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Trade in ancient Greece

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    Trade in ancient greeceDuring the archaic and classical periods (roughly 800 to 323 BC), ancient Greece rose as a major trading power in the Mediterranean, building vast commercial networks and a series of trade- and agriculture-oriented colonies throughout the region.  Recovering from a long “dark age” when the archaic era began, the Greeks used trade to overcome their limited natural resources and overtook their rivals, becoming for centuries a dominant economic power, with trade networks and colonies extending throughout the Mediterranean region onto three continents.When the archaic period began, the Greeks initially traded mainly the few goods they could produce in abundance for those they could not.

      According to historian Sarah Pomeroy:The leading exports were textiles and metalwork, to which we may add olive oil (both plain and perfumed), wine, hides, leather, and leather products.  Fine pottery, jewelry, and other costly items also competed well in the international luxury trade.  In return, [the Greeks] imported things lacking in Greece, such as copper, tin, gold, ivory, amber, dyes, and spices, as well as foreign varieties of items that they did have. .

    . .[1] Olives and olive oil dominated Greek exports well before the archaic period, particularly after Crete’s forests were clear-cut before 1000 BC and olive trees and grape vines were planted in their place.  According to historian Richard Smith, “In the Mediterranean world, the importance of the olive can scarcely be overstated.

    . . .  The olive proved to be a nourishing food, and its oil remained the principal edible fat in the Mediterranean basin for thousands of years.

    ”[2]  Indeed, it proved popular and lucrative enough to form a substantial part of Greek exports throughout antiquity.By the classical period, the Greeks had expanded their trade to include the Black Sea region, shipping wine, oil, and pottery in exchange for hides, cattle, wax, chestnuts, iron, fabric, and even slaves.[3]  Also, the Greeks traded extensively with Egypt, where they had settled along the Mediterranean coast at the mouth of the Nile and obtained papyrus, glasswork, and livestock in exchange for olive oil.  With the Phoenicians, who had dominated Mediterranean maritime commerce before Greece’s rise as a commercial power, they obtained dates and purple dyes.

      In addition, Greek traders had long sought a reliable source for metals, which were lacking in Greece; according to Smith, they initially “were seeking metals carried down from Anatolia and Armenia, but later . . . they found better sources in the western Mediterranean,” particularly in Spain and Gaul (modern-day France), where Greek merchants eventually created colonies devoted to shipping these valuable resources.

    [4]Before the archaic period, Greeks – mainly the Minoans and Mycenaeans – traded extensively throughout Asia Minor, the Levant, and the western Mediterranean, but during the “Dark Ages” (the three or four centuries before the archaic era began), Greek commerce languished.  Smith claims that “The collapse of Mycenaean civilization was so complete that it took the Greeks almost four centuries to recover . . .

    [and the] small amount of goods exchanged during this time was through reciprocity rather than commercial trade.”[5]  However, by 800 BC, Greece had recovered and began a long period of considerable population growth and commercial prosperity.  Smith asserts that the Greek population grew between 300 and 700 percent during the eighth century BC, and “The economy changed virtually overnight, with the production of surplus goods, the appearance of an entrepreneurial spirit, the emergence of market forces, and the reestablishment of significant overseas trade.”[6]Initially, the Greeks traded within their region of the eastern Mediterranean, but – to compete with the Phoenicians – had expanded both eastward and westward.

      Early on, they traded extensively with the Phoenicians, who lived along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean in what are now Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, eventually supplanting them as a major commercial and military power.  By the classical period, the Greeks had formed colonies in Sicily, southern Italy, and southern France, and they maintained strong commercial relationships throughout the Mediterranean.They expanded beyond those shores during this period, broadening the range of commodities they traded as well.  Greek traders obtained perfumes from Arabia and rugs from Persia, and purchased much-needed metals from Spain, Tuscany, and Cyprus.

      Also, Greek merchants sought wood from regions surrounding the Mediterranean; lacking adequate supplies and varieties of wood themselves, Greeks sought cedar, fir, pine, and oak – all used both in building and in the shipbuilding trade on which Greek commerce so heavily depended.  By the end of the classical period, Greek trade had expanded to the British Isles, northern France, the regions bordering the Black Sea, and the entire Mediterranean basin.  Their trade networks also expanded through their dealings with far-flung middlemen as well; during the fifth century BC, Pomeroy claims, “it seems some silks from China made their way to Greece via Scythian intermediaries.”[7]When the archaic period began, Greek traders energetically pursued overseas trade, using increasingly larger ships.

      Smith writes that Greek merchants sailed “initially in undecked, broad-bottomed, 20-oared ships but soon [traveled] in much larger double-banked 50-oared ships up to 80 feet long, the famous pentekonters.”[8]  The pentekonter, developed by the Phoenicians, was actually a blanket term for several different kinds of vessels, varying in size but sharing a shallow draft and a design made for speed.  Named for the fifty oars that most had, pentekonters boasted bronze rams on the prows, making them effective for piracy and warfare.  (Indeed, piracy affected Greek maritime trade throughout this period but was considerably worse during the early archaic period.

    [9])  They also usually had two or three masts, depending on the vessel’s size and intended uses.By the sixth century BC, though, Greek merchants had adopted the pentekonter as their ship of choice for its durability and sleekness.  They were, according to nautical historian Olaf Hoeckmann, used by the same Greek merchants who founded Massilia and then went to war with the Phoenicians, who had opposed Greek merchants’ ambitious westward commercial expansion.  Around 500 BC, Greek traders began adopting the trireme, named for its three tiers of oars; with the additional manpower, the trireme was up to 30 percent faster than the pentekonter, though the latter ship was still widely used throughout the Mediterranean.

    [10]Greek trading ships varied greatly in size, with larger three-masted galleys commonly exceeding 120 feet in length and boasting a capacity of 400 tons.  Even larger vessels existed, say economic historians Fik Meijer and Onno van Nijf; “there were some super-freighters with a capacity of more than 1,000 tons.  They were used only for the transport of building materials and grain . .

    . and could anchor only in the large ports of Ostia, Alexandria, Antioch, Massilia, Carthage and Piraeus.”[11]  They also used different materials according to their size and desired speed; according to ancient scholar Theophrastus: “The timbers for shipbuilding are fir, pine, and cedar.  For triremes .

    . . fir is used because of its lightness; for merchant ships pine is used because of its resistance to decay. .

    . .  [The] keels of the triremes are constructed of oak to withstand hauling ashore.  The keels of the merchantmen are made of pine.

      If the latter have to be hauled out an underlayer of oak is fitted.”[12]  Much of this wood had to be imported, though, because ancient Greece had a severe dearth of suitable wood.The ancient Greeks created colonies throughout the Mediterranean, motivated by a thriving trade throughout the region.  When the archaic period began, Greeks had already established strong commercial connections in northern Syria, southern Italy, and Sicily, where after 800 BC many Greeks had settled to farm and produce a wider variety of goods.

      The Greeks had also entered direct commercial competition with the Phoenicians, who had previously dominated maritime trade in the Mediterranean.Before the archaic period ended, Greeks had established colonies in some of the most lucrative trading regions of the Mediterranean.  Initially, according to historian F.E.

    Romer, Greeks initially colonized the western Mediterranean – at Cumae in southern Italy as early as 740 BC and several locations on Sicily several years later.  After founding the cities of Syracuse (on Sicily) and Massilia (modern-day Marseilles, France), Greek traders and settlers formed several colonies in Spain and north Africa, then moved eastward, founding Byzantium (modern Istanbul) before 650 BC and creating settlements in northern Egypt and along the southern shores of the Black Sea.[13]The Greeks’ westward commercial movement provided much of the impetus for their colonization.  It was not, however, driven by the need to resettle poor Greeks and relieve population pressures at home; instead, it was almost wholly trade-motivated.

      Smith writes:The common assumption has been that Greek colonization was primarily a matter of overpopulation and land hunger, with surplus people spilling out of Greece to find new places to farm.  Whereas this was true in some instances, a closer look at the earliest Greek settlements in the west seems to show most were established as part of a trade-route building process. . .

    .  Even colonies established for agricultural purposes were soon producing surpluses of grain and other products in demand by the folks back home.[14] Their westward expansion initially happened with Phoenician consent, particularly the Greek settlements in Sicily.  However, when the Greeks extended their reach and founded Massilia around 600 BC, tensions between the Greeks and Phoenicians rose and brought a long period of warfare that ended with the victorious Greeks founding even more colonies in the western Mediterranean.

    [15]Massilia emerged as a particularly prosperous city, due in part to its location on the Mediterranean at the Rhone River’s mouth; it could thus access not only the maritime trade but also markets and resources located further north in Gaul.  The Greek commercial presence not only tapped these inland markets but also made Massilia into a formidable economic entity unto itself.  Smith states, “The Greeks of Massilia became middlemen in the flow of goods between northwestern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. .

    . . Economies in the interior became more geared to the production of goods desired in Mediterranean markets in order to obtain Mediterranean goods.”[16]Massilia, though itself a Greek colony, established its own trading colonies as well, mainly along the Spanish coast, and established its own far-flung trade connections.

      Smith notes that Massilia’s traders created maritime trade routes as far away as the British Isles, extending down the Atlantic coasts of modern-day France, Portugal, and Spain and reaching past Gibraltar to Massilia.  They may have reached even farther; according to Smith:A trader from Massilia named Pytheas searching for tin claimed to have sailed beyond Britain in the fourth century BCE to a place he called Thule, which modern speculation has as either Iceland, Norway, or the Shetland Islands, then continued on, eventually reaching the Arctic ice.  On the way back he picked up a load of amber on an island off Denmark, which must have made the trip worthwhile.[17] Among the benefits the ancient Greeks reaped from trade, perhaps the foremost was the wide variety of goods they procured.

      Greece is a semiarid nation with rocky soil, few forests, and relatively little arable land, so the ancients relied heavily on commerce as a means of attaining goods they were unable to produce themselves.  In addition, the Greek states became politically powerful, allowing them to create stable, prosperous colonies and achieve dominance in the region, supplanting the Phoenicians (whom they defeated in a series of wars after 600 BC, which were inspired by Greek incursions into Phoenician commercial territory).Though the prosperity from maritime trade was relatively widespread, including even some small farmers, Pomeroy writes that “big landowners benefited most, however, because they could produce large surpluses for the market and could subsidize the costs and bear the losses of long sea voyages.”[18]  Though the landed gentry gained considerably from trade, few of them engaged in this kind of commercial activity, thinking it below their social station.

      (Most sold the goods their estates produced locally or else involved themselves as middlemen, seldom trading or shipping commodities themselves.)  Historian Paul Cartledge writes that “involvement in commerce was incompatible both with Greek notions of aristocracy and citizenship. . .

    .”[19]  Also, before the archaic period, Greek commerce was focused on the palace – a practice that, after 800 BC, was not continued.  Increasingly, merchants driven by profit dominated Greek trade, taking their example from the Phoenicians who had previously been Greece’s chief rival.Ironically, trade did not give traders disproportionate benefits.

      Scholar Johannes Hasebroek writes that “it is clear that the one object of the merchant is to be able to retire from commerce as soon as possible,” and that traders were neither well-regarded nor highly accomplished members of society: “The trading classes must have been for the most part entirely without education. . . .

      [Reading] and writing were accomplishments which belonged to few of the ordinary traders, and the business world in general was quite untrained and illiterate.”[20]Despite the vast reach of Greek commercial activity, the level of individual wealth it generated was surprisingly low.  When the archaic age began, trade was by no means similar to modern free-market capitalism; instead, it took place largely between rulers building relationships with one another.  However, as trade increased and independent merchants increasingly dominated commerce, trade was increasingly (though not entirely) monetized.

    Also, traders themselves were seldom extremely wealthy; Hasebroek explains that most traders were merely middlemen without their own assets:There were no commercial magnates among the Greek merchants and shipowners; for commercial magnates must be capitalists, and the Greek foreign traders, in so far as trade was their only occupation, were as a rule wholly without capital of their own . . . [and] neither ship nor shipowner nor merchant [could] put to sea without the assistance of the lenders.

    [21] Indeed, lenders tended to profit most from commerce, though even then, finance in ancient Greece was rudimentary.  With no stable currency and relatively unsophisticated banking systems, credit was not remotely as systematic as it became by the end of the Middle Ages, and lending was more personal than anything else.  Hasebroek asserts that “the lending business of the Greek banker seems to have been largely confined to the occasional accommodation of personal friends. .

    . .”[22]  Though figures documenting individual wealth are at best vague, lenders frequently lent sums ranging from 1000 drachmas to as much as 7500 drachma, with 3000 being a median figure, so lenders’ reserves must have been substantially higher – perhaps 100,000 drachmas or more.[23]Historian C.

    M. Reed argues that, when levels of relative wealth are considered, very few merchants rose above genuine poverty.  Citing a catalog listing Greek traders circa 350 BC, Reed notes that only sixteen of forty-five men listed as middleman traders (the most common type) were definitely not poor, but otherwise “most fourth-century [traders] were poor, and even most [inter-regional merchants] fell somewhere below the upper echelon of wealth.”[24]Trade during Greece’s archaic and classical periods expanded dramatically, making the ancient Greek states a dominant economic and political power in the Mediterranean (and helping them replace the Phoenicians in this role).

      It drove Greek expansion beyond their small, arid peninsula and islands, inspiring the creation of far-flung colonies as remote as Spain, Egypt, and Asia Minor.  Ironically, though, that long-lasting prosperity benefited only a few of the parties involved in commerce; many traders and shippers made only a meager living in their professions, with large lenders and  landowners gaining the most in this economic system, which remained relatively primitive and unsophisticated throughout the period.  Nonetheless, ancient Greece’s commercial activity and extensive trading networks transformed not only the Greeks but also the Mediterranean world as a whole by tying together its disparate regions into cohesive trading networks and laying the foundations on which Rome would eventually build its empire.WORKS CITED Garnsey, Peter, Keith Hopkins, and C.

    R. Whittaker.  Eds.  Trade in the Ancient Economy.

      Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Hasebroek, Johannes.  Trade and Politics in Ancient Greece.  New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1965.

     Hoeckmann, Olaf.  “Some Thoughts on the Greek Pentekonter.”  In Institute of Nautical Archeology.  Texas A&M University, 2000.

      http://ina.tamu.edu/library/tropis/volumes/3/Hoeckman, Olaf – Some thoughts on the greek pentekonter.pdf (accessed 29 January 2009).

     Meijer, Fik and Onno van Nijf.  Trade, Transport and Society in the Ancient World.  London: Routledge, 1992. Morley, Neville.

      Trade in Classical Antiquity.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pomeroy, Sarah B., Stanley M.

    Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts.  A Brief History of Ancient Greece.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Reed, C.

    M.  Maritime Traders in the Ancient Greek World.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Smith, Richard L.

      Premodern Trade in World History.  London: Routledge, 2009. Vivante, Bella.  Ed.

      Events that Changed Ancient Greece.  Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. [1] Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M.

    Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, A Brief History of Ancient Greece (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 30.[2] Richard L. Smith, Premodern Trade in World History (London: Routledge, 2009), 56.[3] Pomeroy et al, 162-163.

    [4] Smith, 68.[5] Smith, 67.[6] Smith, 67.[7] Pomeroy et al, 163.

    [8] Smith, 67.[9] Peter Garnsey, Keith Hopkins, and C.R. Whittaker, eds.

    , Trade in the Ancient Economy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 4.[10] Olaf Hoeckmann, “Some Thoughts on the Greek Pentekonter,” in Institute of Nautical Archeology (Texas A&M University, 2000), http://ina.tamu.edu/library/tropis/volumes/3/Hoeckman, Olaf – Some thoughts on the greek pentekonter.

    pdf (accessed 29 January 2009).[11] Fik Meijer and Onno van Nijf, Trade, Transport and Society in the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 1992), 152.[12] Meijer and van Nijf, 161.[13] Bella Vivante, ed.

    , Events that Changed Ancient Greece (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 28.[14] Smith, 68.[15] Smith, 68.[16] Smith, 69.

    [17] Smith, 69.[18] Pomeroy et al, 54.[19] Garnsey et al, 3.[20] Johannes Hasebroek, Trade and Politics in Ancient Greece (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1965),[21] Hasebroek, 7.

    [22] Hasebroek, 87.[23] Garnsey et al, 36.[24] C.M.

    Reed, Maritime Traders in the Ancient Greek World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 36.

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    What did ancient Greece trade?
    Trade. Greece's main exports were olive oil, wine, pottery, and metalwork. Imports included grains and pork from Sicily, Arabia, Egypt, Ancient Carthage, and the Bosporan Kingdom.
    Why was trade important to Greece?
    Trade was very important in ancient Greece. The Greeks even built cities in other parts of the world so they could trade goods. They also built ships that could travel far across the Mediterranean Sea. This is the sea that touches Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East.

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