Greek economy

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Even if there was ‘an economy’ in ancient Greece, Greece itself was not a single entity, but a collection of more than 1,000 separate communities. One should therefore speak of Greek economies rather than the Greek economy, and they may be divided into three groups. First, there is the ‘Archaic’ group, represented by Sparta. At the opposite extreme is Athens, distinguished both by the size and number of its economic transactions, and by the sophistication of its economic institutions. In between fall the vast range of ‘normal’ Greek cities or communities, differentiated from the latter chiefly in the scale and, from the former principally, in the nature of their economic arrangements.

Consider the last group first. Our ‘economy’ is derived from the Gk. oikonomia, but this meant originally and usually the management of a private household (oikos) rather than that of a ‘national’ economy (see household, Greek). Each ‘normal’ Greek household (comprising a two‐generation nuclear family, free dependants, slaves, animals, land, and other property) aimed to be as self‐sufficient as possible, making allowance for the basic constants of the changing domestic life‐cycle, and the amount and nature of available land and labour. Household economy in Greece was overwhelmingly rural economy, the number of genuine cities or even genuinely urban residential centres being countable on the fingers of a single hand. See urbanism, Greek and Hellenistic.

Most Greeks living in ‘normal’ communities were peasants, farming a couple of hectares (say, 5 acres) planted to a mix of cereals (mainly barley, some wheat) and drought‐resistant crops (olives, grapevines (see wine), figs above all). Small stock animals, esp. sheep and goats (see pastoralism, greek), constituted a necessary complement to agriculture and herbiculture in the absence of artificial fertilizers. In coastal settlements there were always some specialist fishermen (see fishing), but, apart from the Black (Euxine) Sea, Greek waters were not favourable to sizeable and predictable shoals of easily catchable fish. Fish remained a luxury food by comparison with the staple ‘Mediterranean triad’ (cereals, wine, olive oil) of the Greek peasant diet.

Self‐sufficiency remained for most an ideal, so that economic exchange of various kinds was obligatory (see trade, greek). But such exchanges were typically conducted between individuals—neighbours or at any rate members of the same community—either directly and by barter in kind or through the use of some monetary medium in the local market. The economy of Athens was exceptional in the degree to which the survival of the community depended on the exchange through long‐distance trade of a staple commodity, corn (see food supply). Athens enjoyed a near‐unique means of paying for such imports—the silver deposits in the Laurium district of SE Attica. The mines were worked almost entirely by chattel‐slave labour (see slavery). Athens was also fortunate, and unusual, in that much of Attica's soil and climate was esp. well suited to olive cultivation; the export of olive oil was officially encouraged from 600 bc.

These factors permitted the development during the 5th cent. of a genuinely urban sector of the Athenian citizen body, concentrated in what was almost a second city around Piraeus. But most of those directly and exclusively engaged in Piraeus commerce, as in the other non‐agricultural sectors of Athenian economy, were non‐Athenian and often non‐Greek foreigners, resident (metics and slaves) and transient. Both absolutely and as a proportion of the total population (which itself was overgrown by ‘normal’ Greek standards) the foreign element was greater in Athens than in any other Greek community.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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