Game Theory and Business Strategy

Origin of Auctions


The first written account of an auction was provided by Herodotus, a 5th century (B.C.) Greek historian. The first use of auctions was certainly not politically correct, by today's standards. The following is an excerpt from his work, The Histories:

I will now speak of their established customs. The wisest of these, in our judgment, is one which I have learned by inquiry is also a custom of the Eneti in Illyria. It is this: once a year in every village all the maidens as they attained marriageable age were collected and brought together into one place, with a crowd of men standing around.

Then a crier would display and offer them for sale one by one, first the fairest of all; and then, when she had fetched a great price, he put up for sale the next most attractive, selling all the maidens as lawful wives. Rich men of Assyria who desired to marry would outbid each other for the fairest; the ordinary people, who desired to marry and had no use for beauty, could take the ugly ones and money besides;

for when the crier had sold all the most attractive, he would put up the one that was least beautiful, or crippled, and offer her to whoever would take her to wife for the least amount, until she fell to one who promised to accept least; the money came from the sale of the attractive ones, who thus paid the dowry of the ugly and the crippled. But a man could not give his daughter in marriage to whomever he liked, nor could one that bought a girl take her away without giving security that he would in fact make her his wife.

And if the couple could not agree, it was a law that the money be returned. Men might also come from other villages to buy if they so desired.

This, then, was their best custom; but it does not continue at this time; they have invented a new one lately [so that the women not be wronged or taken to another city]; since the conquest of Babylon made them afflicted and poor, everyone of the people that lacks a livelihood prostitutes his daughters.


Source: Herodotus, The Histories, Book 1, Chapter 196. Translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920. Online source: Perseus at Tufts University.