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8-10-2015, 15:06

The Realities of Economic Power in Classical Greece

In the history of Classical Greece two political entities present arguably the most fascinating and important economies respectively: Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries and Macedon in the fourth century. Although the evidence for the latter is sparse, discovery of inscriptions can add new information (Athens: Stroud 1998; Macedon: Missitzis 1985; SEG 34 664) and archaeology advances understanding of the rural economies of both regions (Attika: Steinhauer 2001; Macedonia: Adam-Veleni et al. 2003). But one of the greatest developments of the fourth century is the rise of Macedonia, a growth in power that was to shape the history not only of the Greek world but of the Persian Empire and beyond, heralding what since the nineteenth century has been known as the Hellenistic Age.

Economic might was of considerable importance to both Athens and Macedon as imperial powers. In the Classical period Athenian revenues collapsed with the loss of the Empire. From the heights of 1,000 talents in revenue in the fifth century (Xenophon Anabasis 7.1.27), of which probably 600 talents came from the tribute of the subject allies (Thuc. 2.13), Athens in the mid-fourth century had to exist with 130 talents a year, but increased annual revenues to 400 talents by c. 340 (Demosthenes 8.37-8 (Fourth Philippic)). The figures may not be exactly right but the degree of change seems appropriate to the city’s financial capacity. Macedonia on the other hand enjoyed far greater resources (Billows 1995: 1-20; Le Rider 2003). In the midfourth century, Philip II used the revenues from the mines around Philippoi to finance his operations (Diodoros 16.8.6-7). The difference in the changing fortunes of Athens and Macedon in this period not only reflects the respective extent of their resources but offers a useful parallel to the central role of the economies in modern history and Empire building (Ferguson 2001; 2003).

Any understanding of the development of the history of the fifth and fourth century must take into account the economic strengths of the major polities. These strengths are determined by the resources that communities could exploit: the land, commodities such as timber, grain, vines, and natural resources such as silver. Political institutions developed to administer and care for many aspects of these economies. But underlying these high-level features were the people who drove the economic systems: farmers, workers, citizens, slaves and foreigners. Owners of land and workers of land; the craftsmen producing goods for sale; the merchants carrying those goods to local and distant markets by road and sea; all these activities fell in some way or other under the controls of polities that extracted revenues from the production of crops and goods and the movement and sale of commodities, and redirected the incomes in the political economies. These then were the economies of the Classical Greek world. Such economies were sophisticated and were considered as important factors that lay at the heart of the institutions of ancient Greek communities and their social and political history.

Further reading

Students should start with the revised edition of The ancient economy (Finley 21999) and Morris’s excellent introduction to the debates in response to Finley’s work. Cartledge (1998) and Andreau (2002) show how thinking on the ancient economy has evolved since Finley and give important indications of future directions. Davies (1998) is a more concrete example of where one approach is leading and can be contrasted with more culturally focused studies of Greek economies (e. g., von Reden 1995; 2002; Kurke 1999; 2002).

Descat (2001; 2004) (in French) offer the best overviews of the Classical economies in the fifth and fourth centuries respectively. Other summaries worth consulting include Davies (1992) (fifth century) and Austin (1994) (fourth century). Austin & Vidal-Naquet (1977) is still the best collection of sources; Meijer & van Nijf (1992) is useful for trade but not limited to Classical Greece.

Several books cover various themes of the ancient economy although they do not focus exclusively on the Classical era. Osborne (1987; 1991) offer excellent studies of the economic interactions between city and countryside. For the role of wealth and the integrated economies of a complex society, see Hodkinson (2000) on Sparta. Collections of useful essays can be found in Cartledge, Cohen & Foxhall (2002); Mattingly & Salmon (2001); and Meadows & Shipton (2001). Scheidel & von Reden (2002) brings together a selection of useful articles published before in different books and academic journals. A new assessment of ancient economies is being prepared by an international team of academics under the direction of Ian Morris, The Cambridge ancient economic history


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