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Athens - The Economic History

Athens' grain trade

Sometime around 600 B.C., Athens is believed to have started importing grain, rather than relying on domestic production. The soils of Egypt and the Black Sea were more fertile and conditions in those regions made grain production more efficient. Athens' grain trade may have been one of the earliest examples of comparative advantage. (Comparative advantage is the modern economic concept which argues that a nation should specialize in the production and export of products it produces most efficiently. It should import the products which are more efficiently produced by other countries.) Despite its shortcomings, Athenian soil could still produce olives and oil efficiently, and these became the major agricultural export products.

It is not entirely clear what the economic significance of this agricultural transformation was. Was it part of the normal development of the Athenian economy? - or, was it an extraordinary happening which freed Athens from the shackles of inefficiency, propelling her economy into its most productive period? Did the elimination of an inefficient economic activity contribute substantially to an overall increase in productivity? - or, did a productive economic system offer a wider range of options, when it came to getting rid of unproductive segments?

The cancellation of debt

The agricultural conditions which caused Athens to import grain began to create political turmoil around 600 B.C. It is believed that tenant farmers were paying rent equivalent to a sixth of their production, hence they were known as "sixth-parters." Those who could not pay their rent could be sold by the landlord into slavery. In 594 Solon would order the cancellation of debt and the freeing of those sold into slavery, a proclamation known as the "Seisactheia." While Solon's proclamation was a bold move, it could not really solve the problem of meager agricultural output and competition between workers for jobs. Debt and slavery, while problems in themselves, were also symptomatic of underlying agricultural problems.

The unemployment problem

From an economic perspective, poor soil was only one problem Athens had to deal with. There are indications that unemployment was a substantial and on-going problem for much of Athens' history. Solon's reforms encouraged economic diversity and trade. If more people began to leave agriculture, there are indications that Athens had problems keeping them employed. Even if they found work, there are indications that many were not fully benefiting from Athens' economy. Around 561-0 B.C., Pisistratus, an Athenian political leader, formed a party called the Hill. It was called the Hill because its members were poor hillsmen from the highlands, but it also included the poorer classes in Athens. The Hill party provided him with the physical backing to seize control of the government. There are indications that, in 508-7, discontent with economic conditions was sufficiently strong that civil war broke into the open. It was at this time that Sparta was asked to intervene. The leader Isagoras would try to have 700 families expelled.

The problem of a large, economically discontented, class prompted Cleisthenes to attempt an organizational restructuring of the Athenian government. His solution was to dilute the power of the lower classes by distributing their members among the 10 new tribes. No longer could the members of a party, such as the Hill, be able to organize themselves. Instead, they were assigned to the different tribes and had to exercise their power through the tribe.

Pericles solution to the problem of a discontented, poor, and unemployed populace, was not a structural change in government. Instead, he used the resources of the League of Delos to fund his building program. His solution required access to some extraordinary revenue source. It was successful, insofar as it helped maintain political calm, but it was an expensive program. If Athens was prosperous, her wealth came at the expense of the members of the League.

Economic Chronology

610-590 - Athens colonizes areas of the Hellespont
Athens begins importing grain
594-3 - Archonship of Solon
Siesachthia - Freeing of "sixth-parters
Cancellation of debt
Athenian economy begins to diversify 561-60 - Pisistratus seizes tyranny at Athens
Distributes land to poor; provides loans to farmers
Encourages settlements in Ionia
528-27 - Death of Pisistratus
Hippias assumes power
514 - Conspiracy of Harmodius and Aristogiton
510 - Fall of the Pisistratid tyranny.
501 - Reforms of Cleisthenes
Institution of the Ten strategoi of the tribes at Athens
Each tribe contains three regions: the city, the coast and inland
483-2 - Discovery of silver bed in Laurion district
482 - Themistocles' decree to build Athenian fleet
479 - Ionian revolt from Persia
477 - Foundation of Confederacy of Delos
454 - Confederacy treasury transferred from Delos to Athens
449-48 - Athens negotiates peace with Persia
448-7 - Pericles persuades Athenians to continue League levies
Tribute to be used to rebuilt Athenian temples
447 - Construction of the Parthenon begins
432 - Revolt of Potidaea
Completion of the Parthenon
Start of the Peloponnesian War
415 - Athenian expedition to Sicily
413 - Destruction of Athenian expeditionary force
412 - Athenian allies revolt
411 - Revolts at Rhodes, Abydus, Lampsacus, Thasos, and Euboea
Council of Four Hundred takes over Athenian government
Deposed after four months
410 - Democracy restored to Athens
Cleophon uses public works projects to provide employment
405 - Spartan naval forces under Lysander blockade Athens
404 - Athens surrenders
Long Walls pulled down
The "Thirty" assume control of Athenian government
403 - Fall of the Thirty
399 - Death of Socrates
395 - Athens begins to rebuild the Long Walls
395-4 - Athens joins confederation against Sparta
393 - Completion of Long Walls