Part III

Living a Greek Life

In this part . . .

With all the fighting they did it’s a wonder that the Greeks ever found time for anything else. In this part I look at the nature of everyday life in ancient Greece. I cover what people did in their working lives and leisure time; what they ate and drank; and the art and architecture that they enjoyed. This great cultural life is one of the things that the Greeks are most famous for, and I reveal why . . .

Chapter 13

Out in the Fields: Farming, Herding, and Travelling

In This Chapter

● Farming and winemaking

● Herding livestock

● Getting around in ancient Greece by land and sea

Trhroughout its 2,000-year history, ancient Greece was an agrarian society, which means huge numbers of people spent nearly every day working the soil or tending livestock. Most Greek towns and cities started off as farming communities, and many of them remained so throughout the entire ancient Greek period. Many Greeks were involved in industry or trade (see Chapters 14 and 15 for more on city life), but the vast majority of people derived their income and kept themselves alive by what they and their animals produced.

In this chapter, I discuss what was involved in making a living from the land.

I also look at how the Greeks travelled and transported things by land and sea. As you may guess, living a successful life - in the seemingly idyllic Greek countryside - demanded a lot of very hard work!

Scratching a Living

Working the land was tough in the ancient world. People worked from the moment that the sun was up until it set. In the Mediterranean, this schedule meant a 14-hour day most of the time - and they didn’t even have weekends to look forward to for time off (although they did have a lot of festivals and public holidays).

The typical ancient Greek farmer worked a relatively small patch of land; a house with perhaps two or three acres that would usually have been in his family for generations.

Richer farmers owned estates that incorporated several pieces of land, sometimes in various locations. Larger farms used slaves and serfs. Serfs were paid workers tied to working on the estate, which was also their accommodation.

Working a farm was exceptionally hard work, and people were only a bad storm or a dry season away from ruin. Furthermore, if a man was called up for military service (see Chapter 5) and his relatives were unable to manage the farm during his absence, he could lose everything.

Growing crops

The basic farming traditions in ancient Greece were similar to those everywhere else in the Mediterranean at the time and they hadn’t changed for a very long time. Specifically:

● Nearly all smallholding farmers grew two basic staple crops, which were the mainstays of the Greek diet:

• Wheat: The most common type of wheat was basic emmer wheat, also known as farro wheat. Farmers grew other types of wheat elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and these crops were sometimes exported abroad. Wheat was ground and made into bread.

• Barley: Barley was a lower grade wheat alternative that was easier to grow and was turned into a hard bread or small cakes. Generally speaking, poorer people ate barley bread because the better lands (worked by the wealthier farmers) could grow wheat rather than barley. Barley was also grown a lot in Egypt where it was used to make beer (the Greeks didn’t drink beer).

● Greek farmers also grew grapes (see the later section ‘Growing grapes and making wine’), olives, and vegetables (mainly pulses and beans).

● Farmers grew crops using dry farming methods, meaning that they were able to grow without irrigation. This was very important because of the relatively low rainfall in Greece. See the section ‘Working the land’ for more info.

The ancient Greeks had no knowledge of wet-farming (using irrigation) techniques used to grow crops such as rice. However, wet-farming was practised in the near east from as early as 1500 BC, and Alexander the Great and his men probably passed through rice fields on their travels.

● Farmers usually sowed crops in autumn (September in modern terms) because the rainy season in Greece was between autumn and spring. This schedule meant that the summer was usually festival time for celebrating the harvest (June/July). The harvest needed to be successful, too, because it had to sustain the farmers all the way through until next summer.

Chapter 15 discusses more exotic foods and meal preparation.

Going underground: Persephone and Demeter

The myth of Persephone is an interesting story. The daughter of Zeus and Demeter, she was chosen by Hades (the god of the dead) to be his wife. This meant that she was taken from the living to the underworld where Hades lived. Demeter was shocked by her daughter's disappearance and searched the world for her, withholding her blessings from men. This turned the world barren and caused widespread famine. Eventually she discovered where Persephone

was and whisked her away from Hades's clutches. However, Zeus ruled that Persephone would have to spend six months of the year with Hades and six with her mother. The Greeks interpreted this as the reason why the world is cold during autumn and winter when Persephone is in the underworld, and warm in spring and summer when she's returned. This is a great example of a myth being used to explain a natural phenomenon.

Honouring Demeter, the friend of the farmer

Several of the Greek gods had associations with farming and fertility, but the most relevant one was the goddess Demeter. Her main association was with wheat, and her name effectively means ‘god-mother’. In myth she had a daughter called Persephone, and mother and daughter became known as ‘the two goddesses’ or sometimes ‘the Holy Twain’.

The ancient Greek religious calendar was closely aligned with the farming year, so most celebrations of Demeter coincided with ploughing or harvesting. One of the most famous celebrations was the Thesmophoria, which occurred during sowing time. The festival was for women only; men were strictly banned from it (Chapter 21 has more details). This exclusivity was due to the fact that the Greeks saw fertility on the farm as being closely related to a woman’s capacity for child bearing. This rationale is also part of the reason why Demeter was called ‘god-mother’. For more on ancient Greek religious customs, see Chapter 22.

Working the land

The techniques used to work the land in ancient Greece were fairly straightforward. If they were able, farmers used the traditional method of ‘half and half’, which involved ploughing and working half their land every year while leaving the other half fallow, or unused. The following year the farmer worked the other portion, so some land always got a break and the soil was able to replenish its natural nutrients.

Unfortunately, some smallholders weren’t able to rotate their field because they needed to work every scrap of land. Over time their soil became less and less fertile.


Given the crops the Greeks were growing (see the section ‘Growing crops’), ploughing was a major farming activity. The methods for ploughing were very straightforward:

● On bigger farms, two oxen pulled a simple wooden plough. Sometimes the implement was tipped with iron to allow for more accurate ploughing.

● On smaller farms, ploughing was done by hand, which was backbreaking work. This form of ploughing didn’t generally turn the soil, only broke it to allow for planting.

Sowing and growing

Similarly, sowing would have been done mostly by hand although on larger estates the number of serfs meant that the work was more evenly spread out. On a small farm the whole family would have been involved.

As I mentioned, the Greeks were dry farmers so watering and irrigation weren’t really an issue. They did use manure and most farms would have had an evil-smelling dung heap that it was wise to steer clear of.


After the crops had grown, they were reaped with a simple curved sickle, heaped in a basket, and taken to be threshed. Farmers carried out threshing-separating the buds from the main plant - on a threshing floor; a cleared patch of dry ground. Sometimes they used a sled drawn by animals. Barley collecting and wheat ‘winnowing’ were typically done by hand with a small shovel and a basket. Not a fun job.

Crops were stored in small outbuildings. The Greeks had no refrigeration techniques so things were kept and used for as long as possible until they eventually spoiled.

Following the herd

Most ancient Greek farm estates weren’t very big, so the majority of farmers didn’t keep many animals. Grazing land was at a premium, so a few pigs, sheep, or goats alongside a pair of oxen were all the livestock most farms supported.

Pan: Friend of the farmer - and the soldier?

The Greek god associated with farm life was Pan. His name means 'guardian of the flocks', and he is always depicted as a young man with pipes who tends a herd of goats. However, because he was said to lead a fairly hermit-like existence, he was also associated with the unfortunate soldiers who had to perform guard duty on isolated borders. Several ancient writers suggest that he appeared in the Athenian ranks at the battle of Marathon (refer to Chapter 6). Quite handy to have a god on your side. No wonder the Athenians won!

The female Hellenistic poet Anyte, who was born in Tegea in Arcadia, not far from where Pan was supposed to have come from, writes of Pan:

Why, country Pan, sitting still among the lonely shades of the thick-set wood, do you shrill on your sweet reed?

So that the heifers may pasture on these dewy mountains, cropping the long-haired heads of the grass.

The type of animals that larger farms kept very much depended on the terrain involved. Generally, larger animals, such as cattle and oxen, tended to be kept in the north of Greece and Macedonia because these regions were wetter and more grazing land was available. In the Peloponnese and the south, sheep and goats were better choices because the land was rockier.

Goats and sheep were particularly useful to the ancient Greeks because they were used to produce milk, cheese, wool, and meat - all things that farmers could trade for other commodities at the market in town. Goats and sheep were also useful because farmers could sell or use them in sacrifice; healthy, well-kept animals fetched a very good price for religious purposes.

Hunting high and low

The other method of living off the land was the original one - hunting game. Hunting was a big part of Greek myth with boar being the most popular animal for heroes to hunt. Hunting itself was seen as an activity that helped to sharpen skills for war. These heroes usually hunted with either a spear or a bow, but everyday hunting was rather different and mostly for game such as hares using traps and snares. This was often an activity carried out by young boys.

Farming by the book

Manuals and books about farming weren't really available to the ancient Greeks (although they were developed later in the Roman Empire). Instead, many Greeks referred to a long poem first composed by the poet Hesiod around 700 BC called Works and Days. It's full of advice in poetic form for individuals intent on running a farm and relies on mythological examples of what could go wrong if farmers didn't follow Hesiod's advice.

Hesiod was particularly scathing about whether or not a farmer needed a wife, suggesting that a female slave might be better:

First of all you should acquire a house and a woman and an ox for the plough . . . A female slave, not a wife, who can follow the oxen as well.

Hesiod was no great fan of women in general. Later in the poem, he warns that women are not to be trusted as they are likely to want to 'steal your barn'. Clearly, he just never met the right woman.

Boar hunting did go on using hounds and (when done by the rich) on horseback in large groups. Boar hunting was still seen as a noble art and one that a man of action should be proficient in.

Growing Grapes and Making Wine

People drank a great deal of wine in ancient Greece. Grapes were relatively easy to grow because of the climate and soil, so most farms and estates included some vines.

Evidence indicates that the forerunners of the ancient Greeks, the Mycenaeans (see Chapter 2), grew grape vines and made wine, so viticulture (the growing of grapes to make wine) was fairly well established by the last millennium BC.

Despite the region’s long history of wine making, little is known about the processes, and no books on the subject survive. However, historians do know that the beverage was usually mixed with water, and the alcohol content wasn’t as high as with wine today.

Different varieties of red and white wine were available. Usually, the geography and climate of the region dictated what type of grape farmers grew and the sort of wine they produced. For example, the island of Ceos produced three specific types:

'High on the hill sat a lonely goatherd . . .'

Spending time tending goats day in and day out may not sound like the most romantic of jobs, but the occupation became very popular in ancient Greek art and literature - and beyond.

The idea of the Greek goatherd - and, in particular, one pining for a lost love - became a traditional feature in classical art and poetry.

Over a thousand years after the ancient Greeks, the goatherd became popular again, and during the Renaissance the idea of 'pastoral' was born. Everything from the paintings of Titian to the Symphony No. 6 'Pastoral' by Beethoven trace back to the old goatherds of ancient Greece.

● Austeros: A dry wine

● Glukazon: A sweet wine

● Autokratos: A variety somewhere between the two - a medium-dry, if you like.

These varieties from Ceos were established and known all over Greece (see the sidebar ‘An early marketing effort’), and other cities and regions had similar specialties.

Wine was a vital part of Greek life and people drank it for a huge variety of reasons including religious celebration. See Chapter 15 and also Chapter 20, where I look at the god associated with wine and generally having a good time - Dionysus.

Getting Around in Ancient Greece

Like just about everything else in ancient times, travelling throughout ancient Greece was seriously hard work. If you were on dry land, you either travelled by horse, cart, or your own feet. On water, you had the option of riding in boats, but these vehicles weren’t plain sailing (see the later section ‘Venturing into Poseidon’s realm: Travelling by sea’).

The concept of travel for its own sake or of going on holiday wasn’t really a part of Greek life. Certainly, only the very rich could’ve afforded the time away from work, let alone the expense of the journey. Generally speaking, the ancient Greeks travelled only if they had to. Traders, for example, were almost constantly on the move between market towns, buying local produce and selling it in the next town.

Occasionally, the ancient Greek people made massive journeys to move and set up in another place. See Chapters 3 and 4 for more on colonisation in early Greek history.

An early marketing effort

Greeks were very proud of their local vintages and had an easy system for identifying where wine came from. Each town had its own slightly different type of double-headed jug, known as an amphora, that exclusively held its wines. (In fact, the people of the island of Ceos were so proud of their wine that they used the symbol of their amphora on their coinage.) The distinctive shapes have been extremely helpful to archaeologists trying to work out where various pieces of unearthed pottery originally came from.

Going by horse

If you were able to afford a horse, riding it or using it to draw a cart was the preferred mode of transportation throughout ancient Greece. A horse was expensive - essentially another mouth to feed. Being able to maintain and equip a horse was a sign that you were financially well off. (Chapter 4 discusses the social classes in Athens.) Furthermore, riding equipment was rudimentary; stirrups didn’t appear in Europe until around the ninth century AD. Add the lack of decent roads to the situation and you can see how difficult riding must have been.

Wild horses were rare in most parts of Greece with the exception of Thessaly, where large numbers of horses were tamed and bred. The Thessalians became famous for their formidable cavalry (see Chapter 11).

For those less well off an ass or a donkey was an acceptable substitute. Unlike finely bred, expensive horses, the life of a donkey wasn’t happy. They were worked extremely hard as an all-purpose animal, as this little poem by Palladas suggests. Palladas was a Greek writing during the Roman era (around AD 350) but the experience of the donkey would have been exactly the same even then!

Poor little donkey! It’s no joke being a pedant’s not a rich man s moke [donkey] preened in the palace of the alabarch [official in the Jewish community].

Little donkey, stay, stay with me patiently until the day I get my pay.

Burning sandals

Most people had no transportation option other than to walk to wherever they needed to go. Consequently, people tried to limit journeys to when they were absolutely necessary.

A good example of a typical journey was the walk between Athens and the port at Piraeus, a journey of about 7 kilometres (4 miles). It would take a large part of the day to walk there and back, but some people made the trip every day, such as small farmers or people trekking in to attend the jury courts. Rich Athenian merchants often kept small houses or apartments in the port for when they needed to conduct business there before returning to their main home in the city.

Venturing into Poseidon's realm: Travelling by sea

Some journeys were only possible on the ‘Great Green’, as the Egyptians and Greeks called the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks were capable and experienced sailors, and Chapters 6 and 7 describe many of their successes in naval warfare.

The Greek god of the sea was Poseidon (although many other gods and deities were associated with it). Poseidon was a violent god, and the Greeks attributed storms, earthquakes, and mishaps at sea to his rage. Making offerings to him before a voyage was seen as essential and a wise move upon returning from a successful trip.

The following passage from Homer’s Iliad gives a great idea of how the Greeks viewed Poseidon:

Down Poseidon dove and yoked his bronze-hoofed horses onto his battle-car ... skimming the waves, and over the swells they came, dolphins leaving their lairs to sport across his wake, leaping left and right - well they knew their lord. And the sea heaved in joy, cleaving a path for him.

Another real danger in sea travel was falling overboard. Most people in ancient Greece couldn’t swim. Many sailors felt that it was unlucky to learn to swim because it tempted fate and caused your vessel to be shipwrecked. Also, swimming itself wasn’t a leisure activity in the way that it is now. If you were a city dweller on a sea voyage and you fell overboard, you had to hope that one of the crew swam!

Ships for trade and transport

Most military vessels were long, sleek, and powered by oars (see Chapter 5), but ships used for trade and transport were very different. Generally, they were much larger with a far greater draft (meaning they sat much lower in the water with more of the ship under the waterline) and looked a little more rounded. These larger transporters were nearly always powered by sail alone.

Pytheas: Boldly going where no Greek had been before

Despite the sea being so perilous, some Greeks attempted long journeys of discovery. The most famous of these was a man named Pytheas who in around 320 BC claimed to have sailed from the Mediterranean around Spain, into the Atlantic Ocean, around the British Isles, and even farther

- almost to the Arctic Circle. When he returned home, he wrote a book about the expedition called On the Ocean. Nobody believed him at the time but many modern commentators think he was telling the truth.

Sails were made of linen. They were often painted and decorated with designs indicating where the ship came from or the type of cargo that it was carrying. With a decent wind behind it, one of these ships could travel at about 7 to 10 kilometres per hour (about 4 to 6 knots).

Although the dimensions and power source of trade ships meant they offered far more room for carrying cargo and passengers, the vessels were also entirely at the mercy of the weather and were also far less manoeuvrable than their military cousins.


The building of ships was a highly skilled trade that was passed down through families. Great examples of shipbuilding appear in mythology, like the construction of Jason’s ship the Argo, which Homer’s Odyssey describes in detail. Amazingly, the construction methods that Homer describes in around 750 BC were still being used during the Hellenistic period 600 years later.

The construction method Homer describes is known as the ‘shell first’ technique, where the ship begins as just a keel on to which planking and other frames are added later. This method was quite fast; ships could be built relatively quickly. Depending on how many people were involved, a ship could be put together in about a month.


Travel by sea was highly dangerous. The sailing season was usually confined to between March and October because during the winter months the weather was too unpredictable.

The Greeks didn’t have the ability to navigate by using charts, so as much as possible they stayed close to the coast or used individual islands to judge distance. Some navigation by the stars was possible on clear nights, but sailors didn’t rely on this method.

The pirates of the Mediterranean

Assuming you survived bad navigation, terrible storms, drowning, or the wrath of Poseidon, you also had to watch out for pirates! Piracy was a big problem with sea travel. The ancient Greek myths are full of episodes that can be interpreted as piracy:

● Jason and the Argonauts sail to the Black Sea and steal the Golden Fleece, an obvious act of piracy.

● Many of the events in Homer's Odysseyare piracy, but they go unpunished and aren't criticised.

Pirates thrived because nobody (until Roman times) was able to crack down on them. Also, during wars like the Peloponnesian War (see Chapter 8), telling the difference between an act of war and an act of piracy was very difficult.

In general, pirates operated on popular trade routes using hideaways on small islands. The area around Rhodes (see the map on the Cheat Sheet) in particular was known to be a hotbed of piracy with the five harbours on the island providing rich pickings.

These navigation limitations meant that sailors only really knew a small number of local journeys and routes because they had to have specialist knowledge of local currents and how they affected the journey. So if you wanted to travel between Athens and Asia Minor you had to make a number of small journeys, hopping between islands, rather than one long trip.

And you were at the mercy of the trade routes and whether somebody was going your way.


Just like hunting on dry land, fishing was a way of getting food from the sea. Fishing was an important industry in ancient Greece, although probably not as big as you may think. Predicting the movements of heavy shoals was very difficult for Greek fishermen without the aid of modern technology, and the Mediterranean isn’t as well stocked with fish as the larger oceans.

Most fishing took place close to shore with large nets. (Only the very brave fished farther out in the open sea due to navigation limitations; see the section ‘Navigating’). However, the varieties of fish available in deeper, open waters were very highly prized and fetched higher prices.

The Greeks loved fish and it was a staple part of the diet for those who could afford it. For more on fish and how the Greeks ate it, see Chapter 15.

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