Athens 403: Social and Economic Effects of the Peloponnesian War

In this survey of Athens in 403, we will look at the socio-economic situation after the Peloponnesian War, focusing on the loss of Empire, the economic cost in Attica, and demographic changes.

Note on Athenian currency: 1 talent = 6,000 drachma; a drachma = 6 obols = the daily wage for a rower or trained craftsmen.

The Loss of Empire

The loss of their empire was the most significant change the confronted the Athenians in 403 BCE.

  • The Empire was extremely profitable for the Athenians.
    • In 431 BCE, tribute was over 600 talents; in 425: 1300 talents; in 413: 900 talents.
    • This revenue supported 6,000 jurors who receive 3 obols per day for 150-200 days/year (75-100 drachmas/year); the salaries of thousands of other officials, as well as tens of thousands of sailors and hoplites who earned drachma or more per day when deployed.
    • An additional 5,000-10,000 Athenians were kleruchs, who had received property around Aegean in the land of the subject allies. We should not underestimate the value of these kleruchies, even for small-scale farmers. If a brother went to Amphipolis as a kleruch, the remaining family did not have to share their property, with the effect that all were better off.
    • Many of the wealthier Athenians held extensive holdings and resource concessions in the colonies.
  • Under the Empire, all strategic goods, such as timber, wax, iron, flax, grain, were required to be shipped to or through Piraeus. Since the Athenians assessed a 2% duty on goods imported into Piraeus, the Athenians profited from much of the trade within their empire.
    • in 413 BCE, total trade in the Empire was valued at 18,000 talents (108 million drachmas); of which 1/4 travelled through Piraeus (4,500 tal); from this trade, Athens received tax revenue over 60 talents per year.
    • in 402/1: trade at Piraeus totaled 1,800 talents, a reduction of 60% over the wartime high. Tax revenue would likewise have fallen to less than 24 talents per year.

With the loss of Empire, therefore, the Athenians lost nearly all of their overseas property–a deprivation that would have effected members of all economic classes, either directly through loss of property, or through the return of family members who held kleruchies. The Athenians also lost revenues from tribute and taxations in excess of 1,000 talents per year. Of course, without the need to maintain a large fleet on war footing, expenses plummeted by perhaps 1,500 talents per year.

The Economic Cost of the War in Attica

Near the start of the Peloponnesian War in 428 BCE, Athenians were able to raise 200 talents from the eisphora, the property tax of 1 or 2 %. This implies that wealthy Athens had property (timema) worth between 10,000 and 20,000 talents. Based on data from the 4th century, it seems probable that the total value of property in Attica in 403 was less than 5,000 talents, indicating a loss of at least 40 and perhaps more than 75% during the war.

The losses sustained by Ischomachus, the subject of Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, are indicative of what many of the wealthy experienced: the value of his property fell from 70 to 20 talents during the war, a decline of more than 70 %. But 20 talents is still represents a sizable estate. Those who started out with less than a talent of capital, however,  their financial and property losses could have easily sent their families into the thetic class.

Agriculture: despite the raids from the Spartan garrison at Decelea, olive production likely experienced only a small decline during the War. Animal husbandry, however, would have suffered significantly. The 8 months of civil war in 403, however, could have caused noticeable disruptions in agricultural production. We should assume that by 403, Athens was importing more of its basic foodstuffs than at any point in memory.

Slaves: Part of the economic loss resulted from the more than 20,000 slaves who escaped their Athenian masters (most to the Spartan garrison at Decelea). At a value of 150-200 drachmas per slave, the flight of slaves represented a loss of more than 500 talents, not even including the lost economic output if the slaves were not replaced.

Commerce: the loss of preferential trading rights within the empire certainly damaged Athenian commercial concerns, as did the collapse of silver mining. The necessity to import so many basic foodstuffs, however, likely mitigated the short-term damage to the export business. Certain business, such as fishing, could immediately return to full production, although the sale of luxury foods and goods would suffer because of the general decline of demand.

Light Industry: these small-scale factories, which averaged 20-30 people (none were larger than 120) crafted pots, knives, lamps, clothing, leather goods, weapons, ships, jewelry, etc. Light industry suffered less than mining and farming during the War; but escaping slaves and general draining of resources from 413-403 led to lower domestic demand. Military materiel was, of course, the exception to this rule until the end of hostilities. But in time of great uncertainty, the purchase of these goods would have been greatly curtailed.

Mining: after the investment of the Spartan garrison at Decelea, silver mining in Laurion was dramatically reduced. The extent of the economic loss is unknown, but was certainly substantial.

Demographic Change

As described in the post on population trends during the Peloponnesian War, the war altered the composition of the demos. The losses, however, were born disproportionately by the different classes of society during the different phases of the war. During the Archidamian War (431-421), the majority of the military causalities were suffered by hoplites; in the war’s second phase, the Ionian-Declean War (416-404), the loses by the thetes, who manned the vital triremes, continued to mount at an alarming pace until the war ended.

war casualties

As a result of the escalating thetic casualties, the demos was more or less evenly divided between thetes and the top three Solonic classes by 403 BCE.

And as I discussed in the post on population trends in the Peloponnesian War, the center of gravity for the polity had been decisively altered by the war. Athens was younger, and more female, than it had been before the war. In the graph below to the right, you can see the significant effect of the Plague on older cohorts (the steep reduction of cohorts older then 28), and the generally higher rate of male mortality due to battle during the protracted war.

A Changed Polis from 431 to 403 BCE


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