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A History of Trust in Ancient Greece

An enormous amount of literature exists on Greek law, economics, and political philosophy. Yet no one has written a history of trust, one of the most fundamental aspects of social and economic interaction in the ancient world. In this fresh look at antiquity, Steven Johnstone explores the way democracy and markets flourished in ancient Greece not so much through personal relationships as through trust in abstract systems—including money, standardized measurement, rhetoric, and haggling.

Focusing on markets and democratic politics, Johnstone draws on speeches given in Athenian courts, histories of Athenian democracy, comic writings, and laws inscribed on stone to examine how these systems worked. He analyzes their potentials and limitations and how the Greeks understood and critiqued them. In providing the first comprehensive account of these pervasive and crucial systems, A History of Trust in Ancient Greece links Greek political, economic, social, and intellectual history in new ways and challenges contemporary analyses of trust and civil society.

272 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Ancient Studies

History: Ancient and Classical History, History of Ideas


“This is a fresh, highly intelligent, and well-reasoned take on institutions and social practices, public and private, in the world of the Greek city-states. Steven Johnstone shows that the bias in the classical Greek world was toward personal forms of trust, whereas in modernity we are biased toward impersonality. There is no other book that covers this terrain. Johnstone’s surprising and convincing insights are especially relevant given the collapse of a supposedly bulletproof system of impersonal trust in the economic crash of 2008.”

Josiah Ober, Stanford University

“Attempts to characterize economic life in ancient Greece often suffer under the weight of the past century of scholarly polemic. Johnstone’s treatment of the topic avoids the pitfall entirely. His refreshing and highly accessible contemplation of the ‘heap of evidence’ related to ancient economics and politics welcomes readers from the first page, introducing newcomers to the topic while offering plenty to challenge the specialist.”

Mark Lawall, University of Manitoba

A History of Trust in Ancient Greece is an ambitious and thought-provoking project that asks important questions with significant implications for our understanding of ancient Greek politics and economics. Johnstone reconstructs a diverse set of ancient practices and the social logic that grounds them from an impressively wide array of sources, and each chapter is full of gems—unfamiliar documents, novel interpretations, unexpected collocations, provocative claims—that offer an extremely valuable contribution to our knowledge of the ancient Greeks’ mental world. A fascinating and exciting book.”

Victoria Wohl, University of Toronto

“Highly recommended.”


 “Well-written and interesting. . . . The main attraction of this book is that it describes how the rambunctious, commercially oriented democracies of ancient Greece attempted to come to grips with the same practical problems modern societies face today.”

Journal of the History of Economic Thought

“Johnstone’s work is a product of extensive learning, broad perspective, bottomless curiosity about human interaction in antiquity, and an unyielding urge to subject even familiar evidence to fresh analysis.”


Table of Contents


1. Introduction
2. Haggling
3. Measuring
4. Keeping Track
5. Valuing
6. Collaborating
7. Apportioning Liability
8. Deciding

Common Greek Weights and Measures

Index of Passages Cited
General Index

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