Classics Agriculture in the Classical World
Carlo Scardino
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0315


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.

General Overviews

There is no book-length overview covering all technical, economic, social, ideological, and literary aspects of agriculture in Greece and Rome. Orth 1922 is comprehensive, but now obsolete in light of important more recent archaeological finds. Kehoe 2008 is relatively up-to-date, but concentrates on the Roman and the Christian era. Although neither takes account of ancient texts, Palmer 2010 (for Greece) and Morley 2010 (for Rome) are concise and suitable for beginners. Christmann 1996 offers a good, albeit short overview of the ancient agrarian writers. Cataudella 2002, Margaritis and Jones 2008, and Kron 2015 provide concise overviews on technical and economic aspects of ancient agriculture. Brunner 2001 focuses on the reception of ancient agricultural practices and their continuation into the Middle Ages.

  • Brunner, Karl. 2001. Landwirtschaft. In Der Neue Pauly. Enzyklopädie der Antike. Rezeptions- und Wissenschaftsgeschichte. Vol. 15. Edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, and Manfred Landfester, 3–8. Stuttgart and Weimar, Germany: Metzler.

    Concise survey in German and English (online in Brill’s New Pauly under the lemma “Agriculture”) of some aspects of agriculture with a focus on the Latin West as well as continued and discontinued practices in the Middle Ages. Includes a short presentation of the ancient sources.

  • Cataudella, Michele R. 2002. Agronomia. In Letteratura scientifica e tecnica di Grecia e di Roma. Edited by C. Santini, I. Mastrorosa, and A. Zumbo, 31–62. Rome: Carocci.

    Excellent overview of technical aspects of ancient agriculture.

  • Christmann, Eckhard. 1996. Agrarschriftsteller. In Der Neue Pauly. Enzyklopädie der Antike. Vol. 1. Edited by Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider, 281–286. Stuttgart and Weimar, Germany: Metzler.

    Concise introduction to the Greek and Roman agrarian writers and their reception. German and English (online in Brill’s New Pauly under the lemma “Agrarian Writers”).

  • Kehoe, Dennis P. 2008. Landwirtschaft (Ackerbau). In Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, Vol. 22. Edited by Georg Schöllgen, 945–977. Stuttgart: Hiersemann.

    A thorough overview (in German) of technical, economic, social, and ideological matters, but excluding Greece.

  • Kron, Geoffrey. 2015. Agriculture. In A companion to food in the ancient world. Edited by John Wilkins and Robin Nadeau, 160–172. Malden, MA: Wiley.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118878255.ch15

    A brief and informative overview of agricultural production in Greece and Rome. Resists the stereotype of ancient agriculture as underdeveloped by emphasizing the technical sophistication and productivity of Greek and Roman farming.

  • Margaritis, Evi, and Martin K. Jones. 2008. Greek and Roman agriculture. In The Oxford handbook of engineering and technology in the classical world. Edited by John P. Oleson, 158–174. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This brief survey examines mainly technical aspects (arable agriculture, arboriculture, innovations in agricultural technology, water management and irrigation for the cultivation of vines and olives) for both Greece and Rome.

  • Morley, Neville. 2010. Agriculture, Roman. In The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Greece and Rome. Edited by Michael Gagarin and Elaine Fantham, 49–51. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A very short historical overview of Roman agriculture.

  • Orth, Ferdinand. 1922. Landwirtschaft. In Paulys Real-Encyklopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Vol. 12. Edited by Georg Wissowa and Wilhelm Kroll, col. 624–676. Stuttgart: Metzler and Druckenmüller.

    A pioneering survey based on literary and epigraphic evidence. Focuses on landscape design, the cultivation of crops, animal husbandry, and the organization of work in Greece, Italy, and the Roman provinces. Some sections are now obsolete.

  • Palmer, Ruth. 2010. Agriculture, Greek. In The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Greece and Rome. Edited by Michael Gagarin and Elaine Fantham, 47–49. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A very short historical overview of Greek agriculture.

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