Tuesday, July 26, 2016


Alain Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States. Expanded and updated English edition, translated by Steven Rendall; originally published in French 2007-2008. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016. Pp. xxvi, 620. ISBN 9780691144702. $45.00.

Reviewed by Donni Wang, Shanghai University (donni.wang@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site


The French original of The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy was published in 2007-8 and received a lengthy and sympathetic review in BMCR 2009.08.17. On the occasion of this fresh translation, therefore, I take the opportunity to devote more space to critical engagement and less to summary. Bresson sets out to prove and explain the occurrence of sustained economic expansion in ancient Greece through the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods. For those who have embraced the use of social science methods and neoclassical economic theory in the study of the ancient economy, Bresson's work will be very satisfying. In his text, economic concepts like incentives, uncertainty, and information asymmetry are featured prominently and supplemented by quantitative evidence whenever possible, some of which is derived from the latest archeological findings.

In Chapter I, Bresson provides an account of his methodology, situating it within the tradition of scholarship on the ancient economy. After this introduction, Part I of the book ("Structures and Production"), approaches the economy from several basic aspects: environmental factors (Chapter II and III), land use (IV), taxation (IV), agricultural production (V and VI), non-agricultural production, and the rate of innovation and growth (VII and VIII). Part II ("Market and Trade") covers the more advanced aspects of the economy: property laws and commercial centers (IX), money and credit (X), international trade and tax policy (XI), the emporium and commercial regulation (XII), international trade, economic performance, and the city-state ecology (XII-XV).

Bresson's main argument is that the ancient Greek economy, contrary to claims of it being primitive and stagnant, enjoyed significant growth as a result of steady development of institutions (xxii). According to the author, an institution is what introduces stability and predictability by establishing rules and regulations for social relationships. This facilitating role reduces the cost of transactions, which are coextensive with human interactions in social life (19-20). Bresson does not clarify how he uses this broad theoretical concept to identify institutions. To judge from the specifics in this book, institutions include the exploitation of land and resources, the change in technology, the collecting of taxes and duties, the minting and circulation of coins, the making of loans, the maintenance of the agora, the spread of an international trade network, and the implementation of laws that control prices and regulate commerce.

An important critique of this approach can be made regarding the unquestioning use of new institutionalism, which has introduced flaws into the conceptual model. The problems that arise are the omission of alternative structures, the conflation of different institutional goals, and a blindness to ethical and normative issues of import.

First, by focusing on formal institutions, Bresson overlooks a whole group of economic practices that stem from beliefs, norms, and traditions, all of which heavily shaped the Greek world until at least the Hellenistic period. New institutionalism must take full blame for this huge blind spot. Although Douglass North defines institutions as "all forms of constraint" (19-20), and Alain Bresson includes symbolic and kinship institutions (26), in actuality, he identifies only those that are well-established in the modern West, namely those that employ economic incentives and legal sanctions backed by the power of the market and state. This bias causes Bresson to miss a number of important elements in the economic life of ancient Greece that are not based on the market and do not involve the state. For example, Greek historians agree that most city-states were made of small independent farmers who subsisted on the land that they possessed, which contributed to the political stability and social cohesion of Greek communities.1 This unique outcome was not a product of market transactions and legal enforcement but, rather, arose from the custom of distributing land widely through individual allotments and the norm of forbidding the sale or purchase of ancestral land. Next, when we consider labor, most citizen craftsmen at Athens were independent workers, a dynamic that made a huge impact on the level of operational size, industrial distribution, and technological development. This environment, which was conducive to small, family-sized businesses, was a result of the cultural premium placed on individual autonomy and dignity. This value-laden preference discouraged Greeks from willingly working under someone else as an economic underling, a notion that has been derided as unprofitable by analysts influenced by modern economics.2 In Chapters XII–XIV, Bresson discusses trade, but not gift exchange, which was a strong paradigm in the Homeric world and Archaic Greece.3 In terms of wealth management, there were certainly private individuals who profited from offering commercial loans. But it was also customary for aristocrats to provide gifts and assistance to the community. Their desire for obtaining people's gratitude and favor (charis) and good reputation differs from the conventional calculations of financial gain.

As we can see, with regard to property, labor, exchange, and transfer, a unique set of ancient Greek discourses—ones that did not structure behavior according to the institutional assumptions of scarcity and utility maximization—played an important role. Although these cultural norms were not the only factors important at the time, excluding these from an analysis has consequences for the study of the ancient Greek economy. This neglect creates a bias, which treats any economic production that is not quantified, monetarized, and then anonymously exchanged in legally defined terms as if it simply did not exist. In fact, it can be argued that the more invaluable an economic activity is—such as bearing and raising children, fighting for the homeland, providing for loved ones, and supporting the community—the more ideal for it to take place among parties bound by trust, good will, and honor. Arrangements based on intimate mutual understanding and consensus obviate the need for formal safeguards and the concomitant bureaucratic documentation. As a result, some of the most effective and noble economic acts become "invisible" by taking on forms that do not translate easily into the conventional type of economic data that Bresson surveys.

The second problem with Bresson's analysis is that even manifest institutions can serve completely different ends, an ambivalence that Bresson does not underscore. Many fiscal and financial policies of the Greek city-states addressed the redistributive needs of the polity, rather than the materialistic ambitions of the individual. At Athens, for example, the state coordinated and sponsored festivals, public building projects, jury pay, games, food relief, etc., transferring resources from the rich to the underprivileged and the poor. These programs preserved the dignity and welfare of the small men who worked for a living and were the bulwark of Athenian democracy. Furthermore, the city's regulation of the agora, which standardized weights and measures and protected against fraud, benefited the small producers and consumers first and foremost. We can imagine that the landlords, big bankers, and economic elites would not have much to fear if the market was left to regulate itself—they would likely tilt the game in their own favor at the expense of widowers, peasants, and small craftsmen. In this light, the logic of "institutions" itself becomes contested: is it about assisting the common goals of the civic polity or the private interest of competitive individuals? While the case of the Greek polis suggests the former, the latter outlook, which is rooted in methodological individualism and rational choice theory, is the one that informs the modern economic concepts that Bresson uses in this study.

Thirdly this growth model leads Bresson to rationalize practices that are unacceptable by our standards. For example, Bresson first explains that the massive expulsion of small tenant farmers made possible the agricultural revolution in early modern England. Based on this phenomenon, he concludes that the failure to forcefully evict peasants owning small and middle-sized properties in antiquity "limited the transformations of agriculture, and hence an increase in production" (170). This remark treats violent expropriation as a beneficial development that increases scale and spurs innovation. In another passage, Bresson acknowledges that the most ambitious innovations are connected with great landlords, whose political position "gave them a power of coercion over a workforce that could be used for large projects" (167). Once again, the subjugation of human beings is seen as enabling growth and innovation. This underlying ideological stance becomes fully evident when Bresson muses that "one cannot consider solely the possible negative effects of the existence of kingdoms and other zones of domination" (422). On page 189, Bresson refers to the two factories owned by Demosthenes' father that employed slaves as examples of "bringing workers together" to specialize, like a modern industrial enterprise. In this example, slavery is presented as a means to modernize production. On page 280, Bresson discusses a speech in which Socrates advises Aristarchos on how to "put free women to work . . . just as if they were slaves."

Even for those who take pride in shunning any sort of normative "politicization," Bresson's picture is still deeply problematic. First, the presence of informal practices complicates the simple correlation between formal institutions and economic prosperity. We certainly can no longer be sure that the material basis for the flowering of Greek civilization in the Classical era was the formal, modernistic sectors, rather than the less visible cultural traditions. Secondly, the sequence of events casts doubt on the long-term prospect of this kind of growth, even if it is positive for the time being. After all, Bresson admits that it was the civic framework that made possible exceptional development (217). Nevertheless, as economic growth accelerated in the Hellenistic era, the egalitarian civic framework progressively dissolved and strictly hierarchical relationships were introduced in social and political life. The new power dynamic slowed the momentum of an incipient enlightened culture in Greece that was responsible for breakthrough scientific knowledge, the real engine of social progress (218). When we connect individual accumulation, wealth inequality, and social disintegration, we could see that growth could very well bite the hand that feeds it, namely a fair, egalitarian, and civic-minded society.

For these reasons, Bresson's story of economic expansion driven by new institutionalism can be misleading. Nonetheless, Bresson and his translator must get credit for laying out the argument and evidence lucidly, making it easier for interlocutors like me to engage with.4 In Vlassopoulos's recent review of Ober, the author intimates that if his critical comments could generate meaningful discussion about the big picture in Greek history, they will have served a useful purpose. I shall simply echo that sentiment and hope for the same.


1.   See Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization. New York: Free Press, 1995.
2.   See Edward Cohen, "An Unprofitable Masculinity," in Money, Labour and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece, edited by Paul Cartledge, Edward E Cohen, and Lin Foxhall, (London: Routledge, 2002): 100-112.
3.   The prominence of the gift paradigm is addressed in Ian Morris, "Gift and Commodity in Archaic Greece," Man 21(1) (Mar., 1986): 1-17.
4.   It is easier to critique someone else than to create something new oneself. With that in mind, my forthcoming book features a new model that overcomes the shortcomings of new institutionalism, see The Olympian Economy: An Alternative to the Market System (Common Ground, 2016).

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