Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.10.30

Angelos Chaniotis (ed.), From Minoan Farmers to Roman Traders. Sidelights on the Economy of Ancient Crete.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag (Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien, Bd. 29), 1999.  Pp. x, 391.  ISBN 3-515-07621-2.  DM 148.  

Reviewed by Zinon Papakonstantinou, Department of History, University of Washington (
Word count: 2241 words

List of papers: (1) John Bintliff, "Introduction", pp. 1-14; (2) John F. Cherry, "Introductory Reflections on Economies and Scale in Prehistoric Crete", 17-23; (3) Kostas Sbonias, "Social Development, Management of Production, and Symbolic Representation in Prepalatial Crete", 25-51; (4) Donald C. Haggis, "Staple Finance, Peak Sanctuaries, and Economic Complexity in Late Prepalatial Crete", 53-85; (5) Anna Michailidou, "Systems of Weight and Social Relations of 'Private' Production in the Late Bronze Age Aegean", 87-113; (6) Eric H. Cline, "The Nature of the Economic Relations of Crete with Egypt and the Near East during the Late Bronze Age", 115-144; (7) Krzysztof Nowicki, "Economy of Refugees: Life in the Cretan Mountains at the Turn of the Bronze and Iron Age", 145-171; (8) Susan E. Alcock, "Introduction. Three 'R's' of the Cretan Economy", 175-180; (9) Angelos Chanotis, "Milking the Mountains. Economic Activities on the Cretan Uplands in the Classical and Hellenistic Period", 181-220; (10) Didier Vivier, "Economy and Territorial Dynamics in Crete from the Archaic to the Hellenistic Period", 221-233; (11) Francesco Guizzi, "Private Economic Activities in Hellenistic Crete: The Evidence of the Isopoliteia Treaties", 235-245; (12) Manolis I. Stefanakis, "The Introduction of Coinage in Crete and the Beginning of Local Minting", 247-268; (13) Antigone Marangou, "Wine in the Cretan Economy", 269-278; (14) Sara Paton and Rolf Michael Schneider, "Imperial Splendour in the Province: Imported Marble on Roman Crete", 279-304; (15) Martha W. Baldwin Bowsky, "The Business of Being Roman: the Prosopographical Evidence", 305-347; (16) Nikos Litinas, "Ostraca Chersonesi. A Preliminary Report", 349-351; (17) W. V. Harris, "Crete in the Hellenistic and Roman Economies: A Comment", 353-358.

Ancient Crete has been the focus of intensive archaeological exploration during recent decades. What is lagging a little behind is often a synthesis of the rich body of recent archaeological discoveries with the results of the labor of earlier generations of archaeologists and, in the case of Doric Crete, with the epigraphic and literary evidence. The volume edited by Angelos Chaniotis attempts to remedy this gap in modern scholarship with particular emphasis on the economy of the island during the prehistoric and historical periods. Although, as the editor himself modestly admits, the volume does not provide "a thorough and comprehensive discussion of the history of Cretan economy in the course of three millennia" (p. viii), the fact of the matter is that this work achieves a great deal more than what it originally set out to (i.e., to elucidate, by using a diachronic approach, various aspects of the economy of ancient Crete). This volume is in fact a significant contribution not only to the study of economy in antiquity but also to social and political history and archaeological theory and practice.

The volume is divided into two parts: Part I, "Bronze and Early Iron Age Crete", pp. 15-171 and Part II "Post-Minoan Crete", pp. 173-358. John Bintliff's introductory essay as well as John F. Cherry's (pp.17-23) and Susan Alcock's (pp. 175-180) introductions to the Bronze Age and Post-Minoan sections of the book succeed in adroitly summarizing the content of the individual papers and evaluating their particular contributions to the subject as well as pointing to future research perspectives. As a general observation one may point out that the content of the individual essays reflects the state of research on ancient Crete: essays dealing with Minoan Crete draw from an extremely wealthy pool of archaeological data and rigorous theoretical discourses and as a result, tend to be more synthetic and analytical. The essays dealing with Post-Minoan Crete on the other hand, a period largely neglected until very recently as Chaniotis himself is quick to point out (p. vii), tend to be more empirical and to concentrate on a particular aspect of Cretan economy which then the authors attempt to analyze within the general historical context.

Regarding Prehistoric Crete, the contributions by Sbonias, Haggis and Cline achieve an admirable balance between analysis of material evidence and theoretical discourse. The value of their interpretations, as Bintliff in his introductory essay makes clear (pp. 1-6), transcends the strict limits of Aegean prehistory, and they constitute valuable additions to interdisciplinary discussions of major issues such as state-formation and economic networks in pre-industrial societies. Whether or not one accepts Sbonia's evolutionary model from larger villages/regional commercial centers to the early palaces, the greatest contribution of his essay lies in the effective way that he assimilates a bulk of largely neglected or understudied body of data like seals into a discussion of the struggle for political, symbolic and economic power in Pre-Palatial Crete. Contrary to Sbonias, who puts more emphasis on wider regional developments, Haggis' model detects distinctive localized crystallizations of power networks by elite groups in pre-palatial Crete, a process that ultimately led to the formation of the palaces. Utilizing a wealth-distribution economy model as his theoretical basis, Haggis argues that these power networks are reflected not simply in economic activities, such as settlement patterns or the distribution of pre-palatial ceramics, but also in the symbolic sphere (organization and control of peak sanctuaries). All the problems associated with any attempts to identify social hierarchy through material evidence aside, Haggis' essay, as well as Sbonias', are thought-provoking and innovative contributions to some of the most vexing issues in Cretan prehistory.

Similarly, Cline's article will certainly become a point of reference for any future research on trade relations between Crete and the Near East in the Bronze Age. Cline conveniently summarizes and updates the archaeological, epigraphic and pictorial evidence concerning economic contacts between the two regions. He then very skillfully tests this material against methodological models that have been applied to the study of Aegean prehistory such as the 'core-periphery' and the 'world-systems' models and their variations. As Cline himself points out (pp. 116, 129), given the amount of evidence available, his study is inevitably of a preliminary nature, and full treatment in monograph format is certainly a desideratum. Such a study, if undertaken, should also take into consideration the textual evidence available from the Near East and therefore address more specifically historical questions that had certainly affected the nature of economic interactions between the two regions (pp. 133-4).

Michailidou's article, building on the earlier work by Petruso,1 demonstrates the valuable implications that a close examination of the spatial and qualitative distribution of a particular set of material evidence (in this case weights) can have on our understanding of the redistributive palatial economy of Bronze Age Aegean and the exchange and trade networks operating therein. Unfortunately, the author chooses to append a "Part II. Additional Commentary" which contains an update of new archaeological data and scholarly discussions as a separate part of the main body of her paper that was originally published in 1990. As a result, the significance of the new material is not properly assessed in the overall context; I believe that a revised version of the 1990 article, integrating all the new evidence, would have been much more informative and persuasive. Finally, through the employment of ethnographic comparanda from modern Crete, Nowicki offers a realistic reconstruction of the subsistence economy at the settlement of Karphi at the Lasithi Plateau during the Dark Ages.2

Most chapters in "Part II : Post-Minoan Crete" attempt to trace the development of certain aspects of the Cretan economy diachronically in order to discover the interrelationship of economic structures, society and politics over the longue durée. What is possibly lacking in this section is a systematic attempt on the part of the authors and especially the respondents (Bintliff, Alcock, Harris) to evaluate the findings of the individual papers in the light of the ongoing debate on the nature of classical and post-classical Greek economy.3 This is very critical, since it is only through regional studies of the kind included in the present volume that our understanding of the more general picture can be substantially advanced.

This observation should not, however, in any way diminish the significant contributions that each individual paper provides. The chapters of Chaniotis, Vivier and Guizzi can be read, in a way, as complementary to each other, since all three employ primarily the literary and epigraphic sources to discuss the economy of the Cretan poleis in the context of the aristocratic social order prevalent in the island from the Archaic to the Hellenistic periods.4 Building on his own earlier work on Cretan pastoralism, Chaniotis thoroughly illustrates the economics of the Cretan mountains in the Classical and Hellenistic periods. He concludes that such diverse activities as farming in the uplands, pastoralism, wool and leather processing, beekeeping and timber exploitation were ultimately "integrated in a system of subsistence economy" (p. 210) operating in the period in question. Vivier attempts to extend the model of subsistence economy to include trade activities; he adduces epigraphic evidence for the existence of such activities between Cretan cities in the classical and Hellenistic periods. In addition, he detects a connection between these commercial networks and the "territorial dynamics of the island", i.e. the problems related to scarcity of land and expansionism (something that Chaniotis also discusses in relation to pastoralism and transhumance). Finally Guizzi, touching upon the same issues of commerce, agriculture and pastoralism, tries, correctly in my view, to interpret the evidence beyond the institutional framework of the polis as reflecting the activities of the wealthy elite that, in addition to the economic life, also dominated, as attested by the literary and epigraphic sources, the politics of their respective cities. However, Guizzi might be reading too much into the evidence. I find the notions of large-scale pastoralism (cf. also Bintliff, p. 10) and concentration of large estates problematic and not wholly substantiated by the available data.

Stefanakis' paper is a welcome survey of various aspects of early Cretan coinage, although a number of important issues, particularly related to the inscriptional evidence, are not adequately addressed. Archaic and classical Cretan inscriptions offer insights for the role and usage of early Greek coinage in the crucial period of transition from pre-monetary to a partially monetary economy (6th-early 5th centuries BC). Numismatists have made only minimal use of the epigraphic testimonia, and unfortunately Stefanakis' analysis of this set of evidence does not proceed much beyond the obvious conclusion that the Cretans were acquainted with coinage from this early period. I believe that an analysis of the Cretan epigraphic evidence in light of the recent debate on the symbolic role and practical function of early Greek coinage, including those approaches that see the introduction of coinage as not a purely economic phenomenon,5 would have been proven profitable for our understanding of both the economy of archaic and classical Crete and early Greek coinage in general. In addition, it is surprising that in the context of his discussion regarding the extent of monetization of the Cretan economy after the end of the 4th century BC, Stefanakis does not discuss the intriguing 3rd-century decree from Gortyn (IC IV, 162) concerning the bronze civic coinage, the content of which suggests that barter was still a dominant mode of economic behavior even at a period when coinage had become widely available.

The remaining papers dealing with the Roman period document the changes in Cretan economy after the integration of the island in an economically unified zone covering the entire Mediterranean under Roman control. By tracing the chronological and geographical distribution of wine amphoras Marangou concludes that after the 1st century AD we witness "the passage from a subsistence economy based on small-scale production tied to local needs to a commercial economy based on intensive production directed towards external markets, especially those of Italy" (p. 278). Although the author has primarily wine-production in mind, I believe that this observation, which points to a transformation of the greatest importance, can be applied to other aspects of Cretan economy as well. This economic internationalism of Crete during the Roman period is documented by other sets of data, archaeological and epigraphic. The paper of Paton and Schneider is exemplary in its deployment of both archaeological evidence and interpretative historical analysis. Following a detailed enumeration of all the known Roman sites where imported marble is extant, the authors illustrate trade patterns between Crete and the Mediterranean world. Moreover, they make a convincing case that the extensive use of such expensive and luxurious material is a reflection of the ideology of conspicuous display among Roman and Romanized elites.

Baldwin Bowsky's paper also attests this increasing cosmopolitanism of the economy of Roman Crete; by constructing a prosopography of Romans and Romanized Cretans engaged in economic activities, the author very successfully maps the "flows and exchanges of resources within or between economic cells" and illustrates "the process of economic acculturation" of these individuals in the context of an interconnected, pan-Mediterranean Roman economy. The volume ends with Litinas' brief report on 90 inscribed 2nd-century AD ostraca that record economic transactions and Harris's concluding commentary. Harris, like Chaniotis (p. 210), emphasizes the pressing need for further archaeological exploration and publication with a focus on the post-minoan periods.

The volume is extremely well edited and produced; misprints are extremely rare, indexes and bibliography are very detailed and of great assistance to the reader. In conclusion, one should reiterate the scholarly value of this collective effort that undoubtedly advances our understanding of all periods, and not merely of the economy, of ancient Crete. It is a book that touches upon a number of varied themes such as subsistence economy and trade, state-formation and territorial dynamics, resource exploitation, settlement patterns, demographics, political and social history. In short, a thought-provoking, learned piece of scholarship.


1.   Cf. primarily his Keos VIII. Ayia Irini: The Balance Weights: An Analysis of Weight Measurements in Prehistoric Crete and the Cycladic Islands, Mainz 1992, which is based on his earlier dissertation on weights systems in the Bronze Age Aegean.
2.   On Karphi and similar sites in Crete during the Dark Ages cf. now Nowicki's, Defensible Sites in Crete c. 1200-800 BC (LM IIIB/IIIC through Early Geometric), Liège 2000.
3.   Cf. two recent surveys that summarize the state of the debate: P. Cartledge, "The Economy (economies) of Ancient Greece" Dialogos 5 (1998), 4-24 and J. Davies, "Ancient Economies: models and muddles" in H. Parkins and C. Smith (eds), Trade, Traders and the Ancient City, London 1998, 225-56.
4.   See now Hans-Joachim Gehrke, "Gewalt und Gesetz. Die Soziale und Politische Ordnung Kretas in der Archaischen und Klassischen Zeit", Klio 79 (1997), 23-68.
5.   cf. C. Howgego, Ancient History from Coins, London and New York, 1995, 1-18; Leslie Kurke, Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold. The Politics of meaning in Archaic Greece, especially pp. 3-37.

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