Τρίτη 20 Φεβρουαρίου 2024

Agriculture in ancient Greece

Farmers in ancient Greece were primarily involved in agriculture, which was the foundation of the ancient Greek economy. The most widely cultivated crops were wheat, barley, olives, and grapes, suited to the Mediterranean climate. Other crops included fruits, vegetables, and pulses. Farming methods included crop rotation, irrigation, and animal husbandry. The size of farms varied, with some ranging from 5 to 20 hectares for the wealthy aristocracy. Agriculture was pivotal to the economy, providing food and raw materials for industries. Farmers also engaged in trade, both domestically and internationally, contributing to the prosperity of Greek city-states.
An ear of barley, symbol of wealth in the city of Metapontum in Magna Graecia (i.e. the Greek colonies of southern Italy), stamped stater, c. 530–510 BCE

Agriculture was the foundation of the Ancient Greek economy. Nearly 80% of the population was involved in this activity.
Figurine of a ploughman. 600 BC. -575 BC

Most Greek language agricultural texts are lost, except two botany texts by Theophrastus and a poem by Hesiod. The main texts are mostly from the Roman Agronomists: Cato the Elder's De agri cultura, Columella's De re rustica, Marcus Terentius Varro and Palladius. Varro mentions at least fifty Greek authors whose works are now lost. Attributed to Mago the Carthaginian, the agricultural treatise Rusticatio, originally written in Punic and later translated into Greek and Latin, is now lost. Scholars speculate whether this text may have been an early source for agricultural traditions in the Near East and Classical world. Ancient Greek agronomy was also influenced by Babylonian agriculture through the work of 4th century writer Vindonius Anatolius who influenced the 7th century writer Cassianus Bassus. Bassus' Eclogae de re rustica was excerpted in the Geoponika, a surviving Byzantine text created during the reign of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus and later translated into Arabic, Syriac and Armenian.
Woman grinding grain, around 450 BC. BC, British Museum

Ancient Greek farmers employed several methods to sustain their agricultural activities, including:
Crop Rotation: To preserve soil fertility and avoid depleting nutrient reserves, farmers rotated their crops among various fields.
Irrigation: Water management played a crucial role in arid regions, particularly during summer months. Dams, canals, and aqueducts were constructed to channel water to crops.
Terracing: On sloping landscapes, terraces were built to provide level surfaces for planting crops.
Bronze billygoat found in the deme of Kephissia, 5th century BCE, Louvre

Animal Husbandry: Raising livestock was integral to the economy; animals supplied meat, milk, wool, and leather, while their waste enriched the soil.
Basic Tools: Handheld implements such as wooden or iron-tipped plows, hoes, and sickles were commonly used for tillage, weeding, and harvesting.
Transhumance (not explicitly detailed in search results): Seasonal movement of livestock between pastures, allowing animals to graze in different climatic zones throughout the year.
Animal husbandry, seen as a sign of power and wealth in the works of Homer, was in fact not well developed in ancient Greece. While the Mycenaean civilization was familiar with the rearing of cattle, the practice was restricted as a result of geographic expansion into less suitable terrain. Goats and sheep quickly became the most common livestock; less difficult to raise and providers of meat, wool, and milk (usually in the form of cheese). Pork and poultry (chicken and geese) were also raised. Oxen were rare and normally used as a work animal, though they were occasionally used as sacrificial animals (see Hecatomb). Donkeys, mules and their mixes were raised as pack or draught animals.

Horses were raised on the plains of Thessaly and Argolis; it was a luxury animal, signifying aristocracy. The Clouds, Ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes, illustrates the equestrian snobbery of Athenian aristocrats: Pheidippides, the son of the hero is addicted to race-horses and so ruins his father Strepsiades.
It is likely that most farms practiced some limited animal husbandry; poultry or small animals grazing on waste land or fed kitchen scraps. Combined farm/livestock operations also existed, as well as those specializing in livestock. An inscription[4] also mentions a certain Eubolos of Elateia, in Phocis, the owner of 220 head of cattle and horses and at least 1000 sheep and goats. Flocks of sheep were herded between the valley in winter and the mountains in summer. Taxes existed for the transit or stopover of flocks in cities.
Plowman. Attic black-figure band cup. Around 530 BC. Louvre Museum

Despite these advancements, farming in ancient Greece remained challenging due to factors such as scarce arable land, variable weather patterns, and limited technological innovation compared to later periods. Nonetheless, agriculture was central to the economy and way of life in ancient Greece, providing food, raw materials, and employment opportunities for the majority of the population.
Ancient Greek farmers used a variety of tools for their agricultural activities, including:
Plows: Typically drawn by oxen or donkeys, these were used to prepare the soil for seeding.
Hoes and Rakes: Employed for weeding and soil breaking.
Sickles: Used for grain harvesting.
Pruning Hooks: Crucial in vineyards and olive groves.
Spades and Shovels (basic tools): Used for digging and moving earth, with the cutting part typically made of wood or with iron tips.
Pitchforks: Utilized for various tasks, such as handling hay.
These tools were essential for tasks such as crop cultivation, irrigation, and animal husbandry, forming the basis of ancient Greek agriculture.
An example of pithos
Pithos ( Greek: πίθος, plural: pithoi πίθοι) is the Greek name of a large storage container.

Ancient Greek farmers transported their crops using various methods. After harvesting, the crops were typically heaped in baskets and then taken to be threshed on a cleared patch of dry ground. Sometimes, a sled drawn by animals was used for this purpose. Barley collecting and wheat "winnowing" were typically done by hand with a small shovel and a basket. Additionally, most farmers would have traded their surplus produce for items they did not produce themselves, such as cheese, honey, fish, and shellfish. Some wealthier citizens with larger plots could make a profit from selling their extra crops at the market. During the fifth century B.C., Athens' port of Piraeus became the most important trading center in the Mediterranean, where Greek merchant ships sailed and exported goods such as wine, olives, and olive oil to various places.

They raised animals like sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens.Most farming was done by men and slaves; women helped with the harvest.Terracing was used to farm on Greece’s hilly landscapes.Drought was common, so irrigation systems were important.Farmers brought their goods to market in the city-state’s agora.Rituals and offerings to gods were a big part of farming life.
Harvesting olives. British Museum

Olive farming was integral to ancient Greece’s agriculture, economy, and lifestyle. This hardy tree was suitable for Greece’s dry, stony landscape. Its fruit and oil had many uses, including food preparation, lighting, soap making, and ceremonial practices.
Thasos island Greece


The trade of olive oil significantly boosted Greece’s economic prosperity. The olive branch evolved into a symbol of peace and wisdom, demonstrating its vital role in Greek society. The myth that the olive tree was bestowed by Athena underscored its spiritual and cultural value.

Wine production was a crucial part of ancient Greek farming, reflecting the Greek fondness for wine as part of their meals, social functions, and sacred ceremonies. Favorable climate conditions and hilly landscapes supported vine growth. Greek farmers meticulously tended to their vineyards, honing pruning and training strategies to increase grape yield.

The Greeks crafted diverse types of wines, many sweetened, spiced, or watered down. The wine was typically stored in amphorae and was a key domestic and export commodity, contributing significantly to Greece’s economy.

The reverence for Dionysus, the god of wine, emphasized the societal value of winemaking in ancient Greece.

Irrigation was essential to ancient Greek farming due to the area’s dry climate and sporadic rainfall. Water scarcity compelled Greeks to devise smart solutions for crop hydration. Simple but effective irrigation systems, like canals and trenches, were constructed to distribute water from rivers and wells to their lands.
The olive; a foundation of Greek agriculture – here in Karystos, Euboea

Terracing was also utilized on hilly terrains to minimize water runoff and soil erosion. In more arid regions, a “qanat” system was used, where tunnels were dug into hills to tap into groundwater. These hydration methods were integral to Greek agriculture, enabling the growth of crops like olives, grapes, and grains.

Farmers in ancient Greece used terracing to counter the country’s hilly landscape. This involved creating flat patches on steep slopes, enabling agriculture, and conserving water and soil. Stone walls typically supported these terraces, mitigating soil erosion.

The method made effective use of rainfall, slowing its movement for better soil absorption. Terracing allowed the successful growth of staple crops like olives and grapes, supporting Greece’s economy.

Grain cultivation, especially wheat, and barley, was critical in ancient Greek farming. These grains were dietary staples and adapted to the Mediterranean environment. Wheat was grown in winter, and barley could withstand less favorable soils and conditions.

Greek farmers used a two-field system to prevent soil exhaustion. Harvesting involved community participation. Wheat was used for bread, and barley for porridge or beer, highlighting their significance in Greek life.

The Agora, ancient Greece’s marketplace, was crucial for farmers to trade or sell their produce, including olives, grapes, grains, and livestock. Beyond being a market, the Agora was also a social and political hub. Here, farmers engaged with customers, set prices, and gauged demand trends.

The revenue from Agora transactions contributed to both the individual farmer’s income and the broader Greek city-state economy.

The farmers would take food to the marketplace and they would set up stores.

An average farmer would make around 2 drachmas each day when they sold their crops.

Animal husbandry was an essential facet of ancient Greek farming. Livestock, including sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens, offered resources such as meat, wool, and milk. Oxen and donkeys served as labor animals.

Greeks practiced transhumance, moving livestock between pastures according to seasons, optimizing grazing land use, and maintaining field fertility. Animal husbandry influenced the economy and rural landscape of ancient Greece.

Most of the animals on the farms were chickens, goats, pigs, sheep, and cows.

The animals would be used to help do the farming or they would be used to get milk, eggs, meat, wool, and leather and they were also used to fertilize the soil so that it would grow the crops better.

During the early time of Greek history, as shown in the Odyssey, Greek agriculture - and diet - was based on cereals (sitos, though usually translated as wheat, could in fact designate any type of cereal grain). Even if the ancients were aware of the better nutritional value of wheat, the growing of barley was less demanding and more productive. Attempts have been made to calculate Attica grain production in the period, but results have not been conclusive. It did not take long for demand to outpace production capabilities, as arable land was limited. The "tightness" of the land (στενοχωρία / stenokhôría) also explains Greek colonization, and the importance Anatolian cleruchies would have for the Athenian empire in controlling grain provision.

On the other hand, the Greek land was well suited for olive trees, which provided olive oil. The growing of olive trees dates back to early Greek history. Olive plantations are a long-term investment: it takes more than twenty years for the tree to provide fruit, and it only fruits every other year. Grapes also do well in the rocky soil, but demand a lot of care. Grapes have been grown since the Bronze Age.

These core crops were augmented by vegetable gardens (cabbage, onion, garlic, lentils, chick pea, beans) and herb gardens (sage, mint, thyme, savory, oregano). Orchards included those of fig, almond, apple, and pear trees. Oil-seed plants such as linseed, sesame, and poppy were also grown.

Some of the crops that were grown were wheat, barley, olives, and grapes. All of these crops were very important to the life of the Ancient Greeks.

In October, the crops that were grain would be planted, and then in April or May is when they would pick or harvest the grain.

Olives were not picked until February and grapes were not picked until sometime in September.

Barley
The main crop was barley. Barley was important for Ancient Greek farmers because it was an ingredient that was used for making different foods that were important for the Greeks.

Barley was used to make porridge or to make flour so that the Greeks could have bread to eat. Barley was also a big ingredient in wine.

Olives were used to make oil such as olive oil and the oil was used for both cooking and for burning lamps so that the Greeks could have light

Grapes were used to make wine, raisins and to be eaten. Since wine was such an important drink in Ancient Greek, grapes were needed.

The wine was watered down so that the Greeks could drink it when they wanted. Wine was never drunk without adding water because it was dangerous to do that.

Wood was exploited, primarily for domestic use; homes and wagons were made of wood as was the ard (aratron). The Greek forests located in the highlands were denuded by goats and charcoal production; it was not long before it had to be imported especially for ship production (see trireme).

Beekeeping provided honey, the only source of sugar known to the Greeks. It also was used in medicines and in the production of mead. The Ancient Greeks did not have access to sugarcane. The Hymettus region of Attica was known for the quality of honey produced there. Wax was also produced, used in the lost wax process to produce bronze statues as well as in medicines.

Farms in Ancient Greece were small and most of the time they only had about five acres of land.

The farms were important to farmers because they would grow their own food to feed their family and they would sell the crops to make a living.

Ancient Greek farmers used several tools for crop cultivation. Plows, typically drawn by oxen or donkeys, prepared the soil for seeding. They used hoes and rakes for weeding and soil breaking. Pruning hooks were crucial in vineyards and olive groves, while sickles were used for grain harvesting. Shovels and pickaxes helped create irrigation channels. These basic yet practical tools enabled efficient Greek farming.

The mountainous topography of ancient Greece presented a major challenge for farming due to the scarcity of flat, arable land. In areas where farming was possible, the soil was often rocky, requiring substantial effort to prepare for planting.

The dry climate, especially in summer, further complicated agriculture, necessitating efficient irrigation methods. With only around 20% of the land deemed fertile, farming was a demanding task. Additionally, the region’s susceptibility to natural disasters like earthquakes posed risks to agricultural stability.

Despite these hardships, the ancient Greeks adapted their farming techniques to the environment, establishing agriculture as a vital component of their economy and society.

The Greek god of farming is Demeter. She was one of the twelve Olympian gods and goddesses and was responsible for the fertility of the earth and the growth of crops. Demeter was often depicted holding a sheaf of wheat or a cornucopia, symbolizing the abundance of the harvest. She was also associated with the cycle of life and death, as the growth and harvest of crops mirrored the natural cycle of birth and death.

The main crops grown in Ancient Greece were wheat, barley, olives, grapes, and vegetables. Wheat and barley were the most important crops, as they were used to make bread and other foods. Olives were grown for their oil, which was used for cooking, lighting, and bathing. Grapes were grown for wine, which was an important part of Greek culture. Vegetables such as beans, lentils, and onions were also grown.

The main methods of farming used in Ancient Greece were crop rotation, irrigation, and animal husbandry. Crop rotation was used to prevent soil depletion. Irrigation was used to water crops in dry areas. Animal husbandry provided manure to fertilize the soil and meat and milk for food.

Ancient Greek farmers faced significant hurdles. The scarcity of farmable land, with only a fifth of Greece’s terrain suitable for agriculture, created high demand. The unpredictable Mediterranean climate, featuring hot, dry summers and wet, mild winters, made rainfall uncertain, posing a risk of crop failure.

They also had to contend with pests and diseases that could harm crops and livestock, leading to economic loss. Moreover, the lack of modern farming technology like tractors, irrigation systems, and pesticides hindered efficient farming and crop protection. Yet, despite these obstacles, agriculture was a vital sector in the ancient Greek economy, supplying food and raw materials for industries such as textiles and pottery.

How did farming contribute to the economy of Ancient Greece?
Agriculture was pivotal to the economy of Ancient Greece, with the vast majority of the population engaged in farming. These farmers were responsible for generating the majority of Greece’s food supply, while simultaneously supporting other industries by providing essential raw materials.

Their contributions included the production of cereals, fruits, vegetables, and livestock, along with raw materials like flax and wool for the textile industry, and grapes and olives for winemaking and oil production. Surplus goods were traded, not just domestically but internationally, facilitating income generation and bolstering the Greeks’ living standards.

Thus, agriculture underpinned Ancient Greece’s economy through the provision of food, raw materials, and commerce.

What were the social and cultural implications of farming in Ancient Greece?
Agriculture held significant sway in Ancient Greece, influencing their socio-cultural dynamics extensively. As the primary occupation for the majority, it effectively formed the bedrock of Greek societal norms, values, and beliefs.

The essence of the family was deeply rooted in Greek culture, a product of farming’s family-centered nature. Given the small size of most Greek farms, family participation was imperative, nurturing a robust sense of togetherness and community.

Farming, with its inherent demanding characteristics, reinforced the values of perseverance and diligence among the Greeks, honing a commendable work ethic. Moreover, the profound dependence on the land cultivated a deep-seated appreciation for nature.

The reliance on the weather for agricultural success drove Greeks towards spiritual pursuits, seeking divine blessings for favorable conditions and abundant harvests, thereby enriching their religious customs. Thus, farming wielded substantial influence over the socio-cultural landscape of Ancient Greece, shaping its norms, beliefs, and societal structure.


Hesiod's Works and Days, 8th century BCE and Xenophon's Economy of the 4th century BCE provide information about working off the land.

The olive harvest took place from late autumn to the beginning of winter, either by hand or by pole. They were placed in wicker baskets and left to ferment for a few weeks before being pressed. The screw press, although referred to as the Greek press by Pliny the Elder (XVIII, 37) was a late (2nd century BCE) Roman invention. Oil was preserved in terra cotta vases for use later. This was also the time for pruning of trees and vines and harvesting of legumes.

Spring was the rainy season; farmers took advantage of this to bring fallow ground back into production. They practised biennial crop rotation, alternating from year to year between fallow and cultivated.[citation needed] Attempts to introduce triennial crop rotation with legumes in the third year, ran into problems due to the poor Greek soil, lack of power, and absence of mechanization. The Greeks did not use animal manure, possibly due to the low number of cattle.[citation needed] The only soil additive was weeds ploughed back into the ground after fields came out of fallow.

In summer, irrigation was indispensable. In June, they harvested with sickles; the scythe was not used. Wheat was threshed with animal power; it was trampled by oxen, donkeys or mules, and the grain stored. Women and slaves ground it and made bread.

In early autumn, they collected deadfall and prepared supplies of firewood; while winters were mild on the coast they could be brutal in the highlands. Farmers also had to break the hard crust that had formed over the summer on grain fields. To do this required three passes since the ard was wooden (metal shares were rare) and only scratched the uppermost subsoil without inverting it. A hoe and mallet were also used to break clumps of earth. The fallow land for next year was sown by hand. This was the time of the grape harvest: the grapes were crushed by foot in large vats, then the wine was left to ferment in jugs. After that process, people could drink the ambrosial wine and enjoy it.

In the nearly four centuries that passed between Hesiod and Xenophon, no improvements can be found in agriculture. Tools remained mediocre and there were no inventions to lighten the work of either man or animal. It was not until the rise of Romans that the water mill came into wide use, employing hydraulic power to augment muscle power. It took until the Middle Ages for true plows which turned the earth to be widely adopted. Neither irrigation, nor soil improvements, nor animal husbandry saw notable advances. Only the very richest of land, such as that of Messinia was capable of supporting two crops per year.

Agricultural property
With the exception of Athens, and a few areas where aerial surveys have permitted analysis of historical land distribution, agricultural property allocation is not well known. Before the 5th century BCE, it is certain that the land belonged to great landowners, such as the Attican Eupatrides. Nevertheless, land use varied regionally; in Attica domains were divided among smaller plots, whereas in Thessaly they had single tenants.

From the 8th century BCE, tensions grew between the great landowners and the peasants, who were finding it more and more difficult to survive. This can probably be explained by population growth brought on by reduced infant mortality, and aggravated by the practice of equally subdividing land amongst several inheritors each generation (attested to by both Homer and Hesiod). In Athens, the crisis was resolved with the arrival of Solon in 594 BCE. He forbade slavery for debt and introduced other measures intended to help the peasants. In the 5th century BCE, the practice of liturgy (λειτουργία / leitourgia - literally, "public work") placed the responsibility for provision of public services heavily on the shoulders of the rich, and led to a reduction in large scale land ownership. It is estimated that most citizens of hoplite rank owned around 5 hectares of land. In Sparta, the reforms of Lycurgus led to a drastic redistribution of land, with 10 to 18 hectare lots (kleroi) distributed to each citizen. Elsewhere, tyrants undertook redistributions of land seized from wealthy political enemies.

From the 4th century BCE onwards property starts to become concentrated among few land owners, including in Sparta where according to Aristotle, the land has passed into the hands of a few (Politics, II, 1270a).[6] Nevertheless, the aristocratic estates in Greece never achieved the scope of the great Roman latifundia; during the classical period, the wealthy Alcibiades possessed only 28 hectares (Plato, 1 Alcibiades, 123c). In all cases, land remains intimately associated with the concept of wealth. The father of Demosthenes possessed 14 talents and for land owned only a home, but he was the exception. When the banker Pasion made his fortune, he hurried to buy land.

Some Greek land was public and/or sacred. Each city possessed such land and it is estimated that in Athens during the classical period these lands represented a tenth of cultivable land. This was an administrative division and the property of the city itself (for example in Attica, it was a deme) or a temple. These lands were leased to individuals.

Some of the most popular vegetables in Ancient Greece were cucumbers, onions, and lettuce.Farms were usually given to the son after the father passed away.Farming was an important thing for Ancient Greek trading and farmers would trade crops to other lands.Farmers would dig, and use iron-tipped plows, hoes, and sickles to harvest their crops.Most farmers had horses and donkeys, but these were used for transportation more than farming.Some of the foods that were made out of the corps were cereal, wine, honey, cheese, and more.