Technological Advances and Innovations

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Technological Advances and Innovations



Coinage. The introduction of coinage represented a great advance of the Archaic Period (700-480 b.c.e.). Coins began to be minted in Lydia at the end of the seventh century. They came into use among the Greeks around twenty-five years after their invention, first in the Greek settlements along the Asiatic coast, and then in Old Greece. The introduction of coinage and its spread do not appear to have been due to the requirements of trade and commerce, that is to say, to facilitate the exchange of goods, and despite the usefulness of coinage as a commercial tool, most of the economic activities of the time were conducted without the use of money. Early coins occurred in large denominations; stamped of the costly electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), they were not useful in retail trade. The rare incidence of smaller denominations suggests that at first coins were not meant for internal use in local trade. Money played no great role in international trade either: the large denominations did not circulate much outside the state that issued them. Only late in the Archaic Period did Athens and some of the Greek colonies along the Thracian seaboard begin to use coinage in foreign trade. Both regions owned silver mines, and their coins have been found in the Levant and in Egypt. However, they seem to have been exported to these places for the value of the silver, not as money proper. It is significant, too, that even during this later period the circulation of coins and goods do not overlap. In short, the motive for the introduction of money was not commercial; the advent of currency did not signal the advent of a money economy in Archaic Greece.

Initial Use. Originally the introduction of coinage had a political purpose: to assert the authority and the independence of the state that minted them, and to spread the reputation of that state as much as possible; in effect the coins functioned as advertisements and a kind of propaganda. However, at the same time, coinage helped to establish norms. The second half of the Archaic Period was a time of standardization and classification of values, laws, and social strata. Draco and Solon in Athens and other lawgivers codified statutes and defined socioeconomic groups with some precision. The systematization of laws served to define right and wrong and thus to do away with arbitrary judgments. Coinage similarly defined values, and in so doing proved of benefit in the exchange of goods. Even if no money changed hands, in commercial transactions, especially those on a large scale, the relative values of commodities had to be expressed in some way, and currency made this possible: it was no accident that the larger denominations of Greek money began as measures of weight.

Means of Exchange. Once it came into more general use, money helped states acquire the means to pay for their national defense, the building of warships, or for hiring mercenaries. A state was also able to accumulate surpluses and distribute them to its citizens, who in ancient Greece always expected handouts from the public treasury. On the whole, however, coinage served a political purpose and its effect on the economy in general was slight. Centuries after coins appeared, people still used various objects, such as iron spits, tripods, and even animals, as a means of exchange.

Construction. Coinage was not the only invention that the Greeks took over from their neighbors to the east. From the Assyrians and the Egyptians they learned to hoist heavy blocks of stone by means of ramps, a technique that they applied in the construction of their large temples. During the sixth century, however, the Greeks replaced this laborious method with their own invention of hoists and pulleys. The new technique allowed them to build with smaller blocks, which made the work easier and less time-consuming. The boom in construction in this period, as it may rightfully be called, was in no small measure due to the new invention.

Shipbuilding. Between 650 and 500 b.c.e. considerable advances were taking place in ship construction, and merchant ships moving under sail and carrying heavy cargoes made their appearance. At some time between the ends of the seventh and the sixth centuries the trireme was invented. The main propulsion of the triremes was oars, but they were also equipped with masts and sails. The triremes became the standard Greek warships down to the end of the Classical Period (480-323 b.c.e.) and were still in use, along with newer types, after the time of Alexander the Great.

Military Innovations. Changes took place in armies as well. A new form of fighting appeared at the beginning of the seventh century: heavily armed and armored foot soldiers called hoplites were grouped in a battle formation known as a phalanx. Gradually the hoplite’s equipment was improved. A new type of composite body armor combining leather and metal replaced the heavier bronze plate armor; this innovation made soldiers more mobile. They wore one-piece helmets and fought with a new type of two-edged sword. Archers were not used except by the people of Crete; in the second half of the sixth century they were introduced in a few other regions. There was no improvement in the cavalry, which was never the principal military arm of Greek armies.


8 copper pieces = 1 iron or bronze obol

6 obols = 1 drachma

2 drachmas = 1 gold stater

100 drachmas = 1 mina

60 minas = 1 talent

Source: Will Durant, The Life of Greece, The Story of Civilization: Part II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1939).

Significance. These innovations and advances were both the manifestation and the cause of an improvement in economic conditions, which had taken place by the second half of the sixth century and which continued to get better in the next century. The changes in military hardware undoubtedly gave more employment

to craftsmen, as did the construction of ships. In virtually every region of the Greek world, and especially in the rich colonies in Sicily and Italy, sacred buildings were being built, some of them of colossal size. There was a marked increase of offerings to the gods; the archaeological finds from the period were richer and more varied and included more luxury items. Another sign of a growing prosperity was the development in manufacture, especially of ceramic ware, although, as has already been said, pottery is not an accurate index and does not permit the inference of a corresponding upswing in the export of goods. In these more favorable conditions urban populations were increasing as well. It was becoming possible in some degree to live from occupations other than agriculture. These professions included a certain amount of trade, which increased the income of some communities, such as Corinth, which profited from its role as an emporium near the Isthmus of Corinth.


M. M. Austin and P. Vidal-Naquet, Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece: An Introduction, translated by Austin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

Lionel Casson, Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971).

William Kendrick Pritchett, Ancient Greek Military Practices. Part I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

Anthony M. Snodgrass, Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment (London: Dent, 1980).

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Technological Advances and Innovations

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