Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
→ Part 1.1.
Edward M. Harris, edition of March 22, 2003
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The economy of any given community is shaped to a large extent by the nature of its technology and the degree of the specialization of labor. In a society where technology has not progressed beyond subsistence agriculture, households will have little surplus to exchange with each other, and the community will not produce enough food to support a large workforce engaged in non-agricultural crafts. The economy of such a society will have no need for a permanent marketplace, and the relative infrequency of commodity exchange will produce few commercial disputes. The predominant forms of exchange will be gift-giving and the payment of tribute to local lords in exchange for protection.
Plot on a Map
Classical Athens had progressed far beyond this primitive level of development. The most important technical developments were in the field of metallurgy, which enabled the Athenians to produce an array of iron tools and other products. Smiths made helmets, greaves, breastplates, and spears for soldiers, scythes, pruning-hooks, and ploughs for farmers, and knives for everyday use. Potters marketed a wide variety of vases for dining and symposia as well as amphoras and other jars for storage and transport. Many were engaged in making various types of clothing: there were fullers, dyers, sewers, weavers, tanners, shoemakers, and dye-makers. There were also numerous men employed in the building trades: carpenters, lead-cutters, lathe-workers, stone-cutters, sawyers, brickmakers, shipwrights, and muleteers for hauling heavy materials. And there were dozens, if not hundreds, who provided various services: doctors, barbers, hairdressers, wetnurses, inn-keepers, clothes-cleaners, bankers, money-changers, bath-house keepers, prostitutes, musicians, and various kinds of teachers. In fact, a recent study has found more than a hundred and seventy different occupations in Classical Athens. This was not a primitive economy based solely on subsistence agriculture.
To exchange the goods and services produced by these craftsmen, there was a need for a permanent marketplace and numerous retail merchants, both men (kapeloi) and women (kapelides). Our sources mention many people selling various sorts of commodities: salt-sellers, sausage-sellers, sellers of olive-oil, fishmongers, butchers, sellers of cumin, sellers of honey, wine-sellers, sellers of cheese, sellers of charcoal, needle-sellers, booksellers, clothes-sellers, lamp sellers, sellers of flax, and sellers of cloaks. The market in Athens was so large that it was divided into several different sections. Parts of the agora were named after the goods sold there. Pollux (9.47-8) mentions how Eupolis singled out the place “where books are for sale” and has one of his characters recall how “I went around to the garlic and the onions and the incense and straight to the perfume, and around to the trinkets (gelge).” If one were looking for wine, one went to the area around the city gate in the Kerameikos or Potter’s Quarter (Isaeus 7.2). Alexis in his Kalasiris tells about a quarter know as the “rings” where utensils were sold (Pollux 10.18-19). A separate part of the market was called the women’s agora. The number of people working in non-agricultural occupations was so large that it was probably more than half of the population of Attica.
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