(from the Temples of Enterprise book in progress)
Delivered at a symposium at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, March 15th-16th, 1990, this article was published in Gunter Kopcke and Isabelle Tokumaru, eds, Greece between East and West: 10th – 8th Centuries BC (Mainz: Verlag Phillip von Zabern, 1992).
This paper seeks to establish that interest‑bearing debts were introduced to the Mediterranean lands from the Near East, most likely by Syrian (“Phoenician”) merchants in the 8th century BC along with their better known innovations such as alphabetic writing. Contrary to what was believed until quite recently, such debts – and for that matter, commercial and agrarian debts even without interest charges – are by no means a spontaneous and universal innovation. No indications of commercial or agrarian debts have been found in Early Bronze Age Egypt, the Indus valley, or even in Ebla, much less in Mycenaean Greece. They are first documented in a particular part of the world – Sumer – in the third millennium, and can be traced diffusing from southern Mesopotamia upward along the Euphrates and westward into the Levant as part of the Sumerian commercial expansion. Originally documented as being owed to temple and palace collectors, interest‑bearing debts became increasingly privatized as they became westernized.
This implies a diffusionist explanation of how interest‑bearing debt came to be introduced into the Mediterranean lands. But diffusion usually involves change. As commercial and agrarian debt practices spread, they did so in new contexts, often without the public checks and balances that had been developed in southern Mesopotamia. For instance, the periodic royal debt cancellations found in Sumer, Babylonia and Assyria from 2400 to 1600 BC were not transmitted to Greece and Italy. As a result, debt-servitude tended to be irreversible, at least prior to Solon’s seisachtheia in 594 BC. This made the debt problem more serious in the Mediterranean periphery to what had been the Bronze Age core.
From the Iranian plains to the Aegean, enough Bronze Age records have survived to show that it was neither easy nor automatic for less centralized societies to adopt commercial debt, or for that matter for the Hittite and Mycenaean palace economies to do so. The inference is that no debt balances arose to be settled as long as there was no public enterprise set corporately apart, that is, no economic bifurcation between public and private sectors. Economic units that were self‑contained, such as the Mycenaean “households” and oikos-type estates, had little need of debt balances, and do not seem to have run up financial balances with outsiders.
The archaeological record shows that Assyrian traders introduced interest‑bearing debt to their Asia Minor colonies such as Kanesh in Cappadocia around 2000 BC (Balkan 1974). Yet signs of commercial debts and interest are not found among the economic records of the Hittites who subsequently dominated the region, nor is there a hint of such debts in the Mycenaean or Cretan Linear B records. Even in Ugarit, one of the most likely candidates for diffusing financial practices to the Aegean, commercial and agrarian debts are found only in quite circumscribed form. These facts make it doubtful that either commercial or agrarian debts (to say nothing of interest) played a role in Bronze Age Greece or early in the first millennium. Yet the charging of interest on debts, above all agrarian usury with its consequent debt‑slavery and forfeiture of land rights, became classical antiquity’s most important economic dynamic, giving Greece and Rome their distinctive social character when compared to more archaic communities or modern anthropological enclaves.
Usury’s polarizing social impact appears as an intrusive wedge transforming the traditional social balance between well-to‑do grandees and their dependents or clients. Yet anthropologists since Mauss (1967) have tried to trace interest‑bearing debt to the very inception of Indo‑European speaking society. Creditor‑oriented economic historians such as Fritz Heichelheim (1958:54f.) have been eager to find signs of interest as a universally spontaneous phenomenon already in neolithic times. Such attempts retroject modern ways of thinking without placing the debt and interest problem in the context of its times.
The following pages summarize what limited historical evidence is known about commercial and agrarian debts in archaic Greece and Italy. After specifying what is not known and clearing the slate of some popular but false assumptions, I propose to fill the gap with a working hypothesis as to how interest‑bearing debt was brought from the Near East. Of course, given the lack of definitive evidence, the solution which I find most likely can be no more than a reasonable scenario at best. But if we in this room cannot come up with a plausible view, the job will be left to economists and anthropologists spinning webs out of rather abstract “what if” assumptions. The popular “common sense” approach all too often imagines that all societies must have thought much like we do rather than recognizing how different is the perspective of every society and epoch. It is the task of archaeologically minded historians to ward off such popularizations.
The absence of indigenous interest‑bearing debts in Greece and Italy
The first assumption that must be rejected is that interest‑ bearing debt is a universal phenomenon going back to early Indo‑European roots. If this premise is indeed unwarranted, it is necessary to begin thinking about just when the charging of interest may have been introduced, from where it may have come and under what circumstances.
Unfortunately, questioning along these lines has been discouraged from late antiquity until quite recently by the fact that usury was so strong a dynamic in Rome and Greece that it seemed to be universal among all Indo‑European speaking peoples. Certainly wergild‑type debts for personal injury and their collection procedures were well attested from India to Celtic Ireland (Maine 1888). However, although such debts – along with practices such as standing surety for individuals owing reparations debts for having inflicted personal injury – certainly are widespread (Binchy 1970), there is no indication of interest charges except where the practice is adopted from without.
A search for evidence as to just how and when the idea of commercial debt was introduced to Greece and Italy soon founders for lack of relevant documentation. The Homeric poems have little to say about debt except for the argument over wergild depicted on the shield of Achilles. Most of the economic surpluses cited in the Homeric poems take the form of military booty rather than economic enterprise. Hesiod is no more informative. We hear much of gift exchange as part of the general ethic of hospitality, but none of this involves the commercial or agrarian debt familiar from classical antiquity. There is no archaic mention of interest as a stipulated return on capital, or of money‑lending. The earliest inscription which tells us anything about the extension of credit and the charging of interest is from Eleusis c. 435‑430 (Cavignac 1908:41ff. and Bogaert 1968:92).
In the Mycenaean Bronze Age commodities circulated as part of an internal redistribution‑type exchange. Finley (1981:206) observes that in all the Linear B archives, “No word on any existing tablet has been read which can confidently be taken to mean ‘to buy,’ ‘to sell,’ ‘to lend,’ or ‘to pay a wage’ (or the corresponding nouns). Furthermore, Ventris and Chadwick (1956:113) note that they ‘have not been able to identify any payment in silver or gold for services rendered,’ and that there is no evidence ‘of anything approaching currency. Every commodity is listed separately, and there is never any sign of equivalence between one unit and another’ (p. 198).”
This is one argument from silence that carries weight inasmuch as surviving Linear B records seem to be as representative a cross section as the archives found in southern Mesopotamia replete with debt documentation. There is no hint of credit or debt, much less of interest. “The word o‑pe‑ro is translated ‘deficit, but this doesn’t at all imply ‘business dealings’ by a private merchant” (Finley 1981: 278). At most we seem to have inventory balances and delivery obligations by various localities to the central palace ‑‑ more a schedule than a list of debts serving to bridge income and outgo in the financial sense, or reflecting money due for the advance of commercially productive assets. No doubt wergild‑type fines were omnipresent in both Greece and Asia Minor, but they would have been handled by oral common law.
Archaeologists are able to trace such sophisticated economic practices as syllabic writing and account‑keeping on clay tablets, seals and sealing, and many idiosyncratic layouts and technical details of accounting formats moving up the Euphrates to Sumerian outposts such as Asshur and Mari, and on to Syria, Ugarit, and ultimately Crete and Mycenae. However, interest and commercial debt is not found among the innovations reaching the Aegean. Probably this is because Mycenaean palaces and temples (unlike the case in Mesopotamia) were not set corporately apart from the community as “profit centers” producing public goods and turning these over to a private merchant class. Account‑keeping was used not as the elaborate economic management and forward planning found in Sumer by the twenty‑fifth century BC (Lambert 1961), but simply as a check on the access by palace servants and subordinates to storerooms.
As noted above, if interest‑bearing debt had indeed spread to Mycenaean Greece, the most likely point of transmission would have been the emporium city‑state of Ugarit, where Mycenaean trade goods are found concentrated in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries, along with products from most other neighboring Late Bronze Age regions. However, Astour (1972:26) notes that the merchants of Ugarit differed from their Babylonian counterparts primarily in the fact that “money‑lending operations, so characteristic for the Babylonian tamkaru , are very poorly represented in the hitherto published business documents from Ugarit.” Heltzer (1984:183ff.) likewise rejects earlier speculations that the enslavement of peasants may have occurred in Ugarit as a result of high‑interest credit as is found in regions more closely linked to the Mesopotamian core. In cases where land was foreclosed for debt, foreign creditors had to relinquish these to the king of Ugarit and were compensated for their loans accordingly. But mercantile foreclosure on lands and personal freedom appears as an essentially alien intrusion to Ugarit. There seems little reason to believe that commercial debt was passed on to the Aegean. Unless surviving Linear B records are skewed in a statistically improbable way, there probably were no archaic debts to be written down.
Debt hardly would seem to be more likely in the Dark Age centuries following the collapse of Mycenaean civilization in 1200. With the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces, nearly all the Bronze Age administrative adoptions were lost. The only practices that survived into classical Greece were those which took on a life of their own independently of the palaces – some myth and ritual, technologies and possibly sharecropping arrangements miniaturized and “privatized” in the context of the self‑sufficient family oikos and, in a few cases, temples. Debts, especially at interest, seem unlikely in these Dark Age centuries.
I already have mentioned the absence of interest‑bearing debts in Homer. There is no debt servitude. As Humphreys (1978:161) points out, in the Odyssey (15.403‑84) the only male slave whose origin is explained ‑‑ the shepherd Eumaeus – was captured and sold as a child. Male slaves are as rare in Hesiod as in Homer. Women might be bought, but they are foreigners (mainly captured war prisoners), not debt pledges.
Mycenaean trade and Homeric exchange were more in the character of gift‑exchange among chieftains and aristocrats than production for profit. Without profit‑seeking there was not much motivation for commercial debt. The open question thus becomes how and when Greek and Italian exports became commercialized, and how this transformed their domestic division of labor and agrarian relations in a way which led to the accrual of debt balances.
Some preliminary definitions may help avoid the confusion into which much of the discussion about archaic credit has fallen. By interest‑bearing debts I do not mean simply the informal one‑upmanship of topping another party’s gift, such as Mauss (1925) and other anthropologists have observed in modern tribal communities. Indeed, it is significant that interest rarely is found on “anthropological”‑type debts, i.e., on wergild compensation for personal injury or on the gift exchange and marriage obligations familiar to most tribal communities studied by anthropologists, including Homeric Greece. Except for compensation fines these obligations tend to be free‑floating and often vague as to the exact amounts owed. Largely for this reason they rarely give rise to lawsuits or foreclosure, in contrast to commercial and agrarian “economic” debts.
Also to be distinguished from interest are penalties for late payment of obligations, which often double the debt principal. Rather, interest consists of the formal charging of a fixed rate of return on a specified principal sum, which typically consists of the value of goods advanced or money lent. Interest rates range between 8 1/3% (1/12th, as in Rome’s XII Tables) and 33⅓% per annum (1/3, attested from the neo‑Sumerian Ur III period 2100‑2000). These rates work out mathematically to 20% to 12½%. The 20% midpoint between these extremes is Sumer’s earliest documented commercial interest rate.
On relatively rare occasions the rate of interest may rise to as high as 50 percent per year, as attested in Bronze Age Mesopotamia and even in the modern world (e.g. on Argentina’s and Brazil’s 1989 public debt). But archaic interest rates typically reflected the smallest unit‑fraction measure of their local societies: 1/60th per month in Sumer (a shekel per mina, working out to 12/60ths, or 20% a year), a tenth (dekate) in Greece and a twelfth (an uncia per as) in Rome. The Greek and Latin use of terms meaning “young animal,” “calf” or “birth” (tokos in Greek, faenus in Latin) as terms for interest (the birth of numerical increments due periodically) thus directly translate the Mesopotamian usage of mash (kid or calf, birth).
The term usury refers to interest‑bearing debt extended for noncommercial purposes. In agrarian economies consumer or tenant debts bear an interest charge for loans, advances or overdue obligations that do not provide the debtor with productive assets enabling him to repay the loan. Being part of a zero‑sum economic activity, such interest is parasitic. It thus stands in contrast to commercial loans whose interest is paid out of the incomes earned by merchants productively investing the loan proceeds. This distinction no doubt explains why the “economic freedom” acts canceling debts in Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, Nuzi (Arraphke) and Israel applied only to agrarian personal debt, not to commercial obligations. There also are other marked differences. No collateral is pledged for anthropological debts, in contrast to formal money lending, in which loans typically are extended among unequals, e.g. from members of one sector or class to those of another, or various interest‑bearing claims accrue to temples from the community at large.
Of course, many personal loans were extended without interest, e.g. in Greece the eranos “friendly society” loans among aristocratic peers, and also loans to public figures such as those made by the fourth‑century banker Pasion. These obligations are social and interpersonal rather than arms‑length “economic” transactions. They typically are owed among equals, not by poor debtors to well‑to‑do creditors or temples.
When lending money, food or other assets to needy borrowers, creditors typically (either directly or through slaves acting on their behalf) demand not only interest but a pledge of movable assets or property rights in case of default. This collateral often becomes a more important consideration than the rate of interest. In fact, it was the search for adequate collateral for debtors to pledge as an alternative to the personal freedom of their family members that catalyzed the alienability of land rights in many archaic societies.
Turning from these general principles to specific details, it soon becomes apparent that our lack of knowledge about the financial dynamics of archaic Greece and Italy is part of the larger problem of knowing little about how their social life in general was organized prior to the sixth or even the fifth century BC. There is almost no literary or epigraphic evidence apart from the hints that can be extracted from Homer and Hesiod. Outside of Athens the sixth century is nearly as dark as the seventh, and even for Athens we have little primary evidence apart from Solon’s political poetry explaining his actions as archon in 594. The next most important source is Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens written over a quarter millennium later, around 325. The intervening local Atthides were in the character of party pamphleteering over the debt issue and other oligarchic‑democratic controversies, and hence cannot be accepted as primary evidence (Jacoby 1949).
By the 5th century we find such widespread acknowledgment of interest being charged that it seems to have been there all along. Public Athenian inscriptions and the plays of Aristophanes refer to interest (tokos), and soon thereafter we find wealthy landowners letting their slaves invest their peculium in usurious activities. The estates of orphans are let out at interest, and we find commercial investment in trade ventures. But it seems to have been the Persian wars that really monetized Greek economic life and established a credit economy. (To be sure, the change seems to have been one of degree rather than an abrupt innovation.) While coinage certainly was a catalyst, it was not in itself a cause of usury and widespread foreclosure, which are found in the Bronze Age Near East two thousand years prior to the invention of classical coinage.
The real problem concerns how far back we can trace commercial debts, agrarian debts and other economic (as distinct from “anthropological”) debts, with or without interest, and under what conditions they may have been introduced to Greece and Italy.
Burkert (1984) cites a wide range of Near Eastern practices that diffused to the classical Mediterranean lands, including those transmitted via the Etruscans to the Romans. These practices include such highly culture‑specific institutions as liver divination and related omen procedures that can be traced firmly back to Babylonia. Italian city‑founding ceremonies (Rykwert 1988) and the Etruscan and Roman triumph ceremony (Versnel 1970) likewise bear a close kinship to Mesopotamian temple‑founding ceremonies. And I need hardly remind this audience of the many Mediterranean adaptations of Near Eastern myths and rituals, especially Saturnalia‑type New Year festivals (see for instance Bourboulis 1964). Much less explored, however, are the Greek and Italian adaptations of originally Near Eastern economic practices and institutions.
I believe that a major reason for this neglect is an economic ideology that many classical historians have accepted almost unconsciously. As noted above, there is the assumption stemming from our economic philosophy that phenomena such as interest‑bearing debt are so universal and natural as not to require any diffusionist explanation. This view precludes at the outset any investigation into how such practices may have been transmitted from the Near East to the Mediterranean, being decontextualized in the process. By “decontextualized” I mean shifted from a primarily public‑sector context (the Bronze Age palace economies) to the more individualistic and much more decentralized, smaller‑scale context of Mediterranean societies.
Until quite recently classical scholars have not been very receptive to the idea of diffusion of Near Eastern practices. There is still a tendency to view the sharp break from ca. 1200 to 750 – that is, the Mediterranean Dark Age following the collapse of Bronze Age Mycenae, Crete and much of the Levant – as an altogether de novo creation of society in which Greek society reverted to its allegedly Indo‑European roots. Near Eastern influences are not acknowledged to have shaped this classical flowering more than marginally, except in obvious cases as alphabetic writing and a few related commercial practices clearly traceable to the Phoenicians. However, when it comes to the idea of interest, Mauss and subsequent comparative anthropologists have confused the problem by identifying the one‑upmanship of interpersonal gift exchange with the formal charging of economic interest.
In Italy’s case there was no centralized Bronze Age economic organization to be stripped away, not even a Linear B script to be lost. For many years the Romans were viewed as a representative Indo‑European speaking people with traditions fundamentally akin to those of the Greeks and Vedic Indians. The Etruscan influence was recognized, but only recently has the Phoenician‑Greek presence in Ischia – and hence their influence on Etruria – been traced. Here would seem to be a clear example of how Near Eastern financial practices were decontextualized by peripheral societies to produce a rather naked and even cruel development such as we find in Rome seemingly from the inception of its Republic. But such lines of investigation remain to be undertaken.
I propose the following framework for analyzing the evolution of debt in Greece and Italy. We know roughly what went into the Mediterranean Dark Age c. 1200. There is no trace in the Linear B records of interest‑bearing debt, or indeed of debt of any kind save for “deliveries” due from various localities. We know of the agrarian usury that emerged from the Dark Age by the seventh century, culminating in Solon’s seisachtheia. The question at issue is how and under what conditions this interest‑bearing debt may have been introduced.
One of the few hints suggesting a Phoenician role is the fact that the weights and measures used by Greeks and Italians seem to have been brought by Phoenician merchants. A. E. Berriman’s Historical Metrology (1953) points out that the carat originally was the weight of a carob grain, ceratonia siliqua, a tree native to the Mesopotamian meridian, weighing 1/60th of a shekel. The Greek term is keration (“small grain”).
Additionally, by the time we hear of mercantile credit and usury on a large scale, in the fourth century, the major creditors are Phoenicians or other foreigners such as the banker Pasion and his son Apollodorus (Bogaert 1966 and 1968). Humphreys (1978:152) rightly emphasizes the alien character of credit to the Greeks, above all interest‑bearing debt: “Bankers, often ex‑slaves, stood outside the social circle.” No doubt the same could be said of Italy. Historically, the extending of credit at interest has been charged more by outsiders than by peers. This hardly should be surprising, for bankers are basically money‑changers, and hence typically foreigners or persons closely linked to them.
Tracing legal terms and personal names throws some further light. Much financial terminology has Phoenician roots. Finley (1952:81f.) observes that “Among the Greeks, sales were cash sales. This rule found few exceptions, notably when real property was the object of sale.” However, “earnest money” as a binding deposit – arrhabon or arrha – was a common practice. To be sure, in the millennium spanning Homer and the later Roman Empire there are “less than a dozen references to the arrhabon.” But “the word itself, borrowed from a Semitic tongue despite the large number of Greek terms available for the idea of ‘deposit’,” highlight what seems to be a distinction between Near Eastern and Greek practice. It also is noteworthy that the Greeks did not know of mortgages or the acquisition of property at only a small portion of its value, as characterized much debt foreclosure in the Bronze Age Near East.
Bogaert (1966:146) notes that “In the domain of maritime law, Greek law seems to have stemmed from that of Phoenicia, especially in the concept of contrat d’affrêtement (insurance), a conception traceable back to the Babylonians.” Also with regard to the financing of seaborne commerce, Humphreys (1978:151) observes that “The nautikon daneion resembles the institution known to the Italians as the commenda, a combination of loan and partnership in which the lending partner contributed a larger share of the capital and/or took a larger proportion of the risk, in return for the other’s services. This type of partnership was certainly known in Babylonia in our period, and very probably in Phoenicia (its existence in Palestine in the time of Christ is documented by the Parable of the Talents).”
Bogaert (1966:156, 1968, etc.) has traced how Greek deposit banking developed out of money‑changing and as such was strongly influenced by Near Eastern practices, as well as by the many Near Eastern trapezites who settled throughout the Aegean and on the Greek mainland to make their fortunes ‑‑ Pasion, Phormion, Pythodore and other bankers, including Philostrates of Ascalon, trapezite for Delos. But the private documents are few, and literary references prior to the fourth century BC do not enable us to trace the relevant developments with much clarity.
While Phoenician influence is attested in the above ways, there is nothing as clear or datable as the transmission of alphabetic writing. We hardly can take on faith the conviction of ancient scholars such as L. Lydus (De Mensibus I.9, cited in Bogaert 1966:147) that the Phoenicians were the first usurers, the inventors of weights and measures, and methods of earning money in general, while Pliny the Elder (VII, 57) accorded them the invention of money. Such oversimplifications seem to have come more at the end of classical antiquity than at the beginning. But it is clear that maritime commerce, in which the Phoenicians played the major role, was the single most important catalyst to Greek and Italian credit practices.
We thus need to develop a reasonable working hypothesis or scenario for how Mediterranean trade with the Near East might have catalyzed commercial credit and agrarian usury. Probably in the archaic centuries Phoenician models were adopted by the Greeks and Italians to their local circumstances, which almost invariably lacked the traditions of centralized checks and balances which had spread from Bronze Age Mesopotamia to the rest of the Near East. But beyond this general observation the economic organization of archaic and early classical Greece remains opaque. It seems clear that in the seventh century popular revolts in Corinth, Olbia, Sikyon, Megara and other cities replaced aristocratic regimes with leaders (“tyrants” or demagogues) who cancelled the debts and redistributed at least some of the lands. But we are not told exactly how these debts came into being, or even whether or not they bore interest.
For many years the usual assumption was that they represented the type of petty agrarian usury found from the fourth century onwards, i.e. loans of food or other resources to the needy. Even without interest charges the burden of such agrarian debts must have been oppressive. After all, the pound of flesh which forms the centerpiece of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice was owed on an interest‑free loan. Finley (1981:161) summarizes the usual situation in antiquity: “A debtor had little chance. In fact, he had little chance before he even became a debtor, because he was poor and essentially defenseless, against bad harvests and famine, against war and its depredations, against the one‑sidedness of the law. When his luck was bad his only defense was to put himself in fidem, in the power of the powerful.” We know that in one way or another, creditor‑patrons ended up with the lands cultivated by their clients, whom they then began to sell outright as debt‑slaves to foreign dealers in the late seventh century. The question is, how at what point did this process begin to polarize Greek and Italian communities?
One of the most intriguing reports concerns the debt revolt at Megara, not far from Athens. Plutarch’s Greek Questions #18 (Moralia 295D, supposedly based on an Aristotelian study of the city’s constitution) describes its great annual festival celebrating its economic freedom from debt c. 540. This festival commemorated the palintokia , literally “the return of interest which they had chanced to have paid their creditors.” The use of the term tokos for interest is not otherwise found before the final quarter of the fifth century. While Plutarch’s statement would imply that archaic agrarian debts were indeed interest‑bearing, matters are complicated by the fact that another term for the palintokia (“back interest”) was prosagoresantes. This suggests that what occurred may have been an outright debt cancellation, which subsequently came to be commemorated as part of the political program and party propaganda of populations oppressed by usury. (See also Aristotle, Politics 1305a24 and Plato, Republic 562D.) Perhaps the palintokia was a mythical fiction. All debts would have been construed as bearing interest, implying that creditors already had got the equivalent of their original principal back – an argument logical enough to be rediscovered by today’s Latin American and other Third World debtors.
Figueira (1985:147f.) interprets Megara’s early debts as being in the character of floating “anthropological” type client/patron obligations: “Loans were usually in foodstuffs or in seed grain, provisions for life itself. Borrowing was seldom a one‑time affair, as marginal farms were repeatedly in need. In this atmosphere, loans were not quantified (in this regard, the absence of coinage is significant) and tended to become open‑ended. Thus, a form of bondage was created with the obligations of the debtors being political, religious, and/or fiscal. Political duties might have included membership in the political following of the rich as in the case of the regional parties in Attica.” In sum, “To be a debtor was not a contractual situation but entailed a caste‑like status. To lend or borrow was a hereditary role.” But when did this ambiguous type of stratification develop?
The city whose debt history is best attested is Athens, but even here there are many gaps. As noted above, little epigraphic information exists prior to the fifth century, while subsequent local histories tend to be in the character of party pamphleteering. All that can be inferred is that in the closing decades of the seventh century large landholders let out their lands to sharecroppers for one sixth of the crop or extended credit to small farmers for repayment of up to a sixth, or perhaps more. Loans evidently were secured by the debtor’s personal freedom. It was these debts that Solon cancelled in 594 when he freed the Athenian debt slaves, redeemed some who had been sold abroad, and permanently banned debt slavery for Athenian citizens. But as in the case of other Greek cities, we are not told just how the status of the hektemoroi (“sixth‑parters”) developed, or whether their debts were essentially rental obligations or financial consumer debts. In fact, neither Lewis (1941), von Fritz (1943), Fine (1951) or Finley (1952 and elsewhere) have even ventured to guess whether these debts bore interest or not! Neither Finley nor any other economic historian has tried to describe how the practice of charging interest first developed in archaic Greece. And as for the Roman histories, they are quite late. It seems clear that Livy and Plutarch are retrojecting the practices of their own times onto the early secessions of the plebs and subsequent debt crises.
A plausible scenario
Having acknowledged the paucity of historical evidence and the reticence of others to speculate, here is my proposed scenario: The Greek and Italian economies of the ninth and eighth centuries were not yet monetized. Nearly all activity was on a subsistence basis. Whatever surpluses were created tended to be consumed conspicuously (often in burials, no doubt also in the form of gift exchange) rather than invested to produce commercial gains. Warlord chieftains carved out their own lands and built client bases.
Enter the Phoenicians. It is axiomatic that the exchange of commodities between an economically sophisticated core and a less commercialized periphery involves more than just the physical exchange of goods. It must ground itself in the context of economic institutions and legal traditions put into place on both sides. I suspect this is why temples played so great a role in archaic trade, and indeed in all types of contact with foreigners. Hence, we would expect the most active traders to establish temple embassies and commercial cults – and also for these institutions to sponsor the ligaments of credit necessary for commercial trade. It probably was under such circumstances that the idea of interest was introduced as a payment for time.
No doubt Dark Age Greece and Villanovan Italy had debts of the “anthropological” type ‑‑ wergild fines, gift exchange and marriage obligations. The open question concerns when and under what circumstances such obligations were overlayered by economic debts specified in amount and, ultimately, secured by the debtor’s personal freedom or land‑rights. Such debts and their interest bespeak a commercial market mentality. How might so seemingly alien a mentality have been introduced to archaic Mediterranean communities? What would the lines of least resistance have been?
One way to start constructing a reasonable scenario is to review what is known about the diffusion of interest‑bearing debt in earlier contexts. The first recorded example is found in the Assyrian trade colonies in central Asia Minor, in Cappadocia. The trade colony of Kanesh dates at least from the twentieth century BC, and may have been established earlier by the Sargonids from Akkad or by other southern Mesopotamians. Like the Dark Age Greeks, the archaic Anatolians probably had little reason to develop any kinds of debt except for the omnipresent wergild‑type obligations. But their commerce with Mesopotamia exposed them to the ideas of commercial debt and above all to the idea of paying interest. Also introduced were various aspects of originally Mesopotamian religion, myth and ritual, along with modes of social organization such as contractual legal forms and oaths, weights and measures, and the use of weighed pieces of silver as the cosmopolitan Middle Bronze Age “money of the world.”
Klaas Veenhof (1982:148f.) has summarized how the Assyrians used trade credit among themselves while providing goods to local Anatolians priced in silver in amounts “ranging from ca. 10 shekels to ca.10 minas, occasionally also for quantities of copper and cereals. This identifies [the local Anatolians] either as customers of the Assyrians, buying on credit or being in arrears, or as a kind of commission agents or retail dealers, indebted for the value of the merchandise entrusted to them for sale in local markets. . . . The list of Anatolians indebted (and often in arrears) to Assyrians by far exceeds that of Assyrians in debt to Anatolians.” This probably also would have been the case with the Phoenicians and Syrians in Greece.
A further analogy between Assyrian traders in Anatolia and Phoenician merchants in Greece some twelve centuries later is suggested by the fact that local “Anatolians normally have to pay a much higher rate of interest [than did the Assyrian merchants among themselves], and have to provide securities, frequently joint liability by a plurality of debtors. The cooperation only rarely went beyond such elementary and fairly risk-free transactions; more developed forms like partnerships, agencies or investments are almost never attested.”
Also significant is the fact that “Some of the better known Anatolians, represented in exclusively native documents and in some Assyrian texts, function primarily as local money‑lenders, active in loan operations and in buying and selling (debt‑)slaves, at times also as suppliers of cereals. They may have carried on their business on the fringe of the large‑scale commercial activity of the Assyrians.”
I suspect that something similar occurred in the contacts between the Phoenician and Syrian commercial societies vis-à-vis Greece and Italy. Of course, times had changed by the 8th century. The Bronze Age temples and palaces, in which early commercial enterprise was set aside from the subsistence‑based communal life at large, gave way to a secularized and privatized enterprise in the hands of traders increasingly independent from centralized overrides.
No doubt the first native Greeks and Italians to owe debts to foreigners and extend interest‑bearing loans to their local compatriots would have been landed proprietors and chieftains. They alone were in an economic position to trade with the Phoenicians, to shift away from subsistence grain production to export crops, to establish handicraft workshops to produce export goods, and to act as patrons to cultivators who fell into various types of clientage culminating in debt servitude. The virtual identity between landed proprietors, exporters and importers and workshop owners (Bravo 1977b:65) would explain how the charging of interest spread from the sphere of commercial exchange to agriculture. In neither Greece nor Italy were commerce and agriculture compartmentalized from each other, or from the proliferating use of credit. It is true, as Sally Humphreys (1978:151f.) has pointed out, that “The nautikon daneion and the mortgage of land . . . were different institutions, transacted through different relationships, and belonging to different systems of thought and behavior, even though they could be described by the same general word, hypotheke .” But they had a common nexus in the emerging commercial/landed aristocracy. And if interest could be charged in commerce, why not also in agriculture?
No doubt some catalyst was necessary to help establish this trade and its associated interest‑bearing debt. I suspect that the catalytic ingredient was the temples, which were permanent corporate entities set up to provide continuity and recourse among traders vis-à-vis foreigners, above all to settle disputes among them. This would be in keeping with earlier Near Eastern practice.
It would help to know more about Phoenician debt institutions and commercial contracts, but unfortunately, documentation is almost as sparse here as it is for the Greeks and Italians. All we know are the broad outlines of the Late Bronze Age societies whose collapse c. 1200 led to the Dark Age in the eastern Mediterranean. We also know of the increasingly commercialized city‑states that emerged in the seventh century. But the intervening archaic period is opaque as far as historical records are concerned. All we really know is that from the ninth century onwards a wave of Near Eastern contacts with the Aegean and western Mediterranean gained momentum, reaching from Italy and Sardinia via North Africa all the way to Spain. Among the Near Eastern innovations noted by contributors to the present volume are the North Syrian bronze cauldrons, conical stands and related banquet utensils (Strǿm, above, 55), gold and silver jewelry with granulation, filigree and punchwork, and, by the late 8th century, Phoenician metal jugs (Markoe, 63ff.).
If Phoenician traders indeed brought credit practices with them, the next question concerns the Greeks and Italians on the receiving end. How did they adopt these practices within the context of their own social traditions? Apart from the gold and silver booty they looted, the Greeks had little money. Their production ability also was limited. To the extent that olive oil and wine would be produced as export crops, it would be by the large landed estates cited earlier – but these still functioned largely on a self‑sufficient basis rather than as part of the money economy. No doubt the major (if not the only) customers of the Phoenicians were the chieftains and landed proprietors, and perhaps some of the temples which probably played a role in legitimizing this trade. It probably was with them that the first credit arrangements took root, and via their mediating influence that interest‑bearing debt was developed vis-à-vis their own clients.
Greek temples for their part were accustomed to receiving a tithe (dekate) of war booty (Pritchett 1979). This was what historians of mathematics call a unit‑fraction, that is, one‑tenth. The Roman duodecimal system’s equivalent was an uncia per as – a twelfth (8⅓%). These fractions seem to have become a customary commercial tithing or overplus that evolved into formal economic interest. In addition to Phoenician merchants and local chieftains, the temples would have played at least a catalytic role, if only by sponsoring the sanctity of contracts and debts, of protecting commerce and the safety of merchants on their travels.
In any event the landed creditors would have been the same proprietors who produced export goods and set up workshops. They would have found the new credit practices – and ultimately the charging of interest on their advances – to be an economic lever vis-à-vis less affluent parties. In other words, the proprietors of large estates would have bolstered their power by acting as patrons to rural clients who may either have served as or become sharecroppers (such as the hektemoroi) or simply needy debtors. Personal debts became part of an evolving patron/client relationship, serving as levers to reduce erstwhile free but poor individuals and their families to a state of dependency. This no doubt is how oligarchies came to build up their power in Corinth, Etruria and other regions.
In my reading, debt practices which began in the commercial interface between the Mediterranean periphery and the Near Eastern core would have been applied domestically in an increasingly agrarian context. Such credit did not provide cultivators with resources to invest to generate a surplus to repay their creditors, but was purely corrosive. Its repayment, with or without interest, soon forced cultivators below the breakeven level into irreversible indebtedness.
With this logic we can re‑evaluate the anthropological evidence concerning debt in archaic Greece and Rome. As noted above, there has long been a tendency to believe that debt was an inherently Indo‑European institution (if not indeed a universal one), simply because it is found both in Italy and Greece, and thus seems to span the documented gamut of classical Indo‑European speaking civilization. But we know that Phoenician traders visited both Italy and Greece by the middle of the eighth century. (David Ridgeway reviews the joint Phoenician‑ Greek establishment of trade on the offshore entrepôt of Ischia/Pithecousi.) Thus the mere fact that interest is found in both Italy and Greece by the sixth century is no confirmation of an original native presence in these regions. It can best be explained in terms of Phoenician‑Near Eastern influence.
It is precisely the foreign-ness of this influence that explains the rapidly polarizing impact of interest‑bearing debt as it spread from commercial credit to agrarian usury. This polarization had occurred in the Mesopotamian homeland but was reversed by periodic debt cancellations when rulers proclaimed “economic freedom” from debt: Sumerian amargi, Akkadian andurarum, Babylonian mišarum, Hurrian šudutu, and Hebrew deror. However, archaic Greece and Italy had no centralized rulers to proclaim such debt cancellations – or, where kings existed as in Rome, they were overthrown by aristocratic families hardly eager to cancel their populations’ debts. Financial polarization in Greece and Italy thus occurred much more rapidly and irreversibly than in Mesopotamia and its Near Eastern periphery, and the deterioration from productive commercial debt to unproductive agrarian usury was more pronounced.
In recognition of the illustrious discussants at this conference, I would very much like to get their views on some still unanswered questions, with the caveat of course that there can be no definitive answers.
To Chester Starr I would like to ask whether he thinks that the debts owed by the Athenian hektemoroi were interest‑bearing. Was their status related to the flowering of trade during the eighth and seventh centuries? What does he think of what Plutarch called the palintokia at Megara? Was Plutarch or his sources anachronistic in calling it a cancellation of back interest, and was it simply a debt cancellation? Or could it have been a subsequent invention of a tradition by politically partisan writers?
I note that Prof. Starr (1977) has emphasized that the Greeks sailed to Al Mina, and that he views them as being the active element in contact with Phoenicia. Would there have been in either case a Phoenician influence, as well as perhaps other Near eastern influences? Could commercial interest‑bearing debts have been part of this influence?
I want to emphasize once again that 2000 years of prior Near Eastern experience shows that coinage emphatically is not the key to the origins of debt, although it certainly catalyzed debts from the Persian wars onward as the economies of Greek cities became more stratified and economically differentiated. The key question is how debts spread before coinage catalyzed their proliferation.
To David Ridgeway and Glenn Markoe I would like to ask whether the idea of charging interest may have been introduced to Etruria by Phoenician and Greek traders on Ischia in the eighth century. Can they help explain why debt relations were more decontextualized and “naked” in Italy than elsewhere in the Mediteranean, that is, taken out of their more originally holistic Near Eastern context to become financial dynamics in and of themselves? What other economic institutions may the Ischia trade have introduced?
To Francois de Polignac and Wolfgang Rollig I would like to ask what role temples and foreign mercantile cults may have played in transmitting interest practices and related economic institutions. Might the Phoenician role at Delos, Delphi, Olympus, Samos and Argos have been important in transmitting worldly economic institutions as part of the general transfer of culture? More specifically, did Mediterranean cults act as commercial embassies sponsoring relations with outsiders and/or as creditors along the lines they had done in third‑millennium Mesopotamian trade with Asia Minor, and as late as the second century BC most notably in Delos? Might the charging of interest, sponsorship of contractual dealings with foreigners and indeed, depository institutions occur as early as the tenth through eighth centuries?
FINAL COMMENTS, March 16th
I have had a chance to speak to a number of you about my attempt yesterday to all too briefly summarize a long and complex social process. I would like to put a more elaborate 700‑page background elaboration of my ideas into the proceedings, but Prof. Kopcke tells me this may not be practical.
With regard to Prof. Starr’s comment yesterday asking why Phoenician merchants would have been willing to lend goods to Greeks and then hope (presumably in vain) to collect them when they came back a year later, the answer is twofold. Certainly there is always a problem of how to collect obligations, above all when foreigners are involved. I think that this is why temples played so important a role in archaic exchange. They were a higher and more perpetual source of recourse to traders. Unlike individual debtors (or creditors), they would not go away. In effect, temple groups may have stood surety for their commercial members.
Of course, merchants probably did not lend money or provide goods on credit to many local individuals. The Greeks for their part would have had to borrow the idea of credit itself, and subsequently to apply it among themselves. The very idea of commercial (rather than “anthropological”) credit is so formal that it requires a “higher” and more abstract institution such as temples. Precisely because the traders were private, they needed to form a collective institution standing above their individual members to handle the inevitable problems that arise between their trading groups. These guild‑like organizations seem to have been established as temple cults, as were those on Delos in Hellenistic times. Perhaps they stood ready to redeem the commercial debts of their cult members. Of course, this does not mean that temples directly financed the trade or provided the products, as Prof. Rollig has rightly emphasized. Rather, they served as intermediaries by virtue of their traditional function of sponsoring contacts with alien peoples, including traders and colonizers. (See de Polignac, this vol., 122f.)
It thus is significant that Strøm (46ff., 49) finds that Phoenician or Syrian objects donated to Greek sanctuaries appear primarily in the 8th century (whereas evidence for the “first wave of Levantine expansion” in the 10th century comes mainly from the less formalized context of family tombs). Whoever it was that dedicated or acquired utensils needed for libation rituals – foreigners, natives, or overseers on behalf of the sanctuaries themselves (Strøm, this vol., 49, 60) – the implication is that such vessels were used for group meals which helped establish a formalized community and equity among the diverse cult members. Temple hierarchies would have served as commercial and diplomatic embassies, being higher social entities than individual families, and hence the most morally binding context for exchange in this archaic period when legal formalities were still relatively loose outside of the sacred sphere. The traditional role of temples in protecting travelers (mainly merchants) and sponsoring the general ethic of hospitality (especially at the pan-Hellenic shrines) also is significant in this regard.
The group meals first attested at these temples, using utensils dedicated by diverse members, seem to have provided a take-off point for subsequent Greek banquet formalities. The inspiration remained a ritual signification of equal status for the diverse guests – in the first instance, presumably, traders, family heads and other temple sponsors or beneficiaries of the temple system.
As Strøm has emphasized, the temples receiving Phoenician offerings are specifically those of Apollo the sun-god of justice, and Hera, Artemis and Athena. These are the counterparts to the Near Eastern deities such as Nanshe in lagash and Nidaba in Umma sponsoring written record-keeping, fair dealing, honest weights and measures, and commercial equity in general. It was of course Apollo’s temple at Delphi that long coordinated Greek colonization and related commerce and diplomacy, and likewise the Delos temple that subsequently developed into a commercial entrepôt on the basis of its archaic traditions.
Bearing the above observations in mind, it is significant that temples are history’s first documented creditors at interest, beginning in Sumer in the third millennium. By charging interest and groundrent on their own assets and property, temples helped legitimize the idea of interest‑bearing debt and profit seeking in general. As recipients of votive offerings, they helped legitimize the gains earned both by foreign traders (who typically formed their own cults as diplomatic embassies) and by well‑to‑do local wealthholders. Temples often received a tithe of trade (after the model of war booty), or at least votive offerings. The dekate may well have become the prototype for interest and the 10 percent rate so typical of Greek banking. A tenth certainly would not have been too large a percentage for merchants to pay for ensuring security of payment. Some portion of mercantile revenues certainly was donated to the temples, much as soldiers and generals dedicated military booty. While the temples no longer included the handicraft workshops which characterized third‑millennium Mesopotamia, in their embassy functions they legitimized profit‑seeking trade, as well as by being a major beneficiary.
Prof. Starr mentions 17th-century Europe often in his book on archaic Greece. I find it significant that the English conducted their business abroad via professional temple‑like organizations, e.g. the Levant Company, the Russia Company, the East India Company and so forth. William Scott’s History of English Corporations (1912) describes the early annual meetings of crown corporations such as the East India Company as being renowned for their great feasts. In these celebrations, and also in their hierarchies of corporate offices – and indeed in the very fact of their incorporation as autonomous bodies – the format and organization of British trading companies may be traced back to the Sumerian temples which literally were history’s first corporate entities. (I think of them as being something like regulated public utilities.) Guilds were incorporated as temples‑in‑miniature, as were almost all early corporations. I do not mean this as just a parallel. The point is that the English companies took their prototype the organization of temples vis-à-vis their dependents and servants, with their own hierarchies and calendrical rituals.
Prof. Röllig is, of course, correct that while there were many temples in early first‑millennium Greece and Italy, there was no temple economy to anywhere near the extent found in Mesopotamia. What I tried to establish was that temples were catalysts. It is a characteristic of catalysts that they are not part of the reaction themselves. While indeed there was no temple economy, the private economy took over certain practices that were first innovated and legitimized by temples, and subsequently were privatized.
Obviously, a problem with my scenario is the lack of empirical evidence in the archaeological and literary records, unlike the case in Mesopotamia with its centralized financial record‑keeping. Despite this problem the undeniable fact remains that somehow interest‑bearing debt did indeed come to Greece and Italy, for it does not seem to have been indigenous. As Oscar Muscarella said yesterday in another context, “All we know is that it got there.”[ The problem is that while we begin to hear of interest only in historical times – from the late 5th century onwards – we hear nothing of its having been introduced as a sudden innovation. The implication is that interest was there for some time. I suggest that it came along with the first strictly arms‑length commercial debts, incorporated into tradition by being sanctified by its association with the temples which acted as economic embassies. Were Carians on Samos doing something like this? Why were foreigners donating proto‑money such as tripods to the Greek temples? Their role in developing the earliest oboloi and drachmae has been much discussed, but this economic dimension of archaic Mediterranean temples still is not well elaborated. [ The most plausible scenario I have been able to come up with is one using temples and their embassy cults as intermediaries. In serving this function they received various forms of tithes – of commercial profits as well as booty. In the process, they helped legitimize private trade and domestic credit. Indeed, they did so in such a way as to also help legitimize the agrarian interest‑bearing debt which subsequently was responsible for many families being economically degraded to the status of debt‑slaves. Just how this occurred may have turned on the role of individuals or leading families in each area of Greece and Italy. There would have been many possible ways to have organized these credit operations. [ If we are to say anything more on the subject it must turn largely on the methodology we use. And this is my final point. To the extent that archaeologists remain strictly fact‑based, as Gunther Kopcke noted yesterday, they let the limitations of their immediate material evidence dictate the agenda of their thinking. Methodology thus determines not only what content and information is recognized, but in many respects what the findings of the research project will be. Any progress to be made with regard to how debt was introduced to the Aegean and western Mediterranean must follow from a methodology that goes beyond the inadequate material data at hand. Unfortunately, this artifactual evidence says too little about the structure of the society that produced it. We still need to develop a working hypothesis of the economic evolution of archaic societies.
I note that scholars are willing to make guesses about religion, myth and ritual, language and art. Why not economics and finance? It almost seems as if the more otherworldly or immaterial a phenomenon is, the more willing people are to speculate about it. The more directly economic it is, the less confident historians of antiquity feel about venturing anything about contexts and structural change. Perhaps this is partly because of the absence of economics in the education of most Classicists, philologists and art historians. In any event, the end result is that the public at large is left with an anachronistic view of how Western civilization began in the period we are discussing here.[ Instead of developing de novo from tribal‑type “anthropological” roots in a pristine manner, the commercialization of Mediterranean economic life began by being taken out of the context of the hitherto centralized Near Eastern Bronze Age economies with their traditional checks and balances, debt cancellations and related economic freedom acts. [ This decontextualization is why the question of how debts developed in Greece and Italy – and hence in modern Euro‑American civilization – is so important. For as I noted at the beginning of my paper, when today’s market‑oriented economists choose to say anything about antiquity, they tend to retroject their own ideology back onto early history, much as Stoic historians did already in late antiquity. The unchecked economic polarization stemming from antiquity’s debt problems, and which today threatens once again to polarize our own world economy, are explained as having perfectly natural and ancient Indo‑European roots and thus as being virtually a part of human nature rather than subject to alleviation or political change.
I like Chester Starr’s anecdote about how he never saw an excavation that said anything about kinship systems. I doubt that any Mediterranean excavation says much about financial systems and interest either. We have ancient literary evidence, but there reason to doubt most of it as being political propaganda or anachronistic retrojection, as in the financial history of Athens. Whereas the archaeologists, classicists and philologists most directly familiar with archaic Greece and Etruria might be expected to take the lead in suggesting scenarios for early financial relations in these societies, and to explain how these changes shaped the framework for the classical period to come, these unfortunately are just the professions that have hesitated most to express their views in print. And so the opportunity to suggest plausible economic scenarios falls to comparative outsiders such as myself. No one here has given me reason to withdraw my speculations.
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* The meeting “Greece between East and West, 10th ‑ 8th Century BC” was held at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York in March of 1990. It was organized in the expectation that archaeologists would speak as historians. A majority of the ten participating contributors were archaeologists. One works in Israel, one concentrates on the Near East north of Palestine, and four specialize in Cyprus, Greece and Italy. At first glance the four remaining participants might seem to be a token representation to justify calling this meeting interdisciplinary: a Semitic philologist, an economist, and two historians (including de Polignac in this category). Yet the composition of this panel was never seen as representative of all aspects that logically should have been present on this occasion. Given another framework, and more years experience to assimilate new directions, the convener would have wished to invite still more specialists and non‑archaeologists. For ultimately at issue is the archaeologist’s participation in the broad discussion of history.
What is considered central to this discussion as opposed to marginal depends on one’s perspective. To take an extreme example, the traditional archaeologist or art historian may well be perplexed to hear Dr. Hudson lecture on the “decontextualized” practice of charging interest, and his contention that interest‑bearing debt was brought to Greece by Phoenicians in the 8th century BC. No document to confirm or contradict this will or can ever been found in the field. Why then should this view – and an economist – appear on this panel? The answer may be provided by what probably is the single most famous art work of the 8th century BC – the monumental amphora inv.# 804 in the Athens National Museum. This gravemarker was commissioned at the death of a female member of a leading Athenian family, whose fortunes were such that only the very best and most original or “modern” would do for this occasion. The painter imitated (though this may not be quite the right expression) something that apparently was popular and admired: the art of Phoenician figural decoration. The question of “how this money was earned” and how this artistic masterpiece relates to the economic realities of its day will interest some people more than others, but those who do indeed think it relevant will not that perhaps what is “orientalizing” in art corresponds to other domains as well. Alone among the participants, Hudson sounds the theme of Phoenicians on the one hand, Greeks and westerners on the other as unequal partners, not so much in the sense of rich and poor as of having different “systems” or ways of acquiring wealth. The Phoenician way presumably was that of the future. But where and when in Italy and Greece did this future begin? To return to the amphora Athens 804: if certain significant advances in art spell self‑confidence and success, how far and wide should we look for the sources?
Along these lines Chester Starr’s paper addresses a contentious issue: the unwillingness of archaeologists to speculate, that is, to go beyond merely retrieving and ordering material evidence. Yet all that can be retrieved is obstinately silent. It calls for exploration in terms of thought process and human motivations. Some may shrug off this kind of curiosity, or even condemn it as speculative. Starr cites the kind of injunction that one often hears (and that in my view ultimately does more harm than good) by ruling searching questions out of bounds. Others call this reconstructive reasoning “humanistic,” “unscientific” or, less kindly, “nebulous.” They may deem it passe, insisting that rigorous “methodologies” be followed. Applied science certainly has made immense contributions, but in the process has it “marginalized” traditional archaeology? Many traditional archaeologists may fear the results. If a new Gordon Childe were to appear, he would have to take in this information and elaborate on the grand scheme of things in much greater detail. I believe that viscerally, all traditional archaeologists know there is such an agenda. It is pressing, and we ought to admit that the field has substantially broadened beyond pottery classification and similar endeavors.
The title “Greece between East and West” has been chosen advisedly, and not merely as an invitation to discuss “interconnections.” Well documented political and economic forces active in the early first millennium seem likely to have affected Greece, calling for us to look beyond “bric‑a‑brac,” and even to set aside Homer’s half‑hearted interest in non‑Greeks from the Levant. Let us ask what naturally would have transpired between individuals and groups in search of opportunities, in the spirit of the impressive reports on traffic in the Mediterranean and its environment in the 11th/12th centuries and 14th to 18th centuries AD as rendered by E. Gothein and F. Braudel. For the period under discussion at this conference we have, for instance, Sir John Boardman’s admirably articulate surprise at the rise of Greece from seemingly hopeless depression. We also see the respect paid by later Greeks to Phoenicians as providers of their culture. For Greece, we have to explain big innovations. Villages and families are drawing together to form polities. They are designating central places of worship, frequently placing extraordinary emphasis on the divinity’s house. They send settlers abroad as a matter of policy, to insure the community’s survival. All in all, what happens more or less simultaneously in several places, in the span of just a few years or decades in the 8th century, seems too much to be entirely self‑generated. The meeting was designed to cautiously approach the question whether and how we can form an idea of developments that would involve East and West as mutual participants in an unfolding continuum.
At first glance the 10th and 9th centuries might seem to have had little or nothing to contribute. Yet it is clear from several papers, notably Kochavi’s, Ridgway’s and my own, that long‑distance traffic of one kind or another always existed. It is probable that earlier contacts underlie 8th‑century consequences. In the 8th century, conditions outside of Greece caused these contacts to flourish anew. Those who engaged in these contacts had centuries ago ceased to be strangers to the Greeks. Their encounters lowered linguistic and other barriers. This aspect of matters needs to affect our thinking. It is essential not to neglect the Bronze Age and its aftermath which we now hesitate to call a dark age.
There has been a view (and it may still be held by some) that Greek history should not be allowed to begin before ca. 700 BC, because of the absence of written documentation before that date. This literary gap has led to a refusal to look at archaeology. The result was the Greek “miracle.” Today we are trying to put together a factual explanation of this “miracle” or “mirage.” It may not rest on as firm a ground as if we had a Herodotus to tell us the story, but at least it is reasonable enough to be entertained.
Needless to say, our meeting highlights the sea and the opportunities it offered. But this is by no means the only aspect able to shed light on the ascendancy of early Greece. The 1988 congress held in Rome, “La transizione dal Miceneo all’alto arcaismo. Dal palazzo all citta” (published in 1991) touches closely on our subject, yet with perhaps one exception the contributors saw no need to examine their subject in the context we propose.
We are beginning to collect ideas on a subject – the early history and background of classical Greece – that many agree is ripe for a re‑evaluation. We still may be far from linking various sections, to be sure. One friendly critic took us to task for not reflecting Bernal’s by now familiar views on Greeks of mixed Semitic and African stock. But this is one case in which I think the archaeologist’s reluctance to speculate is justified. At a certain critical point in his argument Bernal himself has chosen to disavow, in rather strong terms, the evidential value of archaeology. He evidently did so to help his theory. That bias does not necessarily prove him wrong, yet for the near future – and certainly until the volume containing the testimonia for his linguistic claims has appeared and been digested – there is little that non‑linguists can do but stand back and wait for a verdict based on criteria that Bernal himself deems relevant. Possible consequences of racial affinity apart – reality or chimaera, who knows – if Semitic and Egyptian roots in the Greek language are indeed as numerous as Dr. Bernal claims, this could be ground for speculating on an East‑West symbiosis. Yet this is another issue that has been published with incendiary claims and phrases. Such partisan issues never get settled until the furor dies down.
The traditional archaeology of pre‑literate periods can never deal with certainties when it comes to making historical reconstructions. What is absent from the material record is the role played by individuals and events, and even that of political institutions, economies and beliefs. These are never self‑evident. They must be derived from other sources, and often are imposed upon the findings. For the traditional archaeologist, this insufficiency makes for dependence, or at least it opens him to instruction. This meeting is thus an admission of a venerable discipline’s shortcomings, but it claims that other parties may help alleviate the impasse.
– Gunter Kopcke
Notes These wergild payments are fines owed to injured parties for manslaughter and lesser damages. A wergild obligation is illustrated on the shield of Achilles, Iliad IX.632ff. (for a reparation due in cattle), where “the refusal of the penal gift . . . (marks Achilles) as a man of unacceptable excesses.” Finley 1978:117f.  Certainly the southern Mesopotamian cities organized their foreign trade through temple embassies. The function of temples as “neutral zones” in peripheral regions protected and sanctified above all their commercial undertakings. We find such cults in Hellenistic Delos (viz. esp. Rostovtzeff 1941, II:790f.).