Trade In Ancient Greece When we discuss the economics of the ancient world, we must be careful not to use the formal Economics which we employ in analyzing our own society, since Economics is a function of the way a society runs, not the set of rules under which a given society operates. We cannot remove ourselves from awareness of the economic disciplines which our schools teach, and even if we formally try to suspend Economics as a framework, we retain the image of the economic framework in our language and our general pool of ideas. Yet some distancing of ourselves from modern economic theory is necessary in starting an investigation of a foreign world, in order to let the economic operations of that world display themselves in their own documentation. We must construct some kind of intellectual tabula rasa for use in studying an area which is far removed in time and from a documentary point of view relatively unknown. When we speak of Economics of the Ancient World, we usually think of the work pioneered by Rostovtzeff and his followers, of the interpretation of history from an economic point of view, and of the study of epigraphic and papyrological materials which bear on costs and commodities.
But there is a much earlier layer of historical material, which strangely is incorporated in the quasi-religious cloak of Greek Mythology. When one compares the myths of ancient Greece with those of ancient India, one sees that the Indian myths are essentially spiritual in nature, while the Greek myths show a disorganized array of unconvincing religion, erratic personal histories, and what appear to be fragmented chapters in the history of the rise of civilization after the last glacial retreat. It is the thesis of this paper that parts of the early Greek, and even the pre-Greek historical record became embalmed in the Greek myths, which themselves were rigidified into literary storytelling by the time of the Hellenistic academies, and finally petrified into the “myth systems” of Apollodoros and others, before being buried by a hostile Christianity. The fact that the Greek myths were rediscovered in the Renaissance, popularized in the l8 th century throughout Europe, and re-popularized recently by several unscholarly myth-enthusiasts, gives us the feeling that we know a great deal more about Greek mythology than we do. We know most of the story-lines well, but we are largely ignorant of their original use and meaning.
The familiar story of Gyges as told by Herodotos marks the appearance of a new kind of public person, someone unknown who “appears out of the earth” as the ancient saying goes, and attains power largely by virtue of being totally unseen. Gyges , a young Lydian shepherd, found a cave one day which he entered and found in it (according to Plato’s account) a hollow cast-brass horse with a dead man’s body inside. He discovered that the ring which he pulled off the dead man’s finger made him invisible when he put it on his finger. Using this newfound power, he went to the palace of Candaules, king of Lydia, the last of a long line of Heracleid royalty, first seduced the queen, then with her help killed the king and took his place as ruler of the country. In a world of hereditary kings, the history of Gyges points to a new kind of person who gets riches and power specifically by not being seen.
Working invisibly he creates a new kind of enterprise, in which “the transaction” serves as the unseen interface between buyer and seller. This opens a way for unknown people like Trimalchio in l st c. A.D. Rome (as documented in Petronius’ incisive novel) who owes his fortune to a sharp eye on the abstract flow of funds, although he started life on the lowest rung of the social ladder. , For us this is a familiar pattern, many fortunes have been made in exactly the same way in modern times, one thinks of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Schliemann, Onassis, Ford and more recently the Korean Samsung company’s founder, Lee Byung Cheul. However these economics dynasties of the modern world seldom produce an effective son and almost never a grandson, they are first and foremost the work of an individual who only becomes known after his empire is fully constructed.
The history of Gyges has a clear meaning. Instead of inheriting vast wealth along with the title of king, this new “invisible” man grasps wealth by being perceptive and guileful, traits which throughout the ages have been proven as the best attributes of the successful businessman. With Gyges starts a long chain of little men from the underside of society who become rich and powerful, retaining their original invisibility until they are securely established. The fantastically wealthy and influential freedmen in the early Roman Empire fit this description well, they are a regular part of the court council of the early emperors. The un-Romanticized version of this economic tradition is given in Petronius’ portrayal of Trimalchio, whose very name (‘ tri- + ‘malach-‘ “King” in Semitic languages) clearly identifies his Eastern origins.
Equally economic, but much more complex, is the story of Midas, an ancient king of Phrygia, who entertained the satyr Silenus, a companion of the god Dionysos, getting him hospitably drunk, and accepting his offer of choosing any thing that he wished. Midas asked that all he touched be turned to gold, but was dismayed to find that his food an d drink became gold too. Finally he was instructed to go the Lydian river Pactolus and wash off his wish for gold there, with the result that the Pactolus became famous in antiquity as a river carrying quantities of the precious metal. Three stories seem to have become interfused: First, there is the story about the “wish”, which a satyr or troll offers an unsuspecting mortal. The fulfilled wish becomes burdensome only as the result of human greed and folly. In the Germanic version, the peasant who receives three wishes asks for a “wurst”, upon which his wife angrily wishes the wurst onto his nose, and their last wish is uselessly expended in getting it removed. Germanic and Classical myths often support each other despite the discrepancies in time and place. The second theme is the concept of financially self-accruing fortunes, which might easily be styled as “everything turns to gold”. This is probably based more on interest and especially compound interest than on any alchemic magic.
The Greeks had a hard time understanding the growth of funds, they considered growth of funds by interest inexplicable, distasteful and even unhealthy. Midas’ Golden Touch is evidence of the proper financial use of the resources which came with his kingdom, which he, better than many others, knew how to use in the most advantageous manner. But in an age in which growth by interest was unknown, or considered obscene, this would seem pure magic. We must remember that Greeks like Sophocles in the Fifth Century B.C. used works like “gain” and “interest” only in taunting insults, and that the Catholic Church forbid Catholics to engage in lending money at interest as late as the l5 th century. Jews and Lombards were conveniently exempted from this injunction, so that business could operate as usual.
Third, the river Pactolus was known to wash out grains of metallic gold , so the story of Midas is at a later time joined with the panning of gold in the stream. But the gold panner-prospector is only verbally connected with Midas’ “gold”, which has already become currency and then directly wealth. The way money grows fascinated and amazed the diners at Trimalchio’s Banquet in the first century A.D. novel. They talk endlessly about money, wealth and financial growth.
In the Cena section of the Satyricon someone says of a local millionaire that he grew like a honeycomb” although he is also described as a “son of the earth”, that is someone who just came up like a mushroom or stalk of grass, unplanted and without roots as it were. Trimalchio is so rich that “he doesn’t know what he is worth”, his wife Fortunata has “barrels of cash”, actually “cash of cash” or “cash square”. The story of Ixion is even more complex, since it draws on themes from at least three millennia of pre-Greek history. As the account goes, Ixion, having married , murdered his father-in-law when he came to claim the usual bridal presents, by arranging that he should fall into a pit in which a charcoal fire was burning. But Zeus apparently pardoned him and accepted him as a member of his society, upon which Ixion tried to seduce Hera and subsequently, tricked by a phantom called Nephele (“cloud”) substituted in her place, he fathered the Centaurs.
Enraged, Zeus punished him by having him tied forever on a revolving wheel in Hades, which is how Ixion’s name goes down in standard Classical mythology. The story begins with a device well known in all early hunting societies. To kill his father-in-law, Ixion uses a device known for tens of thousands of years for its effectiveness with animals , the pitfall covered with carefully camouflaged greenery. Setting a charcoal or wood fire in the pit later ensures that the animal is killed and at the same time starts the cooking process. But traps for animals are not to be used for humans, as is witnessed by the severe laws which most modern countries have enacted against “man-traps” of every sort, whether pit-fall, spring foot-trap, or aim gun fired by a wire. (Curiously these are all legal in time of warfare!) After this episode, Ixion “produces” (actually he is said to “beget”) the Centaurs, which are clearly horsemen riding so closely connected with their mounts in swift motion , that unsuspecting peasants consider this a new cross-bred animal of fearsome proportions.
Now advancing from Neolithic pitfall trapping, Ixion appeared on the forefront of a new art, the taming and breeding of horses, which he uses them for aggressive high-speed hunting. He replaces the passive-technology of pitfall traps with aggressive horse-borne hunters, which provides a far greater range of operations. But now Ixion has advanced again by an innovative quantum leap to the invention and construction of the wheel, with which his story is always connected. (What would be more natural for an angered Zeus to devise for punishment than tying Ixion to his own infernal contraption, rotating forever in Hell?) The wheel must have been developed at a very early time, even in the pre-emigration Indo-European period, since the same root word persists from India to the British Isles. Once tamable horses are available and broken to be ridden, someone is sure to think of connecting a horse to a wheeled-axle. Ixion was such an inventor, and thus ushered in the concept of mass-transportation, and commerce over a wide range of territories.
( Note: Skt. ‘akras’ “wheel” on through Gr. ‘kuklos’ and Lat. ‘circus/ circulus’ to the Old Engl. ‘hweol’, all perfectly cognate forms. The same word consistency through a long period of time is also true of the companion invention, the cart , e.g. Skt.
vahati “he carries” , Gr ‘(w)ochos’, Lat. veh-iculum’, Engl. wagon.) We thus see Ixion on several levels, , spanning the pre-historical period from employment of Neolithic hunting traps, then taming and breeding the wild horse to be ridden, and finally constructing the wheel and the cart, which when linked to the horse, would make possible the great emigration of exploding populations out of the wheatlands of Southern Russia southwards into India, and then westwards across Europe. Transportation made possible the conveying of agricultural materials as well as raw manufactured commodities back and forth within Europe. The two modes of transportation which made man’s population of Europe fruitful were land transport by wagon with horse or ox within the landmass, and water transport throughout the Mediterranean. Change always faces resistance, it is only in simplistic textbooks that we hear of the linear march of progress as Western Civilization. evolves into its present form.
Ixion certainly represents several persons and many generations of restless change as the world altered is ways and pace of living, and nations became slowly international through trade. Trade disrupts comfortably static societies, and Ixion paid the price of this disruption. What could be more fitting symbolically that lashing him to his own finest invention, the wheel, in perpetual torture? It was not only in the ancient world that novel inventions were resented and distrusted. Mary Shelley’s biological monster sutured together by a reputable Dr. Frankenstein has frightened generations of readers and movie-goers, while the movie 2001’s super-computer “HAL” typically becomes dangerous and turns on his crew.
The word “robot” first appeared as a negative term in a Czech play of l935, while the only fear that remains as this century ends is that the industrial robot may do such a good job that it will increase the rolls of the unemployed. Modern Dr. Franksteins save lives by heart surgery, and the computer clearly promises us substantial benefits in medicine, pure science and business. Yet there remains a widespread public fear of the new, which is not far different from the fear the ancient inhabitants of the Mediterranean Basin had as they watched their societies grow and change. If Ixion shows the growth of commerce through inventions, another less well known personage in Greek mythology is Autolycos’ , who appeared to the Greeks the very father of dishonesty. (Note: His name is from “autos + lukos”, hence “the wolf himself, a very wolf”. The Romans called a “woman for hire” a “lupa” or she-wolf.
We use the word “shark” for an unscrupulous money-dealer, but all these terms connect money-matters with a voracious animal known for its sharp teeth.) His father, not un-incidentally, was Hermes the God of Trade, and his daughter was Anticleia , arch-trader Odysseus’ mother. On the earlier and also the later side of his pedigree Autolycos’ family is characterized by swindling and duplicity, the very things which made his name (in)famous in the Homeric world ( as Homer sees it at Iliad X 267 and Od. XIX 295). Like Gyges he was said to have had the power of making himself invisible, but he could also make invisible and unrecognizable the things which he had stolen. Since his father Hermes , the standard god of business and commerce, is also somewhat tricky and not a little dishonest, Autolycos may be suspected of having an inherited commercial trait in his thievery. The appearance of a person like Autolycus marks the beginning of the conversion from barter between proprietors, to purchase by agents for considerations and terms. These agents who are as invisible as their contractual agreements, which as interfaces between buyer and seller are invisible.
Early people without written agreements had not yet understood the nature of commerce in an expanding world with varied and interlocking major markets. Autolycos’ son in law Odysseus continues the mercantile motif and is distrusted not only in the Homeric epics, but in later times, when he was admitted to be clever, but somewhat of a scoundrel. Rockerfeller, Carnegie, Mellon and Ford have all been thought scoundrelly at one time or another, but we have learned to live with their astuteness as part of the commerce and financial growth which we realize our society needs. Laomedon, king of Troy and the great grandson of Dardanos in the Trojan genealogy, somehow “employed” Apollo and Poseidon to build walls for him around the city, but later refused to pay them. Poseidon sent a sea monster against the city, to avoid which it was ordained that Laomedon must sacrifice his daughter, Hesione. (One thinks of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter on the way to Troy in order to gain fair winds, also relating to Poseidon and his control over sea passage.) Heracles offered to slay the beast if Laomedon would give him his horses, but when the task was done, Laomedon refused payment to him too. Raising a band of soldiers, Heracles captured the city, claiming the girl for Telamon who had led in the attack.
The interesting point here is the matter of defaulting on debts, which is attribu …