The ancient Greeks and agriculture

The ancient Greeks and agriculture

Agriculture in ancient Greece represented the main source of the economy of that land. About 80% of the population was employed in this activity.
Historical information and findings tell us that during the early days of Greek history, as shown in the Odyssey, the agriculture and diet of the Greeks was based on cereals (sitos, although usually translated as wheat, could in fact designate any type of cereal).
In fact, most of the cereals were covered with barley (90%) which was less demanding and productive compared to the better nutritional value of wheat.
For the threshing of the cereals we used a threshing floor (lat. Area) in beaten earth, or paved with stone, on which the grain was first shelled by animal trampling (mules, cattle, horses) and hand threshing with scourges and corrected; then followed the winnowing, which removed the straws by means of natural or manual ventilation, with vanni and fans. Overall, crop yields remained very low and stationary throughout the Greek era.
The Greeks practiced the biennial rotation of crops, alternating from year to year between uncultivated and cultivated land. Attempts to introduce three-year crop rotation with legumes in the third year encountered problems due to poor Greek soil and the absence of mechanization. They also did not use animal manure, probably due to the low number of livestock. The only additive to the soil was the weeds left on the soil after the fallow harvest.
In June, wheat and barley were mowed. Threshing was done with the help of animals; the ears were trampled by oxen, donkeys or mules, and the grain stored. Women and slaves worked the land and made bread.
As regards the yields of arable crops, these, overall, remained very low and stationary throughout the history of ancient Greece and the yields of 1:10 attested for Egypt were never reached, where the Nile silt made fertilization superfluous. and fallows; or even yields of 1:12 or 1:15 attested for Mesopotamia. The average yield (seed: harvest ratio) in Greece hardly exceeded the ratio of 1: 3; this means that, setting aside 1/3 of it for the next sowing, the useful harvest was no more than double that sown.
But soon, due to the shortage of arable land, demand exceeded production capacity. The “narrowness” of arable land (in ancient Greek: στενοχωρία / stenokhôría) also explains the need for Greek colonization and the importance that the Anatolian cleruchies would have had in controlling grain production in the Athenian empire.
This testimony also comes to us from Plato:
– They will produce cereals and wine, and will nourish themselves by obtaining flour from barley and wheat, kneading excellent buns and baking breads. As a side dish they will have salt, olives and cheese, and they will boil onions and vegetables. They will have dried figs, chickpeas and broad beans, and they will roast myrtle and beech berries over the fire, which they will accompany with a moderate intake of wine … (Plato, Repubblica 372);
– As needs grow, the land, which previously was enough to feed them, will become insufficient. They will have to subtract a part of the neighbors’ land, in order to have enough for plowing and grazing, and so will the neighbors with them, if they too indulge in the search for unlimited goods, going beyond the limit of what is necessary. . This is how wars are born … (Plato, Republic 373D).
But the Greek land was especially suitable for the cultivation of the olive tree which provided large quantities of oil. The cultivation of the olive tree dates back to an archaic period of Greek history. Olive groves were a long-term investment: it took more than twenty years for a tree to start producing olives and, with the techniques of the times, it only produced fruit every other year.
The olive harvest took place from late autumn to early winter, both by hand and with the pole. The olives were placed in wicker baskets and left to ferment for a couple of weeks before being pressed. The screw press, also referred to as the Greek press by Pliny the Elder (XVIII, 37) was a Roman invention of the 2nd century BC. The oil was stored in terracotta pots. This was also the time for the pruning of trees and vines and the harvesting of legumes.
Grapes were another important fruit of the rocky earth, but they required a lot of care even though they had been cultivated since the Bronze Age.
These main crops were flanked by the cultivation of vegetables and legumes (cabbage, onion, garlic, lentils, chickpeas and beans) and aromatic plants (sage, mint, thyme, savory and oregano). The orchards included fig, almond, apple and pear trees. Other cultivated plants were flax, sesame and opium poppy.

Farms –
On the other hand, farms were less developed. Raising livestock was also seen as a sign of economic power and, as stated in Homer, was not well developed in ancient Greece. The situation of the Mycenaean civilization was different, which was familiar with the breeding of livestock, in practice it was limited by geographical expansion on unsuitable land. Goats and sheep quickly became the most common livestock; less difficult to breed, they provided meat, wool and milk (usually made into cheese). Other animals raised were pigs and poultry (chicken and geese). Cattle were rare and normally used as working animals, although they were sometimes used as sacrificial animals (see Hecatombs). Donkeys, mules and their crosses were bred as pack animals or draft animals.
There were also companies that dealt with both agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as those specialized in cattle breeding. An inscription mentioned a certain Eubulus of Elateia, in Phocis, who owned 220 calves and horses, as well as at least 1 000 sheep and goats. The flocks of sheep were moved between the valley in winter and the mountain in summer. There were taxes for the transit or stopping of flocks in the cities.
Cattle were also raised, but they were not as widespread as other domestic animals.
If we were to believe the Odyssey, between Ithaca and the lands of the Peloponnese subjected to the dominion of Ulysses there would have been 12 cattle herds, 12 flocks of sheep and as many goats, 24 pigsties, of which the 12 next to the palace of Ithaca supplied the canteens of suitors with 360 fattened pigs a year (1 per day therefore). These are obviously “epic” exaggerations, but nevertheless indicative of the mentality of the time. The exaggeration mainly concerns cattle breeding, which in Greece was practiced on a much smaller scale, given the scarce availability of forage, higher maintenance costs and also the low yield of milk and derivatives.
However, the limited possibilities of cattle breeding favored the maintenance of working cattle (plowing, towing), which provided the most important source of animal energy.
The breeding, especially in the form of itinerant and / or transhumant pastoralism, was almost exclusively sheep and goat: for the greater economy, for the greater availability of pasture given the adaptability of sheep, and even more of goats, to poor pastures in the subtropical area and also predesertica, and for the higher yield compared to vaccines. The sheep were raised both for milk and cheese and for wool, spun and woven on family farms. Goats, for milk and derivatives (the goat produces 2/3 times more milk than sheep), but also for slaughter kids (goats reproduce more quickly than sheep).
The breeding was rarely sedentary and also housed for sheep and goats. A confined breeding, which went beyond the temporary shelter, especially at night, in the sheepfolds, would have required integration with agriculture (production of fodder) possible only in areas particularly favored.
Such a synergistic integration between farming and agriculture was not always easy to achieve: large Roman owners could own both cultivated areas and sheep and goat livestock, but at the level of more modest ownership the coexistence of the two productions could be problematic, above all because the livestock, even small ones, requires availability of forage, the cultivation of which inevitably came to the detriment of cereal and horticultural crops.
The consideration for horses was different. Always seen as an animal of prestige and luxury. Horses were bred on the plains of Thessaly and Argolis; in The Clouds, a play by Aristophanes, the equestrian snobbery of the Athenian aristocrats was illustrated: Fidippis, the hero’s son, had an addiction to racehorses and thus ruined his father Strepsiade.
Finally the bees. Beekeeping was very important as it provided honey, the only source of sugar known to the Greeks. It was also used in medicine and in the production of mead. The ancient Greeks did not have access to sugar cane. Imetto, a region of Attica, was known for the quality of the honey produced. Beeswax was used in the lost wax casting process to produce bronze statues but also medicaments.

Forestry –
Forestry played an important role in ancient Greece, from which timber was obtained, mainly used for domestic purposes; houses and wagons were made of wood, as was the plow (aratron).
Unfortunately, the Greek forests, located on the highlands, were stripped of goats and the production of coal necessary for the extraction of lead and silver in the great mining complex of Laurio; it was not long before it had to be imported mainly for the production of ships (see trireme).
Agricultural tools –
Bronze was used for the construction of agricultural tools and weapons but the plow was made of wood (metal parts were rare) and could only scratch the ground without being able to turn it over. The hoe and spade were also used to break the clods of earth. The land was sown by hand. The hoe was also used in plots too small to withstand plowing, and in vegetable gardens and vineyards.
In fact, in the almost four centuries that pass between Hesiod and Xenophon, no improvement occurred in agriculture. The tools remained mediocre and there were no inventions to lighten the work of men or animals. Only with the advent of the Romans did the mill become widespread, using hydraulic power to increase the muscular power used up until then. It was then necessary to get to the Middle Ages to have real plows to turn the earth well. Neither irrigation, nor soil improvement, nor animal husbandry saw significant progress. Only the richest land, such as that of Messinia, was able to give two crops a year.

The property –
How agricultural properties were assigned and which were redistributed, with the exception of Athens, and some areas in which aerial surveys allowed the analysis of the historical distribution of land, is not well known.
It is known, however, that before the fifth century BC, it is certain that the land belonged to large landowners, such as the eupatrids of Attica. However, the use of the land varied according to the regions; in Attica the large estates had been divided into smaller lots, while in Thessaly they were managed by individual landowners.
Over time, however, starting from the eighth century BC, tensions grew between large landowners and peasants, who encountered more and more difficulties in surviving. This can probably be explained by population growth caused by reduced infant mortality, and aggravated by the practice of dividing the land equally among the numerous heirs at each generation (attested by both Homer and Hesiod). In Athens, the crisis was resolved with the arrival of Solon in 594 BC. He prohibited debt slavery and introduced other measures to help the peasants. In the 5th century BC, the practice of the liturgy (ancient Greek: λειτουργία / leitourgia – literally, “public work”) placed the responsibility for the provision of public services heavily on the shoulders of the wealthy, and led to a large-scale reduction of land ownership . It is estimated that most of the citizens of hoplite rank owned about 5 hectares of land. In Sparta, the Lycurgus reforms led to a drastic redistribution of the land, with a prevalence of 10/18 lots per hectare (kleroi) distributed to each citizen. Elsewhere, tyrants undertook redistributions of seized land from wealthy political enemies.
From the 4th century BC onwards the property began to become concentrated among a few landowners, in particular in Sparta where according to Aristotle, the country had passed into the hands of a few (Politics, II, 1270a) .. [5] However, the estates of the aristocrats in Greece never reached the size of the great Roman estates; during the classical period, the wealthy Alcibiades owned only 28 hectares, (Plato, 1 Alcibiades, 123c). [6] In any case, the land remained intimately associated with the concept of wealth. Demosthenes’ father possessed 14 talents and only one house with land of his own, but he was an exception. When the banker Pasione made his fortune, he hastened to buy several land.

Guido Bissanti

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