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Neville Morley

Capitalism is a contested term, both in the modern world and in historical studies; different theoretical traditions understand it in radically different ways and, hence, disagree both as to its utility in analysing the ancient economy and as to the meaning and significance of a claim that classical antiquity was in any sense capitalist. These questions overlap with other major debates in ancient economic history. This article identifies the theoretical issues and debates involved in the use of the term, rather than engaging with substantive questions about the nature and development of the ancient economy.Capitalism is a term freighted with heavy ideological baggage; its meaning and significance is disputed in the modern world, and the question of whether or not it is a useful or appropriate term for understanding classical antiquity is inextricably entangled with broader debates about the nature of the ancient economy and how it should be studied. A typical dictionary definition of the term is “an economic system characterized by private or corporation ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision rather than by state control, and by prices, production and the distribution of goods determined mainly in a free market”—contrasted with systems of .


David Tandy

The single Greek word for market, agora, did not originally refer to a place for exchange; rather, it was a place for the gathering of chattel (as early as Linear B, e.g., Knossos Co 903) and of people. In Homer, the agora is strictly a place of gathering for political action, including military muster. The heroes in epic do not buy and sell; there are no regular markets for the acquisition of food and other necessary things. Heroes take what they want from neighbouring communities by raids. On the fringes of the narratives, however, Homer reveals the presence of one-time or spot markets, most clearly at Iliad 7.467ff.:

Many ships from Lemnos filled with wine lay at anchor, which Jason’s son Euneos had sent … On the side Jason’s son gave the Atreidae Agamamnon and Menelaos a thousand measures of wine to carry off. There the flowing-haired Achaeans got wine, some with skins, others with whole cows, others with spear-captives. And they threw themselves a jolly feast.



Paul Erdkamp

While our sources mention numerous prices of a wide range of commodities, the question remains to what extent these prices offer insight into the ancient economy. Despite the wealth of data, reliable prices of everyday goods under normal market conditions are rare. The extent to which they can be used to analyze such topics as market integration, living standards, market stability, and inflation is limited. Only regarding Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt do we possess sufficient market prices (rather than imposed prices or valuations) to conduct meaningful analyses. For most of the rest of the empire, the prices—in particular those of everyday goods—are generally too uncertain, too sparse, and too diverse to form a solid basis for economic analysis. It is a valid question, moreover, to what extent prices in the ancient world reflect the interplay of supply and demand according to modern economic theory. Nevertheless, ancient writers depict price levels as depending on the interplay of supply and demand, and market transactions, as narrated in our sources, emphasizing competition and bargaining, make clear that price formation was largely determined by economic forces. Hence, prices fluctuated over time and differed in various places. The authorities tried to keep prices of staple foods low by influencing market conditions, but direct price fixing was rare.


Claire Holleran

Almost all inhabitants of the ancient world were dependent to varying degrees on retailers to supply them with at least some food items, raw materials, or manufactured goods, and this was particularly true of urban inhabitants. While the amount of built commercial space increased in the Hellenistic period and was a particular feature of Roman urban centres, we cannot trace a simple linear development from periodic markets through to permanent shops. Instead the retail trade remained varied throughout antiquity, consisting of periodic and permanent markets, shops and workshops, and street stalls and ambulant hawkers, all of which performed complementary roles within an integrated network of distribution. The size of the local market, however, inevitably had an impact on the organisation of the retail trade, with increased specialisation and clustering of trades possible in larger urban centres, where a wider range of products was typically available to the consumer and capital investment in dedicated commercial space was encouraged by the level of demand for goods. Ancient shopping was an immersive and interactive experience. Prices fluctuated in response to market pressures and were very often arrived at through haggling and bargaining. Markets, shops, and streets were as much places of social interaction as they were of shopping, and men and women mixed freely as both buyers and sellers. Advertising and marketing may have been rudimentary, but the attempts by retailers to maximise sales contributed to the colorful and vibrant nature of the ancient commercial environment; the open doorways of shops and workshops facilitated interaction between those inside and outside, and goods, sellers, and customers often spilled out onto the street, while painted notices and signs displayed goods for sale, and the distinctive shouts of sellers competed loudly for the attention of potential customers.


Alain Bresson

The agoranomoi were the magistrates who, in the Greek cities, were in charge of policing and organizing the market. Their role was to make sure that transactions were conducted according to the laws of market, which primarily meant preventing cheating on the quality of the goods offered for sale and on the weights and measures used by sellers. Their tasks could also include watching over the nature and quality of the coins used as means of exchange. They were in charge of monitoring prices and, in some cases, they set prices of goods—some basic foodstuffs like fish or meat. They also had to make sure that the market supply of essential goods remained adequate. The number of agoranomoi decreased in the late Hellenistic period (in Athens, from ten in the Classical period to only two). Late Hellenistic and Roman period magistrates belonged to the well-to-do stratum of the population in the cities, and the agoranomoi were no exception.


Jean Andreau

An auction is a type of sale consisting of a public competition between several buyers; whoever bids the highest price obtains the object being sold. Such auctions existed in the Greek as well as in the Roman world. Some were organized by the public authorities, while others were organized by individuals selling some of their goods at auction. In Roman Italy, these private auctions served a commercial function. In addition, they facilitated the sale of guarantees for unrepaid loans; likewise, they facilitated the management of private inheritance and estates. Between the 2nd century bce and the 3rd century ce, professional bankers regularly participated in these private auctions by providing credit to the buyers.An auction is a procedure consisting of a public competition between several potential buyers. It was a common practice in Greco-Roman antiquity. The object being sold was awarded to the highest bidder, and he alone paid the object’s full price to the seller. Scholars do not know when auctions first began. They are well attested in the Classical Greek period, as well as in the Hellenistic world and in Rome. In Roman Italy, Plautus and Cato the Elder (in .