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Middlemen: the Villains and Secret Heroes of the Ancient Greek market

Alain Bresson

While in the recent literature much attention has been devoted to middlemen in the Roman world (see Verboven 2007 and 2008, Andreau 2012 and the contributions in Wilson and Flohr 2015), this has not yet been the case on the Greek side. Yet middlemen played a fundamental role in market operations in ancient Greece. The paradox is all the more striking since, on the archaeological side, much attention has been recently devoted to buildings for sales and storage in the Greek world (see the contributions in Chankowski and Karvonis 2012).

An inevitable starting point is that the image of middlemen was bad in ancient Greece. According to Plato (Rep. 371cd) middlemen defined as petty traders, kapēloi, “retailers”, were supposed to be bodily unfit for any other job. For Aristotle, they were not worthy to be full citizens (Pol. 1319a and 1328b). Lysias’s speech Against the Grain Dealers expresses even a strong prejudice against wholesale grain dealers. The hostility towards middlemen translated into legislation. Laws from various states limited their profit-margins. Sometimes, like in Athens and Delos, the law even forbade the sales through middlemen for certain goods. We find here an attitude that is typical of the markets of the pre-modern world. Price increases were attributed to the greediness of middlemen and every time a famine struck there was a temptation to blame them for it. Although there are still clarifications to bring to the picture, this side of the dossier is not completely new.

But strangely enough, with only a few exceptions (see however Pouilloux 1988 and Armoni 2003 for the case of the metaboloi), not much attention has been paid to middlemen that are known by epigraphic and papyrological sources. Several Greek words refer to middlemen: kapēlos (but as observed above the word specializes to design the petty trader), paligkapēlos, metabolos and egdocheus. As the case of the metabolos has been recently treated, the focus should now be on the still “enigmatic egdocheis” (Arnaud 2012, 72). In the Delian inscriptions of the second century BCE, egdocheis from various cities are mentioned in a prominent role. We know of the existence of a κοινὸν Βηρυτίων Ποσειδωνιαστῶν ἐμπόρων καὶ ναυκλήρων καὶ ἐγδοχέων (ID 1520, etc.), of a σύνοδος τῶν ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ πρεσβυτέρων ἐγδοχέων (ID 1528, etc.), of οἱ ἐν Λαοδικείαι τῆι ἐν Φοινίκηι ἐγδοχεῖς καὶ ναύκληροι (IG XI.4 1114). Although the texts where they are mentioned do not detail their activity, these texts are sufficient to prove that, in association with emporoi and nauklēroi, the egdocheis played a prominent role in trading operations at Delos (with the Poseidoniastai of Berytos, today Beirut) but also at Alexandria and Laodikeia in Phoenicia. Thus egdocheis were active in first rank trading ports of the Hellenistic world like Delos, Laodikeia in Phoenicia, Berytos and Alexandria.

The epigraphic documentation (ID 509) and the papyri help us to clarify the “enigma” of the egdocheis. The Zenon papyrus P.Cair.Zen. 59021 (258 BCE), l. 8, mentions the egdocheis alongside the emporoi and nauklēroi whose activity is damaged by the lack of gold coins available for traders in Egypt. A detailed analysis of the epigraphic and papyrological dossier shows that: 1) for foreign trade (Delian documentation), the egdocheis were typically wholesale traders who could buy large quantities of imported goods while they were still on the ships; for internal trade (papyri from Egypt), the egdocheis (themselves or their agents) could go to the chōra to buy goods from local producers. Thus the egdocheis played a fundamental role to gather the goods that would be either sold to local retailers or to emporoi for wholesale trade.

The economic role, and social rank, of middlemen was thus far above what one might have expected if one read Plato and Aristotle only.

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Markets and the Ancient Greek Economy

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