This paper argues for a systemic, institutionalist, and imperial approach to the Athenian economy in the generation after the Peloponnesian War. The slow recovery of trade after Athens’ defeat—having been dispossessed of its former imperial infrastructure—required leading citizens to revisit the means by which the dēmos could improve their markets and increase their revenues. What emerged was Agyrrhios’ Grain-Tax Law of 374/3 BC (Rhodes and Osborne 2003: 118-129). Although the practical consequence of the legislation was a surplus of grain during winter months, the law also inaugurated a system of staged events associated with the Aiakeion in the south-west corner of the Athenian agora. The events that made up Agyrrhios’ legislation, above all, made manifest the innovations and internal contestations of Athens’ nascent fourth-century imperial project.
Ronald Stroud (1998: 116), Johannes Engels (2000), Alain Bresson (2000: 207-10), and Alfonso Moreno (2007: 102-15) have all used the Grain-Tax Law to show how Athenian citizens were willing to intervene on behalf of the state economy. None of these studies, however, have developed the practical importance of foreign merchants to the legislation taxing the cleruchs on the Aegean islands of Lemnos, Imbros, and Skyros. In light of the emerging institutionalist economic history of Athens (Ober 2010; cf. Finley 1973), this paper explores the nature of the Athenian economy by linking the post-imperial pedigree of Aegean cleruchies to a new sensitivity for the ritual components of economic policy. It demonstrates the importance of a networked perspective to Athens’ markets in the fourth century and draws wider conclusions about our understanding of the Second Athenian League (Burke 1990; Cargill 1981).
My study develops through three sections. First, I review the forensic (Lysias 22.5-9; Isocrates 17.31-2; Aeschines 2.76) and epigraphic (IG II2 30; 43; Agora I 7557; 7180) evidence dating from the early fourth century BC in order to establish the significance of the Grain-Tax Law qua foreign labor sources. Essential to the success of the enterprise was the tacit acknowledgement that Athens was incapable of farming its own taxes and was reliant upon an assemblage of wealthy citizens and contracted foreign labor sources. I argue that the legislation provided incentives for increased market activity by facilitating a specialized division of labor and attracting networks of merchants who could minimize losses through shared risks.
Second, I situate the legislation within its vocabulary of imperial and religious associations (Herodotus 5.89; Isocrates 9.12-19). The system foregrounded the extraction of material resources amidst an obsolete religious landscape steeped in a history of Aegean violence: by 374/3, the religious narrative associating the Aiakeion to Athens’ fifth-century empire had been replaced by a new imperial system that obscured the coercive nature of Athenian power. Instead, the Aiakeion became a monument to abundance and accountability within the dēmos. The prerequisite for securing the grain supply was an active maritime market, the aggregation of allies abroad, and the consolidation of overseas holdings.
Finally, I turn to the physical landscapes of the Agora and Pnyx where the staged events took form: the exclusion of the tax-farmers from the sale of the grain, the presentation of the profits before the Boule, and the associated euthyna procedure divorced the private process of tax-farming from the demotic event of grain-sales. The legislation ensured that their contributions were obscured by emphasizing instead the reproduction of an outwardly coherent Athenian imperial identity. In this manner, the legislation accentuated the political liminality, yet vital economic significance of foreigners to the recovery of Athens.
Such an interpretation accounts for the functional milieu of the events at the intersection of economic uncertainty, democratic citizenship, and dispersed labor ecologies. Athenians recognized the constitutional problem that annually elected magistrates were neither sufficiently experienced nor equipped to collect overseas taxes for the state at the beginning of their terms. Their solution for economic recovery mixed wealthy Athenians with contracted foreigners. This meant that Athens’ imperial project was to remain a participatory and cooperative venture.