Lecture by:

Leonidas C. Polopolus

Professor Emeritus

Food and Resource Economics

University of Florida




Athens has been a perennial urban center from its birth in antiquity until the present dawn of the 21 st century. As the premiere city-state, Athens, Greece provides an excellent example of the societal benefits that arise from progressive urban leadership exhibited by its citizens of the ancient period, as well as what can go wrong with excessive population and environmental degradation in a modern era of the late 1 990s.


The City-State


A city-state is a geographic area that has one major central city containing a concentration urban residents. Each city-state does have a suburban and/or rural fringe, whose population are tied to the central city.


The concentration of urban citizens in a central city are made possible from a commercial agricultural sector that creates sufficient storable food that can be consumed by the urban non-food producing residents. Thus, a city emerges, not simply in conjunction with, but as a direct result of advances in agriculture. Where there is no agriculture, we find only a very thin concentration of population (Bairoch, 1991, p. 1). Urbanization cannot take place without a concentration of population.


Athens, Greece provides one of the first examples of a city-state in the ancient world. Ancient Rome also influenced the urban architecture and urban planning for Europe over the centuries. There is no doubt that the Graeco-Roman world exhibited an extremely urbanized way of life.

In addition to technological advances in ancient Greek agriculture, there were several other factors that contributed to the success of urbanization of the Athens city-state:


·      Greece had a written alphabet by 700 B.C.

·      The ancient Greeks invented coined money.

·      Central banks were invented by the ancient Greeks.

·      The city conducted a variety of cultural functions for its citizens.

·      The Agora, as a place for public functions, became the focus of urban life.


Communications are obviously enhanced with the ability of citizens to read and write a common language.


Money is of utmost significance for economic activities in general and for urban life in particular. Coined money is certainly an advantage over the barter system which prevailed in the rest of the ancient world.


The use of coins made exchange easier and thus favored the growth of cities by giving them the additional function of issuing currency.


Classical Greece had a type of city-state in which the cultural functions of the city became important to its citizens.


At its inception, the agora was a place where public assemblies gathered. The agora became the focus of urban life because of such cultural functions as the theater, religion, and city administration.


One can argue that the achievements of the ancient Greek civilization are, in effect, the positive results of Greek city-states, particularly Athens.


Optimum Size of a City-State


Greece appears to have been the first civilization to raise the question


of urban planning from the point of view of size. Both Plato and Aristotle addressed this problem in somewhat different ways.


Aristotle insisted on the existence of a minimum population (from Politics, VII), as well as a maximum size, in both cases without specific numbers. In treating size, Aristotle gives emphasis on the public function of cities: "It is vital that the citizens know one another". He was also worried about the problems of security when cities become too large. "Foreigners and half-breeds usurp without difficulty the rights of citizens because it is easy for them to escape notice owing to the size of the population".


In Laws, V. 74, Plato states that the ideal republic would have 5,040 citizens, i.e., heads of households. This figure implies an optimum size population of about 20,000 people. He linked his optimum size of city to the need for communications among citizens. "The city must remain sufficiently small to permit the holding of public meetings with all of the citizens present."


Greek city-states of the ancient world did in fact remain limited in size. Athens (Attiki) was the largest Greek city-state, approaching a population of approximately 100,000 by 500-450 B.C.


The other Greek city-states rarely had populations as many as 40,000 people. As a general rule, as soon as a city approached a population of 20,000 to 30,000, it decided to found a new city ratherthan to continue the original city's development.


The ancient Greeks understood the constraints to excessive urban development. These constraints involved the limited productivity of the soils to produce food and the increasingly high cost of transportation to the central part of the city from the hinterland (and vice versa).


Thus, the ancient Greeks knew that the cost of urban growth became prohibitably high at certain levels of population.


Transportation and the Location of a City


According to Aristotle, transportation was an important consideration for urban planning. First, a city should be so configured so as to permit military aid to all parts of the city-state's territory. Second, the city should be able to provide transport of foodstuffs and wood for buildings, as well as materials for manufacturing.


Also, it was important for Athens to have the ability to export items to other city-states and foreign nations, as well as import necessary grain from distant lands. Thus, ports of entry and exit were needed for goods. This gave rise to naval transportation, in addition to the ground transportation methods employed at that time.


Importance of International Trade


The sale of exported goods from a city-state created wealth for the city-state. Even in ancient times, exports provided capital that multiplied in importance within the exporting city-state. For Athens, it was the export of its manufactured goods, as well as olive oil, that generated the drachmae to import needed grain. The overall effect was an increase in wealth for Athens and a better standard of living for its citizens.


The urbanization of Athens of ancient times created highly specialized laborers and craftsmen. This division and specialization of labor contributed to the economic success of the city-state.


(Scholars have largely ignored the function and economic role of cities of ancient Greece. This is reflected in the scant amount of literature on this subject.)


We do know from the literature, however, that grain imports into Athens were crucial for the economic performance of the ancient city. The municipal assembly of Athens, for example, was required to regularly inscribe on the order of the day the assurance of provisions of wheat. Wheat supplies were as important to Athens as matters dealing with national defense. Athenian law regulated wheat trade so as to protect the interests of its consumers


Domestic Trade in Athens


The city of Athens provided the marketplace for the surrounding district of Attiki. Peasants from the outlying areas came into town to sell their products in exchange for money to pay their taxes, rents and  manufactured goods.


Retailers also existed in ancient Athens. Artisans and other craftsmen sold their items from their workshops. Some of these items, particularly pottery, became so wel1 known that they were exported to foreign markets.


Overall, the economy of ancient Athens became the forerunner of the medieval economies of Europe several centuries later.


Banking in Ancient Greece


It is estimated that there were banks in 53 Greek city-states ( Bairoch, 1991, 78). The functions of these banks went beyond mere money changes. Greek banks engaged in payment operations for trade and manufacturing. They also were involved with consumer credit and public sector financing.


Public Sector Employment in Ancient Greece


The role of government in public services also required specialized personnel. Thus, jobs became available in ancient Athens for work in such areas as urban administration, public transportation, police, street cleaning, garbage disposal and the maintenance of public gardens.


Nations versus City-States as Economic Generators


The contemporary thinking of most economists, as well as the general populace, is that a nation is the operative economic unit for analyzing economic performance, not city-states.


This primacy of nations as the basic economic unit for analysis is rooted in our belief that Keynesian economics can be used effectively to control business cycles. Using such macroeconomic variables as interest rates, levels of unemployment, government spending and wage rates, a nation could stabilize price levels, employment, and interest rates through government actions.


The ineffectiveness of Keynesian economics to control business cycles has led some economists to question the validity of this approach. One such economist is Jane Jacobs who places her reliance on city-states as the engines of economic growth for nations.


A review of early world history tells us that city-states ruled world trade for centuries, beginning with ancient Greece. Eventually, city-states lost out to nation-states for a variety of reasons. One such reason was that city-states had few resources to dominate neighboring economies and world markets. Another reason was that politics dominated economics. City-states are primarily economic units, while nation-states are mainly political units. Since nations are defined by political boundaries, city-states became subjects of the larger nation-states over time (Barnes and Ledebur, 1998, p. 104.


When looking at the performance of individual nations, Jacobs argues that the cities, not nations, provide the economic engines for growth and development. According to Jacobs, "nations are political and military entities, and so are blocs of nations. But it doesn't necessarily follow that they are also the basic, salient entities of economic life".


Basic Conclusions Regarding Ancient Athens From the Point of View Of Economics and Economic Development


The city-state of Athens is well known for its contributions to Western civilization in terms of philosophy, science, architecture, medicine, and mathematics. Hardly anyone pays any attention to the contribution of the city-state of Athens for its contributions to Western civilization in terms of urban planning, public administration, food policies, money and banking, and overall economic policies. In reality, the contributions of the citizens of ancient Greece were highly significant and innovative, making lasting contributions to economics, money and banking, public administration, and public policy.


Historical Transition from the Classical Period to the Modern Period


Although Athens virtually lost its independence to Macedonia in 338 B.C., the city continued to be an important cultural center. It fell to Rome in 146 B.C., but maintained good relations with the Romans until they sacked it in 86 B.C., destroying many of Athens' monuments.


Nonetheless, Athens remained a center of learning for prominent Greeks and Romans from the lst century B.C. until late antiquity. In the 3rd century A.D., it was damaged by invading Goths, who were repelled with some difficulty. In 529 A.D. the Christian Emperor Justinian closed the pagan philosophical schools, virtually ending the city's classical tradition.


In effect, the citizens of Athens entered a long period of bondage (that lasted almost 2,000 years) three centuries after the death of Pericles in 429 B.C.


During the Byzantine period from roughly 400 A.D. to 1450 A.D., Athens became a cultural backwater. Many of the city's artworks were moved to Constantinople. The temples became Christian churches. Byzantine emperors occasionally visited Athens, but the city was largely ignored and impoverished.


The Ottoman Turks gained complete control of Athens in 1458 A.D. The Parthenon, built as the major temple of the goddess Athena, was ~then made into a Muslim mosque. Under Turkish rule, the city was still run by Greeks, even though the population of the city had a mix of Greeks, Turks and Slavs. The Parthenon was badly damaged in 1687 A.D. when a Venetian bombardment ignited gunpowder that had been stored inside the building.


The Modern Period


The Greek War of Independence (1821-1829) liberated Athens from the Turks. Athens was subsequently made the capitol of the entire nation of Greece. Thus, Athens now shifts from merely a city-state to the central location for the nation-state of Greece.


For the remainder of the 19~ century, Athens remained a relatively

small city, serving mainly as a tourist center for its ancient monuments. The population Athens by 1900 is estimated to have been about 100,000 (Table 1). In the 20th century, the population of Athens increased dramatically from 100,000 in 1900 to over 3 million by 1996 (Table 1).

Some Demographic Characteristics of the Current Athens Population

The Athens city-state (Attika) represents the largest concentration of population in Greece today. The Attika region (of which Athens is the largest component) had 3.5 million people in 1991/92 or more than one-third of Greece's total population of 10.3 million (Table 2).


The urbanity of modern Athens is also seen in data reflecting

population density or the average number of people living in a square

kilometer. For Greece as a whole, there are 78 people living in a square

kilometer, while for Attika, population density per square kilometer is an

astonishing 923 (Table 2).


Productivity per individual, measured by Gross Domestic Product

(GDP), is only slightly higher for the Athens regions compared with Greece as a whole (Table 2). The productivity per individual for Athens is

hampered by the higher unemployment rate for Athens (9.9%) when

compared with Greece as a whole (7.7%) (Table 2).


A cross section of the economy can be gleaned from a look at how

total employment is distributed among the three basic sectors of agriculture, industry and services. From Table 2, the Athens region has ceased to be a major agricultural production region, with only 1.2% of the total workforce in the Athens region gainfully employed in production agriculture. For Greece as a whole, 22.2% of the total workforce is employed in production agriculture.


The comparisons for employment in "industry" for Attika and Greece

as a whole are quite similar. There is, however, a wide difference in the

percentage of workers employed in "services". For the Athens region in

1991/92, over two-thirds of the workforce were employed in the services

sector, while that number for Greece as a whole was slightly over one-half of the total (Table 2).


The Industrialization of the Athens Region


With the growth of population of the Athens region in the 20t Century came industrialization. Much of the "industry", however, was initially controlled and operated by the central government, headquartered in Athens. Thus, the banks, the railroads, the airlines, the buses, the telephones, and the electricity were run by government agencies.


Since Greece's entry into the European Union in 1982, Greece has been attempting to privatize many of the services controlled by the government. This effort continues with limited successes. Part of the difficulty with Greece's competitiveness in world markets is due to the inefficiencies of some of Greece's services run by Government entities, i.e., the Olympic Airways.


With the government involved with so much economic activity for Athens as well as the entire country, the government, however, is a major source of employment for the people of Greece. This sometimes has a tendency to lead to politics in getting a job with government agencies.


Shipping and tourism are both headquartered in Athens and provide for a significant economic stimulus. Greece has the largest fleet of commercial vessels in Europe and highly ranked in terms of tonnage in the world. The cruise ship industry is also highly developed in Greece, with Athens (Piraeus) serving as headquarters.


In terms of manufacturing, Athens is also the headquarters for the following important industries (among others):


·      Cement Textiles

·      Alcoholic beverages

·      Soap

·      Flour,

·      food and soft drinks

·      Paper products

·      Leather goods

·      Pottery

·      Chemicals and petrochemical products

·      Printing & publishing

·      Machinery and transport equipment

·      Glassware


While the Athens city-state of Attika accounts for slightly more than one-third of Greece's total population, it leads the nation in a number of economic categories. For example, Attika accounts for the following percentages of Greece's:


·      37.4% of national Gross Domestic Product

·      39% of total manufacturing employment

·      40% of employment in the energy sector

·      77% of Greece's international organizations

·      60% of employment in financial services

·      54% of employment in mortgage services

·      48.5% of employment in transportation services

·      48% of employment in health services

·      45% of government employees


The Athens city-state also has the highest percentage of Greece's educational institutions, research centers and technological centers. Moreover, this region of Greece has the nation's largest airport. The port of Piraeus has the largest capacity of any port in the Balkans.


And unfortunately for the air quality in the summer season, the Attika region has 43.6% of Greece's automobiles.


Thus, the Athens city-state has been transformed from a somewhat agrarian region in ancient times into a modern industrial society by the beginning of the 21 st century, owing to the diversity of manufacturing and service activities in the region.


Athens and its port city of Piraeus is a major hub for the export of Greek goods, as well as the import of foreign items.


Neighboring European Union countries account for 60% of Greece's exports. The major trading partners are from Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. Some of the major products exported from Greece include wine, fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, olive oil, clothing and textiles, minerals, fuels and lubricants, iron, steel, aluminum and associated alloys. The principal market for Greek exports is Germany.


As a member of the European Union(EU), as well as the Euro zone         ';


euro currency, almost two-thirds of Greece's imports are from EU countries.


Some of the major items imported into Greece include petroleum associated products, motor vehicles, machinery and transport equipment, food and live animals, chemicals and associated products. Italy is a major source for imported items.


Environmental Issues


The growth of Athens, particularly since World War II, has led to a myriad of environmental problems. The high population density, coupled with a large number of automobiles, has led to problems of air quality. Traffic remains congested, as the city was not designed in antiquity to handle millions of autos and taxi cabs.


Garbage disposal is also a problem area, along with potential pollution of the nearby Aegean sea. Almost annual forest fires in the Athens region also affect air quality.


The Greek government is keenly aware of its environmental problems and other problems caused from urban sprawl. A new subway system was opened in 2002, as well as the opening of a large new international airport in nearby Spata. Various schemes have been imposed on restricting personal automobiles from entering the central core of the city of Athens. The government is also attempting to relieve automobile congestion in downtown Athens by constructing peripheral ("ring") avenues which allow avoidance of the central areas of Athens.


Development of new transportation systems in the Athens area is uniquely slow because any type of digging below the current earth's surface uncovers previously unknown treasures from antiquity.


The government program to make the Attika regions a sustainable city rests on a comprehensive plan to go forward with intervention programs dealing with the following problem areas: Air pollution Waste disposal Traffic congestion Noise pollution Land use planning Urban development Environmental awareness Appropriate legislation


Dealing with the above problem areas, simultaneously with developing the infrastructure and venues for the 2004 Olympic Games, will challenge any city-state and nation-state.


Concluding Remarks


Over the span of almost 3,000 years and despite many years of subjugation by various rulers, Athens remains a city on the hill. The remarkable contributions of the Athens city-state of the golden ancient period have remained on a worldwide basis: coined money, banks, public services, and land use planning.


Athens in the 20th and 21St centuries, despite its high population density, makes important contributions to its nation-state (Greece) and to the world at large. Despite its small size relative to other major city-states like London, New York and Tokyo, Athens has produced two Nobel laureates in literature in recent decades and an Oscar for the best music in a movie (Never on Sunday).


According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Athenian is witty, warm and generous. They have maintained their long oral tradition, which has led them to seek discourse that tends to exaggerate reality. Athenians have a sharp-edged sense of personal and family honor and the spoiling of children.


The ancient heroes, too, were vain about both themselves and honor, boasting as much about outwitting the enemy as about outfighting them (Britannica, 2001).


Selected References   

Bairoch, Paul, Cities and Economic Development: From the Dawn of Hist~ry to the Present, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, paperback 1991.


Barnes, William R., and Larry C. Ledebur, The New Regional Economics: The U.S. Common Market and the Global Economy, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1998.


Camp, John M., The Athenian Agora: Excavations in the Heart of Classical Athens, London: Thames and Hudson, 1986.


Encyclopedia Britannica


Various internet sites on Athens, Greece