Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Lin Foxhall, Olive Cultivation in Ancient Greece. Seeking the Ancient Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xvii, 294; figs. 66, tables 8. ISBN 978-0-19-815288-0. $117.00.
Reviewed by Timothy Howe, St. Olaf College

Table of Contents

From the title alone, Olive Cultivation in Ancient Greece seems a book only a specialist on ancient agriculture could love. It thus runs the risk of being relegated to a dusty corner of the research library, unread. That would be a mistake. Foxhall has much for even the undergraduate general reader. As she puts it in the introductory chapter, "The cultivation of the olive offers the opportunity to explore the intricate relationships between social and cultural values, agricultural practices, the development and adaptation of technology, and the workings of the economies of Classical Greece--aspects of the ancient world which are sometimes studied in isolation from each other" (1). In this study, Foxhall disentangles the complex social, political, and economic choices that informed and shaped wealthy households' olive production strategies during the Archaic and Classical, especially the critical span between the late sixth and mid third centuries BCE which many have called the "Golden Age." In her analysis, Foxhall probes and illuminates the relationships between individual agricultural practices (primarily Athenian) and the larger economies into which they are integrated. Using comparative chronological frameworks she showcases what is distinctive about late Archaic and Classical elite olive cultivation, production, and consumption.

By focusing specifically on the strategies of wealthy households during the Archaic and Classical periods, Foxhall challenges head-on several methodological opiniones communes. The most influential, and thus entrenched, is that Greek agricultural practices, technologies, and goals are structurally similar across both time and the social spectrum, from Archaic down through Late Roman times.1 Foxhall argues that this assumption is especially troublesome when one considers the scale, breadth, and market-oriented goals of the Roman agricultural economy in comparison with the scattered, small-scale, household production of Archaic and Classical Greece. The world of the wealthy polis farmer, as seen in the literary and epigraphic sources, was much smaller, more domestic than the Roman absentee landlord. Consequently, Foxhall argues that we must return to the Greek evidence, spotty though it often is, and evaluate it on its own merits, using Roman data cautiously as comparanda to illustrate difference. Foxhall further urges that scholars no longer conflate the regional variation of olive cultivation and thereby treat olive production in an overarching, generalizing manner.2 Although the olive grows in a wide range of environments, it behaves differently in each and this variation should be taken into account. Foxhall also tackles the prevailing tendency among Greek historians to attribute social, political, and economic transformations to the cultivation of the olive, as if the plant alone has some special, "transformative" power.3 She agues that such approaches are based on modern, market-driven models as well as a misunderstanding of the role of the olive in ancient Greek society. The olive was cultivated in Greece continuously, from an early date, and played a key, uninterrupted agricultural role from prehistory forward. As such, it possessed no inherent transformative force. Instead, changes in the way olives were cultivated signaled emergent social, political, and economic transformations but did not, by themselves, initiate such change. Finally, unlike works which begin with high-level institutions such as credit, banking, and trade,4 Foxhall starts from the bottom up, examining the practical limitations and possibilities of Greek farming from the household level, in terms of the goals and needs of individual, wealthy family groups.

The book is organized in helpful, numbered, subheadings and moves from the general to the particular. Chapter 1 outlines the scope and scale of the book as a whole. Chapter 2, "Wealthy Households: Theory, Sources, Methodology," deals with current issues relevant to the study of ancient economies, as well as the range of source material for olive cultivation and the methodological problems inherent in using and contextualizing it. Here, Foxhall argues that "the most fundamental and difficult methodological issue facing any study of Greek agriculture is how and where to situate the political, social, and economic contexts of the source materials" (21). Whom are we seeing? Whose past do these sources represent? And how much of this data is "embedded" in culture-specific, and therefore opaque, discourse? Related to these questions is the problem of whether the ancient economy is "primitive" or "modern." Foxhall argues that it is neither and that by trying and failing to apply terminology such as "capital" or "credit," most studies of ancient economic institutions, knowingly or not, set up forced dichotomies between Us and Them. These studies, according to Foxhall, artificially turn the ancients into the Other and thereby categorize their economies and economic choices as hopelessly "embedded," entangled in special culturally encoded contexts. Foxhall asserts that while both modern and ancient economies were products of the cultural and social systems that created them, neither are irretrievably embedded or consciously "disembedded"--Foxhall suggests it is an over-simplification by modern westerners that modern economies are consciously understandable and can be disentangled from culture-specific choices. The main theoretical approach of the book is that all social, economic, and political institutions in all societies are shaped by their particular cultural and temporal contexts. But by focusing narrowly on one aspect of the agricultural economy, consumption and production of olive oil, Foxhall argues that it is possible to pick apart what made oil desirable and thereby overcome the "embeddedness" of the olive in Archaic and Classical society.

In order to contextualize the olive socially, in terms of its cultural value, Foxhall first has to justify her concentration of wealthy, elite households. To do this, she begins with a critique of the independently constructed "middling ideology" models of Hanson, Kurke, and Morris, which assert that a yeoman, increasingly egalitarian, middle class dominated economic, social, and political discourses by the Classical period.5 Foxhall illustrates that all of our literary sources, written by the wealthy and embracing an elite perspective, necessarily skew our understanding of any "middling" perspective. To further demonstrate the utility of focusing on the elite, Foxhall surveys the archaeological evidence to show the prevalence of wealthy, substantial farm sites and the absence of simple farmsteads.6 Foxhall moves on to characterize these larger-scale Greek farms and place them in their socio-economic settling by analyzing the role elite families and households played in shaping the agrarian landscapes of Greek cities.

Foxhall suggests that large-scale, wealthy households practiced what she calls "domestic production," rather than the subsistence production of the less wealthy. Under such domestic production, wealthy families sought to create surpluses, well beyond ordinary subsistence, with which to purchase commodities and produce locally useable luxuries (such as olive oil and wine), that could enhance and maintain the household's status and reputation. Foxhall sees this domestic production functioning within the well-studied context of elite competition. Opportunism is the chief characteristic of these competing wealthy households, as each unit became social, economically, and politically entangled with its rivals. As a result of the need to produce (and display), wealthy Greek households created very diverse, "detachable" units of production, from forests to blacksmithies, to vineyards and olive groves as part of their agricultural "portfolios." Wealthy households sought to maximize opportunities for accumulating high-status produce.

Chapter 3, "The Agricultural Holdings of Large-scale Households," argues that land is the most important element, having both political and symbolic components. Land ownership provided direct control over the means of producing household wealth. Households could increase production (and hence status-enhancing products) by making agricultural improvements such as planting orchards, building more efficient equipment, and creating greater storage capacity, walls and roads. Foxhall suggests, though, that Greek households thought in terms of multiple generations. For example, a newly planted olive orchard could only begin to benefit one's grandchildren. In the end, ancient wealthy households thought in much longer timeframes than modern individuals or even corporations.

Chapter 4, "The Domestic Consumption of Olive Oil," offers a rough quantification of the amount of olive oil needed for food, lighting, and personal cleaning and adornment (around 200-330 kg per annum, per household). Perhaps the most far-reaching of the many useful observations Foxhall's careful analysis of the evidence produced is that the Greeks did not consider olive oil a dietary staple. Olive oil was an opson, a condiment, or luxury that made food more enjoyable, especially at the all important, status-defining symposion. Oil was also a key component of ancient Greek identity because it facilitated (and showcased) a healthy body through cleaning and adornment in the gymnasion. Consequently, olive oil became valued among the Greeks not because it was an essential food component but rather because it was complicated and labor-intensive to process and therefore rare and expensive.

Chapter 5, "Cultivating the Olive," and Chapter 6, "Processing Olives," which explore the mechanics of olive cultivation, propagation, and processing, will be of most interest to agricultural specialists. The amount of archaeological and literary evidence discussed is extensive and usefully organized according to region and site. In both of these rather technical chapters Foxhall again underscores the importance and expense of labor. She also seeks to correct the prevailing assumption that Greek production of oil differed little from that of the Romans. Her thorough analysis shows that olive processing took place in small-scale, technologically simple, multi-use processing centers, often located out in the countryside, adjacent to the olive groves. The fact that an olive crusher might be used only once every two years made the purchase of specialized machinery uneconomical, especially for a mixed-farming wealthy household with limited olive trees (185-306 trees per household [216]). Moreover, Foxhall demonstrates that the Greeks experienced no progressional, linear "development" of processing technology from the simple to the specialized over time. Simple machines, used once every two years worked well, were easy to build and maintain, and did not drain the resources of the household. "The history of pressing technology is not a story of straightforward evolutionary 'progress'" (132). "The scale of olive processing was relatively small and the degree of specialization of processing installations considerably limited before the later Hellenistic and Roman periods" and their export markets (177). Domestic household production, for domestic household consumption and sale was the rule.

Chapter 7, "Arboriculture and Ornamental Gardens in Ancient Greece," argues that the economic value of a plant is directly proportional to its ornamental uses. Olives were important for being aesthetically pleasing. As Foxhall demonstrates, the most aesthetically pleasing landscapes were those most closely controlled. Control highlighted the subjugation of nature and the mastery of humans and could, in a sense, serve as a metaphor for how well the elite householder controlled his household. For the Classical Greeks, order and symmetry were valued in their own right. Thus, ornamental orchards had both social and economic value for the wealthy Greeks--they produced high-quality fruits and flowers for sale and domestic entertaining and they had a pleasant and controlled appearance. And such control was all part of the "self-construction" by the elite as consumers of luxury produce and owners of an ordered landscape. Perhaps the most important observation of the conclusions is that "flexibility and opportunism were perceived to be more important to long-term economic and social success than maximizing production" (248).

Olive Cultivation in Ancient Greece is a groundbreaking book in many ways. Foxhall's extensive research in, and analysis of, the archaeological remains challenges many long-held assumptions about the olive and its role in ancient Greek culture. For example, Foxhall argues that Classical Greeks did not use terraces to create hillside orchards, did not consider the olive as a food staple but rather as a luxury, and did not cultivate olives on every farm--olive production was primarily an elite activity, at least as we see it in the literary and archaeological records. The book is carefully researched and the arguments are tight and accessible to a general audience.7 The only quibble this reviewer has is that the work might be more properly titled Olive Production in Ancient Athens. Although the data about the mechanics of cultivation and production come from finds across Greece, the social relationships and models that Foxhall constructs rely on Athenian sources. And while this reflects more on the nature of our surviving evidence than on Foxhall's research and analysis, such a reliance of Athenian social models could be made more clear, especially when assessing the social, political, and economic importance of the olive as a whole to wealthy Greeks during the span of 600-300 BCE. Despite this, though, the book is a major contribution to both agricultural and social history. Its strength lies in using olives as a test case to highlight wealthy households' economic and social choices within the context of their agricultural strategies. Foxhall's assertion that agricultural strategies are a symptom, rather than a cause, of social and political change is a welcome corrective to the common assumption that agriculture, by itself, brings about social and political revolutions. The book should help correct some common misperceptions about both ancient Greek agriculture and olive cultivation and consequently encourage a lively discussion of a subject that all too often has been reserved for specialists.


1.   E.g. S. Isager and J. Skydsgaard, Ancient Greek Agriculture: An Introduction (London: Routlege, 1992). And more specifically for olive and vine cultivation, J-P. Brun, Le vin et l'huile dans la Méditerranée antique. Viticulture, oléiculture et procédés de transformation (Paris: Editions Errance, 2003).
2.   As do V. D. Hanson, The Other Greeks: the family farm and the agrarian roots of western civilization (2nd ed.) (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), and Isager and Skydsgaard.
3.   E.g. Hanson, The Other Greeks, who argues that the re-adoption of olive and grape cultivation transformed Greek society and politics in the early 8th century and was inherently responsible for the "rise of the Greek polis."
4.   P. Cartledge, E. E. Cohen, L. Foxhall (edd.), Money, Labour and Land: Approaches to the economy of ancient Greece (London: Routledge, 2002).
5.   Hanson, The Other Greeks; L. Kurke, The Traffic in Praise: Pindar and the poetics of social economy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), and Coins, Bodies, Games and Gold: the politics of meaning in archaic Greece (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); I. Morris, "The strong principle of equality and the archaic origins of democracy," in J. Ober and C. Herick (edd.), Demokratia: a conversation on democracy, ancient and modern (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) and Archaeology as Cultural History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).
6.   For an alternative perspective see N. Jones, Rural Athens under the Democracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
7.   Unfortunately, the text is often marred with typographical errors and this detracts from the quality of the presentation. To list a few: p. 37 "been be, " instead of "be"; p. 44 "arch" should be "are"; p. 152 "are be associated" should read "to be associated"; p. 161 "dating to the some time"; p. 163 "this would also explains"; p. 183 "has taken a similarly line of argument"; p. 208 "have a sack of each of two"; p. 225 "diners are show hold and smelling scented flowers"; and p. 239 "not necessarily been offended ancient Greeks."

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