Lessons from the ancient Greek island of Delos
Nov 27, 2011

Lessons from the ancient Greek island of Delos

I had the chance to visit the amazing archeological site that consists of the entire Greek island of Delos. Beyond the aesthetic appeal of such a large, ancient, and naturally preserved city full of history, I was struck by how, despite the over two thousand year gap between their civilization and ours, many of the same basic forces talked about on this blog emerged as themes in ancient Delos from the balance between markets and states to the effects of religion. It is interesting, and perhaps even useful, to explore these connections.

Archaeological Site on Delos
Delos is a small islands in the Greek Cyclades, with little geographic or environmental features to distinguish it from the other innumerable, small, treeless islands incapable of meaningful crop productions (pasture animals could be supported) in the Aegean Sea. Based on this, it would seem destined for the same kinds of sparse and primitive societies seen elsewhere and indeed in most of the entire Common Era it was entirely uninhabited and has remained so until the present where all but a few archaeologists and guards reside there.

Yet for reasons not entirely clear, Greek Myth had it that the twin gods of Apollo and Artemis were born on the island. This led to the construction of a first major temple on the island. Here we begin to see the power of religion, for this temple - and the meaning behind it - began to draw people from around the Hellenistic regions to the island to give gifts to the gods. Such accumulations of wealth cannot be left uncontested and hence in due time Athens - the leading city-state of the time - decided it really ought to take over and indeed moved its treasury to this very location. The Delian League of Greek city states, loosely organized under Athenian leadership as a force to combat the Persian contesters, used resourceless Delos as the center and treasury of the entire League. Almost everything had to be imported. And so it was that the combined power of religion and the interests of the state resulted in the growth of a major port city in a place which was grossly inefficient and made little economic sense beyond being vaguely located in the middle of the relevant area.

This use of Delos passed in time but transitioned into an even greater city for an entirely different purpose. Namely, it was decreed that Delos would be a tax free or duty free port. The only such officially sanctioned port in the entire region where one did not have to pay considerable taxes to the local and larger scale governance. Free market economics took off with the city become the prominent trading post for the entire Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean. Many commodities were traded but none so important as the slave trade where conquered peoples from around the Mediterranean (notably not subsaharan blacks, as one might conventionally visualize) would be auctioned to various buyers. It was the wholesale version of slave trading. This shear volume of economically created wealth made Delos a fantastically disproportionately rich society capable of importing everything, exporting nothing, and building a staggeringly complex society with lasting and memorable architecture.

As for Delos's eventual downfall? Like its rise: religion. The belief was that nobody would dare defy the gods and attack the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and all the temples and shrines built in the names of the gods. At this point, the city had moved on from being a proxy of Athens and had the hubris for no standing army or militaristic defense of any meaningful kind. The inevitable attack from pirates came and the 30,000 people were killed or enslaved. A brief attempt at rebuilding, the same result, and then two thousand years of being uninhabited.

Throughout this story we can see the powers and failings of both states and governments. It was a state that founded the city, and the local government that organized much of the great public works from the 5000 person theater to the public cisterns and first-of-its-kind sewer systems. But it was eventually an entirely economic motivation - free trade - that catapulted the city into its true glory. Even back then, perhaps especially then, one cannot escape market principles nor fail to recognize their importance at building societies. Yet the market was not capable of surviving on its own in this case and needed the kind of military presence so core to the nature of states to prevent its anarchistic demise. The true source of success, both as the subject of trading and as the laborers who physically built the city (all but the temples, no unclean slave could build those), where of course the slaves. Neither government or market had progressed at that point to recognize that immorality for what it was. Ultimately, if the capacity to exploit exists as it did here, we can expect exploitation to happen.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

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1 comment:

Michael White said...

There is certainly a lot of amazing history from Greece. Hopefully they will figure out a way to solve their current economic problems. Perhaps they can learn lessons from their history that might be able to help them get through these tough times now.

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