Wednesday, September 25, 2019


Barry O'Halloran, The Political Economy of Classical Athens: A Naval Perspective. Mnemosyne. Supplements, volume 425. Leiden: Brill, 2018. Pp. xii, 381. ISBN 9789004386143. €119,00.

Reviewed by Tim Sorg, Stanford University (

Version at BMCR home site


Barry O'Halloran has written an important book on the Athenian naval economy that deserves the attention of ancient historians. Yes, there is no shortage of English-language books on the Athenian fleet and Greek naval warfare, more generally.1 And yet this is the first to explore the Athenian navy from a political-economic perspective, making it a welcome addition to the recent flurry of work on ancient Greek economic history.2 His central argument is fairly straightforward: the development and scale of the Athenian navy was the key to Athens' economic success in the Classical period. The story goes that the Athenians' commitment to naval warfare created demands on infrastructure, labor, and financial resources which, in turn, snowballed into an economic cycle of gainful employment, specialization, non-agricultural production, technological innovation, capital investment, and so on. Or, in modern economic terms, Athenian naval expenditure triggered Keynesian state-sponsored, demand-led growth.

Joining the growing field of economic historians seeking to distinguish themselves from Finley's old orthodoxy, O'Halloran is equally comfortable navigating macroeconomic terminology as he is Thucydides' text. He shows convincingly that the Athenians considered decisions about the navy to be economic decisions. In fact, he uses the terms 'economy' and 'political economy' interchangeably: the assumption, it seems, is that economics at scale are necessarily political. He is quick to explain, though, that his book is a story about economic growth and that he plans to offer "economic explanations to economic outcomes" rather than treating economic issues as "unintended consequences of political decisions" (pp. 3-4). Though he does not present any new historical, epigraphic, or archaeological evidence, he uses Keynesian economics to reinterpret and offer fresh perspectives on well-trodden passages from Thucydides, Herodotus, Diodorus, and Xenophon (he also includes a helpful appendix at the end on his sources).

O'Halloran builds his argument through twelve chapters that, in my reading, can be divided into five parts. First, after a brief introduction, Chapters 1-2 march us through the long-standing historiographical debates that have animated primitivists and modernists, substantivists and formalists, and advocates of no-growth economic models—which I do not need to rehearse again here. We meet the usual suspects, who will be all too familiar to most readers: Marx, Weber, Polanyi, and, of course, Finley, who famously argued against applying market-centered and neoclassical economics to the ancient world.

Next, in Chapters 3-5 he explores the role of violence in the origins of the naval economy during the late archaic period. Here he emphasizes the importance of path dependence in determining economic outcomes (rather than, say, sober economic planning): the combination of bad soil and not enough land led the Athenians down a path to develop a different military strategy than their contemporaries at Sparta. The Athenians had higher incentives to engage in regional exchange for foodstuffs, so they found increasingly violent means of protecting their interests. Over the course of the sixth century, naval warfare transitioned from "private" opportunism (e.g., Peisistratus' conquest of Sigeon) to a deliberate polis strategy with a publicly-owned trireme fleet (e.g., the conquest of Salamis). The so-called Athenian Naval Revolution, therefore, was not so much the brainchild of Themistocles, as it was a gradual process of institutional consolidation and violent competition with Aegina and Persia.

Then, in Chapters 6-9, he shows how demand-led growth worked, drawing our attention to the development of particular institutions and innovations. What set apart Athens' political economy, according to O'Halloran, from that of the rest of the Greek world was its extensive silver deposits. Even as the money supply ballooned, parallel increases in the supply of goods and services at Athens kept inflation low. The Athenians continued to pour money into developing and consolidating their naval economy, which had the knock-on effects of creating further demands for natural resources and specialized labor. To keep up, the Athenians used their monopoly on violence to create a "de facto Aegean wide free trade area" and created flexible institutions, like the trierarchy, to stabilize naval financing (p. 163). They continued to invest in innovative naval technology (e.g., the mortise- and-tenon technique) and labor-intensive infrastructure projects: he estimates that building Athens' 372 shipsheds at Piraeus would have come to around half the cost of building the Parthenon, to say nothing of the upkeep (p. 217). Perhaps most importantly, the infrastructure projects "would have provided steady paid employment for significant numbers of labourers and craftsmen over many years… [which] had multiplier effects in boosting demand and, ultimately, economic development" (p. 228).

At long last, in Chapter 10, we meet the people behind Athenian naval history—the soldiers, sailors, and citizens. He estimates that in peacetime the naval economy employed some 4,500 full-time citizens and foreigners as "professional maritime employees" (pp. 241-242). Because they received their wages in coin, their employment continued the cycle of monetization. Throughout, he rightly emphasizes the non-citizen rowers in the Athenian fleet, arguing that manpower shortages during the Peloponnesian War likely made citizens a minority (though he concedes that citizens likely predominated in the early fifth century). According to O'Halloran, this is important because it forces us to privilege economic over political motivations for the fleet. In particular, he sets his sights on disproving the "Trireme School of Democracy" thesis, which argues for a causal relationship between thetes rowing in the navy and the emergence of a more inclusive democracy—basically, that poor Athenians developed a unity of purpose and could leverage political power.3 I found his argument here unconvincing: the presence of non-citizens would not have prevented thetes from recognizing their shared political power when they attended the Assembly, where their fellow non-citizen rowers would not have been present. To be sure, democratic ideology does not undermine demand-led growth, as he argues for: the two could well have been co-dependent. And even if citizen rowers only predominated in the first half of the fifth century, this was, after all, the crucial transition period in the history of Athenian democracy.

I also found that, in his effort to distance himself from Finley's model, he seems to minimize the importance of slave labor to the Athenian economy. The key here, I think, is that the Athenians' economic success came from their navy, not their slaves. Though he does well to explore the naval economy's labor market, he seems to elide wage labor with labor more generally, since many slaves were "active entrepreneurs" and "succeeded economically" (pp. 276). I expect he could have done more to explore the relationship between the Athenian navy, conquest, and acquiring slaves and other forms of exploitative labor.

To conclude his book, in Chapters 11-12 O'Halloran offers his assessment of the Athenian naval economy's structure and performance. From historical and epigraphic sources, he shows that Athens maintained a fleet of some 200 to 400 triremes for much of the Classical period. Over time, the commitments in infrastructure, labor, and financial resources to maintain a fleet of this scale created a "comparative advantage" that continued to drive demand-led growth (p. 279). Far from Finley's primitivist model, O'Halloran depicts Athens with a very real labor market and Athenians who were very capable of creating a market economy.

Overall, O'Halloran's book is compellingly argued, nicely articulated, and well researched, with only a few (very) minor editing errors.4 The original watercolors he commissioned to brighten his pages, especially those in Chapter 9 of triremes, shipsheds and Piraeus, are a unique treat and a beautiful touch. His explicit use of macroeconomic terminology and heuristics offer a stimulating and refreshing perspective on an old topic. And yet, because the book is a revision of his Phd thesis written between 2011 and 2015, much of his argument and posturing might not appear as innovative in light of Josiah Ober's recent monograph or the expanded and updated translation of Alain Bresson's indispensable 2007-2008 volumes—though he certainly adds a great deal of texture to the "Wealthy Hellas" thesis.5 It is a shame, therefore, that in his effort to publish the book in a timely manner he was not able to make much use of the major publications since 2015, which only receive an occasional footnote here and there (he acknowledges so much on p. 315 n. 1).

O'Halloran's important thesis makes me wonder about other Mediterranean city-states, which may well present a fruitful opportunity for him to compare with Athens in future work. Syracuse and Carthage, for example, also invested heavily in their navies: might we see similar demand-led growth in them? If not, what explains the differences? And for other city-states without navies that may have experienced comparable demand-led growth, what other factors stood in for naval investment to drive growth? In other words, was naval investment unique in its ability to drive this kind of growth in the ancient Mediterranean world, or was it one among many?

Though he was generally thorough and methodical with his use of historical and epigraphic sources, I would have liked to see him do more with archaeological evidence. His survey of fourteen Greek shipwrecks dating from the sixth to the fourth centuries BCE went a long way in advancing his argument in Chapter 8; I was surprised, therefore, to find that the recent Zea Harbour Project excavations hardly come up at all, even in the sections on shipshed construction and naval provisioning. He argues convincingly that the Athenian navy created demand-led growth, and yet we never get to see clearly what exactly was growing. What was imported and from where? What was manufactured and where in the city? In other words, his argument could have benefitted from more engagement with the material evidence for what the navy was protecting.

As much as I admire the book, I did find myself thinking at the end that some of his larger claims were declared but not fully proven. In one example, he argued that "inter-regional trade, by promoting comparative advantage, allowed each region [in the eastern Mediterranean] to specialise in what it was best at producing to the benefit of each location" (p. 266). He goes on to mention that Athenian farmers switched from producing grain to grapes and olives. He may well be correct, and it all fits nicely with his neoclassical economic model, but he does not marshal any evidence, provide any citations, or argue that the Athenian case is representative of anywhere else in the Aegean basin.

Still, all this does not detract from my overall admiration for his ambitious and wide-ranging work. Though his economic argument may no longer be surprising to some readers, O'Halloran's book is, and will remain, an indispensable resource and reference for anyone interested in Athenian naval or economic history.


1.   E.g., Borimir Jordan, The Athenian Navy in the Classical Period. Berkeley, 1975; John Morrison and John Coates, The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship. Cambridge, 1986; Vincent Gabrielsen, Financing the Athenian Fleet: Public Taxation and Social Relations. Baltimore, 1994; Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Baltimore, 1995; Barry Strauss, The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece—and Western Civilization. New York, 2004.
2.   E.g., Peter Acton, Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens. Oxford, 2014; Josiah Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton, 2015; Alain Bresson, The Making of the Ancient Greek Economy: Institutions, Markets, and Growth in the City-States. Trans. Steven Rendall. Princeton, 2016; Franco De Angelis, Archaic and Classical Greek Sicily: A Social and Economic History. Oxford, 2016; Edward Harris, David Lewis, and Mark Woolmer, eds., The Ancient Greek Economy: Markets, Households, and City-States. Cambridge, 2016.
3.   Barry Strauss, "The Athenian Trireme, School of Democracy" in Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick, eds., Demokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern. Princeton, 1996: pp. 313-325.
4.   On p. 104, the reference (Digest XLVII 22.41) should read (Digest XLVII 22.4); on pp. 202-203, he refers to the "sewn/laced method," then on p. 210 it is the "sewn/lace method."
5.   See above, n. 2, and Alain Bresson, L'économie de la Grèce des cites (fin Vie-Ier siècle a.C.). I. Les structures et la production. II. Les espaces de l'échange. Paris, 2007, 2008.

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