BMCR 2004.07.22

Maritime Traders in the Ancient Greek World

, Maritime traders in the ancient Greek world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 1 online resource (xi, 162 pages) : maps. ISBN 0511065280 $60.00.

C. M. Reed’s Maritime Traders in the Ancient Greek World is an exploration of “the place, in the states they came from but mainly in the poleis they traded with, of those who engaged in inter-regional exchange of goods with the poleis of classical and archaic Greece” (p. 3). Maritime Traders is a short book1 that presents three basic arguments, namely that maritime traders bringing goods to Athens were mostly poor and non-Athenian, that Athens and other Greek poleis did not engage in economic imperialism but did take limited measures to attract traders, and that the low status of maritime traders was to a large extent offset by their vital importance to poleis such as Athens. Reed’s [henceforth R.] book follows directly from Johannes Hasebroek’s seminal work on the same subject from the early part of the twentieth century, and his conclusions are very similar to those of Hasebroek.2 The primary contributions of Maritime Traders are threefold: it offers (1) a view of maritime traders that is somewhat more nuanced than that found in Hasebroek’s often polemical work, (2) a useful summary of the relevant evidence, and (3) a catalog of prosopographical information on seventy-one attested shipowners and maritime traders from Classical Greece. As R. does little to contextualize his study of maritime traders in past and current debates on the structure of the ancient Greek economy or to show how maritime traders might fit into a synthetic view of the ancient Greek economy, this is a work that will be of interest primarily to specialists already familiar with the scholarly literature on the ancient Greek economy.

The text is divided into an introduction, seven short chapters, a conclusion, and four appendices. The introduction begins by noting the paucity of evidence for maritime traders and that the limited evidence at our disposal comes primarily from fourth-century BCE Athens. R. warns that “one must be careful not to generalize from Athens to elsewhere” (p. 2). (R. valiantly tries to observe this methodological dictum throughout the book, but almost inevitably bends it with some regularity in an effort to treat not just Athens but the ancient Greek world as a whole.) He then suggests that ideal types are problematic in suggesting non-existent uniformities and differences and that vulgar empiricism is unworkable. Instead he proposes to “employ adequate concepts at a level of generality somewhat lower than the ideal type variety” (p. 3), though precisely what this means in practice is not adequately clarified.

In Chapter One R. argues that there were two distinct groups involved in inter-regional trade in the Classical period. One group consisted of specialists who earned most of their income from either owning a merchant ship ( nauklêroi) or directly from trading ( emporoi). The other was made up of people who occasionally engaged in trade but did not depend on this activity to earn their living. R. then builds on the work of Hasebroek and Finley3 on nauklêroi and emporoi to suggest that the former term designated men who owned sea-going commercial ships and that the latter were men who “relied on interstate trade for much or probably most of their livelihood, normally trading in goods, carried by them in someone else’s ship, that were owned but not produced by them” (p. 12).

Chapter Two is a study of the principal items carried by maritime traders. R. concludes that these were grain, timber, slaves, and provisions for military expeditions and that the sheer quantity of the items that needed to be imported by Athens and other Greek poleis created work for significant (but unquantifiable) numbers of professional maritime traders. Chapter Three summarizes the evidence for the juridical status of maritime traders in fourth-century Athens. The evidence assembled by R. shows a clear preponderance of non-Athenians, though the lack of information about earlier periods or other places makes it difficult to generalize temporally or spatially.

The level of wealth of maritime traders is the subject of Chapter Four. As nauklêroi by definition were moderately wealthy (ships were not inexpensive), R. looks at how many ship-owners were more than moderately wealthy and finds relatively few men who fit this description. R. uses his catalog of emporoi and some literary sources to argue that the use of maritime loans beginning sometime around the mid-fifth century opened trading to poor men, who came to dominate this occupation by the fourth century. The examination of official attitudes towards maritime traders in Chapter Five is based almost solely on emporoi who imported grain to Athens, as this is the only group for which sufficient evidence exists. R. finds that the Athenian government took a number of steps, which in toto fell well short of economic imperialism, to assist and control traders who brought crucial commodities into the Piraeus.

In Chapter Six R. considers unofficial attitudes to maritime traders. R. argues that Hasebroek was right to emphasize the low status of maritime traders, but that he did not take into account the fact that the vital importance of the activities of maritime traders “replaced considerations of social status in the minds of individual Athenians… ” (p. 61). Maritime traders were thus accorded a certain amount of consideration, though only insofar as they fulfilled functions critical to the well-being of the polis. This is the place where R. departs most significantly from Hasebroek, suggesting a more nuanced and plausible reading of the relevant evidence.

Chapter Seven is the only section of Maritime Traders to focus on the Archaic (as opposed to the Classical) period. R. sees three key phases. The first stretched from c. 800 to c. 625 BCE, during which time aristoi and their agents played a more important role in inter-regional exchange than full-time, independent traders. The number of full-time, independent traders gradually increased after the late seventh century so that by 475 the poor men of low status who engaged in maritime trade on a full-time basis were responsible for the majority of inter-regional exchanges. A major change occurred sometime around 475 when the beginning of bottomry loans and Athenian need for bulk grain imports helped create a situation in which aristoi no longer involved themselves in maritime trade.

R. begins his conclusion by asserting that, “The conclusion should ask, ‘If true, what of it? What is the significance of one’s findings?'” (p. 75). One cannot but agree with this idea, but R. then adopts an unorthodox approach by devoting his attention to the question of why traders and their modern counterparts enjoy a much higher status in the modern world than they did in ancient Greece. He points to a series of “shifts” — in ideology, constitutions, economics, politics, and enterprise scale — and argues that “the rise of big business in the late nineteenth century marks the point at which the world began to change on a scale comparable to that due to the agricultural revolution” (p. 81). One might have preferred that R. exert himself to show how his findings helped illuminate some important facets of the ancient Greek economy.

Four appendices occupy fifty pages. These appendices list the attested states of origin of emporoi and nauklêroi, provide a range of information about seventy-one possible emporoi and nauklêroi, and treat cohesion among maritime traders and dikai emporikai.

In assessing the argumentation found in Maritime Traders, it is important to note that this book is a refashioning of the dissertation that R. completed under the tutelage of the late G. E. M. de Ste. Croix in 1980.4 This bit of historiography is significant because it helps explain two aspects of R.’s work that make it less valuable than it might otherwise have been. First, R. formed his ideas about maritime traders in the 1970s, at which time he had both the prescience and ill-fortune to adopt a position that was somewhat controversial but soon thereafter, owing to the work of M. I. Finley, became so standard that his ideas now look commonplace. Finley stimulated a great deal of scholarly discussion of the ancient economy through the publication (in 1973) of his landmark book The Ancient Economy in which he revived and extended Hasebroek’s and Weber’s ideas about the ancient economy. When R. wrote his dissertation on Hasebroek, he involved himself in what was then an active debate and ultimately came to conclusions that fit well with those of Finley. As it turned out, Finley’s view of the ancient economy came to dominate the field to such an extent that Keith Hopkins writing in 1983 characterized it as the “new orthodoxy.”5 Most classicists regardless of their specialty are now sufficiently familiar with Finley’s ideas that R.’s work, although timely when originally written, now has little new to offer.

Second, in the past decade the scholarly landscape in which R.’s ideas about maritime traders were once comfortably situated has evolved noticeably, but R. has not reoriented his work to take this into account. Perhaps the most significant recent trend in the study of the ancient Greek economy is the gradual erosion of the “Finley orthodoxy.” There is a growing body of evidence that economies were more complex and specialized and the volume of inter-regional trade significantly larger than Finley allowed and that the value system of elites was flexible enough to permit considerable involvement in profit-driven enterprises such as trade.6 Despite the current skepticism about Finley’s (and hence by extension Hasebroek’s) ideas, R. seems content with cursory treatments of the evidence where his own conclusions overlap with those of Hasebroek. R.’s discussion of the juridicial status of maritime traders is less than six pages long, while his presentation of the evidence for the level of wealth of traders in the fourth-century — one of the key points in the book — occupies less than two pages. The re-awakening of critical debate about Hasebroek’s and Finley’s ideas has created a situation in which a vigorous defense of those ideas might well be in order, but such a defense would need to respond thoroughly and effectively to recent scholarship that runs counter to the view of the ancient Greek economy that is shared by Hasebroek, Finley, and R. Unfortunately, R. skims lightly over what are now hotly contested topics, and even though he acknowledges more recent scholarly literature on the ancient Greek economy, he generally fails to respond effectively to it.

One of the most immediately apparent disjunctions between R.’s work and current scholarship has to do with methodology. Much of R.’s analysis is based on a catalog of prosopographical evidence culled from fourth-century Attic orators. Proponents of cultural poetics have pointed out that the performative and representational elements of Athenian forensic oratory make the process of moving from speech to reality quite challenging.7 R. writes that he “can recall a time when practitioners of ancient Greco-Roman history never realized that their historical ‘cameras’ even contained a ‘lens,’ so that ‘the evidence spoke for itself'” and calls this “antediluvian” (p. 3), but he offers no comment on how he responded to the difficulties presented by his sources other than the vague statement about ideal types quoted above.

Another illustrative instance of R.’s failure to engage with recent scholarship can be found in maritime loans. Paul Millett showed in 1983 that maritime loans were made upon half the value of the cargo with the remainder of the necessary funds supplied by the trader himself.8 In 1992 Edward Cohen argued persuasively that maritime loans were frequently “syndicated” by Athenian bankers, in the sense that bankers would combine money from several different investors to build a pool of funds. Cohen also pointed out that the sums involved also appear to have been quite large, with the smallest attested amount being 1,000 drachmai, the highest 4,500, and the median 3,000.9 One might well be inclined, therefore, to think that at least some emporoi were wealthy individuals who engaged in large and sophisticated financial transactions with professional lenders. This does not mesh well with R.’s insistence that emporoi were mainly poor, low-status individuals, but R. dismisses the question of what maritime loans might have to say about emporoi by taking the position that maritime loans were as much insurance as loan and “thus reveal nothing about maritime traders’ relative level of wealth” (p. 35).

Even in those areas where the scholarly consensus has been more stable, such as the juridicial status of traders, one would have liked to see R. engage recent scholarship in a more energetic fashion. There is little debate that many or perhaps most of the traders active in the Piraeus were not Athenian citizens, but the significance of this information needs to be evaluated carefully. Edward Cohen, whose works overlaps most closely with R.’s, has recently argued that the divide — both legal and social — between metic and citizen in Athens was much less sharply defined than it might seem.10 In addition, R. himself (p. 30, n. 22) cites evidence to show that traders whose business brought them to Athens in at least some cases actively sought to avoid the necessity of becoming metics and fulfilling the attendant financial and civic duties. The burdens of Athenian citizenship under the democracy were in many ways more onerous than those of being a metic, and it seems likely that men whose interests lay in commerce rather than politics saw citizenship as an encumbrance they were happy to avoid rather than a privilege they were unhappily denied. Unfortunately R. has nothing to say on how these nuances might affect his views on the official and unofficial status of traders, which is rather surprising since R. believes that traders were less socially disadvantaged than Hasebroek had made them out to be.

There are also grounds for expressing some concerns about R.’s use of the relevant evidence. The small sample size of any collection of evidence about traders and shipowners and the typically incomplete nature of the information about individuals and their economic activities currently available to us combine to make any quantitative analysis suspect at best. R. acknowledges this problem (p. 5), yet repeatedly resorts to quantitative analysis to support his argumentation. Perhaps more importantly, the fashion in which he interprets the significance of the prosopographical information in his catalog of traders can be alarmingly rough and ready. In assessing the wealth of traders, he notes that “the commercial activity of forty-five men listed as emporoi or emporoi-nauklêroi in the Catalogue probably fell in the fourth century. Sixteen are not poor, but seven of the sixteen rank as only possible rather than definite or probable emporoi or emporoi-nauklêroi. These tabulations are meant to lay out the known particulars and cannot pretend to be conclusive…” (p. 36). Even this cautious statement exaggerates what the evidence can tell us, since the reader would have to turn to the catalog to discover that there is no information whatsoever for the relative level of wealth of any of the other emporoi and emporoi-nauklê-roi in his catalog. R. appears to be working from the assumption that any evidence that does not flatly contradict his arguments necessarily supports those arguments, which is dubious procedure at best. As it turns out, every trader about whose financial status we possess information was wealthy. One might wish to attribute this to source bias, but it is hard to see how this evidence could be used to support the argument that most traders were poor, though this is precisely what R. does.

Despite this litany of criticisms, specialists in the ancient Greek economy will find Maritime Traders to be a useful addition to the scholarly literature. R.’s catalog of shipowners and maritime traders is a convenient reference tool, and his discussion of the idea that the vital importance of maritime traders to poleis such as Athens affected the way these men were treated on an everyday basis is novel and interesting. In addition, R. makes a number of small but insightful points at various places in the text, such as his comments on prekteres on pp. 64ff. The text itself is impeccably produced, with but a handful of small punctuation and printing errors. The increasing financial pressures under which scholarly presses operate and the difficulty of finding journals willing to publish long collections of evidence such as that found in the appendices of Maritime Traders mean that potentially valuable catalogs compiled in dissertations are all too frequently virtually inaccessible. It is refreshing to see that Cambridge was willing to print R.’s catalog, but the prospect of paying $60 for a short monograph may be off-putting to many. One hopes that in the near future the potentialities of electronic publication will be exploited to make more work of this sort easily and inexpensively accessible.


1. The text is 81 pages long without appendices and bibliography.

2. Staat und Handel im alten Griechenland (Tübingen 1928) and Griechische Wirtschafts- Und Gesellschaftsgeschichte bis zur Perserzeit (Tübingen 1931).

3. “Emporos, Naucleros, and Kapelos: A Prolegomena to the Study of Athenian Trade” ( CP 30 (1935): 320-36).

4. “Maritime Traders in the Greek World of the Archaic and Classical Periods” (D.Phil. Oxford University, 1980).

5. In the introduction to Trade in the Ancient Economy (London 1983).

6. See, for example, Alain Bresson, La cité marchande (Bordeaux, 2000); Thomas Figueira, Athens and Aigina in the Age of Imperial Colonization (Baltimore, 1991); D. J. Mattingly and John Salmon (eds.), Economies Beyond Agriculture in the Classical World (London 2001); and Peter Temin, “A Market Economy in the Roman Empire” ( JRS 91 (2001): 169-81).

7. For a good overview of the scholarship on this problem, see Ian Morris’ “The Athenian Economy Twenty Years After The Ancient Economy” (CP 89 (1994): 351-66).

8. “Maritime Loans and the Structure of Credit in Fourth-Century Athens” (in Trade in the Ancient Economy, pp. 36-52, 186-89 at p. 44).

9. Athenian Economy and Society (Princeton 1992), pp. 121-89.

10. The Athenian Nation (Princeton 2000).