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Specialization Among Citizens in Classical Greece

Mark Pyzyk

To what extent did citizens specialize in their field of occupation in ancient Greece (whether as musicians, craftsmen, philosophers, and so on)? Moses Finley's answer has so far been the definitive word on the matter—not much. Finley's point was that the existence of slavery, as well as a civic ideology that favoured certain citizen pursuits (owning land, especially), were powerful socio-cultural structures that dampened citizen participation in most specialist fields, and left training- and investment-intensive occupations to slaves and other unfree individuals (Finley 1999, 42, 49-50). More recent economic scholarship, moreover, influenced by New Institutional Economics (see, for example, the recent Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World, which programmatically quotes economist Douglas North), does not frame the problem in terms of specialization at all, concentrating instead on “political and economic institutions, technology, demography, and ideology of a society” (Scheidel, Morris and Saller 2007, 1). This paper argues that while it is certainly true that most labour in the ancient world was done by slaves, there is nevertheless a more nuanced story to be told about citizen specialization, specifically as it developed in the Classical period. I investigate this problem using a readily available reference source: Brill's New Pauly. Indeed, given the biases of ancient Greek historiography, the individuals contained therein are nearly all citizens of high socio-economic status (precisely those who should not have been specializing). By creating a database of all the individuals active in the Greek world between 500-300 BCE, I argue that there were indeed changes over time in both the proportion of free Greeks practicing an occupation “professionally” and in the form this specialization took (for example, the extent to which it related to the market, or to specialist societies like the Academy or the Spartan agoge). Indeed, contra a strong reading of Finley’s work, we see a significant increase in overall citizen specialization between 500-300 BCE, when the Greek slave trade was at its height. I will argue, furthermore, that in spite of gains in specialization—something that proponents of Greek economic growth, like Ober (2010), assume but do not treat in detail—upward movement was by no means uniform, and we see precipitous drops in times of crisis (such as the Peloponnesian War). In the first part of my talk, I will explain my data, the categories I employed and my method of data collection. In the second half, I will explore the results and discuss their implications for our picture of the Classical Greek economy. Ultimately, what emerges is a more finely textured picture of citizen participation in the Classical economy, which ought to be of use to scholars engaging in larger debates over the nature of ancient economic structure and performance.

Session/Panel Title

Slavery and Status in Ancient Literature and Society

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