There long has been a persistent academic debate as to whether an “ancient economy,’ referring mainly to Greece, even existed at all. In a field dominated by Marx, Marxists, the 19th century sociologist Max Weber, and such scholars of renown as Sir Moses Finley, the lingering image of the economic world of the Greek polis is that of something very static. We imagine a leisure class lounging at the sandaled foot of an orator while slaves tended to the fields, flogging cows harnessed to ploughs stuck in the mud. It is the notion of a “primitive” economy: money made for status, not investment; credit extended for the purchase of slaves, war waged for the capture of booty, elites in control of craft guilds and tyrant-kings keeping the peace by randomly doling out the goods.
Then there is ancient epic itself, with the noble Odysseus disdaining seafaring for profit (though he did take all the pay-offs he could collect) and the great Achilles pondering a discovery of precious treasure only so far as it might estimate his aristocratic worth. From this rudimentary foundation, an entire field of Socialist-Keynesian views on the Greek economy has prevailed, with occasional libertarian scholars such as Murray Rothbard and Jess Huerta de Soto getting a word in edgewise. In recent time, however, academia has found much more evidence of technological advances and market-driven considerations on the part of the classical polis than previously thought.
Keeping in mind that in both ancient Greece (and Renaissance Italy) that democracy was not incompatible with aristocracy, and that oligarchies and tyrants were not necessarily illiberal, several points may be made in defense of the economic model of the city-state: 1) that the stronger the city-state, the greater the industrial and economic expansion; 2) that private property was considered a fundamental economic principle; 3) that banking standards were relatively conservative; 4) that the wealthiest city-states were of the most socially dynamic; 5) that city-state competition spearheaded the modern entrepreneurial Europe; and 6) that the visionary tyrant was almost always business-first in his rule.
This post was published at Ludwig von Mises Institute on 11/14/2017.