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The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States

April 2018 (122.2)

Book Review

The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States

By Alain Bresson. Translated by Steven Rendall. Pp. xxvi + 620, figs. 13, tables 16. Princeton University Press, Princeton 2015. $45. ISBN 978-0-691-14470-2 (cloth).

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This book, an expanded version of a two-volume set published in French a decade ago, is a watershed in the study of the ancient Greek economy. It is vast in scope and brings together an enormous range of literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence within a sophisticated theoretical framework, moving the discipline far beyond the legacy of M. Finley (The Ancient Economy [Berkeley 1973]) and the formalist vs. substantivist debate. Bresson brings the perspective of new institutional economics (NIE)—an approach that seeks to measure economic performance by connecting growth to institutions limiting uncertainty and lowering transaction costs—to Greece in the heyday of the polis. The main thesis of this book is that the Greek polis and its egalitarian notion of citizenship and property ownership fueled a demographic and economic expansion unprecedented in antiquity, the Greek efflorescence of ca. 700–300 B.C.E.

Bresson begins with an examination of the ecology and natural resources of the Mediterranean. Drawing from P. Horden and N. Purcell (The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History [Oxford 2000]), he emphasizes the delicate balance between pressures leading to fragmentation—pronounced regional variations in resources and climate—and the countervailing force of maritime connectivity stimulating economic growth (ch. 2). The first half of the book sets the stage by evaluating the natural resources and economic potential of ancient Greece and covers a vast number of topics, including family size, fertility rates, population growth (ch. 2), energy resources, technological innovations, shipping and navigational infrastructure (ch. 3), state tax policies (ch. 4), patterns of land ownership and agricultural strategies (chs. 5 and 6), and fishing, textile, and other industries (ch. 7). This culminates in a positive evaluation of the economic capacity of ancient Greece and a critique of the traditional view that elite ideology impeded economic growth (ch. 8).

This part of the book has an almost encyclopedic quality, gathering in one place much of what we know about the economic structures of ancient Greece and making a rigorous attempt to quantify these factors. So, for example, the section dealing with roads and overland transport does not simply rest with the statement that transport by sea was much cheaper than by land but takes the reader through modern transport records from Anatolia, efficiency estimates for pack animals, inland distribution patterns for Attic and Rhodian pottery, and other sources to conclude that overland transport added 50–75% to the cost of goods moved by land and created a limit of 300 km for the movement of heavy goods inland (81–4). Bresson takes a maximal position with variables seen as key in creating conditions of economic growth, as with his fertility model positing a low average age of marriage for women at 15 and a high average number of 10 children, thus creating the conditions for a “permanent demographic explosion” (50), the consequences of which are vital to Bresson and others who connect economic development with rapidly growing populations and rising per capita income. Another maximal position of greater importance to his overall argument is that wind was the main source of energy available to ancient Greeks, and consequently ship technology and greater efficiency in the transport sector of the economy were the principal engines of growth, priming the pump for the Greek efflorescence (79–80, 95). The problem is how to measure the rate of this growth. Improvements in ship technology offer one index, albeit a crude one (86–7, 95). Other criteria, including an increase in house size suggesting higher per capita consumption, suggest that the ancient Greek economy grew at an unprecedented rate of approximately 0.4% per annum for several centuries (60, 204).

The heart of the book lies in the second half, where various strains of evidence come together to create a detailed picture of how these new institutions worked to streamline transaction costs and make the transport economy run more efficiently. These institutions operated at many levels. In the agora, the polis delineated a zone for transactions to take place and established ways to check the quality and quantity of goods exchanged, including rules against deceptive practices and efforts to equalize the flow of information between seller and buyer (ch. 9). The state took even greater steps to establish exclusive markets for seaborne trade at ports and emporia. These commercial zones provided legal protection for contracts and loans, thereby freeing up capital, and brokered more transparent and efficient exchanges by providing access to judicial proceedings for injured parties and regulating the use of samples (deigma) to establish prices for commodities sight unseen (309–13). But this infrastructure came at a price to traders. Drawing on epigraphic evidence largely of the fourth and third centuries B.C.E., Bresson reveals an intricate system of state taxes on trade (ch. 11). This analysis casts the Greek polis in a new light, as an almost modern capitalist state, itself invested in international trade through tax revenues and capable of stimulating the economy.

Do the economic benefits of these new institutions outweigh the costs of implementation? Without quantifiable evidence for economic performance in the ancient world, Bresson has understandable difficulty answering this question (298). He points to the existence of an international market of stable prices, where states could focus on cash crops and other niche markets (such as archaic Chios investing in wine production), as a sign that the system was working (126–27, 347). In addition, since the perfume and textile industries both drew on diverse sets of raw materials from far-flung regions, they, too, suggest the efficient operation of markets (351–58). World systems theory also enters the picture with a division of the Aegean into peripheral areas that supplied staple goods and core areas engaged in manufacture (346–48). Bresson is less convincing here, both because he does not clearly distinguish peripheries from cores and because recent scholarship has taken a more expansive view of economic development in the putative peripheries (F. De Angelis, Archaic and Classical Greek Sicily: A Social and Economic History [Oxford 2016]). Archaeological studies of specific sites or regions might eventually provide more reliable measures of economic performance.

Can this economic expansion be convincingly linked to the egalitarian institutions of the polis? Paradoxically, the evidence for this new system peaks in the Hellenistic period, when the author believes substantial parts of the Greek world fell into economic decline and polis ideology weakened (61–4, 416). By telescoping back from the rich epigraphic record of the Hellenistic period to the murkier evidence for Archaic- and Classical-period markets, Bresson sees a turning point in the fifth century as Athens emerged as the primary hub for Aegean trade networks, propelled by its silver mines and money supply (60, 269–70, 276, 346, 416). The commercial world he envisions is not the one of small-scale tramping voyages found in The Corrupting Sea but rather long-distance trade between major hubs, with “free riders” profiting indirectly along the primary sea lanes (296). One wonders whether this soft-power commercial paradigm gives enough credit to the exceptional nature of Athens as an imperial power. Moreno (Feeding the Democracy: The Athenian Grain Supply in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC. Oxford Classical Monographs [Oxford 2007]) casts the Athenian empire differently as a predatory economy with land grabs in Euboea and a pattern of exploitation in other parts of Greece. Bresson also presents a rather simplistic picture of Near Eastern economies as command or redistributive systems to serve as foils for Greek markets and private initiative (102–10, 266–68). Contrast this with Jursa (“Factor Markets in Babylonia from the Late Seventh to the Third Century BCE,” JESHO 57 [2014] 173–202), who draws on extensive price data of the sixth century B.C.E. to emphasize private initiative and a labor market in a Neo-Babylonian imperial context.

These criticisms aside, this book makes an outstanding contribution to the ancient Greek economy by showing with unprecedented clarity that it experienced dramatic growth through greater market efficiency. It has provided a clear path forward for measuring economic performance and evaluating its causes and effects, promising a new understanding of Greek society as a whole. As valuable as this book is as a reference work—it is the best available survey of the ancient Greek economy—it also breaks new ground methodologically and will reshape the way we think about the ancient economy.

Brice Erickson
Classics Department
University of California, Santa Barbara

Book Review of The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States, by Alain Bresson

Reviewed by Brice Erickson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 2 (April 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1222.erickson

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