Today, one way modern scholars determine civilization is by it's material prosperity and consumption levels. To be prosperous is for the man of today a good thing and we consider poverty in a nation and the so-called "bare-bones subsistence" to be a mark of the uncivilized. However, this has posed several very important problems for the economic history of the ancient civilizations.

For the Greeks and Romans, the word "luxury" (read: prosperity) was intertwined with "decadence" and "immorality". Indeed, the Greeks never failed to distinguish themselves from the "barbarians" that laid in Asia, who wallowed in luxury and had significantly higher standards of living. For Demosthenes, the poorly made houses of Miltiades and Aristeides signify the nature of the democratic constitution. Herakleides says that you can be certain that you have arrived in Athens when you encounter homes made out of mean material. These are just two examples out of a thousand that are to be found in Greek literature, specially when it comes to "Oriental" luxury that the Greeks were supposedly against.

Plato in Alcibiades for example says: "Again, if you care to consider the wealth of the Persians, the splendor, the clothes and trailing robes, the anointings with myrrh, the throng of servants-in-waiting, and all their other luxuries, you’d be ashamed of your circumstances, because you’d see how inferior they are to theirs." He also further adds that Athens was poor compared to Sparta but nonetheless says "But great as they are when compared with other Greek cities, the Spartan fortunes are nothing compared with the fortunes of the Persians." For Demosthenes and many others, democracy was conducive to poverty and that is why it is to be preferred. Monarchies and oligarchies lead to higher standards of living and that's why they are to be rejected, as Plato himself adds in his wealth of Sparta compared to the poverty of Athens.

The Greeks emphasized everywhere that the Persians were far more prosperous than any Greek ever was, and that this was why Greece was superior to the Persians. In their "othering" of the "Oriental", the Greeks idealized poverty and considered it most beneficial for morality.

The Greeks in their representations of the "Other" emphasized how rich, how wealthy, how prosperous and how significantly higher ways of living that their Asian barbarians had, specifically the Persians. The "poorly made houses" of Athens compared to the glorious houses everywhere in Persia with all their luxurious splendor is why the Athenians are better than the Persians.

The Romans were not better than the Greeks in this matter. For example, Sallust traces the moral decline of Rome by emphasizing the growing wealth of the people and the disappearance of poverty: "As soon as riches came to be held in honour, when glory, dominion and power followed in their train, virtue began to lose its lustre, poverty to be considered a disgrace, blamelessness to be termed malevolence. Therefore as the result of riches, luxury and greed, united with insolence, took possession of our young manhood."

This has posed a rather very problematic conundrum for us moderns: we consider poverty to be something bad and it is something to be removed rather than maintained. Likewise, prosperity is the mark of a civilization. Nobody would take the claim seriously that the Africa is far superior to the West because the Africans are extremely poor.

Therefore, the Greeks in their profuse orientalizing have raised quite a significant issue. Were the Greeks drenched in poverty compared to the Persians? Was democracy really destructive of material prosperity?

Modern economic historians who have attempted to analyze the economic growth of ancient empires have found the claims of Greeks in their literature highly troubling. Ian Morris who attempted to consider the per capita incomes of Athens has likewise emphasized that the claims of rampant poverty through the Greek world compared to the extreme luxury of the Persians is to be taken not seriously. That is, the Greeks took the court of the King as something that the ordinary citizen of Greece is to be compared against.

Has anyone performed any study of economic growth of the Achaemenid Empire and attained any acceptable calculations of the per capita incomes and compared them to that of contemporary Greece? Is there any information available on this matter? Were the Greeks really poor compared to the Persians? Did those in the East truly have far higher standards of living?

I'd like specifically a more economic analysis of this matter. Has any scholar considered the per capita incomes and the consumption levels of Classical Greece and compared them to that of the Persian Empire? Any attempt at solving this problem by merely considering the claims in the literature won't be helpful, since only claims of Greek poverty and Oriental luxury abound.

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    On my opinion, this question does not have a meaningful answer. How do you want to compare? By per capita average yearly income? Including slaves or not? We know neither the gross income nor the population of these entities. The ancient writers probably meant some elites when they made comparisons.
    – Alex
    Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 21:57
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    Concur with @Alex. Democracies are more likely to measure per capita wealth; aristocracies are going to measure wealth through land or other zero sum metrics. Comparing the two will be misleading. I'd feel better about the question if it included preliminary research to define the terms.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 1:03
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    Is this a question or a novel? Consider shortening your question somewhat.
    – Jos
    Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 1:22
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    It'd be more helpful if you could provide contexts for the various quotes you referred to. Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 4:42
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    Per capita wealth is perhaps not a useful measure here, as the Persians probably concentrated wealth in the hands of an aristocracy. (Which was mostly what the Greeks saw.)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 17:04

4 Answers 4


There are certainly scholars who have tried to quantify economic growth and income disparities over the long term, most notably Paul Bairoch and, especially, Angus Maddison. I don't have their books at hand and do not know whether their data goes as far back in the past or if they looked at this specific comparison but as I recall the main finding is that until relatively recently, per capita income did not increase or differ much.

Some land and some cultures (e.g. rice) can support a higher population density and some polities are better at concentrating wealth to their center, natural catastrophes, pandemic or wars could disrupt societies and bring hardship but generally speaking the standards of living were roughly the same (and rather low). That all changed in the last millennium, which saw both a significant increase in prosperity and consumption and a larger gap between regions or countries. Consequently, it's highly unlikely that the Persian would have “far higher” standards of living than the Greeks.

Obviously, that a source would make a point of being disdainful of excess wealth or inequality tells us very little about actual income. More recently, you can see similar tendencies in countries like Denmark or the Netherlands, where it is or was bad taste and uncommon to engage in conspicuous consumption. Yet, they are not poor in any sense of the word. And I am not sure I believe your contention that material wealth is universally revered in the modern world. You can easily find people or communities that value the ability to detach oneself from material possessions or even who despise modern (capitalistic) economies and praise traditional cultures.

Looking beyond historical times, you can even find anthropologists who argue that hunter-gatherers societies were, in some sense, more prosperous than (early) agricultural societies based on the notion that it takes a lot less work in a day to secure (enough) food that way. While agriculture made a huge population growth and wealth concentration possible, it was also for a long time accompanied by widespread food insecurity and regular famines.

  • Hunter-gatherer societies are also subject to food insecurity and starvation. It just tends not to make the history books because hunter-gatherers tend not to record their history.
    – Mark
    Commented Apr 4, 2020 at 0:54
  • @Mark I am sure but the argument (not based on the historical record but on observation of the amount of effort/time it takes to feed a group) is that they were not as close to starvation as agricultural societies have been for most of history. Obviously, the population density sustained on a given area is much smaller. I haven't looked into all this carefully enough to have an opinion but I find the notion intriguing and it certainly belies the notion implicit in the question that there is a universally agreed yardstick of what a prosperous civilization is.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Apr 4, 2020 at 17:16

Today, one way modern scholars determine civilization is by it's material prosperity and consumption levels. To be prosperous is for the man of today a good thing and we consider poverty in a nation and the so-called "bare-bones subsistence" to be a mark of the uncivilized.

This is a very strong statement which isn't justified by how the ancients saw themselves, and nor how, even today, in a world of rising consumption and material prosperity, how people judge civilisation. For example, the Vizier Rekmire, who was an ancient Egyptian noble and official of the 18th dynasty who served as the governor of Thebes and also as Vizier during the reigns of Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II around 1400 BC had inscribed in his tomb the regulation given to him to act in his capacity as Vizier to Pharoah:

Forget not to judge justice. It is an abomination of the god to show partiality. This is the teaching. Therefore, do you accordingly. Look upon him who is known to you like him who is unknown to you; and him who is near the king like him who is far from his house. Behold, a prince who does this, he shall endure here in this place


Behold, when a man is in his office, he acts according to what is commanded him. Behold, the success of a man is that he act according to what is said to him. Make no delay at all in justice, the law of which you know. Behold, it becomes the arrogant that the king should love the timid more than the arrogant!

A similar sentiment is echoed by the Iran Chamber Society about the Ancient Persians:

The strength of Cyrus lay in his own character and in the character of the army he led. His soldiers were accustomed to privations, but they possessed an inner fire. "The Persians are proud, too proud, and they are poor," Croesus said once...they lived simply, and were close to the earth. It had been hammered into them from their earliest childhood that they had only three tasks to perform well in life --to ride well, shoot straight, and speak the truth, by which it was meant that they should speak the true words of the prophet Zarathustra and worship the god Ahuramazda and the other gods. Half-enviously, Herodotus recounts the stern simplicity of their ceremonies; there were no flute-players, no garlands, no pouring of wine. Before worshipping, a Persian would simply stick a spray of myrtle leaves in his headdress. For a few more years this spartan simplicity remained; then, as more plunder fell into their hands, the Persians learned to enjoy magnificence.



What IS true is that there were greater extremes of wealth and poverty in the Persian empire.

The Greeks were "wealthy" for their time. It's true that their rocky soil was not particularly good for growing food. But the special qualities of the soil made it good for growing two other key crops, grapes for wine and olives for oil. These were high value added commodities that could be traded abroad for food and cloth on favorable terms. These crops also lent themselves well to free, relatively equal and prosperous yeoman farmers working on small plots of land without the benefits of economies of scale.

The Persian empire was exactly the opposite. On one hand, it consisted of 127 provinces, meaning that that the kings and nobles at the top were very wealthy. Far more so than their Greek equivalents. On the other hand, Persian peasants, at the bottom, were exploited to provide for the wealth of those above, meaning that they were worse off than their Greek counterparts.

Because Persia was much larger, it's probable that Persian wealth (GDP) was much greater than that of the Greeks. It's possible that that the Persian "average" was greater than the Greek average if you use the arithmetical "mean." But the "average" (median) Greek was better off than the equivalent Persian.

So the contrast was not between Greek "poverty" and Persian "wealth" but Greek democracy (of near equals) and Persian despotism.


It is very true that democracy, now thought to make a country richer, made everybody poorer in those days. This is accepted by all Greek writers without exception and without any suspicion. The people under monarchies in the East had extremely high standards of living compared to Ancient Greece. In other words, the civilization of the East was probably more sophisticated in terms of prosperity, healthiness and way of life.

I'll quote Athenaeus on this question, as he contrasts widespread Greek poverty which was worse than even that of Africa today compared to the rich ways of the Persian civilization:

"Concerning the luxury of the Persian kings Xenophon writes thus in Agesilaus: "For the benefit of the Persian king they go about the entire country in search of something he may like to drink, and countless persons devise dishes which he may like to eat. No one could say, either, what trouble they give themselves that he may sleep in comfort. But Agesilaus, being devoted to hard work, was glad to drink anything that was before him, and was glad to eat whatever came first to hand, and any place was satisfactory to him for securing grateful sleep." In the work entitled Hieron, speaking of what food is prepared for the delectation of tyrants and of men in private station, he says: " 'I know too, Simonides, that most persons infer that we eat and drink with greater zest than ordinary people from this fact, that they would themselves, as they believe, be more pleased to dine on the meal that is set before us than on what is served to themselves.

For it is anything that transcends the usual that gives pleasure, which is the reason why all men except tyrants look forward with joy to holiday feasts. For since the tables set before tyrants are always heavily laden, they have nothing special to offer on feast-days, so that here is the first particular in which they are at a disadvantage compared with men in private station, namely in the delight of anticipation. Then secondly, he said, I am sure that you have learned that the more abundantly one is supplied with things which go beyond his needs, the more quickly he suffers from satiety as regards eating.

Theophrastus, in his treatise On Monarchy dedicated to Cassander (if the work is authentic; for many declare that it is by Sosibius, for whom the poet Callimachus wrote a congratulatory poem in elegiac verse), says that Persian kings, to gratify their love of luxury, offer a large sum of money as a reward for all who invent a new pleasure. And Theopompus, in the thirty-fifth book of his Histories,51 says that whenever the Paphlagonian prince Thys dined, he had a hundred do everything prepared for the table, beginning with oxen; and even when he was carried away a captive to the Persian king's court and kept under guard,

he again had the same number served to him, and lived on a splendid scale. Wherefore, when Artaxerxes heard of it, he said that it was plain to him that Thys was living as though he had made up his mind to die soon. 145 The same Theopompus, in the fourteenth book of his History of Philip,52 says that "whenever the Great King visits any of his subjects, twenty and sometimes thirty talents are expended on his dinner; others even spend much more. For the dinner, like the tribute, has from ancient times been imposed upon all cities in proportion to their population."

Heracleides of Cumae, author of the Persian History,53 writes, in the second book of the work entitled Equipment: B "All who attend upon the Persian kings when they dine first bathe themselves p163 and then serve in white clothes, and spend nearly half the day on preparations for the dinner. Of those who are invited to eat with the king, some dine outdoors, in full sight of anyone who wishes to look on; others dine indoors in the king's company. Yet even these do not eat in his presence, for there are two rooms opposite each other, in one of which the king has his meal, in the other his invited guests. The king can see them through the curtain at the door, but they cannot see him. C Sometimes, however, on the occasion of a public holiday, all dine in a single room with the king, in the great hall. And whenever the king commands a symposium54 (which he does often), he has about a dozen companions at the drinking. When they have finished dinner, that is, the king by himself, the guests in the other room, these fellow-drinkers are summoned by one of the eunuchs; and entering they drink with him, though even they do not have the same wine; moreover, they sit on the floor, while he reclines on a couch supported by feet of gold; D and they depart after having drunk to excess. In most cases the king breakfasts and dines alone, but sometimes his wife and some of his sons dine with him. And throughout the dinner his concubines sing and play the lyre; one of them is the soloist,55 the others sing in chorus. And so, Heracleides continues, the 'king's dinner,' as it is called, will appear prodigal to one who merely hears about it, but when one examines it carefully it will be found to have been got up with economy p165 and even with parsimony; E and the same is true of the dinners among other Persians in high station. For one thousand animals are slaughtered daily for the king; these comprise horses, camels, oxen, asses, deer, and most of the smaller animals; many birds also are consumed, including Arabian ostriches — and the creature is large — geese, and cocks. And of all these only moderate portions are served to each of the king's guests, and each of them may carry home whatever he leaves untouched at the meal. F But the greater part of these meats and other foods are taken out into the courtyard for the body-guard and light-armed troopers maintained by the king; there they divide all the half-eaten56 remnants of meat and bread and share them in equal portions. Just as hired soldiers in Greece receive their wages in money, so these men receive food from the king in requital for services. Similarly among other Persians of high rank, all the food is served on the table at one and the same time; but when their guests have done eating, whatever is left from the table, consisting chiefly of meat and bread, is given by the officer in charge of the table to each of the slaves; this they take and so obtain their daily food. 146 Hence the most highly honoured of the king's guests go to court only for breakfast; for they beg to be excused in order that they may not be required to go twice, but may be able to entertain their own guests."

Herodotus, in the seventh book, says57 that those p167 Greeks who received the king and entertained Xerxes at dinner were reduced to such dire distress that they lost house and home. On one occasion, when the Thasians, to save the towns belonging to them on the mainland, received and entertained the army of Xerxes, B four hundred talents in silver were expended in their behalf by Antipater, a prominent citizen; for cups and mixing bowls of silver and gold were furnished at table, and after the dinner (these were carried off as spoil by the Persians). If Xerxes had eaten there twice, taking breakfast as well as dinner, the cities would have been utterly ruined." And in the ninth book, also, of his Histories58 he says: "The Great King gives a royal banquet which is held once a year on his birthday. The name given to the dinner in Persian, is tukta, which in Greek means 'complete.' On that day alone the king smears his head with ointment and gives presents to the Persians." C Alexander the Great, every time he dined with his friends, according to Ephippus of Olynthus, in the book59 which describes the demise of Alexander and Hephaestion, spent one hundred minas,60 there being perhaps sixty or seventy friends at dinner. But the Persian king, as Ctesias61 and Dinon62 (in his Persian History) say, used to dine in company with 15,000 men, and four hundred talents63 were expended on the dinner. D This amounts, in p169 the coinage of Italy, to 2,400,000 denarii, which, divided among 15,000 men, make 160 denarii, Italic currency, for each man. Consequently it comes to the same sum as that spent by Alexander, which was one hundred minas, as Ephippus related. But Menander, in The Carouse,64 reckons the expense of the largest banquet at a talent only when he says: "So then, our prosperity accords not with the way in which we offer sacrifice. For though to the gods I bring an offering of E a tiny sheep bought for ten drachmas, and glad I am to get it so cheap; but for flute-girls and perfume, harp-girls, Mendean and Thasian wine, eels, cheese, and honey, the cost is almost a talent; and whereas by analogy it is . . ." He evidently mentions a talent as though it were an extravagant expenditure. Again, in The Peevish Man,65 he has the following: "So burglars sacrifice: they bring chests and wine-jars, not for the gods' sake, but for their own. The frankincense is required by religion, and so is the meal-cake; F the god gets this, offered entire on the fire. But they, after giving the end of the spine and the gall-bladder to the gods — because unfit to eat — gulp down the rest themselves."

Philoxenus of Cythera, in the poem entitled The Banquet (granting that it is he and not the Leucadian Philoxenus, who was mentioned by the comic poet Plato in Phaon),66 describes the arrangements of a p171 dinner in these terms:67 "And slaves twain brought unto us a table with well-oiled face, 147 another for others, while other henchmen bore a third, until they filled the chamber. The tables glistened in the rays of the high-swinging lamps, freighted with trenchers and condiments delectable in cruets, full . . . and luxuriant in divers artful inventions to pleasure life, tempting lures of the spirit. Some slaves set beside us snowy-topped barley-cakes in baskets, while others (brought in loaves of wheat). After them first came not an ordinary tureen, my love, but a riveted vessel of huge size; . . . a glistening dish of eels to break our fast, full of conger-faced morsels that would delight a god. After this another pot of the same size came in, and a soused ray of perfect roundness. B There were small kettles, one containing some meat of a shark, another a sting-ray. Another rich dish there was, made of squid and sepia-polyps with soft tentacles. After this came a grey mullet hot from its contact with fire, the whole as large as the table, exhaling spirals of steam. After it came breaded squid, my friend, and crooked prawns done brown. C Following these we had flower-leaved cakes and fresh confections spiced, puff-cakes of wheat p173 with frosting, large as the pot. This is called the 'navel of the feast' by you and me, I ween. Last there came — the gods are my witnesses — a monstrous slice of tunny, baked hot, from over the sea where it was carved with knives from the meatiest part of the belly. Were it ours ever to assist at the task, great would be our joy. Yet even where we were wanting, the feast was complete. Where it is possible to tell the full tale, my powers still hold, and yet no one could recount truly to you all the dishes that came before us. I nearly missed a hot entrail, D after which came in the intestine of a home-bred pig, a chine, and a rump with hot dumplings. And the slave set before us the head, boiled whole, and split in two, of a milk-fed kid all steaming; then boiled meat-ends, and with them skin-white ribs, snouts, head, feet, and a tenderloin spiced with silphium. And other meats there were, of kid and lamb, boiled and roast, and sweetest morsel of underdone entrails from kids and lambs mixed, E such as the gods love, and you, my love, would gladly eat. Afterwards there was jugged hare, and young cockerels, and many hot portions of partridges and ring-doves were now lavishly laid beside us. Loaves p175 of bread there were, light and nicely folded; and companioning these there came in also yellow honey and curds, and as for the cheese — every one would avow that it was tender, and I too thought so. And when, by this time, we comrades had reached our fill of food and drink, the thralls removed the viands, and boys poured water over our hands."

Socrates of Rhodes, in the third book of the Civil War,68 describes the banquet given by Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt, F who married the Roman general, Antony, in Cilicia. His words are: "Meeting Antony in Cilicia, Cleopatra arranged in his honour a royal symposium, in which the service was entirely of gold and jewelled vessels made with exquisite art; even the walls, says Socrates, were hung with tapestries made of purple and gold threads. And having spread twelve triclinia, Cleopatra invited Antony and his chosen friends. 148 He was overwhelmed with the richness of the display; but she quietly smiled and said that all these things were a present for him; she also invited him to come and dine with her again on the morrow, with his friends and his officers. On this occasion she provided an even more sumptuous symposium by far, so that she caused the vessels which had been used on the first occasion to appear paltry; and once more she presented him with these also. As for the officers, each was allowed to take away the couch on which he had reclined; even the sideboards, as well as the spreads for the couches, were divided among them. And when they departed, she furnished litters for the guests of high rank, with p177 bearers, B while for the greater number she provided horses gaily caparisoned with silver-plated harness, and for all she sent along Aethiopian slaves to carry the torches. On the fourth day she distributed fees, amounting to a talent, for the purchase of roses, and the floors of the dining-rooms were strewn with them to the depth of a cubit,69 in net-like festoons spread over all."

He also records that Antony himself, on a later visit to Athens, erected a scaffold in plain sight above the theatre, and roofed with green boughs, like the "caves"70 built for Bacchic revels; C on this he hung tambourines, fawnskins, and other Dionysiac trinkets of all sorts, where he reclined in company with his friends and drank from early morning, being entertained by artists summoned from Italy, while Greeks from all parts assembled to see the spectacle. "And sometimes," Socrates continues, "he even shifted the place of his revels to the top of the Acropolis, while the entire city of Athens was illuminated with torches hung from the roofs. And he gave orders that henceforth he should be proclaimed as Dionysus throughout all the city." D So, too, the Emperor Gaius, who had the cognomen Caligula71 from the circumstance that he was born in camp, was named "the new Dionysus," and not only that, but he also assumed the entire garb of Dionysus, and made royal progresses and sat in judgement thus arrayed.

Viewing all this, which surpasses what we have, we may well admire Greek poverty, having also before our eyes the dinners of the Thebans, an p179 account of which is given by Cleitarchus in the first book of his History of Alexander.72 He says that "after the demolition of their city by Alexander, E their entire wealth was found to be under 440 talents; he further says that they were mean-spirited and stingy where food was concerned, preparing for their meals mincemeat in leaves, and boiled vegetables, anchovies, and other small fish, sausages, beef-ribs, and pease-porridge. With these, Attaginus, the son of Phrynon, entertained Mardonius together with fifty other Persians, and Herodotus says in the ninth book73 that Attaginus was well supplied with riches. F I believe that they could not have won the battle, and that the Greeks need not have met them in battle-array at Plataeae, seeing that they already had been done to death by such food."

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    Please use correct formatting to enclose quoted material, properly distinguishing your work from that of others.
    – justCal
    Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 18:06
  • @justCal: Please fix the formatting for me.
    – Menids
    Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 18:09
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    "I'd like specifically a more economic analysis of this matter. Has any scholar considered the per capita incomes and the consumption levels of Classical Greece and compared them to that of the Persian Empire? Any attempt at solving this problem by merely considering the claims in the literature won't be helpful, since only claims of Greek poverty and Oriental luxury abound."
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 19:24
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    It's unclear whether the asker is asking about the average person (slaves included) , free men/citizens only, "civilized" city dwellers or the rulers/ administration Since your quotes seem to refer to the rulers the phrase "It is very true that democracy, now thought to make a country richer, made everybody poorer in those days. " isn't really relevant and should probably be removed further these example do not portray the Greeks as "poor" but rather living "without excess" as preached by Solon of Athens embodied by Sparta, Alexander etc
    – Hao S
    Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 15:14

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