BMCR 2024.07.08

Emporia: elementi di razionalità economica nel commercio greco

, Emporia: elementi di razionalità economica nel commercio greco. Studi e testi di storia antica, 32. Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2023. Pp. 172. ISBN 9788846766588.

Marcello Valente’s book Emporia: Elementi di razionalità economica nel commercio greco clearly and concisely addresses—in uncomplicated Italian—elements of economic rationality in ancient Greek commerce. He almost exclusively treats maritime trade, which made up most of the commercial activity in antiquity, as it does today. His chronology spans from the Archaic to the Hellenistic, a period which reflects a remarkable degree of continuity. Rejecting old ideas that commerce was of secondary economic importance to the Greeks after agriculture and production, Valente convincingly asserts that trade was a lucrative and widespread economic pursuit, but also the riskiest (p. 7).

Valente uses archaeological, epigraphical, literary, and papyrological evidence to effectively argue that Greek merchants were neither Finleyian primitives nor were they proto-mercantilist capitalists (the two extremes of scholarly interpretation). Rather, they were shrewd agents who recognized natural market “laws”—supply and demand, economies of scale—and used them to maximize profits and reduce costs while at the same time never developing a true capitalist mindset or economy. The work begins with an introduction outlining the place of merchants in the ancient Greek world, and continues with chapters on the traders themselves, their ships, ship rental, associated costs, trade goods, and finally price and route formation.

According to Valente, merchants functioned between the nodes of the polis (city-state) system, in the interstices where political power was weakest. It was this weakness that allowed merchants to exploit the natural market “laws.” This autonomy of action explains Greek cultural unease with merchants and their “corrupting” effects, as well as the difficulty of integrating them into political power structures (p. 8). The cities, for their part, needed the merchants, so they were forced to provide incentives for them to stay and trade or the merchants would simply move on (p. 9). On account of their relative autonomy, Greek traders were able to function in an “economically rational” way even in the absence of a modern scientific notion of the economy.

In chapter 1, Valente defines his terms. He rejects the old distinction between kapeloi as retailers and emporoi as wholesalers. Rather, the difference is in the context, as kapeloi seem to have stayed in one city, while emporoi travelled between them (p. 11–12). Valente also addresses the term naukleros, which he defines as (most typically) a ship-owning emporos. Therefore, naukleroi are simply emporoi who own ships (or fleets); all naukleroi were emporoi, but not necessarily vice versa, as shipless emporoi would sail on and stow their cargoes in ships owned by naukleroi (pp. 13; 21). The fact that some naukleroi had massive fleets, for example Sostratos of Aegina, indicates that not all of them fit the model of Finley’s desperate, marginalized merchant (p. 19).

In chapter 2, Valente addresses the evidence for the size and cargo capacity of ancient Greek merchant vessels. Archaeological, literary, epigraphical, and papyrological evidence all suggest that Greek merchant vessels rarely exceeded 100 tons and 25 meters in length, and that they averaged 25–30 tons and 15–20 meters (p. 21). This is in stark contrast to estimates predating the postwar boom in maritime archaeology, when scholars conjectured anywhere from 60 to 2000 tons (p. 41). Even small vessels sailed in open waters—for example the deep-water wreck off Bulgaria—rather than depending solely on coastal routes (p. 44). The small size of the ships also confirms that naukleroi must have owned fleets. This is supported by epigraphic evidence for naukleroi honored at Athens, the size of whose cargoes could not possibly have been transported in one vessel (p. 45).

In chapter 3, Valente addresses the relationship between emporoi and naukleroi. Most emporoi would have been clients of naukleroi, renting space on their ships for a fee called the naulon, which covered both fare and hold space (pp. 49-50). In chapter 4 Valente further breaks down the costs covered by the naulon, including maintenance, crew pay, and port tariffs and duties (p. 64).

In chapter 5, Valente addresses trade goods, credit, and relevant laws. He begins by outlining the orthodox view of 19th and 20th century scholars, namely that the main imports were grain, salt fish, and slaves, and the exports were wine, oil, and manufactured goods. Scholars believed that the Greeks needed to export manufactured goods—ceramics, metalwork, objets d’art—to afford the requisite imports, leading to a “proto-industrial” manufacturing economy (p. 79). Based on more recent archaeological evidence, however, Valente challenges the notion that manufactured goods represented a large proportion of exports. Rather, raw materials or agricultural products predominate, mainly grain, wine, oil, salt, wool, cheese, clay, lumber, stone, and metals (pp. 81-87). He argues that manufactured goods were largely produced and used locally (e.g. ceramics). The simplicity of these goods incentivized local production, so that long-distance trade of such objects would have been limited to luxuries (p. 87). Thus, the ancient economy was not concerned with trading specialized manufactured goods long distances, but instead with moving primary materials from regions of abundance to regions of scarcity (p. 88).

Valente goes on to explore the interaction between natural “laws” and legislation. He takes the example of a law that prohibited Thasian citizens from unloading foreign wine in Thasos. This has traditionally been interpreted as protectionism for local Thasian wine producers (p. 89). Instead, the author argues that this would not have been effective as protectionism, as it only applied to Thasian citizens. Rather, this measure served to prevent Thasians from bringing wine onto the island (which they didn’t need), and instead to load necessary cargoes like grain, illustrating their understanding of supply and demand as well as the limits of legislation (p. 90).

In the same chapter, Valente addresses credit and lending. Valente asserts that while Greek traders sometimes needed capital, they did not develop a capitalist economy or mindset (this claim is repeated several times but is only fully explained in the conclusion). Often the capital came as a loan taken out to purchase an initial cargo for an outward journey, which would then fund a new cargo to be sold in the home port to repay the loan and make a profit. In the past, scholars incorrectly claimed that the loans proved that traders were desperate and marginalized, despite the ample evidence for the existence of wealthy and successful merchants (p. 91). Since lending was also a high risk/high reward undertaking, creditors banded together in associations, effectively distributing risk, so that any loss would be borne together (pp. 92–93).

Valente notes that the naulon is not usually mentioned in loan contracts (p. 99). He suggests that the naulon was a “dead” expense, covering costs like duties and tariffs that did not return any potential profit. Creditors might prefer to lend for the purchase of cargo alone, an expense on which they could hope to make money (pp. 94­–98), thereby exhibiting an understanding of profitable investment.

In chapter 6, Valente turns to route formation and prices. The Greeks operated a “nerve system” of shipping routes (p. 106). This took the form of a radial network with major centers that changed over time (first Athens, then Rhodes, and finally Delos under the Romans) (p. 102). Trade routes were not direct, and were instead characterized by transshipment, in which smaller ships from smaller ports brought goods to a regional trade center, where their cargoes would then be loaded together onto larger ships that would sail to the larger ports, where the materials would then fan back out in capillary fashion into local smaller ports. This was a cost-effective way of transporting goods (as opposed to directly sailing between small ports across the Mediterranean). Both the transshipment and the mixing of cargoes suggest that Greek traders attempted to minimize costs and maximize profits (p. 106). Trade networks also served to transmit information, particularly regarding favorable ports and prices (p. 108). These networks seem to have existed as early as the Archaic period and consisted of both enslaved and free agents (p. 109–110).

As well as exhibiting the economically rational tendency to maximize profits and minimize expenditure, the Greeks clearly understood the advantages of sea travel over land as well as the economies of scale that maritime trade allows (the larger the ship and cargo, the more profit, because individual unit transport cost decreases). This is attested explicitly as early as Hesiod (p. 113).

Pricing and route formation were closely related, as routes tended to center on attractive markets. Xenophon tells us that traders went where prices were highest, and Athens’ large population and spending power made it one of the most attractive ports, especially for the sale of grain. The highest prices were commanded by the first grain shipments in the spring once winter reserves had dwindled (p. 107). Traders recognized that such an immediate glut of grain would crash the market and cause prices to drop. Sometimes merchants would attempt to mitigate this by selling at an artificially low price (such as the trader whom Demosthenes tells us was honored for selling grain at 5 drachms rather than 16) and sometimes cities would set prices (pp. 120–121). There was therefore potentially both a “fixed” price set by a city and a “market” price determined naturally by supply and demand (p. 122).

It is important to note, as Valente does, that the functioning of supply and demand does not require any sort of economic theory: it simply happens. If the Greeks had not understood this, it is unlikely that they would have taken the great risks involved in sea trade, since they wouldn’t have realized that they could make more money where demand was higher (p. 126). In fact, Valente very aptly argues that the understanding of supply and demand is the only explanation for the traders who chose to sell at a lower price than they could have, in order not to crash the market (p. 127).

It is clear, then, that the Greeks recognized and acted upon natural market “laws.” The merchants were only able to follow these natural laws in the interstices between cities. This freedom of action was not a product of legislation, or cultural norm, but of the simple lack of political control. The result was a delicate compromise between merchant and city: take, for example, the law from Delos prohibiting the sale of charcoal above or below certain prices. This law aimed to protect both the city (from price gouging in times of scarcity, and from crashes in times of plenty) and the merchants (from getting lowballed in a glutted marketplace) (p. 131).

It is only at the very end of the book that Valente fully explains one of his repeated claims: that the Greeks were economically rational and understood natural “laws” that were relevant to capitalist market economies but without ever developing a capitalist economy or mindset. On the one hand, the Greeks understood and exploited supply and demand and economies of scale. On the other hand, they did not consistently reinvest in their own operation, nor did they attempt to constantly grow larger and find new markets, nor were they sustained by a complicated financial system (p. 134). The Greeks simply recognized natural laws and exploited them as best as they could within their technological limits. Valente emphasizes that while the market economy is not necessarily the “natural” form of exchange, it does have predictable natural rules that operate in the absence of political power. A parallel situation emerges in the numismatic sphere. We know from Aristophanes (and others) that the Greeks understood Gresham’s Law, that “bad” money of low weight or metal purity drives “good” money out of circulation, as “bad” will be spent and “good” will be hoarded (p. 135). A self-imposed limitation to rationalism does emerge, however: ethics (p. 118). The ancients recognized that economic rationalism and ethical behavior are sometimes in apparent contradiction, which is one of the reasons that merchants were seen as “corrupting” influences on the polis.

All in all, this is a readable, concise, well-researched contribution to the topic, and the reviewer strongly recommends this book to any scholar interested in the ancient economy.