There is a certain irony involved in the discussion of ancient Greek household economy. Although the very concept of ‘Hauswirtschaft’ sparked the debate on the nature of the Ancient economy at the end of the 19th century, this debate never ventured far in developing a theory of household economy. This may be no accident. Despite all the polarization, so called ‘modernists’ and ‘primitivists’ shared a common notion of household economy (or ‘domestic economy’). It was supposed to be an archaic form of economic organization, aiming at autarky and self-sufficiency. This project followed a different lead. In classical times (ca. 450 – 300 B. C. E.) the Greek household economy adapted to the monetized markets of its urban environment. Not only that: the household was never surpassed as the most efficient form of economic organization.
The importance of households is a general feature of complex premodern societies. Therefore, a comparative approach is fruitful. At the same time, comparison highlights what was special about the ancient Greek household economy. Cohabitation in urban settlements with markets and civic self-government shaped how households produced and consumed goods and services. At the same time, these independent city-states were tightly interconnected as parts of a bigger Mediterranean space of exchange and distribution. For men and women willing to take risks, there were opportunities waiting right beyond the narrow confines of the rules and resources of their native city.
The everyday practices of household economy and the normative theories about household management (oikonomia, oikonomikē) have usually been investigated separately. In this study, both approaches are combined to draw a more complete picture of ancient Greek oikonomia and household economy. Norms and mental models do not simply mirror real life. Still, as culturally encoded knowledge they are a genuine part of this ‘real life’: they react to specific interests and problems and vice versa shape the way people think and act in everyday practice. Understood in this way, even contra-factual philosophical treatises tell us a lot about the realities of their time.
The Greek household was a hierarchical organization. As such, it was potentially effective, since its institutionalized order and the (relative) permanence of membership generated trust, enabled division of labor and the pooling of resources. Nonetheless, ancient households differed from modern corporations. They were not specialized on maximizing monetary returns. Instead, they focused on utility maximization. That encompassed any strategy ‘useful’ to the household: not just to acquire subsistence and money, but also to reach for honors and influence. In this sense, households were multifunctional.
Membership in a household was seldom optional. Wife, children, and slaves were subjugated to the command of the paterfamilias. But efficiency could not simply be ordered. The success of household economy rested on the willing, if unequal, cooperation of all members of the oikos.
This Ph.D. thesis has been written within the program “Ancient Languages and Texts” (ALT) of the Berlin Graduate School of Ancient Studies (BerGSAS) and was successfully completetd in 2018.