Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.12.11

Errietta M. A. Bissa, Governmental Intervention in Foreign Trade in Archaic and Classical Greece. Mnemosyne Supplements. History and Archaeology of Classical Antiquity, 312.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2009.  Pp. xiv, 266.  ISBN 9789004175044.  $136.00.  

Reviewed by Denise Demetriou, Michigan State University (


This book is a welcome addition to the many recent studies on the ancient Greek economy. Bissa offers a corrective to the lack of treatment of the behavior of the state in foreign trade. Although her title suggests a more general investigation, the book considers only the state’s involvement in the exploitation, production, and trade of four specific commodities that Bissa pairs for treatment in two different parts of the book – silver and gold, and timber and grain. Each section begins with a chapter that identifies the exporters of each commodity and discusses their role in the trade of that good, continues with a chapter on Athens’ role in the trade of the commodity, and closes with a shorter chapter on other importers and their state interventions. Concluding remarks at the end of each section offer useful and concise summaries of the main arguments.

As Bissa makes clear in her introduction, she is in dialogue primarily with the work of Moses Finley and the primitivist/modernist and substantivist/formalist debates. Herein lies my main criticism of her book: it operates only within the parameters set by Finley’s work. New theoretical models and recent work on the ancient economy that avoid these false dichotomies are not incorporated. Bissa’s analysis, therefore, is somewhat limited even when it makes new contributions. I discuss this in more detail below.

Chapter One discusses the export of gold and silver by, among others, Iberia, Thrace, Macedon, Thasos, Lydia, and Athens. This investigation is important because it takes into account not just poleis but also other forms of government. Bissa concludes that monarchical governments, such as Lydia and Macedon, directly exploited their resources, whereas poleis, be they democratic, oligarchic, etc., preferred to lease their natural resources to contractors. All states, therefore, owned their natural resources, but the degree to which a state intervened in the exploitation of those resources depended on what kind of constitution it had.

The second chapter focuses on the Athenian silver industry. Bissa states that Athens regulated minimally the exploitation of the silver mines, yet managed to put in place legislation to protect the mines and the security of the miners that made the leases more attractive and guaranteed state revenues. Bissa’s consideration of archaeological as well as literary and epigraphic sources serves her well in this chapter, allowing her to argue that Athens intervened also in the production of silver. She argues convincingly that Athens owned and leased smelting installations and that this was aimed at controlling the quality of the silver produced, since it was used to mint Athenian coins, which consistently had a high level of purity. Bissa further argues that the state intervened in the production and exploitation of silver, but not its export, because it was guaranteed steady revenues from the exploitation of the mines.

In Chapter Three, Bissa’s analysis of the provenance of coins in hoards discovered in Asia Minor reveals that most electrum minters were Ionian cities, and most of them obtained electrum from Lydia and silver from Athens. She also shows that, with the exception of Athens, states importing silver minted a higher volume of coins than producers. She also argues convincingly, against the accepted tradition, that silver, like gold, was exported as bullion and not as coinage because reminting coins would be more costly: states were generally concerned with keeping foreign coins out of their markets. This latter observation is relevant to government intervention in foreign trade, and one wishes that Bissa had provided a fuller analysis of government control of currency: the Athenian coinage decree, the Phokaian-Mytilenean monetary union, perhaps aimed at creating a monopoly in electrum currency in Asia Minor, and coinages that acquired interregional importance (e.g. Kyzikene staters) are all summarily discussed. Other evidence, too, such as Rhodian coinages, could have been incorporated to provide a more comprehensive view of government intervention in foreign trade.

The fourth chapter discusses governmental intervention, mostly of the Macedonian kingdom, in the trade of timber. Just as in the trade of precious metals, it emerges that monarchies owned, exploited, and controlled directly the export of wood or finished products, although the Macedonians granted individuals both leasing rights for the exploitation of woodlands and export rights. This section also argues that timber for ship-building was rarely transported; instead, ships were constructed in shipyards located in or near areas rich in timber resources and unfinished oars, rather than unprocessed wood, were exported.

The fifth chapter, on Athens and the timber industry, shows that Athens implemented both coercive and peaceful diplomacies with states and individuals in order to protect its supply of timber for building ships. On the one hand, Athens intervened by rewarding traders who imported oars in Athens with proxenia and ateleia. On the other, Athens’s aggressive actions as a hegemon, such as the capture of Eion, the subjugation of Thasos, expeditions in Thessaly, and the foundation and fight over Amphipolis, are explained in terms of Athenian attempts to control areas rich in timber resources. Bissa’s earlier discussion on the distribution of Athenian coinage and her brief mention of the Athenian coinage decree could have been expanded and referred to here. In both instances Athens intervened in order to control resources that were important to maintaining her power. Further, Bresson has argued recently that the history of Athenian imperialism should be understood in the context of a dependence on grain; it would have been interesting to bring these two arguments in dialogue with each other.1 Importers other than Athens receive a summary treatment in the sixth chapter.

In Chapter 7, exporters of grain are shown to own some surpluses and to control the export but not their production of grain, which was typically left in individual hands. Bissa’s analysis of the legislation on the export of grain from Mytilene and the Bosporan kingdom provides evidence proving that governments tried to procure the best markets and prices for their goods.

Chapter eight deals with fourth-century Athens and its need for grain. The author calculates, based on the possible population of Athens, the productivity of the Attic land, and diet variables, that local cereal production was insufficient for feeding the population. Athenian legislation on the grain trade shows that Athens intervened in the grain trade in order to fix profit margins and ensure a supply of grain in the city. They regulated the resale of grain brought to Athens, imposed taxes on grain export, probably in kind, from Athenian cleruchies, prohibited loans made to ships that would not bring grain to Athens, and offered incentives to foreign traders to bring grain to Athens. Bissa makes the interesting observation that the law on loans prohibited not only loans to ships that would not bring grain to Athens, but also loans that would not bring other goods to the city. She makes the case that government intervention extended to the trade of other commodities, but does not discuss this in more detail, except for a brief mention of Thasos’ attempts to control the wine trade in her conclusion.

The final chapter demonstrates that other grain importers, such as Corinth, Megara, Aigina, and Samos, did not produce enough grain to feed their population. Bissa’s analysis of the epigraphic evidence from Teos is particularly important because it shows that Teos followed similar policies as Athens: the state punished Teians who prevented grain from coming into the polis.

In the conclusion, Bissa recapitulates her argument that governments did intervene in foreign trade and that state intervention depended on the kind of polity in question. On one end of the spectrum were eastern kingdoms, which intervened heavily and controlled the ownership, production, and export of goods. Poleis represented the other end of the spectrum: they owned goods, but used a very limited system of exploitation in their production and export, most of which lay in the hands of private individuals. They did, however, intervene in the import of necessary commodities. In between these two extremes lay the Macedonian kingdom, which owned resources but controlled production and export in a limited fashion.

Though valuable, Bissa’s contribution to current debate is somewhat limited because it does not take into account new theoretical models on the political economy or recent works on the ancient economy. Most unfortunate is the oversight of work in the area of neo-institutionalism, especially the two-volume study by Bresson, an approach that is compatible with Bissa’s work because it privileges institutions and institutional change in explaining the economic performance of states.2 It is possible that this omission of Bresson is due to conflicting production schedules, but other works that discuss neo-institutionalism would have been accessible to Bissa,3 as well as several works on governmental intervention in foreign trade that are absent from her bibliography.4 More integration of the sources on Athens and the rest of the Greek poleis would have been welcome, too, especially since it emerges from the book that state interventions in foreign trade were often related to foreign policies and involved more than one state. Networks of interaction on the regional level are visible, but they are discussed in separate chapters and the connections are not always noted.

These complaints notwithstanding, this is a clearly written book that will be useful to students of the ancient economy and in particular to those interested in the relationship between politics and economics. It makes new contributions to an understudied field, and is at its best when contextualizing the ancient economy within the political institutions of ancient states.


1.   Alain Bresson. L’économie de la Grèce des cités (fin VIe-Ier siècle a.C.). II. Les espaces de l’échange. Paris 2008.
2.   Alain Bresson. L’économie de la Grèce des cités (fin VIe-Ier siècle a.C.). 2 vols. Paris 2007-2008. See also D. North, Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, Cambridge 1990, and T. Eggertsson Economic Behavior and Institutions, Cambridge 1990. They both discuss neo-institutionalism.
3.   E.g., Sitta von Reden, “The Ancient Economy and Ptolemaic Egypt,” in Ancient Economies, Modern Methodologies: Archaeology, Comparative History, Models and Institutions, ed. by P. F. Bang, M. Ikeguchi, and H. G. Ziche, Bari 2006: 161-177; Alain Bresson, “Au-delà du primitivisme et du modernisme: Max Weber ou John Nash?” Pallas 74 (2007): 15-28.
4.   E.g., P. Briant, R. Descat, J. Andreau, eds., Les échanges dans l’antiquité: le rôle de l’état, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges 1994; C. Zaccagnini, ed., Mercanti e politica nel mondo antico, Rome 2003.

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