Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.30

G. J. Oliver, War, Food, and Politics in Early Hellenistic Athens.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007.  Pp. xxiii, 360; tables 4, maps 7, figs. 8.  ISBN 978-0-19-928350-7.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Michael D. Dixon, University of Southern Indiana (
Word count: 1476 words

Recent decades have seen an explosion in studies of Hellenistic Athens.1 Graham Oliver's War, Food, and Politics in Early Hellenistic Athens will surely become an important complement to those more specialized studies of Athens in the early Hellenistic period and it will serve for a long time as an important supplement to the general surveys of Athens in this period.

Oliver has presented a detailed study of Athens in the early Hellenistic period that ranges chronologically between 322 B.C. with the loss of Athenian naval power during the Lamian war and 229 B.C. with the recovery of the Mounychia hill within the Piraeus. Mounychia, which was lost between 322-307 and 295-229, was the sine qua non of Athenian independence; its loss dramatically affected the Athenian economy and the Athenians' ability to import grain. The author places particular emphasis on the years following 295 B.C.; the loss and recovery of Mounychia punctuate the termini of his study. Specifically, Oliver's study of this period is a contribution to the economic history of Hellenistic Athens and not a narrative account of these years. The author's focus is on "war, institutions, and economies" with the simple question underlying his analysis "how did people manage to feed themselves in times of difficulty?" (4). Our literary evidence for Athens in the early Hellenistic period is sparse, most notably for the years following 301 B.C. Our third century sources are mostly epigraphic, and these Oliver has utilized fully and skillfully in his analysis. Extant inscriptions, especially those from Rhamnous, play a central role in the author's analysis. Much more limited, however, is Oliver's use of the archaeological and numismatic evidence, with use of the former limited primarily to chapter 3. The book is divided into three major parts, followed by eight appendices.

In Part One "Economic Vulnerabilities" the author examines some of the significant issues that affected Athenians' ability to feed themselves in times of difficulty. Chapters included within Part One address controversial issues such as the population in Athens during the early Hellenistic period as well as the local production of grain and its importation from abroad. Chapter One establishes the significance to the Athenian economy of local grains as opposed to those imported to Attica, as has been the focus of earlier studies on grain and Athens. The author devotes considerable energy to a detailed analysis of Demosthenes 20 to measure approximately the Athenian reliance upon imported grain in the mid-fourth century B.C. In Chapter Two, Oliver defines the methodology by which he approaches the economic history of Athens in the period. The author has applied an inverted island-peraea model to his analysis in which Athens functioned as the "island" and its holdings such as Salamis, Lemnos, Imbros, and Skyros as its "peraea." Further, Oliver examines the degree to which the loss of Piraeus affected Athens' fiscal control of the harbor and its ability to conduct commerce there, concluding that one cannot determine the extent of either. Also of considerable interest is Oliver's discussion of Olympiodoros and Pausanias's claim (1.26.3) that he had recovered the Piraeus and Mounychia. Contrary to the conclusions of those who place this event variously in the 280s, Oliver suggests that Olympiodoros successfully removed Lachares and liberated Mounychia and the Piraeus in 295 B.C. His consecutive archonships in 294/3 and 293/2 suggest that this interpretation is a plausible one.

Any discussion of the significance that grain production played in Attica must address also the number of mouths that needed to be fed. Oliver takes up the question of Athens' population in the early Hellenistic period in Chapter Three. Again, relying upon Demosthenes 20, Oliver concludes that the population of Attica almost certainly did not exceed 300,000 individuals.

In Part Two "War in the Athenian Polis," Oliver addresses war and how it affected the lives of those living in the Attic countryside, specifically how it affected the grain harvest and the importation of grain. Oliver concentrates his analysis on five major periods during which the Athenians lost control of parts of Attica: the period between 307-304, the mid 290s, c. 287-the late 280s, the period of the Chremonidean war (268/7-261), and the 240s. The Athenians' inability to utilize completely locally grown grains in these periods of warfare and occupation demonstrates their reliance on locally grown grains. Oliver's study of these five crises demonstrates not only the Athenians' reliance on local grain, but also the significance of the Attic fortress system in their ability to harvest it.

The loss of Athenian naval power during the Lamian war coupled with the loss of Mounychia through nearly all of the early Hellenistic period compelled the Athenians to rely more heavily upon different methods for feeding and protecting its population. These losses resulted in a shift of Athenian resources away from a reliance upon imported grains that increasingly came to be concentrated more on the defense of the countryside for the purpose of protecting the local harvests. Oliver divides Athenian military power into three elements: "infrastructure, command, and manpower" (138). The honorary decree for Epichares from Rhamnous, according to Oliver, most clearly illustrates the interconnectedness of these three elements. Oliver utilizes this important decree frequently throughout his work in order to illustrate this connection; he also relies heavily upon other evidence from Rhamnous, which he he presents as a "micro-region...for the region of Attica." (139). Throughout the 260s specifically, Oliver identifies "a clear structure of command...infrastructure [that] is developed and exploited... and a judicious use and innovation in manpower." (140). As a micro-region, however, Rhamnous is not necessarily representative of Athens itself or of Attica as a whole. Oliver next turns to the polis in an effort to see how these three critical elements were interrelated there.

Chapter Five includes an examination of the fortified demes and rubble camps, such as the Ptolemaic fort at Koroni, and their roles in the defense of the Attic countryside. Chapter Six includes Oliver's investigation of command with analyses of the hoplite general and the generals for the countryside and how by the second half of the third century, the former was based in Athens while the later were based in Eleusis and Rhamnous. In Chapter Seven, Oliver concentrates on Athens' manpower, a resource critical to the defense of the countryside. Athens directed its manpower, not towards a fleet as in earlier periods of its history, but shifted it now to the cavalry, the ephebic corps, as well as service in garrisons. Other developments in the early Hellenistic period included the introduction of the epilektoi. Mercenaries, too, formed a formidable component of the defense of the Attic countryside and its agricultural resources, although reliance upon them was not nearly as much as that placed upon citizens. Oliver argues that the Athenians utilized these mercenary forces primarily in the Attic garrisons. Among these were the paroikoi who served in Rhamnous.

Part Three "Polis Economies: Finance, Food, and Friends" examines Athens' economy from internal sources and from those abroad. Chapter Eight "Saving the Polis: Civic Finances" is an examination of those methods by which the Athenians funded their defense efforts. From the perspective of internal revenues, Oliver acknowledges the continued significance of the agonothetes' contributions, but the bulk of his examination is on the epidosis, particularly that of 248/7 B.C., which he discusses in detail (pp. 200-204) and in Appendices 5 and 6. This particular epidosis (Agora xvi.213) preserves a thorough record of monies raised for the collection of the Attic harvest. Other honorific decrees for individuals who made contributions to epidoseis also point to the new reliance the Athenians placed on this form of revenue collection. The epidosis, Oliver claims, was a far more effective method of raising revenues than the traditionally employed eisphora.

In Chapter Nine, Oliver focuses on those benefactions made by non-Athenians. Here, Oliver asks "how the economies of food from overseas were facilitated and why"? (229). He places emphasis upon the importations of grain to Athens, and generally these are reflected in honorary decrees. Oliver also examines the sitonia, which he argues had domestic and external dimensions, suggesting that "the purchasing of grain could involve the movement of officials abroad. But equally the board's responsibility had an impact on the marketplace and perhaps even on other institutions in Athens... The sitonia was essentially one way in which the polis intervened in the grain trade... sitonai were concerned to provide grain of the highest quality at the best prices" (259).

Overall, Oliver's War, Food, and Politics in Early Hellenistic Athens constitutes an important advancement in our understanding of the Athenian economy and how the Athenians responded to war or times of crisis in the early Hellenistic period. As a specialized study, Oliver's analysis will not only become an indispensable resource for this period of Athenian history, but it also serves as a model by which to examine other Hellenistic poleis, using this "bottom-up" approach.


1.   The most important general survey is C. Habicht Athens from Alexander to Antony (Cambridge, Mass. 1997). Equally important, yet more specialized studies: S. V. Tracy, Attic Letter Cutters of 229 to 86 B.C. (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1990), Athenian Democracy in Transition. Attic Letter Cutters of 340 to 290 B.C. (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1995), and Athens and Macedon. Attic Letter Cutters of 290 to 230 B.C. (Berkeley and Los Angeles 2003); R. Parker. Athenian Religion. A History (Oxford 1996); J. Mikalson. Religion in Hellenistic Athens (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1998); M.J. Osborne and S. Byrne. A Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, vol. II (Oxford 1994); J. Traill, Persons of Ancient Athens (Toronto 1994-); B. Dreyer. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des spätklassischen Athen (322-ca.230 v. Chr.) (Stuttgart 1999); O. Palagia and S. V. Tracy, eds. The Macedonians in Athens, 323-229 B.C. (Oxbow 2003).

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