POIESIS: MANUFACTURING IN CLASSICAL ATHENS

CfAR (March 2015)

by Peter Acton

OUP (2014) h/b 384pp £47.99 (ISBN 9780199335930)

Moses Finley, finding no analysis of economics in our ancient sources, took the view that one could not apply modern economic concepts to the ancient world. A. sets out to demonstrate that this is nonsense. Following Keynes, he argues that the absence of economic analysis is neither here nor there. Humans were as (ir)rational then as now, and common sense about profit and loss was just as common. It does not require verbal theory to make it sensible.

he fact is, A. argues, that however contemptuous philosophers and the rich may have been about trade, the evidence shows that half the population was at it some of the time (for home use or sale, e.g. virtually all clothing was made by the women of the household), and probably a quarter of the free population manufactured things full time. Evidence of crafts, industry, manufacturing – metalwork (miners, blacksmiths, armourers, silversmiths etc.), woodwork (foresters, sawyers, carpenters, furniture makers, boat-builders), woolworkers, pottery – retailing, workshops and so on was everywhere. ‘Agriculture was the real capitalism, contributing to social inequality, and trade and industry the great levellers’.

Some businesses were one-man or two-man operations, a family man and woman with a slave/apprentice, everyone mucking in and learning on the job e.g. pottery and weaving. A small family pottery, for example, could produce enough to keep going, but no more: the size of the operation militated against competitive advantage. But this was not seen as an ‘investment opportunity’: it was a means of survival. Women too played a large part in this economic activity, supervising resources and contributing products. A. reckons it was the Industrial Revolution that alienated women from the management of production.

Bigger businesses employed slave gangs, and here competitive advantage came into the equation. These businesses would pay the slave-owners a fixed sum, and take the remaining profit. The 159 existing law-court speeches, many being about commerce (money bought the best advocates), reveal a great deal about such operations; they suggest a flourishing manufacturing sector.

A. submits each ‘industry’ to careful analysis from the evidence that survives: pottery, metalworking, textiles, woodworking, construction, and food and drink, and finally looks at the manufacturers in a supply-and-demand analysis, with an appendix quantifying manufacturing participation (A. reckons of 140,000 adult males, 63,000 would be working full-time [54,000 being slaves] and 40,000 part-time; of 110,000 females, 25,000 would be full time [20,000 of them slaves], and 58,000 part-time).

This is to scratch the surface of a beautifully written, fully documented work of the very highest importance—a real game-changer in our understanding of the ancient economy.

Peter Jones

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