BMCR 2022.03.43

Making money in ancient Athens

, Making money in ancient Athens. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2021. Pp. xi, 266. ISBN 9780472132768 $85.00.


Readers interested in the ongoing debate on the ancient Greek economy will welcome Michael Leese’s Making Money in Ancient Athens, which fills a gap in scholarship. This debate has seen a sea change since 2000 both in terms of how most scholars view the level of economic development attained by the ancient Greeks, and the appropriate methodological toolbox with which to approach the topic. Change has been driven by a turn towards the New Institutional Economics (NIE), and an empirical shift, since the Finley School’s preference for drawing sweeping conclusions about economic realities from normative statements by Plato, Aristotle, or Cicero has given way to a mass of epigraphical, numismatic, and archaeological data that tells a different story. Bresson’s The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy is a superb example of this new economic history, and in empirical (though not theoretical) terms marks a resumption of the approach favoured by Rostovtzeff and Heichelheim.[1] But where the protagonist of Bresson’s book is the polis, that of Leese’s book is the individual economic actor. This choice marks an important point of engagement with the main thrust of Finley’s work: that ‘over-riding values’ prevented most ancient individuals from pursuing economically rational or profit-seeking objectives.[2] Leese argues (almost) the opposite, following the tradition of Wesley Thompson, Edward Cohen, Edward M. Harris, and Paul Christesen, yet in a more wide-ranging, comprehensive manner.

Making Money is introduced (pp. 1–16) with an overview of the debate, focusing less on its German origins and more on its American post-Polanyi phase. This sets the scene for five analytical chapters.

Chapter 1 (‘Hunger in their Souls’) treats the concept of chrematistike/chrematismos (moneymaking) in Plato, Xenophon, and (especially) Aristotle, paying close attention to points at which they react against contemporary practices and their generalisations about the prevalence of chrematistic behaviour among the Athenians. Leese makes the important point that agriculture—treated by the Finley School as a gentlemanly domain free from the moneymaking mentality—was in the view of Aristotle and Xenophon pursued in a largely chrematistic manner. Leese then turns to examples of moneymaking and account-keeping in the orators, comedy and elsewhere, assembling a formidable body of evidence in support of his view that Athenians at all levels of society had a good working knowledge about calculating profit and loss. There is room here for more discussion of inscriptions, where more exact evidence of accounting practices can be found; but Leese’s argument is persuasive.

Chapter 2 (‘Making money in the oikos’) examines a set of detailed case studies of wealthy men: Arizelos (Aeschin. 1.97–103); Demosthenes Sr (Dem. 27.9-11); Ciron (Isae. 8); Stratocles (Isae. 11), Euctemon (Isae. 6), and Adeimantos (IG I3 422, 426 & 430). The diversified holdings of these men have traditionally been explained in terms of risk-buffering strategies, but Leese shows convincingly that this cannot account for many of their reported actions, as they often traded up lower-risk assets for higher-risk assets. For example, Arizelos seems to have converted high-visibility assets into cash, which he then lent out for interest, as a strategy of liturgy avoidance. Demosthenes Sr did not invest any of his money in agricultural land but reinvested the profits from his slave-staffed workshops into loans of several sorts, with different levels of risk versus return. Leese shows that diversification can serve profit-seeking goals as well as risk-buffering goals, and notes that many modern business advisors recommend diversification.

Chapter 3 (‘Moneymaking strategies on specialized estates’) considers further case studies, turning to individuals who did not diversify but were prepared to shoulder the risk of putting all their eggs in one basket in return for potentially higher returns. Leese investigates three areas where this apparently occurred: silver-mining, shield-making, and banking. One problem with the first case study is that in going beyond oratory and inscriptions, Leese sees specialization where we may rather be dealing with incomplete sources which fail to report the full range of an individual’s assets—Plu. Nic. 4.2 is cited as evidence that almost all of Nicias’ assets were in mining, but such a claim cannot be treated as seriously as e.g. an itemised list of assets in a contemporary forensic speech. Leese cites (p. 97) Lys. 19.47 as evidence for Nicias’ fortune amounting to 100 talents, but glides over the subsequent sections of this speech which outline how rumours of men’s wealth can prove to be far from reality. He also accepts the slave numbers in Xen. Vect. 4.14–15 without pause; these are plausible, but they have long been questioned.[3] Leese writes (p.108) that the Poletai records (which record many mine leases) ‘may be used only with great caution’, but it is the literary sources about mining, which often report bonanzas and ignore the routine, that warrant greater caution. And where the evidence in this chapter returns to the level of granularity of that analysed in chapter 2 (viz. the sources for Pasion and Phormion), we see diversification strategies at play once again. It is hard therefore to see a fundamental difference of kind between the strategies examined in chapter 2 and those in chapter 3, rather than just differences of degree.

Chapter 4 (‘Profit, Trust and Deception in Ancient Greek Maritime trade’) analyses the world of the emporoi; it is in my opinion the strongest chapter of the book. Leese shows how the much higher risks and potentially enormous profits of maritime trade created an environment where the vulpine thrived. Volatile prices forced traders to build networks of contacts to secure information about where the best prices could be found. Opportunism was rife: canny merchants could depart from their original plans to capitalize on fleeting opportunities, and contracts may have allowed a certain amount of elbowroom for merchants to make such decisions. This high-risk, high-profit business attracted its fair share of chancers, whose tricks (real or plausible) are recounted in picaresque detail in Athenian forensic speeches. Leese shows how the dispersed authority under which these traders operated (numerous cities, separated by the sea) weakened the scope for enforcement of the law in comparison to economic activities conducted within a specific state. He recognises, however, that these states had the capacity for true enforcement, including imprisonment, fines, and execution (contra Terpstra, whose book arguing that ancient states had only arbitration powers avoids fourth-century Greece).[4] Accordingly, lenders risk-buffered by sharing information on the reputation of borrowers as a way of excluding fraudulent merchants from future transactions (which also acted as a deterrent to all but the most feral) and charged high-interest loans.

Chapter 5 (‘Maximisation in the Ancient Greek Economy’) examines the psychology of maximisation and Greek cultural attitudes to where the limits of legitimate acquisition lay. Leese looks primarily at Hesiod’s Works & Days and the works of Plato and Aristotle, turning to Solon and Theognis for examples of the castigation of illegitimate gain. There is much of interest here; but the different themes are explored through Leese’s favoured authors and not systematically. For example, Leese rightly points out (pp. 203–14) that personality plays a large role in determining where one falls between the poles of risk-averse and recklessly acquisitive; but his discussion does not encompass the most obvious text for this line of investigation—Theophrastus’ Characters, which dwells extensively on how personality traits can be observed through patterns of consumption (or non-consumption) of goods and services.

Like any book, this one has its occasional omissions and misunderstandings.[5] As noted above, some of the arguments are developed without systematic investigation of all the available source material, particularly detailed engagement with inscriptions. Leese understandably strays beyond Athens to make generalisations for Greece more broadly (which are, in my opinion, usually warranted); but his ventures into the archaic period, and beyond Attica, often miss salient material, ancient and modern.[6] Even within Attica, some areas remain relatively unexplored, such as the economic strategies of non-elite citizens (there is less evidence, of course, but this makes tackling the subject all the more manageable; Leese’s fine essay on kapeloi could have formed the basis for another chapter on maximising among the poor[7]) or women (again, the evidence is less plentiful, but e.g. Nicarete in [Dem.] 59 is characterised as a businesswoman as ruthless and canny as any man).

Quibbles aside, though, Leese should be congratulated on writing a book of undoubted importance. One of his most admirable traits is a fair-mindedness and willingness to take opposing views seriously—something that has often been lacking in this debate. Leese acknowledges the virtues of the best work of both the Substantivist and Formalist traditions, and although his own approach lies closer to the latter, he never hesitates to cite or quote approvingly the arguments of Hasebroek or Finley when he agrees with them. At points, Leese sides with Polanyi and Bourdieu against the excesses of the Formalists (e.g., pp. 170–6), and he makes the correct point (p. 190) that all economies, both ancient and modern, are embedded—no real economy operates separately from culture. The concluding chapter (pp. 221–31) makes a compelling and refreshing case for hybridism rather than the methodological monogamy that rendered the debate over the ancient economy in the previous century so frustrating. And the book as a whole is written with an admirable clarity and accessibility.

I doubt that Making Money will settle the debate once and for all (as Kroll optimistically claims on the dust jacket), not least because other books on the topic have recently appeared—e.g. Moritz Hinsch’s Ökonomik und Hauswirtschaft im klassischen Griechenland (which, although in many ways compatible with Leese’s book, stems from the sociological and anthropological tradition, and at nearly 600 pages extends the scope well beyond Athens), and Tazuko Van Berkel’s The Economics of Friendship, which gives more weight to the study of ethics.[8] Besides, a resurgence of Substantivist work on the economy is overdue—not the old substantivism stubbornly attached to primitivism and market-denial, but a new substantivism of the sort advocated in the late Jack Goody’s The Theft of History that recognises that market-oriented behaviour is not just the province of economists, but of anthropologists and sociologists too.[9] But what Leese’s book does mark—if we can be cautiously optimistic—is a new chapter in the debate over the interaction of cultural, psychological, and material factors in the economic choices of ancient individuals, one in which a productive dialogue between the two main traditions in the field supersedes the old stubborn antagonisms. In this respect, Making Money is a model for future work.


[1] A. Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets and Growth in the City-States (Princeton, 2016).

[2] M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy (Berkeley, 1973).

[3] At least since W.L. Westermann, The Slave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia, 1955), 8.

[4] T. Terpstra, Trade in the Ancient Mediterranean: Private Order and Public Institutions (Princeton, 2019).

[5] For misunderstandings, see e.g. the discussion of sula on p. 165—this did not have to involve direct action against the debtor, but could target any of the debtor’s fellow citizens; or p. 143: there is no evidence in the Against Lacritus that Apollodorus was a brother of Artemon and Lacritus, or that Lacritus was contractually bound in the way that Apollodorus and Artemon were (he facilitated the deal, but was not a signatory).

[6] For example, his discussion of archaic and early Classical texts omits Homer and Pindar, as well as much of the recent bibliography on wealth-seeking and social mobility in the archaic period (e.g. R. Bernhardt, Luxuskritik und Aufwandsbeschränkungen in der griechischen Welt [Stuttgart, 2003], A. Duplouy, Le prestige des élites [Paris, 2006], and the many studies by Hans van Wees on the Homeric oikos, Theognis, elites, and the archaic economy).

[7]Kapêloi and economic rationality in fourth-century BCE Athens’, Illinois Classical Studies 42.1 (2017), 41–59.

[8] M. Hinsch, Ökonomik und Hauswirtschaft im klassischen Griechenland (Stuttgart, 2021). T. Van Berkel, The Economics of Friendship: Conceptions of Reciprocity in Ancient Greece (Leiden, 2020).

[9] J. Goody, The Theft of History (Cambridge 2006), 38–48.