Trade & Commerce in Greek City-States & the Mediterranean Region

In this lesson, you will explore the commerce of the Ancient Greek city-states as they became involved with an early network of international trade. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Ancient Greek Economies

Okay, really quick, pick up something. Find its stamp or tag and check out where it was made. Was it made entirely in the United States? There’s a good chance that it was not because we participate in a very complex international economy. The idea of international trade is normal for us, but in the Ancient World, it took a little bit of getting used to. Although many ancient cultures traded between nearby kingdoms, the Ancient Greeks were some of the first people to really rely on an advanced system of international trade and commerce.

Before we go further, it’s important to understand that Ancient Greece was not a single kingdom or empire, but instead a collection of major cities that each had its own independent government, called city-states. The members of these city-states spoke Greek, shared the Greek religion, and knew they were connected to other Greek cities, but really saw themselves as citizens of their city first and foremost.

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Where Did They Trade?

The city-states of Ancient Greece first traded with each other. However, the soil in Greece is only good for growing a few kinds of plants, and so the Greeks had to start trading with other cultures so they could have enough food to support a growing population. The easiest way to get to those cultures was by sailing across the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks became very good sailors and established complex trade networks with people all across the Mediterranean region as early as the 6th century BC.

The first major trade partners were the cultures of southern Italy and Sicily, which are right next to Greece and had very close cultural and economic ties to several Greek city-states. From there, the Greeks expanded and started trading with the people in Egypt, Carthage, Ethiopia, and the Arabian Peninsula. Through these trade routes, goods and people moved freely across the Mediterranean region, spreading ideas, religions, technologies, philosophies, and foods.

What Did They Trade?

In this complex network of international trade across the Mediterranean, each culture began specializing in certain products they would export, or sell to other regions. They also had to import items they could not make or grow themselves, meaning they bought them from a foreign power.

For the Greek city-states, the most important items they needed to import were agricultural products because Greek soil was not great for growing a variety of plants. The Greeks imported lots of wheat, which did not grow well in Greece, as well as barley, cheese, and pork. Of course, people buy more than just the necessities, as we know. Several trade goods were considered luxury items because a certain culture was especially talented at making them. The Greeks were also major importers of glass, rugs, and ivory from the Middle East and Egypt.

In return for the items they imported, the Greeks exported the items that they were the best at producing. The two things they grew really well in Greek soil were olives and grapes. Greek olive oil and wine was sold all around the Mediterranean and was constantly in high demand for its excellent quality.

To transport their olive oil and wine, the Greeks had to develop specific types of pottery that could hold large amounts of liquids and were easy to move. Greek amphorae, ceramic containers made for transporting liquids quickly became as in-demand as the wine it was carrying. Greek pottery grew in prestige and became one of Greece’s most productive exports. Greek styles of pottery, which varied by both their shape and the designs that were painted on them, were traded all across the Mediterranean.

How Did They Trade?

The city-states did not control trade, meaning they allowed private businesses to trade with foreign kingdoms. Each city-state did, however, control taxes for importing and exporting products. By taxing merchants who worked in international trade, called emporoi, for importing foreign products, city-states discovered a new way to make money so that they could pay for armies, building projects, public works, and government employees.

Around 550 BC, the Greek city-states realized that international trade would be much easier if everybody was basing their products on the same base value. Since Greece was rich in natural mineral deposits, they started making coins out of gold and silver. The coin was worth an exact amount, no matter where in Greece it was used, helping merchants standardize how much a product was worth.

Think of it this way: you’re a Greek emporoi, trying to sell an amphora of wine. You think this is worth two sacks of wheat and a pig. However, the wheat and pig merchant might disagree. Negotiation could be difficult if you can’t agree on the value of each product. But, what if you knew that your amphora was worth three silver coins? The coin is a set, standard value. It is always worth the same amount. This makes trading much easier.

Lesson Summary

For the people of Ancient Greece, international trade became an important part of their economy and culture. The Ancient Greeks lived in city-states, urban centers with independent governments and identities that traded with each other, but this wasn’t quite good enough. The Greeks couldn’t grow all the food they needed and had to trade with other cultures across the Mediterranean region. First was southern Italy and Sicily, then Egypt, Carthage, Ethiopia, and the Arabian Peninsula.

The Greeks would import, or buy trade items from foreign kingdoms, items like wheat, barley, pork, cheese, glass, and ivory. They sold their own items to those foreign powers, meaning they would export the things they were best at, namely olive oil and wine. To transport these items, the Greeks invented a high-quality vase in a shape to help transport liquids called an amphora. Greek pottery eventually became another very lucrative export item for the Greeks.

To help international trade be easier, the Greeks also adopted coins, so that items could have a standardized value all across the Greek city-states. International trade can have a dramatic influence on society. We know this all too well, and so did the ancient Greeks.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is over, you should be able to:

  • Identify the Mediterranean cultures that the Greek city-states traded with in ancient times
  • Recognize what goods the Ancient Greeks imported and exported
  • Explain why the Ancient Greeks’ adopted coins as a standard value to trade with
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