The ancient Greeks were primarily very small family farmers, intimately connected to the land and the growing of food. Agriculture for the Greeks was food, economics, natural history, science, religion and politics. In other words, agriculture was civilization.
In the ninth book of The Odyssey, Homer reports that when Odysseus came in contact with the Cyclops Polyphemus, he faced an uncivilized barbarian. The Cyclopes did not plant their crops or plowed the land. They were lawless savages. They had neither assemblies for lawmaking nor customs.
According to the fifth century BCE Athenian tragedian Euripides, Polyphemus was also full of hubris. The one-eyed monster Cyclops says to Odysseus that he cared less about the gods. His greatest god was his own stomach. The Cyclops bragged that eating and drinking for a day and causing no pain to himself was Zeus for men of good sense. Polyphemus had contempt for those who established laws, which complicate people’s lives.
Hesiod, the epic poet only second to Homer, focused his masterful poem, “Works and Days,” on farming, urging the Greeks to work the land for food security, community, and for the favor and pleasure of the gods. In addition, he connects farming to the cosmos, the peasant farmer labors in accord with the seasons and the weather, the position of the stars and, especially, the phases of the moon.
Herodotus, the father of history, in the fifth century BCE also shares the prevailing idea that agriculture was a mark of civilization.
Xenophon, c.428-c.354 BCE, a student of Socrates, a general, and historian, much like Herodotus, loved farming. He believed that agriculture was the foundation of Greek society and the nurse of civilization. Farmers were, by necessity, the best of citizens because they had the courage to defend their farms and, therefore, defend the freedom of the polis.
He praised farming as the best occupation, and farms as the most beautiful pieces of land. Farms were schools for the essentials of good life: food, citizenship, cooperation, justice, courage, patriotism, freedom, and respect for the gods.
Farming was fundamental for the Greeks. Everything they did was in the spherical orbit of agriculture. Farmers, not philosophers, invented democracy. Greek agrarian civilization combined polytheism, theater, athletics, beautiful temples, democracy and science. They fished and traded and manufactured things. But they depended on the land. They had to know the best time to plant and to harvest their food.
The constellation Pleiades emerged just before dawn in the east in late May, as good an astronomical message of impending wheat harvest as one could get. This sighting also meant the beginning of summer. When Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Bootes, rose, the Greeks knew that the autumn was with them.
In the eighteenth book of the “Iliad,” the god of metallurgy Hephaestus makes a shield for the Greeks’ greatest Trojan War hero, Achilles. Hephaestus imprinted images of the “tireless sun, and the moon waxing into her fullness.” Hephaestus then designed rural society at the time of harvest. We see people harvesting crops, eating, dancing, celebrating and living in peace with the natural world.
As long as the Greeks were free, small farms made their civilization possible. But the Romans ended Greek democracy and freedom in the second century BCE. The Roman poet Virgil tells us the Romans thought of themselves as born rulers of others. They embraced empire and, with that, they favored plantations.
The imperial Roman legacy of large farms triumphed all the way to our times. Large, slave-driven farms defined the millennium of dark ages. These plantations captured the imagination of modern nation states.
In the 1860s, those states adopted agricultural industrialization as the climax of being modern. But the real reason for mechanizing the farm was the determination of businessmen to expand the plantation for profits, power, and the control of society at home or abroad.
Plantation owners quickly grasped the awesome power of the new mechanized Cyclops Polyphemus. He would defy heavens and Earth.
Pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and machines became the tools of the one-eyed monster for the control of nature and society. These technologies enabled the Cyclopes-plantation owners and large farmers to become the emperors of the countryside. Their power corrupted agricultural universities, international organizations, and governments. Agricultural scientists forgot the small family farmers and peasants and directed the assets of science to serve their new Cyclops Polyphemus masters.
This agribusiness strategy translated into a ceaseless denigration of agrarian traditions and knowledge. The countryside vanished under the ambitions of urban men. It lived through the pain and violence of emptying villages and small towns to make room for dams and plantations of one crop.
Large mechanized farms run on synthetic fertilizers and chemicals sparked our ecological crisis. In other words, they have been spreading death to nature and disease and death to humans. Symbolic of this real danger is the contamination of mothers’ breast milk with farmers’ toxins.
Shouldn’t this be the turning point for the control of the monstrous Cyclops Polyphemus before he kills his own creators?