Monday, July 29, 2013


Darel Tai Engen, Honor and Profit: Athenian Trade Policy and the Economy and Society of Greece, 415-307 B.C.E. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010. Pp. x, 400. ISBN 9780472116348. $85.00.

Reviewed by Benjamin Keim, Pomona College (

Version at BMCR home site


In this informative volume Darel Tai Engen encourages us to recognize, first, the complementary roles of honor (τιμή) and profit (κέρδος) as economic motivations, and, second, the socio-economic complexities that these twin motivations imply, both institutionally and individually. Focusing on the surviving corpus of 34 honorary decrees awarded by the Athenians for trade-related activities between 415 and 307 B.C.E., Engen introduces the relevant scholarly and historical contexts (Chapters One through Three), scrutinizes the honorands and their honors (Chapters Four through Eight), and assesses the broader implications that these decrees have for our continuing conversations about the ancient economy (Chapter Nine). The volume concludes with a series of appendices containing the corpus of honorary decrees, with Greek texts followed by the author's translations and commentary.

Drawing inspiration from Xenophon's Poroi and Aristotle's Politics, Engen's introductory chapter (3- 19) emphasizes the necessity of moving beyond Moses Finley's "still widely accepted model of the ancient Greek economy" by recognizing the greater "complexity and dynamism" of that economy, especially within the waning decades of the classical era (5, 6-7). Writing as an ancient historian with a background in economics and an interest in economic sociology, Engen examines his chosen literary and epigraphic texts in order "to illuminate Athenian trade policy and the economy and society of ancient Greece" (13, 17).

Thus the second chapter, "Approaches to the Ancient Greek Economy" (20-36), positions the volume as an unwavering, if not entirely unsympathetic, revision of Finley's model. Engen sets the stage by ably leading us through the initial Bücher-Meyer controversy ("primitivists" versus "modernists"), and then through the later interpretations of Weber, Hasebroek, and Polanyi (whence "substantivists" versus "formalists"). After introducing Finley's model and Morris' typology of its critics (24-27), Engen begins fleshing out his own interdisciplinary approach, which is rooted in "substantivist economic theory" (29) and is enhanced both by the methods of economic sociology more broadly, and by Hargreaves Heap's "economic rationality" more specifically. Such interdisciplinary approaches have become increasingly common in recent years,1 and here they offer an intriguing basis for the author's desired "middle ground" between scholarly factions.

The third chapter, "Historical Context" (37-72), reviews the cultural foundations of ancient Greek society and their evolving manifestations within the Athenian democracy. As Engen reviews these building blocks, such as guest- friend relations and liturgical services, two key themes emerge. The first, more Athenian, theme concerns the tension between Homeric, hierarchical competition for recognition and the more egalitarian "democratization of values and institutions" that continues throughout the classical centuries (40).2 The second, more Hellenic theme concerns the ebb and flow of Athenian standing and authority, from the early years of the Delian League through all of the misfortunes – the final years of the Peloponnesian War, the loss of the Second Athenian League, the arrival of Macedonian hegemony after Chaeronea – that upset Athens' equilibrium and encouraged both hand-wringing and adaptation. Both domestic and interstate concerns significantly impacted the actions considered and taken by the Athenians, and Engen sensibly focuses on the fourth century as a particularly fertile period for further exploration.

In his main "Analysis" section Engen examines the honorary decrees and their implications from several different perspectives, scrutinizing in turn the "What", "Whom" and "How" of Athens' economy of honor. The fourth chapter, "Goods and Services" (75-102), lays out the stated rationales for which the surviving honorary decrees were enacted. Of the 34 extant decrees, 25 record the provision of goods (23 involving grain, 1 or 2 involving fish, and 2 involving timber), while a total of 27 include mention of services. Engen divides these services into five categories: gifts of imported goods (on 5 occasions); securing shipments of goods (3); sales of imported goods at reduced prices (4); simple importations of goods (6); and other, miscellaneous trade-related services (9). Two conclusions should be noted: first, in light of this evidence Engen sides with Finley's view of Athenian trade policy as consumptive, and argues—contra Gernet, Hasebroek, and Burke —that with these decrees the Athenians focused not on generating more revenue, but rather on obtaining goods (76-78). Second, drawing especially on the decrees enacted in honor of the Spartokid dynasty of the Bosporos, Engen argues that "gifts" of grain contributed significantly towards meeting classical Athens' caloric needs (79-84).

If the hallowed Athenian ancestors were distressed by their descendants' need to request such goods and services, their distress would only be deepened, one imagines, by the "motley crew" subsequently recognized by the Athenians for such services (104). The fifth chapter, "Honorands" (103-118), examines the ethnic, legal, and economic statuses of those recognized by these decrees. Engen finds "little reason to believe that Athens honored native citizens for trade-related services", and no particular preference for metics over xenoi (104-7). The presence of more Greeks than non-Greeks should not be attributed, Engen argues, to any greater Hellenic desire for honor, but rather should be seen simply as an indication of the relative numbers of Greeks and non-Greeks involved in trade with Athens. Socio-economically there is far greater diversity than earlier studies have suggested; perhaps "traders" were not as poor, or as outcast, as has often been thought. Here Engen rightly stresses the complementary roles of κέρδος and τιμή as incentives (111), and explores the possibility that because wealthy individuals are more likely to consider forgoing profit for the sake of receiving honor, they may be overrepresented within the corpus of honorary decrees.

The sixth chapter, "Honorary Language" (119-139), focuses on the vocabulary with which honorands were recognized. After acknowledging the foundational work of earlier scholars,3 Engen reviews the frequency, chronology, and meaning of anêr agathos (in 6 decrees), chrêsimos (5), aretê (3), eunoia/eunous (25), and philotimia/philotimeomai (6) within the corpus. This vocabulary follows the usual rules: foreigners received the same plaudits well before Athenian citizens did; traditional (political and military) services were increasingly joined by trading services and other forms of euergesia; and—not coincidentally—the official vocabulary of honor itself became more detailed from the middle of the fourth century (120-1). Engen acknowledges this continuing evolution from the fifth-century onwards, while perhaps underestimating the impact of Athens' losses in the Social War. Again, he stresses the importance not of economic embeddedness itself, which is unavoidable, but rather of the society within which the economy is embedded (136).

The seventh ("Honors", 140-81) and eighth chapters ("Privileges", 182-213) examine the material and non-material incentives granted by the Athenians. This division, although (as he admits) somewhat arbitrary, roughly separates the honor- and profit-incentives that were operative. The honors are divided into seven categories: commendation; grants of proxenia and euergesia; golden crowns; bronze statues; xenia in the prytaneion; seats (thea, not prohedria) in the theatre; inscriptions. Engen is sensitive to the relative value and economies of these honors (e.g., a gold crown could be easily monetized, while a bronze statue could not). 'Privileges' are divided into five categories, ateleia and four others—asylia, enktesis, liability to military service eisphora, and citizenship—that were already enjoyed by citizens. On the negative side of the Athenian equation, Engen worries about the 'cheapening' of awards by their extension to 'disesteemed' groups. More positively, he recognizes that the increasing panoply of honors and privileges available for bestowal increased Athens' flexibility and efficacy in recruiting benefactors.

The ninth and concluding chapter (214-21) reiterates the complexity and dynamism of the Athenian economy, the "variety in the organization of trade", and the "diversity of those who were responsible for it" (217). Rather than trade being left to a relatively disesteemed gaggle of traders, Engen sees a much more diverse range of individuals, motivations, and communities involved. He worries about the "social costs" and the erosion of traditional values that the extension of honors to an ever-wider range of individuals suggests, yet it appears that the fourth-century Athenians felt they had little choice but to adapt.

And when they did adapt, as their dreams of empire faded and the specter of Macedon arose, it was indeed to honor, and honors, that the Athenians turned. Thus the most noteworthy achievement of Engen's clearly-argued volume is that it does take τιμή seriously, establishing honor 'atop the Greek system of values' and then exploring the ramifications of that placement (215). Since one can look through the indices of dozens of recent Greek history volumes and only rarely encounter entries for "honor"—much less extended discussions—this emphasis is refreshing. The next step that might be taken would involve the realization that honor was not simply an elite concern, but rather a matter—albeit in varying ways—of significant concern for all Athenians, in their personal and political lives. More broadly, Engen and other contemporary authors are right in their contention that Finley's model of the ancient economy may be improved. The present volume convinces us of the complexity and dynamism of the ancient economy, while encouraging us to carry on with further research, using the literary and epigraphic texts of the fourth century (and beyond), to deepen our understanding of the individuals and the complex motivations that shaped their experiences. ​


1.   See, for instance, I. Morris and J.G. Manning (2005) "The Economic Sociology of the Ancient Mediterranean", in N.J. Smelser and R. Swedberg (ed.) The Handbook of Economic Sociology, Second Edition. (Princeton: PUP) 131-159.
2.   This tension and its ramifications are a central theme of C. Brüggenbrock (2006) Die Ehre in den Zeiten der Demokratie. Das Verhältnis von athenischer Polis und Ehre in klassischer Zeit (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht).
3.   Notably D. Whitehead (1983) "Competitive Outlay and Community Profit: φιλοτιμία in Democratic Athens", in C and M 34: 55-74, D. Whitehead (1993) "Cardinal Virtues: The Language of Public Approbation in Democratic Athens", in C and M 44: 37-75, A.S. Henry (1983) Honours and Privileges in Athenian Decrees (Hildesheim: G. Olms), and C. Veligianni-Terzi (1997) Wertbegriffe in den attischen Ehrendekreten der Klassischen Zeit (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag), reviewed BMCR 1998.01.09

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