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Work and Wages in Ancient Greece

ancient Greek coins
Work and wages in ancient Greece are often overlooked topics. Credit: Dosseman / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Greece is the subject of immense scholarly and popular attention. Unsurprisingly, The focus tends to be on the grandest moments of ancient Greek history such as pivotal battles or discoveries made by famous philosophers and scientists.

Much less attention is paid to the wages and work of the common man in ancient Greece. The average farmer working the land in rural Greece is studied far less than famous figures like Alexander the Great or Pericles, for example.

Nevertheless, ordinary people would have been the backbone of any polis (city). These were the people who harvested the crops, sailed the seas in search of trade, and erected beautiful buildings like the Acropolis that are still admired today.

Agriculture: the backbone of the ancient Greek economy

Attitudes to work and wages differed significantly in ancient Greece to the present period and would have been linked to an individual’s status as either a free citizen, foreigner, or slave.

During the Classical period (510 BC – 323 BC) – and indeed throughout Greek history – most people would have worked in agriculture. Private individuals cultivated crops and raised livestock on their own land in ancient Greece. Land ownership by non-residents was restricted, leading to smallholdings as the common practice. Inherited equal shares of parental land by male children also prevented land consolidation.

In Athens, farm sizes ranged from five hectares (poorer citizens) to twenty hectares (aristocracy), while in Sparta, they averaged from eighteen hectares to forty-four hectares. For landowners, the amount of money they earned from their farms would have depended on the yield generated by their crops and livestock.

The poorest citizens lacked land and might have worked for pay on others’ land or leased land for cultivation, especially if they lacked other beneficial skills like craftsmanship.

In Athens, free citizens who worked on the land but did not earn any themselves would likely have belonged to the thetes class. Thetes were classified as those employed for wages or those whose annual income was less than two-hundred medimnoi. The medimnos was an ancient Greek unit of volume, usually used to measure grain, so lower-class workers may have been paid with food rather than money.

Other types of work and wages in ancient Greece

Various roles existed across what would today be considered the manufacturing, service, retail, and trade sectors. Attitudes to these occupations outside of the agricultural sector would have varied, but generally, the farmer was idealized in ancient Greece.

Earning wages was looked down upon since it was seen as limiting personal freedom and akin to enslavement. Consequently, free men working alongside free non-citizens and slaves on Acropolis construction projects earned equivalent wages. Despite this, wages seem to have been sufficient for sustaining a livelihood. In Athens, skilled laborers typically earned one drachma per day around the late fifth century and two and a half drachmai in 377 BC.

The existence of metics, foreign-born free non-citizens who settled in city-states, helped compensate for the scarcity of willing or necessary free citizens turning to business or wage labor.  In Athens, which boasted an estimated twenty-five thousand metics at its zenith, these individuals were prohibited from land ownership and tended to engage in occupations looked down upon by the free citizens.

Despite challenges, economic prospects in Athens and other bustling port cities, where metics thrived, must have been promising. Their allure was strong, even though they faced a special poll tax and military service, unable to own land, engage in politics, or represent themselves legally—relying on citizen representatives.

Prominent and wealthy metics did manage to thrive in Athens. The names of some of these successful metics are still known today. For example, the bankers Pasion and Phormion, and Cephalus, a shield-maker and father of the orator Lysias.

Soldiers and sailors

Again, the pay for ancient Greek soldiers would have varied over time and geographical space. Seniority within the military would have also impacted pay and mercenaries would have negotiated contracts with their employers. Nevertheless, some figures are available that provide a rough idea of what the average soldier or sailor could expect to earn.

During the fifth century, a Greek soldier on a campaign was allotted one choinix of wheat daily. In Athens, by the late fifth century, wheat cost three drachmai per medimnos. As a medimnos contains forty-eight choinices, this meant one drachma could provide sustenance for an individual for sixteen days or a family of four for four days.

Meanwhile, pay for rowers in the Athenian navy was one drachma a day in the early fifth century. It had previously been lower at just two obloi but was increased during wartime.

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