Ancient GreekAgricultureFarming in Ancient Greece
• Farming in ancient Greece was difficult due to thelimited amount of good soil and cropland. It isestimated that only twenty percent of the land wasusable for growing crops. The main crops werebarley, grapes, and olives.
• Farming was difficult in ancient Greece. Much ofthe country is mountainous, and only about one-fifth of the land can be easily cultivated. Moreover,the soil is generally of poor quality and theclimate—with its hot, dry summers—is less than idealfor growing crops. Nevertheless, the ancient Greeksadapted their agriculture to the land and climateof the region.
• Grain crops, such as barley and wheat, wereplanted in October and harvested in April or May.Olives were harvested November through February.Grapes were normally picked in September.• Barley was the main cereal crop for the ancientGreek farmers. They made the barley into porridgeor ground it into flour to make bread. Olive oil wasused for cooking oil or in oil lamps. Grapes wereprimarily used for wine production, although theycould be eaten or dried into raisins. The Greekswatered down wine, mixing one part wine with twoparts water. Drinking wine straight was consideredbarbaric.
KNOWLEDGE OF ANCIENT GREEKFARMING• Most of our knowledge of ancient Greek farming hascome from literature, archaeology, and art. An earlybook on agriculture, Hesiods Works and Days, providesvaluable details on farm activities, crops, andequipment. Another ancient writer, Xenophon, wroteabout different types of land, caring for the land, sowingand harvesting grain, and tending fruit trees.Studies of ancient farm tools and farm sites haveprovided important information about early Greekagriculture. Finally, images of traditional agriculturalactivities—such as plowing, sowing seeds, picking fruit,and taking produce to market—are found on ancientGreek pottery and paintings.
• Most farms were small with four or five acres of land.Farmers grew enough food to support their familiesand, at times, they grew a small surplus to sell at thelocal market. There were some very large farms runby overseers while the owner lived in the city. Onerecord showed a farmer making 30,000 drachmas ina year off his large farm. (An average worker madeabout two drachmas a day.) This was the exceptionbecause most farms were small to medium sized.
FARMS AND FARM LABOR• Because of the scarcity of good farmland and the hardwork involved in farming, most Greek farms were small.These farms were generally owned and operated byindividuals and their families, who sometimes had thehelp of a few slaves. More fertile regions, such asThessaly in northern Greece, had larger farms thatusually belonged to the estates of wealthy landowners.Many of these owners lived in a town or city and hiredoverseers to manage their estates. Slaves provided mostof the labor on large estates, although free workers werealso hired, especially at harvest time.
PRINCIPAL CROPS• Greek agriculture focused on a few basic crops, especially wheat,barley, grapes, figs, and olives. Farmers grew wheat and barley in the fewfertile areas of Greece, notably in the plains of Argos and Olympia in thesouth.• Grapes, figs, and olives thrived in less fertile soils, and they could betterwithstand the extreme conditions of dryness and drought, which explainstheir importance in Greek agriculture. Farmers often planted these threecrops next to each other, allowing the grapevines to grow up the oliveand fig trees. The practice saved precious space and made efficient useof poor soils. Both grapes and olives had secondary uses. Grapes weremade into wine, which was sometimes added to drinking water toimprove its quality, and olives were pressed to make olive oil, animportant export product. Many Greek farmers also had small gardenplots where they raised vegetables and herbs for their own use and forselling in nearby towns and city markets.• Orchards flourished in many areas of ancient Greece. In addition to figsand olives, the Greeks grew apples, pears, cherries, peaches, plums, anddates, as well as a variety of nuts. The cultivation of these fruits and nutsdepended largely on climate, with certain varieties growing best inparticular regions.
LivestockThe raising of animals was another important agricultural activity inancient Greece. Many farmers kept cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs.Cattle served primarily as work animals. Milk came from sheep andgoats, and these animals also provided wool and hair for makingrope. Pigs and sheep provided meat.Raising livestock depended on an adequate supply of food for theanimals. In regions lacking suitable grazing land, farmers relied uponthe other types of feed, such as harvested crops or food scraps fromthe farmers table. Sheep and goats, which can survive in the leastfertile areas, grazed over wide areas of Greece. The region ofArcadia, in the central part of the Peloponnese*, was known for itsshepherds and sheep raising.Because honey was widely used as a sweetener, beekeeping was acommon agricultural activity in ancient Greece. To increase theproduction of honey, the Greeks developed several methods forraising various types of bees. Many Greek towns passed laws toregulate beekeeping and levied taxes on activities related tobeekeeping.
Harvesting• At harvest time, farmers cut the stalks of grain withsickles, tied them in bundles, and carried them away forthreshing—the process of separating the grain from thestalks. For the threshing*, the stalks were placed on astone or tile floor and then trampled by a team of mulesor oxen. The harvested grain was stored for later use.During the early years in ancient Greece, simple farmingmethods provided enough food to meet the needs ofindividual families, as well as the inhabitants ofneighboring villages. However, the growth of townsgradually created a greater demand for food. Greekfarmers adopted crop rotation, which involves raising aseries of different crops to keep the land in use withoutwearing out the soil. Such improvements in farmtechnology helped increase the production of food.