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.
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.
Fishermen and divers
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.
Traders and manufacturing
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.
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.
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 spinning and weaving cloth
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
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.
Imports to ancient Greece: What did Greek traders buy?
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.
Did you find out what you wanted to know about the economy of ancient Greece? Let us know in the comments!
Looking for a second source to cite? Check out this excellent article on trade in ancient Greece from the Ancient History Encyclopedia.
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.