Peter Jones

Be your own boss

The classical world was full of enterprise – in a way that's only just coming back

There is much talk today of the enthusiasm with which young entrepreneurs are setting up businesses. One reason why this appears such a daring development is that the industrial revolution changed our thinking about jobs and work so radically that ‘big business’ seemed the only form of honest employment. Before that, going it alone was the norm. Classical Athens was a prime example, though one would never think it to read most accounts of the subject.

Take the great Lord Macaulay: the famous picture he drew of daily life in Athens — Pheidias putting up a frieze, rhapsodes in the streets reciting Homer to weeping crowds, a meeting of the democratic Assembly and a play by Sophocles — is not only nonsense but ignores the hard reality of Athenian life on the ground.

It is worth remembering that Socrates was a stonemason, and his friend Simon a shoemaker (his shop has been excavated). Socrates discussed manufacturing intensively with Simon and other craftsmen around the agora, wondering whether there was an analogy between an expert at making, e.g., good shoes, and an expert at making good men.

In his ground-breaking book on the subject, the classicist Dr Peter Acton points out that every time an Athenian went outside, he would be surrounded by evidence of production: ‘the clack of looms, the hammering of carpenters and sculptors, carts rattling through the streets full of stone or wood or bales of fine cloth or jars of imported oils, all told of the physical environment, and the social impact of manufacturing.’

Yet it is a commonplace to say that trade was held in contempt in the ancient world. The question is: by whom? The landed rich and high-domed intellectuals, that’s who. For the remaining 98 per cent trade was one of the main means of survival (at worst) or prosperity (at best).

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