Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.31

W.T. Loomis, Wages, Welfare Costs and Inflation in Classical Athens.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1998.  Pp. xx, 403.  ISBN 0-472-10803-4.  

Reviewed by Edward Cohen, Resource America, Inc., Philadelphia PA (
Word count: 1966 words

Wages, Welfare Costs and Inflation is a splendid contribution to an area of ancient economic history long in need of detailed study. L.'s important volume explodes numerous shibboleths that had gained acceptance in the absence of reliable empirical studies of Athenian labor costs. In fact, the last overall compilation of Athenian monetary figures was made in 1817 by Boeckh in Die Staatshaushaltung der Athener, a brilliant work now marred by outdated methodology and by the proliferation of new source materials during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the absence of computers (and of scholarly ingenuity?), research subsequent to that of Boeckh has been limited to a few studies of individual areas of cost, such as Pritchett's work on military pay. But the paucity of factual data has not prevented the generation of grand theses buttressed by slight evidence, or historians' adoption as dogma of various subjective assertions based on isolated examples. In contrast, L. has now attempted "to collect all ancient Athenian wages, salaries, transport costs, and travel and welfare allowances, and to organize these figures by category and date" (p. 1). A future volume (with the working title of Talents to Chalkoi: A Catalogue of Athenian Monetary Figures) will expand this coverage and "will collect the figures in all categories (i.e., not just labor, transport and welfare costs)" (p. vii, emphasis L.'s). L. is aware of the wider issues and implications of his work, including its significance for the "hotly debated question" concerning the nature of the Athenian economy -- "primitive or modern, an embedded or a market economy?" (p. 251). He explicitly notes that his demonstration of the responsiveness of Athenian public wages to supply-and-demand factors, and his establishment of periodic inflation and deflation in labor costs, suggest that "classical Athens resembles a market economy more closely than the modern orthodoxy has held" (p. 254). But those who prefer historical models to a "deluge of data" and demand focus on "significance" rather than detail1 will note with disappointment that only about 25 pages (of some 340 pages of text) are devoted to broad issues: the bulk of the volume is table, categorization, and discussion of specific testimonia.

Wages thus raises seminal historiographical issues. L.'s very success in collecting and then analyzing all relevant evidence -- now feasible through the development of electronic search tools -- represents, according to one's beliefs, either an admirable work of "collecting evidence and interrogating it with an open mind,"2 or a contemptible example of "simple fact-collecting ('vulgar positivism')."3 L. believes that comprehensive discussion of general issues (such as the nature of the economy) is possible only after efforts (such as his) to collect "all of the evidence" and to achieve "the maximum possible accuracy in assessing its meaning, date and credibility" (p. 8). But M.I. Finley in 1984, near the end of his life, presciently warned against the danger that "the introduction of computers" might entice ancient historians into giving priority to evidence over models, and into deleteriously attempting to "answer the familiar question in children's examinations, 'Tell all you know about X'" (Historische Zeitschrift [239: 268-86]). In fact, a commitment to ignoring, or "shaping," evidence is espoused by many contemporary ancient historians.4 In contrast, L. presents, with specificity but without explicit thesis, innumerable items of evidence organized over thirteen subject areas ("doctors, lawyers and professors," "soldiers and sailors" etc.) -- an imposing mass of material drawn from a wide variety of sources and covering the full time-span of classical antiquity. L. proffers "hundreds of improvements" in textual readings, dating, and exegesis of specific testimonia. Finally, eighty pages of appendices delineate specific sums for individual costs. This book is, in short, an enormously valuable research tool that will facilitate studies of ancillary subjects, aid in the development of related theses and models, and permit scholars hereafter to challenge or confirm L.'s interpretations of specific testimonia. Yet all this information is merely an excerpt from larger catalogues covering "all monetary figures found in Greek and Latin literature, Attic inscriptions on stone, and graffiti and dipinti on Greek vases" which L. intends to publish in the future in Talents (p. 259). Although L. is apologetic for his inability "to complete the Talents book as quickly as I had hoped" (p. vii), the early publication of Wages was clearly justified by its enormous separate contribution to knowledge and its high heuristic value. Nevertheless, until the publication of Talents, readers of Wages will be forced to deal with such frustrating anomalies as useless cross-references to sections of Talents (for example, the notations at p. 273, n. 2 to "T. Religious Finances: Religious Charges" and at p. 88, n. 1 to "C. Tangible Personal Property" -- sections of Talents not within the scope of Wages).

Talents (or some other later work) presumably also will consider at greater length and with deeper analysis the overall significance of the factual material that L. has so skillfully collected, organized and analyzed. In Wages, for example, summarizing various approaches to "the nature of the ancient economy generally, and more particularly of the Athenian economy" L. notes (in Chapter 16) the compatibility of his data with suggestions of a price-setting market economy. But he then, tantalizingly but evasively, asserts that "I do not wish, in this book, to enter into this debate in any detail" (p. 253: emphasis added). In this book, however, he does challenge the dogma of the "drachma-per-day standard wage" and the generally accepted view -- originating with Boeckh (Staatshaushaltung I.148-49) -- that prices, including those for labor, remained remarkably stable throughout classical antiquity. While it has long been recognized that shortages (or marked surplus) of staple items in classical Athens did generate violent but temporary price movements,5 the presumed absence of price-setting market economies in classical antiquity has led to the further assumption of relative stability in general price levels over extended periods -- a presumption so strong that Pritchett, for example, does not even consider the possibility of diachronic inflation or deflation in military pay (The Greek State at War: I.3-29 [Berkeley 1974]). Yet L. demonstrates "at least three, and perhaps as many as six, periods of wage movements in Athens, attested almost exclusively in the 'public sector'" (p. 257). L. confirms Figueira's somewhat diffident recent delineation of significant inflation at Athens during the fifth century, and Gallo's suggestion in 1987 that heightened banking and trade activities in the fourth century might have led to increased prices and wages during that period.6 Here too, however, L. does not explore at length the implications of his conclusion. There is much more to be said: perhaps in Talents.

In contrast, L. does consider fully the individual items set forth in the various categories into which he divides labor costs. Since all 13 units are treated in a similar form and with consistent methodology, an evaluation of his treatment of "prostitutes and pimps" may serve as a representative illustration of the rich merits and occasional deficiencies of L.'s work.

Noting the absence in English of virtually any information on rates for sexual services in Athens, Halperin in 1990 offered a survey of prices charged by Greek prostitutes -- a brief and superficial analysis (based on cursory studies in German in 1913 and 1960 by Schneider and Herter) which he still feared -- because of the "sordid" subject matter -- "some readers may find [to be of] unnecessary length."7 L. has considerably expanded Halperin's treatment by a magisterial consideration of many additional examples. L. systematically discusses each item to determine (as appropriate) its text, time, interpretation and credibility. (In the end, he concludes that only seven or eight [of 43 figures] can validly be used for comparative purposes.) His dry wit and droll commentary offer elegant insights. But problems remain.

Electronic programs necessarily offer only mechanical searches, and L. is aware of "significant omissions" in his analysis (p. 259) -- even "a (very) few instances where, unaccountably, the program failed to pick up a key word [actually] recorded on the compact disc" -- and he plans for Talents a fresh search using a different search program. But the choice of "key words" is a human function, and I would question the adequacy of L.'s programming of only a limited number of terms relating to money: "drachmas," "obols," "mnas," "chalkoi," "noummoi" etc. (p. 259). Although L. provides a catalogue only of monetary figures (that is, numerical designations of costs), the proper exegesis of this numerology requires, in my opinion, a consideration of passages that might offer comparative valuations even without the citation of specific monetary amounts. (Such an expansion of focus -- although perhaps impractically burdensome for the author -- would have been consonant with L's stated preference for material "useful for comparative purposes" [p. 8].) But L.'s narrow construction of search terms will not elicit passages that do not contain a specific price expressed in key-word monetary denomination. An example is Demosthenes 59.18-24 where Nikarete supposedly presents as her own offspring the child prostitutes whom she owns, allegedly because the "highest prices" (μέγιστοι μισθοί) might be obtained from customers desiring to have sex with young girls whom they believed to be the free offspring of the woman providing the children's services. This passage is indicative of the setting of prices in response to market considerations, but its reference to μισθός (and not to a monetary denomination) does not elicit a "hit" on L.'s computer search, and L. does not consider this material. Similarly L. omits Demosthenes 59.41 which describes how customers would pay higher fees for sexual relations with women of seemingly bourgeois pretension (ἐπὶ προσχήματός τινος) living in a stable marital relationship -- a market phenomenon (also encountered in modern sexual commerce) of enhanced payment for denigration. Again the key word is μισθός, rather than a monetary denotation. But L. does note (at p. 176, n. 36) Demosthenes 59.29-32, where the term mnai (and a number) is present. L.'s treatment of prostitutional encounters in Aiskhines 1 is similarly incomplete. Although L. does note in Hypereides 5 (Column 1) the phrase "three hundred drachmas for a slave girl," the overall transaction described there -- involving the purchase of a perfume operation for a specific price in order to obtain a slave boy for erotic purposes -- is not cited, perhaps because it is to be included in Talents (see the reference, at p. 166, n. 1, to "H. Slaves: Individual Slaves" and "O. Individuals: Private Ransoms," both of which will appear in Talents). Other lacunae may be similarly explained, and, I hope, filled in the later publication.

A great strength of this book is its systematic provision of testimonia in the original Greek or Latin.8 L. routinely presents evidence in footnotes without translation, and in the text proper often inserts words in Greek without transliteration. Yet his categories (presented as separate chapters) have been organized through English terms that sometimes correspond only inexactly, as he acknowledges (p. 62), to the Greek concepts with which he is dealing. Thus Chapter 9 is entitled "Prostitutes and Pimps," and contains evidence relating to pornoi, pornai, hetairai, hetairoi [and verbal forms of these words, as well as passages that do not explicitly mention any of these terms]. L., however, provides to the reader no explicit indication that these Hellenic formulations are not synonyms (or equivalents to the English "prostitute") -- although his detailed discussions of individual passages confirm his awareness that the inclusive modern term "prostitution" obfuscates important (and much-debated) financial, social and symbolic distinctions found in the various Greek words relating to the sale of sex.9 Likewise the use of "pimp" for pornoboskos would seem to me to have required explanation or justification.10

But these are cavils offered for L.'s consideration in his forthcoming work. In the meantime, ancient historians and classicists will be grateful for a valuable new resource.


1.   M. I. Finley, Economy and Society 20 (and Editors' Comments, Ibid. xiv) (London 1981). Cf. A. Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography: 54-79 (Berkeley 1990).
2.   M. Fredericksen's formulation: Journal of Roman Studies 65 (1975): 171.
3.   Finley's formulation: see, e.g., his 1965 New Statesman review of Kosambi's Culture of Ancient India.
4.   For example, the author of a major work on Athenian lending boasts of "the deliberate suppression of detail which appears to be less significant in favor of material that is judged to be critical" (Millett, Lending and Borrowing in Ancient Athens: 4 [Cambridge 1991]). Todd, in proclaiming himself a "'models' rather than an 'evidence' historian," decries those historians who "take as a starting-point the statements of ancient writers" (The Shape of Athenian Law: 22, with n. 4 [Oxford 1993]). But ancient historians' belated adoption of models runs contrary to the "thick description" that in other areas of historical study has now often superseded ideal-type analysis: see J. Revel, "L'histoire au ras du sol," in Le pouvoir au village (1989); G. Levi, "On Microhistory," in New Perspectives on Historical Writing (University Park, PA 1991).
5.   See M. Whitby in Trade, Traders and the Ancient City: 119 (London 1998); P. Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge 1988).
6.   L. Gallo, "Salari e inflazione: Atene tra V e IV sec. A. C.," Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (3d ser.) 17.1 (1987): 19-63; T. J. Figueira, The Power of Money: Coinage and Politics in the Athenian Empire: 72, 472, 493-95 (Philadelphia 1998), a work published too late for L.'s consideration (although Figueira acknowledges access to "some of L.'s scholarship" in Wages).
7.   D. M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: 107 (New York 1990).
8.   The University of Michigan Press is to be commended for publishing this work in a format that maximizes its value to scholars.
9.   See C. Reinsberg, Ehe, Hetärentum und Knabenliebe im antiken Griechenland: 80-86 (Munich 1989); L. Kurke, Coins, Bodies, Games and Gold: 178-87 (Princeton 1999); J. N. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens: 117-27 (London 1997); T. McGinn, Prostitution, Sexuality and the Law in Ancient Rome: 17-18 (Oxford 1998).
10.   Similarly unsatisfactory is L.'s use in Chapter 3 of "lawyers," whose absence from Athens is routinely posited by modern legal scholars, and of "professors" for the great variety of Greek teachers, lecturers, philosophers, presenters etc.

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