Chapter XII. Trade, Manufactures, and Banking.

76. The Commercial Importance of Athens. - While the funeral mourners are wending their slow way homeward we have time to examine certain phases of Athenian life at which we have previously glanced, then ignored. Certain it is, most "noble and good" gentlemen delight to be considered persons of polite uncommercial leisure; equally certain it is that a good income is about as desirable in Athens as anywhere else, and many a stately "Eupatrid," who seems to spend his whole time in dignified walks, discoursing on politics or philosophy, is really keenly interested in trades, factories, or farms, of which his less nobly born stewards have the active management. Indeed one of the prime reasons for Athenian greatness is the fact that Athens is the richest and greatest commercial city of Continental Hellas, with only Corinth as a formidable rival.[*]

[*]Syracuse in distant Sicily was possibly superior to Athens in commerce and economic prosperity, although incomparably behind her in the empire of the arts and literature.

To understand the full extent of Athenian commercial prosperity we must visit the Peireus, yet in the main city itself will be found almost enough examples of the chief kinds of economic activity.

77. The Manufacturing Activities of Athens. - Attica is the seat of much manufacturing. Go to the suburbs: everywhere is the rank odor of the tanneries; down at the harbors are innumerable ship carpenters and sail and tackle makers, busy in the shipyards; from almost every part of the city comes the clang of hammer and anvil where hardware of all kinds is being wrought in the smithies; and finally the potter makers are so numerous as to require special mention hereafter. But no list of all the manufacturing activities is here possible; enough that practically every known industry is represented in Athens, and the "industrial" class is large.[*] A very large proportion of the industrial laborers are slaves, but by no means all. A good many are real Athenian citizens; a still larger proportion are "metics" (resident foreigners without political rights). The competition of slave labor, however, tends to keep wages very low. An unskilled laborer will have to be content with his 3 obols (9 cents [1914] or $1.51 [2000]) per day; but a trained workman will demand a drachma (18 cents [1914] or $3.02 [2000]) or even more. There are no labor unions or trade guilds. A son usually, though not invariably, follows his father's profession. Each industry and line of work tends to have its own little street or alley, preferably leading off the Agora. "The Street of the Marble Workers," the "Street of the Box Makers," and notably the "Street of the Potters" contain nearly all the workshops of a given kind. Probably you can find no others in the city. Prices are regulated by custom and competition; in case any master artisan is suspected of "enhancing" the price of a needful commodity, or his shady business methods seem dangerous to the public, there is no hesitation in invoking an old law or passing a new one in the Assembly to bring him to account.

[*]For a very suggestive list of the numerous kinds of Greek industries (practically all of which would be represented in Athens) see H. J. Edwards, in Whibley's "Companion to Greek Studies," p. 431.

Manufacturers are theoretically under a social ban, and indeed yonder petty shoemaker, who, with his two apprentices, first makes up his cheap sandals, then sells them over the low counter before his own ship, is very far from being a "leisurely" member of the "noble and the good." But he who, like the late Lycophron, owns a furniture factory employing night threescore slaves, can be sure of lying down on his couch at a dinner party among the very best; for, as in twentieth century England, even manufacture and "trade," if on a sufficiently large scale, cover a multitude of social sins.[*]

[*]Plato, probably echoing thoughtful Greek opinion, considered it bad for manufacturers to be either too wealthy or too poor; thus a potter getting too rich will neglect his art, and grow idle; if, however, he cannot afford proper tools, he will manufacture inferior wares, and his sons will be even worse workmen then he. Such comment obviously comes from a society where most industrial life is on a small scale.

78. The Commerce of Athens. - Part of Athenian wealth comes from the busy factories, great and small, which seem everywhere; still more riches come in by the great commerce which will be found centered at the Peireus. Here is the spacious Deigma, a kind of exchange-house where ship masters can lay out samples of their wares on display, and sell to the important wholesalers, who will transmit to the petty shopkeepers and the "ultimate consumer."[*]

[*]Of course a very large proportion of Greek manufactures wares were never exported, but were sold direct by the manufacturer to the consumer himself. This had various disadvantages; but there was this large gain: ONLY ONE PROFIT was necessary to be added to the mere cost of production. This aided to make Greece (from a modern standpoint) a paradise of low prices.