Kapêloi and Economic Rationality in Fourth-Century BCE Athens
Within the great debate over the ancient economy, the question of whether or not ancient Greeks approach their business and estate management in an economically rational manner remains contentious and unresolved. While some have argued that Greeks were averse to profitable but ‘base’ or ‘sordid’ occupations such as retail trade, kapêleia (Finley), others have argued that ancient Greeks tried to maximize their profits (Christesen), the clearest sign of economically rational behavior, according to modern economic theory. Unfortunately, compelling evidence on this critical issue has proven frustratingly elusive, and the lack of scholarly consensus has left the field of ancient economic history at something of an impasse.
In this paper, I will argue that retail traders, kapêloi, provide clear evidence for economic rationality in fourth-century Athens. Moreover, contemporary Athenians understood that kapêloi tried to maximize their profits in their dealings with customers, exploiting demand and manipulating supply, and were outraged. The widespread popular backlash against these activities, as seen in comedy and philosophy, reveals significant friction between their rational behavior and fourth-century Athenian social values of ‘correct’ behaviors. Without an ethical or theoretical framework that could depict such behavior in a positive light, as in modern economic theory, there was intense anxiety surrounding the profit-maximizing behavior of kapêloi, and fourth-century Athenians were forced to describe their actions in moral terms.
In the first part of the paper, I show how kapêloi are widely attested as attempting to maximize their profits on a consistent basis. For example, the sitopôlai in Lysias, Against the Graindealers engaged in a variety of strategies to secure the most profit they could from each transaction. First, they tried to secure control over the supply of grain, especially during times of shortage and high prices (8), in order to be able to charge as much as they could (15); second, they increased prices over the course of the same day in response to changing market conditions (12); finally, they manipulated information to affect demand and increase their profits (14-15). Nor were the sitopôlai the only kapêloi who engaged in these behaviors, but they are also widely attested for another group of retail traders, ichthyopôlai, the fishmongers (Athenaeus 6.224f-226d). Both the sitopôlai and the ichthyopôlai took advantage of asymmetries of information in the marketplace in a manner which resembles the behavior of retail traders in the modern bazaar economy (Geertz); kapêloi were widely charged with deception and outright lying, and laws were passed in a variety of Greek poleis to protect consumers from their use of trickery to increase profits.
I conclude by arguing that kapêloi were called ‘base’ and ‘low-class’ in fourth-century Athenian literature precisely because they took advantage of the ability to maximize their profits at the expense of their customers (e.g., Plato, Laws, 918c-919a). Indeed, it seems that the slander which fourth-century Athenians directed at kapêloi was developed through repeated dealings in the marketplace; it was based on close familiarity with, and accurate knowledge of, how kapêloi exploited supply and demand to make profits. Moreover, far from a simple aversion to productive activity, the variety of comic and philosophical denunciations of kapêloi reveal a complex combination of elite disdain for a ‘base’ trade, which resembles the modern leisure class’s attitude towards labor (Veblen), and popular outrage at price-gouging in both twentieth-century America (Weld) and early-modern England (Thompson). The notoriety which kapêloi had earned, therefore, was a mixture of prejudice against the poor on the part of the rich along with the more widespread backlash of consumers against profiteering. This popular moralizing attitude was not unique to antiquity, but rather is characteristic of early-modern and modern societies as well, so the denunciations of trades as ‘sordid’ per se do not constitute a significant difference between the ancient Greek and the modern economy.