Agriculture in ancient Greece

Agriculture was the foundation of the Ancient Greek economy. Nearly 80% of the population was involved in this activity.[1]

Amphora olive-gathering BM B226
Harvesting olives. British Museum

Agricultural products


Noe 082
An ear of barley, symbol of wealth in the city of Metapontum in Magna Graecia (i.e. the Greek colonies of southern Italy), stamped stater, c. 530510 BCE

During the early time of Greek history, as shown in the Odyssey, Greek agriculture - and diet - was based on cereals (sitos, though 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. Attempts have been made to calculate Attica grain production in the period, but results have not been conclusive. It did not take long for demand to outpace production capabilities, as arable land was limited. 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.

On the other hand, the Greek land was well suited for 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 also do well in the rocky soil, but demand a lot of care. Grapes have been grown since the Bronze age.

These core crops were augmented by vegetable gardens (cabbage, onion, garlic, lentils, chick pea, beans) and herb gardens (sage, mint, thyme, savory, oregano). Orchards included those of fig, almond, apple, and pear trees.[2] Oil-seed plants such as linseed, sesame, and poppy were also grown.

Animal husbandry

Bronze billygoat Louvre Br197
Bronze billygoat found in the deme of Kephissia, 5th century BCE, Louvre

Animal husbandry, seen as a sign of power and wealth in the works of Homer, was in fact not well developed in ancient Greece. While the Mycenaean civilization was familiar with the rearing of cattle, the practice was restricted as a result of geographic expansion into less suitable terrain. Goats and sheep quickly became the most common livestock; less difficult to raise and 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 (see Hecatomb). Donkeys, mules and their 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, Ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes, 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. An inscription[3] also mentions a certain Eubolos of Elateia, in Phocis, the owner of 220 head of cattle and horses and at least 1000 sheep and goats. Flocks of sheep were herded between the valley in winter and the mountains in summer. Taxes existed for the transit or stopover of flocks in cities.

Cows were also sometimes raised, although they were not as common as other farm animals.

Other products

Wood was exploited, primarily for domestic use; homes and wagons were made of wood as was the ard (aratron). The Greek forests located in the highlands were denuded by goats and charcoal production; it was not long before it had to be imported especially for ship production (see trireme).

Beekeeping provided honey, the only source of sugar known to the Greeks. It also was used in medicines and in the production of mead. The Ancient Greeks did not have access to sugarcane. The Hymettus region of Attica was known for the quality of honey produced there.[4] Wax was also produced, used in the lost wax process to produce bronze statues as well as in medicines.

Bronze was used for farm tools and weaponry.

Agricultural work

Old olive tree in Karystos, Euboia, Greece
The olive; a foundation of Greek agriculture — here in Karystos, Euboea

Hesiod's Works and Days, 8th century BCE and Xenophon's Economy of the 4th century BCE provide information about working off the land.

The olive harvest took place from late autumn to the beginning of winter, either by hand or by pole. They 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 late (2nd century BCE) Roman invention. Oil was preserved in terra cotta vases for use later. This was also the time for pruning of trees and vines and harvesting of legumes.

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, ran into problems due to the poor Greek soil, lack of power, and absence of mechanization. The Greeks did not use animal manure, possibly due to the low number of cattle. The only soil additive was weeds ploughed back into the ground after fields came out of fallow.

In summer, irrigation was indispensable. In June, they harvested with sickles; the scythe was not used. Wheat was threshed with animal power; it was trampled by oxen, donkeys or mules, and the grain stored. Women and slaves ground it and made bread.

In early autumn, they collected deadfall and prepared supplies of firewood; while winters were mild on the coast they could be brutal in the highlands. Farmers also had to break the hard crust that had formed over the summer on grain fields. To do this required three passes since the ard was wooden (metal shares were rare) and only scratched the uppermost subsoil without inverting it. A hoe and mallet were also used to break clumps of earth. The fallow land for next year was sown by hand. This was the time of the grape harvest: the grapes were crushed by foot in large vats, then the wine was left to ferment in jugs. After that process, people could drink the ambrosial wine and enjoy it.

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 not until the rise of Romans that the water mill came into wide use, employing hydraulic power to augment muscle power. It took until the Middle Ages for true plows which turned the earth to be widely adopted. Neither irrigation, nor soil improvements, nor animal husbandry saw notable advances. Only the very richest of land, such as that of Messinia was capable of supporting two crops per year.

Agricultural property

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. He forbade slavery for debt and introduced 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 property starts to become concentrated among few land owners, including in Sparta where according to Aristotle, the land has passed into the hands of a few (Politics, II, 1270a).[5] Nevertheless, the 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).[6] In all cases, land remains intimately associated with the concept of wealth. The father of Demosthenes possessed 14 talents and for land owned only a home, but he was the exception. When the banker Pasion made his fortune, he hurried to buy land.

Some Greek land was public and/or sacred. Each city possessed such land and it is estimated that in Athens during the classical period 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 individuals.

See also


  1. ^ As estimated by L. Migeotte, L'Économie des cités grecques, p. 55.
  2. ^ Signe Isager and Jens E. Skydsgaard, Ancient Greek Agriculture: An Introduction, Routledge, 1995 (ISBN 0-415-11671-6) p.41
  3. ^ Migeotte, Leopold. L'emprunt public dans les cités grecques. Recueil des documents et analyse critique, Sphinx and Belles Lettres editions, Quebec-Paris, 1984.
  4. ^ Strabo, Geography 9.1.23
  5. ^ Aristotle in 23 Volumes. 21, trans H. Rackham. 1944. Retrieved 10 June 2006.
  6. ^ Plato in Twelve Volumes. 8 trans W.R.M. Lamb. 1955. Retrieved 10 June 2006.


  • Marie-Claire Amouretti :
    • ‹See Tfd›(in French) "L'agriculture de la Grèce antique. Bilan des recherches de la dernière décennie", Topoi. Orient-Occident, 4 (1994), p. 69–94,
    • ‹See Tfd›(in French) Le Pain et l'huile dans la Grèce antique. De l'araire au moulin, Belles Lettres, Paris, 1986 ;
  • ‹See Tfd›(in French) Anne-Marie Buttin, La Grèce classique, Belles Lettres, coll. "Guide Belles Lettres des civilisations", 2002 (ISBN 2-251-41012-0) ;
  • ‹See Tfd›(in French) Marie-Claire Cauvin, Rites et rythmes agraires, Maison Orient-Méditerrannée, Lyon-Paris, 1991 ;
  • ‹See Tfd›(in French) Christophe Chandezon, L'élevage en Grèce (fin Ve - fin Ier S. a.C.): l'apport des sources épigraphiques..., Paris: De Boccard, 2003, 463 p. (ISBN 2-910023-34-6).
  • ‹See Tfd›(in French) Moses Finley, Le Problème de la terre e

']pjce ancienne, Mouton, Paris-La Haye, 1975 ;

  • Signe Isager and Jens E. Skydsgaard, Ancient Greek Agriculture: An Introduction, Routledge, 1995 (ISBN 0-415-11671-6) ;
  • Léopold Migeotte :
    • ‹See Tfd›(in French) L'économie des cités greques, Ellipses, coll. « Antiquité : une histoire », Paris, 2002 (ISBN 2-7298-0849-3),
  • Léopold Migeotte :
    • ‹See Tfd›(in French) L'économie des cités greques, Ellipses, coll. « Antiquité : une histoire », Paris, 2002 (ISBN 2-7298-0849-3),
    • ‹See Tfd›(in French) L'emprunt public dans les cités grecques. Recueil des documents et analyse critique, éditions du Sphinx et Belles Lettres, Québec-Paris, 1984 ;
  • ‹See Tfd›(in French) Claude Mossé, Annie Schnapp-Gourbeillon, Précis d'histoire grecque, Armand Colin, coll. « U », 2003 (2nd ed) (ISBN 2-200-26562-X).

Further reading

  • Burford, Alison. Land and Labor In the Greek World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
  • Cole, Susan Guettel. "Demeter in the ancient Greek city and its countryside." In Placing the Gods: Sanctuaries and Sacred Space In Ancient Greece, edited by Susan E.Alcock and Robin Osborne, 199-216. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
  • Hodkinson, Stephen. "Animal husbandry in the Greek polis. Paper presented at the Ninth International Economic History Congress at Bern, August 1986." In Pastoral economies in classical Antiquity. Edited by Charles R. Whittaker, 35–74. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Philological Society, 1988.
  • --. "Imperial democracy and market-oriented pastoral production in classical Athens." Anthropozoologica 16 (1992): 53–61.
  • Isager, Signe, and Jens Erik Skydsgaard. Ancient Greek Agriculture: An Introduction. 1st paperback ed. London: Routledge, 1995.
  • McHugh, Maeve. The Ancient Greek Farmstead. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2017.
Agrarian society

An agrarian society, or agricultural society, is any community whose economy is based on producing and maintaining crops and farmland. Another way to define an agrarian society is by seeing how much of a nation's total production is in agriculture. In an agrarian society, cultivating the land is the primary source of wealth. Such a society may acknowledge other means of livelihood and work habits but stresses the importance of agriculture and farming. Agrarian societies have existed in various parts of the world as far back as 10,000 years ago and continue to exist today. They have been the most common form of socio-economic organization for most of recorded human history.

Agrarian system

An agrarian system is the dynamic set of economic and technological factors that affect agricultural practices. It is premised on the idea that different systems have developed depending on the natural and social conditions specific to a particular region. Political factors also have a bearing on an agrarian system due to issues such as land ownership, labor organization, and forms of cultivation.As food security has become more important, mostly due to the explosive population growth during the 20th century, the efficiency of agrarian systems has come under greater review.

Agricultural engineering

Agricultural engineering is the engineering discipline that studies agricultural production and processing. Agricultural engineering combines the disciplines of mechanical, civil, electrical and chemical engineering principles with a knowledge of agricultural principles according to technological principles. A key goal of this discipline is to improve the efficacy and sustainability of agricultural practices. One of the leading organizations in this industry is the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

Agricultural robot

An agricultural robot is a robot deployed for agricultural purposes. The main area of application of robots in agriculture today is at the harvesting stage. Emerging applications of robots or drones in agriculture include weed control, cloud seeding, planting seeds, harvesting, environmental monitoring and soil analysis. According to Verified Market Research, the agricultural robots market is expected to reach $11.58 billion by 2025.

Agricultural science

Agricultural science is a broad multidisciplinary field of biology that encompasses the parts of exact, natural, economic and social sciences that are used in the practice and understanding of agriculture. (Veterinary science, but not animal science, is often excluded from the definition.)

Agricultural soil science

Agricultural soil science is a branch of soil science that deals with the study of edaphic conditions as they relate to the production of food and fiber. In this context, it is also a constituent of the field of agronomy and is thus also described as soil agronomy.


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Bachelor of Science in Agriculture

The Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, usually abbreviated as either B.Sc.(Agr.) or B.S.A. or B.Sc.(Ag.) or B.Sc. (Hons.) Ag. is the first undergraduate degree awarded by university faculty of agriculture and agricultural colleges. The program is 4 years of study above Grade 12 High School graduation.

The B.Sc.(Agr.) degree differs from a B.Sc. degree in that the courses focus on agriculture: for example, the student will study agricultural economics rather than economics. Like engineering or forestry, agricultural science courses are infused with practicality.The B.Sc.(Agr.) degree is normally not a general degree but requires specialization: for example, majoring in animal science, plant protection, soil science or agricultural engineering.

There are also variations on the theme: for example, the Bachelor of Agricultural Economics (BAgrEc) degree

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Dryland farming and dry farming encompass specific agricultural techniques for the non-irrigated cultivation of crops. Dryland farming is associated with drylands, areas characterized by a cool wet season followed by a warm dry season. They are also associated with arid conditions or with areas prone to drought or having scarce water-resources. Additionally, arid-zone agriculture is being developed for such conditions.

Ecological farming

Ecological farming is recognised as the high-end objective among the proponents of sustainable agriculture. Ecological farming is not the same as organic farming, however there are many similarities and they are not necessarily incompatible. Ecological farming includes all methods, including organic, which regenerate ecosystem services like: prevention of soil erosion, water infiltration and retention, carbon sequestration in the form of humus, and increased biodiversity. Many techniques are used including no till, multispecies cover crops, strip cropping, terrace cultivation, shelter belts, pasture cropping etc.

Extensive farming

Extensive farming or extensive agriculture (as opposed to intensive farming) is an agricultural production system that uses small inputs of labor, fertilizers, and capital, relative to the land area being farmed.

Extensive farming most commonly refers to sheep and cattle farming in areas with low agricultural productivity, but can also refer to large-scale growing of wheat, barley, cooking oils and other grain crops in areas like the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia. Here, owing to the extreme age and poverty of the soils, yields per hectare are very low, but the flat terrain and very large farm sizes mean yields per unit of labour are high. Nomadic herding is an extreme example of extensive farming, where herders move their animals to use feed from occasional sunlight.

Hobby farm

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Small-scale agriculture

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organic farming, which may follow rules and regulations set by International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)

permaculture, which provides a holistic methodology for farm design

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non-arable land use

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rainfed agriculture

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Zero waste agriculture

Zero waste agriculture is a type of sustainable agriculture which optimizes use of the five natural kingdoms, i.e. plants, animals, bacteria, fungi and algae, to produce biodiverse-food, energy and nutrients in a synergistic integrated cycle of profit making processes where the waste of each process becomes the feedstock for another process.

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