Project Outline

The Objective is to find information on trade by ancient Athens and other nations of that period or earlier and to answer the following:

  • How far did they trade?
  • What did they use for payment?
  • What did they trade?
  • What was the impact on the local economy and society?

Research Information


  • Ancient Greek civilization flourished from around 776 to 30 B.C. in what are called the Archaic (776-480), Classical (480-323), and Hellenistic (323-30) periods.
  • The ancient Greeks did engage in economic activity. They produced and exchanged goods both in local and long distance trade and had monetary systems to facilitate their exchanges.
  • Trading stations played an important role as the furthest outposts of Greek culture. Here, Greek goods, such as pottery, bronze, silver and gold vessels, olive oil, wine, and textiles, were exchanged for luxury items and exotic raw materials that were in turn worked by Greek craftsmen. The Greeks established trading enclaves within existing local communities in the Levant, such as at Al Mina. In the Nile Delta, the port town of Naukratis (1972.118.142) served as a commercial headquarters for Greek traders in Egypt.

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  • Some of the most spectacular and informative finds in recent years have been made under the waters of the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas by what is known as marine (or nautical) archaeology. Ancient shipwrecks containing goods for trade have opened new doors to the study of ancient Greek merchant vessels, manufacturing, and trade.
  • Pottery finds can tell us about pottery manufacture and trade. The vase types indicate the goods they contained, such as olive oil, wine, or grain. The distribution of finds of ancient pottery can, therefore, tell us the extent of trade in various goods. Finds of hoarded coins are also invaluable for the information they reveal about the volume of coins minted by a given state at a given time and the extent to which a state's coinage was distributed geographically.
  • Foreign-born, free non-citizen transients known as xenoi also played an important role in the ancient Greek economy, since it is apparent that many, though certainly not all, those who carried out long-distance trade were such men.
  • The 5th century and the Athenian Empire gave birth to an amazing amount of accomplishments. One such accomplishment was the minting of standard Athenian coins that were used throughout the Athenian holdings as valid for trade.

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The Finley model and its Aftermath

  • At present the most widely accepted model of the ancient Greek economy is that which was first set forth by Moses Finley in 1973. This view owes much to the Weber-Hasebroek-Polanyi line of analysis and holds that the ancient Greek economy was fundamentally different from the market economy that predominates in most of the world today. Not only was the ancient Greek economy much smaller in scale than economies today, it also differed greatly in quality.
  • With limited technology and no understanding of economies of scale, cities were not hubs of industry, and manufacturing existed only on a small scale. Their contribution to the economy was only to demand the surplus produce of the countryside, manufacture limited amounts of goods, and provide market places and ports of trade for the exchange of goods.
  • Modern states undertake policies with specifically economic goals, desiring in particular to make their national economy more productive, to expand or grow, thereby increasing the capital wealth of the state. Ancient Greek city-states, on the other hand, had an interest and involvement in what we would call economic activities like trade, minting coins, production, etc.

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In Archaic Period (776-480)B.C.

  • Athens entered the Archaic Period in the same way so many of its neighbors, as a city-state ruled by a basileus or "king". The land around Athens was agriculturally rich and the city had a harbor so that it could trade easily with city-states around the Aegean. The power of the basileus slowly faded; underneath the basileus was a council of nobles, which were called the Areopagus. In the eighth century BC, these nobles gradually became very wealthy, particularly off of the cash crops of wine and olive oil, both of which require great wealth to get started.
  • Without large-scale manufacturing, safety from brigands on land and pirates at sea, and a monetary system employing coinage (until late in the sixth century), markets were necessarily small, devoted to local products, and certainly not interconnected into a price-setting market economy. Trade was limited mostly to local exchanges between the countryside and the urban center of city-states.

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In Classical Period (480-323)B.C.

  • The Classical Period of the history of Ancient Greece featured an intense rivalry with the mighty Empire of the Persians. In 479 B.C. a League of Greek states, under a Spartan general, decisively overwhelmed Xerxes' forces at Plataea.From these times Athens recovered in trade and influence and entered upon what is known to history as its Golden Age (479-431 B.C.). Athenian trade centered upon the nearby harbour at Piraeus recovered. A statesman named Pericles ruled in Athens 460-430 B.C. and encouraged an ambitious rebuilding of the city.

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In Hellenistic Period (320-30)B.C.

  • Alexanders accession is considered to mark the beginning of the Hellenistic Age in the history of Ancient Greece. The Ptolemaic government contracted with private traders to transport grain to and from public granaries. It also left it up to private traders to import the few goods that Egypt needed from abroad, including various metals, timber, horses, and elephants.
  • The Ptolemies barred the use of foreign coins in Egypt and required them to be turned in to government officials, melted down, and re-minted as Egyptian coinage for a fee. Although Egypt controlled gold mines in Nubia, it did not produce silver and had chronic shortages of silver coins for daily transactions. Thus, many exchanges were performed in kind rather than in cash, even though value was always expressed in cash equivalents.

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  • The trading states of Ancient Greece, with Athens and Corinth being the most prominent, tended to export oils, wines, and pottery and to import grains to feed their hungry people.
  • Minoan Crete( Minoan civilization based on Crete that strongly flourished from 2000 -1450 B.C.) maintained an extensive network of trading links that brought influences drawn from Egypt and Mesopotamia to Crete. The Minoans exported pottery, grains, wines, and oils, and tended to import luxury materials such as precious metals, jewels, and ivory. Minoan culture gave rise to several great cities that featured stone buildings and provision for a water supply and drainage.
  • Many of the goods traded throughout ancient Greek history were luxury goods, manufactured items, such as jewelry and finely painted vases, as well as specialty agricultural products like fine wine and honey. Necessities were also traded, however, for without long-distance trade, many Greek cities would not have been able to obtain metals, timber, wine, and slaves. One of the most extensively traded necessity items was grain, which came to Athens typically from the Black Sea region, Thrace, and Egypt. According to the orator, Demosthenes, Athens imported some 400,000 medimnoi (approximately 4,800,000 liters) of grain per year in the late fourth century from the Crimean kingdom of the Bosporus alone.
  • Chiefly because of the need for certain imports, such as grain and timber, and for revenue drawn from taxes on trade, many cities did have an interest and involvement in overseas trade. Athens in particular made laws that prohibited the export of grain produced in Athens and required that loans on trading ventures be for cargoes of grain and that ships bringing grain into the Piraeus sell one-third of it on the spot and the remaining two-thirds in Athens.

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The MaritimeTrade

  • The number of shipwrecks found in the Mediterranean Sea provides valuable evidence for the development of trade in the ancient world. Only 2 shipwrecks were found that dated from the 8th century BC. However archeologists have found 46 shipwrecks dated from the 4th century BC, which would appear to indicate that there occurred a very large increase of the volume of trade between these centuries. Considering that the average ship tonnage also increased in the same period, the total volume of trade increased probably by a factor of 30.
  • The geographic position of Greece and the necessity of importing wheat forced the Greek world to engage in maritime trade. The areas which provisioned Greece with wheat were Cyrenaica, Egypt, Italy (specifically the Magna Graecia area and Sicily), and regions surrounding the Black Sea. Athens and Corinth served as waystations of exchange for the isles of the Aegean Sea. Other imported products included papyrus, spices, fabrics, metals, and shipbuilding materials such as wood, linen, and pitch, also grain was imported. For their part, Greek cities exported wine, pottery, and olive oil.
  • The main participants in Greek commerce were the class of traders known as emporoi . The state collected a duty on their cargo. At Piraeus (the main port of Athens), this tax was set initially at 1%, then at 2%. By the end of the 5th century, the tax had been raised to 33 talents . In 413, Athens ended the collection of tribute from the Delian League and imposed a 5% duty on all the ports of her empire in the hope (unrealized) of increasing revenues. These duties were never protectionist, but were merely intended to raise money for the public treasury.
  • Trade in ancient Greece was free: the state controlled only the supply of grain. In Athens, following the first meeting of the new Prytaneis, regulations on trade were reviewed, with a specialized committee overseeing the trade in wheat, flour, and bread.
Agora Commercial Weight
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  • One of a people of ancient Phoenicia.They were merchants, traders, and colonizers who probably arrived from the Persian Gulf c. 3000 BC. By the 2nd millennium BC they had colonies in the Levant, North Africa, Anatolia, and Cyprus. They traded wood, cloth, dyes, embroideries, wine, and decorative objects; ivory and wood carving became their specialties, and the work of Phoenician goldsmiths and metalsmiths was well known.
  • The Phoenicians were one of the greatest traders of their time and owe a great deal to their prosperities to trade. The Phoenicians' initial trading partners were the Greeks with whom they used to trade wood, slaves, glass and a Tyrian Purple powder. This powder was used by the Greek elite to colour clothes and other garments and was not available anywhere else. Without trade to the Greeks they would not be known as Phoenicians, as the word for Phoenician is derived from the Ancient Greek word phoinikèia meaning "purple".
  • Driven by the desire to acquire new and more cost-effective sources of raw materials and to sell their products to markets other than in their homeland, the Phoenicians covered enormous distances. They were among the first to trace routes to the western Mediterranean and beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) toward the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Europe.
  • Archaeologists have discovered that the Phoenicians used coastal and deep-water routes for both trade and voyages of discovery. Coastal sailors only sailed during the day, from one village to another, always keeping land in sight. Deep-water sailors took routes farther away from the coastline but still kept sight of land. When sailing at night, sailors kept their ship in the right direction by observing constellations and the North Star, or what the ancient world called the "Phoenician Star.
  • From elsewhere they obtained other materials, perhaps the most important being silver from Spain and tin from Great Britain, the latter of which when smelted with copper (from Cyprus) created the durable metal alloy bronze. Strabo states that there was a highly lucrative Phoenician trade with Britain for tin. Trade routes from Asia converged on the Phoenician coast as well, enabling the Phoenicians to govern trade between Mesopotamia on the one side, and Egypt and Arabia on the other.

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  • Metals were another important landed resource of Greece and so mining occupied an important place in the economy. Ancient Greeks typically used bronze and iron tools and weapons. There is little evidence that copper, the principle metal in bronze, was ever mined in abundance on mainland Greece. It had to be imported from the island of Cyprus, where it existed in large quantities, and other more distant regions. Tin, the other metal in bronze, was also rare in Greece and had to be imported from as far away as Britain. Iron is relatively plentiful throughout Greece and there is archaeological evidence of iron mining.
  • Precious metals were used in jewelry, art, and coinage. Athens had an abundance of silver and we know much about its mining industry from surviving inscriptions of government mine leases to private entrepreneurs. The mines were extremely productive, providing Athens with an income of 200 talents per year for twelve years from 338 B.C. onward. One talent was the equivalent of around nine year's worth of wages for single skilled laborer working five days a week, 52 weeks a year, according to the wage rates we know from 377 B.C. Though productive in silver, ancient Greece was not as rich in gold, which was found primarily in Thrace and on the islands of Thasos and Siphnos.

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The Ancient Greek Trade

  • Greece has a very rich tradition in maritime trade.The introduction of trade into the Greek culture was one of the most defining points in the history of ancient Greece. Simple transactions set the stage for larger scale trade to come. As trade the Greek city states (especially Athens) began to export many goods, including beautiful decorative items,and ships.
  • Cargo ships were also made of wood and averaged about 150 tons around 400 BC. These ships used sails instead of oarsmen. Later, in 240 BC, boats were weighing 350 to 500 tons. Ships began adding sails with the increase in size. Two to three masts were common. Some cargo ships were called trading ships or haulers. These ships had very deep hulls and broad beams, which helped them sail close to the wind. Haulers were usually around 60 feet long. These ships traveled at an average speed of 5 knots.
  • As trading grew, the Greeks reached markets all over the Mediterranean as well as in the far east, Egypt, and Lydia. They traded with many different kinds of people, which expanded their imports to new levels. Everything that the Greeks needed was in their reach and their economy was soaring.
  • One thing that helped trading grow in the ancient Greek world was the laws that were put in place regarding it. The state looked after the safety of the merchants in the harbors and the markets. No matter where a merchant was from, he was safe in both the market and the harbor. In return, the state charged duties on imports and exports to make money. This state helped the Greek economy and improved commerce. In this way, the state helped improve trade, while trade helped to improve the state and the lives of the people that lived in Greece.

Trading of Other Nations

  • The economy of the Kingdom of Qataban was based on the cultivation and trade of spices and aromatics including frankincense and myrrh. These were exported to the Mediterranean, India and Abyssinia where they were greatly prized by many cultures, using camels on routes through Arabia, and to India by sea.
  • The demise of the incense trade Yemen takes to the export of Coffee via the Red Sea port of al-Mocha. Due to its prominent position in the Incense trade, Yemen attracts settlers from the fertile rescent.
  • Grenada becomes involved in Spice Trade.
  • Despite the late entry of America in the spice trade merchants from Salem, Massachusetts trade profitably with Sumatra during the early half of the nineteenth century.


Trade of Rome

  • For Rome, trade was the primary way of paying the expenses of running the empire. At its height the Roman Empire was crisscrossed with trade routes all over the empire, on both land and sea. Trade prompted the Romans to build special ships just for trade and the Roman roads were built not just for the Legions, but for land trade too. The single most important trade center in the Roman world was Ostia, which was situated on the mouth of the River Tiber and only fifteen miles from Rome. Nearly all of the water borne trade went through Ostia, such as the trade goods from North Africa, Hispania (Spain), and Gaul (France), and the vital grain from Egypt. In order to make trading go as easy as possible the Romans implanted a system where only one type of currency was used in trade. The Romans primarily traded beef, corn, glassware, iron, lead, slaves, leather, marble, olive oil, perfumes, purple dye, silk, silver, spices, timber, tin, and wine.

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Trade of Carthage

  • For Carthage trade was the whole reason their empire existed. In Carthage the whole state was geared towards their lucrative trade routes. At its height the Carthaginians had trade routes that crossed the whole Mediterranean, interior Africa, and the Atlantic seaboard of Africa. There is even evidence out there that the Carthaginians reached Mexico and Southeast Asia. The Carthaginians were famous for their massive trade vessels, capable of carrying 100 tons worth of goods, which had to have a special port built for them. The Carthaginians are credited to this day with the invention of the auction. The main trade port of the Carthaginians was Carthage itself, in particular a massive circular harbor, the largest of its kind. The Carthaginians mainly traded purple dye, salt, amber, tin, sliver, furs, cinnamon, cassia (Chinese cinnamon),sesame seeds, frankincense, myrrh, ebony wood, ivory, copper, lead, gold, glass, wine, grain, fruits, nuts, fish, olive oil, pottery, and drugs.

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Trade of Persia

  • In Persia trade was simply one of the other ways to gain wealth in that empire. During the Achaemenid period of Persian history trade did not truly start until Darius I the Great instituted several reforms, some of these were geared towards trading, in particular Darius invented a careful system of weights and measures, he also encouraged the use of the new Lydian invention, coinage for trading.
  • During the Parthian period the system of Darius was largely kept intact, the Parthians however did introduce a new item into the trade system, silk. The silk trade from Han China made the already rich Parthian Empire, even richer than before, though once the silk trade began to decline and then finally go out altogether after 220 AD the Parthians lost their greatest trade good. When the Sassanians came to power they too kept Darius’ system intact, they also introduced several new trade routes, many of them going through modern Fars province and the Persian Gulf. The Sassanians introduced incense from Arabia as a new trade good; silk was traded again after the rise of the Sui and T’ang in China, but this is beyond 0 AD. For the most part the Persians primarily traded along land routes that crisscrossed their large empire, The Royal Road of the Achaemenids was the main route land trade followed, they also had sea routes, but these were primarily on the Persian Gulf only.
  • The Persians did not have a single most important trading city, they had several such cites. During the Sassanian period the Persian trade was primarily focused on Fars province, but not any one city. The Persians traded linen, wool, cotton, perfumes, brocades, carpets, several kinds of exotic jewels, incense, silk, frankincense, myrrh, gold and much more.

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Trade of Celts

  • In the land of the Celts trade was part of how they came in contact with other peoples outside of war. The Celts traded with a variety of peoples all over Europe and the Mediterranean area. Because of the Celts amazing metal working abilities, their work was in high demand, though most of it stayed in Celtic territory. For the most part the Celts were strictly land traders, traveling long distances to reach the nearest trading center. There was some sea trade, but not a whole lot. The Brythonic Celts and the Irish did however develop a sea trade ship, the Curragh, which could go long distances for a long while. Because the Celts were never unified there was not one important trade center in any Celtic territory, probably because they never saw the need. The Celts primarily traded copper, tin, iron ore, gold, various types of furs, metalwork pieces, and in Britain, slaves.

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  • Athens was among the first Greek cities who cut their own coins. The silver mines at Lavrion had ample supplies of silver. The early coins had no inscriptions and bore only emblems.
  • During the 6th century BC, Athenians struck their new tetradrachm with the head of their patron deity, goddess Athena on the observe and the Owl, the goddess' sacred bird, the bird of wisdom, on the reverse, and the name of the city. This design was not changed for over 400 years.
Greek Coin
Greek Coin 3rd Century B.C.

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  • Coins played several roles in the Greek world. They provided a medium of exchange, mostly used by city-states to hire mercenaries and compensate citizens. They were a source of revenue: foreigners had to change their money into the local currency at an exchange rate favorable to the State. They served as a mobile form of metal resources, which explains discoveries of Athenian coins with high levels of silver at great distances from their home city. Finally, the minting of coins lent an air of undeniable prestige to any Greek city.
  • The technique of minting coins arrived in mainland Greece around 550 BC, beginning with coastal trading cities like Aegina and Athens. Their use spread, and the city-states quickly secured a monopoly on their creation. The very first coins were made from electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), followed by pure silver, the most commonly found valuable metal in the region. The mines of the Pangaion hills allowed the cities of Thrace and Macedon to mint a large quantity of coins. Laurium's silver mines provided the raw materials for the "Athenian owls", the most famous coins of the ancient Greek world. Less-valuable bronze coins appeared at the end of the 5th century.
Athenian coin, Athenian
Athenian coin, Athenian

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Money and Banking

  • Money is of utmost significance for economic activities in general and for urban life in particular. Coined money is certainly an advantage over the barter system which prevailed in the rest of the ancient world.
  • The use of coins made exchange easier and thus favored the growth of cities by giving them the additional function of issuing currency.
  • An important factor in the commerce of Athens is the "Money-changer." There is no one fixed standard of coinage for Greece, let alone the Barbarian world. Athens strikes its money on a standard which has very wide acceptance, but Corinth has another standard, and a great deal of business is also transacted in Persian gold darics. The result is that at the Agora are a number of little "tables" where alert individuals, with strong boxes beside them, are ready to sell foreign coins to would-be travelers.
  • This was the beginning of the Athenian banker; but from being a mere exchanger he has often passed far beyond, to become a real master of credit and capital. There are several of these highly important gentlemen who now have a business and fortune equal to that of the famous Pasion,who died in 370 B.C. While the firm of Pasion and Company was at its height, the proprietor derived a net income of over $1,800 [1914] or $30,248.07 [2000] per year from his banking; and more than half as much extra from a shield factory.
  • It is estimated that there were banks in 53 Greek city-states (Bairoch, 1991, 78). The functions of these banks went beyond mere money changes. Greek banks engaged in payment operations for trade and manufacturing. They also were involved with consumer credit and public sector financing.

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Market and Price

  • Despite the general absence of interconnected markets, however, there were market places. Each city-state had at least one market place (agora) in the heart of city and a port market (emporion) as well, if it had a good harbor. The agora was a place of much activity, serving not only as a center of economic exchange, but also as a political, religious, and social center. Ancient Greek city-states regulated the economic activities that took place in their markets to a certain degree.
  • Public officials oversaw weights, measures, scales, and coinage to limit and resolve disputes in exchanges as well as to ensure state interests. For example, Athens employed a publicly owned slave to check coins and guard against counterfeiters. In this way, Athens protected the integrity of its own coinage as well as the interests of buyers and sellers. The state ensured the affordability of key goods, such as bread, by fixing its retail prices relative to the wholesale price of grain. Various activities in the market place were also taxed by the state. Port and transit taxes affected exchanges in emporia like the Piraeus of Athens and xenoi had to pay a special tax for engaging in transactions in the agora.

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Public and Private Economic Sectors

  • Throughout most of ancient Greek history before the Hellenistic period, a free enterprise economy with private property and limited government intervention predominated. This places Greece in sharp contrast to most other ancient civilizations, in which governmental or religious institutions tended to dominate the economy. The main economic concerns of the governments of the Greek city-states were to maintain harmony within the private economy (make laws, adjudicate disputes, and protect private property rights), make sure that food was available to their citizenries at reasonable prices, and obtain revenue from economic activities (through taxes) to pay for government expenses.
  • Athens had numerous laws to protect private property rights and had officials and law courts to enforce them. In addition, there were officials who oversaw such things as weights, measures, and coinage to make sure that people were not cheated in the market place. Athens also had laws to ensure an adequate supply of grain for its citizens, such as a law against the export of grain and laws to encourage traders to import grain. Athens even had agreements with other states in which the latter gave favorable treatment to traders bound for Athens with grain.
  • On the other hand, Athens did not tax its citizens directly except in cases of state emergencies (eisphorai) and in requiring the wealthiest citizens to perform public services (liturgies). Most taxes were indirect: market taxes, port taxes, import-export taxes, and taxes on foreigners who took up long-term residence in Athens. Taxes were collected by companies of private tax farmers who bid on contracts issued by the state.

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