The rise of Athens



It was only in the 6th century BC that Athens began the startling development that was to carry it to the centre of the european stage in social reform, industry and art.  There is a suggestion that the enterprising island of Aegina, just offshore in the Saronic Gulf, had actually blocked trade from Athens. But the city had no colonies until, in 620 BC, there were set up in the Dardanelles. These were later to give her control over the important trade timber, grain and metals from the Black Sea.

It is important to remember that the city-state system meant that one city could be self-sufficient in a particular raw material while another went short. Athens was exceptional in having its own state silver and copper mines at Laurion (Lavrion), and had a great potential for exporting olive oil but was chronically short of grain. The extraordinary pragmatic originality of the Greeks is never better shown than in the decision, taken in 590 BC by the ruling hereditary oligarchy of Athens, to appoint a man named Solon to reform a society dominated by rich landowning families where the poor became steadily poorer.

 

Solon of Athens (c. 638 BC – 558 BC)

Solon of Athens (c. 638 BC – 558 BC)

Solon’s reforms were radical, and it is hard to imagine them being applied today. They included the cancellation of all outstanding debt and the abolition of enslavement for debt. This also applied to serfs who failed to provide their annual fee of corn. At the same time the export of corn and any foodstuff other than olives was banned. This was a deliberate policy to keep local food prices down at a time of shortage. Solon also decreed that officials dining in the council house of Athens should only have wheaten bread on festival days. They must make do with barley, like the poor, for the rest. At the time wages were even paid in measures of grain and, to obtain the grain to feed its rapidly booming population, Athens had to rely more and more on overseas trade, a weakness that was in the end to bring about her downfall.

Scene from the ancient Greek mines

The scene from the ancient Greek mine

Other laws introduced by Solon to redress the balance between the poor and the rich nobility were to allow a right of appeal against sentence, and to permit a third party to plead for justice on behalf of a plaintiff. As a final proof of his wisdom, Solon then left Athens for ten years so as not to influence the working of his own laws.

In the 5th century BC, Athenian trade boomed, first in olive oil, then in wine and pottery. Wine was consumed by the rich using sets of luxury pottery cups and mixing bowls, and new skills in firing were soon established in factories to allow the remarkable black and red decoration of scenes from the Greek myths and everyday life which have made Attic pottery famous. Vast quantities of Athenian ware were shipped around the Mediterranean. Soon the beautiful black and then red-figure vases ousted Corinthian ware as the Etruscans’ favourite. Fortunately, the ancient tomb-robbers of Tuscany were not interested in pottery, and over 1700 vases from Athens have been recovered from the tombs of the Etruscan city of Vulci alone. The collection of Greek pottery now distributed around the capitals of northern Europe mostly came from Etruscan tombs.

Etruscan pottery

Etruscan pottery

The Etruscan middle class was benefiting from the trade as much as the nobility, as the elaborate sarcophagi and exquisitely painted tombs of Tarquinia show. But the clearest view of the actual process of trade has come from an Etruscan wreck excavated by a British team from Oxford University off the island of Giglio about 60 kilometres south from Elba. Dated at about 600 BC by its Corinthian pottery, it carried a cargo of amphorae full of olives and pitch. It sank soon after picking up a consignment of granite anchor-staves. Despite looting by sport-divers it has revealed a rich variety of cargo from wooden flutes to arrowheads and a magnificent bronze helmet. But it may also answer one of the most puzzling questions about Bronze Age trade. What did they use for money to regulate trade at this date before coins have been invented? Grain would be far too bulky for such a purpose. At the site of the wreck were found large quantities of the thin iron spits, similar to those called fasces which became the symbol of authority in Roman times (later adopted by Mussolini to give us our word ‘fascist’). There were far too many to be used only to express official power. Also discovered were large numbers of small copper nuggets, varying in size from that of a pea to a tangerine.

Bronze helmet found in Giglio wreck

Bronze helmet found in Giglio wreck

Archeologists are convinced that these metals were used as currency. As copper had a high value it would indicate why such nuggets are so rarely found on sites ashore. The metal was too precious to be left laying around, and once coins came into circulation any remaining pieces of copper would of course have been recycled into goods. The tin iron spits rust away very easily. In more senses than one, metals were promoting the civilisation of the Mediterranean.

Acropolis in Athens

Acropolis in Athens

Now that the shores of the Mediterranean had been linked together by extensive maritime trade routes, the valuable resources of each port of call had been parcelled out between the established trading powers: the Phoenicians, the Etruscans and the Greeks. For the first time the dominance of sea-trade became a limiting factor in the search for raw materials. All the maritime venues of trade were already taken up, while the mountains beyond the shore, which hindered trade by land, became a constraint on looking outwards for more opportunities.

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