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For an account of Greek horticulture see Greek gardens and for an in-depth account of the role of plants in ancient Greek society see Greek mythology.

Ancient Greece

Following the retreat of the ice after the last Ice Age the first European agricultural societies arose around 10,000 BCE in a ‘Fertile Crescent’ that extended from the Nile delta in the east, through to the lands of the Near East in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

By about 3,000 BCE small farming communities had coalesced into the hierarchically organized urban river-valley civilizations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia with their cities displaying impressive monumental palaces and temples.

The Parthenon, symbol of Ancient Greece, Athenian democracy and western civilizationBuilt on top of the Acropolis above the ancient Agora (market and meeting place) in 447-438 BCE and dedicated to the goddess Athena.It replaced a former temple destroyed by the Persian invasian of 480 BCE

The Parthenon
Dedicated to the patron goddess Athena and situated on the Acropolis, a rocky outcrop

Construction began in 447 BCE during the Athenian Golden Age (replacing an earlier temple that was destroyed by Persian invaders in 480 BCE) and completed in 438 BCE. A symbol of democracy and western civilization, it is a masterpiece of the Classical era displaying some of the most accomplished Greek art and architecture. It was used mostly as a treasury for first the city, then the Delian League, and eventually the Greek empire. In about 590 CE it was converted to a Christian Church of the Virgin Mary and, captured by Ottoman Turks became a mosque in the 1460s. Under Venetian bombardment in 1687 an ammunition store exploded inside the building damaging its treasures. From 1800 to 1803 Englishman Earl Elgin removed sculptures and wall reliefs (the Elgin Marbles) which were sold to the British Museum in London in 1816

Image – Roger Spencer May 2014

Around 2000 BCE we see the arrival of urban societies around the Aegean Sea, first as the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete and subsequently the Mycenaean culture on mainland Greece.

The ancient Greeks themselves traced their ancestry back to four tribal ethnic peoples with different dialects: Dorians, Aeolians, Ionians and Achaeans. Dorians are thought to have entered Greece from the north c.1100 BCE settling in the Peloponnese and later colonizing Sicily and southern Italy. Ionians occupied Attica, parts of western Asia Minor, and the Aegean islands in pre-classical times being displaced from some regions by the Dorians in the 11th or 12th centuries BCE but remaining in Athens and the surrounding region of Attica and producing some of the greatest creations of classical Greece. Achaeans occupied Achaea, a region of ancient Greece on the north coast of the Peloponnese. Aeolians originated from Thessaly, fleeing during the Dorian invasion across the Aegean Sea to the island of Lesbos and the region of Aeolis in Asia Minor but were also found in many parts of Greece.

Haltingly through the Archaic period (800-500 BCE) Greek power and influence spread as it took advantage of the trade made available by ready access to the ports around the Mediterranean, the population increasing and local Greek societies forming into city-states.

From 547 BCE but mostly through 499 to 449 BCE Greece became locked into conflict with Persia and its rulers Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes, ending in a stalemate and Greek control of the Mediterranean. From 500 to 350 BCE Greece enjoyed a Golden Age when philosophy and the arts flourished but it was also a time of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) an internal battle between rival city-states of Athens and those of the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta and ?further Persian wars of 399-360 BCE, Greece finally succumbing to the combined forces of Persia and north Africa’s Phoenician trading city of Carthage (today’s Tripoli in Tunisia).

Greek-speaking Macedonia to the north now saw an opportunity, king Philip of Macedon taking mainland Greece, his son, the military commander Alexander (356-323 BCE) setting out on a 13-year campaign from 336 to 323 BCE that regained all the lost territories and more, forging a Hellenistic world and empire that incorporated all the former Persian empire, extending from the Mediterranean to the tributaries of the Indus Valley, then considered the two literal ends of the Earth. It was the world’s largest-ever empire to that date.

This article is best considered together with the article on the Roman Empire as a combined analysis of the classical world, it includes a general introduction to sustainability in the classical world while the general commentary and summary is given in the article on the Roman Empire.

Massive human impacts on sustainability over the last 100 years have made those of previous history insignificant. However, it is the cumulative historical influence of ideas, beliefs, attitudes and practices that have set the path for today’s world, so we need a clear understanding of how these arose.

A sustainability analysis of the Greek and Roman periods give us insight into the environmental attitudes and practices that were formative in the Western tradition that has spread from the Mediterranean and Near East to western and north-western Europe and then to the Neo-Europes as a consequence of imperial colonial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Much environmental information about the classical world remains to be sifted and sorted, there being relatively little direct evidence, most information coming to us as but through the highly articulate literature of the Greeks and Romans themselves. Perhaps the best overview of the issues that concern us is An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome by Lukas Thommen (2009) which forms the basis of the following brief summary.

Apart from a consideration of sustainability criteria in general, other factors of general interest include: the use of physical space (urbanisation, land management, sacred and secular space); the proto-scientific approach to the environment; religious pluralism; the early scientific consideration of climate as a factor affecting primary production and human temperament; the social role of animals and plants; the impacts of natural disasters and extreme events.

Historical context

The Neolithic Revolution and economy reached northern Greece in about 7,000-6,000 BCE archaeology revealing the farming of early forms of barley and wheat and the presence of semi-domesticated sheep and goats. Ploughs were in common use by about 3000 BCE as was a diet rich in cereals, olives and grapes.[20]

Bronze Age – c. 3000-1200 BCE

During the Bronze Age in about 2,500 BCE the first major European civilizations of the Near East and Egypt arose, complex societies with cities, monumental architecture and fine art associated with palaces and temples. The citizens lived in socially stratified hierarchical societies with a division of labour, a literate class, and rule by pharoahs and kings under divine decree. This was a command economy with goods and services under central control and by 2500 BCE at about the same time as the completion of the Egyptian Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza (which remained the tallest building in the world for 3,800 years) this tradition had become established in the Aegean.


Aegean civilizations flourished in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE in Crete (Minoan), on the islands to the north of Crete (Cycladic) and on mainland Greece (Helladic), their history, like that of Egypt, divided into Early, Middle, and Late phases.


Around 2,300 BCE the more elaborate mainland towns of Greece and those of the Cyclades islands (but not Crete) were mysteriously destroyed to be replaced by small villages in what is regarded as a Middle Bronze Age recession and Dark Age.[21] Aegean culture now became centred on the Minoan culture on Crete with urban palaces built at Knossos, Phaistos and Mallia in about 2,000 BCE which were untouched by this Dark Age. At the Palace of Minos at Knossos we see a centralised redistributive command economy and high living standards reaching a height in the 18th and 17th centuries BCE, the art showing the influences of Egypt, Syria and Israel, influences also evident in the buildings and artefacts found on Cycladic island Akrotiri (modern-day Santorini) preserved by volcanic ash from a volcanic eruption in 1628 BCE.[22] The palace was, however, destroyed in 1700 BCE, rebuilt, then destroyed again in 1500 BCE and rebuilt.

Linear B was a syllabic script originating in about 1450 BCE and used for what is called Mycenaean Greek, descended from the earlier (still undeciphered) Minoan Linear A which was developed in about 2000 BCE.  Linear B was found in the palace archives at Knossos, Cydonia, Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae and is the first accepted form of the Greek language, predating the Greek alphabet by several centuries.

Linear B disappeared with the fall of Mycenaean civilization during the Late Bronze Age collapse. 


In about 1,600 BCE the Minoan culture spread from Crete to the mainland as the Late Bronze Age Mycenian culture which persisted until about 900 BCE (at the approximate time when iron superseded bronze and Phoenicean ships dominated the Mediterranean). By 1500 BCE palaces were being built and Linear B writing in use.

Around 1450 BCE the Minoan palaces were burned down and it was the Mycenean Greeks who then dominated the Aegean with a culture noted for its heavily fortified hill-top palaces. Something of these times is probably captured in the later 8th century legendary poetry of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

So around 1300 BCE it was the Mycenaeans who dominated the eastern Mediterranean while the Hittites (fl. c. 1600 BC–c. 1178 BCE) controlled the Anatolian land to the south of the Black Sea with an empire that extended at its height, in the mid-14th century BCE, over most of Asia Minor as well the northern Levant and Upper Mesopotamia. Once again a series of mysterious disasters occurred when, between 1225 and 1175 BCE, palaces across Greece were burned down, there was increased migration, diminished long-distance trade, and reduced population, no monumental architecture and the disappearance of writing. Though this period coincides with the alleged Trojan War, structural damage to buildings indicate a time of increased volcanic activity, similar damage being found elsewhere such as Syria.

Though Phrygia around present-day western Turkey was now a land with great kings and palaces and Aegean trade was controlled by the seafaring Phoenicians through eastern cities like Tyre and Sidon, in about 1000 BCE Mycenaean civilization had all but disappeared with the descent of another Dark Age (c. 1200-800 BCE).

The subsequent history of ancient Greece is divided into three major periods: the Archaic period (800-500 BCE), Classical(Hellenic) period (500-350 BCE) also known as the Golden Age of Athens and finally the Hellenistic period which dates from the death of military hero Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, a period that ended with Roman ascendancy, notably the siege of Athens by Roman General Sulla in 146 BCE and the key sea Battle of Actium off the Greek coast in 31 BCE marking the capitulation of Cleopatra VII’s Ptolemaic Egypt.

Archaic period – 800-500 BCE

Following the Aegean decline, in about 800 BCE a Greek Renaissance began, associated with a reduction in temperature and greater rainfall as agriculture prospered, villages grew and the population increased. Both Greeks and Phoenicians were trading and creating settlements in Italy and Sicily, the Phoenicians with trading posts further to the east in Carthage (Tunisia) and Spain. Greeks migrated to colonise the Black Sea coasts and settle in the western Mediterranean, most notably in Sicily and southeast Italy.


As communities expanded the old Bronze Age tradition of city palaces and kings wasbetween 900 and 600 BCE replaced by small city-states (polis, pl. poleis) which were ruled by oligarchies, councils of few to hundreds of men more or less equal in status and without claims to divine authority. Conflict was common and resulted in various alliances and treaties. Lowborn Greeks had more power than their equivalents in the strongly hierarchical societies of Egypt and Syria and could be subjected to public criticism. Religious belief was strong but there was no priestly class or priestly scribes so reason and discussion became the basis for decision-making rather than divine law.

By about 525 BCE it was the demos (the people … but no women, slaves or children) who were making important decisions in Greece’s poleis, the councils generally including representatives from all sectors of male society. Aristocrats, or agathoi, claimed a senior position in society because of their moral superiority or virtue – their moderation and wisdom though no doubt wealth also played its part. In 596 BCE Solon (c. 638 – c. 558 BCE), concerned by the substantial social inequities of the day had introduced the idea of rule by the people (demos), the Solonian Constitution declaring that membership of the ruling class should be based on wealth (plutocracy), rather than by birth (aristocracy), and that Athens be ruled, not by a king or aristocracy, but by the citizens. The decision-making was now to be done, not in a palace but in a public meeting place, initially the public square or Agora but later on a hill about 1 km away in a special spot called the Pnyx which could hold a crowd of 6000-13000 people.

Politician and General Themistocles (c. 524–459 BC) was a subsequent successful and popular non-aristocratic politician in the early years of democratic Athens, building up its trade and navy until Athens entered a Golden Age under statesman Pericles (c. 495 – 429 BCE). Shortly after, in 350 BCE, a constitution was written for the city by Aristotle in glorious prose introducing various new constitutional ideas.[29] Only in the eighteenth century would western Europeans again question divine monarchy, struggling with egalitarian principles and the limits of reason and looking for guidance from the Classical and Archaic worlds of ancient Greece.

Archaic Greece, like other ancient societies was hierarchical with strong gender distinction, polytheistic, and with an agricultural economy but the hierarchy and priesthood was less pronounced than in other societies and power was held by ruling aristocrats rather than kings. Social laws in Egypt, Babylon and Israel were absolute commands emanating from the gods while in Greece of the fifth century there was a gathering view that such laws were more a practical matter that could be decided through a democratic assembly.

Even so there were internal struggles as the rich tried to accumulate land and subjugate the resistant poor. The competitive nation-states made advances in armoury and warfare. New forms of religious, artistic expression appeared (especially sculpture, architecture, poetry, and literature), monumental architecture was revitalised as massive temples were now constructed, the greatest since the Mycenaean palaces.

The Olympic Games was established in about 776 BCE, Greek mythology took hold, and the Greek alphabet (sometimes called the Phoenician alphabet) emerged from a widespread ‘west semitic’ script used in the Levant from about 1,000 BCE and before and was used to record political activity, family histories, prayers to the gods, and rules of behaviour although the Greek alphabet was especially known for its use in poetic texts[23] The Bronze Age centralised redistributive economies were now replaced by free-trading individuals as, by 500 BCE, coinage was being used for trade.

Classical (Hellenic) period – 500-350 BCE

Greece’s Golden Age

The foundations of Western society – its philosophy, literature, mathematics, history , drama, the Olympic Games, and democracy – are all traced to their blossoming in the golden classical age that lasted from about 500 to 350 BCE .

Persian wars 499-449 BCE

Greek ascendancy was of concern to both the Persians in the east and the rich Phoenician trading city of Carthage in the west in present-day Tunisia which was competing with the increasingly powerful Sicilian Greeks in the vibrant trading city of Syracuse on the opposite side of the Mediterranean. Cultural and trading rivalries increased, coming to a head in 547 BCE when Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Greek Ionia appointing unpopular tyrants to rule the major trading centres at Miletus and Ephesus. The subsequent revolt, with Athenian support, led to the burning of the sacred Persian city of Sardis, capital of Lydia – and that demanded revenge.



Persian (Achaemenid) Empire in 490 BCE
At the height of the reign of Darius the Great (c. 550–486 BCE)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


By 520 BCE, under King Darius the Great, Persia had created the largest empire the world had seen to that time, extending from Egypt to Afghanistan, and subjugating the Greek island of Samos off the Ionian coast. In 510 BCE Persian troops crossed the Hellespont (the Dardanelles, a geographic boundary between Europe and Asia) heralding a series of wars that would last from 499 to 449 BCE. Athens itself was threatened in 490 BCE, the numerically superior Persians were confronted and defeated on the plains of Marathon. If we assume that the Persians would have imposed an oriental theocratic-religious culture on Athens then this battle might be considered one of the most significant in world history effectively defining the subsequent culture and territories of Europe and western Asia.

Darius’s successor Xerxes I mounted a second combined land and sea offensive defeating the Spartan army at Thermopyle, with the subsequent evacuation of Attica, sacking of Athens, and the gain of other Greek territory. However, at the sea Battle of Salamis of 480 BCE the combined Greek navy won an unexpected victory, halting the Persian advance into the Peloponnesus. A combined Greek army was assembled and in 479 BCE marched out of the Peloponnesus to meet and defeat the Persians in their camp at Beotian Platea, this marking an end to hostilities.

Pelopponesian War 431-413 BCE

War became a part of life as in-fighting broke out in in 431 BCE as the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta: it was to continue until 404 BCE, its events recorded in detail by historian Thucydides. At the outset Athens dominated the sea; Sparta the land. Through the years 431-421 BCE the Spartan king Archidamus invaded Attica each summer while the years 421 to 413 BCE are marked by a peace treaty achieved by Athenian Nicias but draws to a close with a comprehensive defeat of the Greek navy when it invaded Spartan-held Syracuse in Sicily. From 412 to 404 BCE a series of sea battles took place off the Ionian coast ending in Athenian defeat. Over the same period there was the invasion of weakened Sicily by Carthaginian forces. The close of the war saw an outbreak of civil war in Athens. This was a devastating and convincing end to Greece’s Golden Age of wealth, power and skilled political organisation as Athens was subjugated and the people of Greece humiliated, Athens losing a third of its population. Sparta had triumphed by joining forces with Persia which, along with Carthage, was now gathering strength.

In spite of the depradations of war it is clear that around 425 BCE wealthy Greeks, who had been called on for financial support of the war, had been allowed to indulge their wealth, building mansions with elaborate colonnaded courtyards, painted frescoes and mosaic floors and archaelogical digs have unearthed elaborate tombs and other decorative monuments. Despite all this Greek trade continued to thrive and it was around this time that Greek exploration that would extend as far as India, not to mention what was possibly the first circumnavigation of the British Isles by geographer-seaman Pytheas in about 325 BCE.

In spite of constant conflict the Classical era, the Golden Age of Pericles (c. 495–429 BCE), an outstanding statesman of the period between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars) was one of unprecedented intellectual activity when ancient thought excelled over a wide range of topics including politics, philosophy (through the work of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and including ethics, epistemology, ontology, the foundations of logic and more), the establishment of critical history by Herodotus, advances in the world of art (including new forms of poetry, sculpture, architecture, theatre, literature and painting) and science (including not only mathematics and astronomy but also biology with novel investigations in zoology and botany). Pericles rebuilt Athens after its sacking by the Persians in 490 BCE including the restoration of monuments and sculptures and the rebuilding of the Parthenon as one of the greatest feats of architecture in antiquity.

Macedonian ascendancy 350-323 BCE

To the north of Greece were the Greek-speaking Macedonians and with a program of taxation and skilfull organisation they had managed to raise an effective army. Jason of Thessaly nearly captured the Aegean in 370s BCE a feat subsequently achieved by Philip of Macedon in 350 BCE. Philip was followed by Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE), one of the world’s greatest military heroes, who captured Persia in the 330s, extending Greek influence across the then known world.

Alexander determined to outdo Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian empire, by taking his men to the Indus River, considered the ends of the earth, where the river Ocean that flowed around the entire world. A colourful account of Alexander’s exploits is given in Greco-Roman historian Plutarch’s (46–120 CE) Life of Alexander.

In 332 BCE he Alexander entered Egypt, liberating it from Persian rule and planning a new city, the eponymous Alexandria, to serve as a Mediterranean trading hub and replacing the old eastern Mediterranean Phoenician city of Tyre with a more central harbour. Alexander was now assuming a God-like status: he had adopted Achilles as his hero, always carrying a copy of the Iliad with him on his campaigns. Now he set out for a final confrontation with Persian king Darius’s army (possibly 250,000 strong, outnumbering Alexander’s men five to one) which had assembled at Babylon. With a clever strategy Alexander’s army was victorious, Darius fleeing and allowing Alexander to destroy Persia’s most sacred city of Persepolis before ensuring that Darius was dead.

In 329 BCE he pressed on through today’s Afghanistan taking Kandahar and Kabul but his troops were tiring as he arrived in Samarkand (in today’s Uzbekistan) and dissatisfaction continued as he pressed on. The army marched across the Khyber Pass and struggled as far as today’s River Beas an Indus tributary in the Punjab, further than Persians had ever penetrated. Then, possibly deranged and with mutiny likely he agreed to turn back but by early 324 BCE he had ambitions for Italy, Spain, Carthage, Sicily, Arabia, the conquest of India, and circumnavigation of Africa.

Alexander had sought acceptance from the Persians, adopting Persian customs and dress and marrying the stunningly beautiful daughter of a tribal chief with the delightfully 21st century name of Roxane. While not ingratiating himself with the Macedonians he tried to integrate the Greek, Macedonian and Persian elites, forcing 3,000 Macedonians to take Persian wives but the egalitarian Greeks and Macedonians found Persian society, with its strong hierarchical insistence on rules of social deference, difficult to bear, resisting Alexander’s request to prostrate themselves in front of him in the accepted local tradition.[24] In 323 BCE he assembled an army in Babylon determined to overthrow the wealthy kingdoms of the Persian Gulf that were monopolising the spice trade, but before embarking on this campaign he died ignominiously after a drinking party, possibly poisoned.

Around one million people had died in the 13 years of Alexander’s military campains[25] but from the devastation a new world had now opened up with the Greeks having free access to the countries of the former Persian Near East, together with Egypt, Anatolia and Syria. The old centres of Sparta, Athens, Thebes, Corinth and the Aegean shrank into insignificance. From 330-250 BCE many thousand Greeks travelled to make their fortunes in the new lands, Alexandria became the cultural centre of the Mediterranean as science and the arts flourished, and population exploded in a new cosmopolitan Hellenistic Age that eclipsed the former Golden Age of 5th century Athens.

Hellenistic period c. 323-30 BCE

After Alexander’s death, and with no obvious successor, the known western world was divided among Alexander’s most powerful generals. Hierarchy and Zoroastrianism had cemented the old Persian empire but the new Greek empire had no similar binding forces. Hellenistic Greece adopted many oriental customs (including emulating the the impressive Persian gardens and landscapes they had encountered on their military campaigns). The new territory, though culturally vibrant, now divided into territories assuming the old tradition of kings and their royal courts – Ptolemy in Egypt’s Alexandria, Antigonus in Anatolia (Turkey), and Lysimachus in Thrace (Bulgaria), and the Asian to Seleucus with a capital in Antioch. Overseeing the empire were Perdiccas, Craterus and Antipater (Macedonia). Soon the situation had deteriorated into self-interested in-fighting and rapid change, the old poleis being impractical political units as the cities of Alexandria and Antioch (a bridge between eastern and western parts of the empire) assumed power along with Rhodes and the island of Delos which had become rich on the spoils of slave trade.

Alexander had transformed the Greek world. From 334 to 324 BCE he conquered Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Babylonia, Persia (the former largest empire, destroyed in three battles), Samarcand (Uzbekistan), Bactria (Afghanistan), the Punjab and tributaries of the Indus River. He encouraged intermarriage among nobility of different countries, himself marrying two ‘barbarian’ princesses. Alexandrian intellectuals, unlike the former philosophers who embraced all learning, became specialists – Eratosthenes was the chief librarian at Alexandria and among the major specialist mathematicians were Euclid, Aristarchus, Archimedes, and Apollonius.

Athens and its trade declined. Already by 200 BCE the old gymnasia that educated Athens future leaders had become tourist attractions with gardens and entertainment rather than learning. Though more cities were calling themselves democracies, the populace was depending more and more on the goodwill of its wealthy citizens who took advantage of this to increase their political power. Old certainties as in Sparta women could own land and it is clear that elsewhere, as in Egypt, women were becoming part of the political process.

The new world now consisted of large kingdoms with God-like monarchs and plutocracy. The arts and science flourished, especially medicine and engineering as Greek became an international language spoken from Alexandria to Samarkand and Greek ideas and culture created a legacy that would later infuse both Jewish and Roman cultures.

Gradually during the last two centuries BCE Romans were absorbing the eastern Mediterranean and Greek culture into a growing empire, overthrowing the last Hellenistic ruler, Cleopatra VII of Egypt, in 30 BCE.

The best Greek science and mathematics was achieved in the Hellenistic age. Philosophically we see the foundation of the Epicurean, Stoic (founded by Zeno), and Cynic-Skeptic schools of thought of considerable social significance but without the dazzling intellectual originality of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

The post-Alexander Hellenistic Period saw increasing riches and the rise of a wealthy class, the reign of Macedonian kings in Syria and Egypt and a return to the old hierarchies based on ethnicity, gender, wealth and religion. Hellenistic culture was absorbed by the Roman aristocrats who succeeded them. When combined with the practical engineering skill and economic power of the Roman Empire the Greco-Roman world that would form later Western civilization built on foundations established during the Axial Age, a period from c. 800-200 BCE when revolutionary thinkers in China, India, Iran, the Near East, and Ancient Greece were all examining the same questions of society and existence. From the Enlightenment and before, to virtually the present day the influence of this period of Western history was considered so significant that the Classics was considered an essential part of any respectable education.


The history of Athens itself extends back into the Bronze Age, but by 1400 BCE the Acropolis had become an important Mycenaean fortress and by 900 BCE a prosperous trading centre in a region known as Attica. Athens passed through a Golden Age in the fifth to fourth centuries BCE, a period of great intellectual activity headed by philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (during the Axial Age) although there were many others. Probably about one in ten men was literate at this time, the wealthy youths learning Homer by heart and grasping the Greek alphabet while the girls learned weaving and housekeeping skills. By the fifth century BCE a few boys would attach themselves to intellectuals and absorb what they had to say. Much Western thought dates from this period.

The city was served by a public water supply, library and gymnasium, a Constitution, possibly developed by Aristotle, is now stored in the British Library.

By 479 BCE Athens was the greatest naval power in the world, its strength reducing piracy and maintaining safe sea lanes. Tribute extracted from other cities was mostly spent on its fleet of merchant ships, most built in the nearby harbour of Piraeus. Grain was imported from Sicily and Egypt as well as the Ukraine and profits could be made on the return trip by exporting the artisans producing textiles, pottery, metalwork and other goods in the thriving city, these products found all over the Mediterranean.(Morris & Powell, p. 297) On the back of this trade the population of Attica increased to about 350,000 with a cosmopolitan mixed society, the foreign people deciding to take advantage of these benefits by living in Athens were known as metics who paid taxes and were not permitted to own property.

Athens would eventually fell peacably to Rome in 146 BCE eventually being sacked by Sulla and monuments destroyed in 86 BCE.


Greeks, whether from Sicily, Spain or the Greek mainland, all experienced a Mediterranean climate of Hot, dry summers and cool wet winters.


It is to the Greco-Roman world that we owe much of our environmental vocabulary: the idea of ‘nature’, derived from the Latin natura meaning ’bringing forth’ was related to the Greek physis which refers to both the creative dimension of nature as well as its order and ‘essence’: this is probably the nearest we have in Greek for our word ‘environment’. Maybe it is from the Greeks that we have taken the important distinction between ‘wild’ or ‘untouched’ nature and the domain of human artifice or culture called nomos creating the distinction physis vs nomos or nature and culture while acknowledging their interdependence.[2]

The discipline of ecology, generally associated with the German embryologist Ernst Haeckel and the German word Ökologie, is derived ultimately from the Greek word oikos-house or household, logos-order.


Ancient Palaeolithic societies were mostly animistic: nature was inhabited by spirits and humans too had spirits that might pass into an afterlife beyond death and sometimes moving from one person or place to another as in transmigration, reincarnation or resurrection. This was a world that demanded sacrifice, ritual and appeasement especially of those spirits and forces that controlled the seasons, weather, and the supply of food and water. To this spirit world were later added the polytheistic pantheon of gods of urban societies and later monotheistic religions.

There was no consistent attitude towards nature in the classical world. We see in the Greco-Roman tradition an environmental pluralism that is reminiscent of the range of attitudes to nature that we see today – from rapacious exploitation to religious veneration, from fear of its power over human fortunes on the one hand to an overwhelming desire to subjugate its wildness to human use. There is the vegetarianism and respect for the sanctity of all life we see in the Greek Pythagorean school, later taken up by Roman historian Seneca, contrasting with the mass slaughter of animals, gladiatorial fights, and ‘Christians to the lions’ public entertainment in Rome’s vast public arenas.

We know that in the Greek world there existed at least two narratives of human history. From the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 700 BCE) history is perceived as a process of decline. Humans originally existed in an ideal state of nature, a paradise or Eden, subsequent deterioration being a consequence of a corrupt relationship with nature (this is very similar to the Biblical story of Genesis). Life then becomes progressively preoccupied with toil and misfortune. This account was also reminiscent of a general Near-eastern belief in four declining eras starting with a golden age of plenty and followed by the silver, bronze and iron ages. Culture was not something to praise, on the contrary it was a mark of human degeneration.

In contrast, philosophers like Plato and Protagoras maintained that through culture humans were set on a path of progress, escaping from an original violent and sinful condition that was at the mercy of nature and moving into a state of communal living, or civilization, where justice could prevail and where technology and a moral life became possible. Later indignant Roman voices like that of Seneca and Pliny the Elder railed against the extravagances of luxury and the self-indulgent Roman aristocracy and human folly when dealing with nature. These two themes – humans as originally either innocents or violent savages, and human culture as either progress or corruption, have echoed through history to the present day (see Human nature).

For the Greeks ‘Mother Earth’ was celebrated through the goddess Demeter and clearly open landscapes and groves, bays and rivers were admired for their beauty in the same way as we admire them today. Country life was sometimes romanticised in pastoral poetry, but so too were the terrors of the forest and the conviction that nature gods, like petulant humans, needed constant propitiation and appeasement (see Plant lore 1 and Plant lore 2) Personification of nature was pervasive so, for example, damage to land caused by agriculture was sometimes judged a form of rape. Rituals and sacraments were a routine part of daily life, needed to gain favour and forgiveness, protect harvests and so on. Ritual offerings were a part of both Greek and Roman life but celebrated especially during celebratory public feast days.[1]

Greek philosophical analysis ranged astonishingly widely through the full field of human intellectual endeavour, setting the critical foundations for much of the West’s subsequent social, scientific, and religious thought. The Romans, without rancour, gave full acknowledgement to this, deferring to the contribution and strength of Greek intellectual life. It is not possible to cover the full scope of Greek environmental and biological thought here except to point out the profound contribution of the pre-Socratic philosophers (the doctrine of Earth, Air, fire and Water as the source of all things on Earth was derived from pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles (c. 490 – 430 BCE) and influential through the Medieval Era) and the staggering philosophical, logical, scientific, political, social, and psychological insights of the West’s pre-eminent thinkers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and the plant science of Theophrastus unparallelled anywhere else in the world.

Among the many influences flowing from these remarkable men would be Plato’s idea of a transcendental realm taken up by St Augustine as part of Christian theology, followed by the later integration into Christianity by St Thomas Aquinas of Aristotelian ideas like that of teleology, the idea of purpose both of the whole of the world (God’s Creation) but also its animal, plant and inorganic constituents (see Purpose). In naturalistic philosophy there was the atomism of Democritus, the biology of Aristotle, the medicine of Hippocrates, the adumbration of the theory of evolution by Empedocles, the contributions to mathematics by Pythagoras and geometry by Euclid, the theory of a heliocentric cosmos proposed by Aristarchos, the initiation of plant science by Theophrastus and so much more. Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE) drew connections between environments, vegetation, weather, climate and temperament, most notably in his On Airs, Waters and Places.

In Theophrastus we see someone critical of the unscientific practices of the herbalists of his day, the rhizotomi, whose remedies he saw as based more on superstition with no basis in the evidence of experience and in Epicurus we have the man who is said to have introduced the garden to Athens and, in defiance of the strict attitude of his times, promoted religious skepticism, treated women and slaves as equals, and believed that by providing explanations of physical processes that did not entail mysterious supernatural forces it was possible to free people from their debilitating fears – of nature, death, and superstitious belief.

Pythagoras, had a reverence for the universe unlike that of many of his countrymen. He regarded living things as sacred, was a vegetarian, and believed the Earth to be a single organism. Plato believed that, like humans, the Earth was endowed with a soul and reason. For many thinkers like Empedocles life was a continuous cycling, not only of days and seasons but of matter too, nothing was created out of nothing.

Thommen describes how Ovid and Pliny the Elder give graphic descriptions of ‘Mother Earth’s entrails and veins torn out, from greed and to satisfy the demand for luxury, so that the ground shook and trembled’ and they also pleaded that ‘only the renewable products of the earth’s surface should be used’.

Romans conflated many of their gods with those of the Greeks. On the Roman calendar were special feast days that celebrated nature’s bounty: Fordicidia for Earth Mother Tellus; Cerialia for the corn goddess Ceres; Vinalia for Jupiter and Venus. Ambarvalia for the goddess of farming Dea Di; Ludi Florales for the goddess of plants Flora; Vertumnalia for Vertumnus and Pomona, for the blessing of fruit.

Romans, like the Greeks (and, for that matter, Australians) perceived themselves as farmers, showing gratitude to the gods for the fruits of the earth but also production itself. There was an acknowledgement of human vulnerability in the face of nature, as expressed by poet Lucretius, but also a triumphant celebration of the taming of the land and its submission to cultivation as expressed by Cicero, Virgil and Statius.[3]

Though there is little evidence of Roman interest in the science of plants themselves, interest in the science of their utility was skilfully summarised in works on agriculture written by Cato, Varro and Columella (see Roman gardens).


Domestic animals in antiquity like cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, deer, poultry, birds, fish and even bees provided both food and raw materials like wool, leather and fur while for transport there were horses, mules, oxen, elephants and camels which were also the source of pride and entertainment, and sacrifice to the gods. Dogs provided both companionship and protection. In the wild there was frequent mention of the fox and rabbit, snake and wolf

Holdings of livestock, especially in early Greece were a greater measure of wealth than possession of land.

Animals held special religious significance as part of nature and as a danger, but as mediators with the gods through various associations, indicated for instance by the signs of the zodiac and gods taking on animal forms especially those of the bull, deer, lion and panther, while communication with the supernatural might be through such factors as the movement of birds or the ‘reading of entrails’ after sacrifice. In Egypt animal divinities included Amun (ram), Apis (bull, especially powerful symbol in Crete), Hathor/Isis (cow) and they sometimes took on half-human forms like the goddess Sachmet of Memphis with a lions head indicating her passion and unpredictability. Christianity, as suggested by the punishment of those who worshipped the golden calf, would later try to eradicate all animal associations with divinity. There is evidence in both Aristotle’s work and that of the Stoics that animals being instinctive and lacking reason (logos) humans had the right to dispose of them as seen fit, while lesser schools of thought like the Pythagoreans abhorred the shedding of blood and believing in the transmigration of souls, were vegetarians and choosing to reverence all animal life. Neoplatonist Porphyry of Tyre (c. 234 – 305 CE) cites Theophrastus’s ethical defence of vegetarianism (see translations of Porphyry’s work on vegetarianism and animal sacrifice at[8]

Many Greek gods had animal or part-animal forms or animal qualities of bravery, strength etc. (Pan, satyrs, centaurs, gorgons, phoenix, sphinx etc.) or were transformed in various ways. Artemis the protector of animals and the hunt.

The horse especially was an animal of social status used in war, sports like chariot racing, and hunting.

? Slaughter of animals for public entertainment threatened the existence of animals like the hippopotamus of lower Egypt.[9]


The role of plants in daily life is discussed in detail in Greek mythology. In the Greek pantheon certain trees were associated with particular gods and the sacred grove was retained from earlier times (see Plant lore. Tree preservation became a serious matter in some Greek and Roman communities to the point where local ordinances or protection orders were issued with severe penalties for felling, cultivation, or pasturing of animals within the precincts of sacred groves.[4]

Food & agriculture

Agriculture formed the economic basis of Greek society as even the prosperous prided themselves in self-sufficiency and perceived themselves more as farmers and land owners than merchants and shopkeepers.[10] Basic produce consisted of cereals, grapes and olives supplemented by legumes like field beans, peas and lentils as well as fruit, especially pears, apples and figs. Domesticated animals included sheep, cattle and goats although hunting provided additional meat like wild boar, deer and fish. Goats provided cheese, milk, meat and cloth; sheep privided wool and meat while cattle were few and used mostly for ploughing an occasionally for their meat.

Two-field crop rotation was practised, one field being fallow at any given time (during which it was treated with animal manure and ploughed with an ox-drawn plough). Other land was set aside as pasture.[10] Transhumance was also practiced, the animal herds wintering in the valleys and summering on the mountain pasture.

Lyric poet Alcman c. 650 BCE describes the diet of Spartans as groats, pearl barley mash with honey, mash of legumes while the rich enjoyed delicacies like cake, pastries and the meat obtained by hunting, all depending on the season.[11]

Basic Greek diet consisted of wine, bread and olives – the same varieties for the first millennium BCE. Improvement of nutrition between 900 and 300 BCE is indicated by men beong on average one inch and women two inches taller.[16] Barley was the main crop in Attica and barley bread the staple with poor crops imports came from the Black Sea. Meat was rarely eaten except when there were religious sacrifices (mostly sheep and goats but also pigs). There was trading and exchange of oil and honey for other foods including fish. Meats were a rarity for special occasions over cereal dishes. Beans included the horse or field bean (V. faba) as a mash but in stews and salads, easily stored, rich in protein and a favourite of the poor but taboo to some groups including the Pythagoreans and Orphics and persisted into Roman times. Fish was appreciated by most but especially the upper classes and in Roman times fish ponds were built on large estates and stocked.[14]

spices symbolised the food of the gods part, no doubt, of their puzzling high esteem in later times.

Forestry & horticulture

Greeks engaged in forest clearing (regarded by both Greeks and Romans as part of the process of civilisation), mining, and ‘laying waste’ the land of enemies. However, would have rarely been on a scale to cause concern.

Hippocrates (460-370 BCE) studied the effect of climate, weather, the seasons and other environmental factors on health, even developing a case for climate determining human character.

Between 5000 and 3000 BCE in the Balkans, steppes and deciduous and coniferous forests were replaced by evergreen oak forest. Starting around 900-800 BCE in some areas trees like olive and walnut appear and in high locations pines and cypress. Cypresses were found in Crete, cedars in Syria and Phoenicia where they were used for shipbuilding. Between 700 to 500 BCE an increase in the population of Attica resulted in a clearing of the slopes of the surrounding mountains. Legally-protected olive plantations covered the plains with a few scattered oak, fir and elm. From 500-400 BCE wood was used for not only construction and fuel but more for mining and shipbuilding, the olive wood for fuel and tools. Becoming scarce there were imports from Piraeus, Eleusis, Corinth, Samos and Knidos, wood for shipbuilding needed state navy of 200 ships for the Persian wars of 483-2 BCE came mostly from N Macedonia but also Thrace. Theophrastus described the use of silver fir, some other fir and cedar: light silver fir for triremes, another long-lasting fir for merchant ships, cedar used by Syrian and Phoenicians and Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis) by the people of Cyprus. Plato in the Critias was to later discuss the destructive effects of forest clearing on the landscape noting that it had caused erosion, destroyed animal habitat, interfered with the water supply and denuded the landscape all as part of the massive program of urban development introduced by Pericles (c.490-429 BCE). However, there were forest wardens and awareness of the damage being done. It is likely that there was regeneration in most of the areas cleared.[12]


Drinking water was obtained from springs, and wells which were fed by groundwater and water brought in from elsewhere except in cities like Athens and Syracuse by the sixth century BCE underground pipes brought drinking water to downtown areas and smaller towns also had fountain houses.[16] In the cities cisterns were used while rainwater was brought in by aqueducts and stored in both public and private cisterns.[T p. 57] Water supply was supervised by city officials and care was taken with filtration and percolation.

Freshwater mains and sewage ditches were already constructed in the oldest cities. In the 6th century Samos built a 2 km aqueduct that also passed through the Eupalinos tunnel about 1 km long while Athens used clay pipes connected to a fountain house in the Agora.[18] Around 400 BCE there were pressurised clay pipelines and in 2nd century BCE high pressure water mains were used in Pergamum. Eridanos River pollution was noted in Athens.


Over the period of Western history covered here Greek civilization moved from the periphery to the core, moving the geographic focus of civilization from eastern Asia to the Mediterranean.

Social organization

As Flourishing societies have access to resources, especially the critical and limiting resource of energy (see History in 10,000 words). When combined with security this results in population growth that must in turn be sustained – often through conquest and colonisation, trade and internal reorganisation.

There needed to be ways of addressing internal feuds within and between the strata of society and external wars. Historically this difficult and delicate process of trying to maintain social order was almost always attempted through the authority of a single ruler such as a king, sanctioned by God(s). Though polytheistic and with a rich history of legends and mythology the Greeks, unlike almost all other ancient societies, refused to believe that any individual had the unique access to gods that entitled them to divine rule. Over time power and property in Athens was transferred from the elite to the general populace creating a wealthy vibrant society but in th 420s BCE old class hostilities would re-emerge. However Syracuse and Athens of the mid 5th century BCE enjoyed a ‘golden age’ and free movement of peoples and ideas as buildings became more impressive and people flocked to the amphitheatres to experience the latest dramas. Under the strong administration of the statesman Pericles (c.495–429 BCE) Greece enjoyed many years of security and prosperity.

Land & property

As through much of history it was the possession of land and labour that determined wealth and power but this could not compare with the mansions and imposing tombs of the Persian king and nobility.

Solon reorganised Greek society and economy by redefining property rights: no-one could own a freeborn Athenian; debt-bondsmen were freed; those sold into slavery abroad were brought home; no loan could be secured on someone’s person; outstanding debts was cancelled; he redistributed land (we are not sure how) – the effect of the law was to ‘make every man’s possessions truly his own’.[27]

Population & urbanisation

Life expectancy increased across the Stone Age and Bronze Age declining in the Dark Age, then peaking in the Classical and Hellenistic Ages as health improved, people became taller and infant mortality declined. Population increased about tenfold between 900 BCE when there were about half a million Greeks, mostly in the Aegean, to about 6 million in 300 BCE when citizens were scattered round the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts, along the Nile and even in the mountains of Afghanistan. Population was strongly affected by disease as well as migration.[15]

About 600 BCE land in Attica (the region around Athens, about 2,500 km2 with a population in 450 BCE of c. 250,000, c. 50,000 in Athens) was held by nobles who leased land to peasants and free labourers but at such a high cost that large numbers of tenants were in danger of becoming debt slaves. About 2000 of the richest Athenians held a quarter to a third of the cultivated land – about half of the farmland held by 10% of the population. Solon, an elected administrator, introduced various reforms to correct this apparent source of conflict: a ban on the export of all foods except olive oil, restrictions on land acquisition, citizen debt relief, abolition of debt slavery, reform of weights and measures. The result was greater freedom among the citizens and a rising class of merchants not unlike the mercantilism that would later arise at the time of the European Enlightenment. In about 400-300 BCE cereals were imported from the Black Sea all as part of a metal and money economy, urbanisation, and Aegean empire building that gathered momentum about a century before. Trade was one of the main reasons for the formation of the confederation of Greek city-states known as the Delian League, led from Athens, and formed to maintain political control of the eastern Mediterranean.[5]

In about 500 BCE the total population of Attica could may have been about 150,000 people, too many to subsist on local resources.[28] Athens depended on grain imports from the Ukraine and Crimea north of the Black Sea and securing this trade route became, in the 5th century, of major economic import.(p. 291) The total Greek population in the Mediterranean probably doubled in the 5th century perhaps reaching five million in the 430s BCE and standards of living were rising. Sicily in the fifth century was thriving with Syracuse, its largest city, having a population of around 40,000 about the same as Athens. Housing was quite spacious with four to eight rooms round a spacious courtyard and sometimes with a second storey.[26]

The strategic effect of depriving enemies of vital resources during warfare was noted as, during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (431-404 BCE), grain fields and orchards were burned or destroyed.

In the tenth century BCE Athens had a population below 2000 reaching about 40,000 in the fifth century while in the fourth century Syracuse was twice that size.[16] At its height Athens consisted of about 30,000 citizens with full political rights (males) then equal numbers of metics (foreign residents without citizenship) and slaves. The full population would have been about 50,000 and about 250,000 in Attica as a whole.[6]

Sea level at this time was about 1-2 m lower than it is today making shorelines somewhat different from today. The 5000 year-old Minoan city of Pavlopetri in southern Greece known to have traded with Crete was discovered in 1967 and now lies submerged a few metres below sea level although its submersion was probably also due to volcanic action.


Colonisation was driven by population growth, the need for more farmland, political disputes, and the romance of discovery and adventure. Trading stations were established in Syria (8thcentury), while in the 6th century also in Egypt, Spain and Etruria where metals and luxury goods were gathered while Greek goods reached as far as Gaul through the Mediterranean port of Massilia (Marseilles) at the mouth of the Rhone.[32] Colonisation often proceeded by first taking possession of an offshore island as in Southern Italy and Sicily also north Africa (Cyrene in Libya). Colonies were not accountable to mother states but as in more recent times exchanged raw materials for products manufactured elsewhere.


Solon’s removal of debt bondage increased the appeal of slavery as a means of cheap labour and in the 5th century there was a booming slave industry with, in the 430s BCE perhaps about a quarter of the citizens in attica as slaves, mainly from th Balkan and Asia Minor: they served in the silver mines, city workshops, as rural labourers and domestic servants. Though the Greeks regarded themselves as superior there was not the same amount of resentment and abuse as occurred, say, in the later American slave trade and slaves often worked alongside their masters.

By 600 BCE Rome had a sophisticated underground sewage system. The construction of a vast city like Rome with a massive infrastructure of water-supply, sewers, public baths and entertainment centres could only be achieved through a massive expenditure of energy as human labour. This could only have been achieved through the perpetuation of a marked social division of labour with one third of the city population being slaves.

Greek impact on the natural environment was probably forest clearing (and subsequent soil erosion) for structural wood and fuel along with mining of stone and metal needed to support the growing population.

Probably the most noticeable consequence of Greek and Roman cultures was the relatively sudden appearance of quite large townships and buildings around the Mediterranean as Greek colonisation gathered momentum during the second half of the 8th century BCE extended round the Mediterranean and Black Sea Archaic Age (c. 800-500 BCE) extending into the Classical (500-336 BCE) and the splendour of the royal court in the Hellenistic Age.

The view of the world as a flat disk surrounded by Okeanos continued until the Hellenistic era (336-30 BCE) when Alexander the Great took his military conquest as far as the Indus, and with no boundary reached posed the question as to whether indeed the world had boundaries.


Experience gained by Alexander on his Persian campaign when he penetrated into Baktria (Afghanistan) and Sogdia (Tajikistan) and the Indus River was condensed into the new and great cosmopolitan Alexandria in Egypt which was specially landscaped with an artificial causeway to the offshore island of Pharos creating an extended harbour and serving Alexandria’s role as a political, administrative, trading and economic centre which included the Museion, a research centre with a magnificent library housing much of the combined knowledge to that time. Hellenistic kingdoms of the Macedonians, Ptolemies and Seleucids spread Greek culture into Asia Minor and the Near East as veterans were given land grants. Major cities arose in Syria chief among which was the luxurious Antioch with piped water, street lighting and parkland.[7]

Though Hellenistic rivalries were set in train when Alexander died without deciding on a successor they continued until finally, between 148 and 30 BCE, Greek culture in the kingdoms of Macedonia, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Greece itself were subjugated under Roman rule.


Economic growth that took place between the Dark Age and Classical Period was due mainly to social organisation. Only subsequently would technology play a part. In the Classical period wealthy citizens were protected by the law and this facilitated trade and farming investment.[17]

Alphabetic writing adapted from th Phoenician alphabet arrived in Greece in the eighth century BCE and was adapted for merchant accounting and coinage introduced about 600 BCE assisted exchange as did the legal standardisation of Athenian weights, measures and coinage in 425 BCE and encouragement of trade. Greece became proressively more economically organised as cereals were imported from Sicily and the Ukraine to make up for local shortfalls while decorated pots and olive oil were exported. Around 440 BCE Piraeus, the harbour closest to Athens, had become the major trading port in the Aegean exchanging goods from Lydia, the Black Sea, Cyprus, Egypt, Italy and Sicily and individual towns had bgun to specialize in their own products.[19]

The cultural achievementsof Athens were no doubt in part due to economic growth – but the labour needed to create much of what we admire today was provided by slaves.


Sumerian city-states had used a ‘commodity money’ known as the shekel (a quantity of cereal by weight) and the Babylonians later used various kinds of commodity money locked into a legal code resembling today’s price system, interest rates, as well as property inheritance and taxation rules.

Just before 600 BCE the kingdom of Lydia in present-day Turkey began minting coins made of electrum (a natural alloy of silver and gold) with a symbol to indicate weight and therefore value: this was copied in Greece and by 500 BCE copper and bronze tokens were being minted possibly as a convenient way for the state to pay the military. Revenue was obtained through exports and imports and the taxes charged for the use of the harbour facilities by merchant shipping. Coinage (probably first produced in the Aegean, maybe in Lydia, c. 600-700 BCE) was first minted in Greece c. 550 BCE at first a gold/silver alloy called electrum, but later pure silver (mined from Laurium) then bronze.

Hesiod, having written on the fundamental subject of the scarcity of resources


Taxes were collected from traders mostly at the main ports as a means of raising revenue for the public treasury and to maintain the army. Loans of cash were obtained at high interest rates by merchants to finance ventures. A special committee was appointed to regulate trade in wheat, flour, and bread. There was an occasional tax on the wealthy in times of war and the wealthy were also expected to provide sponsorship of public events, services or infrastructure. There were taxes on assets like livestock, houses, slaves, and other household goods.

There were taxes on the movement of goods, levies on imports and exports at ports, there were also measures taken to protect trade. Special maritime courts were established to tempt traders to choose Athens as their trading partner, and private banks could facilitate currency exchange and safeguard deposits. With the decline of the Greek city-states in the late Classical period international major trade moved elsewhere.[31

Merchants (kapeloi) were organised into guilds and they paid a rental fee for a space in the Agora market and others with large market-garden-like estates sold there surplus produce here too.

Transport & communication

World history dsplaces the Mediterranean as the centre of affairs as Greece and Rome become the western end of a vast network of exchange stretching from China to Persia and Mediterranean (even Britain) with central hub in Mesopotamia and other centres in the Near East and Bactria part of the Indomediterranean trade emanating from the Indus River, with pastoral herdsmen like the Scythians (9th century BCE to 4th century CE) the vital link between East and West.

In Plato’s day about 90% of Greeks lived within a day’s walk of the Mediterranean ‘like frogs around a pond’ he said. Later, a Roman inscription of 301 stated that it cost less to take a load of grain 1000 miles by ship from one end of the Mediterranean to the other than it did to take the same amount 75 km by land so ‘the land divides, the sea unites’.

Mining & materials

The world of antiquity demanded wood for fuel and construction, clay for pipes and utensils, stone for construction and metals for implements and tools. Marble and stone surface quarries were found on islands of the Cyclades, in the mountains near Athens and Peloponnese while iron, gold, silver, tin, lead and copper were sometimes mined underground. Metals had been a part of life since the Neolithic with Britain a good source of copper and tin, the ingredients of bronze produced since about 2-3000 BCE. By the 5th century BCE shafts more than 50 m long with galleries up to 40 m long were quite common. Washing and smelting were sources of pollution. Buildings and sculptures today viewed in a marble white purity were in their day painted with pigments traded from as far away as Spain (cinnabar) and Afghanistan (lapis lazuli).

Metals mined included lead, gold, iron, copper mined largely outside Greece itself, and silver, mined by slaves in Laurium was worked in the city and an important part of the economy in 5th century Athens.


Crafts like weaving, dying and baking, originally practiced in the home, became more widespread in society from the 8th to 4th centuries passed on from women, who sold perfumes and ribbons, to slaves. Craftsmen who worked in clay, wood, leather, metals and musical instruments set up business in workshops or small factories. A comfortable living could be earned by collecting kindling in the surrounding hills of Athens and bringing it into the city on a donkey although by the mid-5th century Attica’s forests had been depleted, as reported in Plato’s Critias.[cited in Hughes p. 63] Wood was imported by heavily forested territories like Macedonia and Asia Minor.

Pottery, also mostly produced by slaves in workshops, was used both commercially, in the home, and for religious ceremony. Apart from moulding the clay on the potter’s wheel (invented long before), pottery involved careful selection of the clay, drying, painting, baking and varnishing.

Agrarian trade

Greece was a land of long coastlines and scattered islands (especially the Cyclades) and so many Greeks were seafarers and traders. Inland there were arid mountainous landscapes where, throughout ancient history, in the valleys, farmers grew olives (a mythical gift from the goddess Athena that was used for cooking, eating, cosmetics and lamps) grapes, and grain (mostly barley). Soil was poor with only about 30% being arable, the farmers struggling to grow cereals and complained about the stony soil of their small subsistence plots. Separation of Greek society into city-states was likely influenced by the geography which tended to isolate regions. Grains were grown on the plains while the olives and vines grew on the hillsides. The wheat crop would fail about one year in four, barley about one in 20 so the less popular barley loaves were the norm.

The Greek word oikonomia, derived from oikos- home refers to management of the household.

Trade in food, raw materials, and manufactured goods had existed from the Bronze Age although trade in the Mediterranean during 11th to 8th centuries was largely the domain of the Phoenicians. From the number and content of shipwrecks in the Aegean indicate a very large increase in trade around the 6th to 4th century BCE facilitated from 600 BCE by the construction of specialised merchant ships and maritime infrastructure. From the 5th century BCE, Athens’ port of Piraeus became the most important trading centre in the Mediterranean and gained a reputation as the place to find any product on the market.[31

Greek exports included pottery has been found as far afield as the Atlantic coast of Africa and other exports being wine, metal-work, amphorae of wine, olives and olive oil, hides, marble, and ruddle (a type of waterproofing material for ships). Imported goods included wheat and slaves from Egypt, grain from the Black Sea salt-fish from the Black Sea, wood (especially for shipbuilding) from Macedonia and Thrace, papyrus, textiles, luxury food such as spices like pepper, glass, and metals including iron, copper, tin, gold and silver.[31

Greece was an agrarian economy with mixed farming consisting three major crops: grain, oil and wine and the majority of people being farmers and most land owned by an aristocracy but on a much smaller scale than the latifundia of the later Roman aristocrats. Governor Solon under his governorship proved popular by removing the peasant debt bondage.

At the time of Classical and Hellenistic Greece the people were largely vegetarian. Utilitarian gardens of the market garden type stocked fruit and vegetables: figs, apples, pears, mulberries, nuts, herbs, melons and the vegetables leeks, beans, lentils, lettuce, cabbages, asparagus, onions and garlic, while farm gardens, apart from grain crops and other staples, cultivated olive groves and vineyards.

Livestock consisted mostly of sheep and goats but there was also bee-keeping.

Key points

  • Increase in Athenian social organisation was encouraged by: the creation of a written alphabet in 700 BCE and educated citizens beng able to read and write; the fostering of trade and communication through the introduction of coined money and central banks (there were banks in 53 of the city-states)[30] including consumer credit and public sector financing; citizen (wealthy non-slave male) participation in decision-making through meetings in the Agora and Pnyx
  • Plato (Laws V 74) recommends optimum city size of 20,000 to allow effective communication
  • The population of Attica in 500-450 BCE was about 100,000 people but other sity-states were mostly 20,000-30,000. Beyond a certain size the cost of resource transportation became prohibitive
  • The need for trade and exchange promoted the development of ports, a navy, and trading centres
  • Athens exported specialized manufactured goods and oil, the money gained being used to import
  • grain and the surplus profits leading to increased city wealth
  • The Athenian economy was used as a model for later cities
  • City-states would eventually and much later be replaced by European nation-states
  • Greek money, banking and economic policy, along with its urban and land-use planning, public administration and services, and trading policies would serve as an example to later cities.

Media Gallery

Ancient Greece in 18 minutes

Arzamas – 2017 – 17:38

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

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