Ancient History & Civilisation


When an individual, a family, or a city creates a surplus, and wishes to exchange it, trade begins. The first difficulty here is that transport is costly, for roads are poor, and the sea is a snare. The finest road is the Sacred Way from Athens to Eleusis; but this is mere dirt, and is often too narrow to let vehicles pass. The bridges are precarious causeways formed by earthen dikes, which as likely as not have been washed away by floods. The usual draft animal is the ox, who is too philosophical to enrich the trader that depends upon him for transport; wagons are fragile, and always break down, or get bogged in the mud; it is better to pack the goods on the back of a mule, for he goes a trifle faster, and does not take up so much of the road. There is no postal service in Greece, even for the governments; they are content with runners, and private correspondence must wait the chance of using these. Important news can be flashed by fire beacons from hill to hill, or sent by carrier pigeons.20 There are inns here and there on the road, but they are favored by robbers and vermin; even the god Dionysus, in Aristophanes, inquires of Heracles for “the eating-houses and hostels where there are the fewest bugs.”21

Sea transport is cheaper, especially if voyages are limited, as most of them are, to the calm summer months. Passenger tariffs are low: for two drachmas ($2) a family can secure passage from the Piraeus to Egypt or the Black Sea,22 but ships do not cater to passengers, being made to carry goods or wage war or do either at need. The main motive power is wind upon a sail, but slaves ply the oars when the wind is contrary or dead. The smallest seagoing merchant vessels are triaconters with thirty oars, all on one level; the penteconter has fifty. Back about 700 the Corinthians launched the first trireme, with a crew of two hundred men plying three banks or tiers of oars; by the fifth century such ships, beautiful with their long and lofty prows, have grown to 256 tons, carry seven thousand bushels of grain, and become the talk of the Mediterranean by making eight miles an hour.23

The second problem of trade is to find a reliable medium of exchange. Every city has its own system of weights and measures, and its own individual coinage; at every one of a hundred frontiers one must transvalue all values skeptically, for every Greek government except the Athenian cheats by debasing its coins.24 “In most cities,” says an anonymous Greek, “merchants are compelled to ship goods for the return journey, for they cannot get money that is of any use to them elsewhere.”25 Some cities mint coins of electrum—a compound of silver and gold—and rival one another in getting as little gold as possible into the mixture. The Athenian government, from Solon onward, helps Athenian trade powerfully by establishing a reliable coinage, stamped with the owl of Athena; “taking owls to Athens” is the Greek equivalent of “carrying coals to Newcastle.”26Because Athens, through all her vicissitudes, refuses to depreciate her silver drachmas, these “owls” are accepted gladly throughout the Mediterranean world, and tend to displace local currencies in the Aegean. Gold at this stage is still an article of merchandise, sold by weight, rather than a vehicle of trade; Athens mints it only in rare emergencies, usually in a ration to silver of 14 to I.27 The smallest Athenian coins are of copper; eight of these make an obol—a coin of iron or bronze, named from its resemblance to nails or spits (obeliskoi). Six obols make a drachma, i.e., a handful; two drachmas make a gold stater; one hundred drachmas make a mina; sixty minas make a talent. A drachma in the first half of the fifth century buys a bushel of grain, as a dollar does in twentieth-century America.*28 There is no paper money in Athens, no government bonds, no joint-stock corporations, no stock exchange.

But there are banks. They have a hard struggle to get a footing, for those who have no need for loans denounce interest as a crime, and the philosophers agree with them. The average fifth-century Athenian is a hoarder; if he has savings he prefers to hide them rather than entrust them to the banks. Some men lend money on mortgages, at 16 to 18 per cent; some lend it, without interest, to their friends; some deposit their money in temple treasuries. The temples serve as banks, and lend to individuals and states at a moderate interest; the temple of Apollo at Delphi is in some measure an international bank for all Greece. There are no private loans to governments, but occasionally one state lends to another. Meanwhile the money-changer at his table (trapeza) begins in the fifth century to receive money on deposit, and to lend it to merchants at interest rates that vary from 12 to 30 per cent according to the risk; in this way he becomes a banker, though to the end of ancient Greece he keeps his early name of trapezite, the man at the table. He takes his methods from the Near East, improves them, and passes them on to Rome, which hands them down to modern Europe. Soon after the Persian War Themistocles deposits seventy talents ($420,000) with the Corinthian banker Philostephanus, very much as political adventurers feather foreign nests for themselves today; this is the earliest known allusion to secular—nontemple—banking. Towards the end of the century Antisthenes and Archestratus establish what will become, under Pasion, the most famous of all private Greek banks. Through such trapezitai money circulates more freely and rapidly, and so does more work, than before; and the facilities that they offer stimulate creatively the expansion of Athenian trade.

Trade, not industry or finance, is the soul of Athenian economy. Though many producers still sell directly to the consumer, a growing number of them require the intermediary of the market, whose function it is to buy and store goods until the consumer is ready to purchase them. In this way a class of retailers arises, who peddle their wares through the streets, or in the wake of armies, or at festivals or fairs, or offer them for sale in shops or stalls in the agora or elsewhere in the town. To the shops come freemen or metics or slaves to haggle with tradesmen and buy for the home. One of the severest disabilities suffered by the “free” women of Athens is that custom does not allow them to shop.29

Foreign commerce advances even faster than domestic trade, for the Greek states have learned the advantages of an international division of labor, and each specializes in some product; the shieldmaker, for example, no longer goes from city to city at the call of those who need him, but makes his shields in his shop and sends them out to the markets of the classic world. In one century Athens moves from household economy—wherein each household makes nearly all that it needs—to urban economy—wherein each town makes nearly all that it needs—to international economy—where each state is dependent upon imports, and must make exports to pay for them. The Athenian fleet for two generations keeps the Aegean clear of pirates, and from 480 to 430 commerce thrives as it never will again until Pompey suppresses piracy in 67 B.C. The docks, warehouses, markets, and banks of the Piraeus offer every facility for trade; soon the busy port becomes the chief center of distribution and reshipment for the commerce between the East and the West. “The articles which it is difficult to get, one here, one there, from the rest of the world,” says Isocrates, “all these it is easy to buy in Athens.”30 “The magnitude of our city,” says Thucydides, “draws the produce of the world into our harbor, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.”31 From the Piraeus merchants carry the wine, oil, wool, minerals, marble, pottery, arms, luxuries, books, and works of art produced by the fields and shops of Attica; to the Piraeus they bring grain from the Byzantium, Syria, Egypt, Italy, and Sicily, fruit and cheese from Sicily and Phoenicia, meat from Phoenicia and Italy, fish from the Black Sea, nuts from Paphlagonia, copper from Cyprus, tin from England, iron from the Pontic coast, gold from Thasos and Thrace, timber from Thrace and Cyprus, embroideries from the Near East, wools, flax, and dyes from Phoenicia, spices from Cyrene, swords from Chalcis, glass from Egypt, tiles from Corinth, beds from Chios and Miletus, boots and bronzes from Etruria, ivory from Ethiopia, perfumes and ointments from Arabia, slaves from Lydia, Syria, and Scythia. The colonies serve not only as markets, but as shipping agents to send Athenian goods into the interior; and though the cities of Ionia decay in the fifth century because the trade that once passed there is diverted to the Propontis and Caria during and after the Persian War, Italy and Sicily replace them as outlets for the surplus products and population of mainland Greece. We may estimate the amount of Aegean commerce from the return of 1200 talents from a 5 per cent tax laid in 413 upon the imports and exports of the cities in the Athenian Empire, indicating a trade of $144,000,000 a year.

The danger lurking in this prosperity is the growing dependence of Athens upon imported grain; hence her insistence upon controlling the Hellespont and the Black Sea, her persistent colonizing of the coasts and isles on the way to the straits, and her disastrous expeditions to Egypt in 459 and to Sicily in 415. It is this dependence that persuades Athens to transform the Confederacy of Delos into an empire; and when, in 405, the Spartans destroy the Athenian fleet in the Hellespont, the starvation and surrender of Athens are inevitable results. Nevertheless it is this trade that makes Athens rich, and provides, with the imperial tribute, the sinews of her cultural development. The merchants who accompany their goods to all quarters of the Mediterranean come back with changed perspective, and alert and open minds; they bring new ideas and ways, break down ancient taboos and sloth, and replace the familial conservatism of a rural aristocracy with the individualistic and progressive spirit of a mercantile civilization. Here in Athens East and West meet, and jar each other from their ruts. Old myths lose their grasp on the souls of men, leisure rises, inquiry is supported, science and philosophy grow. Athens becomes the most intensely alive city of her time.

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