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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