Economics and History: Ancient Athens
For a long time, probably hundreds of years, the city of Athens in ancient Greece wasn't all that impressive a place. It had a small number of rich families (at least rich by the standards of that time and place) that vied for control of its minor economy and its oligarchical government, while the vast majority of its citizens were simple home-based craftsmen, fishermen and farmers who, burdened with heavy taxes, lived their short lives in relative poverty. Compared to the neighboring city-states with which it competed, places like Argos and Sparta, Athens had little or nothing to set it apart.
Then, in about 546 B.C., a man named Peisistratos (I've no clue how to pronounce that), who was himself a member of one of the ruling families, had himself proclaimed Tyrant. The word "tyrant," by the way, didn't have the negative meaning we attach to it today; at the time, it basically just meant that he became and was acknowledged as the sole head of government. It's also amusing how he gained that title because, in addition to other maneuvering, Peisistratos found a tall, attractive young woman in a neighboring village to accompany him. Then, claiming she was the goddess Athena, he told the people that she had come to support his cause; a claim which, apparently, many of the citizens believed. And so, Peisistratos became the ruler of Athens and, under his leadership, the fortunes of her citizens and the course of her history were dramatically changed.
Peisistratos was Tyrant of Athens from 546 B.C. until about 527 or 528 B.C.; not all that long a period of time. Under his rule, the taxes paid by the common citizenry were significantly reduced. Also under his rule, a system of interest-free loans was initiated for poor farmers, allowing them to improve their lands and therefore also improve the quantity and quality of their agricultural output. As a result of these and similar measures, the farmers began to produce an abundance of goods, especially olive oil, which they could then trade to their neighbors for crafted goods, or sell to merchants for export to the neighboring cities of Greece and even to nearby nations and empires like Egypt and Persia. This required, of course, shipping containers which, in ancient Greece, consisted of large clay pots called amphorae; and so, the potters of Athens increased their profits. It also required ships for carrying the goods; and so, the shipowners and shipwrights of Athens increased their profits. And, since all these groups increased their profits, and therefore had more goods to trade and money to spend, the result of the economic policies Peisistratos initiated was that all the citizens of Athens, from the richest to the poorest, had more abundance - more wealth - than ever before. By establising policies that were aimed at benefitting the working people of his city, Peisistratos created an economic system that improved the prospects for all the citizens of his city.
Peisistratos was definitely a wise man. He theorized (and at a time when there was little or no historical precedent to support his theory) that the long-term economic health of his city, his people, and even his own household, depended on establishing an environment in which the common people could thrive. And by focusing his efforts on benefitting the common people, Peisistratos started Athens on the road to greatness.
It is a real lesson, from real history, that the politicians, corporate leaders, and businessmen and businesswomen of today would be wise to learn and remember:
When the common, working men and women of a nation prosper, everybody prospers.
It's a simple lesson, a common sense lesson, that none of us should ever allow to be forgotten.
Greg, January 2012