Greek agriculture

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Life in historical Greece was sustained by barley and wheat, sown mostly in the autumn as field crops dependent on rainfall between autumn and spring. Cultivation with a simple wooden plough (ard), sometimes tipped with iron, to break up the surface of the soil for receiving seeds in autumn, is treated as normal by ancient sources, but it is uncertain whether smallholders could produce enough to feed a pair of plough‐oxen in addition to their own households. For them hand cultivation by spade and hoe must have been common.

The practice of leaving half the land in uncultivated fallow is also regarded as normal by our sources, while repeated ploughing of the fallow was desirable. But again, smallholders may have been forced to risk long‐term depletion of the soil by resting much less than half their land each year. Some leguminous field crops (broad beans and various lentils (pulses) ) were known in Mycenaean times and in Homer. By the 4th cent. bc they were recommended as partial alternatives to fallow (either as crops in their own right or as green manure to be ploughed under); it is not clear how early or how widely they were employed in rotation with wheat and barley. The moisture and soil requirements of wheat made it an often unreliable crop in the Greek climate. Barley, somewhat less nutritious and much less esteemed, was probably grown more widely. (See cereals.) Frequent local crop failures required supplementation through trade with less affected neighbours or over longer distances. While it is unlikely that overseas settlements of the 8th and 7th cents. bc had as a prime goal assistance to the grain supply of the mother cities, once established in Magna Graecia and Sicily or, later, on the north Black (Euxine) Sea coast and its approaches, the existence of surpluses in the new settlements at times of shortage in the old lessened the chances of famine and set in motion rhythms of trade with far‐reaching consequences. How early the larger Greek towns came to depend on imported grain is disputed. Some have seen Athenian colonies on the Hellespont in the later 6th cent. as established on the route of the city's corn supply, but for Athens explicit evidence comes only in the late 5th cent. Meanwhile by c.470 Teos included interference with the city's grain supply among the targets of public curses.

Other crops, chiefly olives, grapes, and the vegetables and fruits grown in irrigated gardens, supplemented the largely cereal diet. Olive oil and wine also permitted trade, not least for the acquisition of grain in times of shortage. Greeks rarely settled at elevations or latitudes too cold for the olive. Since the trees matured slowly (in ten to fifteen years), they were planted for long‐term benefits and not always in large numbers. Olive cultivation was not demanding once young trees had been established and no longer needed irrigation, but harvesting and, with only primitive technology, oil production required much labour. By contrast, vines grew fast and demanded much hard work from the start.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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