BMCR 2023.02.39

Oikonomia und Ökonomie im klassischen Griechenland: Theorie, Praxis, Transformation

, , Oikonomia und Ökonomie im klassischen Griechenland: Theorie, Praxis, Transformation. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2022. Pp. 226. ISBN 9783515127455

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


What did the ancient economy look like, and how do ancient economic theories and ideas correspond to that economic reality, if these were even allowed to surface in discourses that were predominantly normative? The last few years of research into questions on economic theory and economic performance have been particularly productive. After the translation of Alain Bresson’s The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy (2016) (BMCR 2016.07.35), what is called the New Institutional Economics (NIE)-approach has been further developed and adopted by Moritz Hinsch’s ground-breaking Ökonomik und Hauswirtschaft im klassischen Griechenland (2021). Simultaneously, Michael Leese’s Money Making in Ancient Athens (2021) (BMCR 2022.03.43) explored the disconnect between economic performance in Ancient Athens and the philosophical ‘oeconomic’ discourse, which has also been treated extensively in Étienne Helmer’s Oikonomia: Philosophie Grecque de l’Economie (2021) (BMCR 2022.05.16).

The present volume is part of this ongoing conversation. It contains the results of a conference held in November 2013, organized by the interdisciplinary research group “Oikonomia” that was part of the Excellence cluster TOPOI of the Humboldt University and Free University in Berlin. With this volume, the editors aspire to connect the study of the ancient economy and economic theory to the study of the transformation of these two into both medieval and early modern economic theory and practice. This is a promising and ambitious endeavour that contributes much to our understanding of these subjects, and that enriches the theoretical apparatus we use to approach them.

As Iris Därmann sets out in the introduction, the research in this volume builds on three general observations: 1. That Aristotle’s value-loaded distinction between the acquisition of means necessary for the household (oikonomikè) and (unnecessary) wealth acquisition (chrematistikè) defined the ‘oeconomic’ agenda for centuries to come; 2. that Aristotle’s conceptualization of the household, upon which this distinction was modelled, competed with conceptions of others, for example, Xenophon’s, Plato’s and Pseudo-Aristotle’s, and therefore a proper examination of those other conceptions of the household is needed; and 3. that these conceptions changed in both early and later Christian thought, leading to revaluation, redefinition and transformation of both forms of acquisition in the medieval and early modern era (p. 12-13).

These insights lead the editors and contributors to analyse and describe economic theory, practice, their interactions, and their transformations throughout (European) history up to ‘the invention of economics proper’ by Adam Smith and his successors in the 18th and 19th centuries. This framework invites a multidisciplinary approach to a plethora of questions, about, for instance, the historical context of Aristotle’s theories, the transformation of the agora into a marketplace, the reception of Aristotle’s distinction between the two modes of acquisition, and conceptions of “the household of the soul” in early modern literature (p. 13-14). The introduction concludes with some methodological considerations by Aloys Winterling, who briefly draws attention to the dissimilarity between the false friends economics and oikonomia.

The eight contributions to this volume are logically ordered in four parts, the State of Research, Ancient Theory, Ancient Practice, and Transformation.

In the first section, Neville Morley maps out trends and biases in research, such as the tendency of researchers to project contemporary economic events and the particular state of their own economy onto their ancient object of research, the methodological difference in approaching the Greek economy (focus on structure) and the Roman one (focus on performance), and the danger of triumphalist narratives. Writing in 2015, Morley fairly accurately predicts that the future of research on the subject of the ancient economy is “comparative, cultural, ecological and engages with fundamental issues of structural inequality and the limits of development” (p. 30). This lucid and well-written methodological contribution sets the stage for further confrontations between economic theory and economic practice.

In the second section, Peter Spahn compares Hesiod’s Works and Days with Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. Spahn shows how the differences between the two works illustrate the changing economic practices in the archaic and classical eras, such as the introduction of coinage and the further development of Athenian maritime trade. In another comparative chapter, Daral Tai Engen compares Aristotle’s economic theory to Plato’s and Xenophon’s equivalents and shows how the idealization of agrarian household economies and silent or even open condemnation of commerce in all three philosophical oeuvres does not correspond with the economic practices of their time. Nonetheless, between the three of them, Xenophon’s works seem most open to more realistic economic representations.

The third section offers two thorough takes on ancient economic practice. First, Armin Eich describes how large supraregional monetary exchange systems were integrated into the economy and what factors contributed to developing these trade relations. Eich argues that focusing on the embeddedness of these trade relations in social practice remains key to understanding them. In the second contribution, Hinsch, whose 2021 monograph I mentioned earlier, explains the economic performance of the Greek household economy by focusing on the institution of the household (oikos). Not only do these contributions cover entirely different aspects of economic performance, they also take different stances on the use of the NIE-methodological framework, which makes them an interesting comparison.

The final three contributions form the most thought-provoking section of the book. The first two, by Wolfram Keller and Helmut Pfeiffer, discuss the engagement of respectively Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame and Leon Batista Alberti’s Della Famiglia with ancient economic theory. Both contributors show how the increasing commercialization of trade in the Late Middle Ages is translated in Chaucer and Alberti, each of whom, as few may know, were intensively involved in commerce. Surprisingly, while the oikonomia-tradition remains authoritative, both Chaucer and Alberti occasionally oppose this tradition by allowing for more ‘chrematistic’ practices, even equating money-making to poetic innovation. Moreover, Pfeiffer shows that both Alberti and Pfeiffer himself are perceptive readers of Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. In the final contribution, Birger Priddat takes his readers on a philosophical journey through the history of economics and shows how, from Aristotle to Adam Smith and beyond, this discourse is structured by constant negotiations of the household/city-state (oikos/polis) difference, which corresponds to Aristotle’s different types of acquisition and modes of government (monarchy/democracy). This analysis makes palpable how modern economics reflects the values of the commercial elite, thus supporting and enriching Deirdre McCloskey’s 2006 similar argument. Priddat ends his article with a brief but fascinating structural comparison of the Homo Economicus—”economic man” as he is postulated by modern economic theory—and his predecessor, the Hausvater from oikonomia-literature.

As one can see, this volume’s theoretical framework allows for many, at times intriguing, takes on a broad spectrum of topics in economic history and the history of economics. Moreover, the attention to the divergence and interplay between economic practice and theory, and even more importantly, the newly-found focus on the transformation of economic knowledge, makes this volume innovative and worthwhile. One problem is that, as we read in the foreword, unfortunate circumstances caused a delay in publication. The contributions to this volume were written between 2014 and 2018 and, although the contributors have had the opportunity to update their writings, “because most contributions focus on theoretical reflection and close analysis of the source material, only a few actualizing corrections or additions were made” (p. 6). As a result, some of the essays seem dated, either because some of their urgency was lost,[1] or because some of the authors have elaborated on the ideas put forward in other instances.[2]

Edited volumes are a difficult genre for many reasons. In the case of this volume, the broad scope risks being over-ambitious: quite a number of the questions and topics mentioned by Därmann in the introduction remain unaddressed, and, as always, one can easily imagine more topics suitable for contribution. The volume might have profited from a more narrow focus, leading to more unity and a better interdisciplinary balance in the coverage of the subjects (instead of ancient historians covering antiquity and literary scholars and philosophers covering the subjects beyond). On the other hand, a smaller scope would have also caused more overlap. Furthermore, the fact that this volume feels incomplete also indicates just how promising its angle is. Therefore, we should consider it an asset of this volume that its broad basis allows future research into the ancient economy and economics to build forward, leaving plenty of opportunity to try similar approaches to new subjects.

This volume testifies to the research group’s ambition to overcome the difficulties in the research field as sketched by Morley with a fertile and much-promising approach that touches upon many of the issues addressed in current research. Moreover, its focus on the reception and transformation of economic knowledge, not only in medieval and early modern economic thought and literature but also already in Hesiod and Xenophon, proves a particularly fruitful angle that will surely inspire scholars—ancient historians, classicists, philosophers, historians of economics, literary scholars and intellectual historians working on later periods—to imitate and emulate this approach. Therefore, I would certainly recommend that these groups study this volume. Moreover, Keller’s and Pfeiffer’s articles should definitely be read by literary scholars aspiring to work on the reception of ancient economic ideas in literature.



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

Helmer, E., Oikonomia: Philosophie Grecque de l’Economie, Classiques Garnier, coll. Kaïnon – Anthropologie de la pensée ancienne, Paris 2021.

Hinsch, M. Ökonomik und Hauswirtschaft im Klassischen Griechenland. Historia 265, Stuttgart, 2021.

Leese, M. Money Making in Ancient Athens, Oxford 2021.

McCloskey, D.N., The bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, Chicago 2006.


Authors and Titles

Iris Därmann. Orte der Oikonomia

Aloys Winterling. Methodische Vorüberlegungen

I. Zur Forschungslage

Neville Morley. Re-Thinking the Ancient Economy, Once Again

II. Antike Theorie

Peter Spahn. Hesiods Erga und Xenophons Oikonomikos

Daral Tai Engen. Reconsidering the Economy. Traditional values and philosophical theory versus public and private practice in fourth century BCE Athens

III. Antike Praxis

Armin Eich. Haus-und polisübergreifende geldwirtschaftliche Beziehungen im Griechenland des 5. Und 4. Jahrhunderts

Moritz Hinsch. Hauswirtschaft im klassischen Griechenland

IV. Transformation

Wolfram R. Keller. Chrematistische Poetik. Mentale Haushaltsführung in Geoffrey Chaucers Traumvisionen

Helmut Pfeiffer. Temporalisierung der oikonomia. Leon Battista Albertis Della famiglia

Birger P. Priddat. Die Oikos/Polis-Differenz als prägende Struktur der neuzeitlichen Ökonomie/Politik-Formation



[1] For example, Morley’s State of the field could not refer to the important monographs I mentioned in the introduction to this review, although it provides a semi-updated bibliography until 2021.

[2] As Eich mentions in a postscript, several of the arguments he made in his contribution have appeared or will appear on three other occasions (listed on p. 108). Likewise, it could be helpful to point out to the reader that Hinsch’s already extensive chapter on household structures and strategies (pp. 109-154) has, in the meantime, grown to become an integral part of sections II and III of his monograph.