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Economic Crisis and Subsistence Agriculture

One cause of the economic crisis that plagued Athens in the later seventh century around the time of Draco1 may have been that the precariousness of agriculture in this period could sometimes lead to the gradual accumulation of the available farm land in the hands of fewer and fewer people. In subsistence agriculture, the level at which many Athenian farmers operated, a lean year could mean starvation. Moreover, farmers lacked any easy method to convert the surplus of a good year into imperishable capital, such as coined money, which could be then be stored up to offset bad years in the future, because coinage was not even invented until late in the seventh-century B.C.2 in Lydia in Anatolia and took a long time to become common in Greece. Failed farmers had to borrow food and seed to survive. When they could borrow no more, they had to leave their land to find a job to support their families, most likely by laboring for successful farmers. Under these conditions, farmers who became more effective than others, or simply more fortunate, could acquire the use and even the ownership of the land of failed farmers. In any case, many poor Athenians had apparently lost control of their land to wealthier proprietors by the late seventh century. The crisis became so acute that impoverished peasants were even being sold into slavery to pay off debts3. Finally, twenty-five years after Draco's legislation, conditions had become so acute that a civil war threatened to break out.

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