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date: 02 December 2022

pastoralism, Greekfree

pastoralism, Greekfree

  • Stephen Hodkinson


  • Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age
  • Greek Material Culture
  • Science, Technology, and Medicine

Although animals were ubiquitous throughout the Greek countryside, animal husbandry has until recently received little systematic attention; hence current interpretations are frequently embryonic. Zooarchaeological studies of animal bone assemblages from the historical period are particularly needed.

Evidence of domesticated animals goes back to the 7th millennium bce. In the early neolithic modest flocks of ovicaprines (sheep and goats), kept primarily for meat, were integrated into small-scale gardening, grazing on fallow and stubble and supplying manure. More specialized stock-keeping arose in the late neolithic and bronze age, with increased exploitation of ‘secondary products’, especially ox traction and ovicaprine textile fibres, culminating in the large-scale wool production of the Minoan and Mycenaean palaces (see minoan and mycenaean civilization). Older views of the Dark Age as one of nomadic pastoralism (often associated with the ‘Dorian invasions’; see dorians; heraclidae) are now under challenge. ‘Homeric society’ rested upon arable production, with large herds as a store for surplus wealth. The period of independent poleis (discussed further below) witnessed smaller herd sizes; Hellenistic and Roman Greece a subsequent increase. Within the Roman, especially later Roman, empire demand for pastoral products made ovicaprine stock-raising (often conducted from isolated, tenant-run farmsteads) important on larger Greek estates.

The animals reared in different regions were partly influenced by environmental conditions, with more larger livestock in the moister north and west. Older studies assumed that environmental conditions also dictated a pattern of long-distance seasonal transhumance, as practised frequently in modern times. Transhumance, however, is now regarded as the product of specific economic and political circumstances (especially weak lowland agriculture and unified political authority) which did not apply under the independent poleis (see polis). Despite occasional cross-border agreements, seasonal movements were generally limited to upland areas within polis boundaries. Many citizens possessed a few ‘house’ animals; but larger herds (typically not more than 50–100 strong) were owned by wealthy landowners employing individual hired or slave herders, rather than—as recently—by independent, low-status mobile pastoralist groups. Recent research has emphasized the income-generating capacity of such modest-sized ovicaprine flocks reared for their marketable high-quality wool and cheese. The extent of animal husbandry's integration with arable farming is controversial. One opinion stresses the role of agro-pastoral farms whose animals fed at least partly on fodder crops, fallow, and agricultural waste-products, providing manure in return; another asserts greater reliance upon pastures distant from arable cultivation.

Animal husbandry also performed important religious and social functions. The requirements of official sacrificial calendars mirrored the seasonal availability of surplus animals from local flocks and conditioned the age at which animals were sold. War-horses, chariot-horses (see horses), and hunting dogs were powerful status symbols, playing important roles in élite lifestyles. (See also brigandage; pan.)


  • J. F. Cherry, S. Hodkinson, J. E. Skydsgaard, and M. H. Jameson, in C. R. Whittaker (ed.), Pastoral Economies in Classical Antiquity
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