How far were Athens’ repeated interventions and expansions outside Attica in the 5th and 4th Centuries driven by the need to secure a food supply for Athens?

by rocco1

How far were Athens’ repeated interventions and expansions outside Attica in the 5th and 4th Centuries driven by the need to secure a food supply for Athens?

The area of Attica was roughly 2,400 square kilometres in size, of which roughly 85,000 acres at most was land suitable for arable farming. This was because the soil in Attica was very acidic which made it difficult to grow crops such as wheat which were necessary to feed the population of Athens. Because of this it has been assumed by historians that only about one tenth of the wheat required for Athens was grown in Attica with the remainder of crops cultivated being barley. It appears that it was only slaves who ate barley on the most part with citizens eating it only in times of hardship. Therefore from this the question must be asked where Athens got her corn from to sustain her ever rapidly increasing population, as it is evident that Attica did not and could not produce enough grain to sustain the population of Athens. The main areas for crop cultivation particularly corn which was vital to sustain the population were the regions of the Chersonese and Hellespont in addition to Egypt, the Euxine and the Western Mediterranean, particularly Sicily. Some historians have argued against the fact that many of Athens interventions and expansions were driven for the need of a food supply. However, as I will show in this essay, I believe that a great number of her actions were for this very reason. Although the generals in Athens may not have used it as their pretext for taking such actions, I believe that it was a very dominant motive which although not publicly said was privately, meaning that they tried to secure places in order to secure their food supply. After Athens had defeated the Persians in 479B.C., it appears as though the generals in Athens realised that Athens did not produce enough corn to sustain herself, and consequently we see Athens incorporating states into the Delian League between 478-450B.C. Naxos was bought into the League in 470, Thasos in 465 and Aegina in 457B.C. What is interesting about Thasos is that in actual fact it had revolted against the League however Athens used force to bring her back in because of the importance of the mines that were situated there and its port which was extremely important for trading. This shows that Athens forced her back into the league for her own interests as they saw the importance of the port for the shipment of corn which could then be sent back to Athens, while revenue from the mines could be used to pay for the corn. What is also very evident about these three places is that they were all islands, meaning that Athens could use them as bases from which to patrol the sea to secure against pirates and enemy forces that might jeopardise the arrival of their corn shipments, as well as making sure that Persia and Sparta were unable to receive large amounts of corn, which would force them to make treaties with Athens thus making Athens the dominant power. In addition to this they also sent out an expedition to Egypt in 454B.C. which was extremely rich in corn showing that Athens needed a much larger supply for corn than just relying on the Euxine region. If Athens had been successful in conquering Egypt it would not only have secured Athens’ food supply but it also would have crippled Persian power as Egypt was also extremely important to Persia’s corn supply. Therefore it appears that Athens in attempting to seize Egypt was looking to secure her food supply at the expense of her major enemy. This would in effect make Athens the supreme naval power which is what she needed to be in order to secure an adequate food supply for the population. However Athens was defeated and lost 200 ships which seriously affected her power and forced her into the Peace of Callias in 450B.C. Further proof of how Athens was reliant on foreign corn comes from Plutarch who says that in 445/4 the Egyptian king Psammetichus sent a large gift of corn to Athens, which according to Plutarch was badly needed in Athens as there was a corn shortage. What is particularly interesting about this is that after the corn had been sent Athens proposed another expedition to Egypt to try and secure it from Persian control, however because of hostilities in Greece this plan was thwarted. What is particularly interesting and further proof that Athens was looking to expand outside of Attica in order to get a regular food supply comes from a speech by Demosthenes who says “We Athenians use more imported corn than anybody else”. The way that Athens paid for this imported corn was by using the arable land in Attica to produce vines and olives which they then would use to pay for the imported grain, in addition to using the money produced from the silver at the mines of Laurium. Athens also realised that as well as securing places and forming colonies where corn could be cultivated to be sent back to Athens, they would also have to use their naval supremacy to secure the seas to make sure that the corn arrived at Athens safely and on a regular basis as otherwise the population would starve. Consequently Athens looked to control the sea route from the Crimea which was a very fertile place for corn through the Hellespont across the Aegean to her own port at Piraeus. Athens succeeded in doing this by 447 under Pericles where they had successfully secured a defensive chain from The Chersonese via Lemnos and Imbros and finally to Scyros, in effect meaning that Athens could protect the corn route from the Black Sea to Athens. The Chersonese was a very large area of fertile land which could support a substantial population as well as being a crucial section of the corn route from The Euxine into the Aegean. It is again evident that Athens having taken a state by force in order to secure her own food supply, also expanded into neighbouring islands to protect her investment either from revolt or from enemies. From this we can therefore see that a great deal of Athens’ expansions into other territories were due to trying to secure a regular food supply for Athens. The fact that Athens incorporated so many places into her empire is further evidence that Athens produced very little corn herself and was therefore heavily reliant on imported grain in order to supply her own population. We have an inscription of Eleusis in 329B.C . which states that Athens produced about 28,000 Medimni( a bushel and a half) of wheat and about 340-350,000 Medimni of barley a year, which gave under 6 Medimni per acre if we assume that there were 85,000 acres of arable land available to cultivate. From this evidence historians have accepted that between 6 and 8 Medimni was the amount of grain required per annum by the average Athenian citizen. This is further evidence that Athens did not produce enough wheat to feed her own population and consequently caused her to expand outside of Attica. Although this inscription is in the 4th Century, there is no reason why these figures should not hold good for the 5th Century. During the period 478-450 B.C., because of Athens’ increased prosperity her population doubled to roughly 350,000 which included foreign aliens and metics. This put further pressure on Athens to guarantee a reliable food supply as with the increased figures it meant that Athens required roughly 2,100,000 Medimni of wheat and 900,000 Medimni of barley per annum during the mid to late 5th Century to sustain an ever increasing population.This would therefore explain why Athens throughout the 5th Century was constantly looking to settle colonies in places which either had a rich source of grain such as Egypt until it was lost in 454B.C. or Boetia which gave Athens a huge source of grain to feed her population. In addition to this Athens also looked to acquire places which were of strategic importance to the sea so that they could control the sea and ensure the corn would arrive safely. The reason why Athens had to expand into so many places to guarantee her grain supply was because if one region’s crop failed it would have meant that Athens would have starved, but by securing many places it meant that even if a crop at one place failed they would still have other states’ crops to rely on, so in effect by having so many places under her control she was guaranteeing her food supply. In 415 B.C., Athens looked to further expand her territory and secure even more grain for herself as she looked to conquer Sicily in the latter years of the Peloponnesian War. The justification for this could be that Athens had lost other countries which were vital for her food supply during the war so was looking to secure another area for herself, or perhaps Athens just wanted to further extend her sphere of control and saw Sicily as one region which was extremely fertile in terms of the amount of wheat and other produce it grew, thus attracting Athens towards her. Another reason why Athens could have been looking West is because from the beginning of the War Sparta had been making annual raids on Attica meaning that no crops would have been cultivated during that time. This factor and the fact that Athens had lost other regions vital for her food supply, meant that they had to turn their attention to an area which had not yet been exploited.. It appears that although this was the first time Athens had gone to Sicily, it was not the first time it had been proposed, as Plutarch tells us that before the Peloponnesian War Pericles had to stop extremists who wanted to capture Sicily as well as wanting to secure Egypt again. Although these proposals were not carried out it is interesting that it is again the two most fertile regions that Athens had its eye on, which must further indicate how Athens tried to intervene into states which could secure her food supply. It is evident though that when Athens tried to justify the expedition to the Assembly, one of the pretexts that was used was that it would secure corn and wood for Athens. It is possible that as well as seeing how Sicily could benefit Athens, they also realised that if they could secure Sicily they could cut off the corn supply to the Peloponnese, which in turn could led Athens to victory in the war, as the Spartans would be forced to surrender because of starvation. However the expedition to Sicily turned out to be disastrous for Athens as they suffered a massive defeat from which they never really recovered, and which ultimately led to their eventual defeat. I believe that Athens sent out an expedition to Sicily to try and secure the region in order to secure her own food supply as well as attempting to stop the Spartans from securing it in the hope that by doing so Athens would secure food for her population while forcing the Spartans to starve which could well have won her the war. It is evident that at the end of the war in 405 Lysander the Spartan general got complete control of the Hellespont after the battle of Aegospotami, which meant Athens had to surrender due to starvation. This shows why during the 5th Century Athens worked so hard on securing regions were they could get a supply of food as well as securing strategically important coastal ports to secure the seas so that events like this would not happen and cause them to starve. As has been shown there is no doubt that a large majority of the places that Athens controlled in the 5th Century were due to her lack of a natural food supply in Attica which caused her to intervene in other more fertile districts in order to secure her own food supply. This is extremely evident when we consider the places that they had allied with or forced into an alliance with them, as we see places such as Egypt, Euboea and Boetia, all places which were capable of producing large amounts of grain which was vital to Athens’ survival. It also appears that as the war continued Athens looked to further expand her food supply by looking at the West and Sicily, again another extremely fertile region, again showing how Athens looked at only expanding her territory if it would benefit her food supply. It is also evident that while Athens went to great lengths to secure grain growing regions, they also wanted to make sure that they protected it by colonising places which were near the sea so that they could protect the sea routes. This is evident when we see that they had protected the route from the Black Sea to Athens which meant that by having secured a food supply they did not need to worry about it reaching Athens. By the 4th Century Athens had been defeated in the Peloponnesian War and was financially bankrupt. It must be assumed that as Athens had been defeated her allies in the war who had secured her food supply would have revolted for the most part, but despite this Athens still managed to secure corn and other foodstuffs from regions outside of Attica. In 387B.C. a fleet under the Spartan Antalcidas cut off the corn route from the Hellespont forcing Athens to surrender and make peace. From this evidence it could well be implied that imperial tones in Athens had been rekindled and that they were trying to secure an Empire again, which perhaps suggest that Athens was trying to intervene in territories in order to secure her food supply again. Consequently because of Athens’ change in circumstances they could not settle colonies in fertile states and then send the produce back as they had been able to in the 5th Century, so they had to devise another method of securing her food supply. Instead of trying to force states into alliances like they had done in their heyday in the 5th Century they instead set up trade triangles. One method that they used was to sail with money to towns in the North Aegean where they would buy wine and other foodstuffs and then sail to the Ukranian seaboard or the Crimea where they would exchange them for corn and would then sail back to Athens . It is also evident that Athens had other trade triangles set up with Egypt and Rhodes which were all very fertile places which might give Athens the amount of corn she needed to sustain her population. It should be noted that in the 360’s B.C. Athens had tried to re-conquer the areas which she had lost at the end of the war but was unsuccessful in her attempts, showing that perhaps the trade triangles were not sufficient to sustain food for the population of Athens so they had decided to try and secure regions by force to secure an adequate supply of regular food. Consequently Athens concentrated on the Black sea corn route and by trying to set up trade alliances in order to secure a food supply for the population, showing that if it had been within her power she would have tried to conquer corn growing regions to sustain herself, but as she was not powerful enough at that time she had to settle for trade agreements. Presumably as Athens was not in control of the corn regions she must have had to have been a lot more stringent in the distribution of corn to the people as it was by no means a guaranteed supply which she could rely unlike in the 5th Century where they were in control of the regions and could distribute it whenever they felt it necessary. As well as the inscription of Eleusis, we are told by Demosthenes that in 329 B.C . that the amount of wheat imported from Pontus was half the total amount imported. Demosthenes goes on to say that the annual import from Pontus was roughly 400,000 Medimni. This does appear to be true as the magistrates who were in charge of regulating the price of corn on the Athenian market say that 800,000 Medimni was imported giving the total of 830,000 Medimni of wheat including the amount from the Eleusis inscription. Therefore it appears that whilst Athens would have used trade triangles to ensure her corn supply, she still had allied regions that were willing to give her the amount of corn she needed to sustain her population. Further evidence that Athens still had corn routes open to her comes from the 330’s B.C. when Athens was involved in a struggle with Philip the 2nd of Macedon, as Demosthenes says that one of the duties of Athenian citizens was to make sure that the corn supply was always available by making sure that it continued along friendly coasts all the way to Piraeus . The importance of the corn route by sea to Athens is further emphasised by Demosthenes when he says that a large part of Athens’ corn came from the Black Sea area especially the Pontic kingdom at Panticapeum at the eastern end of the Crimea which Demosthenes saw as Athens’ lifeline . This proves how reliant Athens was on foreign food supplies and that although during the 4th Century they were not intervening in other domains to secure their supplies, they continued to try and secure the Aegean sea route through the alliances that they had made through force in the 5th Century in order to keep their supplies to Athens safe. This explains why Demosthenes was so keen on Athens maintaining control of Imbros,Lemnos and Scyros as these were strategically important and if these had been lost to Philip he would have gained control of the Greek corn supply. However he did not manage to do that and so Athens’ corn supply and sea supply route was safe throughout the 4th Century. In conclusion, I believe that it is very evident that Athens’ expansion in the 5th Century was prompted because of her need to secure a food supply for her people, I believe this is true when we consider the places she tried to intervene in, most notably Egypt and Sicily which were both extremely fertile regions which would have guaranteed Athens an adequate food supply. If we also consider the places that she did intervene in - fertile places such as The Chersonese and Boeotia – this again shows how Athens expanded into fertile regions to secure food. It is also apparent that she intervened and expanded into coastal ports along key trading and shipping routes to secure her corn supply. Consequently I believe that 5th Century Athens was always looking to expand to secure her food supply. Having looked at 4th Century Athens however it would appear that while Athens did try to expand in order to secure her food supply because of other states’ improved power she was unable to do so. Consequently she consolidated what she had already achieved by securing the Aegean Sea route thus making sure of an adequate reliable food supply, as well as setting up trade triangles to get extra supplies if needed. I am in no doubt that if Athens had been as militarily strong in the 4th Century she would have tried to gain regions by force just as she had done in the 5th Century to secure her food supply.


Ancient Bibliography: Demosthenes and Aeschines and Greek Political Oratory (Penguin)

Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens. tr I.Scott-Kilvert (London 1960)

Secondary Bibliography:

Davies.K.J. Democracy in Classical Greece. (London 1978)

G.E.M. de ste Croix, Origins of the Peloponnesian War. (London 1972).

Green,P.Armada from Athens, The failure of the Sicilian Expedition 415-413B.C.(London 1970)

Jones.A.H.M, Athenian Democracy. (Oxford 1975)

Meiggs,R. The Athenian Empire (Oxford 1972)

mai_mayon commented, on February 20, 2008 at 5:44 a.m.:

i am amazed at the comprehensive input but the text would have been reader friendly if the writer at least used paragraphing and have discussed it point by point.
Expansion is necessary 4 athens 2 survive so they went as far as to where their feet will bring them.It jz goes to show that man improves in the course of time.thus they become better in the 5th cent. they learned from the 4th cent.

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