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September 2015

Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: Economic Freedom in Athens

Personal freedom in ancient Athens was tied up with economic freedom, including free trade and free immigration.

Last time we saw that Athenian democratic ideology included a strong commitment to personal freedom, or “living as one pleases,” and that this commitment was implemented in Athens to a considerable extent, albeit less fully than the system’s proponents boasted – and likewise less fully than its critics complained.

Personal freedom had a strong economic and commercial dimension as well; and in the eyes of Benjamin Constant, this was no coincidence.  It is precisely because Athens “was of all the Greek republics the most closely engaged in trade,” Constant wrote, that “it allowed to its citizens an infinitely greater individual liberty than Sparta or Rome.”1

Indeed, Athens’ democratic system arguably owed its very existence to trade.  On the one hand, the social mobility arising from commerce led to shifts of power within the aristocratic ruling class, as aristocrats with lower status sometimes acquired more wealth than their higher-status colleagues, and sought to translate that wealth into greater status.  On the other hand, that same social mobility increased the wealth and clout of the middle class, who could now afford weapons and armor, and so could usefully be appealed to as allies in the aforementioned power struggles within the ruling class.  As aristocrats vied to offer greater and greater bribes, concessions, and power-sharing to the commoners in order to win them over to one aristocratic faction against another, they shifted the balance of power farther and farther toward the commons until they had inadvertently undermined their own standing and empowered their social “inferiors.”2

Moreover, given Athens’ reliance on naval power both for trade and for war, the poorest Athenians, despite their inability to afford the military equipment of a hoplite, were still crucially needed for rowing ships, which gave them enough of a bargaining chip to guarantee their inclusion along with the middle class in the new expansion of political power. Thus aristocracy evolved into democracy without anyone’s having planned it.

The marketplace, or agora, was a prominent feature of most Greek cities, purportedly prompting – according to the historian Herodotus  (c. 484-425 BCE) – a hostile remark from the Shah of Persia:

“Never yet did I fear men such as these, who have a place appointed in the midst of their city where they gather together and deceive one another by false oath ….”  These words Cyrus threw out scornfully with reference to the Hellenes in general, because they have got for themselves markets and practise buying and selling there.3

But commerce was much more central to Athens than to some Greek cities, and especially more than to Athens’ archrival Sparta, where mercantile pursuits were devalued in favor of military ones, and where laws and currency were specifically designed to discourage commerce, especially foreign commerce.  Plutarch describes the economic legislation of the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus as follows:

In the first place, he withdrew all gold and silver money from currency, and ordained the use of iron money only. Then to a great weight and mass of this he gave a trifling value, so that ten minas’ worth required a large store-room in the house, and a yoke of cattle to transport it. …

In the next place, he banished the unnecessary and superfluous arts. And even without such banishment most of them would have departed with the old coinage, since there was no sale for their products. For the iron money could not be carried into the rest of Greece, nor had it any value there, but was rather held in ridicule. It was not possible, therefore, to buy any foreign wares or bric-à-brac; no merchant-seamen brought freight into their harbours; no rhetoric teacher set foot on Laconian [= Spartan] soil, no vagabond soothsayer, no keeper of harlots, no gold- or silver-smith, since there was no money there. …

But luxury, thus gradually deprived of that which stimulated and supported it, died away of itself, and men of large possessions had no advantage over the poor, because their wealth found no public outlet, but had to be stored up at home in idleness. …

With a view to attack luxury still more and remove the thirst for wealth, he introduced … the institution of common messes, so that they might eat with one another in companies, of common and specified foods, and not take their meals at home … For the rich man could neither use nor enjoy nor even see or display his abundant means, when he went to the same meal as the poor man ….4

Athens’ policy was precisely the opposite.  Thucydides reports the Athenian statesman Pericles as boasting that “the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.”5  And not only goods but people flowed freely into Athens; the philosopher Xenophon (c. 430-354 BCE) celebrates the city’s “attractive force” in the following words:

From the mariner and the merchant upwards, all seek her, flocking they come; the wealthy dealers in corn and wine and oil, the owner of many cattle. And not these only, but the man who depends upon his wits, whose skill it is to do business and make gain out of money and its employment. And here another crowd, artificers of all sorts, artists and artisans, professors of wisdom, philosophers, and poets, with those who exhibit and popularise their works. And next a new train of pleasure-seekers, eager to feast on everything sacred or secular, which may captivate and charm eye and ear. Or once again, where are all those who seek to effect a rapid sale or purchase of a thousand commodities, to find what they want, if not at Athens?6

While Athens was not generous with citizenship (only in the rarest circumstances could those not born of citizen parents become citizens themselves), Athenian immigration policy was generally quite liberal; between a half and a third of the free population were metics (resident aliens).  Although they were subject to a few legal disabilities and encountered some social hostility,7 metics were largely free to participate in the city’s social and economic life, and indeed were often encouraged to do so.  The historian Diodorus of Sicily (1st c. BCE) tells us that

Themistocles [Athenian statesman, c. 524-459 BCE] persuaded the people … to remove the tax upon metics and artisans, in order that great crowds of people might stream into the city from every quarter and that the Athenians might easily procure labour for a greater number of crafts.8

Many of Athens’ foremost philosophers were of foreign birth, including Anaxagoras, Aristippus, Diogenes, Gorgias, Prodicus, Protagoras, and of course Aristotle; metics also dominated the banking industry (about which more next time).

Xenophon refers to the metics favorably as “a self-supporting class of residents conferring large benefits upon the state,”9 and advocates legal reforms designed to attract still more of them.  Extolling the advantages of immigration, Xenophon writes:

[T]he greater the number of people attracted to Athens either as visitors or as residents, clearly the greater the development of imports and exports. More goods will be sent out of the country, there will be more buying and selling, with a consequent influx of money in the shape of rents to individuals and dues and customs to the state exchequer.10

One suspects that Xenophon would not have been a fan of the anti-immigrant “Golden Dawn” thugs who prowl the streets of his beloved city today.

In describing the economic benefits to Athens of an influx of goods and immigrants, Xenophon emphasizes that “in order to get the full benefit of all these sources of revenue, peace is an indispensable condition.”  Yet he is aware that “certain people, in their wish to recover that headship which was once the pride of our city, are persuaded that the accomplishment of their hopes is to be found, not in peace but in war,” on the grounds that “by adopting a persistent peace policy, this city will be shorn of her power, that her glory will dwindle and her good name be forgotten throughout the length and breadth of Hellas.”11

While a successful soldier himself,12 Xenophon follows the example of Hesiod in preferring industry to warfare.  “For they are surely the happy states [and] are most fortune-favoured,” Xenophon tells us, “which endure in peace the longest season”; and “of all states Athens is pre-eminently adapted by nature to flourish and wax strong in peace.”  The “attractive force” that Athens exercises depends on peace; and to anyone who believes “the state may find war more profitable than peace,” Xenophon replies by advising them to recall the “past history of the state”:

He will discover that in times long gone by during a period of peace vast wealth was stored up in the acropolis, the whole of which was lavishly expended during a subsequent period of war. …  Whereas, now that peace is established by sea, our revenues have expanded and the citizens of Athens have it in their power to turn these to account as they like best.13

The independence of Athens’ allies will best be secured “not by joining in any war but by the moral force of embassies throughout the length and breadth of Hellas,” since if the Athenians show that they are sincerely committed to peace, they will win allies automatically, and every Greek “will pray for the salvation of Athens.”14

Athens did not exactly follow Xenophon’s advice of a peaceful foreign policy.  All the same, Athenian trade policy was liberal enough to make it the commercial and intellectual center of Greece.


  1. The Liberty of the Ancients Compared With That of the Moderns” (1819).
  2. For details, see W. G. Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy: 800-400 BC (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1975).
  3. Herodotus, Histories I.153; George C. Macaulay, trans., The History of Herodotus (London:  Macmillan, 1890).
  4. Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus 9.1-10.3; in Parallel Lives, vol. 1, trans. Bernadotte Perrin (Cambridge MA:  Loeb Classical Library, 1914).
  5. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley (London:  Longmans Green, 1874), II.6.
  6. Xenophon, On Revenues 5; in Henry Graham Dakyns, trans., The Works of Xenophon, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan, 1893).
  7. For the latter, see Victoria Roeck, “Societal Attitudes Toward Metics in Fifth-Century Athens Through the Lens of Aeschylus’s Suppliants and Euripides’ Children of Heracles,” Sunoikisis (3 July 2014).
  8. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, vol. 4, trans. C. H. Oldfather (Cambridge MA:  Loeb Classical Library, 1946), 11.43.3.
  9. Xenophon, On Revenues 2.
  10. Xenophon, On Revenues 3.
  11. Xenophon, On Revenues 5.
  12. For Xenophon’s own account of his adventures as a mercenary in Persia, see his Anabasis, in Henry Graham Dakyns, trans., The Works of Xenophon, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1890.
  13. Xenophon, On Revenues 5.
  14. Ibid.

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