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Getting Produce to Market: Farming and the Technology of Transport in Classical Attica

David Lewis

Two strands of the old orthodox view of the ancient economy – as set out in Finley (1973) – have inhibited a proper understanding of the role of markets in ancient farming. First, according to Finley, the vast majority of people were subsistence farmers bound by an ethic of self-sufficiency: if they produced a surplus, they either stored it against lean times to come, or used it in short-range exchange with their neighbours. Second, transport by land was prohibitively expensive, meaning that the marketing of agricultural produce was neither practical nor profitable. It is no wonder then that so little work has been directed towards this topic; and even recent studies that claim to go beyond the old view of the economy have little to say on the issue of transporting produce to market (Möller 2007).

Several developments make a reconsideration of this topic a pressing concern. First, reassessment of the productivity of small farmers has shown that whilst these individuals toiled hard in their struggle to survive, their techniques were far from primitive and their output surprisingly high by preindustrial standards (Kron 2008). Small farmers produced enough to sell at least some of their yield for cash. Second, even if we simply focus on the elite there is a need to explain how they managed to move their goods to market: in a region such as Attica during the classical period most members of the elite owned farmland and had it worked intensively, much of it for cash-crop production and the rearing of high-value animal products (Osborne 1991; Hodkinson 1992). Third, the recent discovery of over a dozen deme markets in Attica has raised the likelihood that market exchange was not just confined to the city and Piraeus but occurred fairly frequently across Attica (Kagavogianni & Anetakis 2012; Harris & Lewis 2015). Fourth, research since the late 1980s has significantly increased our knowledge of roads in ancient Greece in general and Attica in particular, key elements in the transport of goods (Lohmann 1993; Goette 2002; Korres 2009). Fifth, close study of Greek texts reveals that the ethic of self-sufficiency that preoccupied several writers was in fact a philosophical ideal that was diametrically opposed to the real practices of most of the labouring population (Harris & Lewis 2015). In sum, agricultural production for sale was common. What then were the methods by which farmers transported their wares for sale, and what venues for sale existed in Attica?

This paper will present the preliminary findings of a full study of the literary and iconographic sources pertaining to the transport of agricultural goods in classical Attica (which has progressed little since Lorimer 1903). This will involve both theoretical and evidential considerations. On the theoretical side, much of the case for the movement of goods over land being expensive has rested on extrapolation from Diocletian’s Price Edict, which preserves prices for the hire of wagons and transport of goods over land. If most Attic farmers hired wagons on this model, access to markets would indeed have been prohibitively expensive. But this old-fashioned view ignores many other possibilities mentioned in our evidence: the ownership of carts and draught animals (and borrowing from neighbours); the use of donkeys with panniers; the use of carrying poles, and of course the droving of livestock to market (which required no technology at all, simply experience). It will also use the insights of comparative methodology and look at the means by which small farmers in agrarian societies at other times and in other places have accessed markets. Finally, it will set out the evidence for venues of sale for agricultural produce, especially the market frequented by farmers described in classical sources that met every lunar month.

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Markets and the Ancient Greek Economy

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