Trade and the Environment in Athens

Ryan Kuker

The population of Greece rapidly expanded in cities that were able to take advantage of marine trading. Athens was near the sea and its peninsula Piraeus contained three large harbors. The city possessed direct access to various raw materials, including timber and silver. The government of Athens did not resemble that of its Near East counterparts – ‘instead of monarchical rule, political authority came to reside in an assembly of citizens who elected their leaders’ (Chant, 57). By channeling assets to the residents of Athens, the government spurred vast technological innovation. Athens, well positioned to exploit the seas due to its location, abundance of raw materials, and communal rule, dominated the Aegean region ‘for most of the fifth century following the defeat of the Persians in 479 BCE’ (Chant, 75). Trade fueled the expansion of Athens, but led to disease, the depletion of local resources, and lead pollution.

Greece had an ‘indented coastline with natural harbors and numerous accessible islands’ (Chant, 50). Moreover, mountain ranges to the north and west of the Aegean Sea impeded overland transport. Whereas Greece was rich in raw materials, “ Mesopotamia” had ‘abundant agricultural land and limited raw materials’ (Chant, 50). The Near East had luxury goods and unique technology, but meager supplies of some raw materials, and its massive civilizations were accessible from Athens. The resource imbalance between Greece, Mesopotamia, and the Near East stimulated trade. The topography of Greece and the location of its trading partners led to the expansion of marine trading. The growth of marine trading led to the rise of cities.

Athens was one of Greece’s largest cities. Overcrowding and poor sanitation increased the prevalence of disease. The development of trade routes in Athens merged populations from many different areas of the world. This created a giant breeding ground for microbes. Acute infectious diseases thrive in large, densely packed populations because new people are available for infection by the time the disease would otherwise be fading. Although the city installed intricate drainage channels, the residents of Athens still encountered waste and disease transmitting rodents. The residents of Athens were not only living in close proximity to each other, but also came in contact with foreign merchants due to intense trading. Trading and the rise of the city of Athens effectively propagated an array of diseases.

Increased trading and the need to secure trading routes incited shipbuilding. Due to population growth and the lack of fertile land, it was vital that Athens prevented a grain shortfall. Athens supplemented their food supply by forcing grain ships to stop first at its port, which also entailed shipbuilding. Military rivalry in the region stimulated the construction of warships. Materials for shipbuilding and maintenance were primarily of local origin. Athens used timber and iron-ore from northern Greece and copper from Cyprus. Athens’ extensive marine presence severely depleted local resources. The depletion of local resources only increased Athens’ reliance on trade.

Silver was a rare commodity and Athens controlled the highly productive, but environmentally destructive Laurion mines. Silver, a consumable precious metal, was used both industrially and as money in Athens. Due to its industrial uses, silver was in high demand and Athens vigorously traded the metal. The Laurion mines were fundamental to Athens’ ascendancy in the region as payments from trading the silver were used to finance shipbuilding. In terms of its use as money in Athens, ‘trade led to markets, markets led to money’ (Ehrlich, 266), and money led to pollution. Initially, trade simply entailed the exchange of goods – for instance, grain for metal. The introduction of money in Athens, specifically coins, radically transformed transactions. In contrast to goods, coins were generally ‘portable, divisible into denominations, and under some form of governmental control’ (Ehrlich, 267). Although coins restructured commerce, mining and smelting effectively polluted the middle troposphere of the Northern Hemisphere. Lead production, which increased during the Copper, Bronze, and Iron ages, was greatly intensified by silver coinage. In the Laurion mines, ‘lead was as much as a 300-to-1 by-product of silver production’ (Hong et al., 1841). Hong et al. found that ‘at 2500 years ago, lead concentration started to increase markedly above its natural background and remained high from about 2500 to about 1700 years ago’ (Hong et al., 1842). This 800-year period ‘corresponds to the flourishing of the Greco-Roman civilizations’ (Hong et al., 1842), and includes the rise and fall of Athens. Lead, a heavy metal, contaminates the soil and once absorbed into the body, hinders the operation of enzymes. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to remove from the environment. Mining and smelting in the Laurion mines primarily driven by trading produced significant long-term environmental degradation.

Greek urbanization was largely a function of the Mediterranean trading system. Due to several factors, including its location and access to raw materials, Athens developed into a powerful center of international trade. Although trade stimulated further growth, it triggered environmental ruin and ultimately led to the demise of Athens.




Chant, Colin. “Chapter 2: Greece” in “ Pre-industrial Cities and Technology,” Routledge Press, 1999, pp. 48-80.

Ehrlich, Paul R. “ Ch. 11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy” in “Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect.” Island Press, 2000, pp. 253-279.

Hong et al. Science, New Series, Volume 265, Issue 5180. September, 1994, 1841-1843.

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