Tag Archives: agriculture

Farm fragmentation in modern Greece

Viewed from a vantage point, and in the clarity of its celebrated light, the Greek landscape contains much to charm and interest the observer. But in the mundane aspects of its agriculture, many imperfections may be detected including such features as primitive farming techniques, meager crop stands, insufficient fencing, and neglect of the principles of soil conservation. Most striking, perhaps, is the fact that the arable land generally presents the aspect of an intricate mosaic of tiny fields set in a matrix of roads, paths, and field divisions.

More careful study of the landscape reveals a grossly anomalous pattern of proprietorship since the minuscule, awkwardly-shaped fields (perhaps better termed plots) are rarely in contiguous ownership. Usually a single farm consists of a number, even 30 or more, of widely separated, tiny plots. The dismemberment of land has gone so far that a plot of 20 stremmata (about 5 acres) is now considered a large piece of property. Truly, the fabric of Greek agriculture has been cut to pieces.

Thus begins Kenneth Thompson’s classic Farm Fragmentation in Greece (1963, 1). The fragmentation of the landscape into small plots was a nightmare for Thompson, who wrote his study for the monograph series of the Greek Center of Economic Research (the preface is written by Andreas Papandreou!). Thompson clearly didn’t understand, and couldn’t understand, the fragmented Greek systems of land holding. Most archaeologists and historians now interpret farm fragmentation positively, as a sensible, risk-averse economic strategy (e.g., Gallant 1991).

In any case, I had occasion to look at Thompson and the other literature of farm fragmentation for different purposes. My forthcoming monograph is a prosopographical study of Late Bronze Age Pylos. I argue that in many cases, we can plausibly show that when a personal name appears in multiple Linear B texts, it represents a single historical individual who was active in multiple areas under palatial administration. One obstacle to these prosopographical identifications is geography. Although in some cases the same name appears at the same place-name, in others the same name is listed against different places. Now, sometimes we know where these places are, sometimes we don’t. But if we do know where these places are, when it is reasonable to say that they are TOO far apart? Clearly if the places are 1 or 2 km apart, it’s not impossible to believe that a single person could have been active at both places. After all, according to Google Maps my office is a 1.4 km walk from my home, a short distance that isn’t very troublesome, even in the coldest depths of a Toronto winter. But what about 10 km? 20 km?

The farm fragmentation studies were one way for me to approach an answer this question. Like most Greek archaeologists, I was familiar with Greek farm fragmentation and the fact that Greek farmers were generally willing to travel great distances (or what seemed to me like great distances) to work their land, but I hadn’t looked at the primary data. Thompson is the most comprehensive study, but there is also information about Melos (from Renfrew and Wagstaff 1982), Methana (from Clark 1988) and Messenia itself (from McDonald and Rapp 1972). On Melos, the travel time to the most distant landholding  ranged from 5 minutes to 6 hours, with a mean of 2 hours. Here is the breakdown based on the 97 farmers interviewed for the Melian study:


The Melian results are basically compatible with those from Methana and the survey of Thompson, which covered several different parts of Greece. Thompson found that the average distance to the furthest landholding was 7 km, or a walk of about 1.4 hours. Clark (1988, 58-59) reports that most fields on Methana are 5 minutes to 1 hour’s walk from the village, although some were as far as 3 hours away, Some Methanites owned land on the plain near the village Τροιζήνα and travelled there by mule, a journey of 5-8 hours (Clark 1988, 92). Unfortunately the Minnesota Messenia Expedition did not report distances to the furthest landholding. Instead, they report that “the average travel distance between the farmer’s home and his fields is about 1.3 km…” (van Wersch 1972, 178). This is significantly less than the average of 2.2 km for the Peloponnese reported by Thompson (1963, 32). For my purposes, the furthest landholding is the most useful statistic. But in any case, we can concluded that farmers in mid-20th century Greece were generally willing to travel 1-2 hours to their furthest landholding, although in some cases they would be willing to travel 5-8 hours. The average field, however, was closer to the farmer’s home, on average about 20-30 minutes away.

If the modern farmers are anything to go by, then, distances of 10 km should be no major obstacle to prosopographical identification. That is, it is not difficult to imagine a Bronze Age Messenian walking 2 hours from this place of residence to a plot of land, or the location of some other part-time work. Indeed, it might even be possible to see 20 km distances as no great obstacle, if we assume that the individual in question lived midway between the two locations recorded in the Linear B documentation (although I don’t operate on this assumption in my book).

In any case, I’m not sure that geography is all that significant in prosopographical identification. After all, many (if not all) of the individuals identified by name in the Linear B tablets were likely to be individuals of some standing, who could have had holdings and interests that were taken care of by kin or dependents. But in some cases, it’s possible to show that a name listed against two different toponyms can reflect one person who, although not itinerant, does regularly move across significant distances in the landscape. Many Linear B scholars, when confronted with the same name at two toponyms, concluded that two individuals with the same name were being referred to. A closer look, however, suggests the opposite conclusion: that in many cases we’re looking at references to the same person who moved around the Messenian countryside.


Debt, patriarchy, and Hesiod

Thanks to the guys over at Savage Minds, I picked up and started reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Yearsand increasingly, talking about it to anyone who will listen. Graeber’s book is really good, very interesting and thought-provoking, and it’s given me lots of ideas.

Today, while waiting in line for a burger, I came across a section in the book where Graeber makes an argument for the origins of patriarchy. He argues that anxieties about the sexual propriety of women emerge when human economies become increasingly commercial. A human economy is one where money is “used to arrange marriages and settle affairs of honor” (177) but not to purchase commodities. Such economies primarily arrange relationships between people. But these human economies can be transformed into something else, economies where slavery exists and humans can be bought and sold. Graeber is particularly concerned with debt and debt-bondage. (That is, when an individual took out a loan and used members of his household as sureties on that loan, and if he then defaulted on the loan, then these household members could be put into various forms of servile relationships with the creditor). As Graeber argues,

for much of the rural poor, debt dependency was institutionalized, with the daughters of poor debtors, predictably, often dispatched to brothels or to the kitchens or laundries of the rich. In either case, between the push of commoditization, which fell disproportionally on daughters, and the pull of those trying to reassert patriarchal rights to “protect” women from any suggestion that they might be commoditized, women’s formal and practical freedoms appear to have been gradually but increasingly restricted and effaced. As a result, notions of honor changed too, becoming a kind of protest against the implications of the market… (186)

Graeber then proceeds to discuss the ancient Greek evidence (186-188), without, however, mentioning Hesiod. It immediately seemed to me clear that Hesiodic poetry works very well with Graeber’s larger master narrative. You have in Hesiod on the one hand an anxiety about economic hard work and self-reliance, the importance of passing on to one’s son or sons (although ideally one should have only one son) a large farm, and the avoidance of risky economic enterprises. Hesiod also places his poetic persona in opposition to the elites of the city and their violent, hubristic activity. On the other hand, there is an anxiety about control over female sexuality, an anxiety expressed in the succession myth in the Theogony but also in the Works and Days (trans. Evelyn-White 1914):

(320-341) Wealth should not be seized: god-given wealth is much better; for it a man take great wealth violently and perforce, or if he steal it through his tongue, as often happens when gain deceives men’s sense and dishonour tramples down honour, the gods soon blot him out and make that man’s house low, and wealth attends him only for a little time. Alike with him who does wrong to a suppliant or a guest, or who goes up to his brother’s bed and commits unnatural sin in lying with his wife, or who infatuately offends against fatherless children, or who abuses his old father at the cheerless threshold of old age and attacks him with harsh words, truly Zeus himself is angry, and at the last lays on him a heavy requittal for his evil doing. But do you turn your foolish heart altogether away from these things, and, as far as you are able, sacrifice to the deathless gods purely and cleanly, and burn rich meats also, and at other times propitiate them with libations and incense, both when you go to bed and when the holy light has come back, that they may be gracious to you in heart and spirit, and so you may buy another’s holding and not another yours.

(342-351) Call your friend to a feast; but leave your enemy alone; and especially call him who lives near you: for if any mischief happen in the place, neighbours come ungirt, but kinsmen stay to gird themselves. A bad neighbour is as great a plague as a good one is a great blessing; he who enjoys a good neighbour has a precious possession. Not even an ox would die but for a bad neighbour. Take fair measure from your neighbour and pay him back fairly with the same measure, or better, if you can; so that if you are in need afterwards, you may find him sure.

(352-369) Do not get base gain: base gain is as bad as ruin. Be friends with the friendly, and visit him who visits you. Give to one who gives, but do not give to one who does not give. A man gives to the free-handed, but no one gives to the close- fisted. Give is a good girl, but Take is bad and she brings death. For the man who gives willingly, even though he gives a great thing, rejoices in his gift and is glad in heart; but whoever gives way to shamelessness and takes something himself, even though it be a small thing, it freezes his heart. He who adds to what he has, will keep off bright-eyed hunger; for it you add only a little to a little and do this often, soon that little will become great. What a man has by him at home does not trouble him: it is better to have your stuff at home, for whatever is abroad may mean loss. It is a good thing to draw on what you have; but it grieves your heart to need something and not to have it, and I bid you mark this. Take your fill when the cask is first opened and when it is nearly spent, but midways be sparing: it is poor saving when you come to the lees.

(370-372) Let the wage promised to a friend be fixed; even with your brother smile — and get a witness; for trust and mistrust, alike ruin men.

(373-375) Do not let a flaunting woman coax and cozen and deceive you: she is after your barn. The man who trusts womankind trust deceivers.

(376-380) There should be an only son, to feed his father’s house, for so wealth will increase in the home; but if you leave a second son you should die old. Yet Zeus can easily give great wealth to a greater number. More hands mean more work and more increase.

(381-382) If your heart within you desires wealth, do these things and work with work upon work.

(383-404) When the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, are rising, begin your harvest, and your ploughing when they are going to set. Forty nights and days they are hidden and appear again as the year moves round, when first you sharpen your sickle. This is the law of the plains, and of those who live near the sea, and who inhabit rich country, the glens and dingles far from the tossing sea, — strip to sow and strip to plough and strip to reap, if you wish to get in all Demeter’s fruits in due season, and that each kind may grow in its season. Else, afterwards, you may chance to be in want, and go begging to other men’s houses, but without avail; as you have already come to me. But I will give you no more nor give you further measure. Foolish Perses! Work the work which the gods ordained for men, lest in bitter anguish of spirit you with your wife and children seek your livelihood amongst your neighbours, and they do not heed you. Two or three times, may be, you will succeed, but if you trouble them further, it will not avail you, and all your talk will be in vain, and your word-play unprofitable. Nay, I bid you find a way to pay your debts and avoid hunger.

To be clear, I am not arguing that Hesiod’s Works and Days is a poem that is “really” about debt-bondage. Hesiod doesn’t mention it directly, although he does urge Perses to free himself from debt. Nor does Hesiod express any anxiety over losing members of his household to debt. As Ian Morris put it in Burial and Ancient Society (1987, 201):

Ed. Will assumed that Hesiod’s grumblings about the basileis were those of a proto-revolutionary railing about exclusion from power, and tried to see a situation of mounting discontent and debt bondage in seventh-century Boeotia (1957; followed by Detienne (1963, 15-27)). But as many historians have commented, there is nothing to suggest that either Hesiod or Perses was in debt to the basileis, and indeed the words for debt occur only rarely in the Works and Days.

On the other hand, there is no reason that Hesiod’s anxieties could not have been shaped by broad economic structures and processes,well known to all Greek historians, in which farmers across Greece, especially poor farmers or those with many children who thereby inherited increasingly small parcels of land, ran the risk of falling into relationships of debt with their richer neighbors and losing their autonomy to them. Indeed, Hesiod anxieties over the economic autonomy of the nuclear family and the family’s control over women are hardly unique to him. But it may not be coincidental that these axes of ancient Greek culture emerged in a period when not only debt-bondage, but the more extreme debt-slavery, was a recurring problem for Greek communities. As Ed Harris has recently argued (Harris 2002), Solon in early 6th century BC Athens outlawed the latter (debt-slavery) but not the former (debt-bondage), which continued to be practiced in Athens and indeed in most parts of Greece.