published on 18 January 2012
Agriculture was the foundation of the Ancient Greek economy. Nearly 80% of the population was involved in this activity. Agriculture permeated the Greek world to such an extent that it gave birth to a way of life which persisted throughout Antiquity.
During the early part of Greek history, as shown in the Odyssey, Greek agriculture - and diet - was based on cereals: barley (κριθαί / kritaí), Durum wheat (πύρος / pýros), and, less commonly, millet or common wheat. The generic term (σῖτος / sitos) usually translated as wheat, could in fact designate any type of cereal grain. In reality, 90% of cereal production was barley. Even if the ancients were aware of the better nutritional value of wheat, the growing of barley was less demanding and more productive.
It did not take long for demand to out pace production capabilities. 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.
Greece is also home to many 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 have also been grown in Greece since the Bronze age, as they grow well in rocky soil.
These core crops were augmented by vegetable gardens (cabbage, onion, garlic, lentils, chick pea, beans) and orchards (fig, almond, pomegranate). Herbs were also grown (sage, mint, thyme, savory, oregano), as were oilseed plants such as linseed, sesame, and poppy.
Animal husbandry, above all seen as a sign of power and wealth in the works of Homer, was in fact not highly developed due to the limitations of geography. While the Mycenean civilisation was familiar with the rearing of cattle, this reduced quickly as a result of geographic expansion into less suitable terrain. Goat and sheep quickly became the most common livestock; less difficult to raise and also 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. Donkeys, mules and their various 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, a comedy by Aristophanes, amply 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. Flocks of sheep were herded between the valley in winter and the mountains in summer. Special taxes existed for the transit or stopover of flocks in cities.
Hesiod's Works and Days (8th century BCE) and Xenophon's Economy (4th century BCE) provide valuable information about working of the land.
Autumn was the most important season. In the beginning of autumn farmers collected deadfall and prepared supplies of firewood; as winters in the highlands could be harsh. The hard crust that had formed over the summer on grain fields had to be broken using plows (usually wooden, rarely iron) and mallets. The fallow land for next year was sown by hand.
The olive harvest took place from late autumn to the beginning of winter, either by hand or by pole. The olives 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 2nd century BCE Roman invention. Oil was preserved in terra-cotta vases for use throughout the year.
Autumn was also the time for pruning of trees and vines, harvesting of legumes, as well as the grape harvest. The grapes were crushed by foot in large vats then the wine was left to ferment in jugs.
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. Attempts to introduce triennial crop rotation with legumes in the third year was problematic due to the poor Greek soil, lack of manpower, and complete absence of mechanization. The Greeks did not use animal manure, possibly due to the low number of cattle. The only soil additive were weeds ploughed back into the ground after fields came out of fallow.
In summer, irrigation was indispensable. In June, the farmers harvested with sickles; the scythe was not used. Wheat was threshed by being trampled upon by oxen, donkeys or mules. The grain was then stored. It was left to women and slaves to grind it and make bread.
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 the Romans who invented the water mill, which finally permitted hydraulic power to augment muscle power. Neither irrigation, nor soil improvements, nor animal husbandry saw any advances. Overall, production remained dismal. Only the very richest of land, such as that of Messinia was capable of supporting two crops per year.
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, who forbade slavery for debt and 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, however, property started to become concentrated among relatively few land owners, including in Sparta where according to Aristotle, the land has passed into the hands of a few (Politics, II, 1270a). Nevertheless, the great 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.
Finally, a not insignificant portion of Greek land was public and/or sacred. Each city possessed such land and it is estimated that in classical Athens 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 generally fortunate individuals.