is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

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