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A Greek man doing carpentry (Athens, 400s BC): economy of ancient Greece

The economy of ancient Greece: A Greek man doing carpentry (Athens, 400s BC)

The Greek word “economy”

The Greeks did not have the same idea of an economy that we have. The word economy is Greek. But to the Greeks, economy meant something like “rules of a household” (the “eco” part of economy is from the Greek word for house, oikos. And the “nomy” part is from nomos, their word for law). So the economy was the way a household ran. It was also the way a city-state ran.

More about the Greek idea of nomos
More about Greek houses
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A man making shoes for a little boy: ancient Greek economy

Ancient Greek trade: A man making shoes for a little boy


Sailing and the Greek economy

Even as far back as the Stone Age, many people who lived in Greece were sailors. The Greeks sailed all over the Eastern Mediterranean. They built different kinds of ships for different kinds of sailing. They had warships, and trading ships, and fishing boats.

More about ancient Greek ships

Fishermen and divers

Sailors rowing trading ships (Athens ca. 550 BC)

Ancient Greek trade: Sailors rowing trading ships (Athens ca. 550 BC)

Like many other sailors in other places and times (like the Vikings for example), Greek sailors found a lot of different ways to make their living from sailing.

Some of them were fishermen. They ate some of the fish they caught and sold some fish in markets. Some Greek people were pearl-divers.

More about pearl-diving
History of fishing

Traders and manufacturing

Athenian sailing ship with soldiers

Athenian sailing ship with soldiers

Other Greeks were traders, who bought things at one port and sold them at another port, and made some profit for themselves along the way. Many Greek people made things for the traders to sell: wool cloth, wine, perfume, and fancy pottery.

Ancient Greek wine
Greek pottery

Soldiers and mercenaries

Other Greeks were soldiers for their city-state, who conquered other cities and forced them to pay tribute. Many Greek sailors worked as mercenaries, hiring out themselves and their ships to fight for other countries like Egypt. Greek city-states also made money with taxes on trade. Merchants had to pay a percentage of the value of anything they brought in or shipped out.

More about mercenary soldiers
What is a city-state?
Greek hoplite soldiers

Ancient Greek trade: A wool workshop in Archaic Greece: women making woolen cloth to sell: Ancient Greek trade

Ancient Greek trade: A wool workshop in Archaic Greece: women making woolen cloth to sell.

Pirates, raiding, and ancient Greek trade

Other Greeks were pirates, who simply raided wherever they could and took whatever they could get.

In real life, people probably didn’t fit so neatly into any of these categories. Pirates sometimes traded, and sometimes fished, and sometimes hired themselves out as mercenaries. Ancient Greek traders were not above doing a little raiding if they got the chance. For soldiers, the difference between fighting and raiding is not always very clear.

Women pounding wheat or barley into flour: Ancient Greek economy

The Greek economy: Women pounding wheat or barley into flour

Women spinning and weaving cloth

One reason for raiding was to capture women as prisoners of war. Like other people – like the Assyrians or the Egyptians or the Persians – Greek rulers enslaved thousands of women.

More about women in ancient Greece
History of wool

a red figure vase showing a woman sitting and working on a large clay pot. Smaller pots hang from the ceiling over her head

A woman making a large pot, in a pottery workshop (Caputi hydria, by the Leningrad painter. Athens, about 490-470 BC)

They put these women to work in giant weaving workshops, spinning and weaving expensive wool cloth. Then traders carried this cloth on their boats to sell in other countries. These women were very important to the economy of ancient Greece.

Farming and the economy of ancient Greece

But, like everywhere in antiquity, many Greek men and women were also farmers, who spent most of their day growing food – planting wheat, harvesting olives, and weeding their gardens.

More about wheat farming

People kept a lot of sheep, especially in southern Greece, and cattle in the north. Greek traders also sold this food across the Mediterranean, shipping wheat, olive oil, wine, honey, cheese, and meat. They sold leather, and horses, and marble, and coal.

More about the history of honey

Imports to ancient Greece: What did Greek traders buy?

Greek traders didn’t only sell things – they also bought stuff to bring back to Greece and sell there. They brought medicine and pepper and cinnamon from as far away as India and Afghanistan.

More about black pepper
Where did cinnamon come from?
Indian medicine

They brought silk from China and glass beads from Egypt. They sold Egyptian papyrus and linen. And traders from many other countries also sold things in Greek ports.

History of silk
Who invented glass?
What is linen?

Did they use money or how did they buy things?

Greek traders did most of their business the way traders do today, without handling coins. They used written letters of credit, like today’s paper checks, or like writing a letter to your bank, to pay their bills. Bankers in each city wrote letters back and forth figuring out who owed how much to whom.

Paper money and letters of credit Study Guides also has more detailed articles about the Greek economy in the Archaic period, the Classical period, and the Hellenistic period.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the economy of ancient Greece? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing: making Greek coins
The Greek economy in the Archaic period

Looking for a second source to cite? Check out this excellent article on trade in ancient Greece from the Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Bibliography and further reading about the Greek economy:

Trade & Warfare, by Robert Hull (2000).

Ancient Greek Jobs (People in the Past Series-Greece), by Haydn Middleton (2002). Easy reading.

The Ancient Economy by Walter Scheidel, Sitta Von Reden (2002). A collection of essays by different specialists, but written for the non-specialist.

Economy and Society in Ancient Greece, by Moses Finley (revised edition 1983)

Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction by M.M. Austin and P. Vidal-Naquet (1980)

The Ancient Economy, by Moses Finley (1973, revised edition 1999). This has been the starting point for academic discussions of the Greek and Roman economy since it first came out thirty years ago.

More about the Archaic Greek economy
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