Ancient Greece Had Market Economy, 3,000 Years Earlier Than Thought

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Temple of Zeus
Temple of ZeusCredit: Inu / Shutterstock.com
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Ancient Greece is often credited with being the birthplace of democracy. Now a new paper deems it also the proud parent of the world’s first market economy.

Some farmers in archaic and classic Greece weren’t choosing which crops to plant based on local nutritional needs. Their decisions on production and distribution were apparently being driven by demand for exports, say Adam Izdebski of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and colleagues, in a paper published in the November edition of The Economic Journal (Oxford University Press).

Thus, ancient Greece – especially along the Aegean coast – had developed market interdependence and integration (when separate markets for a product become a single market) thousands of years earlier than postulated.

Markets ruled by supply and demand are usually considered to have begun with the industrial revolution or the European colonial expansion, not farmers worshipping Zeus and his frisky pantheon.

We have long known that trading had been going on thousands of years ago, possibly as early as the start of the Neolithic revolution,  well before we had wheels or tamed the horse. We recently learned that counterfeiting even predates money, in which sense market forces are nothing new. Moreover, by the time of this story, we know that oresspices, wines and olive oil, rare animals and other exotica were at least sometimes being transported pretty remarkable distances.

A ship graveyard off an Greek archipelago.Credit: Vasilis Mentogianis / EUA

But the argument has been that though markets clearly existed in antiquity, they hadn’t been a significant part of the structure of ancient economies, and certainly hadn’t become integrated as mature market systems. Nor was there specialization in crop cultivation.

Izdebski and colleagues’ paper breaks new ground by quantifying a dissociation between the Grecian farmers from 1000 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. and local demand – based on, of all things, pollen.

The “smoking flower” is that cultivation of staple cereals didn’t increase in tandem with population growth during the 1,600-year study period. On the other hand, cultivation of olive trees (for oil) and vines (for wine) did increase, based on pollen as a proxy for structural changes in agricultural production.

In short, the agronomists in archaic and classic Greece were running a market economy, say the authors – who are the first to quantify the scale of trade, and degree of market integration in pre-Roman times, Izdebski explains to Haaretz.

There had been plenty of evidence about the scale of trade and marketing as of later Roman times, he says. Not so for the earlier periods in antiquity, certainly not by modern economic criteria.

Relief of an ancient Greek ship.Credit: Matt Boulton

The study of ancient pollen is called palynology. One novelty in the new study, Izdebski says, is that the researchers tapped a century’s worth of pollen data: that’s how long palynology as a test for human economic activity has existed. Who knew?

The second novelty is their use of palynology to indicate the scale of trade, and demonstrate profound agricultural market integration in Greece some 2,600 years ago, before Athens became a full-blown democracy under Pericles.

The pollen data from sediment cores demonstrates the connection, and stability in the connection, between oil and wine-producing areas in Greece and far-flung grain-producing regions around the Black Sea, where Greeks founded their colonies, Izdebski explains.

The nearer the farmers in Greece were to the Black Sea, the stronger the effect: They were deeply reliant on importing grains, in exchange for which they exported olive oil and wine.

One may assume the farmers of yore were planting things deliberately, he points out – nobody was standing there with a spear in hand forcing them to grow vines instead of wheat.

Satellite image of the Black Sea.Credit: Jeff Schmaltz / MODIS Rapid Resp

Anyway, once market integration arises, the community transforms its environment in very strong ways, almost completely, to fit this economic pattern, Izdebski says. “To be able to pay for the imports, there is specialization in olive and vine cultivation. What we showed, existing much earlier than Roman times, is how deep the reliance of trade was to survival,” he sums up.

Say it with flowers

The researchers tapped the European Pollen Database, fresh data from other investigators, and pollen in cored sediments taken from six sites in southern Greece to quantify change in the agricultural landscape over time. The age of the sediment cores was determined by radiocarbon dating.

So, from 1000 B.C.E. to 600 C.E., what they found was a baffling decrease in pollen from grain staples such as wheat just as the population was growing. There should have been more cereal cultivation, not less. Yet in that time, the proportion of olive and vine pollen increased.

Why would local farmers plant olives and vines instead of grains at a time of rising demand for staples? The answer has to be that they were “cash cropping” – growing things they could sell. Southern Greece, the authors suggest, had an export economy based primarily on olive oil as early as the Archaic period.

Temple of Zeus, Athens.Credit: LOUIZA VRADI/REUTERS

We knew oil and wine were being laboriously rowed around the Mediterranean: both were being exported from Israel, too, at least in later times. Shipwrecks laden with the telltale amphorae that were used to transport edibles, from cereals and liquids, litter the bottom of the Mediterranean, but they’re an inexact indicator of scale. This palynology study brings solid data to the table.

By the way, one solid datum the study doesn’t bring to the table is what cereal the ancient Greeks were growing or scorning.

“Quite often, the resolution [of pollen data] is just that it’s cereal,” Izdebski explains. “But written sources show wheat was preferred.” Which doesn’t mean it was the most widely consumed, just that it was a favorite when it could be had. Apparently the common folk ate barley, the more “casual grain,” he says. Rice hadn’t quite made it over from Asia just yet and the less said about millet, the better.

From mud to market

To validate palynology as a gauge for economic activity, the researchers tested their thesis of early market integration with other proxies. One was pollen data from Roman times (a thousand years later than ancient Greece) versus known shipwrecks from the same time.

Amphorae on the seabed at Ventotene.Credit: AP

Let us explain. Archaeologists have been gauging the scope of maritime trade, at least, and economic activity of coastal regions, by shipwrecks for some time. Now the researchers compared the gauge of pollen evidence for economic activity with shipwreck evidence in both Greek and, as a control, better-known Roman times.

Restricting their analysis to drowned ships from the pertinent periods and regions, they found the trend in shipwrecks was consistent with the trends found in cereal, olive and vine pollen.

In the Roman period, pollen and wrecks in the seabed mud both indicate an economic boom in the first and second centuries C.E., decline in the fourth and fifth centuries, and a smaller boom in the sixth century. So the palynology thesis holds up.

They also looked at the prevalence of “industrial size” wine and oil presses in Greek and Roman times, albeit not in Greece itself, and found further support for their theories: “The presence of these machines, although not located in Greece, indicates a pattern of broad economic trends in the region and changing incentives for the production of large quantities of olive oil and wine,” they write. “Again, the researchers found that trends in archaeological findings of oil and wine presses were consistent with trends in cereal, olive and vine pollen.”

Furthermore, they observed that as the population grew, insofar as we know, the pollen from wild, uncultivated landscapes decreased.

Shipwrecks discovered off Naxos Island.Credit: Frode Kvalo

What about Israel, where archaeological evidence abounds, including indications of agricultural specialization going back centuries and more?

Indeed, Izdebski notes, evidence in the form of Sea of Galilee sediments and pollen profiles indicates large-scale intensification of olive cultivation in the Galilee after the second Jewish uprising in the 130s, which persisted until the Caliphate invasion in the 630s, which rolled over the Galilee and Jordan Valley. Come the Byzantine period, the Negev was a major wine production area, for export; and Gaza wines were well-known and prized in antiquity.

Let us sum up that archaeology can debunk many a pretension we cherish, such as the beneficence of prehistoric humans; it can demonstrate that humankind was more advanced than we thought, way earlier than we thought; and here it shows that our stabs at market economics in medieval or early modern times, after 1500 C.E., when what are now Italy and the Netherlands were importing grain from the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, respectively, were perhaps not as innovative as we thought.

Israel today imports about 90 percent of the grain Israelis and farm animals consume, and exports mainly flowers, to Europe. Maybe we are merely carrying on a tradition that goes back much farther than we thought.

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