In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Athenian Economy

  • Introduction
  • Demography
  • Animal Breeding, Hunting, and Fishing
  • Craft Industries
  • Mines and Metallurgy
  • Quarries and Public Building
  • Coinage and Monetary Policy
  • Banks and Credit
  • War and Economy
  • Economic Role of Private Individuals
  • Economic Significance of Slavery
  • Economic Attitude

Classics Athenian Economy
Cristina Carusi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0099


As Athens plays a major role in the ancient sources, the Athenian case is often the standard on which general overviews and specific works on the economy of Greek city-states are based. On this account, every discussion of Athenian economy must necessarily refer to the bibliography on Greek economy as a whole. For more than a century said bibliography has been deeply marked by an intense theoretical debate on the nature and fundamental features of ancient economy. At the risk of oversimplifying, one could say that the debate (often referred to as the modernists-versus-primitivists or the formalists-versus-substantivists debate) polarized into two viewpoints: the idea that ancient economy could be described according to the principles of modern economy, the two being different only in terms of degree, not of nature; and the idea that ancient economy was deeply embedded in the social, political, and cultural structures of its time, to such an extent that purely economic and profit-oriented preoccupations and behaviors—such as those typical of a modern economy—were extraneous to the ancient world. Over the last decades the latter viewpoint has come to the forefront thanks to the works of Moses I. Finley, whose influential ideas have defined the “new orthodoxy.” As a result, many studies of ancient Greek and Athenian economy have embraced and developed Finley’s approach and have been delineating a coherent model: Predominance of political and social factors and failure to understand the economic sphere as a separate and autonomous one would have prevented the emergence of a productive mentality at the private level and of economic policies at the public level, with repercussions on the development of agriculture, craft activities, technological progress, trade, credit institutions, financial management, and economic growth in general. Nonetheless, many aspects and fundamental principles of this model have been revised or attacked, and more recently the bibliography has been enriched by studies that question the old parameters of the debate and look for new theoretical approaches, such as that of new institutional economics (NIE). According to this approach, the institutions, intended as the set of legal and social norms governing all social interactions, influence the performance of every economic system. Hence, the assessment of the performance of each specific system (ancient as well as modern) depends on the analysis of the internal logic of the institutions; for example, how they respond to the constraints of the concrete framework where they operate, which transactional costs they produce, how they use the natural resources at their disposal, and so on. From this perspective, the approach of NIE allows one to go beyond the terms of the old debates between primitivists and modernists and between substantivists and formalists. As a result of this renewed interest in the economic sphere and in new methods of analysis, many studies now underline the complexity, dynamism, and rationality of ancient economic phenomena, above all in the spheres of trade, craft industries, and business ventures. Studies on new specific topics and the reconsideration of old ones, as well as the publication of new epigraphic documents and archaeological materials, are contributing to enrich the basis of available data and to extend the range and goals of a research field in constant progress.

General Overviews

A general overview focusing only on Athenian economy does not exist; thus, one must necessarily turn to overview works on ancient economy, which can provide good introductions to the Athenian economy on both the theoretical and the descriptive planes. The renowned exception is Boeckh 1886, the first pioneering study on the public finances of the city of Athens, which took into account all the literary and epigraphic evidence available at the time. It remains the only attempt at a general overview on this subject, and it is widely recognized as the starting point for research on Athenian economy. Finley 1985 (first published in 1973) is the influential book that shaped the so-called new orthodoxy. It reacted to the then-prevailing modernist interpretation of ancient economy, arguing from a substantivist perspective that economic activities and performances were limited by the overriding weight of the value system and the social-political structure on individual and collective behavior. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the need to go beyond the old primitivist-modernist debate took hold in the bibliography. This is the avowed purpose of Scheidel, et al. 2007, which provides an economic history of the Greco-Roman world, taking into account both the economic performance and the structures of the society (that is, institutions, technology, demography, ideology). Also, Bresson 2007 is an innovative and compelling study that analyzes the structures and dynamics of production and exchange of the Greek city-states, embracing the approach of new institutional economics. Migeotte 2009 offers a comprehensive and concise portrait of the economy of the Greek poleis. Morris 1994 sums up the debate on ancient economy twenty years after the publication of Moses I. Finley’s landmark book with specific attention to the Athenian case, while Nafissi 2005 offers an in-depth guide to the development of Finley’s ideas in the framework of its intellectual relationship with the works of Max Weber and Karl Polanyi.

  • Boeckh, August. 1886. Die Staatshaushaltung der Athener. Edited by Max Fränkel. Berlin: Reimer.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110841848

    First edition in 1817, on which the English translation by G. C. Lewis, The Public Economy of Athens (London: Parker, 1842), is based. Accurate treatment of the incomes and expenditures of the Athenian state, including the institutional, legal, and economic aspects. Out of date but still a benchmark work.

  • Bresson, Alain. 2007. L’économie de la Grèce des cités. Vol. 1, Les structures et la production. Paris: Armand Colin.

    Continued in Volume 2, Les espaces de l’échange (2008). A thematic but thorough analysis aiming to show the coherent internal logic of the economic system of the Greek city-states, whose degree of performance and capacity to respond to constraints should be judged in their specific historical and institutional context.

  • Finley, Moses I. 1985. The ancient economy. 2d ed. Sather Classical Lectures 48. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    First published in 1973. Updated edition with a foreword by Ian Morris published in 1999. For those especially interested in the historiographical debate on ancient economy, this work lays out Finley’s influential ideas that political, social, and cultural constraints played a major role in the economic domain.

  • Migeotte, Léopold. 2009. The economy of the Greek cities: From the Archaic period to the early Roman Empire. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    English translation of the second edition of L’économie des cités grecques (Paris: Ellipses, 2007), first published in 2002. A concise and clear overview of the economic activities of the Greek city-states in thematic chapters. Best introduction for undergraduates, also rich with useful observations for expert scholars.

  • Morris, Ian. 1994. The Athenian economy twenty years after The ancient economy. Classical Philology 89.4: 351–366.

    DOI: 10.1086/367433

    Focusing especially on the debate on Athenian economy, Morris maintains that social constraints played a major role in ancient economy but without minimizing the scale of economic performances or denying the role of trade, industry, and banking.

  • Nafissi, Mohammad. 2005. Ancient Athens and modern ideology: Value, theory, and evidence in historical sciences; Max Weber, Karl Polanyi, and Moses Finley. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 80. London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, Univ. of London.

    Starting from the so-called oikos (household) debate, the author analyzes the evolving ideas of Weber, Polanyi, and Finley on the ancient economy with particular attention to the influences that the works of Weber and Polanyi exercised on Finley.

  • Scheidel, Walter, Ian Morris, and Richard Saller, eds. 2007. The Cambridge economic history of the Greco-Roman world. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521780537

    Twenty-eight thematic, chronological, and regional chapters that summarize the state of knowledge and future research perspectives in Greek and Roman economic history. For references to Athenian economy, chapters 10, 12–14, and 17 are particularly relevant, while chapters 2–6 deal with the more general determinant of economic performance in the ancient world.

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