(1) In Greece. Agriculture was a leading industry, at least as early as Homer. The soil was stubborn, fertile plains being comparatively few, and mountains and rocky ground preponderating. But, favoured by a genial climate, agriculture was carried on almost everywhere with a zeal to which the wants of a dense population added their stimulus. That it was regarded as the very groundwork of social life is shown by the fact that its guardian goddess Demeter presided also over wedlock and law. It [p. 46]
was looked upon as the most legitimate way of earning a livelihood. It was carried to the highest pitch in the Pelopounesus, where every scrap of cultivable soil was made to yield its crop, as may be seen to this day by the artificial terraces that scarp every mountain-slope. Much care was bestowed on irrigation. Scarcity of water was supplemented by artificial means; provision was made against irregular bursts of mountain torrents by embanking and regulating the natural outlets, while moist lands were channelled and stagnant waters drained. Water was distributed everywhere by ditches and canals, under the supervision of state officials; and laws of ancient date guarded against the unfair use of a watercourse to a neighbour's damage. See Emissarium.
The land was mainly cultivated by slaves and serfs, though field labour was not deemed dishonourable to the freeman, except where law and custom forbade his engaging in any sort of handicraft, as at Sparta. In some countries, especially Arcadia, the old-world plan of every man tilling his field with his own hand remained in force to the latest times; and even eminent statesmen like Philopoemen (q.v.) would not give it up. Four kinds of grain were chiefly grownwheat, barley, and two kinds of spelt, to all of which the climate allowed two sowings in the yearbesides millet, sesame, various leguminous plants, and several sorts of herbage for fodder. With no less diligence was Greek husbandry applied to gardening, especially to the cultivation of the vine. This, while steadily pursued on the mainland, was developed to an extraordinary extent in the islands, most of which, owing to their mountainous character, did not afford their inhabitants sufficient arable soil. In olive-culture no part of Greece competed with Attica, which also produced the best figs, the fruit most widely cultivated. Kitchen-gardening was practised on the largest scale in Boeotia. Considering the enormous consumption of flowers in wreaths, the rearing of them, especially of the rose, lily, narcissus, and violet, must have been a lucrative business, at least in the neighbourhood of great towns. Meadow-farming was of next to no importance, few districts having a soil adapted for it, and such meadows as there were being used for pasture rather than haymaking.
(2) In Italy. In Italy also, the existence of the community was regarded as based upon agriculture. This is proved by the practice of marking the site of the future walls of a new town by a furrow drawn with the plough. At Rome especially, the body of irremovable peasantry long formed the core of the commonwealth. In political life the free peasant was the only factor held in account, and accordingly in war the object was to increase the number of free peasants by planting them out on as much of borderland as could be wrested from the enemy. In early times agriculture was thought the only respectable calling in which a Roman citizen could engage; and manual labour was held in high esteem and brought no discredit upon persons of rank and station, even Cato the Censor working in the fields side by side with his slaves.
Husbandry was mainly directed to the raising of grain, the ordinary cereal being at first spelt, till, in the fifth century B.C., wheat began to take a place beside it. They also cultivated barley, millet, and leguminous plants, as well as turnips, greens, and herbs for fodder. On irrigation and drainage the Italians bestowed much pains. They had no lack of grass-lands, either for pasture or haymaking; and from an early time these were artificially watered. The cultivation of the vine and olive extended as that of grains declined; so did the growth of orchard fruit, which, under the late Republic and the early Empire, received a vast expansion both from the improvement of native kinds and the introduction and naturalization of many foreign fruits. In earlier times the prime favourite among fruit trees had been, as in Greece, the nutritious fig. Agriculture proper was ruined by the acquisition of the first extra-Italian possessions, Sicily and Sardinia; for the corn supplied by the provincials as tribute in kind began to be used, not only in provisioning the armies, but in feeding the urban population. (See Annona.) As the state, to humour the rabble of Rome, sold this corn at the lowest possible prices, sometimes even below its value, the growth of cereals ceased to be profitable; farmers kept it down to a minimum, and took to cattle-breeding or to raising wine and oil. These branches of industry not only flourished in the face of competition, but, with judicious management, were highly remunerative. The deathblow was given to the Italian peasantry by the increasing employment of slaves and the absorption of small farms in large estates. (See Latifundium.) On these, besides the growth of wine, oil, and fruit, the breeding of birds, game, and cattle was carried on, as well as woodcraft and special industries such as pottery, charcoal-burning, and others.
Farming implements, in addition to the plough, or aratrum (q. v.), usually drawn by oxen, which was much the same among Greeks and Romans, and always very imperfect, included a great variety of spades, hoes, and mattocks, and among Romans the harrow (irpex, rastrum), the use of which among the Greeks is doubted. The season for sowing all cereals was usually autumn. At harvest the stalks were cut with the sickle about half-way down, and the rest left standing as stubble, to be either burned or utilized for manure. The process of threshing was very defective.
See Dickson, Husbandry of the Ancients (1788); De la Malle, conomie Politique des Romains (1840); Hoskyns, Hist. of Agriculture (1849); and the article Geoponici.