Dr. Thomas Figueira

By Menno Visser

The Balance Sheet of Empire: Athenian Colonization in Light of the Demographic/Productive Calculus

On the 16th of December, Thomas Figueira presented his paper “The Balance Sheet of Empire: Athenian Colonization in Light of the Demographic/Productive Calculus” at a conference on Ancient Colonialism. With little to no introduction, Figueira dove straight into the contents of his paper by following a structure based on the sources that he used for his paper. 

Demographic/productive calculus was briefly touched upon but the term itself was not made clear very well. A knowledgeable and learned audience might already be familiar with the term but an audience who is not as experienced with the topic (like myself) might have more trouble understanding what this term means.

Nevertheless, Figueira continued into explaining certain metrics that he used that led to his conclusions. His most important metric was metric tons wheat equivalent, which served the purpose of illustrating a level of output that is tied to base subsistence levels in the Ancient world. It also illustrates a certain level of productivity quite well.

Using metric tons wheat equivalent, Figueira illustrated how this could be converted into Drachmae, which also helped in converting other forms of income into one single metric. From this point, Figueira started illustrating different forms of income over time, focusing on Athens and the Delian league, and comparing this to numbers known from Sparta. For example, Figueira showed that Athens could extract roughly 62.000 metric tons wheat equivalent in tribute and trade from its colonies and the Delian league, whilst Sparta could extract 51.000 metric tons wheat equivalent from its Helot population. Figueira also included the known slave exploitation in Attika, showing us that every 5 slaves could produce 1 metric ton wheat equivalent a year.

Next to extracting a large amount of income from the colonies and the Delian league, Athens also had another motive for colonizing. Figueira shows that many colonists belonged to the Thetes class; the poorest and landless class in Athenian society. Giving them land in a colony would massively increase the incomes of those people, advancing their economic position into a higher social class. This allowed for (former) Thetes to join the Zeugitai and thus obtain the ability to join the hoplite. Athenian colonization thus, did not only have an economic incentive, but also a military one; more income and more soldiers. This also reduced Athens’ reliance on tribute form the Delian League, where Figueira observed an erosion in tribute paid from 478 BC onwards.

Figueira thus concluded that Athenian colonization led to huge levels of exploitation and a huge transfer of resources. In the Athenian eyes, this was a celebrated, Pan-Hellenic achievement. But in the eyes of other Greek states, it was an example of Athens as the tyrant-state of Hellas, as Figueira put it.

Overall, his presentation was quite strong in my opinion due to the creativity that Figueira used to arrive at certain estimates. Furthermore, the numerical economic data gives quite a clear view of the strength of certain states and alliances in the Classical period. The presentation does assume a certain understanding of the presented material. Terms and concepts such as Demographic/productive calculus and rent estimates were introduced but not really expanded upon, which makes Figueira’s argument harder to follow.