Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.
The goal of this paper is to demonstrate that, contrary to the traditional view, there existed in Athens a regularly organized construction industry, i.e. a fairly stable number of workers who made their living from their skills in this sector.
According to the traditional view, public building in ancient Greece was mostly an occasional and sporadic activity, calling for specialized skills that were beyond the regular demand of any given city. Such being the case, only a small number of local craftsmen could expect to make a living from their skills in this sector when public building projects were not going on and not even such a lively center as Athens could accommodate a large number of builders on a permanent basis. As a result, the construction industry was largely made up of travelling craftsmen, plus the accessory contribution of some local workers who found employment in public building projects only as a subsidiary activity. In other words, the crucial problem that any given city was facing when realizing building projects was not the lack of money but the widespread scarcity of skilled labor to do the job.
However, through a fresh re-examination of the Athenian building accounts of the 5th and 4th c. (e.g. IG I³ 475-476; I.Eleusis 159 and 177), I intend to show that the traditional viewpoint needs to be revised. In particular, the level of horizontal specialization attested in the accounts indicates that the demand for the services of workers whose trade was part of the construction industry (e.g. stonemasons, carpenters, brick masons, etc.) was usually considerable, even in years not characterized by a high density of public projects. In the same way, the pattern of slave ownership and the pay scale of workers suggest that several of them, in particular stonemasons, were usually able to command a sizable volume of business. In addition, building accounts reveal that even in years characterized by a higher density of public projects the construction industry was able to meet the increased demand of the market thanks to the versatility of workers within their own trade and their willingness to establish ad-hoc partnerships with other colleagues in order to carry out more onerous jobs.
All this, in my opinion, points to the existence, in classical Athens, of a regularly organized construction industry, i.e. not made up only of travelling craftsmen and occasional workers, and speaks against the traditional idea that the shortage of skilled labor was one of the main challenge of public construction programs.