Naval Power, State Expense, and Living Standards in Classical Athens

Marco Martinez, Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies

The role of ancient technology in rising the living standards of ancient societies has been largely overlooked if compared to medieval or modern history. Indeed, despite important ground and underwater archaeological work, it is widely accepted that ancient societies were not able to develop and diffuse useful innovations. More recently, the new institutional economics inspired by the work of Douglass North has proposed an ‘institutions-first’ the State as a key driver of economic growth, also but not only mediated by technological improvements that reduced transaction costs. This explanation, while broadly applicable for the Roman period, narrows down the oikonomia to economic growth and neglects the role of power dynamics and conflict. By considering financial, literary and courtroom sources from classical Athens I document how state-driven investment in maritime technologies was alimented by dynamics of power rather than by institutional arrangements, and proved crucial to for Athens to gain imperialistic power over the Aegean poleis. This naval (thus technological) power allowed Athenian citizens to benefit from the extraction of an incredible amount of financial resources from the allies. Such inflow of resources was ultimately caused by state-driven investment in maritime technology and would be neglected if measuring institutional-driven economic growth simply with productivity and enhancements in economic transactions caused by ‘better’ institutions or marginally more efficient technologies.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 35. Measuring the Fisc