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Reviewed by:
  • Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens by Peter Acton
  • Publishers are invited to submit new books to be reviewed to Professor Gareth Williams, Department of Classics, Columbia University, 1130 Amsterdam Ave., 617 Hamilton Hall, MC 2861, New York, NY 10027; email:
Peter Acton. Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xviii, 384. $78.00. ISBN 978–0-19–933593–0.

Acton’s study of trades and industry in fifth- and fourth-century Athens is a welcome addition to an expanding bibliography on the ancient economy. Poiesis offers an economic spin to a series of core areas of craft and production. The author does not assume that all actors involved in all areas of manufacturing were necessarily (economically) rational but demonstrates the value in building into our analysis the role that self-conscious decision-making could, and would, have played. So for Acton there was demand for goods, there are suppliers, a market in which competition played a role. Price, value, and function were factors incorporated into actions, to some extent, by both manufacturers and consumers. Acton offers us an interesting projection of how “competitive advantage” could have played out in manufacturing (see especially 38–46). Reactionary ancient historians may still find such methodologies hard to digest, but Acton’s application of microeconomic approaches to the evidence is useful and will inspire further research in this direction.

Acton uses the rich and varied evidence, both documentary and archaeological, to explore six broad areas of activity (chapters 2–8): pottery manufacturing; mining and metalwork; textiles, clothing and footwear; woodworking; construction; food, cosmetics, and health. Framing chapters close with a study of the actors involved in manufacturing (chapter 9), and open with a study of sources and methods (chapter 1). The input of economic theory and its application to mentalities that lie behind Greek manufacturing provides Acton (a former vice president of the Boston Consulting Group) the opportunity to display how his extensive business experience and insight can help move forward discussions of consumer behavior and markets in ancient history. Acton’s study is therefore an important contribution to a topic that has not received the attention it deserves. Around eighty years ago a reader might have looked to George M. Calhoun and Gustav Glotz for studies of business and manufacturing. And just as then scholars offered criticism of the scope and accuracy of those works, so now specialists are likely to complain at the forcibly superficial study of the areas that Acton has embraced. For this book synthesizes a lot of material. Experts will have issues with the treatment of the details. Errors creep in that are disconcerting: Hipponicus is not at the end of the fourth century and it is impossible to see how Xenophon’s Poroi could be talking about that time period; similar chronological slips apply to Callaeschrus and Demosthenes 21.157 (119). How closely has Acton engaged with inscriptions and literary sources? The very breadth of the study makes the control of documents a challenge. The evidence from Eleusis for shoemaking (e.g., 166: IG ii2 1672 l. 105) can be supplemented. IG ii2 1673 lls. 48–51 (= I. Eleusis 159) reveals shoes made by three separate manufacturers that cost 1 drachma 5 obols, 1 drachma 4.5 obols, and 2 drachma 1.5 obols per pair. If competition and rational economic actors are in play, then we need to [End Page 555] understand why shoes supplied to men transporting stones from the quarries to Eleusis were being purchased at different prices. Better shoes? Different shoes? More reputable manufacturers? Prices that undercut their suppliers? When one pauses to review the primary evidence, one cannot help but feel that one can squeeze out a great deal more. Acton suggests in his discussion of slaves that Athenians did not “in any formal way” account for depreciation (261). Is that really true? Depreciation is in the Athenian mindset: evidence from the Athenian cavalry demonstrates that the value of a rider’s horse would decline as the horse got older and that this was built into the financial underwriting by the state of the city’s hippeis. Depreciation was an institutionalized...


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