Hans van Wees. Ships and Silver, Taxes and Tribute: A Fiscal History of Archaic Athens. London: I. B. Tauris, 2013. 240 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78076-686-7.
Reviewed by Nikolaus Overtoom (Louisiana State University)
Published on H-War (January, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Institutional Power and Public Finance in Archaic Athens
Hans van Wees’s Ships and Silver, Taxes and Tribute: A Fiscal History of Archaic Athens argues that the financial and institutional advances associated with classical Athens were developments of the archaic period. The book charts the rise of institutional power in archaic Athens with a focus on public finance. Van Wees is at odds with many of the generally accepted historiographical traditions of the fiscal history of Athens. His revisionist history uses, as Paul Millett calls it, “new fiscal history.” Van Wees reconsiders literary evidence from authors, such as Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Aristotle, and supplements them with archaeological evidence. He concludes that the accounts of later authors either were biased toward making classical Athens seem more spectacular by overlooking the archaic period or were anachronistic. The scope of the work roughly ranges from the reforms of Solon in 594 BCE to the transfer of the war chest of the Delian League to Athens in 454 BCE. In seven chapters, he discusses the obstacles in studying archaic Greece, the background to public finance in archaic Greece, Athenian financial institutions, public spending, public revenue, and the media of public finance. A brief concluding chapter, a short appendix on Persian naval expansion, a sizable bibliography, and a helpful select index of passages accompany the work. Van Wees is Grote Professor of Ancient History at University College London and is the author of several works on ancient Greece.
In his first chapter, van Wees argues that Athens had a uniquely sophisticated system of public finance, which featured progressive taxation and wealth distribution and had its roots in the archaic period. He maintains that by the early sixth century BCE, the administrative institutions, expenditures, revenues, and financial media of Athens were in place and becoming increasingly refined. Before the publication of this book, investigation of archaic public finance was ignored almost completely. This work aims to demonstrate that the sources support the development of public finance in the archaic period, that archaic Athens was a state capable of a system of public finance, and that the archaic economy of Athens was not too simple to support public finance. Van Wees wants to move away from the “primitivist” or “substantivist” model of the ancient economy and to emphasize the complexity of Athenian state finance in the archaic period.
Chapter 2 addresses examples of public finance in archaic communities outside of Athens. Homeric age communities practiced “communal” funding in the form of war preparation, gifts, and favors. By the early archaic period, Greek communities had developed the concept of wage labor. Van Wees discusses how wage earning military personnel eventually replaced the custom of gift giving and plunder seeking in military service. Moreover, he argues that “the levying of taxes and dues was thus pervasive by the late archaic period” (p. 29). He contends further that Persian naval expansion in the late sixth century BCE was the most important external influence on the development of Greek public finance because mainland Greeks needed better public funding in order to support better fleets of triremes. The Persian Empire financed the creation of trireme navies in its captured Ionian cities. Mainland Greeks responded by building their own trireme navies, and this quickly accelerated the development of formal public finance and public navies by the end of the sixth century BCE.
Chapter 3 discusses the institutionalization of Athenian public finance in the sixth century BCE. Van Wees argues that the financial apparatus of the Athenian state was large at the beginning of the sixth century and only became larger and more complex. Solonian Athens had treasurers in charge of temple wealth, officials called “ham-collectors” in charge of secular public funds, and sellers in charge of public assets. Cleisthenes’s reforms at the end of the century expanded the number of financial officials and added to them the new rank of “receivers,” who helped the “ham-collectors” in their duties. Further officials called “naukraroi” helped organize and fund Athenian military levies.
Chapter 4 charts the expenditures of archaic Athens. Van Wees argues that Athens created a publicly funded trireme fleet under the tyrant Hippias. Cleisthenes then unified the Athenian navy and made it all publicly funded. Moreover, van Wees argues that by the late sixth century BCE the Athenian government began to pay its sailors and soldiers wages. In addition, there was an acceleration of public spending on cult sacrifices.
Chapter 5 discusses the revenues of archaic Athens. Van Wees argues that the irregular “contribution” tax, known as the “eisphora,” was not uniquely Athenian. It was a normal form of direct taxation on wealthy citizens throughout archaic Greece and more widely utilized in the sixth century BCE than previously thought. He demonstrates that after the reforms of Solon the Athenian government levied eisphorai according to one’s annual harvest. By the late sixth century, the amount levied had increased with the introduction of public spending on wages and buildings. He argues that the eisphorai continued after the reforms of Cleisthenes, but the tax changed from agricultural produce to coinage and increasingly became the burden of the wealthy. Further, van Wees contends that Hippias established the funding mechanism of Athenian liturgy.
Throughout the sixth century BCE, taxes on trade and the exploitation of public properties for revenue, like the silver mines at Laurion, were common. Van Wees argues that Athens collected large amounts of tribute from its allies in the Delian League from the beginning. He maintains that by 478-477 BCE Athens could wage war mostly without cost because of this tribute. Substantial direct profits of empire meant that the Athenian government no longer needed the eisphora tax to raise additional revenues until the Peloponnesian War.
In chapter 6, van Wees uses archaeological evidence to help demonstrate that the reforms of Solon eventually “resulted in a fully monetized system of public finance in Athens by 500 BCE” (p. 107). He illustrates that by 700 BCE a fairly standard system of weights and measures was used throughout the Greek world; however, the value was calculated in oxen, bowls, and spits. He argues that the Greek literary tradition concerning Solon’s reform of measures and weights is anachronistic and not supported by archaeological evidence. Solon’s reform led to the aligning of trade weights with the silver standard by the end of the sixth century BCE. Moreover, van Wees argues that Solon’s reform was responsible for “the transition from ‘oxen-worth’ to weighted silver as the measure of value used in public transactions” (p. 121). This transition mirrored a growth in contractual transactions and the volume of public business.
Van Wees reconstructs the early history of coinage at Athens. He argues that the use of coinage and the increase in public spending at the end of the sixth century were intertwined. New coinage also facilitated overseas trade. Yet he demonstrates that coinage was not a radical change from the nature of transactions, going back to the late seventh century; rather, it created “a medium which allowed archaic trends towards greater scale and complexity in both public finance and private exchange” (p. 133). Additionally, coinage provided the state with another means of control.
Van Wees’s final chapter encapsulates his main points of argument. He maintains that the Homeric system of communal finance evolved rapidly over the seventh century BCE so that by the end of the sixth century BCE Athens had multiple grades of financial officers and central control over financial functions, which allowed formalized public funding. By the late sixth century, public wages supported an enlarged army and navy, which required increased revenue in the form of the eisphora tax, mining, and liturgy. The reforms of Cleisthenes expanded Athenian financial administration and further increased revenues. Van Wees argues that further reforms in the fifth century were not necessary since Athenian leadership of the Delian League created new imperial revenue. Athens in the fifth century already had a sophisticated system of public finance that would change little throughout the classical period. He emphasizes that the rapid acceleration of the development of public finance was a direct reaction to the considerable threat posed by the Persian Empire and its naval expansions in the late sixth century. Added to this was “a more general development towards the institutionalization of power” (p. 143). Van Wees concludes that the early central monopoly of legitimate force and the progressive taxation system of Athens made it unique in European history.
Although concise and informative, nonspecialist readers might find sections of this work to be too technical. The book challenges historiographical traditions with textual and archaeological analysis and comes to some groundbreaking conclusions. Van Wees provides the original Greek with his own translations for important sections, but he assumes that his audience understands specialized terminology, such as “choinix,” “kotyle,” “medimnoi,” and “metretai.” Additionally, the historiographical discussions are rather dry. Van Wees’s work targets the informed audience, and for these reasons this book is ideal for graduate students and scholars.
I have only a few comments of note. Van Wees’s conclusion that “the range of public revenues and expenditures in Homer is very similar to what we find in archaic Athens and elsewhere in Greece” (p. 22) seems evident since Homer’s works often reflect practices in Dark Age Greece, some of which surely would have continued into the archaic period. In chapter 5 in the section on tribute revenue, he places emphasis on the year 478-477 BCE, rather than 454 BCE, as the year that Athens began receiving large quantities of tribute from its Delian League allies. This is a well-argued and interesting point; however, I am not convinced that this was an archaic institution. I would argue that the formation of the Delian League was a “classical” innovation. Finally, his conclusion that public finance at Athens developed in order to support larger and better navies in an effort to combat Persian expansion in the late sixth century is insightful and highly compelling, as is his emphasis on the fundamental desire of the archaic Athenian state to use institutionalized power and funding to create internal stability in order to better compete against other states in the Greek world. Arthur Eckstein’s book, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome (2006), puts a similar emphasis on security-driven policy for the sake of state survival.
Van Wees’s study is well organized and compellingly argued. It is difficult to disagree with his conclusions. It seems highly probable that the trireme navy, public funding, and institutionalization of classical Athens had its roots squarely planted in the sixth century BCE. His revisionist reconstruction of Athenian history should spark productive dialogue on how the development of financial institutions and practices in the archaic period influenced classical Greece.
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Nikolaus Overtoom. Review of Hans van Wees, Ships and Silver, Taxes and Tribute: A Fiscal History of Archaic Athens.
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