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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