ElAnt v1n6 - Grain for Athens. Notes on the Importance of the Hellespontine Route in Athenian Foreign Policy before the Peloponnesian War

Volume 1, Number 6
November 1993


Antony G. Keen,
Department of History,
University of Manchester,
M13 9PL,
United Kingdom.
e-mail: agkeen@mh1.mcc.ac.uk

In the chapters entitled 'The Beginnings of Dependence' and 'Rulers of the Sea' in his work Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World,(2) Peter Garnsey attacks the orthodox view of the importance of the Black Sea grain route to Athens before the Peloponnesian War.(3) He attacks the commonly held view that Athens' activities in the Hellespont in the seventh and sixth centuries were motivated by a desire to protect the grain route.(4) According to Garnsey, drawing on Noonan,(5) archaeological evidence from the north coast of the Black Sea argues against any significant Greek contacts there before the end of the sixth century or the beginning of the fifth. Athenian activities in the Hellespontine region are put down to adventurism on the part of the Athenians.(6)

This is a problematic explanation. For one thing, Noonan's case is partly based on the lack of imported Greek pottery;(7) Garnsey himself elsewhere states that the presence of fine pottery is not an indication of grain trade,(8) so presumably its absence cannot be relied upon as an indication of that trade's absence. Herodotos notes Skythian tribes who exported all of their grain, keeping none of it for themselves (Hdt. 4.17). Even allowing for Herodotean exaggeration there is likely to be a strong element of truth in this, and such a situation seems likely to be of more than a few decades' standing at the time Herodotos was writing. Nor was the northern coast the only source in the Black Sea for grain; some came from the southern coast.(9)

Then there is the question of why so many Athenian adventures should take place in the area of the Hellespont. Under the leadership of Phrynon, Athenian settlers established themselves at Sigeion on the south coast of the Hellespont in the seventh century.(10) Peisistratos later established his son Hegesistratos as tyrant there (Hdt. 5.94). The elder Miltiades established himself as a tyrant in the Thracian Chersonesos in the sixth century (Hdt. 6.34-38), where he was succeeded by his nephew, the younger Miltiades, who was sent out by the Peisistratids (Hdt. 6.39). When he was forced to flee from there in the face of the Persian invasion, he seized Lemnos and Imbros for the Athenians (Hdt. 6.140).(11) Chalkis on Euboea was seized by the Athenians c. 506. Garnsey says that it is 'quite gratuitous' to suggest that Athens did this with a view to the strategic position of Chalkis on the route to the Hellespont;(12) nevertheless, the city is in such a strategic position. It might also be worth noting that the Ionian Greeks, over whom the Athenians claimed spiritual leadership, played a significant role in the establishment of Greek colonies in the northern Black Sea.(13) A number of Euxine states (at least twelve, possibly as many as forty-one) later appear in the tribute assessment of 425 (IG I, 3rd ed., 71.IV.126), implying that they were in the Delian League at some point during the mid-fifth century.(14)

Garnsey dismisses those who would associate this activity with securing the grain route. He argues that Sigeion and the Chersonesos are not well placed to control trade through the Hellespont. This is missing the point. 'Control' is unlikely to have been what the Athenians were after in the seventh and sixth centuries. They were concerned ensuring with their own grain supply, not with causing problems for anyone else's.(15) Hence there would have been no need to take sites well-placed to raid or block trade through the Hellespont, merely to ensure that there were enough areas either side of the straits loyal to Athens that no- one else could prevent Athens' grain getting through.

Solon's law banning the export of all produce barring olive oil (Plut. Sol. 24.1) should be mentioned here. This may well have been a measure intended to protect Athenian corn, and Garnsey accepts it as such;(16) Stanton, however, sees it as a measure to promote exports of olive oil.(17)

Garnsey himself accepts that the grain route played an important part in the Periklean strategy for the conduct of the Peloponnesian War,(18) and that by this time there was a degree of importation of grain; Garnsey acknowledges the possibility of the mid-fifth century being the time of the beginning of Athenian dependence upon imported grain.(19) This seems inescapable, since otherwise where did the idea for Perikles' strategy come from? True, the Spartans expected their attacks on Attica to bring about Athens' surrender (or at least force the Athenians to battle), but Perikles would have had great difficulty persuading the Athenian people to accept his strategy if imported grain formed a minimal part of the Athenian food-supply. Grain was certainly being imported into other parts of Greece by the Persian Wars,(20) and there is no immediate reason to believe that Athens was not also an importer by this time; in fact it seems likely that Athens would start importing corn before more fertile areas like the Peloponnese.

Garnsey argues that since no serious grain shortage in the fifth century is known of, one need not expect that Athens took particular care of the grain route in the same way as in the fourth century; traders attracted by the Athenian market would bring in enough to ensure that food supply was only occasionally problematic.(21) Leaving aside the differences in the nature of the evidence,(22) is this not a hysteron proteron? Surely it can be argued that there was no serious shortfall in the grain route because the Athenians went to considerable lengths to ensure that it was protected. The Thatcherite approach of simply allowing the grain supply to take care of itself could work, but carried with it certain inherent dangers, to which the Athenians may not have wished to expose themselves. Garnsey himself accepts that Athenian control of the sea made food crises rare in the post- Persian War period.(23) Should it be assumed that this was merely accidental? It seems reasonable to accept with Garnsey that the Athenians did not divert other states' supply of grain to Athens;(24) as he recognises, there was no need.(25) But that does not mean that they did not take other, less drastic measures.

For example, a number of sources mention a gift of 30,000 medimnoi of grain in 446/5 from Psammetichos of Egypt to Athens (Philoch. FGrH 398 F 90; Plut. Per. 37), supposedly in connection with a food shortage. Garnsey discusses this passage,(26) reaching the conclusion that the gift is not useful evidence for such a food crisis; but the gift shows at least that Psammetichos thought that this would be the sort of thing that would go down well at Athens. This would seem to imply that, even if a point of crisis had not yet been reached, it was recognised that Athens placed some weight on grain supplies. Garnsey admits that if the Attic crop failed in any given year, the effect would be disastrous.(27)

Garnsey has performed a valuable service in raising important questions about the Hellespontine grain route and Athenian dependency upon imported grain. It should probably be accepted that Attic grain production has been grossly underestimated in the past; Garnsey argues that even in the fourth century Athens never had to find food for more than half her population.(28) Athens therefore was not wholly dependent upon imported grain before the Peloponnesian War; after all, grain grown in Attica must have formed an important enough part of Athens' food supply that some Spartans believed its removal would be enough to force Athenian surrender in 431. There is no problem in accepting that Athenian cleruchies and colonies are just as likely, if not more so, to be motivated by strategic requirements as by direct food-supply crises.(29) It may even be accepted that before 431 there was no regular supervision of grain importation.

Entirely eliminating imported grain as a significant factor, however, leaves a number of elements of Athenian foreign policy without a satisfactory explanation beyond pure adventurism on Athens' part, which seems simplistic. Until a convincing new solution can be found to these problems, it is perhaps best to retain much of the old orthodoxy as a core around which to build explanations of Athenian foreign policy.(30) In other words, even though imported grain did not form as large a contingent of overall Athenian consumption as was once thought, it was nonetheless considered an important part, and steps were taken to protect it.(31)


(1) A quote from the title of an article by P.D.A. Garnsey, 'Grain for Athens', in: P.A. Cartledge & F.D. Harvey (eds.), Crux (London, 1985), pp. 62-75.

(2) P.D.A. Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco- Roman World (Cambridge, 1988) (henceforth referred to as 'Garnsey'), pp. 107-133.

(3) The orthodoxy was previously challenged by T.S. Noonan, 'Grain Trade of the Northern Black Sea', AJPh 94 (1973), pp. 231-242, on whom Garnsey draws. It should be noted, however, that Noonan is specifically concerned with disproving a trade with the northern Black Sea coast, and only tangentially with a route through the Hellespont.

(4) Garnsey, pp. 107-109. The view attacked is held by e.g. C.G. Starr, The Economic and Social Growth of Early Greece (New York, 1977), p. 176; J. Boardman, The Greeks Overseas (3rd ed., London, 1980), p. 264; M. Austin & P. Vidal-Naquet, Economic & Social History of Ancient Greece (London, 1977), p. 69, though they note Noonan's doubts. See Noonan, 'Grain Trade', p. 231 n. 4, for earlier statements of the orthodoxy.

(5) Noonan, 'Grain Trade', especially pp. 241-242.

(6) Garnsey, p. 118.

(7) Noonan, 'Grain Trade', p. 235.

(8) Garnsey, p. 110.

(9) It therefore does not necessarily follow from Noonan's view that grain imports into Greece 'were minor until almost 500 BC', as C.G. Starr, CAH 2nd ed., iii.3 (Cambridge, 1982), p. 427, suggests.

(10) Alkaios fr. 428 (E. Lobel and D.L. Page, Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta [Oxford, 1955], p. 287); Hdt. 5.94; Str. 13.1.38.

(11) Garnsey, p. 118, attempts to disassociate the elder Miltiades from the Peisistratids, accepting Herodotos' account that he fled the Athenian tyranny. Yet the Peisistratids were definitely involved in sending out the younger Miltiades to take over, and Garnsey himself notes (p. 118 n. 24) that Herodotos' sources may have had an bias towards the Philiads and be exculpating them from having any connection with the tyrants.

(12) Garnsey, p. 119.

(13) As well as the colony at Naukratis in Egypt (Hdt. 2.178- 179), another potential source for grain.

(14) R. Meiggs, The Athenian Empire (corr. ed., Oxford, 1975), p. 328.

(15) As recognised by G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (London, 1972), p. 48.

(16) Garnsey, p. 111.

(17) G.R. Stanton, Athenian Politics. A Sourcebook (London, 1990), p. 65 no. 39 n. 1.

(18) Garnsey, pp. 124, 132.

(19) Garnsey, pp. 124-127.

(20) Hdt. 7.147 notes the passage of grain ships through the Hellespont to Aigina and the Peloponnese.

(21) Garnsey, pp. 131-132; cf. 'Grain for Athens' (n. 1), pp. 74- 75.

(22) Much of the fourth-century evidence, for example, comes from orators; this evidence does not exist for the period before 420.

(23) Garnsey, p. 106.

(24) Garnsey, p. 132.

(25) Garnsey, p. 123; cf. de Ste. Croix, Origins, p. 49.

(26) Garnsey, pp. 125-127.

(27) Garnsey, p. 105.

(28) Garnsey, pp. 89-107. However, his disparagement of Thucydides, Plato and Plutarch's remarks about the infertility of Attica (p. 96), needs to be better defended given that all three lived in Attica.

(29) Garnsey, pp. 128-131.

(30) This is the view taken by S. Hornblower, The Greek World 478-323 B.C. (2nd ed., London, 1991), p. 41, though his reference to grain ships going to Athens at p. 12, is, as Garnsey, 'Grain for Athens' (n. 1), p. 75 n. 35, points out, mistaken.

(31) This piece should be considered only as a preliminary statement. Responses, comments and corrections are solicited.

Antony G. Keen
e-mail: agkeen@mh1.mcc.ac.uk

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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 6 - November 1993
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