on 10 August 2010
I found this book a beautifully extended synopsis of the ancient Greek economy. It was not that I knew much to start off with but a book like this at less than 180 pages was a "perfect" introduction. There are 4 main topics: an overview of Greek cities and their economies, then three detailed sections on Agriculture, Craft and Trade. Each section provides enough material in a concise and readable style. For example, under Agriculture, I was able to learn who labored, what they grew, what stock they raised, their cropping seasons, what technology was used and so on. Yet there is nothing dry about all of this as this is just the sort of knowledge I crave when reading history. It's good practice I think to learn not just about wars and kings but also to try and understand how people lived, what myths they believed, what literature they read (if) and so on.
I enjoyed envisioning a middle class family (obviously) settling down to a meal of red mullet and wine even as I suspected their supper plates weren't exactly like those in our photoshopped glossy magazines. Red mullet and wine! Where are the olives and the cheese and the wild boar meat and grains and spices and fruits? I felt or more imagined the deep connection between the people I was reading about and nature. I'm not rosy-eyed thinking it was an easy life on the farm because apparently it wasn't. The other angle for reading this book was to learn how they conducted business, did they have money, how was it used, how were people paid, what taxes were raised, what public expenditures were carried out, how did the Greeks resolve the tension between the rich and the poor? [Not better than we have]. All fascinating questions and discussed or touched upon in this portable volume. Highly recommended.
This book ia a marvelous catalog of activities my ancestors undertook. It cuts the economy down to three sectors, Agriculture, Crafts and Trade. What it does not do, however, is attempt any synthesis. I did not have a model of an economy in my head when I finished this book, basically, and the author kind of abdicates any responsibility for doing so; his excuse is that it would be far too speculative.
So you find out that there were a good 100 crafts practiced by artisans in Ancient Greece and the book has a good go at naming all of them! You find out what crops people grew and when. What food they ate, who did the work and under what conditions. You get a less sharp sense for what periods were good for business and what periods weren't, but an attempt is made to cover that ground as well.
My two biggest takeaways from the book are the following:
1. All business was personal. You couldn't incorporate or anything.
2. The principal economic agents were the landowners.
The book also provides passages from original sources, which are quite awesome. They do bring things alive. Also, it was marvelous for me as a Greek to read the original Greek words that accompany all terms and descriptions in parentheses.
Overall, it could be that I came to this book with expectations that were impossible to meet, but I was hoping that after breaking down the economy in its parts, the author would attempt to sketch how the parts come together. I kept my hopes up till the end, because the last chapter was on trade, but it was not to be.
So three stars from me.
One final note: the book keeps quoting a single source all the time. It's Austin and Vidal Naquet. That's probably a pretty important book in this field and probably worth a read.