Thursday, August 20, 2015


Léopold Migeotte, Les finances des cités grecques: aux périodes classique et hellénistique. Epigraphica, 8. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2014. Pp. 770. ISBN 9782251444918. €59.00.

Reviewed by John Ma, Columbia University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The massive, golden-covered tome is a comprehensive, authoritative reference work on the public finances of the Greek city-states in the archaic and (mostly) Classical and Hellenistic periods. Fittingly, it is bibliographically up-to-date and catholic (see 439 n. 68, a nice mix of Anglo-saxon and continental bibliography on Athenian imperial finance), and clearly organized, as follows. First, an introduction and survey (discussing the sources—mainly epigraphical); then, a big chapter on financial administration (including book-keeping and concepts); then, a bigger chapter on public assets and revenue, and a rather smaller chapter on public expenditure. Finally, two test cases (Athens and Delos) organized according to the same headings but with close attention to particularities (at Athens, the importance of the demes, and the history of the empire whose finances, in Migeotte's view, strictly separated tribute from the abundant funds of Athena, which extended massive, never-repaid war-loans to Athens; on Delos, the preponderance of sacred finances, and the constant lending out of Apollo's money, in different ways under Athenian domination, during the blissful Hellenistic independence, and in the time of the Athenian colony after 167 BCE). A shortish general conclusion gathers earlier findings. (Chapters are elaborately subdivided: salt-pans are treated under III. I.1.2— chapter on the public resources, section on property, sub-section on typology, sub-sub-section on non-agricultural property). As well as a compendium, Migeotte presents propositions within a highly-charged and dynamic field, the study of the ancient economy.

This is worth emphasizing, because Migeotte claims to write an old-style institutional survey (16, belied by his illuminating resort to quantification, e.g. 571-6 on Athenian building programmes; the rare misprints concerning figures draw attention, e.g., 432, 300 T for 30, 600 n. 39, 700 dr for 7000). Within this quasi-antiquarian framework, findings and propositions might get lost. The typological structure often obscures points; the paratactic presentation of examples rounded up with executive summaries risks flattening out historical questions, because the explanations always have to fit within the inert typological framework, rather than seek answers in terms of political relations and debates, or ecological specificities as in the case of common pasture in Boiotia, or historical pressures. (In addition, the tendency to cursoriness if a theme has been treated elsewhere by Migeotte results in patchiness).

These problems may be the unavoidable consequences of the book's great comprehensive scope and rich attention to detail, within which, the reader, if she reads carefully, will notice fascinating documents carefully explained, a sense of significant variation, and general findings that feed into big questions. Fascinating documents: Teos and Lebedos, when forcibly joined into a single polis, set up a grain-fund, lent out for the exclusive purpose of buying grain, on the expectation of return with interest (so the borrower had to watch prices, and make a profit: state-sponsored speculation). Significant variation: at Koroneia or on Samothrake, grain-funds are simple affairs (magistrates take money from a fund, buy grain, sell it, and put the proceeds back int he fund, which is topped up from public finances if necessary); at Thouria, the grain-fund is used by a magistrate to buy grain, but in case of a price drop and the risk of selling at loss, the grain is to be lent out in kind and at interest. The variation reflects different ecological resources, but also different institutional cultures or attitudes to profit. General findings: the grain-funds (the only known examples of rolling funds within civic budgets) belong to a wider roster of financial instruments involving the lending out of public funds, at interest— as loans (the emporika daneia in which Hellenistic Miletos invested, or the portfolio of politika daneia known from Kyme) and, most frequently, as part of endowments meant to produce income for specific goals.

Such findings create a general picture of the public economy of the Greek city-states. The main conclusion is that their public finances were well-resourced in a diversity of finely tuned, complementary ways, competently run in terms of budget planning and book-keeping, with a savvy eye to the possibilities of public ownership of resources (hence taxes but also rents and fees), and simply of the fungibility of cash. The latter is a field in which Athens, both at the level of the central state and of the demes (with limited scope for taxation, multiple items expenditure, and a combination of landed resources and cash), played a pioneering role. An illustration of deme resourcefulness and generally of public cleverness with money can be found in a long-term lease drawn up by the deme of Aixone: the deme asked for the olive trees on the rented-out estate to be trimmed down, and compensated the tenants by selling off the wood, lending out the proceeds at 12% and sharing the resulting income (in fact the tenants' share was deducted from rent). Apart from Athens (especially during the Peloponnesian War), the area around Delos under Athenian influence and administration, and Lokroi (in Italy), it seems that the poleis generally were not heavily indebted, though they constantly resorted to short-term loans or cash advances, from public or sacred funds, between budget lines, or from individuals (tax payers or officials) to cover liquidity shortfalls: for Migeotte, Greek cities mostly balanced their budgets, on the household analogy, rather than constantly relying on consolidated credit, like a modern corporation or sovereign state. Civic finances allowed the cities to provide a variety of public goods, including democratic politics, administration and justice, as a matter of routine on which we are often ill- informed precisely because of the lack of crisis or drama. The poleis had money, time, and a clear sense of the implications of public interest and civic ownership, in historically specific ways whose uniqueness invalidate resort to historical comparanda from medieval or early modern Europe.

In spite of the flattening effect of the typological-institutional presentation, and in fact because of the constant tendency to look for normalcy of practice, the implications of Migeotte's Finances are clear and far-reaching. Notably, Migeotte intervenes decisively, if at times reluctantly, in three old debates. The first is primitivism vs. modernism: the elaboration, sophistication and rationality of Greek book-keeping is clearly established, as well as the importance of money, and even entrepreneurial risk (as on fourth-century Delos, 620): the sheer mass of evidence and careful interpretation establishes the modernist case. The second is the stateness of the Greek city-state (679). Migeotte has a clear sense of administrative sophistication. but even more importantly, of the state and of publicness, for instance in matters of taxation (indirect but also direct: the polis could and did regularly levy direct taxation on property and on income); foundations, even if often set up by private donations, were public matters and not "semi-private" or unofficial (183 n. 261). The third is the place of "euergetism", private donations or philanthropy within the Greek cities. Migeotte shows that public goods are procured through the deployment of public resources. Main work on Greek theatres, such as that of Skepsis (377), got financed out of special festival funds or public incomes; benefactors liked to pay for visible elements such as the proskenion : euergetism played a complementary role—was literally a façade. (See parallel remarks on Roman-era Hypata, by J.-Cl. Decourt and B. Helly, in Bulletin 2010, no. 369: R. Bouchon has recently shown that apparent euergetism is in fact the handling of public tax income, specifically fees for manumissions, by a magistrate). Of course, public financing involved a lot of payment by the wealthy, often levied through direct, targetted institutional and social mechanisms: liturgies and choregies, eisphorai, semi-compulsory subscriptions or loans; voluntary euergetism came on top of these (sometimes in simple forms such as officials not claiming back expenses or advances: 615). Where quantifiable, the share of financing provided by such direct contributions seems to have been very important (Migeotte, following P. Wilson, thinks that perhaps up to half of the funding of big Athenian festivals came from such sources).

But these answers to old problems, embedded in Migeotte's massive array of examples, raise three further crucial questions. The first is the nature of the polis as political economy, in view of its power as a state, its ideological assumption of ultimate sovereignty (as visible in the emergency measures, such as enforced purchase of private property, studied by Migeotte, as well as the communitarian claims that burdened individual fortunes), and the considerable fiscal burden routinely shouldered by the rich: are we dealing with progressive taxation and redistribution ? Migeotte shies away from this question (on semantic grounds: liturgies are not taxes, 521 n. 439, against E. Cohen), but it will not go away. The presence of a 3.5% tax on all income from interest, levied in Hellenistic Ilion, is particularly suggestive (195, on I. Ilion 52, summarising R. Bogaert): capital gets taxed to produce public goods. But what public goods? This raises the possibility of redistribution, for instance in the form of political pay or simply of welfare payments or subsidies of different kinds. Neo-institutionalist economic historians have recently insisted on the importance of the rule of law, private property rights, and low transaction costs in the economic success of the Greek city-state civilization; to what extent is the picture rounded out (at least during part of the Classical and much of the Hellenistic periods of democracy) by the deployment of collective power to obtain social justice, the taming of wealth inequality, progressive taxation, access to public goods (infrastructure, pay, safety net), and intervention and regulation to protect such access? A Stiglitzian, Krugmanesque polis? If so, when and where?.

The second problem is that of the relationship between redistributive and progressive policies, and the ubiquitous economic maximizing and rent-seeking by all economic actors. Individuals maximize, within the framework of the civic economy— as seen in the case of the recipient of loans from the Teian-Lebedian grain fund (above), or the citizen of Kyme who, when serving as a treasurer, advanced money to his city—at 16.5% interest (to inscribe a decree which he himself had proposed). Miletos, in need of emergency liquidity, offered to repay creditors with a life pension (incurring losses once the capital was repaid); the arrangements were modified after assembly debate to allow such pensions to be passed on to children, thus making the terms of the deal more onerous for the city. This particular scheme was developed to avoid raising taxes on the rich, or cutting back on political pay for the poor: the constraints of polis economy gave leverage to the rich, and Migeotte constantly wonders if financial institutions, though decided in civic contexts, were often manipulated to the advantage of the rich. Examples of potentially good deals for the elite are the sale of priesthoods, or the Mylasa fictitious land sales-cum-leaseback arrangements. Conversely, the cities themselves often maximised their revenues, by chasing returns and rents— because they had no choice? Did this generate further avenues for self- interested behaviour?

The third problem is that of sacred property and finances. Religion required a lot of money, often generated from sacred property (rents) or funds (loans: many endowments were religious in purpose). The gods' patrimony was administered publicly, but was autonomous and separate (141, nuanced on D. Rousset's views on the publicness of sacred property)— and often considerable, notably in fifth-century Athens, where Athena but also other gods were very wealthy, in cash and in land outside Attica. What needs attention is the set of interactions between sacred economy and the reach and needs of civic institutions, but also between the sacred economy and the economies of rational maximisation. On Delos, Apollo was a huge landlord (the biggest in the Cyclades, though shifting his portfolio to urban real estate in the post-167 boom). This did not prevent him from making a drachma or two by gathering and selling the by-products of the flocks of sacred birds in his shrine: feathers, eggs and guano— a striking example of the maximizing mindset which is such an interesting feature of the economics of the Greek city-states.

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