Climate and Landscape

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Climate and Landscape


Needs of the People. Perhaps the single biggest factor influencing the daily life of Greece was the climate. Climate determined the sort of vegetation that grew wild, the number and types of trees available, and the sorts of plants and animals that could be cultivated. It affected the needs of the population (demand) and determined as well the ways in which they could meet those needs (supply). Climate influenced demand by determining how much clothing and what kind of shelter would be necessary to protect people from the elements, and also determined how much food would be necessary to sustain life. As for supply, climate determined the sorts of materials available for building, the fibers available for clothing, and the types of foods that were available. Beyond these areas, the effects of climate could be subtle and far-ranging: for example, health is affected by certain types of diet; and the amount of leisure time available in a given society will be influenced by the type of farming that is done and by the amount of surplus food that can be accumulated.

Rainfall and Temperature. The climate of Greece has changed little in the last 2,500 years. (Evidence for this lack of change comes from ancient sources discussing the plants native to the region, which are generally the same ones that flourish there today.) The climate is a type known as “Mediterranean,” characterized by cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers, and is similar to the present-day climate of Southern California. More specifically, this term describes a climate in which there is enough rainfall to support dry-farming (i.e., farming without irrigation) in most years; forests are limited in size and density; at least two-thirds of the annual precipitation falls during the winter months of the year; and the summer typically features a prolonged dry spell. For Athens, the average annual precipitation is approximately fifteen inches (thirty-eight centimeters), with 80 percent of that total from October through March. (Los Angeles has a nearly identical amount and seasonal distribution; by way of contrast, temperate-zone U.S. cities such as New York and Houston have rainfall totals averaging forty-eight inches per year, distributed more or less evenly throughout the year.) High temperatures in Athens average eighty-six degrees Fahrenheit (thirty Celsius) from June to September, and fifty-eight (fifteen Celsius) from October to March; more significantly, the average winter lows are in the mid-forties, and the lowest recorded temperatures are barely below freezing. Thus, frost is not often a problem, allowing the cultivation of frost-sensitive plants such as the olive tree.

Droughts and Famine. More serious in terms of their implications for agriculture are the timing and variability of the rain. Much of the rainfall occurs in short, intense bursts, so that there is a high degree of runoff and the rain is of less help to plants than it might otherwise be. In addition, there is always a high degree of annual variation in the amount of rainfall. While true of any climate, this tendency is aggravated in low-rainfall areas and could be disastrous. Droughts and attendant crop failures were fairly common (although large-scale famine was rare, and usually the result of political causes such as warfare rather than climate), and farming was always a risky enterprise.

Mountains and the Sea. The landscape of Greece is primarily mountainous: there are many small mountain chains, with occasional higher peaks such as Mt. Olympus (9,500 feet). Settlement took place in the plains and sheltered areas between the mountains, a fact which had a profound influence on the development of small, independent poleis (city-states). Yet, the landscape had important influences on climate, and thus on daily life as well. For one thing, most rainfall was brought by west winds, which made the eastern parts of Greece (including Attica) somewhat drier than the West and North. For another, the presence of the sea (almost no place on the Greek mainland is more than thirty miles from the sea) acted as a moderating influence on the climate, keeping temperatures within a narrower range than they otherwise would have been.

Greek Character. Greece is a land of stunning natural beauty and a mild climate that encourages life outdoors, so that even leisure time took place outside (at least for men). It was not unusual, then, for Greek thinkers to speculate upon the effects that climate had on the Greek character; and, not surprisingly, to find that their climate somehow made them better than other peoples. Thus, Aristotle found that non-Greek Europeans, due to living in a cold climate, were “full of spirit, but rather lacking in intelligence and skill,” while Asians were “better furnished with intelligence and

skill, but lack spirit, and for this reason remain slaves.” Greeks, however, “living in the middle, have a share of both characteristics, of spirit and intelligence. For this reason they remain free, and have the best political institutions.” While scholars would not wish to go so far as Aristotle in saying that climate determined national character, it is hard to overstate the extent to which climate shaped the daily life and routines of most Greeks.


Robin Osborne, Classical Landscape with Figures (London: G. Philip, 1987).

Robert Sallares, Ecology of the Ancient World (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990).

Anthony M. Snodgrass, An Archaeology of Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).