Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Cost of Sea Travel in Ancient Greece

Near the end of the Gorgias, in the midst of his effort to convince Callicles of the relative unimportance of oratory, Socrates makes the following interesting remark about the price of ferry tickets (511, trans. Walter Hamilton):

Navigation is a modest art that knows her place; she does not put on airs or make out that she has performed some brilliant feat, even though she achieves as much as forensic oratory; she brings a man safe from Aegina for no more than two obols, I believe, and even if he comes from Egypt or Pontus or ever so far away the utmost she charges for this great service, for conveying in safety, as I said, a man and his children and property and womenfolk, is two drachmae when he disembarks at the Piraeus; and the man who possesses this skill and has accomplished all this lands and walks about on the shore beside his ship in a quite unassuming way.


Tom said...

Figuring that silver is currently selling for $12 or so an ounce (= about 24 grams), and an obol was .72 grams of silver, a two-obol fare would come to about about 60 cents nowadays -- not an unreasonable price for a harbor ferry.

More surprising is the cost of passage to/from Egypt and Pontus (6 obols to the drachma = ~ $3.60 for the trip!). Which suggests either that Plato was terribly out of touch with prices for the common traveller or that the long-distance carriers made their profits on volume.

Mark said...

Tom: Basing your conversion on the current cost of silver is misleading. It's now priced as a commodity, and its value is no longer so easy to compare. This is of course common among historians, but they don't as a rule talk to economists much.

I suggest instead that the cost of the harbor ferry was extortionate, while the longer trip, involving less time-wasting transfers of people and cargo per unit of time, became more economical the longer the journey. Our philosopher was probably most out of touch when he asserted that either trip was affordable, but in so doing he was probably using a rhetorical device (and isn't that ironic!)

And don't get me started on the distoting effects diesel and jet fuel have on comparing modern and ancient maritime shipping costs!