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Economy and Society In Classical Greece

The economic and social structure of classical Greece, including the colonies it sent out around the Mediterranean, had many features in common with other agricultural civilizations. It particularly resembled other civilizations in which an invading, warlike group settled down to agriculture. Thus, while 8th-century Greece depended clearly on farming, it had an aristocracy based on ownership of large estates and special claims to military service. At the same time many farmers were independent, owning their plots of land and claiming some political and social status just as tribal soldiers had once done. But - again in a common pattern - the Greek economy evolved, particularly as trade rose and cities grew. Social structure became accordingly more complex, and inequalities widened in many ways.

There were also, however, distinctive features in the Greek pattern. Because mainland Greece was so rocky and mountainous, discouraging easy grain growing, many city-states came to depend unusually heavily on seagoing trade (and colonies). Frequent wars and colonization produced abundant opportunities to seize slaves, and classical Mediterranean society maintained greater dependence on slavery than was true of Indian or Chinese civilizations in the same period. Correspondingly, while Greece developed many craft products, somewhat less attention was paid to the improvement of manufacturing technology than either China or India displayed. This reflected Greek concern for science as a philosophical system rather than a collection of useful empirical data. It also reflected widespread slavery, which reduced the need to think about better ways to produce because many of the hardest tasks were done by cheap, coerced labor.

The pronounced aristocratic tone persisted in society as well as politics, based on the importance of the landed elite. Despite important differences among political forms, aristocratic assemblies and officials formed the most coherent single city-state theme in Greek politics. Aristocrats had the time to devote to political life as the Greeks defined it, and they argued that they brought special virtues, of education and disinterest, to the political process. Aristocratic cultural patronage also helped give shape to Mediterranean art, literature, and the education of aristocratic youth (boys above all).

The aristocratic tenor of Greek society showed in the ambiguous position of merchants. Greece progressively became involved with growing trade. Yet aristocratic suspicion of merchant values persisted, particularly among conservatives who blasted change in the name of traditional austerity. Sparta, which had unusually fertile land, tried to downplay trade altogether. The deliberately cumbersome coinage discouraged commerce, while aristocratic estate-owners concentrated on directing a semi-slave population of farm workers. Even in bustling Athens, most merchants were foreigners (mainly from the Middle East). Overall, merchants held higher status in the classical Mediterranean than in Confucian China, but their standing was less firm than in India.

Rural Life And Agriculture

The bulk of the population of the Greek and Hellenistic world was rural. The agricultural base of Mediterranean society must be kept in mind even though the leading political and cultural activities occurred in cities. Rural peoples preserved distinctive rituals and beliefs. Many Greek farmers, for example, annually gathered for a spring passion play to celebrate the recovery of the goddess of fertility from the lower world, an event that was seen as a vital preparation for planting and that also carried hints of the possibility of life after death - a prospect important to many people who endured a life of hard labor and poverty. A substantial population of free farmers played a vital role in the early politics of the Greek city-states.

At the same time there was a constant tendency for large landlords to force these farmers to become tenants or laborers or to join the swelling crowds of the urban lower class. Tensions between tyrants and aristocrats, as well as between democratic reformers and aristocratic conservatives, often revolved around farmers' attempts to preserve their independence and shake off the heavy debts they had incurred. Waves of popular protest were not uncommon. Class tension was encouraged by special features of Greek agriculture. Farming was complicated by the fact that soil conditions were not ideal for grain growing, and yet grain was the staple of life. As Greek society advanced, there was a natural tendency to specialize in cash crops, which would allow importation of grain from areas more appropriate to its production - parts of the northern Middle East, Sicily, and North Africa. In mainland Greece, production of olives and grapes for cooking oil and wine making spread widely. The products were well suited to soil conditions, but they required capital to install - a five-year wait was necessary before either vines or olive trees would begin to yield significant fruit. To convert to olives and grapes, farmers went into debt and often failed; aristocratic estate owners with more abundant resources converted more successfully, buying up the land of failed farmers in the process.

Mediterranean agriculture thus became unusually market-oriented. Compared to other agricultural civilizations, relatively few farmers produced simply for their own needs, except in the early period before civilization fully developed. Imports of basic foods were more extensive here than in India or China. This was one obvious spur to empire: to try to assure access to adequate grain supplies. Greek expansion pushed out mainly toward sources of grain in Sicily and around the Black Sea.

Large estate agriculture gained further momentum in the Hellenistic kingdoms. Vast estates spread in Egypt and the Middle East, requiring specialized banks and financial agents. Elements of this capitalistic agriculture affected Mediterranean history later under both the Roman Empire and Arab rule. The system also helped generate the surpluses needed for spreading Hellenistic culture and its urban monuments.

For peasants themselves, the importance of commercial farming created an unusual tendency for farming families to cluster in small towns rather than the villages typical of other parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Towns of a few thousand people provided trading facilities for grain and other goods, while the peasants who lived there could still travel to the surrounding fields for work. These rural agglomerations would remain typical around the Mediterranean even after the classical period had ended and the region underwent new political and cultural divisions.

The importance of trade in basic goods dictated extensive concern with commercial arrangements, despite the ambiguous status of merchants themselves. Private merchants operated most of the ships that carried foodstuffs and other goods. But Greek governments supervised the grain trade, providing not only transportation facilities but also storage depots to try to minimize the chance of famines. Other kinds of trade were vital also. Luxury products from the shops of urban artists and craftworkers played a vital role in the life-style of the upper classes, and some commodities, such as tools and pots, were sold more widely. There also was some trade beyond the borders of the Mediterranean civilization for goods from India and China.

Slavery And Production

Slavery was another key ingredient of the classical Mediterranean economy. Philosophers, such as Aristotle, produced elaborate justifications for the necessity of slavery to a proper society, for without slaves how would aristocrats learn what must be learned to maintain culture or have the time to cultivate political virtue? Slaves were acquired as a result of wars, unusually frequent in the Mediterranean world compared to China and India. Athenians used slaves for household service and also as workers in their vast silver mines, which hastened the progress of Athens's empire and commercial operations, although working conditions were appallingly bad. Sparta used helots, or unfree labor, extensively for agricultural work. The Spartan system relied less on prisoners taken from war, for it was imposed by Indo-European conquerors over previous residents in the area. Of the approximately 270,000 people in 5th-century Athens 80,000 to 100,000 were slaves, while helots in Sparta outnumbered their masters by a ratio of nearly ten to one. In cities such as Athens some slaves enjoyed considerable independence and could earn money on their own. Manumission, or freeing, of valued slaves was also common. Yet slave systems also required extensive military controls.

Slavery also helps explain why Greece was not especially interested in technological innovations applicable to agriculture or manufacturing. The Greeks made important advances in shipbuilding and navigation, which were vital for their trading economy. But technology designed to improve production of food or manufactured goods did not figure largely in this civilization. Abundant slave labor probably discouraged concern for more efficient production methods. So did a sense that the true goals of humankind were artistic and political. One Hellenistic scholar, for example, refused to write a handbook on engineering because "the work of an engineer and everything that ministers to the needs of life is ignoble and vulgar." As a result of this outlook, Mediterranean society lagged behind both India and China in production technology. Population growth, also, was less substantial. A host of features of Greek life, including aspects of politics, thus hinged on the slave system and its requirements.

Greek Patriarchy

Greek society emphasized the importance of a tight family structure, with husband and father firmly in control. Women had vital economic functions, particularly in farming and artisan families. A woman with a powerful personality could command a major place within a household, and a free woman's responsibility for family possessions was protected by law. Socrates spent so much time teaching in the marketplace because of his wife Xantippe's sharp tongue when he was at home. But in law and culture, women were held inferior. Even the activities of free women were directed toward their husbands' interests. The raping of a free woman, though a crime, was a lesser offense than seducing her, since seduction meant winning her affections away from her husband. Families burdened with too many children sometimes put female infants to death. Pericles stated common beliefs about women when he noted, "For a woman not to show more weakness than is natural to her sex is a great glory, and not to be talked about for good or for evil among men." On the other hand, the oppression of women was probably less severe in this civilization than in China, for many Greek women were active in business and controlled a substantial minority of all urban property holdings.

Though Greek culture represented women abundantly as goddesses, often with revered powers, and celebrated the female form as well as male form in art, the real cultural status of women was low. Aristotle even argued that women provided only an abode for a child developing before birth, as male seed alone continued the full germ of the child. Marriages were arranged by a woman's father; husbands could divorce wives at will, whereas women had to go to court. Adultery was tolerated for men, but was grounds for divorce in the case of women. Even within the upper-class household, where women had vital functions including supervision of domestic slaves, men entertained in separate rooms.


Relations between men and women in Greek society, at least in the aristocracy, help explain the Greek attitude toward homosexuality. Upper-class boys and girls were often brought up separately, which increased the likelihood of homosexual relationships. While some Athenians ridiculed homosexual love, most saw love affairs between two young people of the same sex as a normal stage of life. Homosexuality was not defined as an exclusive preference, and many people in later life emphasized heterosexuality. Older men sometimes took younger men as partners, a practice which the philosopher Plato and others praised as a means of training the young in practical wisdom. Spartans stressed same-sex love as a means of inspiring heroic deeds in battle. Some contemporary psychologists have speculated that the Greeks' frank acceptance of homosexual impulses limited neurosis among adults, without conflict with substantial devotion to marriage.

Social Divisions

As with many aspects of Greek culture, homosexuality was almost certainly more pronounced in the aristocracy than in other social groups. Male and female peasants and urban workers worked together and generally mingled more freely, which may have promoted greater emphasis on heterosexuality, and these groups simply lacked the time for some of the more elaborate sexual arrangements.

Other cultural divisions complicated Greek society. Peasants shared beliefs in the gods and goddesses about which the playwrights wrote, but their religious celebrations were largely separate from those of the upper classes. At times Greek peasants showed their interest in some of the more emotional religious practices imported from the Middle East, which provided more color than the official ceremonies of the Greek pantheon and spiced the demanding routines of work.

Different beliefs reflected and furthered the real social tensions of Greek and Hellenistic societies, particularly as these societies became more commercial and large estates challenged the peasant desire for independent property ownership. Popular rebellions did not succeed in dislodging the landowning aristocracy, but they contributed to a number of political shifts in classical Greece and to the ultimate decline in the political stability of the city-states and later the Hellenistic kingdoms.

Interestingly, conditions for women improved somewhat in the Hellenistic period, in an atypical trend. Artists and playwrights began to display more interest in women and their conditions. Women in Hellenistic cities appeared more freely in public, and some aristocratic women gained new functions, for example, in forming cultural clubs. A number of queens exercised great power, often ruling harshly. Cratesiclea, the mother of a Hellenistic king in Sparta, willingly served as a hostage to help form an alliance with a more powerful state; she reputedly said, "send me away, wherever you think this body of mine will be most useful to Sparta." More widely, Hellenistic women began to take an active role in commerce, though they still needed male guardianship over property.

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