mark on the European culture. He proposes to ask how the Roman Empire shaped the process through which modern economic growth has developed.

The volume is witness to the lively debates currently held on ancient economic history. All the authors are resolved to go beyond the orthodoxies established by Finley; they actually do incorporate questions and methods from economic history and theory of other periods without exposing themselves to the accusation of formalism or modernism. The papers bring together specialists of different periods and regions, thus serving the development of shared methods. The book sets out core issues in each area that will need to be addressed before a proper comparative history can develop. This book is an important step towards an economic history of the ancient Mediterranean.

Astrid Moeller is Associate Professor for Ancient History at Freiburg University (Germany). Her research interests include the economic history of the ancient Mediterranean. She contributed to The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient

Maritime Traders in the Ancient Greek World

Author(s):Reed, Charles M.
Reviewer(s):Engen, Darel Tai

Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

Charles M. Reed, Maritime Traders in the Ancient Greek World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xi + 162 pp. $60 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-26848-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Darel Tai Engen, Department of History, California State University, San Marcos.

Although it has been studied and debated for over a century, the ancient Greek economy is still a popular topic for investigation by historians of ancient Greece. No fewer than six major publications have appeared in the last six years and are taking the field into new and promising directions.[1] C.M. Reed’s Maritime Traders in the Ancient Greek World contributes to this trend by offering the first (and much needed) study of traders during the archaic (c. 776-480 B.C.E.) and classical (480-323 B.C.E.) periods of ancient Greek history since Hasebroek’s Trade and Politics in Ancient Greece, which was first published in English in 1933. Although its central thesis is hampered by too strong an adherence to the limitations imposed by previous debate on the ancient Greek economy, Maritime Traders nevertheless offers significant new insights based on a sober analysis of empirical evidence.

No review of a book concerning traders in ancient Greece can ignore the long-running debate about the ancient Greek economy. But since I have commented on the debate at length elsewhere on EH.NET, I will not describe it in any detail here.[2] Suffice it to say that the crux of the debate is whether the ancient Greek economy was similar to our own “modern” economy or more “primitive.” Since the publication of M.I. Finley’s The Ancient Economy in 1973, the prevailing view has been that the ancient Greek economy was very different from our modern economy. According to this view, ancient Greek values developed within the context of an agrarian society in which economic activities were undertaken to obtain goods for consumption. Thus, non-landed economic activities geared toward profit and growth through capital investment were disesteemed and thereby stifled. Business, manufacturing, and trade were small in scale and left to those of low wealth and status who could not afford to live the ideal life of a landowning farmer. Consequently, the wealthy landed elite controlled politics and fostered governmental policies that had little concern for promoting the interests of those who engaged in such non-landed economic activities as trade. Moreover, the state’s interest in trade was limited to the acquisition of the few essential goods that it did not produce in abundance at home and could obtain in sufficient amounts only through imports.

Reed’s Maritime Traders acknowledges the debate and plants itself firmly within the prevailing view. He calls himself a “substantivist,” meaning that like Finley, he believes that the economy was embedded in other social and political institutions. Thus, rather than examining traders in ancient Greece from the perspective of modern economic analysis, his basic question is, what was the place of traders in their cities of origin and in the cities with which they traded in archaic and classical Greece? The focus on the “place” of traders in society betrays his debt to Finley and Finley’s forerunners in the debate, Hasebroek and Max Weber, who employed a distinctly sociological approach in their examination of the ancient Greek economy. Reed’s answer to the main question posed by the book is fundamentally in accord with Finley and the prevailing view: the place of traders in ancient Greece was very different from that of their counterparts today. They were mainly poor non-citizens who held low status and no political power.

Although there is nothing new about this basic conclusion, Reed’s analytical method is innovative. Finley and those who employ concepts and methods from sociology and anthropology to study the ancient Greek economy tend to start their analyses with general models and then try to support them with a few representative examples from the existing evidence.[3] Reed, on the other hand, departs from this method by focusing his argument not on a model, but rather on a collection and analysis of all the pertinent evidence regarding traders. Thus, those “modernists” who have criticized Finley and the prevailing view for lacking in evidence or selectively citing only the evidence that supports their preconceived model might be inclined to give Reed’s conclusions more weight.

Furthermore, Reed is objective enough to allow his analysis of the evidence to take his conclusions to the point that although they support the Finley model in general, they also call for its revision on some key points. Reed concludes, for example, that Hasebroek and Finley were right to hold that the state’s interests in trade were largely different from those of the traders. Nevertheless, the state of Athens realized that its interests and those of the traders were complementary. If the state was to obtain the grain, timber, and slaves it needed through imports, then it would have to attract traders to its ports by helping traders to fulfill their own private interests. In doing so, the people of Athens had to set aside their traditional disdain for traders. With analysis such as this, Maritime Traders joins many other recent publications in calling for a revision of the Finley model and the prevailing view.

Reed begins his study with a brief introduction that provides a clear and concise statement of his methods and central thesis. Chapters 1 through 6 deal with the classical period of Greek history and primarily the city-state of Athens, since this is the best documented time and place concerning traders. Chapter 1 sets out basic words, definitions, and categories with which to identify traders in ancient Greece, providing the basis for subsequent analysis in the book. Greeks typically referred to traders either as emporoi (sing. emporos) or naukleroi (sing. naukleros). Reed defines them both as “professionals” in the sense that they made a living primarily from carrying on interstate trade by sea for a significant period of their lives. Emporoi were traders who hired the ships of others for their ventures, whereas naukleroi were traders who owned their own ships.

In Chapter 2, Reed tries to identify the trade goods, the level of demand for them, and the means by which they were exchanged. According to Reed, grain was by far the most commonly traded good and in high demand in Athens throughout the classical period. Also significant were timber for shipbuilding and slaves, the latter of which Reed believes, as Finley did, to have been obtained largely through “external” sources from the Black Sea region and Asia Minor. Most of the trade in all three items must have been carried out by professional traders, since part-timers could not have fulfilled the great demand for them. Moreover, the goods were exchanged primarily via commercial transactions for profit, as evidenced by the details of the lawsuits involving trade that appear in the speeches of the Attic Orators.

In trying to locate the “place” of traders in ancient Greek life, Reed begins by examining the juridical status of traders in Chapter 3. Based on his catalogue of all known traders mentioned by our ancient sources of evidence from the fourth century B.C.E., Reed concludes that the “great majority” (49 of 61) of them were not citizens of Athens, which is consistent with the prevailing view of Hasebroek and Finley (27). Although he puts off further discussion until Chapter 6, it can also be noted here that, contrary to the prevailing view, Reed believes that the majority of these non-citizen traders were xenoi, foreigners who visited Athens for brief periods, rather than metics, foreigners who registered with the government to reside in Athens for extended periods.

In Chapter 4 Reed argues that although naukleroi must have had at least moderate amounts of wealth in order to own a ship, the evidence shows that as a group most naukleroi and emporoi were not very wealthy. According to Reed, this is clear from the manner in which trade was carried out. Most traders took out loans in conjunction with their ventures and whether for capital to finance the venture or to provide insurance to cover their own investment in case of loss (loans normally had to be repaid only on the safe delivery of a cargo), it seems that traders as a rule did not have sufficient funds for these purposes. By the same token, few traders in Reed’s catalogue are known to have made loans themselves (of 61 total, only 6 for sure and perhaps 6 others). There is also no evidence that traders joined together into anything like guilds or corporations to pool their resources or strengthen their voice in politics. In short, there was no “merchant aristocracy” in Athens as some have claimed.

The official attitude of the Athenian state toward traders is the subject of Chapter 5. Reed cites the plentiful evidence that attests to the variety of ways that the Athenian state involved itself in the operations of traders. It is clear that the state’s interest was primarily in obtaining imports of vital goods and revenue from taxes. But Reed stresses that, contrary to the views of Hasebroek and Finley, the state realized that such interests often overlapped with the interests of the traders. Thus, the state had to help traders to fulfill their interests in order to fulfill its own.

Reed follows up the analysis in Chapter 5 by arguing in Chapter 6 that the disdain for traders that is so evident in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle is not representative of the rank and file of the Athenian population. Plato and Aristotle represent the traditional perspective of the landed elite. The average Athenian, however, set aside the old agrarian-born values in favor of the necessity of acknowledging the essential service that traders performed in providing them with vital imported goods.

Whereas the preceding chapters concerned Athens in the classical period, Chapter 7 attempts a brief examination of trade and traders in the archaic period. Since relatively little empirical evidence exists concerning traders during this time, Reed relies mostly on indirect evidence, such as population growth and the corresponding need for imported grain, and is sometimes forced to employ “cautious guesswork” (63). He concludes that over the course of the archaic period trade developed from largely non-commercial forms, like gift-exchange, to predominantly commercial exchanges. At the same time traders evolved from being largely agents for aristocrats or part-timers to mostly independent professionals. Thus, the basic pattern of trade in the classical period was set by 475 B.C.E.

Reed’s concluding chapter is somewhat unorthodox in that he does not merely recapitulate his foregoing analysis, but rather tries to expand on it by arguing for its significance through a comparison of the place of traders in ancient Greece to that of the modern world and particularly the United States. Whereas traders in ancient Greece were largely poor foreigners of low status who were little esteemed and had no political power, the businessmen of the modern U.S. are wealthy, well respected, and politically powerful. Reed argues that these differences are rooted in ideological, constitutional, economic, and political shifts as well as in shifts in scale.

Reed includes four appendixes, the most essential of which is Appendix 4, which is a catalogue of all known traders of the classical period in Greece. The catalogue is comprehensive and well balanced in its consideration of the evidence. Where possible, each trader is identified by name, place of origin, juridical status, level of wealth, whether he was an emporos or naukleros, whether he made maritime loans, and whether he had partners. In addition, Reed provides commentary to explain his interpretation of the evidence in each case. Hence, the catalogue provides a firm empirical basis for the analysis of the preceding chapters.

Although Maritime Traders is a short book (92 pages of text, 40 of appendixes, and 15 of bibliography), it has much to say about some very important issues concerning the ancient Greek economy. Most praiseworthy is Reed’s attempt to provide empirical support for the Finley model and in this he is partially successful. His collection of evidence concerning maritime traders is exhaustive and his interpretation of the evidence is reasonable and balanced. One might question, though, his assumptions concerning proxenia and their impact on his assertion that most traders were xenoi rather than metics. For example, Reed believes that the trader, Herakleides of Cyprian Salamis, was a xenos because he had been awarded proxenia by Athens. In Reed’s view a proxenos had to reside in his home city and, therefore, Herakleides could not have been a metic residing in Athens (129). Reed ignores, however, the fact that Athens also awarded Herakleides the “privilege” of paying the eisphora tax and serving in the Athenian army on equal footing with Athenian citizens. How could these “privileges” have any value if Herakleides had to reside on Cyprus to fulfill his duties as a proxenos?

Reed should be commended, however, for focusing on a particular economic sector at a particular time and place, maritime traders in Athens during the archaic and classical period, rather than trying to treat the entire ancient Greek economy in the manner of Finley. Thus, he is in a position to analyze the evidence more thoroughly and can avoid the oversimplifications of a general study. He capitalizes on this nicely when he goes beyond the Finley model to point out the complementary interests of state and trader and how this altered traditional values in Athens. It would have been even better, however, if he had taken his analysis farther to explore the ramifications of such a change, which signaled a turning point in ancient Greek history. The formerly agrarian and exclusive city-state was starting to become more accepting of non-landed occupations and more welcoming to outsiders.

Reed seems to be equally inhibited from straying too far from the parameters of the old debate in limiting his analysis to professional traders and trade carried out via commercial exchanges. Even though Reed is probably right to state that most trade in the classical period was carried out by such men in this manner, a significant amount was undertaken in other ways, including gift exchange initiated by powerful foreign benefactors. On several occasions during the classical period Athens was the recipient of large gifts of grain from foreign leaders and cities, such as the King of Egypt, the Kings of the Bosporos in the Crimea, and the city of Kyrene.[4] By ignoring such trade and the people responsible for it, Reed, like Hasebroek and Finley before him, departs from “substantivist” analysis. Karl Polanyi, who was the creator of substantivist economic analysis, defined trade “substantively” as “a relatively peaceful method of acquiring goods which are not available on the spot.”[5] This deliberately broad definition of trade was designed to avoid the pitfalls of seeing trade only in terms of market-oriented economic analysis. Thus, Reed, who incidentally does not cite Polanyi anywhere in his book, omits a significant portion of trade in his analysis. It is probably true that most “professional” traders were poor and politically powerless, but when one considers the wealthy and powerful men and institutions that were responsible for non-commercial trade along with those professional traders who were wealthy, then Reed’s conclusion seems overly simplified and loses some of its force. Reed would have done better to leave the old debate’s fixation on comparisons between the ancient Greek economy and our own behind and to try to present a picture of ancient Greek trade in all its complexity.[6]

One last criticism is that Reed’s chapter on the archaic period and his concluding chapter depart significantly from his admirable commitment to empirical analysis with regard to Athens in the classical period. Concerning the archaic period, Reed admits that he is engaging in “cautious guesswork” (63). But since Reed is certainly an expert on the ancient Greek economy, we can trust that his guesses are educated ones. In his concluding chapter, however, he makes a series of general statements in contrasting the place of traders in ancient Greek society with that of their counterparts in the modern United States. Although Reed has taught courses on the history of capitalism (1), one might question his expertise with regard to U.S. economic history. I am certainly no expert, but I wonder, for example, how Reed can say with little supporting argument that in the U.S. politics have become subordinated to economics. He might very well be right, but a non-specialist like me finds it hard to believe that the U.S. government interferes in the economy for political purposes any less than the ancient Athenian government did. There were no progressive income taxes, no labor protection laws, no environmental regulations, and no hiring quotas, for example, in ancient Athens. So, at the very least, if Reed is going to raise such issues, then he needs to discuss them at much greater length in order to be persuasive.

Despite the preceding criticisms, it still must be said that Reed has produced a worthwhile book that should be read by all those who are interested in ancient Greek trade and the ancient Greek economy in general. It contains an excellent collection of evidence about ancient Greek traders and provides general support for the Finley model, while at the same time pointing out aspects of the model that need to be revised. Thus, C.M. Reed’s Maritime Traders in the Ancient Greek World makes a valuable contribution to current trends in the study of the ancient Greek economy. Still more research on this subject is needed, however, so that we can move farther away from the normative intent of the Finley model and better understand the ancient Greek economy on its own terms.


1. Archibald, 2001, Cartledge, 2002, Mattingly, 2001, Meadows, 2001, Parkins, 1998, Scheidel, 2002.

2. Engen, 2003 and Engen 2004.

3. See especially Millett, 1991.

4. Plutarch, Pericles 37.4 (King of Egypt), IG ii2 212 and Dem. 20. 33 (Kings of the Bosporos), and Todd no. 196 (Kyrene). Reed briefly mentions a few gifts of imports in one paragraph on p. 14 and then dismisses Kyrene’s large gift of grain to Athens as a “gift of grain, not trade therein” (his emphasis) on p. 17, n. 8.

5. Polanyi 1957, 257-258.

6. For such an analysis, see Engen, 2001, which is not cited in Maritime Traders.

Works Cited:

Archibald, Zofia H., John K. Davies, and Graham J. Oliver. 2001. Hellenistic Economies. London and New York: Routledge.

Cartledge, Paul, Edward E. Cohen, and Lin Foxhall. 2002. Money, Labour, and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece. London and New York: Routledge.

Engen, Darel T. 2001. “Trade, Traders, and the Economy of Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.E.” In Prehistory and History: Ethnicity, Class, and Political Economy, edited by David W. Tandy, 179-202. Montreal: Black Rose.

Engen, Darel T. 2003. “Review of David J. Mattingly and John Salmon, editors. Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World.” Economic History Services, Feb 4, 2003,

Engen, Darel T. 2004 (forthcoming). “The Ancient Greek Economy,” in Robert Whaples, editor, EH.NET Encyclopedia.

Hasebroek, J. 1933. Trade and Politics in Ancient Greece. Tr. by L.M. Fraser and D.C. MacGregor. Reprint of London edition, Chicago: Ares Publishers, Inc. (Originally published as Staat und Handel im alten Griechenland [T?bingen, 1928].)

Mattingly, David J. and John Salmon. 2001. Economies beyond Agriculture in the Classical World. London and New York: Routledge.

Meadows, Andrew and Kirsty Shipton. 2001. Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Millett, P. 1991. Lending and Borrowing in Ancient Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Parkins, Helen and Christopher Smith. 1998. Trade, Traders, and the Ancient City. London and New York: Routledge.

Polanyi, Karl. 1957. “The Economy as Instituted Process.” In Trade and Market in the Early Empires. Edited by K. Polanyi, C.M. Arensberg, and H.W. Pearson. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 242-270.

Scheidel, Walter and Sitta von Reden. 2002. The Ancient Economy. London and New York: Routledge.

Weber, Max. 1968. Economy and Society. Translated by E. Fischoff et al. Edited by G. Roth and C. Wittich. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. (Originally published as Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [T?bingen, 1956].)

Darel Tai Engen earned a B.A. in Economics and a Ph.D. in Ancient Greek History from UCLA. He is currently an Assistant Professor of History at California State University, San Marcos. He has published articles on the ancient Greek economy, including “Trade, Traders, and the Economy of Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.E.,” in D.W. Tandy, editor, Prehistory and History: Ethnicity, Class, and Political Economy (Montreal 2001) 179-202 and “Ancient Greenbacks: Athenian Owls, the Law of Nikophon, and the Greek Economy” (forthcoming in Historia). He is currently working on a book, tentatively entitled, Honor and Profit: Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 B.C.E.

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Ancient

The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece

Author(s):Schaps, David M.
Reviewer(s):Silver, Morris

Published by EH.NET (April 2004)

David M. Schaps, The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. xvii + 293 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 0-472-11333-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Morris Silver, Department of Economics (Emeritus), City College of the City University of New York.

Briefly stated, David Schaps’ central argument runs as follows:

Coinage = Money (in the Greek experience the two are equated) was invented in Greece or Asia Minor (Lydia) in the later seventh or earlier sixth century. The Greeks eagerly copied/adapted this innovation and it spread rapidly in their cities during the sixth century. The result was a profound transformation in Greek economy and society. Before the Greek adoption of coinage, the ancient Mediterranean world knew only primitive money, not money as we know it. Primitive money was incapable of generating the revolution that Greece experienced.

I begin with a number of quotations capturing the argument and then, in the main part of the review, move on to consider the details.

This book will tell the story… of the development of money both in the Near East and in Greece up to the invention of coinage and its widespread adoption by the Greek cities, the only communities that adopted it wholeheartedly at its first appearance. (17)

Something new happened with the invention of coinage, and it produced a new idea that persists to our day. (5)

I have tried throughout only to sketch the ways in which Greek thought and behavior were changed by the introduction of money. (vii)

From the Greeks onward, we find a new way of speaking and ofthinking. Now a person might state the entirety of a household’s possessions in terms of money, as no member of a premonetary society would ever do. (16)

One of the central propositions of this book is that when we speak historically, the invention of coinage was the invention of money: that is, the concept that we understand as “money” did not exist before the seventh century B.C.E., when coins were first minted. There surely had been many items before that we may recognize correctly, as money, there were even places…where a single item performed all the functions associated with money. Never before, however, had these items been conceptualized as money, for money to the Greeks, as to us, was the measure of all things, something different in nature from all the valuables that might represent it. (15; emphasis in original)

All ancient Near Eastern societies had a conventional standard of value, usually precious metals or a specified grain. The standard of payment was always “primitive money,” never coin, and it did not always perform all the functions that coin was later to perform…. If Greece was the cradle of coinage and Lydia its birthplace, the societies of the Near East were its ancestors. (34)

Schaps links the unprecedented Greek adoption of coinage with Greek backwardness. The Greeks… who had only very primitive forms of currency, thought of coins as they had never thought of those items in which they had once traded, evaluated and paid. An ideal that had grown up in the East at a time when Greece had no need for it suddenly dawned on the Greeks when coins appeared. It was a time when the Greeks were in a period of economic and intellectual expansion for which their relatively primitive economic concepts did not provide an adequate basis…. Precisely because of their economic backwardness, they had no sufficient preexisting conceptual structure to compete with or subordinate the idea of money. (16-17)

Why did the ancient Near East (ANE) not move from a very evident monetization to “money, as we know it”? Technology would not have raised a barrier to the transformation. Why were coins so exciting to the Greeks and so uninteresting to their neighbors? The answer is that they filled a need peculiar to Greek society…. It was Greece that was searching for new forms of government and administration to manage the new complexity of the poleis and new ways of organization to maintain its people, and coins made that administration and that organization simpler and more manageable than spits and cauldrons [primitive money] could have done. (108)

This is interesting, but not entirely convincing. An alternative line of explanation is that coinage (guaranteed money) is not nearly as important economically as Schaps supposes. The alleged special interest of the Greeks in coinage may then reflect an ideological dimension peculiar to the Greeks. Schaps mentions “the particular Greek appreciation of the universality of money” (196). There is also a real question, explored below, whether Greece was really so backward monetarily as Schaps suggests.

Schaps’ presentation is quite clear and, obviously, there is rich material here. The view that coinage was invented by the Lydians is one that is generally accepted by scholars. I do have some problems with the equation of money with coinage and the meaning of “primitive money.” There is also something of a problem with respect to whom, according to Schaps, invented coinage: On the one hand, the Lydians invented coins and then the Greeks eagerly used them. On the other hand, the time when the Greeks eagerly used coins is the time of invention. These are relatively minor issues and I put them aside. On to the details!

I. Did the Ancient Near East Know Coinage?

A. Indirect Evidence

1. Schaps states that a “discussion of the factors that go into price determination does not form part of this book, for their importance arises in a money economy, and the point at which the Greeks achieved a money economy is the point at which this study ends” (30). I am not sure exactly what this means. Schaps is perhaps suggesting that the forces of supply and demand determine prices only in an economy with money, which he equates with coinage. This is, of course, completely false. Later Schaps adds “The Babylonian economy was still not, as it would become in the Hellenistic period, dominated by a market where prices changed each day; but it was not immune to the law of supply and demand” (49). This is a heroic understatement! Although we do not have daily price data, there is ample evidence of price changes and of the operation of supply and demand. Indeed, the Old Babylonian period (earlier second millennium BCE) has been characterized by Hallo (1958: 98) as one in which “there was a price on everything from the skin of a gored ox to the privilege of a temple office.”

2. Silver was indeed used as a means of payment in the ANE. However, rather than spreading through the population, it remained in the hands of merchants. “It never became, as coins eventually would, synonymous with wealth itself. It could not have done so, if only because too few people owned it. For this reason, the Babylonians never thought of silver as we think of money” (51).

The surviving documents do not demonstrate that Mesopotamians thought of money in the same way the Greeks did. Caution is justified about the reason for this presumed difference. There is evidence for the dispersal of precious metals in the population. As early as the middle of the third millennium in Ebla (in Syria) silver was used to purchase ordinary goods including clothing and grain as well as wine and semi-precious stones (Archi 1993: 52). Mesopotamian texts of the middle of the second half of the third millennium already show us street vendors, and, according to Foster (1977: 35-36, nn. 47, 48), the use of silver to pay rents and purchase dates, oil, barley, animals, slaves, and real estate; in addition, “silver was widely used in personal loans and was often in possession of private citizens and officials.”

3. Schaps asserts “The silver of the Near East had never been coined; it was weighed at each transaction, and the scale was an essential accessory to every sale” (49). This statement may reflect general belief, but it goes beyond the evidence. It is not true that ANE texts invariably mention weighing and/or scales. Indeed, to my knowledge, the mention of scales is infrequent. Nevertheless, Schaps is on strong ground in stressing the centrality of weighing in transactions recorded in the Bible.[1]

B. Direct Evidence

Schaps maintains that “an examination of the various primitive items that have at one time or another been claimed to be coins fails to reveal any clear example, and it may be useful to clear the air of the various hypotheses, which by their very number can create the false impression that coinage was common in the eastern Mediterranean Basin long before the Lydians and the Greeks” (222-23). Elsewhere he maintains that “the verisimilitude of the preceding suggestion is not much above zero” (235). Schaps may well be correct in rejecting this hypothesis. However, his treatment of the evidence leaves something to be desired.

1. The evidence is reasonably clear that the ANE went a good part of the way toward coinage by circulating ingots of guaranteed quality. Assyrian loan contracts of the eighth to seventh centuries use various formulas to advance “silver of (the goddess) Ishtar (of the city) Arbela (or Nineveh or Bit Kidmuri).” Lipinski (1979) argued brilliantly against interpreting this phrase to mean “temple capital.” Expressions of this kind, he suggested, refer to the quality of the metal, and their inclusion in contracts makes no sense unless the metal is impressed with a stamp of guarantee. The practice of guaranteeing metal quality, it may be added, probably goes back to the second millennium. The expression “silver of the gods” is found in texts from Mari in Syria and Amarna in Egypt. For example, in a letter concerning the disposition of an inheritance the king of Mari refers to the deceased person’s “silver of the gods” (Malamat 1998: p. 185; cf. CAD s.v. ilu 1.e).

In discussing the ingots from the temple of Arbela Schaps concludes: There was nothing particularly important about this development as far as Assyria was concerned. The temple’s ingots, even if stamped, were no more than good quality silver…. It will have been the business of a merchant to recognize them and to know good silver from bad, but there was nothing revolutionary about them. They may have come in convenient sizes…, but they were hardly standardized, and it is hard to imagine that a merchant would have failed to put them on the scale before accepting them. (92)

A guarantee of metal quality surely reduced the transaction cost of using money and it is therefore puzzling that Schaps considers this a development little or no importance. Moreover, he goes beyond the evidence in saying that the ingots were not standardized in weight. The texts do not say that the ingots were weighed.

2. Schaps writes of the Egyptian shaty “piece”: “It is regularly used as an item of account, not a medium of trade: that is, not ‘pieces’ but other items changed hands, bartered for each other and evaluated in terms of ‘pieces'” (224-25). In fact, there is evidence for the circulation of shaty‘s in texts of the Ramesside era (second half of the second millennium). In the Eighteenth Dynasty, a text (Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1453A) records the delivery of silver shaty‘s to a woman at the meryet “quay, marketplace” (Condon 1984: 63-65). In Papyrus Boulaq 11 merchants pay for quantities of meat and wine with shaty‘s (Castle 1992: 253, 257; Peet 1934). The texts do not say that the shaty‘s were weighed or tested for quality.

3. Schaps discusses the Egyptian Hekanakht letters of about 2000 BCE, but he does not refer to the following significant detail. Copper coins may be indicated when Hekanakht sends to his agent “24 copper debens” for renting land. James (1984: 245) explains that “the letter says quite clearly ’24 copper debens,’ not ’24 debens of copper,’ which ought to signify 24 pieces of copper each weighing, one deben.”

4. Schaps does not mention texts from the Assyrian trading station in Anatolia (earlier second millennium BCE) in which we sometimes find prices being expressed in terms of copper ingots, patallu and sad?lu. Thus, one Dakuku “owes 12 copper sad?lus as the price of donkey.” Dercksen (1996. 60, n. 179) notes that “quantity is expressed by simply giving the number of ingots instead of their weight [which] points to a more or less customary weight and size for this type” (emphasis added). I would add that use of the number of ingots also points to a standard quality.

5. Schaps defines “coin” as follows: “[A] coin is an object, usually but not necessarily of metal, which circulates as a medium of trade, and whose value is guaranteed by the stamp of the issuing authority” (223). He adds: “We may thus ignore without further discussions such items as spits, rings, and sealed bags of silver, which although they served many of the purposes that coins later served were not by themselves coins at all. They belong to the history of ‘primitive money’… (223).

Schaps’ dismissal of sealed bags of silver is most puzzling and instead of ignoring these, he offers a brief discussion of their significance. He concludes that “When silver was to be reused, a certain amount was given to the assayer in advance. Whatever the assayer did not use was sealed with a royal seal, obviating the need for weighing and assaying it again. The ‘sealed silver,’ then, is ordinary silver sealed in a sack, not a coin” (223-24).

In my view, sealed bags provide evidence for widespread use of “coinage” in the ANE. The background is as follows. Cuneiform sources of the first half of the second millennium refer to sealed bags of silver (e.g. kaspum kankum). We hear of “(silver) in lumps-sealed in a bag” (CAD s.v. kankua) and “x silver which is placed in its sealed bag” (CAD s.v. kan?ku 2). There is also mention of silver “marked” (udd?) with its weight (CAD s.v. id? 4.a). Copper might also be packed into purses called (c)hurshianu (CAD s.v.; Dercksen 1996: 66)

The sealed bags might be transferred: “I needed (and asked you for in writing) ten shekels of silver under seal.” x silver which PN gave to PN2 , and which is marked with the name of the merchant. (CAD s.v. s(umu 1.e); “you have sent me silver which is not fit for business transactions… send me silver, (in) a sealed bag” (CAD s.v. kaniktu 2). Oppenheim (1969) makes brief mention of cuneiform sources of the first half of the second millennium that refer to sealed bags of silver deposited with persons who used the silver in various transactions. Most directly, the practice of transacting with sealed bags of silver is reflected in the call, in eighteenth-century contracts from Mesopotamia (the city of Larsa), for merchants to pay for palace-owned goods with “sealed silver” (Stol 1982: 150-51). The transactional use of sacks is ignored by S.[2]

Some years ago, in reflecting on these references, it occurred to me that in eleventh-century-CE Egypt and elsewhere in North Africa, in Talmudic times (400-500 CE) and earlier in Carthage and in Rome (the tesserae nummulariae), various coins and (probably) metal fragments were kept in purses labeled on the outside with the contents and sealed by governments or private merchants. In addition to keeping the coins “fresh” — that is, preserving their full weight — Udovitch (1979: 267), who studied the usage in medieval Islam, explains: “these packaged and labeled purses made settlement of accounts much more convenient… by obviating the need to weigh, array, and evaluate coins for every individual transaction. Significantly, most payments and transfers of funds were executed by the actual physical transfer of the purses.” We may assume that these purses circulated among the wealthier classes.

Schaps responds as follows: “[Morris] Silver (126-27) obfuscates this point, going so far as to say that (medieval Islamic!) sealed purses ‘in short… were large denomination coins.’ This is surely to broaden the definition of a coin far beyond reason” (224, n. 9). Schaps obtained this quote from my 1985 edition. In 1995 I wrote: “In short, the sealed purses functioned as large-denomination ‘coins'” (161). The reason for the change in formulation is that numismatic specialists and antiquarians insisted that coins had to be made of metal. I was hammered on this, to an economist, unimportant detail. Schaps? properly broadened definition of “coin” makes my original formulation perfectly appropriate. Under his definition a “nickel,” as he says, can be wooden and “a dollar bill would also count as a ‘coin’ (223, n. 3). The important point is that there is evidence to suggest that the kaspum kankum functioned as/were coins!

6. Schaps does not mention evidence provided by Joann’s (1989). Hammurabi (1792-1750) paid/rewarded Mari’s soldiers with (mysterious) shamsh?tum “sun discs,” gold rings, silver of 5 or 10 shekels, and with small pieces of silver impressed with a seal. Joann?s bases himself on ARMT 25, 815 and a letter (A-486+) to Zimri-Lim, the king of Mari. The key word here is kaniktum from kan?kum “to mark a seal” (see CAD s.vv.). In the absence of (additional?) evidence for the use of kaniktum to make payments, Joann?s suggests that these sealed metal objects may have been “medals.” Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps they were coins. Indeed, as far as I am aware, the evidence for coinage is more ample than the evidence for “medals”! The text is silent about whether and how Mari’s soldiers spent the small pieces of sealed silver.

7. Several bread-shaped ingots of the eighth century inscribed with the name of a king preceded by the Aramaic letter lamed have actually been found in the palace of Zinjirli, a north Syrian state located on the only good crossing of the Amanus mountains from east to west. The meaning of the possessive l is debated. One possibility is that it means “belonging to” in the sense of personal possession. Balmuth (1971: 3), however, suggests that it means “on behalf of” or “in the name of” (its meaning on coins of later times) and, therefore, that the inscription represents a royal guarantee of the metal. Any such guarantee might refer only to the quality of the metal or to both quality and weight. Schaps responds as follows: “But there is no indication that this disk… was ever meant to be currency at all, and coins did not become current in this area until centuries later” (91, n.52). Thus, Schaps comes close to saying that the ingot could not be a coin because they had not been invented yet! Schaps believes that the disks were designed for storage of wealth, not for making payments. Perhaps he has guessed right. The fact is, however, that there is simply no evidence beyond the inscribed ingots themselves.

As I will show next, Schaps requires much more from the Near Eastern coinage evidence than from the Greek.

II. Greek Coinage Evidence

1. There is clear evidence of a double standard in Schaps’ consideration of the Lydian evidence (93-6). The “Lydian” coins excavated in the Artemision at Ephesus are mostly dated to the seventh and earlier sixth centuries BCE. However, the dating remains controversial. Two of the pieces were dumps not coins. The significance of their inscriptions is still being debated. All but two of the ninety-three pieces conformed to the Milesian weight standard. There is no evidence that merchants would not have had to weigh them. There is no direct evidence that the coins circulated. The coins are made of the wrong metal, electrum instead of silver, gold, or copper. (Variation in the ratio of gold to silver, would seem to call for quality testing.) In short, despite numerous opportunities for raising objections, Schaps does not hesitate to call the finds in the Artemision, the “earliest datable coins” (93; emphasis added).

Schaps explains further: “The motivation behind the ‘cutting’… of such coins must have been quite different from the motivation of the temple of Arbela in casting its ingots. Ingots of a pound or so are a convenient way in which to store silver, and they were probably made for that purpose. Small and minutely subdivided weights of electrum [as in the Ephesus hoard], however, were undoubtedly made for payment not storage” (100). Possibly. However, there is evidence for the circulation of the Arbela ingots. A contract in which neither the temple nor its commercial agent is a party shows the silver being loaned out. The document originates some 50 miles from Arbela. On the other hand, no direct evidence is presented that the Ephesus coins circulated.

Contrast Schaps’ evaluation of the Artemision coins with his view of the Cappadocian lead disks, which may date to the mid-second millennium (225-26). The “ornamentation” on (one side) of the disks is similar but not identical. The disks “vary irregularly in weight.” They are made of the “wrong metal.” There is no evidence of “circulation from place to place.” Scholars have expressed doubts that “such small bits of lead could have had much monetary value” (225). “Nothing suggests that they are coins except their size and shape and the fact that they are made of metal…” (225). It would seem that ANE candidates for designation as early coins are always too large or too small or whatever.

2. Schaps does not demonstrate that the Greece took its inspiration from Lydian coins. Schaps explains: “The Greek coins were silver, not electrum…. The change to silver indicates that coins, even if they had begun as a solution to the problem of the variability of electrum, had come to be appreciated as what they now were: a countable unit of value” (104; emphasis added). Clearly, this terminology simply assumes an imitation and modification of Lydian coinage practices.

3. There are hints that the Greeks had long been familiar with “primitive money” or even coinage. Greek traditions and legends place coinage much earlier than the sixth century. Thus, Plutarch (Theseus 25.3) wrote in the first century CE that Theseus, the legendary unifier and king of Attica, issued coins. In the second century CE, the scholar Pollux (9.83), claimed that coinage was invented by the even more shadowy Athenian figure Erichthonius, an early king. We find reports in ancient literary sources that Pheidon, king of Argos, introduced a silver coinage possibly as early as the eighth century (see S 101-4).

Hacksilber “cut-silver” hoards have not been found inside Greece. However, an eighth century hoard was excavated in Eretria in Euboea. (The Taranto 1911 hoard is dated to c. 600.) Balmuth (1975: 296) suggests that “although many of these have been called silversmith’s hoards, the practicability of exchange by weight suggests that Hacksilber could simultaneously be both material for a jeweler and material for exchange.” Schaps does not “believe there was ever an internal bullion economy in Greece” (195).[3] However, Kim (2001) has presented evidence that money of weighed silver bullion was employed in the Greek world well before the introduction of coinage. There are references to the use of silver to pay fines in Solon’s time.

More importantly, Schaps provides evidence consistent with bullion usage. In the eighth century, at Gortyn in Crete, the leb?s “cauldron” was used to make payments. Schaps explains that “it is hard to escape the impression that cauldrons, as inconvenient as they may seem to be, were functioning as a means of payment… in which fines could be assessed and deposits demanded” (83, cf. 195). Actually, it is preposterous that physical cauldrons were used as means of payment. More reasonably, “cauldrons” might be the name for an ingot, perhaps stamped with the image of a cauldron. Mysterious monetary units are, after all, commonplace in the historical documents. Thus, a text from the ANE (Isin) records the purchase of an orchard for copper “hoes” ((c)haputu) inscribed with the name of the goddess Ninisina. Payments are also made in “sickles” and “axes” (CAD niggallu 1.b).

III. Alleged Revolutionary Effect of Coinage/Money

Schaps’ central proposition is not documented in a credible manner. In this endeavor, he receives only limited mileage from his strained identification of coinage with money. Sometimes he claims for money/coin the effects of Greek economic growth. In other instances, he admits that no revolution occurred. The quotations cited below illustrate his difficulties.

1. “The conceptual revolution that identified coins with wealth turned money into an item of which one could never have too much, or, indeed, enough” (175). What then of the Assyrian merchants of the early second millennium BCE whose wives scolded them “You love only money, and you hate your own life!” (Larsen 1982: 42)? More to the point, what of Solon (Fragment 13.43-45. 47-48, 71-73 West):

One hastens after one thing, another after something else; one man, desiring to bring home profit, wanders over the fishy sea in ships … another, whose concern is the curved plow, cleaves the thickly wooded land and slaves away for a year… but no limit of wealth [ploutou d’ouden terma] is clearly laid down for men; for those of us who now have the greatest livelihood [pleiston…bion] have twice the eagerness [diplasion specdousi]; who can satisfy [koreseien] all? (Balot 2001: 90)Presumably, this view originates in the late archaic period — i.e. before the Greeks adopted coinage. In any event, Solon does not link human acquisitiveness with coinage or money.

2. “To the extent, then, that Homeric society had distinguished prestige goods from nonprestige goods, money subverted the distinction: money could buy anything and could be gotten in exchange for anything. It follows that even a peasant or a shopkeeper could amass enough money to buy the most prestigious goods; and it followed from this that the possession of those goods, which is now open to everybody, no longer distinguished the best from the worst” (117).

3. “The history of the late archaic age in Greece is the story of the crumbling of oligarchies. This development was already underway before coinage had been invented…. Nevertheless, it is more than probable that money and the market had their share in continuing the process and in changing the entire concept of oligarchy” (120).

4. An (alleged) trend from socially embedded transactions to impersonal economics should not be attributed to the adoption of coinage. There is no doubt that economic transactions tended, as Greek society developed from the archaic age to the classical and the Hellenistic, to be more a matter of immediate mutual economic benefit and less a form of discharging social obligations. The invention of coinage certainly facilitated this change, which may, however, have been propelled more by simple population growth than by any technological or cultural development. (33)

5. “The agora grew up in the Kerameikos, the potters quarter, and excavations have found evidence of potters’ waste as far back as 1000 B.C.E., but there are not other signs of commercial or industrial activity before the growth of the agora itself [in the sixth century]” (113). “We cannot… prove that there was no retail trade before coins were invented; but what we have seen suggests that if there was any, there was not much” (115). The latter suggestion, however, does not depend so much on “what we have seen” as on what we have not, namely the archaic agora! “The place in which Athenians had previously congregated was hardly remembered by the Athenians and has not been securely identified to this day” (113).

In the end, Schaps offers a more balanced appraisal. The various participants “were all making a profit, and they were doing it in a way that would have been a good deal more difficult before the invention of coinage” (115). “Money, we may reiterate, did not create trade, but it marked the beginning of a new age of commerce in Greece” (122). “An expansion of retail trade was the first visible concomitant of coins. At this distance, we cannot tell which is cause and which is effect, but we can say at least that the marketplace and coinage grew up together” (196).

6. “Without money, the great temples, the dramatic festivals of Athens, its navy, and its democracy would have taken a very different form, if they had come to exist at all” (197). This is simply a reach.

7. “Merkelbach’s observation that a bordello was hardly conceivable before the invention of money is a plausible one, though the ‘money’ involved need not have been coins: the weighed silver of the Levant would also have been sufficient” (160). “Merkelbach’s observation” is “plausible” only because he does not identify money with coinage. How did Greeks pay for sexual services before the (alleged) “invention” of coinage/money in the sixth century? Schaps does not tell us.

8. “The ancient Greeks, even when money had become the universal medium of exchange, still considered the exchange of labor for money to be the exceptional case” (162). No revolution in the labor market.

9. “In sum, it appears that money never truly transformed Greek agriculture” (172).

Schaps, however, underestimates the market orientation of Greek agriculture in the later archaic period. Citing Hesiod (Works and Days 618-94), he (89, cf. 119) suggests that “Peasants might try to change an agricultural surplus into a more lasting form of wealth by sailing abroad during the seasons when the farm could be left alone.” What exactly was the “more lasting form of wealth” in these days (allegedly) before money/coin? With respect to Schaps? “agricultural surplus,” Redfield 2003: 168) points out that Hesiod advises “peasants” to “leave the greater part, and load as cargo the lesser” (Works and Days 690). Hesiod it seems can actually imagine farming entirely for export, although he is against it.” Moreover, Hesiod’s comment that “wealth means life to poor mortals” indicates an appreciation of production for the market.

IV. Peripheral Contributions

Apart from his central argument, Schaps makes a number of rather interesting and useful observations. Some examples follow.

“When the [Mycenaean] palaces had been burned and their far-flung bureaucracy dispersed, there will have been more need for exchange. The Homeric heroes did indeed have to weigh the value of a slave against the value of a tripod; if this seems to us a step toward the concept of money, it is not for that reason a sign of an expanding economy” (71). Thus, as I would see this, the Homeric era can be viewed and an “Intermediate Period” of a type familiar in Egyptian economic history.

Speaking of the marketplace in Athens, Schaps notes: These merchandises were not mixed: not only was there no one ‘general store’ that sold them all, but there was not even a single place where one could ‘do the shopping.’ Each merchandise had its own part of the agora, and a person would speak of being ‘among the fish’ or ‘among the banks.’ (167)

Or even, citing Aristophanes, “among the tragedies” (S 167, n. 19)!

Schaps (123) cites Aristophanes’ joke that a politician could win public support by lowering the price of sardines.

Schaps takes up private enterprise in the coinage business: It might, in theory, have happened that coining would have become a form of business, in which private individuals turned silver into coins that would have been accepted by the reputation of the coiner…. It did not happen in Greece. Once coinage was generally adopted in Greek cities, the coining of money was normally a state monopoly. (179)

By contrast, I would suggest, some of the inscriptions on the coins from the Artemision coins seem to be personal names, which leaves open the possibility that the issuers were private individuals.

Large business loans were made at Athens. “It is true, however, that large loans at Athens were, as far we can tell, never designed to be paid off in drips and drabs out of one’s regular income” (245).

There are also some rather unfortunate observations. “Behind the [Greek] prejudice [against merchants] though hardly ever explicitly expressed, lies a real paradox, namely, the syllogism that: (a) a trade should be fair; (b) if a trade is fair, both sides should remain with the same value; whence it follows that (c) if a person can increase his capital by trade, he is cheating someone” (177). It should be needless to say that there is no “real paradox.” An uncoerced exchange benefits both parties. Unless each contractor views his postexchange position to be superior to his preexchange position, exchange will not take place. Contrary to the Marxist perspective, exchange is productive. Specifically, trade rearranges an existing stock of goods in a way that enables each participant to become better off as measured relative to his own values at the time of deciding to trade. The creative nature of trade is little appreciated by scholars untrained in basic economic principles. Schaps (177, n. 7) compounds the problem by minimizing the contribution of the middleman in “making a market.” Later, he redeems himself by crediting the obolostat?s “obol weigher” for smoothing the function of the marketplace by “redistributing — for a fee — the coins that circulated in the market so that any seller could count on finding enough coins to start a day’s business” (186).

Concluding Remark

Not surprisingly, Schaps fails to demonstrate his thesis that coin=money revolutionized Greek economy and society. In my judgment, it is not nearly enough to cite the obvious advantages of coins in retail trade and to note that a Greek household might now express the entirety of its possessions in terms of money. With respect to the invention of coinage, the communis opinio has long been that it first appeared in the Greek world, not in the Near East. Schaps, to his credit, does explore the evidence for coinage in the Near East. However, he omits or misrepresents much and treats the remainder in an unbalanced manner. He has a tendency to make definitive statements not supported by evidence. Outside his central argument, he has many worthwhile things to say. The latter insights are sufficient to justify a favorable evaluation of the book.


1. In Genesis 23.16, Abraham “weighed” for Ephron’s field the sum of 400 shekels of silver kesep ‘?ber lass?cher. The latter phrase is usually translated “current money of the merchant,” but the literal meaning is “silver passing for the merchant.” The expression makes us focus on the kind of silver that would be employed in commerce. Hurowitz (1986: 290, n.3), taking note of the Old Assyrian usage kaspum asshumi PN (personal name) equlam ittiq — “silver will travel overland to the name of PN” — concludes that the silver “must have been of a standard, recognized quality.” There is no mention in Genesis of a test of the quality of the metal. Hence, it seems reasonable that a merchant’s stamp or seal guaranteed the silver. Schaps (91, n. 50) rejects this interpretation. He (228, n. 37) is correct in insisting that the silver was weighed

2. Despite the dangers, some biblical evidence should be noted. In 2 Kings 12.10-12 we read that in the ninth century under King Jehoash: a box with a hole bored in it was set up in the temple for the collection of silver [presumably silver pieces] for a repairs fund; at a certain point the Temple officers removed the silver from the box and “tied it up”/”bagged it” [warrasuru]; then the silver was counted [wayyimnu]; and then the “measured”/”regulated” [metukkan] silver was given to contractors who delivered it to various workers at the Temple who used it to purchase timber and stone. The text does not say that the sacks were opened in order to make payments. Thus, expressing all due caution, the most direct understanding is that the sacks circulated outside the Temple.

3. There is some reason to believe that terms originally meaning “weigh” came to have the meaning “pay” (compare S 228, n. 37) The Greek material provides a possible example of this kind of development in meaning. A law of Solon states: “Silver is to be stasimon at however much the lender may choose” (Kroll 2001: 78; Schaps 2001: 97). The orator Lysias (later fifth-earlier fourth century BCE) explains “This stasimon, my good man, is not a matter of placing in a balance but of exacting interest at whatever rate one may choose” (10.18). Schaps (2001: 98) concedes that stasis may refer to weighing but he opposes Kroll’s interpretation of Lysias as referring to an obsolete procedure, the weighing of silver on a scale: “The claim hinges on the presumption that stasimon ‘properly’ should mean ‘weighable'; but there are no parallels for such a meaning.” What then does stastimon mean in Solon’s law? According to Schaps (2001: 98) the word means “nothing more than ‘is to be paid’.”

In fact, there are no other examples of the use of stasimos in the meanings “weighing” (Kroll) or “paying” (Schaps). What is clear is that “There is an absolute connection between the adjective stasimos and the noun stasis, both derived from the verb hist?mi ‘to stand up, to cause to stand up” (David Tandy personal correspondence dated March 2, 2004; LSJ s.v. hist?mi). The verb hist?mi is well attested in the meaning “to weigh.”

In classical Athens, long after the introduction of coins, we find the term obolostate? “weigh obols” in the meaning “making small loans” (LSJ s.v.). There is evidence here of an evolution from “weighing” to “paying.”


CAD: Gelb et al., The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute (University of Chicago)

LSJ: Lidell, Scott, Jones, Greek-English Lexicon References


Archi, Alfonso. (1993), “Trade and Administrative Practice: The Case of Ebla.” Altorientalische Forschungen, 20, 43-58.

Balmuth, Miriam S. (1971). “Remarks on the Appearance of the Earliest Coins.” In David G. Mitten et al. (eds.), Studies Presented to George M.A. Hanfmann. Cambridge, MA: Fogg Art Museum, 1-7.

Balmuth, Miriam S. (1975). “The Critical Moment: The Transition from Currency to Coinage in the Eastern Mediterranean.” World Archaeology, 6, 293-98.

Balmuth, Miriam S. (ed.) (2001). Hacksilber to Coinage: New Insights into the Monetary History of the Near East and Greece. New York: American Numismatic Society.

Balot, Ryan K. (2001). Greed and Injustice in Classical Athens. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Castle, Edward W. (1992). “Shipping and Trade in Ramesside Egypt.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 35,239-77.

Condon, Virginia. (1984). “Two Account Papyri of the Late Eighteenth Dynasty (Brooklyn 35.1453A and B).” Revue d’?gyptologie, 35, 57-82.

Dercksen, Jan Gerrit. (1996). The Old Assyrian Copper Trade in Anatolia. Leiden: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te Istanbul.

Foster, Benjamin R. (1977). “Commercial Activity in Sargonic Mesopotamia.” Iraq, 39, 31-44.

Gelb, I.J. et al. (eds.) (1956-). The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Locust Valley, N.Y.: Augustin.

Hallo, William W. (1958). “Contributions to Neo-Sumerian.” Hebrew Union College Annual, 29, 69-107.

Hurowitz (Avigdor), Victor. (1986). “Another Fiscal Practice in the Ancient Near East: 2 Kings 12:5-17 and a Letter to Esarhaddon (LAS 277).” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 45, 289-94.

James, T.G.H. (1984). Pharaoh’s People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Joann?s, F. (1989). “108) M?dailles d’argent d’Hammurabi?” Nouvelles Assyriologiques Br?ves et Utilitaires, (no. 4 D?cembre), 80-1.

Kim, Henry S. (2001). “Archaic Coinage as Evidence for the Use of Money.” In Andrew Meadows and Kirsty Shipton (eds.), Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 7-21.

Kroll, John H. (2001). “Observations on Monetary Instruments in Pre-Coinage Greece.” In Balmuth (ed.), Hacksilber to Coinage, 77-91.

Larsen, Mogens Trolle (1982). “Caravans and Trade in Ancient Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.” Bulletin of the Society of Mesopotamian Studies, 4, 33-45.

Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott. (1968). A Greek-English Lexicon. Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie, rev. ed. London: Oxford University Press.

Lipinski, Edward. (1979). “Les temples neo-assyriens et les origines du monnayage.” In Edward Lipinski (ed.), State and Temple Economy in Ancient Mesopotamia, II. Leiden: Brill, 565-88.

Malamat, A. (1998). Man and the Bible. Leiden: Brill.

Oppenheim, A. Leo. (1969). “Review of R. Bogaert.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 12, 198-99.

Peet, Thomas Eric. (1934). “Unit of Value s(‘ty in Papyrus Bulaq 11.” In M?langes Maspero, Vol. 1, Fasc 1. Cairo: Institut Fran?aise d?Archa?ologie Orientale du Caire, 185-99.

Refield, James M. (2003). The Locrian Maidens: Love and Death in Greek Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Schaps, David M. (2001). “The Conceptual Prehistory of Money and Its Impact on the Greek Economy.” In Balmuth (ed.), Hacksilber to Coinage, 93-103.

Silver, Morris. (1985), Economic Structures of the Ancient Near East. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books.

Silver, Morris. (1995). Economic Structures of Antiquity. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Stol, M. (1982). “State and Private Business in the Land of Larsa.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 34, 127-230.

Udovitch, Abraham L. (1979). “Bankers without Banks: Commerce, Banking, and Society in the Islamic World in the Middle Ages.” Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, The Dawn of Modern Banking. New Haven. Conn.: Yale University Press, 255-74.

Morris Silver is Professor Emeritus of Economics in the City College of the City University of New York. His most recent publications about ancient economies are Taking Ancient Mythology Economically (Leiden: Brill, 1992) and Economic Structures of Antiquity (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995). “Modern Ancients” is forthcoming in Rollinger and Ulf (eds.), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World , Fifth Annual Melammu Conference 2002. Professor Silver maintains a website on “Ancient Economies” at

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient

Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World

Author(s):Meadows, Andrew
Shipton, Kirsty
Reviewer(s):Schaps, David M.

Published by EH.NET (April 2004)


Andrew Meadows and Kirsty Shipton, editors, Money and Its Uses in the Ancient Greek World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xx + 187 pp. ?65 or $98 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-924012-4; ?30 or $45 (paper), ISBN: 0-19-927142-9

Reviewed for EH.NET by David M. Schaps, Department of Classical Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat-Gan, Israel

In 1972 Moses Finley gave a series of Sather lectures that were published the following year under the title The Ancient Economy. It was a book quite unlike previous descriptions of its subject. It did not simply collect information about ancient agriculture, craftsmanship, and production; that job had been done already. Instead it offered a new conceptual model for understanding the economy of ancient Greece and Rome, one in which status and social organization loomed large and the traditional categories of markets, exports, and economic choice took a back seat.

Finley’s work, though it dominated the field for decades, has not gone unchallenged; nor, surely, would he have wanted it to. But it ended forever the certainties by which ancient historians, economists, and numismatists could take the conceptual framework of their own discipline for granted and import from the others “the basic facts.” Since The Ancient Economy, and particularly in the last decade, members of these discrete disciplines have been speaking to each other more and raising questions of principle. (Professional economists, unfortunately, have not yet been integrated fully into this debate.) The ground is rumbling beneath us, and we do not know yet where matters will settle.

The volume here reviewed is chiefly the result of conferences held at Oxford in 1995 and 1997. The editors are Andrew Meadows, Curator of Ancient Greek Coins at the British Museum, and Kirsty Shipton, Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Leicester; the contributors include numismatists, historians of the ancient economy, and at least one (Jane Rowlandson) who considers herself neither. The subject of the conferences was the use of coined money, and the questions dealt with are those that have come to the fore in recent years. How straightforward a process was monetization, and how thoroughly did it succeed? How did ideologies of sovereignty and democracy affect the minting of coins, and vice versa? How much control, and what sort of control, was exercised by dynasts over the coinage of polities under their sway? Why did cities mint coins in the first place?

Space permits only a brief summary. Henry Kim begins the volume with “Archaic Coinage as Evidence for the Use of Money,” a contribution valuable not only for its thesis (that the invention of coinage is only a stage in the gradual monetization of Greek society) but also for a summary of recent numismatic discoveries that render obsolete a number of common generalizations. Jeremy Trevett, in “Coinage and Democracy at Athens,” argues that although coinage undoubtedly existed in non-democratic states as well, there was a certain linkage between the use of coinage and democratic ideology, and it was not accidental that Athenian coins were both stable in design (maintaining the “owls” that had symbolized the city since the beginning of the democracy) and lackadaisical in execution (since no body was responsible for, or stood to gain from, the aesthetics of their production).

Graham Oliver (“The Politics of Coinage: Athens and Antigonus Gonatas”) and Andrew Meadows (“Money, Freedom, and Empire in the Hellenistic World”) both follow up the thesis of Thomas Martin (Sovereignty and Coinage in Classical Greece, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985) that expression of sovereignty was not a factor in the decision of Greek states to issue coins. Both find that although previous scholarship has tended to associate the issuance of coins with political autonomy, there is in fact no independent evidence of this for the areas they consider; Meadows shows that there was demonstrably a certain amount of royal interference, but it was neither uniform nor absolute.

Sitta von Reden deals with “The Politics of Monetization in Third-Century BC Egypt”: she finds that the Ptolemies’ coinage was promoted by the state as part of its “imagery of power,” but never achieved a sufficient volume to overcome a relative shortage of precious-metal coinage, with the result that credit transactions were much more developed than they are usually thought to have been at Athens — a conclusion that warns against the temptation to lump Athenian and Hellenistic evidence together into a homogenized “Greek Law.”

R. H. J. Ashton’s “The Coinage of Rhodes 408-c. 190 BC” offers a brief but thorough catalogue of Rhodian issues, finding that peaks in the volume of coinage issued apparently correspond with major construction work or with military crises, a finding strongly suggesting that not market needs but state needs determined the production of coins. John K. Davies’ “Temples, Credit, and the Circulation of Money” defines a five-stage process in the monetization of temples — a process that works itself out in different ways in different places, by no means always reaching stage five from stage one. Kirsty Shipton (“Money and the Elite in Classical Athens”), doing the best she can with the very small statistical sample that is the bane of all ancient economic historians, does offer at least suggestive evidence that prominent Athenians were more likely to invest in leasing the mines at Laureion than they were to lease agricultural land from the state. Jane Rowlandson (“Money Use among the Peasantry of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt”) returns us to Egypt with an interesting complement to Sitta von Reden’s contribution. Focusing on the countryside, she documents the slow penetration of money among the peasantry as some taxes, but not all, required them to accumulate enough coin to satisfy their rulers.

The volume is well-produced and the articles are thoughtful, each in its way moving us forward toward a deeper understanding of one of the most profound economic revolutions the world has known.

David M. Schaps is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Bar-Ilan University, and the author of The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece (University of Michigan Press, 2004).

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Middle East
Time Period(s):Ancient

The Ancient Economy

Author(s):Scheidel, Walter
Von Reden, Sitta
Reviewer(s):Silver, Morris

Published by EH.NET (January 2003)


Walter Scheidel and Sitta von Reden, editors, The Ancient Economy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. xxi + 282 pp. ?16.99 (paperback), ISBN: 0-7486-1321-8; ?45 (hardback), ISBN: 0-7486-1322-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Morris Silver, Professor Emeritus, Department of Economics, City College of the City University of New York.

In 1973, the classical scholar Moses Finley (1973, 1985, 1999) unveiled a view of the economic underpinnings of ancient economies in which markets and economic motivations played little if any role. Status and civic ideology governed the allocation of scarce resources. Hence, the application of economic theory to the ancient economy was at best a futile exercise and at worst a source of grave misunderstandings. By “ancient economy” Finley had in mind only the economy of classical civilization — i.e., of the Graeco-Roman area beginning roughly in the earlier first millennium BC. However, Finley’s perspective found completion and generalization in the works of the economic historian Karl Polanyi (1981).1 Polanyi argued forcefully that the ancient Near East did not know markets and, like Finley, he was implacably opposed to the application of economic theory to ancient economic life. Thus was formed a new orthodoxy. Suggestions in the literature of ancient market behavior or economic motivation might simply be ignored or dismissed in a condescending manner as mere “anachronism.” The latter criticism was found devastating by Greek and Roman scholars.

The world of scholarship is rarely completely static, however. Scholars came forward with new evidence and new interpretations pointing to a significant role for markets. In their “Introduction” Scheidel and von Reden* explain that “Critics question the real-life impact of elite mentality and identify apparent tensions between the historical record and the model that was meant to make sense of it. They tend to emphasize the considerable scale of economic activities (above all trade) and, make a case for significant economic growth in the Roman imperial period when political and fiscal unification boosted market exchanges.” (p. 3)

This, it may be added, represents only the tip of the critical iceberg. Thus, the study of the ancient economy became an “academic battleground.”2 As a result of this battle the influence of the Finley/Polanyi orthodoxy has unquestionably waned.3 At present the study of the ancient economy might be compared to a minefield, full of perils for the unsuspecting scholar.

Thus it is most encouraging to learn from the publisher’s website that the Greek and Roman scholars involved in the publication of The Ancient Economy aim to move the debate beyond “partisan controversies.”4 Scheidel and von Reden seem to second the call for studies moving the debate beyond the Finley/Polanyi agenda and benefiting from “the conceptual and analytical repertoire of modern economics” (pp. 3-4). Obviously, a new synthesis is badly needed even if, to begin with, it is confined to the Greek and Roman periods.

Concerning the realities of the volume, it is certainly not reassuring that in the lead article (originally published in 1998), Greek specialist Paul Cartledge (p. 15) takes as a given Finley’s view that “the categories of neoclassical economic analysis” have “no useful application to ‘the ancient economy’.” Cartledge goes on to consider how we should “set about formulating usable and useful models.”5 We search his contribution vainly for the citation of even one example in which the predictions of economic theory are falsified by economic events in the Graeco-Roman economy. No synthesis, no new evidence and no usable new model can be detected here!

Turning to the closing (previously unpublished) article, as is my wont in collections of this kind, Roman specialist Richard Saller (p. 253) agrees with Finley that modern economic theory is inappropriate for antiquity because of an “incomparability in economic organization.”5 The problem, Saller suggests, is the absence in antiquity of integrated markets: * Had the markets been fully integrated, there should not have been desperate grain shortages in individual cities, at the same time as other cities were well supplied. * In such cases hungry urban dwellers did not depend solely on higher market prices to draw larger supplies from elsewhere in the [Roman] Empire. but resorted to imperial intervention. * In an integrated market, this sort of supervision would have been superfluous because pricing would have drawn grain to areas in need (p. 254 with n. 2).

Understandably, not being imbued with the trained suspicions of the modern economist, it does not occur to Saller that imperial “supervision” and not the absence of “fully integrated markets” kept the grain away from hungry cities! The classic example is provided by a serious famine at Antioch in AD 362/3. Despite the enlightened protests of Libanius and others, Emperor Julian had responded to rising grain prices caused by a severe and prolonged drought with an edict of maximum prices and the sale of imported grain at prices below the market-clearing level. These well-meant but counterproductive measures served mainly to misallocate the available stock of grain (see Downey 1951: 315-19; de Jonge 1948). They also operated to discourage large landowners (and other speculators) from storing grain.7 The problem here was not transport costs/fragmented markets but a much more significant problem: failure to understand the economic facts of life.8

The remainder of Saller’s contribution includes some cautionary observations on the scale of Roman economic growth. The ancients did of course accumulate material and human capital and they introduced important technical innovations. Clearly, the industrial era’s increased reliance on scientific knowledge and its increased range and variety of fixed capital goods have steeply accelerated the rate of technical progress and material growth. It must not be overlooked, however, that dramatic improvements in living standards are attainable through improvements in economic organization. The evidence demonstrates that ancient civilizations experienced lengthy periods of market activity and prosperity, including even affluence, interspersed with periods of pervasive economic regulation by the state and, ultimately, economic retrogression. There can be no doubt, for example, that something very important happened to Roman living standards between Romulus and Remus and Diocletian!

Perhaps there is more evidence of a move beyond partisan controversy towards a new synthesis in some of the contributions positioned between Cartledge and Saller. I proceed selectively and begin with a useful, previously published article by historian Reger because of its possible bearing on the question of integrated markets raised by Saller. Reger compares time-series of prices for a number of imported commodities (oil, perfume, papyrus, pitch). The price data are taken from priestly inscriptions on the island of Delos dating to the Hellenistic period in the third and second centuries BC. The prices of the various commodities display markedly different patterns. This finding is understood by Scheidel and von Reden (pp. 133-34) to undermine the view that the Hellenistic market was integrated (Reger 145). The assumption underlying this conclusion seems to be that economic integration requires prices to be determined by “general economic trends” and/or “broader interregional developments” meaning, apparently, that all prices must change in the same direction. Have Scheidel and von Reden identified price inflation/deflation with economic integration? Obviously, integration across spatially distant markets is quite consistent with an unchanged general level of prices combined with pronounced changes in relative prices — i.e., perfume rises in price, oil prices decline. Indeed, such changes are commonplace in the contemporary economy and in no way indicate an absence of integrated markets.

The beginning of a trend toward synthesis can indeed be seen in the (previously published) contribution by the French historian Andreau. I especially appreciated his suggestion that “To contrast, term by term, everything pre-industrial with everything modern, and endlessly to scour antiquity for all possible and imaginable signs of archaism, results in a very reductionist view of history. Besides, whether deliberate or not, such an approach has the effect of providing present-day institutions and situations with an intellectual justification which they do not always merit, and of strengthening our reassuring (but illusory) impression that they are eternal, or at least immortal, since we have now entered modernity.” (p. 35)9

While there is room for disagreement, Andreau’s article merits close and respectful attention.

A (previously published) article by archaeologist Halstead also is helpful. He sees “famine-brokering” as a partial answer to “what is arguably the most important problem in the ancient economy ‘how did rich Greeks and Romans in classical antiquity acquire their wealth?'” (p. 68) Selling stored grain on the market in periods of exceptionally high prices “may well hold the key to the original emergence of a rich minority, given that current ancient historical orthodoxy seems…to have ruled out all the obvious alternatives” (p. 69) (emphasis added). Of course, the “obvious alternatives” for becoming wealthy would be reinstated in any new synthesis! Thus, archaeologist Hitchner (p. 76) in his discussion of growth in the olive oil industry in the Roman provinces of North Africa observes “the proliferation of small farms with one or two presses often in close proximity to oileries, and frequently on agricultural marginal lands…. That is, the decision to construct a large stone lever press… particularly when much more modest means of extracting oil for subsistence needs were available, implies that surplus oil production was the ultimate objective of the small farm occupants. Although the capital for these presses is likely, in many instances, to have come from the owners of the nearby oilieries interested in the oleocultural development of marginal lands in or around their estates, we may also see in these arrangements an effort by the farms’ occupants, whether independent small-holders, free tenants or even slaves, to better their lot.” (emphasis added)

Let it be noted that Hitchner published these words in 1993 when proponents of the idea that members of the ancient public might become rich by means of productive activity were still likely to risk being derided as “anachronistic.”10 With respect to the sources of Athenian wealth in the fourth century BC Osborne (pp. 128-30) tentatively raises the possibilities, “against firmly held modern convictions,” that manufacture was of some importance and that agriculture was actually profitable.

The Ancient Economy, much to my surprise, actually does include a number of contributions (Andreau, Halstead, Hitchner plus the “Introduction”) that move the discussion beyond partisan controversy toward a new synthesis. The volume has the additional merit of bringing together in one place valuable previously published articles by Hopkins, Panella/Tchernia, and Rathbone. On the other hand, the articles by Saller and, especially, Cartledge cling to the Finley/Polanyi orthodoxy. Their strategic placement in the book, first and last chapters, betrays a serious tension in the conception of the editors. To conclude, this is a collection that scholars of the ancient world should be pleased to have in their libraries.

I do have one strong complaint. The editors (p. 4) note that “It goes without saying that it is impossible for a collection of this kind to cover all the bases.” Agreed, but why in a volume devoted to economic history do we find classicists, historians, archaeologists and even a philosopher but not a single contribution by a professional economist? The omission is glaring and revealing.


*About the Editors: Walter Scheidel, formerly Moses and Mary Finley Research Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge, currently teaches Ancient History at the University of Chicago; Sitta von Reden is Senior Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Bristol.

1. I have relied upon Polanyi’s posthumously published manuscript entitled The Livelihood of Man (1981). The editor of this volume, Harry W. Pearson, has included material on Polanyi’s life and has contributed a useful introduction citing Polanyi’s major publications and placing his thought in perspective.

2. The “Suggestions for further Reading” include recent contributions on both sides of the controversy.

3. Interestingly, as their empirical base deteriorated some scholars loyal to this “primitivist/substantivist” school began to denigrate the use of empirical evidence and, more and more, to stress the importance of “erudite models” (see note 6 below). Indeed, even Finley (1985: 182) in “Further Thoughts,” appealed to historical and anthropological/sociological “models” as opposed to “the continual evocation of individual ‘facts’.”


5. In modern economic models are conceptual structures capable of being manipulated to make predictions, which may be tested against empirical evidence. For Finley/Polanyi scholars, however, a model is “a heuristic device for organizing data into an intelligible whole” (Stager 2001: 625) As Finley (1985: 182) explained in “Further Thoughts,” “models” are “valuable in obscuring incidental detail and in allowing fundamental aspects of reality to appear.” “Model” serves as an objective-sounding name for a priori positions that are employed to sift, shape, interpret or avoid the evidence.

6. With two exceptions the articles included in The Ancient Economy were originally published elsewhere. The editors contribute an introduction and chapter commentaries. With one exception the contributions are authored by classicists, historians and archaeologists. The exception is a reprinted contribution by philosopher Scott Meikle who, while critical of modern economic theory, is quite adept at manipulating the Marxist categories of “use value” and “exchange value.”

7. Halstead (p. 69) notes that the Roman writer Varro advised landowners to store grain in order to take advantage of high market prices in times of famine.

8.Readers interested in market integration in the Roman world might consult Temin (2001).

9. One might consider in the light of Andreau’s remarks Douglass North’s (1991: 98) pursuit of the “Holy Grail” of a once-and-for-all incremental evolution of efficient institutions.

10. Hitchner (pp. 80-81) was well aware of the professional risk he was taking in citing empirical evidence for significant growth in the Roman economy.


Downey, Glanville (1951). “The Economic Crisis at Antioch under Julian the Apostate.” In P.R. Coleman-Norton (editor), Studies in Roman Economic and Social History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 312- 21.

Finley, Moses (1973, 1985, 1999). The Ancient Economy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

de Jonge, P. (1948). “Scarcity of Corn and Corn Prices in Ammianus Marcellinus.” Mnemosyne, 1, 238-45.

North, Douglass C. (1991). “Institutions.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5, 97-112.

Polanyi, Karl (1981). The Livelihood of Man. Harry W. Pearson (editor). New York: Academic.

Stager. Lawrence E. (2001). “Port Power in the Early and the Middle Bronze Age: The Organization of Maritime Trade and Hinterland Production.” In Samuel R. Wolff (editor), Studies in the Archaeology of Israel and Neighboring Lands. Chicago: Oriental Institute, 625-38.

Temin, Peter (2001), “A Market Economy in the Early Roman Empire.” Journal of Roman Studies, 91, 169-81.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Bleiberg, Edward (1995). “The Economy of Ancient Egypt.” In Jack M. Sasson, John Baines, Gary Beckman, and Karen S. Rubinson (editors), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. III. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1373-85.

Cartledge, Paul, Edward E. Cohen, and Lin Foxhall (editors) (2002). Money, Labour and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece. London: Routledge.

Castle, Edward W (1992). “Shipping and Trade in Ramesside Egypt.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 35, 239-77.

Cohen, Edward E. (1992). Athenian Economy and Society: A Banking Perspective. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Dercksen, Jan Gerrit (editor) (1999). Trade and Finance in Ancient Mesopotamia. Leiden: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut te Instanbul.

Donlan, Walter (forthcoming). “Homer and Hesiod on Commerce and Trade”. In Rollinger and Ulf (editors), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World.

Engels, Donald (1990). Roman Corinth: An Alternative Model for the Classical City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Figueira, Thomas J. (1984). “Karl Polanyi and Ancient Greek Trade: The Port of Trade.” Ancient World, 10, 15-30.

Greene, Kevin (2000). “Technological Innovation and Economic Progress in the Ancient World: M.I. Finley Re-considered.” Economic History Review, 53, 29-59.

Hudson, Michael and Baruch A. Levine (editors) (1999). Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient Near East. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University.

Hudson, Michael and Marc Van De Mieroop (editors) (2002). Debt and Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East. Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press.

Mattingly, David .J. (1988). “Oil for Export? A Comparison of Libyan, Spanish, and Tunisian Olive Oil Production in the Roman Empire.” Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1, 33-56.

Mattingly, David J., David Stone, Lea Sterling and Nejib Ben Lazreg (2001). “Leptimus (Tunisia): A ‘Producer’ City?.” In David J. Mattingly and John Salmon (editors), Economies Beyond Agriculture in the Classical World. London: Routledge, 66-89.

Menu, Bernadette (2001a). “Economy: Overview.” In Redford (editor), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 1, 422-6.

Menu, Bernadette (2001b). “Economy: Private Sector”. In Redford (editor), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. 1, 430-3.

Millett, Paul (1991). Lending and Borrowing in Ancient Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Olivier, Jean-Pierre (1987). “Des Extraits De Contrats De Vente D’Esclaves Dans Les Tablettes De Knossos.” In John T. Killen, Jos? L. Melena, and Jean-Pierre Olivier (editors), Studies in Mycenaean and Classical Greek. Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca, 479-98.

Purcell, Nicholas (1990). “Mobility and the Polis.” In Oswyn Murray and Simon Price (editors), The Greek City from Homer to Alexander. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 29-58.

Redford, Donald B. (editor) (2001). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. 3 volumes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rollinger, Robert and Christoph Ulf (editors) (forthcoming). Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World (5th International MELAMMU Conference, Innsbruck Oct. 3rd-8th 2002).

Silver, Morris (1995). Economic Structures of Antiquity. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Silver, Morris (forthcoming). “Modern Ancients”. In Rollinger and Ulf (editors), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World.

Morris Silver is Professor Emeritus of Economics in the City College of the City University of New York. His most recent publications about ancient economies are Taking Ancient Mythology Economically (Leiden: Brill, 1992) and Economic Structures of Antiquity (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995). “Modern Ancients” is forthcoming in Rollinger and Ulf (editors), Commerce and Monetary Systems in the Ancient World , Fifth Annual Melammu Conference 2002. Professor Silver maintains a website on “Ancient Economies” at

Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Ancient

Naukratis: Trade in Archaic Greece

Author(s):Möller, Astrid M
Reviewer(s):Tandy, David

Published by EH.NET (February 2002)

Astrid M?ller, Naukratis: Trade in Archaic Greece (Oxford Monographs on

Classical Archaeology). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xvii + 290 pp.

$95.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-19-815284-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Tandy, Professor of Classics, University of


Naukratis was a very unusual Greek settlement begun in about 625 BCE. It was

located on the east bank of the westernmost arm of the Nile, at least 60

kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea. It is important, that is, worthy of the

attention of economic historians, for several reasons. It was a settlement

dedicated to commercial activity. It was a port of trade designed to channel

goods out of and into Egypt. Its most amazing characteristic is the way that

the life of the settlement was subordinated to the economic activities of the

place. Greeks were present, but always belonged conceptually somewhere else.

Naukratis seems to have been an important player in Greek economic development

in the sixth century, as the economic engines of the Aegean area began to get

going in earnest in anticipation of and in preparation for the efflorescence of

Greek political and artistic culture in the fifth and fourth centuries.

Astrid M?ller, most recently a Fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in

Washington, D.C., and a Feodor-Lynen Scholar in Perugia, Italy, has now given

us her long-awaited monograph on Naukratis. It is the first extensive treatment

of the settlement since Michel Austin’s much less ambitious Greece and Egypt

in the Archaic Age.(1) M?ller’s work immediately takes its position as the

starting point for all further work on Naukratis; it will also prove a good

starting place for any future work on trade during the Archaic Period (about

750-500 BCE). Ninety-nine percent of the readers of this review will not be in

a position to process the “data” in this volume because the primary audience is

emphatically specialists in Mediterranean antiquity, its economies and

societies. There is nevertheless much here for non-specialists and I will try

to direct most of my remarks in their direction.

Chapter I (“Introduction”) promises an approach that will incorporate Karl

Polanyi’s “anthropological theory of the economy.” M?ller indicates that the

archaeological evidence will provide insight into how an emporion (not

defined yet) looked at the end of the seventh century and during the sixth

century BCE.

Chapter II, “Karl Polanyi’s Anthropological Theory of Economy,” is a cogent

presentation of Polanyi’s substantive approach to the economy. Her complaint

that Polanyi’s work has been neglected by ancient economic historians is based,

so far as I can tell, on Polanyi’s standing among Germanophone historians.(2)

Polanyi gets a thorough handling in this chapter. The three “patterns of

integration,” as she calls them, are given in the unusual order of

redistribution, reciprocity, and exchange (never Polanyi’s own ordering).

M?ller discusses Polanyi’s treatment of the institutions of money, external

trade, and market elements, which, she wisely advises the reader, “can develop

and exist independently of each other.” Finally M?ller turns to Polanyi’s port

of trade and discusses it as a Weberian Idealtypus by listing nine

attributes of a port of trade that one might expect to find present when

searching for one. This will enable M?ller to show us a port of trade at

Naukratis when she finally looks there. I believe that any restatement of

Polanyi’s approach is always welcome; M?ller is especially valuable because it

is conjoined to a firm Weberian ideal-type avenue of inquiry.

A brief chapter III introduces the reader to “Egypt under the Saite Dynasty.”

The Saite, or twenty-sixth, Dynasty covers a brief period, from the ascent in

664 BCE of Pharaoh Psamatik (Psammetichos to the Greeks) until the Persians

came in during the winter of 526/525 BCE. Because of the nature of the

evidence, M?ller is forced or chooses to draw on data from the first three

millennia BCE in order to make a coherent picture of the complex redistributive

society and economy of Egypt. She concludes with a survey of the three Pharaohs

under whose reigns Naukratis was begun (in about 625) and operated in its first

several decades.

Chapter IV, “The Greek Economy and Its Market Elements,” begins with a survey

of various previous attempts to define “trade.” This is a valuable discussion.

The nature of the trade in which Naukratis was involved has to be reconstructed

by archaeological materials. Not all moved goods are the result of trade; some

things move by piracy or by gift. But, as Polanyi would put it, what all these

items have in common is that they were all allocated from one place to another,

by one hand to another. Economic historians will be pleased to see M?ller not

sidestep some contentious issues, such as whether or not there were

interrelated markets in the Mediterranean already at this early time.

(There are some perplexing points. Here is one: M?ller complains (accurately)

of “a lack of written evidence” in the Archaic Period on the one hand, but on

the other does not hesitate to follow the testimony of Herodotus, who is

writing much later, as if he were a kind of eye-witness. Another: The

discussion of traders in the Homeric texts is useful for non-experts, but there

are specialist bones to pick. She reasonably concludes that in Homer Greeks are

not traders; outsiders are traders. But she omits the Greek Euneos, son of

Jason the Argonaut, from the discussion; Euneos is a trader who appears at Troy

at the end of Iliad 7, there to exchange his cargo of wine for whatever

he can get. Euneos is a mysterious figure and one can make an argument that he

and his crew are ethnically mysterious and so perhaps more like non-Greeks than

Greeks. But to omit him altogether from a straightforward survey of trading in

Homer suggests to me that the treatment of the evidence is in this case


Polanyi always thought that there was great value in the power of specific

words. His friend Moses Finley fought him on this (3) and it is a pleasure to

see M?ller do so as well, making it clear in this chapter that the Greek term

emporion does not always indicate a port of trade, a methodological

tripper-upper for many. But M?ller’s subsequent discussion of the difference

between emporion and apoikia (“home away from home”) is not

terribly clear. In general her insightful discussion of the development of

trade suffers from the same achronicity that afflicts her discussion of

Egyptian economy and society: there is too much jumping around, which can work

only if conditions were stable over centuries, which was not the case here.

The heart of this volume is “The Archaeological Material from Naukratis,” which

comprises, with the appendices that list the archaeological finds, a full half

of the total pages of this volume. It is the main reason for this book’s

existence as well as the main reason that ninety-nine percent of the readers of

this review will quickly stop reading, overwhelmed by the specialist detail.

General remarks about problems with the stratigraphy give way to a useful

review of the major buildings of the excavated site. But then a careful, even

brilliant analysis of the pottery and other finds at Naukratis goes on for

decades of pages. As a specialist in this time period and certain aspects of

pre-industrial trade, I revelled in the care M?ller put into this section and I

intend to return to loot especially this section of Naukratis when I

integrate the Greece-Egypt connection into a forthcoming economic history of

the Archaic Period. But most economic historians will find themselves leafing

forward to the final discussion about whether or not Naukratis was a port of


M?ller’s final chapter clearly demonstrates that Naukratis is an excellent

example of Polanyi’s port of trade. This is not a new economic historical

conclusion: Naukratis has been referred to as a port of trade at least since

1972.(4) But M?ller vividly makes clear that Naukratis was a special kind of

settlement, licensed by Pharaoh to do business there with Egypt’s interior. It

would not become a Greek polis, a place anyone would call “home,” for

centuries. Without question this is now the touchstone from which all

subsequent work on Naukratis must begin. I can add that M?ller’s discussion of

Naukratis as an Idealtypus of the port of trade will also be an enduring

contribution, as much to archaeology as to economic history.

Notes: (1) Austin 1970; Braun’s work shortly thereafter emphasized the material

record more than Austin did, but did not advance our understanding of the place

particularly (Braun 1982:37-43). M?ller’s foundation date of about 625 is

earlier than Austin’s (615-10) and more precise than Braun’s (630-20).

(2) Polanyi is of course well represented among Anglophone scholars of the

ancient world. The tendency toward modernism has been effectively tempered by

the work especially of Moses Finley (e.g., 1978, 1985) and Walter Donlan

(1999), the latter (like many Germans) influenced also by Marshall Sahlins’s

refinements of Polanyi (Sahlins 1972).

(3) Finley 1957 is an excellent example of this wariness about words and their


(4) Austin and Vidal-Naquet 1972:66-68; Humphreys 1969:191-96 brought the

concept from Polanyi to the discipline of ancient history.

Works Cited: Austin, M.M. 1970. Greece and Egypt in the Archaic Age.

Cambridge: Cambridge Philosophical Society.

Austin, M.M., and P. Vidal-Naquet. 1972. Economic and Social History of

Ancient Greece: An Introduction. Berkeley: University of California.

Braun, T.F.R.G. 1982. “The Greeks in Egypt.” In The Cambridge Ancient

History, vol. 3, pt. 3, 32-56. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Donlan, Walter. 1999. The Aristocratic Ideal and Selected Papers.

Wauconda, Ill.: Bolchazy-Carducci.

Finley, Moses I. 1957. “Homer and Mycenae: Property and Tenure.”

Historia 6:133-59.

Finley, Moses I. 1978. The World of Odysseus. Second revised edition,

London: Penguin.

Finley, Moses I. 1985. The Ancient Economy. Second edition. Berkeley:

University of California. (Now available in an “Updated Edition” with a

foreword by Ian Morris. Berkeley 1999.)

Humphreys, S.C. 1969. “History, Economics, and Anthropology: The Work of Karl

Polanyi.” History and Theory 8:165-212.

Sahlins, Marshall D. 1972. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Ancient

The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans

Author(s):Harris, William V.
Reviewer(s):Engen, Darel Tai

Published by EH.Net (February 2011)

William V. Harris, editor, The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans.? Oxford:? Oxford University Press, 2008.? xiv + 330 pp. $45 (paper), ISBN: 978-0-19-958671-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Darel Tai Engen, Department of History, California State University San Marcos.

Showing that the recent resurgence of interest in the economies of ancient Greece and Rome is still going strong,[1] Oxford University Press has now made available in paperback William V. Harris? excellent 2008 edited volume, The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans.? The collection is the product of an international conference held under the auspices of the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean at Columbia University in 2005, and like several other works in this post-Finley era of scholarship on the ancient economy, the articles of Monetary Systems refreshingly try neither to avoid Finley?s influential model of a ?primitive? and ?embedded? economy nor to take rigid, partisan stances for or against it.[2]? Rather, they acknowledge the model?s pros and cons while moving well beyond it through examinations of the monetary systems of Greece and Rome that present a more nuanced, balanced, and — dare I say — true understanding of the ancient economy.

Monetary Systems begins with a cogent and useful introduction by Harris that sets the articles in their scholarly context while laying out the major questions they address.? Since the 1990s the study of Greek and Roman money has expanded beyond the traditional, narrow focus of numismatists who examined such topics as the origins, weight standards, quantities, and circulation patterns of coinage to include the interests of economic and cultural historians, economists, and more dynamic numismatists who have looked at the broader notion of money (as opposed to coinage alone) within the context of wider historical questions.? Thus, the collection?s articles treat such topics as the use of bullion as money, the reasons for the spread of coinage, the existence and extent of credit-money, the money supply, prices and growth, the extent of monetization, the degree of monetary integration across the Roman Mediterranean, the choice of metals used for money, and the use of money in the Roman provinces.? Taking the debate about the nature of the ancient economy head on, Harris rejects the either-or view, in which one must hold that the ancient economy is best understood either through modern, ?formalist,? economic analysis or through the ?mentalities? of the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves — both approaches are necessary and even compatible, as the articles in this book show.

The articles are arranged more or less chronologically, beginning with those devoted to ancient Greece.? John Kroll?s contribution argues rather compellingly on the basis of both documentary and coin hoard evidence that the Greeks used bullion as money both before and after the advent of coinage and not only as a store of value but also as a medium of exchange.? Thus, it appears that traditional notions of money persisted even as newer forms began to be used that facilitated a more complex economy.? Although Kroll?s contention that the supply of silver was ?probably more influential? (p. 37) for monetization than the introduction of coinage is not entirely convincing, he is probably right to link increasing maritime trade with this monetary transformation.? In contrast to Kroll, David Schaps emphasizes the primacy of coinage as money in ancient Greece.? It was ?all purpose? (p. 42) in that the value of all material possessions was conceived of in terms of coin equivalents and the vast majority of transactions were mediated by coins.? Thus, despite acknowledging the existence of extensive lending and borrowing, Schaps tends to minimize the sophistication of ancient Greek money through normative comparisons to modern-day practice, stating that money-credit, for example, was ?much more restricted than what we take for granted today? (p. 46 and n. 38).? On the other hand, Edward Cohen?s article rather emphasizes the extent of lending and borrowing and the activities of bankers in fourth-century Athens to show how important they were for increasing the money supply.? Easily disproving the long-held notion that a sale was legally binding in ancient Greece only upon the simultaneous payment of the purchase price and delivery of the purchased goods, Cohen demonstrates the significance of vendor-supplied credit for the elasticity of the Athenian money supply.? Perhaps even more significant were the almost equally well-documented banking operations that created money exponentially through a potentially endless chain of deposits and loans.? Moreover, none of these forms of credit-money required the existence of negotiable instruments, paper currency, or fiat money of any kind.? Ironically, the absence of such modern forms of money, which gave the impression of a ?primitive? economy, may have in fact stimulated the creation of credit.? Thus, Athens was neither primitive nor modern when compared to current practice — it was simply different.?

The sole chapter on money in the Hellenistic period by J.G. Manning was not from the Columbia conference but was added to the collection in order to give some exposure to this still-too-often neglected era.? Manning offers a survey of the ?Ptolemaicization? of Egypt, in which monetization played a key role in promoting the authority of the central government of the Greco-Macedonian Ptolemies.? Establishing government mints, creating a closed coinage system, and requiring that the payment (or at least reckoning) of many taxes be made in coin through state banks forced the population to acknowledge the Ptolemies? sovereignty.? Still, monetization appears to have spread only in so far as the government was involved in the economy, since the private economy of the rural masses was still largely characterized by barter while credit was constrained by personal, family, and status relationships.

The majority of the articles in the collection are devoted to ancient Rome.? David Hollander offers an innovative approach to the important issue of economic growth.? He criticizes previous attempts to gauge economic growth through the money supply, which require highly speculative estimates of the velocity of money, and focuses instead on the demand for money.? Although the increasing demand for money for precautionary purposes during the upheavals of the late Republic mitigated the inflationary potential of the (now well-established) rapid growth of the money supply, it also may have had a dampening effect on economic growth.? However, as Harris points out (p. 6), Hollander?s approach minimizes the extent of credit-money, which may have been sizable enough to have a significant impact on the money supply, and through it, economic growth.? Ultimately too, Hollander is limited to providing a set of possibilities for growth based on a range of likely estimates for the demand for money rather than any firm quantities.? Another thorny issue in the debate about the ancient economy concerns market integration.? Finley, of course, denied the existence of any significant integration; however, in their article David Kessler and Peter Temin argue on the basis of the diminishing price of wheat with increasing distance from the city of Rome that markets were integrated to the extent that the demand for wheat in Rome influenced its price throughout the Mediterranean, a situation facilitated by the uniformity of the currency used throughout this region.? Despite the fact that their argument is based on just a handful of attested prices, their conclusions are bolstered by a regression analysis that shows that the inverse relationship between the price of wheat and the distance from Rome is very unlikely to be the product of chance.

Concerning the nature and uses of money in Rome, Elio Lo Cascio concurs with several studies that gold coins were preferred to silver ones as a store of value.? On the other hand, he also attempts to show that gold coins were commonly used for payments as well.? Although his evidence (fictional literary works) has been questioned (by Harris, p. 9, n. 16), the fact that imperial payments to Roman soldiers and largesse to the urban poor were frequently made in gold coin lends support to Lo Cascio?s argument.? Harris? own chapter attempts to show that the money supply in Rome was adequate for economic growth.? He first defines money in the Roman context and argues that although coinage was certainly the most widely used form of money, it was not the only form.? The use of bullion for transactions may have been limited in Rome, but the amount of credit-money was extensive, and this contributed significantly to the money supply and, more importantly in Harris? view, the availability of capital, which could serve as the engine of economic growth, even if its effect was counterbalanced by technological stagnation.?

Peter van Minnen offers a diachronic survey of money and credit in Roman Egypt that covers monetization, price changes, investment, and taxation and their impact on various classes of people from the first through the sixth centuries.? As with Manning?s study of the monetary system of Egypt in the Hellenistic period, van Minnen?s analysis shows that the degree of monetization, while increasing in general, varied according to social class and was influenced both by the government?s need to collect taxes and by particular events, most notably the dampening effect of the Antonine plague in the latter half of the second century, the inflationary crisis of 275, and the introduction of the gold solidus coinage at the beginning of the fourth century.? Constantina Katsari?s study reveals similar complexity.? Her detailed analysis of coin finds in the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Syria shows that monetization was largely a function of the extent of trade and urbanization.? Although urbanization was promoted by the presence of the Roman army, the army itself was not the driving force behind monetization, since large numbers of coin hoards have been found in urban centers along trade routes even where the Roman army was not present but not found around military fortresses in rural areas away from major trade routes.

In the final article Walter Scheidel attempts to explain why Greek and Roman coinages tended to consist of precious metals whereas Chinese coinage featured base metals.? Scheidel identifies key factors, such as the availability of particular metals (pretty obvious), the nature of military service (Western soldiers were often paid after around 300 BC, whereas Chinese ones were conscripted), politics (the conquest of the gold minting Chu by the bronze minting Qin), ?path dependence? (the inertia of long-standing habit), and ideological traditions (that may be the root cause of such path dependence).? While fascinating and an important beginning for a much needed counterexample perspective on ancient Greek and Roman coinage and, conversely, on Chinese coinage, Scheidel?s article is also frustrating in that it raises many important questions (such as why Aegean coinage bore pictorial designs whereas Chinese coinage did not) that it does not attempt to answer.

As with all edited volumes of conference proceedings, Monetary Systems suffers to some extent from disunity in theme and approaches and a disparity in the quality of the articles.? It is certainly weighted toward Rome, to which seven articles are devoted, whereas Greece garners only four, and two concern the Hellenistic World and a comparison of Greco-Roman and Chinese coinage respectively.? However, it has the advantage of providing a variety of perspectives on a number of key issues concerning the money and economy of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.? Moreover, Harris has done a remarkable job both in his introduction and in encouraging the contributors to address common themes to impose a certain degree of unity on the collection.? Monetization is a central feature of all the articles, regardless of their approaches and other concerns.? Also, for the most part, each article meets a fairly high standard of scholarship.? Thus, Monetary Systems serves as an excellent overview of the most interesting topics in ancient monetary history today and provides a valuable contribution to our understanding of the economic history of the ancient world in general.


1.? For bibliography, see n. 1 of my review of T. Amemiya, Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece, for EH.Net (, to which I would now add my own book, Honor and Profit: Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 B.C.E. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2010).

2.? For a description of Finley?s model and its scholarly context within the long-running debate about the nature of the ancient economy, see my encyclopedia article for EH.Net on ?The Economy of Ancient Greece? (

Darel Tai Engen earned a B.A. in Economics and a Ph.D. in Ancient Greek History from UCLA.? He is currently an Associate Professor of History at California State University San Marcos.? His published articles and books on the ancient Greek economy include:? “Trade, Traders, and the Economy of Athens in the Fourth Century B.C.E.,” in D.W. Tandy, editor, Prehistory and History: Ethnicity, Class, and Political Economy (Montreal 2001) 179-202; “Ancient Greenbacks: Athenian Owls, the Law of Nikophon, and the Greek Economy,? Historia 54, 4 (2005) 359-381; and Honor and Profit:? Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 B.C.E. (Ann Arbor 2010).

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Ancient