Thursday, 7 March 2013

Ancient Greece: Economy

The advent of iron was a revolutionary forward step for human culture, allowing for increases in productivity. Iron was more durable than bronze, and iron tools improved agricultural efficiency; it was also abundant, and therefore cheaper. This was technology for the masses, becoming widespread in a way that the more expensive bronze could not. This social surplus helped make possible the building of new empires in Persia, China and India.

Although we think of Greece through its famous cities such as Athens, Sparta and Corinth, the dominant sector of the ancient economy was agriculture. As Perry Anderson explained:

The Graeco-Roman towns were never predominantly communities of manufacturers, traders or craftsmen: they were, in origin and principle, urban congeries of landowners… Their income derived from corn, oil and wine – the three great staples of the Ancient World, produced on estates and farms outside the perimeter of the physical city itself. Within it, manufactures remained few and rudimentary.[1]

This is not to say that urban trade was insignificant – in fact, it could make a decisive difference in a world dominated by agriculture. The key to trade for the ancient Greeks was the Mediterranean. It was far cheaper to ship goods across the sea than to transport it across land, and water gave the predominantly coastal Greek cities access to trade from Spain to Syria. This made possible an urban prosperity far more concentrated than the agricultural hinterlands, and dependent upon the great inland sea. Anderson concludes: “The Mediterranean, in other words, provided the necessary geographical setting for Ancient civilisation.”

From the 6th century BCE, the foundations were laid for classical Greek civilisation. Coinage, colonisation, population growth and competitive trade helped create the ‘tyrants’ who played such an important part in the class struggles that broke the aristocracy’s grip on power.

One of the concessions the tyrants made to the masses was the breaking up of aristocratic land monopolies, which was popular with farmers but limited Greek agriculture to the small to medium scale. Democracy also had a curtailing effect upon the power of the big landowners to exploit the citizenry. But there was a way to compensate for this cramping of productivity.


Class society was the means by which human beings massively increased their overall productivity and standard of living. The price for this greater material wellbeing was the division of people into classes according to their economic role, groupings that usually determined their entire lives. The limited productivity of ancient agriculture and industry could be increased by the gross exploitation of a section of the labour force – slavery.

Olive-gathering. Agriculture was a common use for
slave labour. 6th century BCE amphora by the
Antimenes painter.
It appears that slavery existed in many ancient cultures, but it is a complex phenomenon. It was not usually full-blown – i.e. human beings as chattel property – and played a marginal economic role, most production being based on the peasant-farmer. Slaves assigned to palaces, crafts or administrative work could actually enjoy a higher status and standard of living than toilers in the fields. Ancient Greece by contrast seems to have been the first culture to transform slavery into a mode of production. Slaves, who were mostly acquired as prisoners of war, worked the fields, served in households and laboured in construction, providing much of the labour power that fuelled Greek quarries, workshops and shipyards. In a few cases, slaves managed to buy their freedom, but slaves’ lives were normally hard, especially in the mines, and they had no rights whatsoever. The city of Sparta was unusual in keeping an entire population enslaved – the Messenian helots – though it may be more correct to see them as oppressed peasant labour rather than chattel property.

It is impossible to estimate exactly the number and proportion of slaves in the population, since no reliable records were made at the time. In Athens, slaves probably accounted for about one quarter of the population. The Greek economy never depended exclusively upon slave labour, but what matters is not numbers but the contribution slavery made to the production of the social surplus. As G.E.M. de Ste Croix argued, it was not that the bulk of production was done by slaves; in fact the combined production of various forms of free labour exceeded that of unfree labour. The significant thing is that the propertied class extracted the greater part of its surplus from unfree labour. In his own precise formulation:

I think it would not be technically correct to call the Greek (and Roman) world ‘a slave economy’; but I should not raise any strong objection if anyone else wished to use that expression, because, as I shall argue, the propertied classes extorted the bulk of their surplus from the working population by means of unfree labour, in which slavery, in the strict technical sense, played at some periods a dominant role and was always a highly significant factor.[2]

Agricultural slavery formed the economic basis of the Greek ruling class, allowing the nobility to congregate in the sophisticated towns. No wonder they saw slave ownership as one of the essentials of a civilised life! The surplus produced by slave labour allowed privileged Greeks the leisure to contemplate existence or to compose verse. Although slavery is a repugnant idea today, it was one of the foundations of Greek art. It was an unpleasant fact of life that slavery and democracy formed a dialectic; slavery helped to define liberty. And both helped to define culture.

The Athenian empire

The richest city state in the Greek world was Athens, whose wealth was built upon sea trade and the silver discovered at around 483 BCE at Laureion, which it mined using thousands of slaves.

From 499 BCE, the Greek city states were confronted by a military threat from Persia, and formed, with an uncharacteristic unity of purpose, an alliance that won a series of victories at land and sea. In 478 BCE they launched the Delian League – taking its name from its treasury on the ‘neutral’ island of Delos – to organise the collective defence of the Greek cities. The allies paid money into this fund every year, and collective security helped expand trade and prosperity. However, as the Persian threat receded, Athens’ leadership role became increasingly oppressive. When Naxos and Thasos attempted to withdraw from the alliance, the Athenian navy was sent to punish them. The pretence was dropped in 454 BCE when the treasury was moved to the Parthenon, which became more of a bank than a temple as tribute poured into the city. The member cities of the league had to pay Athens every year in her own currency, the silver owl, forcing them to buy Athenian produce to get the required coinage. Athens had created an empire.

This development had its own logic. Perry Anderson points out that slavery militated against any dramatic improvement of technique: slaves have no incentive to be more productive and slave labour degraded the status of labour in general. The main means of expansion in the ancient world therefore was a sideways, geographic one.

Classical civilisation was in consequence inherently colonial in character: the cellular city-state invariably reproduced itself, in phases of ascent, by settlement and war.

It is one of the contradictions of Greek democracy that Athens practiced democracy and sponsored it in other cities, yet became an overbearing imperial power in the Aegean.

Part of what made an Athenian empire possible was the trade goods flowing in from around the Mediterranean, making the Athenian port, Piraeus, a huge commercial centre. Athens now ruled a population of two million, receiving tribute from more than 170 states, and was the biggest importer of grain in the ancient world.

The Athenian imperial system would not survive the plunder, plague and massacres of the Peloponnesian War. But at its exuberant height in the 5th century BCE, Athens was not only rich in money but in ideas. Its cash paid for more triremes, but it also subsidised culture and public buildings. The city became the centre for the tragedy of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes; the comedy of Aristophanes; the history of Herodotus; and the philosophy of Anaxagoras and Socrates. Its most powerful symbol was the temple complex on the Acropolis hilltop that included the Parthenon.

The historian Bettany Hughes described the effect of such wealth:

Athens was able to beautiful itself. Walls, monuments and life-sculptures were erected. Aphrodite’s hoary, soot-blacked husband, Hephaestus, was given a new temple overlooking the Agora. In the city’s spanking-new Odeion, citizens enjoyed public cultural performances and contests, male-voice choirs fifty to 1000-strong competed here; new clothes were bought for performers and for the gods that their music honoured, and Athens’ snaking walls crept four miles further south to Piraeus. Pericles’ building programme was silhouetted on the Athenian skyline: the Propylaia, and perhaps too in his mind the glimmer of a plan for the Erechtheion – a kind of holy-hotel for many gods – famously buttressed by staunch caryatids. And, above all, Athena’s Parthenon: decorated green, blue, gold – dazzling like a peacock. Athena Parthenos, gilded and glowing with crystals and hippopotamus ivory, towered 39 feet high within the temple. Her gold clothes and accessories weighed 120lb, her skin gleamed, and on her outstretched palm perched a 6.5-foot high statue of Nike, the goddess of victory.[3]

Hughes’ description demonstrates vividly why a booming economy was another of the pre-requisites for ancient Greek art.

[1] Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974).
[2] G.E.M. de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981).

[3] Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup (2010).

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