Business in Ancient Greece

Trading what you have for what you don’t have is the basis for the idea of import and export. Civilizations throughout time have used this trade of goods to survive and thrive. As early as Homer and Hesiod, we can see written evidence of the existence of trade and merchants to buy and sell goods. This simple form of exchange is at the heart of business all over the world.

Ancient Greece relied heavily on imported goods. Their economy was defined by that dependence. Agricultural trade was of great importance because the soil in Greece was of poor quality which limited crop production. However, some food items could be produced in the Mediterranean climate such as olives, olive oil, figs, honey, meat, cheeses, and wine. These items were traded domestically among the various city-states in Ancient Greece. These could also be exchanged for other necessary items from other countries. In addition to food, Greek pottery was also valued. Ancient Greece’s position in the Mediterranean allowed them to control some crucial trade routes and seaports. Some popular imports at the time were salt fish, wheat, papyrus, wood, glass, and metals such as tin, copper and silver.

In addition to trade with products, the Greek’s also used currency. The drachma was a silver coin used by the ancient Greeks. The drachma dates back to the mid-6th century BC and is one of the world’s earliest coins. One drachma was valued to be equal to a handful of arrows. By the 5th century BC, the Athenian drachma became the preferred version of the coin and the monetary unit used throughout the Hellenistic world. Eventually, the drachma evolved into other types of coins and currency types.

The government was not heavily involved in the trade business of ancient Greece except when it came to grain. Grain was vital to the survival of the Greek people and was controlled by purchasers known as sitones. Officials ensured the quality of the grain that went to the markets to be sold and prices were regulated.

Taxes were a part of the ancient Greek business system. They were imposed on the movement of goods through road and transit taxes. Levies were placed on imports and exports at the seaports. Special courts were established and private banks were able to perform currency exchanges and protect deposits.

Taxes in Ancient Greece were progressive. This means the taxes were imposed on the wealthy who were the most able to pay them. They thought of taxation as a matter of ethics. They believed that a society’s liberty or oppression was expressed through their system of taxation. Income was not taxed. Taxes were, for the most part, voluntary. They were considered “liturgy” which in ancient Greek literally translated to “the work of the people.”

This idea had its roots in mythology. Prometheus created humanity and was its greatest benefactor. The Goddess Athena gave the olive tree to be a symbol of prosperity and peace. The idea was that the rich should absorb the expenses of the city such as improvements to infrastructure or for military spending. Those that gave the funds for a project received honor and prestige. Sometimes, they competed to be the most honorable, resulting in many new buildings constructed while the wealthy sought these accolades.

The liturgy with the highest prestige was donating funds for the navy. The seaports were a crucial part of the business of ancient Greece and they had to be protected. The benefactor to the navy was known as a trierarch. They were responsible for building and maintaining warships. These warships kept the ports and waterways safe from pirates. In some cases, the trierarch was also responsible for the operation of the warship. He could, however, hire a specialist do that type of work.

Another thing funded by the wealthy were festivals and events. The Panathenaic Games were a theatrical festival paid for by these funds. The benefactor had to select a team and fund its training to prepare to participate in athletic, dramatic, or musical contests during festivals held primarily in Athens. The trophies won would often be shared with the contestants and some of them survive today to be viewed and enjoyed by modern people.

General Ancient Greece Resources

Ancient Greek Economics

Ancient Currencies


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