Peter Green
Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age

When they took over a region, they seldom changed the financial or administrative system in place: they simply put in top officials to ensure that the existing tribute and taxes were now channeled primarily to them. What went on below that level did not much concern them.

Thus, to what at first may seem a surprising extent, little changed. Local food production, both arable and animal, was (as always) paramount, in the hands of subsistence farmers who seldom moved far from their farms (till very recently, this remained true of the Mediterranean world and to some extent still is). These smallholders used cash only either to buy what they could not produce (for instance, pottery, knives, agricultural tools), as a hedge against bad harvests, or to pay fixed taxes (those calculated on the basis of income could often be avoided by a communal barter system). The result, in the Hellenistic kingdoms, was a bewildering variety (especially in Asia) of local practices, above which we find a middle-level bureaucracy responsible for extracting the maximum possible amount of income for the royal fisc, whether by tax-farming or direct levies.

There is a very good reason for this state of affairs, which has more to do with social prejudice than with economic realities. From Homer to Plato and beyond, farming one's own land was the most acceptable mode of moneymaking for a gentleman, and inheriting wealth or property was even better. Soiling one's hands with commerce was unthinkable: leave that to the metics (resident aliens). All manual labor and trade was despised as 'banausic,' a term originally meaning 'to do with handicrafts' but soon equated with anything lower-class, common, or in bad taste. This last was precisely how Aristotle characterized any practical study of methods of acquisition. The notion permeates Greek society: Athenian democracy never killed it, and the Hellenistic reversion to authoritarianism found it highly congenial. It even affected the sciences: Euclid and Archimedes regarded the application of theory to practical or, worse, profitable ends with withering contempt and would have nothing to do with it: it took the Roman siege of Syracuse in 212 to make Archimedes turn his mind to the problem of defense artillery.

We now see why Greek economics so signally fails to match the extraordinary achievements made in other areas, from mathematics to astronomy. By considering themselves above such demeaning matters as getting and spending, the best brains of the age not only remained in profound ignorance of how these processes actually operated, but were happy to explain them, as good philosophers, in purely moral terms. Why, asked Isocrates (8.117-119), do the Megarians, with no good harbors, mines, or fertile lands, own the most splendid houses in Greece? His answer says nothing about their manufacture of cheap woolen goods or their profitable carrying trade. No, their success is due entirely to self-control and prudent moderation (sophrosyne)! Similarly with the generous response from almost every Mediterranean power to the disastrous earthquake in 228/7 that flattened Rhodes and brought down the Colossus. The notion that this generosity might be due to the fact that the superb Rhodian navy prevented Mediterranean piracy, that Rhodes itself acted as a useful free agent and exchange center between the major powers, does not occur to Polybius, who tells the story (5.88.4). For him the huge handouts are a direct reaction to the stoic dignity and restraint of the Rhodian envoys when soliciting aid.

To a quite remarkable extent, then, the leading rulers of the early Hellenistic years were trying to come to terms with new international realities while still thinking—insofar as they consciously considered the problem at all—in terms of what remained, for Macedonians especially, a heroic-age economy. A growing appetite for affluence in the upper social stratum of society did not bring any real sophistication as regards the most effective way of gratifying such tastes. Besides, Alexander's invasion had underlined the advantages to be got from that other traditionally sanctioned mode of self-enrichment: warfare. In other words, rather than produce goods yourself, acquire by main force the products of others. Rulers still relied on the spoils of victory as a regular source of income as well as prestige. The conquest of the Achaemenid empire significantly extended this concept. A late-fourth-century treatise, the Pseudo-Oeconomica, ascribed by error to Aristotle, gives various instances of how capital was raised: by raiding temple treasures, by taking bribes from both sides during arbitration, by fraudulent currency deals, by monopolizing the grain-trade, by raising special taxes on defense work that was never carried out. All of these deals are in fact forms of theft. For Macedonian administrators in particular, the notion of spoliation had become endemic.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.