ï~~Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 46 (2009) 259-261
Lin Foxhall, Olive Cultivation in Ancient Greece: Seeking the Ancient
Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xvii + 294 pages.
This study examines the evidence for the production and use of olive oil in
Greece from the sixth to the third centuries BCE. More than just reconstructing how olives were cultivated and processed, and how olive oil was used, the
author explores social, cultural, environmental, economic, and political realities. "My larger purpose, considering the olive as a kind of extended case study,
is to enlarge our understanding of how specific agronomic and economic activities underpinned the functioning of Greek cities, and how they were in turn
shaped by Greek social and political values" (p. 2).
Lin Foxhall (hereafter F.) is Professor of Greek Archaeology and History
at the University of Leicester. She has written twenty essays on Greek agriculture over the last two decades, in addition to books on gender and politics.
Her study of olives and olive oil carefully avoids the temptation to extract too
much from evidence that is often limited, and the tendency to read modern
categories back onto ancient society. The reader is always informed about the
nature of the evidence for the author's developing theses and conclusions. F.
is not afraid to hypothesize, but she makes clear when she is doing so with
wording such as "my guess is," "more likely than not," and so forth. She writes
with a winning style that is never laborious or pedantic. Also to her credit, she
provides sixty-six visuals (figures) and eight tables.
Against dependence on Roman evidence for the role of the olive and its
oil in Classical Greece, F. marshals evidence from archaeology, inscriptions,
literary sources, and modern cultivation - based in part on her own fieldwork and observation of arboriculture in modern Greece and southern Italy.
Hesiod, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Theophrastus, records of leased land, and
boundary markers constitute the bulk of the literary and epigraphic evidence
in F's toolbox, though admittedly the evidence is fragmentary at best. She also
recognizes that her evidence is weighted in favor of Athens and Attica and
wealthy landowners, rather than regional diversity and less well-off farmers
representing the larger sector of the population. F. declined to include evidence from Ptolemaic Egypt "because of its distinctive ecological setting and
agronomic regimes" (p. 2).
Following an introductory chapter that discusses growth patterns for olive
trees, along with a summary of the history of olive cultivation (as early as the
Neolithic period with widespread cultivation evident in the Bronze Age) plus
an analysis of the weak evidence for the introduction of olives and olive oil