Female baker
The ancient Greeks city of Aphrodisias boasted three supermarkets with set prices. To keep the economy stable sometimes the currency was devalued and wage and price controls were implemented. [Source: Kena T. Erim, National Geographic, June 1972]

The French historian Fernand Braudel "observed that the Alexandrians had enough technical knowledge to start an industrial revolution but lacked the economic incentive to create labor-saving machinery because they relied on slaves."

The Greeks had schools for mirror making, where students were taught the finer points of sand polishing.

Grain (wheat, oats and barely), olives, grapes, olive oil and wine were commonly traded goods. They were stored and transported by ships in large jug-like clay amphoras. Merchants in the Italian colonies grew wealthy by exporting wheat, oats and barley to Greece in return for pottery and bronze figurines.

Money in Ancient Greece

20120222-Coins_of_Reigns_of_Ptolemy_II_and_Ptolemy_III 4.jpg
coins for Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III
The first coins appeared in Lydia, a small kingdom in Asia Minor, around 600 B.C. Coinage was introduced to Asia Minor by the Lydians and was used by several Greek city-states on Asia Minor within a few decades after it first appeared. The Greeks made coins of various denomination in unalloyed gold and silver and the stamped them with images of gods and goddesses.

Coins were the primary means of exchange (paper money was first used by the Mongols and the Chinese around A.D.1000). Coins were usually made by striking the smooth gold and silver blanks between engraved dies of bronze or hardened iron. The die for one side usually contained the face of a ruler. The other die was for the back of the coin. Molds were only rarely used.

20120222-Coins_of_Reigns_of_Ptolemy_II_and_Ptolemy_III 6.jpg
coins for Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III
Talents and drachmas were the names of the ancient Greek currency. One talent equaled 6000 drachmas. By one estimate a drachma was worth about $2.00 in present-day money. By another estimate it was worth about half a cent. The cost of sending a letter was around 2 talents and 300 drachmas. In most reckonings talents were a lot of money. A single talent could pay a month’s wages for a 170 oarsmen on a Greek warship. The cost of the Parthenon in Athens was estimated to worth 340 to 800 silver talents.

In addition to being legal tender, coins were also regarded as works of art and forums for political views. Every city state struck its own coins, usually from silver, and their designs changed constantly to commemorate victories or rulers. The figures on these coins conveyed emotion, sereneness and strength and some their makers considered them be such works of art the coins were signed.

Labor and Slaves in Ancient Greece

building a ship
The Greeks were not known for having a strong work ethic. Citizens abhorred physical labor and came to rely on slaves. Even the tireless classifier himself, Aristotle, believed that the goal of a civilized man was to attain a life of leisure so that he was free to pursue the higher things in life. How was this life of leisure attained?...With slaves, of course. Tradesmen and merchants were looked down upon and teachers and doctors had about the same status as a craftsman. The only respectable occupations were farming, politics and philosophizing. Aristotle also believed that the laws of nature dictated that free men should rule and dominate slaves and women. [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

Slaves were bought at the market. The were used in mining, agriculture, construction and as household slaves. Slaves could be craftsmen, entertainers, teachers, secretaries or even businessmen trading for themselves. One thing a slave was not was a citizen. Mycenaean tablets, dated at 1200 B.C., described slave women who worked as grain grinders, spinners, and pourers of baths, They were often grouped by the places they were captured: "women in Asia," "women of Knidoes," "women of Miletos."

The Greeks used slaves and prisoners to build their temples. Most slaves were people captured in wars or pirates raids. In many cases they were serfs, or conquered people, that came with the land and passed their statuses down from generation to generation .

Actor playing a slave
The status of a slave was often closer to that of an animal than a human being. They were tortured on the stand in a court of law until they told the "truth" and put to death for simply belonging to a murdered man. They sometimes held their chamber pots of their masters. Slaves were branded on their faces until the A.D. 4th century when Constantine, the first Christianized Roman emperor, decided that it was a inhuman thing to do to a creation of God, so he ordered that they be branded on their arms and legs instead.||

A good book on slavery in the ancient world is Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology by Moses Finley. On this book Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard said, “When I read this book it was the first time I realized that there could be, and ought to be, an explicit connection between a modern political stance and the ancient history that I was studying. Slavery is a classic case for thinking about those connections. Greece and Rome were one of the few mass slave-owning societies that there have ever been. What Finley was interested in doing was looking hard at ancient slavery and thinking about how it was the same or different from modern slavery. One key difference that comes out is that modern slavery is tinged by racism, whereas ancient slavery wasn’t. He was the first person I had read who looked ancient slavery in the eye and said it was something really terrible. All the stuff that I had read before had been slightly embarrassed about ancient slavery and saw it as a blot on the landscape. They said: “The Greeks were so wonderful and slavery was a bit of a problem but you shouldn’t think about it. It was more like domestic service really!” And Finley says you can’t let the ancient world off the hook. You have to have a moral stance on this one.

Slaves were often freed or allowed to buy their freedom.

Work Done by Slaves in Ancient Greece

Household slaves didn’t have it so bad especially if their masters were kind and easy-going. They were often treated as members of the household. Slaves that worked in the fields had a hard life but they were not nearly as bad off as the slaves who worked in iron, copper, tin and silver mines. They spent their entire day laying on their stomach in hot, suffocating, narrow passageways.

Roman historian Diodorus Siculus wrote in the first century B.C. "The men engaged in these mining operations produce unbelievably large revenues for their masters, but as a result of their underground excavations they become physical wrecks...they are not allowed to give up working or have a rest, but are forced by the beatings of their supervisors to stay at their places and throw away their wretched lives...Some of them survive to endure their misery for a long time because of their physical stamina or sheer will power; but because of the extent of their suffering they prefer dying to surviving." [Source: "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum,||]

University of Maryland classics professor Judith Hallett told Smithsonian magazine, “Throughout the ancient Greco-Roman world, slaves had to cater to the whims of the elite. I think all slaves, male and female, were on duty as potential sex partners for their male masters. If you were a slave you could not say no.”

Ancient Greek Ship Rowers

Roman mineshaft
Contrary to the popular myth Greek fighting ships were not manned by slaves, who were thought to be untrustworthy and expensive (they had be fed year-round even though a ship only operated about half the year). Instead they were manned by free citizens who sat on three levels.

The oars were secured with leather straps. The rowers had to learn to row in unison so their oars didn’t collide. One rower said, "Because there are only nine inches between the blades any tiny discrepancy in a stroke caused one blade to hit the next and, and so on in a domino effect." When it is working well it was "like a centipede, with all oars moving beautifully."

The rowing stations at the center of the ship were best because if a oar is viewed as a lever and the oar hole is the fulcrum. According to the laws of mechanics the further one is away from the fulcrum the easier is to lift the object---or in the case of the oar, push the water.

Resources and Mining in Ancient Greece

Greece was resource poor and overpopulated. They needed to colonize the Mediterranean to get resources.

The Greeks processed iron from ore mined on Etruscan lands.

The Greeks called amber elektron (the root of the word "electricity"), or "substance of the sun," perhaps because of its golden color and the fact that it absorbed sunlight and gave off heat. According to Greek mythology, it was created from tears shed by Apollo's daughters over the death of their dead brother Phaëton.


Herodotus is sometimes considered the first author of tourist guides.

The ancient Greeks were big souvenir collectors. Silver images of Diana and her temple were sold on the streets of Ephesus like miniature Eiffel towers and Statues of Liberty are sold today. During the festival of Artemis images of Diana were placed on the steps of her temple for worshipers to kiss.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.