Most economic activity in ancient Greece centered on providing people with food, shelter, and the other necessities of daily life. In fact, our word economy comes from the Greek word oikonomia, meaning the management of the household. The Greeks believed that a household should be self-sufficient (able to supply everything it needed without outside help). This was usually difficult, however. Although Greek city-states* also attempted to be self-sufficient, they frequently traded with other lands to make up for the inevitable shortages of certain goods.
Most people in ancient Greece lived on farms of about five acres in size. These farms produced grains for bread, olive trees for oil, and grapevines for wine, as well as the material goods the farm needed. What the farm family did not itself consume was sold or traded for other supplies in the local agora*. The ancient Greeks measured their wealth by the amount of land they owned. The farms of large landowners were worked by other people, especially slaves. Free Greeks valued their independence and feared working for others, believing that to do so reduced them to a state of slavery. As a result, the idea of working for wages was generally unaccepted in the Greek world.
The economic life of Athens and other large city-states was more varied. Many people worked in specialized crafts, especially in the construction of temples and other public buildings. Banks arose to accept deposits and to make loans. There was no such thing as buying on credit in the ancient world—it was cash only for all transactions. In contrast to the Athenians, citizens of the city-state of Sparta shunned all activity that did not directly concern the military. Spartans depended on helots and other conquered peoples to farm the land, carry on trade, and perform any other economic functions. The Spartans even refused to mint silver or bronze coins.
Many cities on the shores of important waterways served as ports, and their citizens often turned to trade for their livelihood. Traders, called emporoi in Greek, brought foreign goods into a country in exchange for local produce. Local dealers, or kapeloi, purchased goods from the emporoi and carried the goods to the agora, where they sold them to the public. The city of Byzantium in Asia Minor had one of the best locations for a port in the ancient world. It controlled access to the Black Sea and the grain-rich lands around it. Since cities, and Athens in particular, needed to import grain to feed their large and growing populations, grain was the single most important trade item in the ancient world. Grain markets were policed by special officials, and privately owned merchant ships carried grain from the Black Sea and from Egypt, Sicily, and southern Italy.
Although private individuals owned most of the land and businesses in the Greek world, the government also played a significant role in the Greek economy. City-states owned mines and quarries, enabling governments to have easy access to the natural resources needed to make weapons and armaments in time of war. In 482 B.C., at the urging of Themistocles, Athens built its first navy with the wealth obtained from a rich vein of silver discovered at the mines at Laurium. City-states also exercised economic control by banning the export of items that were especially important to their citizens, such as certain agricultural products. In addition, the state raised money by collecting dues and levying taxes on imports.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* agora in ancient Greece, the public square or marketplace
The Ptolemaic dynasty, the rulers of Egypt during the Hellenistic* age, was the wealthiest family in all the Greek lands. The Ptolemies used their wealth to finance a museum and library in the capital of Alexandria. These rulers also introduced the idea of the protective customs barrier to keep foreign oil from underselling Egyptian oil. Such customs barriers are still used by various nations today. (See also Agora; Agriculture, Greek; Banking; Coinage; Crafts and Craftsmanship; Food and Drink; Insurance; Land: Ownership, Reorganization, and Use; Markets; Mining; Piracy; Slavery; Taxation; Trade, Greek; Wars and Warfare, Greek.)
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.