THE ANCIENT GREEK ECONOMY: Markets, Households and City-States

Edited by Edward M. Harris, David M. Lewis and Mark Woolmer

CUP (2018) p/b 488pp £25 (ISBN 9784108456173)

This book brings together sixteen essays together with a substantial introduction stimulated by a conference held at Durham University in 2011. The editors are from Durham and Edinburgh Universities and the contributors are drawn from Europe and North America. Each essay has substantial notes and references and the bibliography runs to 64 pages. There is also an Appendix of 18 pages listing the references in Old Greek Comedy to 26 groups of commodities. There are also a few maps, tables and diagrams.

While this is serious scholarship written for serious scholars, most of the contributions are accessible by a reasonably informed general reader and contain enough introductory information to make the arguments in each topic meaningful to a non-specialist. 

The purpose of the compilation is further to challenge the traditional theory of the importance of markets to the Greeks advanced by Moses Finley and others. Slightly oversimplified, this postulates that trade occurred in the classical Greek world only to achieve self-sufficiency and that, if a deficiency existed, it was largely the state that identified and orchestrated any necessary corrective action, with households showing little interest in operating outside their domestic environment. Modern economic theories about demand and consumption are consequently deemed to be irrelevant.

The rebuttals take a variety of lines of attack. Archaeological evidence of amphoras in strange places and the great size of trading ships; literary evidence of a property market in Attica; stamps of country of origin on amphora handles; documentary evidence that slaves were harvested as well as captured by raiding parties or in wars; collections of loom weights which denote household manufacture of surplus and higher quality textiles; the early evidence of palaeobiological archaeology relating to agricultural surpluses. There is a comprehensive description of the currency blocs which existed in the classical Greek world (which included deliberate action to devalue coinage to facilitate exchange)—although an account of how the blocs dealt with exchange transactions when they became necessary would have been helpful.

All in all the arguments are very persuasive—more so possibly than the authors are prepared to admit. At a recent reception I was firmly told that the Greeks had no concept of economic theory because Aristotle would have said so if they had. I wish that that I had read this exciting compilation before that discussion.

Roger Barnes

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room