Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Free Trade in Ancient Greece

Over on EconLog, Arnold Kling repeatedly claims that there was no trading of produced goods in the ancient world (or before the Modern Era), but only of plundered goods. While there is little doubt that there were plundered goods as a part of economic activity in the ancient world, there is a great deal of evidence of actual market activity. Certainly the Silk Road, the famous trading route, was an important element of ancient trade.

I'm reading Bill Greene's book "Common Genius" and in it he talks about how late intellectuals are to recognizing what is happening in the world. The other thing intellectuals do is come up with theories that, no matter how much evidence to the contrary there is against it. will stick with that theory. I and many others have provided quite a bit of evidence for ancient trade practices, but no amount of evidence seems sufficient for Kling. Never mind the textual evidence I have supplied. Never mind the archeological evidence. Kling has a theory, and he's sticking to it! I guess free market intellectuals are no less prone to this than are Leftist ones. It was not uncommon until the Modern Era for writers to be concerned only with heroes and leaders and not with the common man (who would have been doing the trading). One of the benefits of comedians is that their material was often the common man. This is why I repeatedly recommended Aristophanes to Kling as a source, since Aristophanes repeatedly talks about the disruption of trade as a problem caused by the Athenian war with Sparta.

In the "Acharnians," Dicaeopolis is in Athens and complaining about the war and how he is "longing hopelessly for peace, loathing town and homesick for my village . . . where you don't hear cried of "Buy my charcoal," "Buy my vinegar," "Buy my oil." My village doesn't include the word "buy" in its vocabulary but simply produces all that's needed --- with not a "buy" person in the offing." (7, Paul Roche, tr.)

Dicaeopolis here is complaining about all the people in Athens trying to sell him things. Realistically, did these people who were trying to sell him charcoal, vinegar, and oil get those goods through plunder? Or did they grow and produce those things?

The translator himself supplies evidence of trade between towns in a footnote on pg. 10 that "Sardian dye was one of the many items of luxury from the city of Sardis, the capital of the kingdom of Lydia in western Asia Minor." Yes, that's right, "exported."

In the play, Dicaeopolis manages to get a private treaty with those Athens is at war with, and then announces "And I for my part announce free trade between me and all Spartans, Megarians, and Boeotians" (33). In other words, goods he has will be traded with goods from these three cities. Of course, one could argue that he will only be getting plundered goods. Well, fortunately, Aristophanes provides us with a list of goods from these cities. A Megarian comes to sell his two girls (a case for plunder, true, as these are to become slaves), but Dicaeopolis asks him if he has salt or garlic (40), so he's expecting something the Megarian has gathered, grown or bought from someone else. Later (42), he mentions "figs from Phibalis." Phibalis was "a district in Attica known for its early figs." They no doubt made good money shipping their early figs to the various cities before their fig crops came in.

Later a Boeotian comes to sell the following to Dicaeopolis: "oregano, chamomile, lamp wicks, doormats, daws, ducks, cormorants, coots, plovers, snipe, quail" (46) and "geese, hares, foxes, moles, hedgehogs, cats, badgers, weasels, Lake Copais eels" (47). Dicaeopolis decides to buy some eels, complaining that he had had to wait "six years for her" (47). It seems that Athens was lacking all of these things they had commonly received from Boeotia in trade, which had been disrupted due to the war with Boeotia.

There is even something as modern as a "market tariff" (47) Dicaeopolis charges.

And what does the Boeotian want? "Something Athens 'as and us Boeotians 'aven't" (47). Sounds like the very purpose of trade to me. In fact, when Dicaeopolis offers sardines or pottery, the Boeotian refuses them, saying they have plenty of them at home (48).

When it becomes obvious to everyone that Dicaeopolis is making a fortune engaging in free trade for goods produces inthe cities Athens is at war with, other come begging him for a piece of his peace treaty.

Dicaeopolis is a simple man, not a leader of Athens by any means, who simply wants some peace so he can engage in free trade and live the good life. You won't read about people like Dicaeopolis in the Histories or in the works of Plato or Aristotle, or in the tragedies, but this kind of common man is typical of comedies. The comedies can thus, if we know how to read them, give us some insight into the way the common man lived, and thus too how the economies of the time worked. Sure, there was a slave trade -- but this was found throughout the world at the time, in every culture. Naturally, slaves were originally created through capture in wars and raids. But many countries engaged in trade -- particularly the Greek city-states, where language, religion, and culture were shared. It seems quite clear to me from just this one play by Aristophanes that free trade of freely grown, gathered, hunted, and/or traded goods was common between the city-states during times of peace. If this were not the case, how could Aristophanes be lamenting its loss?
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