Saturday, October 1, 2016
But if you read the many hundreds of books written about Athens in the classical period, you could be forgiven for imagining that all those philosophers, poets, artists, politicians and generals existed in a world where the mundanities of making a living and raising a family didn't exist.
This may be because the authors of those books thought that, beside the glories of Athens' literature, art, architecture and history, mere economics wasn't worth mentioning. Soo boring, darling.
Or it may be that, in the minds of the authors of earlier centuries - maybe even in the minds of the Athenians themselves - an association with "trade" carried a social stigma. Like using the lavatory, it was a necessary evil not to be mentioned in polite society.
But when Peter Acton, who studied classics at Oxford but ended up as a management consultant, finally got the chance, he decided to search out whatever information he could find to set the record straight and complete the picture of Athenian life.
Athens' classical period ran from the defeat of the second Persian invasion of Greece under Xerxes to when Athens and the rest of Greece came under the control of Alexander the Great. So, the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.
Whatever they did to keep body and soul together that long ago must have been small and primitive, right?
Well, no. Acton found Athens at the time had a large and thriving manufacturing sector, defined broadly to include both mining and construction.
He set out his discoveries in the book Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens, which I'll summarise. "Poiesis" comes from the same Greek root as "poetry", but means "to make".
It seems the Athenians had a lot of manufactured items in their homes. They were at the stage of economic development where the more accoutrements you could acquire, the better off you were (whereas we're closer to satiation with goods and prefer acquiring experiences).
"Athenian Man was as likely as not to have made many of the products used in his own home and probably depended for a good part of his sustenance on manufacturing for sale," Acton says.
"However rich he was, his wives and daughters would make their own clothes, working alongside some of their slaves and perhaps supervising others in the household's workshop.
"Every time he went outside, he would be surrounded by evidence of production: the smells and the smoke of smithies and pottery furnaces, the clack of looms, the hammering of carpenters and sculptors, carts rattling through the streets full of stone or wood or bales of fine cloth or jars of imported oils."
It seems likely that more than half the city's residents would have spent at least some of their time manufacturing products for sale or home consumption, Acton estimates.
This would involve almost all the slaves, of course, either helping with household production or working in a gang for one owner.
"A reasonable estimate is that around a quarter of the free population of all status levels, men and women, worked at making things," he says.
Manufacturing activity ranged in size. "It is a common mistake to see manufacturing as having undergone a steady progression from self-sufficiency based on home crafts to mechanised mass production.
"In reality, individual craftsmen, small workshops, co-operative production arrangements and large factories have coexisted over millennia in various societies, not least in classical Athens."
Although written accounts of economic life are sparse, archaeological finds are a different matter. Material evidence gives us clues about the occupations followed.
Wood, for instance, suggests foresters, sawyers, carpenters, furniture makers and boat builders. Stone suggests quarrymen, stonemasons, sculptors, mosaicists and haulers.
Metals imply miners, blacksmiths, armourers, silversmiths, goldsmiths and coiners. Clay implies potters and tilers; hides say tanners and cobblers; reeds say rope and basket makers; herbs say healers and perfumers, and wool says fullers, dyers and weavers.
Manufacturing, Acton contends, was the great leveller. Whereas agriculture was real capitalism, contributing to social inequality, trade and industry helped to level income and status.
"The social mobility, employment opportunities and relatively even distribution of wealth that accompanied the rise of commerce helped Athens to avoid the revolutions that the Peleponnese suffered regularly."
By Acton's estimate, the classical Athenians enjoyed a high standard of living - not just compared with other people at the time, but even compared with any other society until recently.
Economic growth in Greece was up to 0.9 per cent a year, twice as fast as in England and Holland before the Industrial Revolution.
By classical times the basic daily wage was about six times that required for subsistence, and half Athens' population lived a life that was better than the typical Briton's in the 18th century.
Conspicuous consumption became increasingly common in the fourth century BCE. "Some couches and tables were highly ornate and inlaid with gold or silver.
"Men and women wore jewellery of outstanding craftsmanship and decorative ceramics or silverware for festivals might take several years of work."
Health, as measured by bone density, increased rapidly, even though urbanisation tends to have the opposite effect.
Houses, though not luxurious, were large and comfortable, typically with roof space larger than the median single detached house in the United States in 1997. The extra space accommodated more furniture and possessions.
Athens engaged in much trade. Massive imports of grain allowed her farmers to pursue their comparative advantage, producing olive oil and wine for export.
They also imported luxury items such as fine cloth, spices, dyestuffs and precious metals, often for further processing in Athens.
But it was rich in raw materials, including marble, limestone, clay and silver.
Sounds like Athenians then were doing better in relative terms than many of them are today.