Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.04.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.04.23

Peter Acton, Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Pp. xviii, 384.  ISBN 9780199335930.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Susan I. Rotroff, Washington University (


Peter Acton’s study of Athenian manufacturing is the product of expertise gained from many years in management consultancy. Management consultants have developed models that represent the forces behind success and failure, models that have been tested by the trajectories of the businesses with which they have worked. Some scholars have been reluctant to believe that those forces also functioned in antiquity, but Acton emphatically disagrees. In a book directed both to economic historians and to scholars who seek to understand the workings of particular industries, he applies a selected set of principles drawn from his business experience to the analysis of ancient manufacturing.

In Chapter 1 Acton introduces the concepts that will guide his analysis: firm size (“industry” – factories of ten workers or more – or “craft”); barriers to entry (how hard it is for newcomers to enter the market); competitive advantage; and potential for differentiation (distinguishing one’s products from those of others to gain such advantage).

How something we could term “industry” emerged between the end of the Bronze Age and the Classical era forms the subject of a second chapter. Using the poetry of Homer as evidence for the Iron Age wealthy and Hesiod for the peasant class, combined with factors governing supply and demand, Acton imagines the movement of production from the home into the market, as most people came to buy from third-party specialist craftsmen rather than manufacture goods with their own free or servile workforce.

The core of the book is devoted to individual industries as they functioned in Classical Athens, one meaty chapter for each: pottery; mining and metalworking (coins, armor, knives); textiles and leatherworking; woodworking (furniture, triremes); construction (public buildings, monumental sculpture); and food, drink, and items for personal care. Each follows the same pattern: a sketch of the craft/industry drawn from texts, the products themselves, and extant workplaces; reconstruction of the practical and economic realities of these enterprises, often with input from modern craftsmen; and, finally, a summary of the structure of production, assessed according to barriers to entry, potential for differentiation, and workshop size (craft vs. industry). These summaries provide new ways of looking at the manufacturing landscape, and they will certainly repay further study by those interested in the particular production in question.

The project runs into difficulties, however, with its treatment of the textual and archaeological evidence. One could not expect Acton to be expert in all areas of ancient production, so it is understandable that these accounts are superficial, even amateurish. It is harder, however, to forgive the inaccuracies, misunderstandings, errors, and reliance on outdated or inappropriate sources that they contain. To give a sense of the unevenness of the study, I provide detailed comments on the chapter on pottery.

Acton adduces texts, pots, potteries and kilns, stamps and graffiti, and vase paintings as his primary evidence. He takes his picture of the market in figured ware largely from T. B. L. Webster’s Potter and Patron in Classical Athens (1972), with its hypothesis of made-to-order vases and a vigorous second-hand market, a model that has not found widespread acceptance. The remark that the finest figured pottery “was targeted at wealthy purchasers” (102) ignores recent questioning of the status of that pottery and of its place in the city’s economy.1 The discussion of stamps and graffiti reveals confusion between the two, with claims that stamps “designated the purchaser or the consignee” and were “made by or for traders visiting potteries to place orders” (81). In a particularly impressive series of misstatements, a Protocorinthian cup is described as a “simply decorated mixing bowl” (76-77), labeled “Utility Bowl” in the figure, and identified as an “Archaic Greek pyxis” in the picture credits (353). Some slips are confusing: “typical diameters of pottery kilns were 1.1 to 1.5 square meters” (80), others merely amusing: an “Attic lid [sic] cup from mid-sixth-century BCE Germany” (a lip cup in 21st-century Karlsruhe), with the wheel-turner, a nude youth, described as “elderly… though still priapic” (he’s not) (82).

Reviewing earlier attempts to estimate the size of the industry, Acton finds some of R. M. Cook’s calculations puzzling, having mistaken the observation that three extant vases can be attributed to each year of a painter’s career for a claim that it took four months to make a vase (84). Introducing production procedures, he cites an account of “the process for manufacturing pottery in ancient Athens” with “29 steps of which the last is attaching the handle” (87). His source does detail 29 steps, but in a 19th-century factory, with handle attachment somewhere about the middle of the process. In reconstructing a shop’s workload, Acton gives little attention to the acquisition of raw materials, to loading the kiln, constructing its vault, breaking it open and unloading it, and to marketing and distribution, though these tasks must have had an impact on staffing and the time available for the actual forming of pots.

Acton’s approach to workshop size is innovative. He estimates how many undecorated pots of various sizes could be accommodated in a single firing of an average kiln, then calculates how long it would take to pot them. The ideally efficient workshop would aim to form a full kiln-load in a single day, thus maximizing the time during which the kiln was producing a salable product. Acton finds that a workforce of five would be sufficient for this task; if more than one potter was engaged, the number could rise to a dozen, but not more. The claim is not that ancient potteries performed at this level of efficiency, only that it would take no more than five individuals to do so. Still, working a six-day week (with a slave workforce with no time off for festivals and civic duties) for the nine months when potting was feasible, this optimally efficient workshop would have had to sell 8-10 drachmas worth of pottery per work day to break even – quite a challenge, considering the low price of pottery; if Acton is right, the maker of ordinary wares operated at the edge of profitability.

Acton next discusses barriers to entry (virtually none, since “anyone could start a pottery at home alone or with a slave or two” [99] – he may underrate the expertise required), supply and demand, and the possibility of gaining competitive advantage. He speculates that a potter could have done the latter by making fine ware, “niche products” (tiles, lamps, figurines), or coarse transport amphoras. The latter can be ruled out, since no such containers of Attic manufacture exist in the Classical period. Summarizing, he divides the manufacture of pottery into three segments: a differentiated craft for complex shapes and figured ware; a differentiated industry for contracted containers, tiles, lamps, and figurines; and an undifferentiated craft with the “citizen craftsman” producing ordinary functional pottery.

Subsequent chapters follow the same outline, with a similar array of errors and misunderstandings. A selection: two tunics require 40 m2 of cloth (155); “by the early sixth century, the exteriors of Athenian temples were covered with korai” (217); the Vix krater was made in Attica (218); fox, badger, cat, and locust were “game delicacies” (232). Why did no knowledgeable referee save Acton from such errors?

Acton might argue that his accounts are intended simply to provide an overview of the craft/industry in question – it’s the big picture, not the details, that matters. Perhaps so; the errors have little impact on his conclusions, which are based largely on economic models. Nevertheless, one expects a higher standard of accuracy from Oxford University Press, and the cumulative effect of the lapses is to erode one’s confidence in the work as a whole. It’s a pity, since Acton’s analyses are clear-sighted and bring a truly novel approach to the study of ancient manufacturing.

In a final chapter, Acton lays out the whole of Athenian production, classified according to industry or craft and the differentiation of its products, and assigns likely roles (owner, manager, or labor) to various population groups. His treatment of the investor is fullest, with discussions of the return such men might have enjoyed. The distaste of free persons for working for others suggests that most ordinary citizens set themselves up as independent craftsmen. Acton represents women as sequestered, but assigns them an important role in directing household production, and believes that wealthy women would have participated significantly in investment decisions. Most labor was performed by slaves, whom Acton believes were very numerous (outnumbering citizens 3 or even 5 to 1 by the end of the Classical period). He says little about the impact of the family in business and discounts the contribution of non-adults; but documented father-son craftsman sequences suggest that sons routinely were apprenticed to their fathers. Acton’s scenario would favor them leaving to set up another business once they were fully trained, but it seems equally likely that they would have worked together with father and siblings and then trained their own offspring. Perhaps Acton feels this pattern had no significant effect on the economics of manufacturing.

In an appendix (“Quantifying Manufacturing Participation”), Acton plots hypothetical supply against hypothetical demand, using a somewhat idiosyncratic set of population figures to quantify the relative representation of gender and class. He finds that close to half the men and a quarter of the women resident in Attica may have devoted full-time effort to manufacturing, and an additional 29% of the men and over half of the women worked at it part-time. Acton makes no claims for the accuracy of these figures, but they argue for the significance of industry and challenge the notion that Athens’ economy was primarily an agricultural one. A brief exercise estimating the probable need for a few representative products, and what it would have taken to meet it, makes the point that Athens’ population made considerable demands on the manufacturing sector.

Oxford University Press must be held responsible for many of the volume’s shortcomings, including the defective and idiosyncratic bibliography and references.2 The sparse illustrations generally have little to do with the text, captions are unhelpful, and the objects pictured are rarely identified in a way that would allow one to identify scholarship on the piece.

Perhaps we are dealing here simply with a clash of cultures; Classicists expect a high degree of accuracy, while economists seem comfortable with hypothesizing figures and seeing where the exercise leads. I accept the premise that modern analytical techniques can be applied to ancient manufacturing. Even if one may be skeptical of Acton’s reconstructions of ancient business realities, they encourage the reader to reconsider and perhaps revise preconceptions about those realities. And this, at heart, is Acton’s purpose. He makes no claim that his solutions are the correct ones, and expresses an eagerness for experts in various sectors to improve upon his initial efforts. Pruning the gratuitous nods to literature and archaeology and concentrating on the models and such quantifiable data as exist would have resulted in a less problematic study, but we may hope that the foundation he has created is secure enough that others can build upon it.


1.   E.g., M. Vickers and D. Gill, Artful Crafts: Ancient Greek Silverware and Pottery, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1994, 77-104.
2.   The formatting of the bibliography is odd, with article titles italicized and journal titles in Roman. One can get used to this, but not to the many incorrect titles and erroneous or missing page numbers. Footnotes often lead to a dead end, page references are frequently omitted — e.g., de Ste. Croix (1981) for a number quoted somewhere in The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World — and some of the sources cited are not authoritative (e.g., Agora Picture Books crop up regularly). Second authors of co-authored works are so regularly absent in footnotes that I began to wonder if Oxford was establishing an unfortunate new convention.

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