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
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 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
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.
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
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
Author: Robert A. Guisepi