Ancient and modern

Ancient Greeks and modern entrepreneurs

The classical world was full of enterprise – in a way that's only just coming back

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

There is much talk today of the enthusiasm with which young entrepreneurs are setting up businesses. One reason why this appears such a daring development is that the industrial revolution changed our thinking about jobs and work so radically that ‘big business’ seemed the only form of honest employment. Before that, going it alone was the norm. Classical Athens was a prime example, though one would never think it to read most accounts of the subject.

Take the great Lord Macaulay: the famous picture he drew of daily life in Athens — Pheidias putting up a frieze, rhapsodes in the streets reciting Homer to weeping crowds, a meeting of the democratic Assembly and a play by Sophocles — is not only nonsense but ignores the hard reality of Athenian life on the ground.

It is worth remembering that Socrates was a stonemason, and his friend Simon a shoemaker (his shop has been excavated). Socrates discussed manufacturing intensively with Simon and other craftsmen around the agora, wondering whether there was an analogy between an expert at making, e.g., good shoes, and an expert at making good men.

In his ground-breaking book on the subject, the classicist Dr Peter Acton points out that every time an Athenian went outside, he would be surrounded by evidence of production: ‘the clack of looms, the hammering of carpenters and sculptors, carts rattling through the streets full of stone or wood or bales of fine cloth or jars of imported oils, all told of the physical environment, and the social impact of manufacturing.’

Yet it is a commonplace to say that trade was held in contempt in the ancient world. The question is: by whom? The landed rich and high-domed intellectuals, that’s who. For the remaining 98 per cent trade was one of the main means of survival (at worst) or prosperity (at best). Indeed, Acton argues that ‘agriculture was the real capitalism, contributing to social inequality, and trade and industry the great levellers’. In every corner, he finds evidence of crafts, industry and manufacturing: metalwork (miners, black—smiths, armourers, silversmiths); woodwork (foresters, sawyers, carpenters, furniture makers, boat-builders); woolworkers; potters; jewellery and perfume makers; retailing; workshops; and so on. He reckons that about 75 per cent of the total population were at it some of the time, women as much as men, though more part-time.

A family man with a slave, children or apprentice could make enough pottery or simple furniture for his own needs plus a surplus to sell at market; so could the women of the household, weaving clothes, rugs, bedspreads (etc.) with some to spare, making a major contribution to the household economy. Interestingly, Acton reckons it was the industrial revolution that alienated women from the management of production.

The sum effect was a standard of living barely matched before the 18th century. And that is not to take into account larger-scale operations. We hear of a shield factory staffed by 120 slaves where ‘competitive advantage’ helped make the owner very good money indeed. Many of the 159 surviving law-court speeches centre on commercial transactions and the funding of important projects by moneylenders (women often playing a major part). Ambitious Romans later expanded such operations. Scaurus’ garum sauce from Pompeii became an early ‘brand’, as did Arretine pottery (from Arretium/Arezzo in Tuscany), so successful that a huge factory was set up in Gaul, all the potters using Latin names. No one knew that a pot stamped ‘Felix’ was actually made by the Celt Matugenos.

Ancient Greeks were fiercely independent-minded; the man who worked for someone else was nothing but a slave. They flourished in this world of casual manufacturing, whose flexibility also created the space for people-power democracy.

Which brings us back to the modern world, where the prospect of autonomy is appealing to the younger generation and the internet opens up myriad freelance opportunities. Online courses abound, as does legal, financial and administrative advice for new start-ups; raw materials can be sourced; 3D printing can do all the work; desktop publishing is now taken for granted. Crowd-funding can supply the funds. All that stands in the way are the limitations of human imagination and, as ever, government.

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Peter Acton’s Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens is published by Oxford University Press.

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