The ancient Greeks operated an extensive trade network. Vast numbers of goods—wine, olive oil, grains, precious metals, luxury items, and other products—were carried on ships bound for Greece, its colonies, and its various trading partners. So extensive was this seaborne trade that the remains of ancient cargoes are still being discovered by marine archaeologists* exploring the depths of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

* archaeologist scientist who studies past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins

Development of Trade. The geography of ancient Greece, characterized by rugged mountains and rocky soil, forced the people to look elsewhere for economic opportunities. An advantageous position on the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, a heavily indented coastline, numerous islands, and favorable winds encouraged the growth of seagoing transportation and helped stimulate the development of trade.

The Greeks learned much about trade from the Phoenicians, the first people to establish trade routes in the Mediterranean region. The earliest Greek communities were relatively self-sufficient in food and other products, and there was little need for trade with other regions. But that situation gradually changed. Between the 700s B.C. and the 200s b.c„ the Greek world increased considerably in size, population, and wealth. These changes created conditions that both favored foreign trade and increased the need for it.

As Greek colonies were established throughout the Mediterranean region, their citizens maintained a network of communication that stimulated other types of exchanges, including trade, between different parts of the Greek and non-Greek world. Population growth and urbanization also contributed to the rise of trade. With more people to feed, it became increasingly difficult for Greek communities to produce enough food to meet their needs. The growth of cities led to new jobs and new industries—such as shipbuilding, metalworking, and pottery making—and to a greater reliance on trade. Even the smallest Greek towns became centers of exchange for locally made goods and produce, and the agora served as the marketplace where transactions occurred. Cities financed the construction of ports and harbors to increase their trading capabilities.

The development of coinage in the late 600s B.C. provided a great stimulus for trade. Using a system of money exchange, traders could buy and sell goods more easily, and trade advanced to a higher level of sophistication. Technological advances, including the construction of larger ships, also contributed to the further development of trade, as did the demands of war. War—an almost constant feature of Greek life—ravaged the land and destroyed other resources. War also disrupted many local economic activities and thus stimulated trade as people looked elsewhere for food and other products. Wars provided additional opportunities for trade, namely, supplying armies with food and weapons.

Characteristics of Trade. Trade in ancient Greece was run by private individuals. While many traders were Greek, foreigners also participated in trade, and their ships were welcomed in Greek ports. The governments of Greek city-states* participated in trade by regulating markets, collecting tax revenues, and banning certain exports and imports. Bans on trade items such as timber and iron were usually imposed during times of war. But states also attempted to control the flow of goods during peacetime in order to maintain an economic advantage for themselves.

Greek trade was limited to the seas and waterways of the region. Trading ships laden with cargoes sailed throughout the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, carrying goods to and from cities in mainland Greece and the Greek colonies along the coasts of Asia Minor and the Black Sea, in southern Italy, and as far west as Spain. Trade routes also connected the Greeks with trading partners in Egypt, North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean. While sea transport was the primary means of moving goods, it was seasonal and at the mercy of the weather. Winds and waves at certain times of the year made travel difficult, dangerous, and sometimes impossible.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory


Underwater archaeologists made an important discovery during the summer of 1997. While exploring off the coast of Sicily, they discovered five ancient ships lying beneath the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. The ships were Roman, dating from about 100 B.C. One of the ships, a 100-foot long vessel, contained many ancient amphorae. These thin-necked clay jugs were used by the Greeks and Romans to ship wine, dried fruit, and other items. The scientists also found kitchen and household wares, bronze containers, and granite building stones. Experts think the ship may have sunk in a storm while sailing between northern Africa and Rome.

Certain Greek cities became major trading centers because of their location, excellent harbors, and various other factors. By the 400s B.C., Athens dominated Greek trade at its port city of Piraeus. The city’s major exports were oil, wine, silver, and olives, and its chief imports included grain, timber, spices, gold, iron, copper, and flax*.

Of all the trade items in ancient Greece, grain was the most important. Athens and other cities relied on regular grain imports from abroad to feed their populations. The most important sources of grain were North Africa, the area north of the Black Sea, and the island of Sicily off the southwestern coast of Italy.

Trade During the Hellenistic Age. The 300-year period following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. was a time of great economic growth in Greece and throughout Alexander’s empire. In establishing his empire, Alexander had created a network of cities in the eastern Mediterranean region, Asia, and North Africa. As these cities grew, they provided new markets for goods and stimulated trade between these regions and Greece. The great Hellenistic city of Antioch, in Syria, served as a storehouse for silks, spices, and other luxury goods from Persia, Arabia, and India. Riches from the interior of Africa and elsewhere were carried to the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria, which became a commercial and intellectual center of the Hellenistic world. Other leading trading cities at that time were Byzantium, Rhodes, Ephesus, and Miletus.

The expansion of international trade brought enormous wealth to the rulers of this period. It also created a vast network of commercial ties that helped link different peoples and cultures. Such ties were expanded even further by the Romans as they created their own empire. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Colonies, Greek; Economy, Greek; Markets; Ships and Shipbuilding; Transportation and Travel.)

* flax plant whose fibers are used to make linen

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