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E - 203: Barley and Wheat - the World's energy 2'500 Years ago

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Instead of writing my sailing brochure as I did for the last four years, I am going to write a weekly blog instead. There is so much to write about - it is better to spread the content over the many weeks to July 2021. First and foremost, the AFAED, our elegant boat from last year, is signed up. Am now trying to get the same crew, specifically Chef Konstantinos!

Wheat field on Sicily's rolling hills with Mount Etna at the back


Today’s blog will focus on the ancient grain trade, the world’s first trade in energy. It is still under debate whether the Greek colonization started due to population pressure in Greece and Anatolia with its rocky terrain or because Greek towns were looking for grain to import. Be it as it may, the result was the same. From the 6th century BC, all towns around the Aegean started to import grain from overseas. Main suppliers were Egypt and the Greek colonies in Sicily and on the Black Sea. From early on, Rhodes and Delos emerged as leading trading centers. Legend has it that the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven ancient world wonders, was paid for by war booty from Antigonus I, King of Cyprus, who unsuccessfully tried to invade Rhodes. Equally credible is the assumption that it was financed with custom duties from the hundreds of merchant vessels that visited Rhodes every year.

A collective of European architects proposed to build a 500 foot tall modern version of the Colossus of Rhodes - the original was only 100 feet tall - maybe with Covid funds?


In antiquity, there were few sources of energy. Wind was used for sailing. Fire in metallurgy, for making bricks, dyeing of textiles and the preparation of food. The use of water mills came only with the Romans. Any construction, the farming of land or the transportation of goods required human labor, sometimes supported by drag animals (horses, oxen, donkeys). Both humans and animals needed to be fed though and feeding large populations was an early challenge for developing civilizations. No town could grow larger than its food supply allowed - usually a radius of 3 days walking distance. But with access to the sea, this constraint could be skirted. All that was required were external suppliers of storable food (wheat or barley), merchant vessels to transport it and warehouses to safeguard and protect it once arrived. A natural supplier was Egypt with its large agricultural surplus. But Greek colonies established in fertile Sicily, Calabria and Apulia as well as on the Crimean and the shores of southern Ukraine were also big suppliers.

The fertile Valley of the Temples in Sicily


To illustrate the importance of the antique grain trade we do not need to look further than the Persian Wars between the Alliance of Greek City States and the Person Empire around 480 BC. Both sides deployed armies numbering ten if not hundred thousand soldiers and fleets of up to 400 trireme each. Waging war without food is - of course - impossible. An ordinary soldier or sailor consumes about 5 – 6’000 calories per day. As a rule of thumb, 2/3 of these calories come from carbs and 1/3 from fats and proteins. Since 3’500 calories translate into about 1kg of barley or wheat, a 100’000 men strong army needs 100 tons of grain every single day or 10’000 tons for a 3 month summer campaign. Not an easy logistic task! Such huge quantities of food could only be carried by ships. Transporting it on land was impossible. Thanks to a merchant vessel from the 3rd century BC found off the coast of Kyrene (Cyprus), we know a bit about Hellenistic cargo ships. They were 20 – 25 meters long, 5 to 6 meters wide, had a draft of about 2 meters, square sails and a tonnage of roughly 150 tons. It would thus require 65 of these cargo vessels to carry the necessary grain for a summer campaign. The numbers get quickly very large.

Replica of the Greek cargo ship from 300 BC found in 1965 of the coast of Kyrene, Cyprus


Was trying to find out how many tons of wheat and barley Sicily produced p.a. during antiquity but have not found any respective paper yet. Given the size of the towns (see the blog on Magna Graecia) the number must have been high. Here is a speculative calculation. By 100 AD, Rome received around 300’000 tons of grain every year with half coming from Egypt and the rest from Sicily and Carthage. Have no indication of how the 150’000 tons were split between Carthage and Sicily. Assuming 50:50, the island of Sicily would have exported 75’000 tons of grain or 500 cargo ships of load. Of course, this is speculative. But the number of 500 ships indicate the size of logistics that was required to handle the cargo. We need to remember that ships were harbor hopping in antiquity and rarely sailed out of sight of land. The control of the sea lanes leading from Sicily to Greece and the ports along the route were thus of strategic importance. It explains why both Athens and Persia built large fleets. A naval blockade could easily have starved Athens into surrender. No food, no armed forces, no Greek independence. The logic was compelling to the Persians but they lost that option when their fleet was defeated at the battle of Salamis in 480 BC.

A contemporary illustration of the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC with a Greek ship ramming a Persian vessel - probably from Phoenicia


The strategic nature and scale of the grain trade also explains the wealth and size of the many ports in Sicily and Southern Italy. Participating in grain trading – or shall we call it energy trading? - makes all participants rich - be it the growers, agents, shippers or the port authorities with their warehouses. Am sure we will discover many traces of this important trade next summer when we sail along these coasts.



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