Article

Agriculture in the Classical World

Carlo Scardino

in Classics

ISBN: 9780195389661
Published online July 2018 | | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0315
Agriculture in the Classical World

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In pre-industrial societies, agriculture was one of the most significant economic factors. Not only was agriculture essential for providing the population with food, but it also played an important role in the way societies viewed themselves. Subsistence farmers as well as the elite class, whose wealth stemmed largely from the land, invested in agriculture. Particularly in the Mediterranean, a region that enjoys comparable land and climatic conditions, agricultural practices remained remarkably stable despite multiple political and cultural revolutions. Similar techniques and methods were used for the cultivation of cereals, olives, wine, fruit and vegetables, as well as in animal husbandry across all regions. Archaeological fieldwork, which employs modern scientific methods (e.g., paleobotany and archaeozoology) provides valuable information on technical, economic, and social aspects of agricultural production, complementing our knowledge from written sources (literary, epigraphic, and papyrological). Alongside literary, sometimes idealized representations aimed at an educated audience (such as Virgil’s Georgics), we find systematic, subject-specific approaches. The latter were aimed less at smallholders than owners of medium-sized or large estates. Like many other ancient sciences, agriculture moved between the poles of empirically verifiable knowledge on the one hand, and instructions and recipes based on magic or esoteric teachings on the other. In addition to instructions on how to grow crops and manage animals, agricultural works often include information on botany, pharmacology, nutrition science, human and veterinary medicine, geology and hydrology, meteorology, astronomy, chemistry, alchemy, engineering, and so forth. Conversely, scientific and even literary works that are not focused on agriculture can contain information about how to cultivate the land (compare the description of the shield at Iliad 18.541–589). Only a few remains of the large body of Greek agricultural works have come down to us. Examples include the second part of the didactic poem Ἔργα καὶ ἡμέραι (Works and Days), composed by Hesiod at the end of the 8th century bce, or the Geoponica, which is the only fully preserved compendium in Greek, written in Constantinople in the 10th century ce. For other authors, we possess merely fragments, quotations from Roman authors, or Oriental (mainly Arabic) translations of late antique compendia. Conversely, the work of Latin authors has largely survived. It draws significantly on Hellenistic writings, but also the work of Carthaginian farmers such as Mago. The corpus includes texts by the Republican authors Cato and Varro, the Augustan authors Virgil and Columella, as well as Palladius from Late Antiquity.

Article.  9050 words. 

Subjects: Classical Studies ; Classical Art and Architecture ; Classical History ; Classical Literature ; Classical Philosophy

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