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Greek trade

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Exchange in some form has probably existed since the emergence of the first properly human social groups. Trade, whether local, regional, or international, is a much later development. It is a certain inference from the extant records in Linear B script that the Mycenaean palace‐economy knew all three main forms of commerce (see mycenaean age civilization; mycenaean language), and a reasonable guess that a considerable portion of the long‐distance carrying trade was in the hands of specialized professional traders. But whether that trade was ‘administered’ or ‘free‐enterprise’ is impossible to say. It is one sign of the economic recession experienced by the Greek world between c.1200 and 800 bc that in this Dark Age regional and international trade dwindled to vanishing‐point; the few known professional traders were typically men of non‐Greek, esp. Phoenician, origin.

In Homer's Odyssey (bk. 8) the sea‐battered hero finds his way at last to Scheria, a never‐never land set somewhere in the golden west, only to be abused by a young Phaeacian aristocrat for looking like a sordidly mercenary merchant skipper rather than a gentleman amateur athlete. Hesiod, composing perhaps about the same time (c.700) in inland, rural Boeotia, was prepared to concede that a moderately prosperous peasant farmer might load the surplus of the corn‐crop produced by himself and his small workforce into his own modest boat and dispose of it down the nearby coast during the dead season of the agricultural year immediately after the harvest. But to be a full‐time trader was no more acceptable to Hesiod than to Homer's Phaeacian aristocrat. Each in his way was objecting to the development of professional trading and traders.

This prejudice issued from a world dominated by landed aristocrats. It was quite all right for a Greek aristocrat to visit his peers in other communities, then just acquiring the novel constitutional form of the polis, bearing gifts of richly woven garments or finely wrought metalwork, and to come home laden with comparable or even more lavish counter‐gifts. It was quite another matter to spend most of the recognized sailing season (late March to late September) plying the Mediterranean with a mixed cargo of, say, perfume flasks from Corinth, hides from Euboea, salt fish from the Black (Euxine) Sea, and wine‐amphorae from Chios, making only a humble living and precluded from participating in the military and political activities that defined the status of leader of his polis. Such trading was considered an occupation suitable only for the lower orders of Greek society, the dependants (possibly unfree) of a big landlord.

Yet the significance of traders in the early polis era of Homer and Hesiod must not be confused with the significance of trade, esp. long‐distance sea‐borne commerce. Without the latter there would have been no opening from the Aegean to both east (e.g. the multinational emporion at Al Mina on the Orontes) and west (notably Pithecusae), beginning in the half‐century from 825 to 775, no movement of colonization to south Italy, Sicily, or the Black (Euxine) Sea, no knowledge of other, non‐Greek cultures and thus no alphabet—and so, maybe, no Homer or Hesiod. By 600 the status of traders may have improved, with the development of purpose‐built sail‐driven, round‐hulled merchantmen (see ships), the creation of institutions and techniques designed to facilitate multinational commerce, and the establishment of permanent emporia in Egypt and Etruria.


Subjects: Classical studies

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