Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.42

Hans van Wees, Ships and Silver, Taxes and Tribute: A Fiscal History of Archaic Athens.   London; New York:  I. B. Tauris, 2013.  Pp. x, 213.  ISBN 9781780766867.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Andrew Monson, New York University (


Amidst rising deficits and fiscal crises in Western democracies of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the “new fiscal history” has brought a sociological perspective to transformations in systems of state finance. The present book pays tribute to this scholarship, promising a fiscal history of archaic Athens. While it contains observations that will interest any fiscal historian, its central concerns are narrower and more conventional. Van Wees challenges a long-standing consensus that Themistocles’ decision to build trireme warships with the windfall from the silver mines in 483 BCE transformed Athens into a naval power and sparked the development of its fiscal institutions. To make his case, he tries to show that Athens had already been using tax revenue to build triremes in the period c. 525-500 BCE and that naval expenses had been crucial for the development of Athenian public finance since the time of Solon.

The introductory Chapter 1 challenges assumptions about the Athenian state. Van Wees foregrounds the importance of archaic developments by pointing to Athens’ high tax-level in the classical period. A reported 18,650 talents of total spending over twelve years (336-324 BCE) or 160 grams of silver per head, even converted into days of unskilled labor, is comparable to the Dutch Republic’s revenue in the eighteenth century.1 Van Wees uses the figure to emphasize the modernity of Athens’ public finance, which he also ascribes to the progressivity of its property taxes. For him, the naval program of Themistocles in 483 BCE increased the scale but not the structure of spending on the navy (5). Parsing Weber’s definition of a “state”, he maintains that archaic Athens already counts as one because of the institutionalization of government functions, including public finance. Moreover, he argues that the archaic Athenian economy was advanced and differentiated enough to sustain a system of public finance. A few examples from the classical period are deemed sufficient for him to reveal the flaws of the substantivist view. In this section he also introduces the “new fiscal history”, sketching Bonney and Ormrod’s four stages: conquest states, domain states, tax states, and fiscal states (13-15).

Chapter 2 surveys the evidence for taxation in the archaic Greek world outside of Athens, starting with the Homeric epics. Alcinous has the Phaeacians build a ship for Odysseus and promises a public feast and rations for the sailors, offering to reimburse the other lords for gifts to him through a levy on the demos. Besides such feasts most soldiers and sailors in the epics were compensated with a share of the spoils. Van Wees compares a ruler’s estate (temenos) with a medieval European king’s, drawing a parallel to Bonney and Ormrod’s “domain state”, with the qualification that it was awarded like other special grants of private estates by the demos, so it entailed obligations to the community (22). Turning to the epigraphic and literary sources, Van Wees emphasizes the disjuncture with the Homeric world of hospitality and spoils, as cities kept accounts and paid out wages for public service and especially soldiers out of tax revenue (27-28). He leans heavily here on evidence from c. 525-500 BCE and even the early fifth century (29) due mainly to the lack of earlier evidence. Yet Van Wees's own argument calls into question the periodization itself, so one must be cautious of regarding them as typical archaic institutions. In a key section of the book, he proposes: “The most important external influence on the development of Greek public finance [...] was the naval expansion of the Persian empire from 530 BC onwards, which forced Greek cities to adopt a new much more costly type of warship, namely, the trireme, which in turn required drastic restructuring and extension of naval organization and public funding” (30). Van Wees's assertions imply the virtually instantaneous spread of triremes to other poleis in the 520s and are bound to meet with skepticism since funding for the earliest fleets was apparently only feasible with subsidies from the Persian king (cf. 147-48). Nevertheless, he argues persuasively that the new threat must have created competitive pressure for wide-ranging political, fiscal, and military reforms to facilitate the trireme’s adoption.

Chapter 3 discusses the officials involved in public finance in archaic Athens. Among them were the treasurers (tamiai) of the temple of Athena, who managed sacred revenue, and the so-called “ham-collectors” (kolakretai), referring to their original function apportioning shares at public feasts, who perhaps by the time Solon also collected city revenue and paid out money, for example, to travelling envoys. The “sellers” (poletai) disposed of assets that accrued to the state and certain mining or tax rights, at least by the end of the archaic period. Van Wees devotes most of this chapter (44-61) to the “captains” (naukraroi) and their administrative districts (naukrariai) drawing on the Aristotelian Ath. Pol. as well as fragmentary Attic historians and later works. Cleidemus, for example, compares naukrariai to fourth-century BCE symmoriai, which played some role in taxation and manning ships, while a second century CE lexicon claims that the “captains” voted on taxation issues and each had to provide two horses and one ship. According to Van Wees's interpretation, the captains were among the wealthiest citizens who furnished their own penteconter and levied taxes within their naukraria. He likens this “relatively complex system” (56) to Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian ship-levies in medieval Europe. His explanation for a naval-based fiscal system is the frequency of sea raids and overseas wars “long before Themistocles” but his evidence again derives mostly from the late sixth century. An exception is Solon’s war with Megara over Salamis (57-60) but he overstates his case in claiming that by 483 Athens had a history of “more than a century of overseas conquest” (60). Cleisthenes’ fiscal reforms, especially of the naukraria-system, underscore the inadequacy of Athens’ archaic fiscal institutions for trireme warfare (43-44, 60-61).

Chapter 4 turns to expenditure. Van Wees disputes Herodotus’ claim that Athens built no triremes prior to 483 BCE, which modern scholars largely accept. His principal argument is “the general probability that Athens would not have lagged far behind the rest of the Greek world” (65). His reasoning runs, for example, thus: Aegina had triremes by 520 BCE because it defeated Samos at sea (34, 65), which we know had Persian-financed triremes (147-48), therefore Athens had them because it defeated Aegina at sea (65). He links the 50 “ships” that Athens had by c. 500 BCE according to Herodotus 6.89 to Cleisthenes’ reform reported by Cleidemus creating fifty naukrariai, which he assumes were henceforth used to finance public triremes until the city council took over that function in 481/0 or 477/6 BCE (68, cf. 46-48). The reconstruction is plausible but contains a great deal of speculation. Likewise, his discussion of soldiers’ and rowers’ pay (69-75) relies mainly on “considerations of general probability” (74). The chapter ends with a discussion of the state’s religious expenses in archaic Athens (75-81).

Chapter 5 is dedicated to state revenue. Direct taxes on the annual yield of land are attested during the Peisistratid tyranny. Van Wees assumes that they were a continuation of the earlier levies (eisphorai) collected by the captains (naukraroi) according to Ath. Pol. 8.3. He argues that the classification of citizens by annual income was a genuine feature of Solon’s Athens and was probably used to assess these eisphora-levies (84-91). Cleisthenes transferred responsibility for them from the captains to the demarchs of his reorganized administration. In this context, van Wees offers an attractive new interpretation of Pollux, who ascribes a tax-liability to the Solonic income classes, namely, six, three, and one thousand drachmas for the highest three classes respectively and nothing for the lowest class. Assuming that the metics’ “one-sixth” tax was their share of the eisphora, the total of two talents would serve as a template for the proportional repartition of any even-numbered sum of talents levied, including the 200-talent eisphora of 428/7 BCE. The system must date to the period between Cleisthenes’ reforms and those of 378/7 BCE, when the eisphorai became based on property values (91-97). Van Wees also discusses in this chapter (97-100) some fiscal reforms of the tyrant Hippias recorded in the Aristotelian Oikonomika, including the trierarchy liturgy, which of course seems to support his early dating for Athenian trireme construction, as well as other sources of state revenue in this period such as the more intensive use of state mines (101-4). He explains the infrequency of eisphora-levies in the fifth century as a consequence of tribute financing the fleet (104-6).

Chapter 6 begins with an overview of Greek weights and measures as well as the earliest coinage before drawing a few conclusions about their implications for taxation. The reforms are garbled in the historical tradition but van Wees argues that Solon, perhaps imitating Pheidon of Argos, was responsible for replacing Draco’s “oxen-worth” values with units of weighted silver for public fines, which would have been suitable even for agricultural taxes in kind using a conversion rate of silver to grain or sheep (121-23). Coinage was introduced in Athens in precisely the period when van Wees sees major fiscal restructuring, c. 525-500 and Hippias is explicitly associated in the literary tradition with striking a new coin design. The minting of coins would help meet the new demand of paying trireme rowers but could of course have been used for penteconter rowers or other state payments, as in some other Greek cities which started minting coins before they built triremes (130-31). The concluding Chapter 7 sums up Van Wees's arguments.

It is a small book, 148 pages (not including notes) generously spaced on narrow pages, whose short well-written chapters make for pleasant reading. Contrary to Millett’s advertising on the dust jacket, the new fiscal history plays only a trivial role, as van Wees does not even employ the models that he briefly describes in the introduction (13-15). That may be just as well for many historians, who will find plenty of stimulation already in his assault on the conventional wisdom about archaic Athens. Yet there is an inherent tension between two strands of argument that his presentation does not fully reconcile. Athens’ already had a “relatively complex system” (56) for financing naval warfare in the time of Solon that developed, according to him, in “a linear process, which continued throughout the archaic age, regardless of whether the regime was republican or monarchical, oligarchic or more democratic” (135).2 Such linearity clashes with Van Wees's provocative argument that Athenian public finance was transformed due to the introduction of the trireme one generation earlier than previously thought, especially through the reforms of the naukrariai and eisphorai by Cleisthenes. Before that time there is little resemblance to the highly advanced fiscal system of classical Athens with which he foregrounds his study, though van Wees does find several linkages between the old and the new by examining the archaic period as a whole. He deserves to be congratulated for a highly original and thought-provoking study.


1.   K. K. Karaman and S. Pamuk, “Different Paths to the Modern State in Europe: the Interaction between Warfare, Economic Structure, and Political Regime,” American Political Science Review 107 (2013) 603-26, 605-6; Van Wees's estimate corresponds to 25 days of unskilled labor per head annually, cf. W. Scheidel, “Real Wages in Early Economies: Evidence for Living Standards from 1800 BCE to 1300 CE,” JESHO 53 (2010) 425-62, 441.
2.   Linear models, including Bonney and Ormrod’s four stages in European fiscal history, which imply the natural growth of public finances have been criticized recently, e.g. B. Yun-Casalilla, “Introduction: the rise of the fiscal state in Eurasia from a global, comparative and transnational perspective,” in B. Yun-Casalilla and P. K. O’Brien, The Rise of Fiscal States: A Global History, 1500-1914 (Cambridge 2012) 1-35.

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