Ancient Greek Forest Management and Exploitation: New Approaches to Traditional Data

In the field of ancient Mediterranean history, the environment has almost always remained in the background. As a result, many latent assumptions have been perpetuated in scholarship for centuries without being properly addressed. Only in the last couple of decades has what can legitimately be called ancient environmental history developed as a subdiscipline. 

Morgan Condell is among those challenging traditional assumptions by taking a much closer look at our evidence for human-landscape interactions in the Mediterranean. I asked Morgan to discuss her dissertation research and how she is addressing the usual narratives about ancient Greek exploitation of the natural world.

A section of Aristotle’s Politics (1321b) describes the ‘required magistracies’, those without which the state could not exist or be well-governed.  He begins by describing the magistrates who would be responsible for the city, ranging from those who would oversee contracts and property rights, to those who would maintain the city’s infrastructure.  He then discusses their extra-urban counterparts, and says that “in some places they call these magistrates the ἀγρονόμοι (agronomoi, ‘land-controllers’) and in other places the ὑλωροί (huloroi,‘forest wardens’).

The dichotomy presented by Aristotle is fascinating in how closely it aligns with the diverse ecological reality of the Greek world: some places had forests, and some places didn’t.  By naming the huloroi among his essential magistrates, moreover, Aristotle hints at an answer to one of the major questions about Greek forestland, namely the degree to which its exploitation was managed in antiquity.

The fragmentary record from the ancient Greek world has left us with little direct evidence for how forests were exploited in antiquity.  Who controlled the forests?  Who was entitled to exploit them?  Did the Greeks understand that the forests were a finite resource?  Did they take measures to utilize this resource in a sustainable fashion?


Though a great deal of modern scholarship has focused on the (debatable) deforestation of ancient Greece, my research focuses on the positive evidence we have for forestland in the Classical period (the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.), the ways in which it was exploited, and the people and practices involved.

My primary body of evidence is not scientific, but rather part of the material culture of ancient Greece – inscriptions on stone.  Epigraphic sources, as we call them, provide a tremendous amount of information about timber resources in the Greek world, however these records are often fragmentary and lacunose.  My research seeks to bring together these fragmentary sources of information in order to reconstruct a picture of resource management and exploitation.  Treaties and building contracts are a window into the kinds of timber being used and the places it was sourced.  Land leases demonstrate patterns of land use, and the provision of resources for future generations.  Sacred laws reflect the habits of exploitation expected from the local community.

In bringing together these sources, my work is beginning to challenge certain long-held assumptions about the ability of ancient Greece to supply herself with timber to sustain her monumental building programs, and her naval powers.  It was long assumed that much of this timber was being imported, but my analysis of records from sanctuaries in southern and central Greece points to a significant amount of timber being sourced from within, particularly from the Peloponnese.  Comparative research from pre-industrial periods confirms that the Peloponnese was a source of high-quality shipbuilding timber well into the 19th century.  The belief that the ancient Greeks denuded their landscape is one that should be challenged by the next generation of ecologically-minded scholars.

It is my hope that this research will help to provide a framework with which to interpret the increasing body of data generated by archaeobotanists and palynologists, and in so doing enrich our understanding of the ancient Greeks and their forests.

Morgan Condell is a fifth-year graduate student in the Ancient History program at the University of Pennsylvania.