The Ancients

Athenian coin    

The "Ancients", in a European context, refers to the philosophers and scientists of the civilizations of Ancient Greece and (to a lesser extent) Rome.

.The earliest civilizations in Greece - the so-called "Minoan" in Crete and Mycenean" on the Greek mainland - emerged around 2200 and 1600 BCE respectively, but fell by 1200, part of the general Bronze Age collapse of the ancient world.  Greece remained enveloped in a "dark age" period for the next four centuries, roughly from 1200 to 800 BCE.  The civilization of ancient Greece proper refers to the numerous city-states (polis) that emerged in the course of the 8th Century BCE.   The early period (roughly 8th-6th C.) is normally referred to as the "Archaic period", to be followed by the "Classical period" (5th-4th C.) of Greek civilization.

The accoutrements of Greek civilization started not on mainland Greece, but in the Greek colonies on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor in the late 6th C., then a crossroads of multiple civilizations.  Ionian merchants traveled from the Black Sea to the Levant to Egypt, their craftsmen helped build Persepolis in the heart of Persia, and their soldiers served as mercenaries served as far afield as Tartessos in Spain.   And they would return home, with very expanded mental horizons and bubbling with new ideas. All these streams breached the old walls of archaic thinking.  The artistic accoutrements of Greek civilization - epic and lyric poetry, statuary, columned temples - began on the Ionian coast, in imitation of what they had seen abroad.  But it was in philosophy and science where the Ionians truly excelled, and pioneered the break from past modes of thinking at every level. They introduced logos to replace mythos,  explaining things by reason rather than myth, looking for causes behind things, rather than gods behind things.  Their philosophers introduced the distinction between knowledge and belief, and moved away from mythical concepts of space and time into something more extensive. In history, instead of a simplistic reduction of human history to two periods - "the time of gods and heroes" and then "the present" - there is instead a rather steady sequence of pasts, steadily feeding into the next. Similarly their geographies and peripluses showed it was not simply "us and the gods", but "us, them, some others, some further away, and those still further away, etc."  Their trade begat the first coins, initially minted in the inland entrepot city of Sardis (Lydia), which would soon be copied by other Greek cities.  With coinage came borrowing and lending, debt slavery and inequality and some of the earliest attempts at addressing economic problems with government policy.

The beginning of the "Classical Age" proper is commonly dated roughly around 509, with the institutionalization of hoplite democracy in Athens, the establishment of the Peloponnesian League by Sparta and, coincidentally, the foundation of the Roman Republic. The ensuing century saw the rise of the city-state of Athens as a commercial and maritime superpower, establishing a hegemonic empire over the Aegean Sea, reaching its height under Pericles in the 450s, and ending in the defeat of the Athenians in 404, at the end of the Peloponnesian Wars.   The collapse of Athenian power was followed by a few decades of hegemony by Sparta, ending in 371 with the ascension of Thebes (Boeotia).  This lasted only briefly until the kings of Macedonia, initially Philip II, then his son Alexander the Great, effectively annexed the old city-sates of Greece into their massive empire.  The Macedonian empire spread the influence of Hellenic civilization, including coinage and economics, through the Mediterranean and Middle East.

The trial and death of Socrates, a peripatetic Athenian philosopher, in 399, opened a new chapter in classical Greek philosophy.  His students, Xenophon and Plato, set down his ideas in writing. and Plato's student Aristotle, pushed the envelope further.  Aristotle would go on to serve as tutor of Alexander.  The study of the economic ideas is found mostly in Aristotle and Xenophon, with minor contributions by other writers.  

The fragmentation of the Macedonian empire coincided with the rise of the Rome, which by 280s was master of Italy, and after a long series of Punic Wars against its rival Carthage, was in control of of an empire over the western Mediterranean by 146. A near-simultaneous series of eastern wars had led to the Roman annexation of Macedonia in 148.  They would go on to conquer the rest of Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt in the next century.   In 27 BCE, the Roman Republic gave way to a dictatorial empire under Augustus, and would remain in imperial format for the next four to five centuries.  Culturally, Romans adopted the Hellenic civilization wholesale and although they had great writers of their own, they often preferred to recycle the great thinkers of classical Greece.  The greatest change was the spread and adoption of Christianity in the 4th Century, coming about a century before the western (Latin) empire finally collapsed in 476. 

While western (Latin) Europe descended into the Dark Ages in the 5th-6th C., the doctrines of the classical philosophy were resurrected by Islamic scholars.  It was through them that the 13th and 14th Century Scholastic theologians recovered classical Greek works, and brought their thinking (notably Aristotle) back into the mainstream of European intellectual life. 


 HET resources


External Resources

  • "On Some Economical Views of Greek Philosophers", R.C. Christie, 1857, Transaction of Manchester SS, p.15
  • Internet Classics Archive at M.I.T.
  • Perseus Project at Tufts
  • "Review of Lowry, Ancient and Medieval Economic Ideas and Concepts of Social Justice" by R.B. Ekelund, 2000, HOPE 
  • Ancient Economies by Morris Silver

All rights reserved, Gonšalo L. Fonseca


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