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What We Can Learn from Ancient Athens’ Manufacturing Industry

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What We Can Learn from Ancient Athens’ Manufacturing Industry

A former vice president at Boston Consulting Group analyzes an ancient sector and how it parallels changes in today’s economy.
A sculptor works on a piece of marble, trying to create a replica of an Ionic column inside one of the Acropolis' restoration centers in Athens. | Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis

Consultants often analyze industries, but Peter Acton has taken a much bigger step back in time than most. When the former vice president at the Boston Consulting Group decided to pursue a PhD in ancient history at the University of Melbourne, he chose the manufacturing sector in Athens in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. as the subject of his thesis and, now, his new book, Poiesis: Manufacturing in Classical Athens (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Poiesis portrays classical Athens as a vibrant society of makers. Moreover, Acton’s application of modern theories of competitive advantage to an ancient economy offers a promising new analytical framework for historians. Acton received his MBA from Stanford in 1980. Here are excerpts of a conversation with him about his new book.

Classical Athens is commonly associated with a flowering of the arts, philosophical thought, and democracy. How did manufacturing fit into the picture?

When you look at the high standard of living in Athens and think about all the things Athenians needed — housing, furniture, pottery, clothing, shoes, armor, ships, and public buildings — you realize it had to be a busy manufacturing city. Oddly, however, that reality wasn’t reflected in the scholarly literature, which has never paid much attention to how Athenians made a living.

Why?

Most historians subscribed to the idea that because the ancients didn’t think in the same economic terms as [we do], we couldn’t properly analyze their economic behavior. I think it was a good cop-out for researchers who were more interested in philosophy and architecture than economics and technology.

What did your analysis of Athenian manufacturing reveal?

One thing was that modern ideas of competitive advantage held true in the ancient world. The concepts of strategic thinkers like [Boston Consulting founder] Bruce Henderson and [Harvard economist] Michael Porter helped me make sense of manufacturing in Athens. They enabled me to see patterns in what had hitherto been fragmentary evidence, unconnected references to one craftsperson making customized bronze armor, or a big workshop making shields, or a large boatbuilding yard. In turn, Athens provides a sort of historic proof of their theories — the developmental level of these ancient industrial sectors was consistent with the levels of competitive advantage that could be attained within them.

How did you suss out the details of a 2,500-year-old manufacturing economy?

There's a fair amount of information about business pursuits in the literature of the time, including quite a lot of commercial lawsuits, and there are archaeology findings, too. I also talked to modern craftsmen to understand how products were made in preindustrial times.

What did the manufacturing economy look like in classical Athens?

It was incredibly varied and diverse. There were largish workshops — perhaps a few hundred of them, employing upward of 10 slaves. Some people were making things at home full time, and some of them were making good money because they were very talented. Many more people were casual makers — occasionally working at home with their slaves and their families to bring in a little bit of income or to make things for themselves.

How large a portion of the Athenian economy are we talking about?

There just aren't enough data on the macro side of things to say for sure. If you think of the citizenry as a whole, something like 60% or 70% of Athenians had some involvement in manufacturing.

Was there a relationship between manufacturing and the cultural achievements of classical Athens?

I think there are various relationships. For one, manufacturing in Athens corresponded quite neatly with the high degree of political freedom. Generally speaking, this was a labor–driven sector; there were no economies of scale or technological advantages. So, everybody was competing on a relatively level field. Makers could go and do something else for a day, a week, or a month, and then come back and earn the same income as they did before.

If I were a manufacturing CEO, I’d be asking myself if my company was making things that people could easily make for themselves.
Peter Acton

That gave Athenians a lot of flexibility to do things like serve in military campaigns or vote in the assembly or sit around and philosophize. We just can't match that today. We can't have 500 people sitting on the jury for every trial, and we can't put everything to a popular vote, because people can’t walk away from their work and expect it to be there when they get back.

Does that suggest that the competitive advantages of scale and technology might lead to less equality in our world?

Actually, it might be working the other way now. In the last 200 or 300 years, manufacturing consolidated, and that left many small craftspeople out in the cold. But now information technology is allowing individuals to become makers again at similar costs to [those of] large companies. That could fragment manufacturing, and give people a lot more freedom as to how they spend their time.

What does that imply for the future of today’s manufacturing companies?

I think they are facing a situation similar to that of manufacturers in classical Athens: In order to be a large company, they’re going to have to be doing something pretty special because they can no longer rely on scale economies.

If I were a manufacturing CEO, I’d be asking myself if my company was making things that people could easily make for themselves. Also, I'd be thinking about how to deal with what may be a challenging employment situation in the future: If more and more people have the opportunity to opt out of full-time employment, we may have a significantly smaller labor pool.

Consulting and classical history don’t seem to have much in common. Did you find connections between the two pursuits?

As a historian, I found myself trying to identify the right questions to ask, the right sources of data, and the right hypotheses to test. It occurred to me about halfway through that I had been doing exactly the same thing as a consultant. Plus, there are always plenty of people trying to prove you wrong in both occupations.

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