Many of the institutions and practices of contemporary life can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of Greece, and the economy is no exception. By identifying and analyzing some of the seminal features and characteristics of the archaic and classical economies of the greatest cities of antiquity, Athens and Sparta, one can begin to see how notions of the modern economy were set into place and experimented with thousands of years ago. A specific consideration of agricultural practices, early manufacturing activities, and the patterns of trading provides particular insights into the distinguishing features of ancient economies. This analysis confirms that despite significant differences in political and social organization, and despite the different emphases each placed on these three variables of the economy, both Athens and Sparta had well-developed economic infrastructures and were consciously planning their economies in such a way as to sustain their societies.
Even within a panoramic study of the ancient Greek economy, some important distinctions need to be made. The most important of these distinctions is that there is a critical line of demarcation that exists between the archaic period and that epoch to which scholars refer as the classical period (Cartledge, Cohen, & Foxhall 16; 50). In the archaic period, the majority of productive economic activity was performed by slaves (Cartledge, Cohen, & Foxhall 159), a fact that was particularly true in Athens. The prevailing attitude and perception was that all “commerce was inherently servile,” and men of class—and the ancient Greeks were indeed preoccupied with class—did not subject themselves to base tasks of farming or manufacturing; even trading was not considered a respectable professional office (Cartledge, Cohen, & Foxhall 110). Instead, “real men” were to busy themselves with education and, above all, with defending and expanding their territory by fulfilling their duties as warriors (Cartledge, Cohen, & Foxhall 110).
Thus, most of the economic life of the archaic period in the great Greek cities was stimulated and made possible by a complex system of enslavement that had many different levels. As Cartledge, Cohen, and Foxhall explained, the archaic period was characterized by a complicated social structure in which notions of class were becoming increasingly important. During this period, which the authors refer to as “Homeric society,” “dependent peasants [were] supporting a warrior elite” (Carledge, Cohen, & Foxhall 28). This practice, which was so important to the development and success of the Greek economy, did not become any less important during the classical period. While the “citizen community [busied itself by] practising reciprocity,” it was simultaneously perpetuating old patterns by “alienating economic exploitation onto non-citizen slaves” (Cartledge, Cohen & Foxhall 28).
Another important characteristic of the archaic period in Athens and Sparta was a development in the economy which would have resonance and relevance for centuries to come: the development of coinage as a currency (Gill, Postlethwaite & Seaford 6). As Gill, Postlethwaite, and Seaford explained, “the Greek economy was the first in history to be pervaded by coinage….” (6). Coins appeared in Greek culture and came to shape the structures and relationships of the Greek economy as early as fifth century BC (Gill, Postlethwaite, & Seaford 6). In their earliest incarnations, however, coins had not yet assumed their full function as an instrument of monetary currency. Instead, coins were, even into the early classical period, “to some extent embedded… in non-economic social relations and practices” (Gill, Postlethwaite, & Seaford 6; emphasis added).
In fact, in their earliest forms, coins were deployed in the service of the “logic of politics, not the logic of gain” (Cartledge, Cohen & Foxhall 16). Evidence from the written and the archaeological records confirm that the early use of coins was not predominant for the purposes of commerce. Rather, during the late archaic and early classical periods, the information that scholars have suggests that the use of money was “geared towards documenting fines, loans, gifts, tribute, or taxes of relatively large scales” (Cartledge, Cohen & Foxhall 49). Far less common is evidence that would substantiate a claim that coins were used for commercial transactions, at least not on a massive scale or by all members of society (Cartledge, Cohen & Foxhall 49). One of the reasons that have been posited to theorize about the limited use of coins during this transition from the archaic period to the classical period is that the denominations had not yet been made practical for trade. Early coins were typically in large denominations (Cartledge, Cohen & Foxhall 49).
Another reason that has been suggested to explain the restricted circulation of coins at this juncture in ancient Greek history is that “[t]here [was] no one fixed standard of coinage for Greece” (Stearns Davis 95). Each jurisdiction, it seems, was making its own coinage, so what we may think of in modern terms as the exchange rate had not yet been standardized. “Although the coins in Athens [had] very wide acceptance,” wrote historian Stearns Davis, each area had its own unique currency and, in some cities that were bustling with trade, it was not uncommon to conduct business transactions in foreign currencies, including “a great deal of… Persian gold darics” (Stearns Davis 95).
Far more common throughout both the archaic and the classical periods was the practice of reciprocity, a central feature in Greek culture and a defining aspect of the Greek economy Gill, Postlethwaite & Seaford 34). There are numerous reasons why reciprocity was so important, not only for economic activity, but perhaps even more so for the maintenance and preservation of strategic social relationships. First, while we traditionally think of Greek culture as being flush with both goods and wealth, there is compelling evidence which suggests “that in archaic and classical Greece moderation was widely held to be an admirable virtue” (Cartledge, Cohen & Foxhall 20). According to this theory, then, while a man of means could probably obtain any good that he needed or desired, the exercise of restraint by confining his acquisitions to meaningful objects increased his stature and respectability amongst his peers and preserved his reputation in the community (Cartledge, Cohen & Foxhall 20).
The notion of restraint as it is implied by the practice of reciprocity was also important to the ancient Greeks because it propped up spiritual values that were perpetuated in myths and ensured their continued vitality and centrality to Greek life. As Cartledge, Cohen, and Foxhall explained, “If infinite quantities of goods could be produced [and bought], or if human wants were limited in ways that allowed them to be satisfied without much effort, we could all have everything we wanted, rather like Hesiod’s Golden Race” (Cartledge, Cohen & Foxhall 20). It was important, however, to recognize that the gods had “hidden the means of life,” and that man needed to labor to uncover them, even if that labor did not involve the dirtying or effort of his own hands (Cartledge, Cohen & Foxhall 20). The types of labor that were emerging during this period depended upon the continued practice of slavery, for one of the changes that did not occur during the transition from archaic life to classical life in ancient Athens and Sparta was the evolution of the idea that each man needed, with his own hands, to produce the fruits of labor that would sustain him and his family.
Athens and Sparta were remarkably different cities, and a brief consideration of each permits the contemporary scholar to understand how similar economic systems could develop in places that had very little in common. Athens was considered to be the “richest and greatest commercial city of Continental Hellas,” having no close “formidable rival” (Stearns Davis 91). Because of its strategic geographic position as a port city, Athens had remarkable opportunities for developing certain aspects of its economy—most notably, international trade—before other Greek cities (Stearns Davis 91-92). The diversity of manufactured and traded goods in Athens was considerable. Among the items on the market during this period were those goods made in Athens, including tanned leather products, ships, blacksmithed goods, and pottery (Stearns 92). In addition, Athens was developing a brisk and respectable trade in “articles of…various districts…which Athens [was] constantly importing” (Stearns Davis 94). “Bœotia sends chariots; Thessaly, easy chairs; Chios and Miletos, bedding; and Miletos, especially, very fine woolens,” wrote Stearns Davis (94).
Athenian merchants also cast their nets wider, looking to “Syria and Arabia for the much-esteemed spices and perfumes; to Egypt for papyri for the book rolls; [and] to Babylonia for carpets” (Stearns Davis 94). It is worth noting that the Athenian economy depended heavily upon this flow of traded goods, as Athens itself had “extremely few natural products to export” (Stearns Davis 94). Instead, Athens had to make a name for itself by becoming an importer extraordinaire, able to move received goods throughout the Greek empire, a task in which it succeeded handsomely. There were some goods which Athenians farmed or quarried, produced for market consumption, and then offered up for trade. Among the natural goods that Athenians were able to extract from their city were olive oils, honeys, and “her magnificent marbles” (Stearns Davis 94), for which Athens in particular and Greece in general would become world-famous. In addition, to these goods, Athens produced some grain; however, the limited production was not enough to support even its own needs, and “so serious [was] the crisis created by any shortage, that all kinds of measures [were] employed to compel a steady flow of grain from the Black Sea ports into the Peiræus” (Stearns Davis 94).
Compared to Athens, Sparta was, according to Powell equivalent in power, though not in population density” (218). Sparta differed from Athens in many ways, all of them important with respect to the ways in which they impacted the economy. Spartans, perhaps even more than Athenians, were astutely conscious of the way their relationship to labor and money affected the organization of their society (Stearns Davis 246). First, “to be a citizen of Sparta, a man needed a certain income from land,” and the land, of course, was not worked by the landowner himself. Although Sparta became famous—particularly compared to Athens—for its diversity of crops and agricultural products, including cereal, olives, and horses– the fame was deserved by those who worked the land, not those who owned it (Cartledge & Spawforth 170). Those who owned the land were far more concerned about land transfers and the role that these played in inheritance plans, which in turn ensured the longevity of familial wealth (Stearns Davis 246). Such practices, wrote Stearns Davis, “vidently contrasted with Athens, where a wealthy heiress… normally married within the wider family. Under Spartan rules, it seems, money tended to marry money, leaving bride, groom and descendants… rich, while other blood relatives of the bride were impoverished” (246). As Cartledge and Spawforth affirmed, pastoralism played a critical role in “local prosperity [and] [l]and-ownership… always provided the chief source of private wealth at Sparta” (169).
As one begins to discern by examining these patterns, then, farming, manufacture, and trade were all critical components of the ancient Greek economies in Athens and Sparta; however, there are two important caveats that must be offered to understand these in context. First, those who benefited from the economic prosperity of these practices were not the people who pioneered the practices; rather, they were the slaves of the landowners who created wealth for those who were bound by honor and traditional values to leave work to others while they defended their cities and their notions of honor and reputation (Finley 32). Second, the changes that occurred during the transition from the archaic Greek period to the classical Greek period were not particularly significant. Instead, the transition might best be characterized as a continuation of the status quo, with the notable exception being the emergence of coin currency. The economic system of the ancient Greeks may seem antiquated to the modern student or reader, but it is clear that the roots of our own economy can be traced all the way back to these early institutions and patterns. There are striking similarities that confirm that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Cartledge, Paul, Edward E. Cohen, and Lin Foxhall. Money, Labor, and Land. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Cartledge, Paul, and Antony Spawforth. Hellenistic and Roman Sparta: A Tale of Two Cities.New York, Routledge, 2002.
Finley, Moses I. The Ancient Economy. Santa Monica, CA: University of California Press, 1999.
Gill, Christopher, Norman Postlethwaite, and Richard Seaford. Reciprocity in Ancient Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Powell, Anton. Athens and Sparta: Constructing Greek Political and Social History from 478 B.C. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Stearns Davis, William. A Day in Old Athens: A Picture of Athenian Life. New York: Biblo &Tannen, 1960.