The first states on the territory of Greece arose in the II-I millennium BC on the island of Crete and in the Peloponnese. The existing type of economy was based on the productive labor of foreign slaves captured in the war. The ancient economy developed on the scale of small Mediterranean city-states. Agriculture was the economic foundation of the Greek and Roman civilization (Irby, 2019). It is no coincidence that in the Greek city-states, political affiliation and ownership of civil rights were made directly dependent on the ownership of land. This paper discusses the principles of Greek and Roman agriculture as highlighted in Philip Thibodeau’s article as well as analyzes other sources on this topic.
As Philip Thibodeau writes in his article “Greek and Roman Agriculture” in the book A Companion to Science, Technology, and Medicine in Ancient Greece and Rome, these Mediterranean lands are rich in crops. The topographic and climatic features of Greece and Rome allow growing a variety of grains, ranging from tropical to those that are cultivated in Northern Europe (Irby, 2019). In the early days of ancient history, as shown in The Odyssey, Greek agriculture and diet were based on cereals, mainly wheat, millet, and barley. The cultivation of these crops was not demanding but productive.
On the other hand, the Greek rocky land was well suited for olive trees, the cultivation of which dates back to early Greek history. Olive plantations are a long-term investment since a tree takes more than twenty years to bear fruit. Grapes also thrive in rocky soil, but they require great care. The grapes have been cultivated in Greece since the Bronze Age (Isager & Skydsgaard, 1995). These main crops were complemented by vegetable and herb gardens. The ancient people cultivated cabbage, onions, garlic, lentils, chickpeas, beans, as well as sage, mint, thyme, and oregano. The orchards included fig, almond, apple, and pear trees, as well as flaxseed, sesame, and poppy.
Philip Thibodeau pays sufficient attention not only to crops but also to such components of agriculture as fertilization, irrigation, soil improvement, livestock raising, as well as tools and methods of tilling. The author refers to Hesiod’s Works and Days when describing how the Greeks profitably used the land, how they managed the farm, drew up an agricultural calendar and counted down the dates of work (Irby, 2019). He also refers to Xenophon’s Oeconomicus where the philosopher writes for the first time in his work about the plow (Irby, 2019). He describes how a plowman with the help of oxen plowed the soil so that the sun warmed its deepest part and burned out the roots of the weeds. Before sowing, the soil had to be uniformly lumpy to save moisture, that is why various techniques were used to break up clods. A two-field system was used in arable farming; moreover, ancient people knew all about crop rotations. The author also provides detailed information about the variety of soils in Greece, their use, and processing.
The methods of tilling and the features of Greek agriculture are also described in detail in the book Ancient Greek Agriculture: An Introduction written by Signe Isager and Jens Erik Skydsgaard. The authors write that a common feature of the agricultural production in Greece was the presence of many industries: arable farming, viticulture, olive growing, horticulture, and cattle breeding. The staple food of the Greeks was bread, and therefore arable farming was one of the main industries. However, there were few fertile lands; instead, hilly with stony soil, difficult for plowing and cultivation ones prevailed. According to Isager and Skydsgaard (1995: 28), the range of agricultural tools included a primitive plow, a hoe, a sickle for cutting ears, a shovel for winding, and some other instruments. Nutritious, but capricious for cultivation, wheat was sown in small areas. Barley was less valuable, but unpretentious which gave relatively good yields on the soils of Greece.
Similarly, in the book Farm Equipment of the Roman World, the author describes different techniques and agricultural methods in Ancient Rome. Agricultural production experienced a special rise in the 1st-2nd centuries BC (White, 1975). At first, arable farming prevailed there: people sowed wheat, barley, and millet. At that time, the Romans not only cultivated crops, the most common plant in the ancient economy, but also planted vineyards, olive groves, and orchards. The predominant type of agriculture was also cattle breeding, olive growing, viticulture, and the cultivation of various industrial crops like willow for baskets. According to White (1975: 35), there were even special places in which trees were planted in the correct order, carefully fertilized, and cultivated. Ancient people also paid special attention to fertilization and tillage. Gradually, less demanding in terms of care, but also less valuable crops like spelled and barley were replaced by higher quality wheat.
Agriculture was of paramount importance to the economy of Rome throughout its history. This is evidenced by the writings of such Roman agronomists as Cato, Varro, Columella, Virgil’s poem Georgics, Pliny’s Natural History, and the works of later writers, as well as archaeological finds (Irby, 2019). The organization of agriculture was not the same over the long period of the Roman state. It was not identical in Italy and the provinces. Numerous peoples included in the vast Roman Empire had their traditions and skills in cultivating the land. The difference in climatic and geographical conditions, as well as the cultivation of different crops, led to a variety in the organization of agriculture in certain regions of the empire.
Besides, in Philip Thibodeau’s article “Greek and Roman Agriculture,” the readers can find out some important facts about the state of agriculture in Rome. Before Julius Caesar introduced his Julian calendar, there was a rather strange system in Rome: the year was divided into 12 months, which in total contained 355 days (Irby, 2019). Due to this fact, the years often moved back and forth, and the beginning of the seasons was difficult to predict, which created problems for agriculture. However, Julius Caesar established a system that favorably influenced agriculture and crop cultivation.
Many books and articles describe the correlation between time, the weather, and the order of crop cultivation. For example, Victor Davis Hanson in his book The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization, writes that how ancient people prepared the field to get the most out of it. First, they got ready for sowing, selected good seeds, prepared tools, plows, harrows, picks, hoes, and spades. They took care of irrigation, without which farming would be impossible in ancient Greece. Sowing was followed by harvesting and then threshing after some time. According to Hanson (1999: 41), threshing was carried out with the help of oxen on a well-rounded current in an open area. Sometimes a board with stones was tied to increase the pressure. The hardened and carefully winnowed grain was collected in special vessels and stored in barns. The last, final phase of the agricultural process was the grinding of grain, which was carried out in wooden mortars, bound with iron, or in stone mortars.
Philip Thibodeau also writes that the scattering of the Greek city-states and the different geographical conditions of their location contributed to the specialization of certain regions in the production of certain crops. Thus, the rocky soil, mountainous landscape, and dry climate of most of the mainland and island Greece were of little use for grain crops, but extremely favorable for olive growing, viticulture, and cattle breeding. On the contrary, the lands of Thessaly and Sicily yielded excellent harvests of wheat and other cereals (Irby, 2019). Most of Greece is mountainous and only less than one-fifth of its area is suitable for agriculture. Greece has a dry climate with little rainfall, most rivers and streams dry up in summer, and many areas often suffer from drought. Therefore, artificial irrigation played an important role in the agricultural economy of the Greeks. High mountain ranges separating certain regions of Greece protected the fertile plains from unfavorable winds and, retaining snow on the peaks, retained moisture for irrigating fields.
As can be seen, many works are devoted to the methods and techniques of agriculture in ancient Greece and Rome. Every book contains interesting and relevant information about the development of agriculture in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the procedures of crop cultivation and the use of various tools and methods. However, each of the considered books gives specific information on a particular part of the agriculture topic. Philip Thibodeau’s article “Greek and Roman Agriculture” in Georgia Irby’s book A Companion to Science, Technology, and Medicine in Ancient Greece and Rome gives a balanced assessment of the evidence. The author has used various sources, including the ancient texts of such philosophers as Xenophon, Hesiod, Theophrastus, and others, to provide the most detailed information (Irby, 2019). Acquaintance with the experience of ancient Greek and Roman farmers helped to create generalizing works that had an impact on the development of European agricultural science. Thanks to their writings, monuments, and archaeological excavations, an idea was formed about the development and nature of agriculture in ancient times.
In the context of other books on the subject, Irby’s book plays an important role in generalizing and highlighting the main facts on agriculture in ancient Greece and Rome. In comparison with other literature, it is more up to date, contains the most reliable, full, and detailed information on the life of ancient Greeks and Romans. It is more in-depth, in better control of the data, and well written since it is easy to follow the arguments and proofs. Philip Thibodeau’s article “Greek and Roman Agriculture” is interesting and worth reading because it informs the reader about a new stage in the history of agriculture that marked the transition from primitive to meaningful activity. It is associated with the history of the ancient slaveholding states of the Mediterranean which influenced the agricultural culture of Europe, contributed to the spread of new cultures and cultivation techniques among the neighboring countries.
Hanson, V. D. (1999). The other Greeks: The family farm and the agrarian roots of western civilization. University of California Press.
Irby, G. L. (Ed.). (2019). A companion to science, technology, and medicine in Ancient Greece and Rome (2nd vol.). John Wiley & Sons.
Isager, S., & Skydsgaard, J. E. (1995). Ancient Greek agriculture: An introduction. Psychology Press.
White, K. D. (1975). Farm equipment of the Roman World. CUP Archive.