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Much of the modern world traces its roots to the city states of Ancient Greece. Democracy, philosophy, geometry and the medical profession all descend from the land of Aristotle and Achilles. Our sports are born of the Olympics, our military owes its power to the phalanx, our movies and novels are re-imaginings of Hellenic myths and plays.
But personal finance?
What in the world might Homer, Hercules, Helen and the rest have to say about the way we should handle money in the modern era?
Quite a bit, actually.
And the best way to learn those lessons is to start at the top … by looking to the gods.
When the ancient Greeks turned their attention to the gods, demigods and other deities of Mount Olympus, they saw a world much like their own — marked by rivalry, love, violence, deceit, ego and danger. And of all the gods, only one seemed to be willing to take the side of mere mortals in the earthly battles centered on money: Hermes.
Most of us would recognize a statue of Hermes, the good-looking young male dressed in winged sandals. (The Romans called him Mercury — money lessons from them right here.) But the modern world has forgotten the lessons of the fast-moving god.
Hermes was the gods’ messenger and a noted trickster. Stories of Hermes tell the tale of a deity interested in helping humans by deceiving other gods. And humans who absorbed those lessons learned that deceit was a powerful tool endorsed by the heavens.
No Wall Street mogul would be surprised to learn the trickster was the patron god of trade and commerce. And no grifter or pickpocket would be surprised to learn that Hermes the hustler was also the patron god of thieves.
What sort of world gives birth to a mythology that unites trickery and crime with business and trade?
A place where life is never easy, and playing by the rules is a recipe for stagnation.
Ancient Greece was the birthplace of rugged individualism … and with good reason. Across the hundreds of city states spread throughout the Greek world, most wealth was held by a small land-owning aristocracy. Prior to the rise of democracy in roughly 500 B.C., Greece was a place that was very tough on the little guy.
And the usual way of making it in ancient cultures — small-scale farming — didn’t work very well on the rocky, hard-to-farm lands of Greece.
“You couldn’t really do agriculture in Ancient Greece,” according to journalist and author Will Storr, whose book “Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us,” says the roots of the modern world’s striving, vain culture can be found in the lands around Olympus. “To get along and get ahead in Ancient Greece you had to be this self-starter. You had to be making olive oil and trading it or fishing and selling your fish.”
No ancient culture loved the hustle as much as Greece did. The stories of cutting corners, misleading enemies, wearing disguises, hiding true intent, sneaking around and stealing things are rampant in Greek literature and mythology.
The 12 Labors of Hercules are a series of challenges that often revolve around pilfering things of value and finding tricky and easy ways to take on difficult tasks. Homer’s The Iliad tells the tale of a city destroyed by Greek soldiers who hid inside a fake horse.
Every modern personal-finance success story that began with a person refusing to accept their financial fate can be traced to the hustler god.
In the modern world, we know all too well the worst corner to cut in finance involves debt. The temptation to borrow our way out of trouble is great. And our culture of easy credit makes it painfully simple for someone to slip into debt.
The ancient Greeks found themselves on that same slippery slope. And it took a legendary leader to get them back to solvency.
In the 6th century B.C., the people of Athens found themselves in over their heads. Primitive credit markets had emerged in which people farmed the land of the rich in exchange for a share of the crop.
But under the onerous terms imposed by the aristocracy, debtors who could not pay their debts could be enslaved. In some cases, Athenians sold themselves into slavery in order to free their families from such debt.
The situation could not hold. Lives were destroyed. And revolution loomed.
But the Greeks found an unlikely hero in a Athenian administrator named Solon.
Tasked with solving the problem, Solon reorganized all of Athenian society.
Debts were reduced, the currency was revalued, and the Athenian class system was restructured into four distinct groups in an effort to lessen the aristocracy’s chokehold on land ownership.
Solon’s solutions saved Athens.
But not forever.
New crises emerged, many of them tied to the city state’s finances. And by the fourth century B.C., the people of Athens decided that direct democracy, i.e., the people vote on everything, wasn’t working for fiscal issues.
So Athens moved toward a more republican structure for finance — electing financial officers to oversee the money and decide on spending.
The new system worked well. By the middle of the third century B.C., Athens had become the richest city on the Mediterranean.
And more importantly, the professional class of finance officers ensured the city-state stayed prepared for tough times. Even during times of peace, Athens spent more of its public funds on defense than on all other public spending combined.
It’s been centuries since Greece was the center of the world. And today that nation, home to a seemingly endless debt crisis, hardly seems the place to turn to for financial wisdom.
But it would be a mistake to forget it was the ancient Greeks that taught us the three core lessons of personal finance: learn to hustle, stay out of debt and ask an expert for advice.
Looking for more ancient, but relevant money lessons? You can learn what the Dao teaches us about our dollars here.
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