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 Actors
  • Economic Significance of Slavery
  • Economic Attitudes
  • Growth and Poverty

Classics Athenian Economy
Cristina Carusi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0099


Since 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. Thus, any discussion of the Athenian economy must necessarily refer to the scholarship on Greek economy as a whole. For more than a century, said scholarship has been deeply marked by an intense theoretical debate on the nature and fundamental features of the 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 the 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 the 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. From the 1970s, the latter viewpoint came to the forefront thanks to the works of Moses I. Finley, whose influential ideas were labeled the “New Orthodoxy.” As a result, many studies on Greek and Athenian economy embraced and developed Finley’s approach and delineated 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 a negative impact on the development of agriculture, craft activities, technological progress, trade, credit institutions, financial management, and economic growth in general. However, many aspects and fundamental principles of this model have been revised or attacked and, in the last two decades, 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 human interactions, determine the performance of any 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. At the same time, each system can be assessed in terms of its efficiency over time, that is, to what degree it maximizes the material resources available to it. As such, the approach of NIE, integrating the analysis of both structure and performance, allows scholars to rise above 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 as well as their potential for growth. Studies of 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 set of available data and to extend the range and goals of a research field in constant progress.

General Overviews

A general overview focusing exclusively on the Athenian economy does not exist; thus, for good introductions to the Athenian case study from both a theoretical and a descriptive perspective, one must necessarily turn to overview works on the ancient Greek economy as a whole. 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 the Athenian economy. For a recent review and update of Boeckh’s reference study, see Guenther and Rohde 2019 (cited under Public Finance and Economy). To date, the best comprehensive and concise portrait of the economy of the Greek poleis, including Athens, is Migeotte 2009. 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 the ancient economy, arguing from a substantivist perspective that economic activities and performances were limited by the overriding weight of the value system and social-political structure in individual and collective behaviors. It may be useful to read Finley’s book alongside Morris 1994, which sums up the debate on the ancient economy twenty years after its publication, and Nafissi 2005, which offers an in-depth guide to the intellectual relationship of Finley with the works of Max Weber and Karl Polanyi. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first 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). Embracing the approach of New Institutional Economics (NIE), Bresson 2016 offers an innovative and compelling study that analyzes the degree of growth experienced by the ancient Greek world as well as the factors and institutional developments that made possible that growth. On the purely theoretical level, both Launaro 2016 and Fantasia 2022 warn against the methodological risks of a NIE approach not tempered by a proper concern for the specifics of the social, political, and cultural context as a tool for correctly framing the ancient economy.

  • 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 landmark work.

  • Bresson, Alain. 2016. The making of the ancient Greek economy: Institutions, markets, and growth in the city-states. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400852451

    English translation with updates of L’économie de la Grèce des cités (Paris: Armand Colin, 2007–2008). A thematic analysis of the economy of the ancient Greek world with a first part focusing on structures, production data, and growth, and a second part on trade and markets.

  • Fantasia, Ugo. 2022. Un nuovo “miracolo greco”? L’economia della Grecia antica cinquant’anni dopo Finley. Rivista di Studi Storici 63.1: 5–40.

    While discussing the reactions to Finley’s work on the ancient economy and the impact of NIE on current scholarship, the author interprets the prevailing emphasis on performance rather than structure as a swing back to a form of modernism that does not take into due account the valuable contribution of the substantivist approach.

  • 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.

  • Launaro, Alessandro. 2016. Finley and the ancient economy. In M. I. Finley: An ancient historian and his impact. Edited by Daniel Jew, Robin Osborne, and Michael Scott, 227–249. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Reassessing Finley’s ideas through the lens of NIE, on one hand, the author highlights the contribution of Mark Granovetter and the field of economic sociology as a corrective to the NIE approach; on the other, he reaffirms the relevance of Finley’s position for understanding how social, political, and cultural factors determine human actions and the economic processes they trigger.

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

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520944671

    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 organized in thematic chapters. Best introduction for undergraduates, but full of useful observations for expert scholars as well.

  • 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 the Athenian economy, Morris maintains that social constraints played a major role in the 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 Supplement 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 the Athenian economy, chapters 10, 12–14, and 17 are particularly relevant, while chapters 2–6 deal with the more general determinants of economic performance in the ancient world.

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