Abstract: New Perspectives on Athenian Building Contracts

As I explained in my WIP and in my first post for the blog, one of the main research lines of my project on the legal and economic aspects of public building in classical Athens concerns the system of labor recruitment and the contractual relationship between the city and the private individuals paid to execute the building works. For the Research Symposium which concludes our academic year at the CHS I intend to focus on building contracts – in particular through a careful re-examination of the epigraphic sources – as a key for better understanding the interaction between public building projects and the composition of the Athenian labor market.

As is well known, in Attic sources the recruitment of workers for public building projects was perceived as a transaction pertaining to the sphere of the μισθός (the “pay”). In fact, the action of the public officials who hired the workers and the action of the individuals who undertook the works are indicated respectively by the active and middle voices of the verb μισθόω and its compounds.

This peculiarity – in extra-Attic sources the transactions concerning building works pertain to the lexical sphere of the sale (ὠνή) – is usually regarded as an indication that the city of Athens preferred to hire the workers directly instead of contracting out the works. By contrast, in small or remote places such as Epidaurus, Delphi, and Delos, where the availability of skilled labor and building materials was scarcer in comparison with large urban centers, the farming out of works through the instrument of the building contract was necessary to attract and keep hold of qualified entrepreneurs with the promise of substantial and long-term jobs.

However, despite the different terminology, the analysis of the sources shows that a form of transaction with the same features of the extra-Attic building contract was already attested in Athens at least since the middle of the 5th c., thus revealing, in my opinion, that the different origin of the terminology does not necessarily affect the form of the transaction.

In this context, it is usually assumed that the Athenian system of labor recruitment underwent a sort of evolutionary process. During the ‘golden age’ of the Periclean building program the large affluence of skilled workers in the city would have allowed the direct hiring of craftsmen, paid by the day or by the piece of work done; then, since the end of the Peloponnesian War, when skilled labor became scarcer even in Athens, the instrument of the building contract came more and more often into use to secure the services of qualified entrepreneurs, especially in the case of larger and more complex works.

I will argue that a close re-examination of the sources seriously undermines this kind of reconstruction. Our main body of evidence is represented by different categories of inscriptions, published in different moments and with different purposes. As such, they focus on different aspects and stages of the procedure leading to the construction of public buildings and offer a mere selection of the original details, according to their respective purposes. Taking into account the specific perspective that each document offers on the procedure, it is possible to ascertain the coexistence at the same chronological level, and sometimes within the same building project, of different systems of labor recruitment. Moreover, the adoption of a building contract cannot be always explained in terms of the complexity of the job, or in terms of the productive capacity of the craftsman involved.

The results of this preliminary enquiry suggest that the idea of an evolutionary process must be replaced by a different interpretative framework. Without underestimating the changing historical background, the system of labor recruitment seems to depend not only on the composition of the labor market, but above all on the nature of the building works, the budgetary funds, and the more or less rigid time schedule of each different project.

Selected Bibliography

Bodei Giglioni, G., Lavori pubblici e occupazione nell’antichità classica, Bologna 1974.

Burford, A., The Greek temple Builders at Epidauros, Liverpool 1969.

Carusi, C., “Alcune considerazioni sulle syngraphai ateniesi del V e del IV secolo”, ASAA, s. III, 6/I (2006): 11-36.

Davis, P.H., “The Delian Building Contracts”, BCH 61 (1937): 109-135.

Feyel, Ch., Les artisans dans les sanctuaires grecs aux époques classique et hellénistique à travers la documentation financière en Grèce, Athènes 2006.

Lanza, E., “Lavori pubblici e gestione amministrativa nei rendiconti di costruzione del Partenone”, in La prassi della democrazia ad Atene, Alessandria 2004: 1-28.

Marginesu, G., Gli epistati dell’Acropoli: edilizia sacra nella città di Pericle, 447/6-433/2 a.C., Paestum 2010.

Martini, R., “Lavori pubblici e appalto nella Grecia antica”, in I rapporti contrattuali con la pubblica amministrazione nell’esperienza storico-giuridica, Napoli 1997: 37-53.

Schaps, D.M., “Builders, Contractors, and Power: Financing and Administering Building Projects in Ancient Greece”, in Classical Studies in Honor of David Sohlberg, Ramat Gan 1996: 77-89.