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.

There are certain articles of which various districts make a specialty, and which Athens is constantly importing: Boetia sends chariots; Thessaly, easy chairs; Chios and Miletos, bedding; and Miletos, especially, very fine woolens. Greece in general looks to Syria and Arabia for the much-esteemed spices and perfumes; to Egypt for papyri for the book rolls; to Babylonia for carpets. To discuss the whole problem of Athenian commerce would require a book in itself; but certain main facts stand out clearly. One is that Attica herself has extremely few natural products to export - only her olive oil, her Hymettus honey, and her magnificent marbles - dazzling white from Pentelicos, gray from Hymettus, blue or black from Eleusis. Again we soon notice the great part which GRAIN plays in Athenian commerce. Attica raises such a small proportion of the necessary breadstuffs, and so serious is the crisis created by any shortage, that all kinds of measures are employed to compel a steady flow of grain from the Black Sea ports into the Peireus. Here is a law which Domsthenes quotes to us: -

"It shall not be lawful for any Athenian or any metic in Attica, or any person under their control [i.e. slave or freedman] to lend out money on a ship which is not commissioned to bring grain to Athens."

A second law, even more drastic, forbids any such person to transport grain to any harbor but the Peireus. The penalties for evading these laws are terrific. At set intervals also the Public Assembly (Ecclesia) is in duty bound to consider the whole state of the grain trade: while the dealers in grain who seem to be cornering the market, and forcing up the price of bread, are liable to prompt and disastrous prosecution.

79. The Adventurous Merchant Skippers. - Foreign trade at Athens is fairly well systematized, but it still partakes of the nature of an adventure. The name for "skipper" (naukleros) is often used interchangeably for "merchant." Nearly all commerce is by sea, for land routes are usually slow, unsafe, and inconvenient[*]; the average foreign trader is also a shipowner, probably too the actual working captain. He has no special commodity, but will handle everything which promises a profit. A war is breaking out in Paphlagonia. Away he sails thither with a cargo of good Athenian shields, swords, and lances. He loads up in that barbarous but fertile country with grain; but leaves enough room in his hold for some hundred skins of choice wine which he takes aboard at Chios. The grain and wine are disembarked at the Pireus. Hardly are they ashore ere rumor tells him that salt herring[+] are abundant and especially cheap at Corcyra; and off he goes for a return cargo thereof, just lingering long enough to get on a lading of Athenian olive oil.

[*]Naturally there was a safe land route from Athens across the Isthmus to Corinth and thence to Sparta or towards Ellis; again, there would be fair roads into Boetia.

[+]Salt fish were a very usual and important article of Greek commerce.

80. Athenian Money-changers and Bankers. - An important factor in the commerce of Athens is the "Money-changer." There is no one fixed standard of coinage for Greece, let alone the Barbarian world. Athens strikes its money on a standard which has very wide acceptance, but Corinth has another standard, and a great deal of business is also transacted in Persian gold darics. The result is that at the Peireus and near the Agora are a number of little "tables" where alert individuals, with strong boxes beside them, are ready to sell foreign coins to would-be travelers, or exchange darics for Attic drachme, against a pretty favorable commission.

This was the beginning of the Athenian banker; but from being a mere exchanger he has often passed far beyond, to become a real master of credit and capital. There are several of these highly important gentlemen who now have a business and fortune equal to that of the famous Pasion, who died in 370 B.C. While the firm of Pasion and Company was at its height, the proprietor derived a net income of at least 100 mine (over $1,800 [1914] or $30,248.07 [2000]) per year from his banking; and more than half as much extra from a shield factory.[*]

[*]These sums seem absurdly small for a great money magnate, but the very high purchasing power of money in Athens must be borne in mind. We know a good deal about Pasion and his business from the speeches which Deosthenes composed in the litigation which arose over his estate.

81. A Large Banking Establishment. - Enter now the "tables" of Nicanor. The owner is a metic; perhaps he claims to come from Rhodes, but the shrewd cast of his eyes and the dark hue of his skin gives a suggestion of the Syrian about him. In his open office a dozen young half-naked clerks are seated on low chairs - each with his tablet spread out upon his knees laboriously computing long sums.[*] The proprietor himself acts as the cashier. He has not neglected the exchange of foreign moneys; but that is a mere incidental. His first visitor this morning presents a kind of letter of credit from a correspondent in Syracuse calling for one hundred drachme. "Your voucher?" asks Nicanor. The stranger produces the half of a coin broken in two across the middle. The proprietor draws a similar half coin from a chest. The parts match exactly, and the money is paid on the spot. the next comer is an old acquaintance, a man of wealth and reputation; he is followed by two slaves bearing a heavy talent of coined silver which he wishes the banker to place for him on an advantageous loan, against a due commission. The third visitor is a well-born but fast and idle young man who is squandering his patrimony on flute girls and chariot horses. He wishes an advance of ten mine, and it is given him - against the mortgage of a house, at the ruinous interest of 36 per cent, for such prodigals are perfectly fair play. Another visitor is a careful and competent ship merchant who is fitting for a voyage to Crete, and who requires a loan to buy his return cargo. Ordinary interest, well secured, is 18 per cent, but a sea voyage, even at the calmest season, is counted extra hazardous. The skipper must pay 24 per cent at least. A poor tradesman also appears to raise a trifle by pawning two silver cups; and an unlucky farmer, who cannot meet his loan, persuades the banker to extend the time "just until the next moon"[+] - of course at an unmerciful compounding of interest.

[*]Without the Arabic system of numerals, elaborate bookkeeping surely presented a sober face to the Greeks. Their method of numeration was very much like that with the so-called Roman numerals.

[+]"Watching the moon," i.e. the end of the month when the debts became due, appears to have been the melancholy recreation of many Athenian debtors. See Aristophanes's "Clouds," I. 18.

82. Drawbacks to the Banking Business. - Nicanor has no paper money to handle, no stocks, no bonds, - and the line between legitimate interest and scandalous usury is by no means clearly drawn. There is at least one good excuse for demanding high interest. It is notoriously hard to collect bad debts. Many and many a clever debtor has persuaded an Athenian jury that ALL taking of interest is somewhat immoral, and the banker has lost at least his interest, sometimes too his principal. So long as this is the case, a banker's career has its drawbacks; and Demosthenes in a recent speech has commended the choice by Pasion's son of a factory worth 60 mine per year, instead of his father's banking business worth nominally 100. The former was so much more secure than an income depending on "other people's money!"

Finally it must be said that while Nicanor and Pasion have been honorable and justly esteemed men, many of their colleagues have been rogues. Many a "table" has been closed very suddenly, when its owner absconded, or collapsed in bankruptcy, and the unlucky depositors and creditors have been left penniless, during the "rearrangement of the tables," as the euphemism goes.

83. The Potter of Athens. - There is one other form of economic activity in Athens which deserves our especial notice, different as it is from the bankers' tables, - the manufacture of earthen vases. A long time might be spent investigating the subject; here there is room only for a hasty glance. For more than two hundred years Attica has been supplying the world with a pottery which is in some respects superior to any that has gone before, and also (all things considered) to any that will follow, through night two and a half millenniums. The articles are primarily tall vases and urns, some for mere ornament or for religious purposes, - some for very humble household utility; however, besides the regular vases there is a great variety of dishes, plates, pitchers, bowls, and cups all of the same general pattern, - a smooth, black glaze[*] covered with figures in the delicate red of the unglazed clay. At first the figures had been in black and the background in red, but by about 500 B.C. the superiority of the black backgrounds had been fully realized and the process perfected. For a long time Athens had a monopoly of this beautiful earthenware, but now in 360 B.C. there are creditable manufactories in other cities, and especially in the Greek towns of Southern Italy. The Athenian industry is, however, still considerable; in fifty places up and down the city, but particularly in the busy quarter of the Ceramicus, the potters' wheels are whirling, and the glazers are adding the elegant patterns.

[*]Sometimes this glaze tended to a rich olive green or deep brown.

84. Athenian Pottery an Expression of the Greek Sense of Beauty. - Athens is proud of her traditions of naval and military glory; of the commerce of the Peireus; of her free laws and constitution; of her sculptured temples, her poets, her rhetoricians and philosophers. Almost equally well might she be proud of her vases. They are not made - let us bear clearly in mind - by avowed artists, servants of the Muses and of the Beautiful; they are the regular commercial products of work-a-day craftsmen. But what craftsmen! In the first place, they have given to every vase and dish a marvelous individuality. There seems to be absolutely no duplication of patterns.[*] Again, since these vases are made for Greeks, they must - no matter how humble and commonplace their use - be made beautiful - elegantly shaped, well glazed, and well painted: otherwise, no matter how cheap, they will never find a market.

[*]It is asserted that of the many thousands of extant Greek vases that crowd the shelves of modern museums, there are nowhere two patterns exactly alike.

The process of manufacture is simple, yet it needs a masterly touch. After the potter has finished his work at the wheel and while the clay is still soft, the decorator makes his rough design with a blunt-pointed stylus. A line of black glaze is painted around each figure. Then the black background is freely filled in, and the details within the figure are added. A surprisingly small number of deft lines are needed to bring out the whole picture.[*] Sometimes the glaze is thinned out to a pale brown, to help in the drawing of the interior contours. When the design is completed, we have an amount of life and expression which with the best potters is little short of startling. The subjects treated are infinite, as many as are the possible phases of Greek life. Scenes in the home and on the farm; the boys and their masters at school; the warriors, the merchants, the priests sacrificing, the young gallants serenading a sweet-heart; all the tales, in short of poet-lore and mythology, - time would fail to list one tenth of them. Fairly we can assert that were all the books and formal inscriptions about the Athenians to be blotted out, these vase paintings almost photographs one might say, of Athenian daily life, would give us back a very wide knowledge of the habits of the men in the city of Athena.

[*]In this respect the Greek vase paintings can compete with the best work in the Japanese prints.

The potters are justly proud of their work; often they do not hesitate to add their signatures, and in this way later ages can name the "craftsmen" who have transmitted to them these objects of abiding beauty. The designers also are accommodating enough to add descriptive legends of the scenes which they depict, - Achilles, Hercules, Theseus, and all the other heroes are carefully named, usually with the words written above or beside them.

The pottery of Athens, then, is truly Athenian; that is to say, it is genuinely elegant, ornamental, simple, and distinctive. The best of these great vases and mixing bowls are works of art no less than the sculptures of Phidias upon the Parthenon.