Chapter XIX. Country Life Around Athens

169. Importance of his Farm to an Athenian. - We have followed the doings of a typical Athenian during his ordinary activities around the city, but for the average gentleman an excursion outside the town is indispensable at least every two or three days, and perhaps every day. He must visit his farm; for his wealth and income are probably tied up there, rather than in any unaristocratic commercial and manufacturing enterprises. Homer's "royal" heroes are not ashamed to be skilful at following the plow[*]: and no Athenian feels that he is contaminating himself by "trade" when he supervises the breeding of sheep or the raising of onions. We will therefore follow in the tracks of certain well-to-do citizens, when we turn toward the Itonian gate sometime during the morning, while the Agora is still in a busy hum, even if thus we are curtailing our hypothetical visits to the Peireus or to the bankers.

[*]See Odysseus's boasts, "Odyssey," XVIII. 360 et passim. The gentility of farming is emphasized by a hundred precepts from Hesiod.

170. The Country by the Ilissus: the Greeks and Natural Beauty. - Our companions are on horseback (a token of tolerable wealth in Athens), but the beasts amble along not too rapidly for nimble grooms to run behind, each ready to aid his respective master. Once outside the gate the regular road swings down to the south towards Phalerum; we, however, are in no great haste and desire to see as much as possible. The farms we are seeking lie well north of the city, but we can make a delightful circuit by skirting the city walls with the eastern shadow of the Acropolis behind us, and going at first northeast, along the groves and leafy avenues which line the thin stream of the Ilissus,[*] the second "river" of Athens.

[*]The Ilissus, unlike its sturdier rival, the Cephisus, ran dry during the summer heats; but there was enough water along its bed to create a dense vegetation.

Before us through the trees came tantalizing glimpses of the open country running away towards shaggy gray Hymettus. Left to itself the land would be mostly arid and seared brown by the summer sun; but everywhere the friendly work of man is visible. One can count the little green oblong patches, stretching even up the mountain side, marked with gleaming white farm buildings or sometimes with little temples and chapels sacred to the rural gods. Once or twice also we notice a plot of land which seems one tangled waste of trees and shrubbery. This is a sacred "temenos," an inviolate grove, set apart to some god; and within the fences of the compound no mortal dare set foot under pain of direful sacrilege and pollution.

Following a kind of bridle path, however, we are soon amid the groves of olive and other trees, while the horses plod their slow way beside the brook. Not a few citizens going or coming from Athens meet us, for this is really one of the parks and breathing spaces of the closely built city. The Athenians and Greeks in general live in a land of such natural beauty that they take this loveliness as a matter of course. Very seldom do their poets indulge in deliberate descriptions of "beautiful landscapes"; but none the less the fair things of nature have penetrated deeply into their souls. The constant allusions in Homer and the other masters of song to the great storm waves, the deep shades of the forest, the crystal books, the pleasant rest for wanderers under the shade trees, the plains bright with spring flowers, the ivy twining above a grave, the lamenting nightingale, the chirping cicada, tell their own story; men seldom describe at length what is become warp and woof of their inmost lives. The mere fact that the Greeks dwell CONSTANTLY in such a beautiful land, and have learned to love it so intensely, makes frequent and set descriptions thereto seem trivial.

171. Plato's Description of the Walk by the Ilissus. - Nevertheless occasionally this inborn love of the glorious outer world must find its expression, and it is of these very groves along he Ilissus that we have one of the few "nature pieces" in Athenian literature. As the plodding steeds take their way let us recall our Plato - his "Phoedrus," written probably not many years before this our visit.

Socrates is walking with Phedrus outside the walls, and urges the latter: "Let us go to the Ilissus and sit down in some quiet spot." "I am fortunate," answers Phedrus, "in not having my sandals on, and, as you never have any, we may go along the brook and cool our feet. This is the easiest way, and at midday is anything but unpleasant." He adds that they will go on to the tallest plane tree in the distance, "where are shade and gentle breezes, and grass whereon we may either sit or lie.... The little stream is delightfully clear and bright. I can fancy there might well be maidens playing near [according to the local myth of Boreas's rape of Orithyia]." And so at last they come to the place, when Socrates says: "Yes indeed, a fair and shady resting place it is, full of summer sounds and scents. There is the lofty and spreading plane tree, and the agnus castus, high and clustering in the fullest blossom and the greatest fragrance, and the stream which flows beneath the plane tree is deliciously cool to the feet. Judging by the ornaments and images [set] about, this must be a spot sacred to Achelous and the Nymphs; moreover there is a sweet breeze and the grasshoppers are chirruping; and the greatest charm of all is the grass like a pillow, gently sloping to the head."[*]

[*]Jewett, translator; slightly altered.

172. The Athenian Love of Country Life. - So the two friends had sat them down to delve in delightful profundities; but following the bridle path, the little brook and its groves end for us all too soon. We are in the open country around Athens, and the fierce rays of Helios beat strongly on our heads. We are outside the city, but by no means far from human life. Farm succeeds farm, for the land around Athens has a goodly population to maintain, and there is a round price for vegetables in the Agora. Truth to tell, the average Athenian, though he pretends to love the market, the Pnyx, the Dicasteries, and the Gymnasia, has a shrewd hankering for the soil, and does not care to spend more time in Athens then necessary. Aristophanes is full of the contrasts between "country life" and "city life" and almost always with the advantage given the former. Says his Strepsiades (in "The Clouds"), "A country life for me - dirty, untrimmed, lolling around at ease, and just abounding in bees and sheep and oil cake." His Diceepolis ("Acharnians") voices clearly the independence of the farmer: "How I long for peace.[*] I'm disgusted with the city; and yearn for my own farm which never bawled out [as in the markets] 'buy my coals' or 'buy my vinegar' or 'oil,' or KNEW the word 'buy,' but just of itself produced everything." And his Trygeus (in "The Peace") states the case better yet: "Ah! how eager I am to get back into the fields, and break up my little farm with the mattock again...[for I remember] what kind of a life we had there; and those cakes of dried fruits, and the figs, and the myrtles, and the sweet new wine, and the violet bed next to the well, and the olives we so long for!"

[*]I.e. the end of the Peloponnesian War, which compelled the farming population to remove inside the walls.

There is another reason why the Athenians rejoice in the country. The dusty streets are at best a poor playground for the children, the inner court of the house is only a respectable prison for the wife. In the country the lads can enjoy themselves; the wife and the daughters can roam about freely with delightful absence of convention. There will be no happier day in the year than when the master says, "Let us set out for the farm."

173. Some Features of the Attic Country. - Postponing our examination of Athenian farmsteads and farming methods until we reach some friendly estate, various things strike us as we go along the road. One is the skilful system of irrigation, - the numerous watercourses drawn especially from the Cephisus, whereby the agriculturists make use of every possible scrap of moisture for the fields, groves, and vineyards. Another is the occasional olive tree we see standing, gnarled and venerable, but carefully fenced about; or even (not infrequently) we see fences only with but a dead and utterly worthless stump within. Do not speak lightly of these "stumps," however. They are none the less "moriai" - sacred olive trees of Athena, and carefully tended by public wardens.[*] Contractors are allowed to take the fruit of the olive trees under carefully regulated conditions; but no one is allowed to remove the stumps, much less hew down a living tree. An offender is tried for "impiety" before the high court of the Areopagus, and his fate is pretty surely death, for the country people, at least, regard their sacred trees with a fanatical devotion which it would take long to explain to a stranger.

[*]Athenians loved to dwell on the "divine gift" of the olive. Thus Euripides sang ("Troades," 799): -

In Salamis, filled with the foaming
Of billows and murmur of bees,
Old Telamon stayed from his roaming
Long ago, on a throne of the seas,
Looking out on the hills olive laden,
Enchanted, where first from the earth
The gray-gleaming fruit of the Maiden
Athena had birth.

- Murray, translator.

The hero Telamon was reputed an uncle of Achilles and one of the early kings of Salami.

Also upon the way one is pretty sure to meet a wandering beggar - a shrewd-eyed, bewhiskered fellow. He carries, not a barrel organ and monkey, but a blinking tame crow perched on his shoulder, and at every farmstead he halts to whine his nasal ditty and ask his dole.

Good people, a handful of barley bestow
On the child of Apollo, the sleek sable crow;
Or a trifle of whet, O kind friends, give; -
Or a wee loaf of bread that the crow may live.

It is counted good luck by the housewife to have a chance to feed a "holy crow," and the owner's pickings are goodly. By the time we have left the beggar behind us we are at the farm whither our excursion has been tending.

174. An Attic Farmstead. - We are to inspect the landed estate of Hybrias, the son of Xanthippus. It lies north of Athens on the slopes of Anchesmus, one of the lesser hills which roll away toward the marble-crowned summits of Pentelicus. Part of the farm lands lie on the level ground watered by the irrigation ditches; part upon the hillsides, and here the slopes have been terraced in a most skilful fashion in order to make the most of every possible inch of ground, and also to prevent any of the precious soil from being washed down by the torrents of February and March. The owner is a wealthy man, and has an extensive establishment; the farm buildings - once whitewashed, but now for the most part somewhat dirty - wander away over a large area. There are wide courts, deep in manure, surrounded by barns; there are sties, haymows, carefully closed granaries, an olive press, a grain mill, all kinds of stables and folds, likewise a huge irregularly shaped house wherein are lodged the numerous slaves and the hired help. The general design of this house is the same as of a city house - the rooms opening upon an inner court, but naturally its dimensions are ampler, with the ampler land space.

Just now the courtyard is a noisy and animated sight. The master has this moment ridden in, upon one of his periodic visits from Athens; the farm overseer has run out to meet him and report, and half a dozen long, lean hunting dogs - Darter, Roarer, Tracker, Active, and more[*] - are dancing and yelping, in the hope that their owner will order a hare hunt. The overseer is pouring forth his usual burden of woe about the inefficient help and the lack of rain, and Hybrias is complaining of the small spring crop - "Zeus send us something better this summer!" While these worthies are adjusting their troubles we may look around the farm.

[*]For an exhaustive list of names for Greek dogs, see Xenophon's curious "Essay on Hunting," ch. VII, section 5.

175. Plowing, Reaping, and Threshing. - Thrice a year the Athenian farmer plows, unless he wisely determines to let his field lie fallow for the nonce; and the summer plowing on hybrias's estate is now in progress. Up and down a wide field the ox team is going.[*] The plow is an extremely primitive affair - mainly of wood, although over the sharpened point which forms the plowshare a plate of iron has been fitted. Such a plow requires very skilful handling to cut a good furrow, and the driver of the team has no sinecure.

[*]Mules were sometimes used for drawing the plow, but horses, it would seem, never.

In a field near by, the hinds are reaping a crop of wheat which was late in ripening.[*] The workers are bending with semicircular sickles over their hot task; yet they form a merry, noisy crowd, full of homely "harvest songs," nominally in honor of Demeter, the Earth Mother, but ranging upon every conceivable rustic topic. Some laborers are cutting the grain, others, walking behind, are binding into sheaves and piling into clumsy ox wains. Here and there a sheaf is standing, and we are told that this is left "for luck," as an offering to the rural Field Spirit; for your farm hand is full of superstitions. Also amid the workers a youth is passing with a goodly jar of cheap wine, to which the harvesters make free to run from time to time for refreshment.

Close by the field is the threshing floor. More laborers - not a few bustling country lasses among them - are spreading out the sheaves with wooden forks, a little at a time, in thin layers over this circular space, which is paved with little cobblestones. More oxen and a patient mule are being driven over it - around and around - until every kernel is trodden out by their hoofs. Later will come the tossing and the winnowing; and, when the grain has been thoroughly cleaned, it will be stored in great earthen jars for the purpose of sale or against the winter.

176. Grinding at the Mill. - Nearer the farmhouses there rises a dull grinding noise. It is the mill preparing the flour for the daily baking, for seldom - at least in the country - will a Greek grind flour long in advance of the time of use. There the round upper millstone is being revolved upon an iron pivot against its lower mate and turned by a long wooden handle. Two nearly naked slave boys are turning this wearily - far pleasanter they consider the work of the harvesters, and very likely this task is set them as a punishment. As the mill revolves a slave girl pours the grain into a hole in the center of the upper millstone. As the hot, slow work goes on, the two toilers chant together a snatch from an old mill song, and we catch the monotonous strain: -

Grind, mill, grind, For Pittacus did grind - Who was king over great Mytilene.

It will be a long time before there is enough flour for the day. The slaves can at least rejoice that they live on a large farm. If Hybrias owned a smaller estate, they would probably be pounding up the grain with mortar and pestle - more weary yet.

177. The Olive Orchards. - We, at least, can leave them to their work, and escape to the shade of the orchards and the vineyards. Like every Athenian farmer, Hybrias has an olive orchard. The olives are sturdy trees. They will grow in any tolerable soil and thrive upon the mountain slopes up to as far as 1800 feet above sea level. They are not large trees, and their trunks are often grotesquely gnarled, but there is always a certain fascination about the wonderful shimmer of their leaves, which flash from gray to silver-white in a sunny wind. Hybrias has wisely planted his olives at wide intervals, and in the space between the ground has been plowed up for grain. Olives need little care. Their harvest comes late in the autumn, after all the other crops are out of the way. They are among the most profitable products of the farm, and the owner will not mind the poor wheat harvest "if only the olives do well."[*]

[*]The great drawback to olive culture was the great length of time required to mature the trees - sixteen years. The destruction of the trees, e.g. in war by a ravaging invader, was an infinitely greater calamity than the burning of the standing grain or even of the farmhouses. Probably it was the ruin of their olive trees which the Athenians mourned most during the ravaging of Attica in the Peloponnesian War.

178. The Vineyards. - The fig orchard forms another great part of the farm, but more interesting to strangers are the vineyards. Some of the grapes are growing over pointed stakes set all along the upland terraces; a portion of the vineyards, however, is on level ground. Here a most picturesque method has been used for training the vines. Tall and graceful trees have been set out - elm, maple, oak, poplar. The lower limbs of the trees have been cut away and up their trunks and around their upper branches now swing the vines in magnificent festoons. The growing vines have sprung from tree to tree. The warm breeze has set the rich clusters - already turning purple or golden - swaying above our heads. The air is filled with brightness, greenery, and fragrance. The effect of this "vineyard grove" is magical.

179. Cattle, Sheep, and Goats. - There is also room in the orchards for apples, pears, and quinces, but there is nothing distinctive about their culture. If we are interested in cattle, however, we can spend a long time at the barns, or be guided out to the upland pasture where Hybrias's flocks and herds are grazing. Horses are a luxury. They are almost never used in farm work, and for riding and cavalry service it is best to import a good courser from Thessaly; no attempt, therefore, is made to breed them here. But despite the small demand for beef and butter a good many cattle are raised; for oxen are needed for the plowing and carting, oxhides have a steady sale, and there is a regular call for beehives for the hecatombs at the great public sacrifices. Sheep are in greater acceptance. Their wool is of large importance to a land which knows comparatively little of cotton. They can live on scanty pasturage where an ox would starve. Still more in favor are goats Their coarse hair has a thousand uses. Their flesh and cheese are among the most staple articles in the Agora. Sure-footed and adventurous, they scale the side of the most unpromising crags in search of herbage and can sometimes be seen perching, almost like birds, in what seem utterly inaccessible eyries. Thanks to them the barren highlands of Attica are turned to good account, - and between goat raising and bee culture an income can sometimes be extracted from the very summits of the mountains. As for the numerous swine, it is enough to say that they range under Hybrias's oak forest and fatten on acorns, although their swineherd, wrapped in a filthy sheepskin, is a far more loutish and ignoble fellow than the "divine Eumeus" glorified in the "Odyssey."

180. The Gardens and the Shrine. - Did we wish to linger, we could be shown the barnyard with its noisy retinue of hens, pheasants, guinea fowl, and pigeons; and we would be asked to admire the geese, cooped up and being gorged for fattening, or the stately peacocks preening their splendors. We would also hear sage disquisitions from the "oldest inhabitants" on the merits of fertilizers, especially on the uses of mixing seaweed with manure, also we would be told of the almost equally important process of burying a toad in a sealed jar in the midst of a field to save the corn from the crows and the field mice. Hybrias laughs at such superstitions - "but what can you say to the rustics?" Hybrias himself will display with more refined pride the gardens used by his wife and children when they come out from Athens, - a fountain feeding a delightful rivulet; myrtles, roses, and pomegranate trees shedding their perfumes, which are mingled with the odors from the beds of hyacinths, violets, and asphodel. In the center of the gardens rises a chaste little shrine with a marble image and an altar, always covered with flowers or fruit by the mistress and her women. "To Artemis," reads the inscription, and one is sure that the virgin goddess takes more pleasure in this fragrant temple than in many loftier fanes.[*]

[*]For the description of a very beautiful and elaborate country estate, with a temple thereon to Artemis, see Xenophon's "Anabasis," bk. V. 3.

We are glad to add here our wreaths ere turning away from this wholesome, verdant country seat, and again taking our road to Athens.