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date: 30 November 2022

food supply, Greekfree

food supply, Greekfree

  • Lin Foxhall


  • Ancient Economy

For Greek city-states of the Archaic and Hellenistic periods the ethos of self-sufficiency (autarkeia) dominated the ideology of food supply. In reality few Greek cities ever outgrew the food production capacities of their territory and the small number which did responded by intensifying agricultural production. This is well documented in the case of Athens. However, most Greek states operated in politically and environmentally unstable conditions. Weather (see climate) and warfare posed constant, but unpredictably timed, hazards. Consequently, some degree of shortfall in food supply could be expected perhaps as often as once in five years.

By ‘food’ (sitos) is meant cereals. Though other crops were grown and important in the ancient Greek diet, grain was the preferred staple, especially wheat and barley. Hence shortfalls in these crops proved the most problematic at all levels. Grain was at the heart of the political discourses which evolved around the problem of food supply in most city-states.

Grain was grown not by cities but by individual households, on private land. Therefore shortages had to be met with ad hoc measures on the part of government, city-states virtually never having either central grain production or storage facilities. General shortfalls in the cereal harvest enhanced class tensions, since wealthy landowners would not have suffered to the same degree as small-scale cultivators. Shortfalls also provided opportunities for the rich to gain political capital and to manipulate grain supplies. From the 4th cent. bce onwards, benefactions of grain by wealthy individuals are regularly documented in inscriptions, and become part of the political strategies employed in élite competition for power (see euergetism).

City-states were empowered to do little in the likely event of grain shortage. Only one free, state-sponsored, grain distribution is known (Samos: SEG 1. 366). Generally states behaved as middlemen, aiming to encourage imports, or donations and subsidized sales by the rich (e.g. IG 5. 1. 1379; J. Pouilloux, Choix d'inscriptions grecques 34 (1960), 126; IDélos 442A 101; 399A 69–73). Incentives might be offered to private traders, but many were not citizens, and the profits they made were greatly resented (Lys. 22).

It is sometimes difficult to ascertain how ‘genuine’ food shortages were. It is perhaps significant that with one possible exception, barley, which was considered inferior for food, was not imported. Wheat, the preferred cereal (and most of the time probably the prerogative of the rich) was the usual grain from overseas. It is difficult to know how much of this imported wheat the poor ever ate. However, ensuring the supply of wheat itself became a political issue, as is shown by the careful diplomacy with which the Bosporan kingdom (a major supplier of wheat to Athens) was treated (see spartocids). See agriculture, greek; famine; food and drink.


  • R. Alston and O. van Nijf (eds.), Feeding the Ancient Greek City (2008).
  • A. Moreno, Feeding the Democracy (2007).
  • P. Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Responses to Risk and Crisis (1988).
  • G. Rickman, The Corn Supply of Ancient Rome (1980).
  • P. Veyne, Bread and Circuses (partial Eng. trans. 1990).
  • A. B. J. Sirks, Food for Rome (2010).
  • P. Erdkamp, The Grain Market in the Roman Empire (2005).
  • E. Tengstrom, Bread for the People: Studies of the Corn-Supply of Rome during the Later Empire (1974).