A Review of “Warriors into Traders”

by Victor Davis Hanson

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Warriors into Traders: The Power of the Market in Early Greece. By David W. Tandy (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997) 296 pp. $45.00

The rise of more than 1,000 Greek poleis from the obscurity of the Dark Ages (c. 1100-800 B.C.) is the most inexplicable event in Greek history. The city-state–its notion of consensual government, relatively free economic activity, dynamic approaches to warfare, and devotion to freedom among a landowning class–was unlike anything in the Greek past and largely antithetical to all contemporary cultures elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Ancient historians have argued for decades about the cause of this remarkable renaissance of material culture and its accompanying intellectual enlightenment. Was the revolution a result of explosive population growth? Greater trade with the East? An indigenous agrarian renaissance? The mastery of a new and flexible written script?

Tandy, a classicist who is also a historian familiar with both modem social theory and the archaeological record of ancient Greece, has offered the latest explanation–one that synthesizes a number of prior studies but is also unique in its emphasis on radical economic restructuring as the whole cause of city-state formation. His thesis is that at the end of the ninth century B.C., previous moral, religious, and cultural restraints to unbridled trading and profit making eroded. A market-oriented economy arose in Greece, replacing the “warriors” and creating material capital for “traders” unimagined a few decades earlier, even as it redefined what constituted the successful and good citizen.

Tandy gets all of the controversial questions of early Greek history mostly right: Population growth explains the demise of the Dark Ages; Homer is a valuable historical source for the late eighth century; Hesiod and Homer are not mere poetic texts, but useful historical accounts of contemporary culture; economic transformations prompted political and cultural changes, not vice-versa; and colonies served to reinvigorate Hellenic culture on the mainland. His text is richly illustrated and supported by archaeological data and close readings of early Greek authors, and he uses the supporting work of Polanyi and Finley with sophistication and nuance.[1] Tandy is a true interdisciplinarian, at home with the Greek language, field reports, and sophisticated anthropological theory. For Tandy, this material and literary evidence, supported by cross-cultural analyses, proves that whereas in pre-polis Greece, wealth followed status, under the protocols of the new city-state, status was dependent on wealth–and wealth wasoften the result of exploitation and hegemony on a scale previously unseen in Greece.

What makes Warriors into Traders an important book beyond the confines of ancient history is Tandy’s implicit theme that reappears in nearly every chapter, one which philosophers and historians of all kinds have bemoaned. The Western embrace of unfettered markets has enriched us even as we are left with a citizenry spiritually wanting and subject to vast material inequality.

This impressive book warrants only two criticisms–one ancient, one modern. Neither detract from the value of Tandy’s description of city-state formation. First, the word peasant does not capture at all the ancient agrarian of the city-state, who as an independent producer had title to his land, often lived on his farm, voted in the local council, determined the nature of his own military service, paid no property or income tax, and was not subject to gratuitous political exploitation. Tandy is right that the market oppressed the poor, but the poor were those without land, not the middling agriculturalists, who comprised perhaps half the resident population surrounding some city-states, and who, for the most part, were the catalysts for the radical changes in Greek political and military organization. Hesiod, in Works and Days and Theogony, with his emphasis on creating capital and a stern work ethic, was not at odds with the new trader mentality, as attuned to the possibilities of agricultural profit making and self-sufficiency under an emerging anti-aristocratic, free-wheeling ethos. As both the rural conservative and astute opportunist, he was angry at the collapse of ethics even as he advised his agrarian compatriots how to flourish under this brutal but exciting new regime. In this regard, the absence in Tandy’s index of either “farmer” or “hoplite” in a book on agrarian change is telling.

Second, whatever the shortfalls of a market economy–and there are many–its ability to provide enormous material bounty for a vast number of people is unquestioned. How odd, then, in 1997 with the demise of Marxism, the globalization of the economy, the technological revolution, and the spread of consensual government for Tandy to speak of “a late capitalist world” (234) and “a historical trajectory that may finally now be coming to the end” (234).


End? Perhaps we can trace the spirit of Wal-Mart back to the Greeks, and grant that it is a crass, godless, and exploitive institution. But it–and hordes of other institutions like it–seem to be spreading, not dying, and they offer those “oppressed by the force of the market in a late capitalist world” cheap available goods undreamed of by any generation in civilization’s history (234). Tandy and others may or may not be right to bemoan these developments, but he is surely wrong to think that the legacy of the Greeks’ free market and its accompanying political and cultural renaissance are anything but frighteningly resilient.


1 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (New York, 1944); Moses I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (London, 1977); idem (ed. Brent D. Shaw and Richard P. Saller), Economy and Society in Ancient Greece (London, 1983).


©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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