BMCR 2010.03.44

The Economy of the Greek Cities: From the Archaic Period to the Early Roman Empire (translated by Janet Lloyd; original French edition 2002)

, The Economy of the Greek Cities: From the Archaic Period to the Early Roman Empire (translated by Janet Lloyd; original French edition 2002). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. ix, 200. ISBN9780520253667 $19.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

Students and teachers alike owe a great debt of gratitude to Janet Lloyd who has translated so many French academic texts professionally and elegantly into English. So, too, it will be very welcome that this little book, originally published in 2002, has become available for an English-speaking public. It is targeted at students unfamiliar with the subject and, given the scarcity of concise textbooks in the field, will be very useful for teaching and undergraduate research. It is attractively presented with helpful maps and an updated bibliography in view of the new readership. Written, moreover, by a great epigraphist of the Hellenistic period, it offers quite a few more diverse perspectives on the Greek economy than do comparable books.

Migeotte is a self-proclaimed positivist. He does not wish to present a new model of the ancient economy, but the differentiated picture that the sources present themselves (6). Even so, Migeotte by no means avoids wider or conceptual issues. Starting with a section on ‘Constants and Constraints’ (15-28) and discussing here the role of geographical environment, technology, demography and health, he does not suggest that the economy is a self-evolving process as one might expect from a stern positivist. Moreover, his chronological frame and the balance of topics imply a certain model of the ancient economy. The chapter on trade (originally termed more appropriately Les échanges) takes up the largest space, and the economy of the Greek cities is taken down to the second century AD. Both can be explained by Migeotte’s research interests, but it also suggests that exchange was a driving factor in the economy, and that the Hellenistic and Roman periods saw important economic development in the Eastern Mediterranean — views that Moses Finley, for example, might not have endorsed.

In the introductory chapter, Migeotte introduces not only the major sources for the ancient economy, but also methods of their analysis and the implications of their very existence. In the first chapter Migeotte goes over good old favourites, such as the dialectics of town and country, public and private economic spaces, social hierarchies, inequality, and concepts of labour. But he also touches upon less well-trodden ground, such as banditry and seizure of property, which rendered economic activity, especially transport, violent and insecure. Once again, Migeotte’s special expertise comes in when he emphasises the role of temples in the economic life of Greek cities, an often neglected field of enquiry since it can be accessed only through epigraphic study (48 f.).

In chapter 2. Migeotte treats the basics of agriculture, but also gives due credit to the importance of horticulture and vegetable consumption alongside the well-known Mediterranean triad. When turning to land-tenure he begins with private small-holding and autourgia in archaic and classical Greece, but soon turns to forms of tenancy and their increase in importance during the Hellenistic period. Most cities, moreover, attempted to be self-sufficient, but there were other modes of behaviour. Thasos, Lesbos, Chios, Rhodes and several regions on the fringes of Asia Minor, for example, were highly specialised in wine production whose marketing was carefully organised. Migeotte finds in such forms of specialisation a mercantile spirit contradicting the ideology of self-sufficiency which dominates philosophical writing.

Chapter 3 is devoted to business and crafts some of which — mining, quarrying, forestry, and a few more — are singled out for special treatment at the end of the chapter. Migeotte distinguishes private and public branches of craftsmanship and emphasises the vast amount of different occupations. There was not much division of labour within the production process, but extensive social division of labour. At the same time Migeotte points out that many private crafts were attached to the agrarian household (and thus most typically in the hands of slaves and women), while collective citizen bodies, just like households, tried to be self-sufficient in their non-agricultural needs. Technology and technical know-how were advanced. The sophistication of quantification and measurement, or the development of tools and equipment, do not suggest any noticeable technological blockage. Still, technological development was slow and stayed within well-established concepts, plans and canons (95).

Chapter 4 turns to exchange. Migeotte begins with the constraints on trade: the multiplicity of frontiers, the risks of warfare, piracy, banditry, plunder, and low demand resulting from the widespread effort to achieve self-sufficiency. Coined money, however, greatly facilitated trade and increased the amount of credit transactions. Migeotte firmly rejects the view that there was ever a significant shortage of coinage except in unusual circumstances. Hoarding, both by individuals and governments who kept considerable reserves in temple treasuries, did inhibit circulation to some extent, but the volume of minting was in principle sufficient and comparable to those of seventeenth-century Holland or eighteenth-century France. The increasing tendency of cities to use the same weight-standard, the interregional power of Athenian coinage in the fifth century, and finally the coinage of Alexander created a more unified monetary system. By the time of Augustus, monetary unification — arguably — was completed. At the level of trade Migeotte distinguishes between a quantitatively predominant local sector of exchange, which formed part of the quest for autarky, on the one hand, and a smaller sector of regional and long-distance trade, on the other. With Gary Reger he argues that despite greater monetary unification during the Hellenistic period, and despite Greek being the dominant language in the Eastern Mediterranean, trade remained largely regional and prices fluctuated according to local circumstances (136).1 With Robin Osborne he suggests that a certain amount of big business started in Athens from the fifth century onwards and was driven, above all, by the need of the richest citizens to pay for expensive liturgies.2 During the Hellenistic period, wealthy members of the elite occur increasingly frequently among the number of merchants, ship-owners and bankers. Conversely, those who had made their fortunes in commercial business alone did not enter easily into the circle of notables.

In the conclusion Migeotte makes some general remarks about the ancient economy after all. He regards it as misleading to reduce the economy of the Greek cities to a single model, not only because it was marked by great diversity, but also because it evolved gradually over 1000 years. There was clearly some growth over the centuries, but we are lacking the figures to construct a valid model of growth. The whole conceptual repertoire of the Greeks and Romans was so different from ours that even comparison and contrast with modern economies is pointless. In the end, Migeotte suggests that the Greeks experienced a mixed economy: at the base a subsistence sector (including local exchange), and above that, and often quite independent of it, an economy which was oriented towards trade and which he terms quite purposefully a ‘multi-market economy’.

This is a very mature and thought-provoking book introducing an immense range of aspects in very little space. While it is certainly conservative in approach, it demonstrates how much the subject has moved on from the dichotomies associated with the ‘primitivist’ and ‘modernist’ positions in the last century. One might have wished perhaps some discussion of the results gained from the methodological advances made over the last 30 years, such as cross-cultural comparison of peasant behaviour, consumption and agricultural strategies, the use of anthropological models of exchange and market networks, quantification, paleo-ecology, and bone analysis. But this would have rendered the book a very different one. If there is anything to criticize, it is the poor integration of the source material presented at the end of each chapter. This is just an assemblage of passages presented without contextualisation, or explanation in the preceding chapters. If these add-ons are simply ignored, this is a very useful book.


1. G. Reger, Regionalism and Change in the Economy of Independent Delos. Berkeley and Los Angeles 1994.

2. R. Osborne, ‘Pride and prejudice, sense and subsistence: exchange and society in the Greek city’ in Rich, J. and Wallace-Hadrill, A., (eds.), City and Country in the Ancient World. London 1991: 119-145.