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Fires Shaped the Landscape of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece fires
In prehistoric times Greece was totally covered by thick forests. Credit: Greek Reporter/Konstantinos Balalas

Fires shaped much of the landscape in ancient Greece; set mostly by invaders in pre-classical times, sometimes the fires were also set by Greeks themselves.

According to an article written by L.G. Liacos entitled “Present Studies and History of Burning in Greece,” the Mediterranean climate in Greece, with dry, long, hot summers is ideal for forests.

Liacos, a professor at the School of Agriculture and Forestry at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, argues that in prehistoric times Greece was totally covered by thick forests, with the only exception being the summits of high mountains rising above the treeline.

Greece was full of large forests

Recently discovered bones in excavations near Pikermi in Attica belong to a large prehistoric, robust animal, the habitat of which was confined to forest environments.

That is strong evidence that Attica at that time was covered in unbroken forestland.

Greek mythology also supports the theory that ancient Greece was full of forests, with Hercules killing the Kithaeronian Lion and the Elk of Artemis in the Peloponnese.

This allows for the conclusion that the Peloponnese was covered with large forests, since lions and elk require a forest environment, spread over large areas since their ranges are very large.

In Homer’s Odyssey , the (now bare) Mount Noriton on the island of Ithaca is strikingly described as “dense leaved,” while the island of Zakynthos is referred to as “forest covered.”

Fires destroyed the green landscape in ancient Greece

According to Liacos, the destruction of the Greek forest largely began with the invasion of various Indo-German races that began from areas around the Danube River, at the beginning of the 20th century BC.

First, it was the Achains, a nomadic race that followed the Axios River to enter Greece, reaching the Peloponnese through central Macedonia, Thessaly, Biotia, and Attica.

The Achains brought with them a great deal of livestock and in order to secure better feeding for them they burned large forests to convert them to grasslands, or just to open passages to the grassy lands they needed.

Then it was the Doreans, a mountainous race who entered from western Macedonia, and following the main mountain range went down as far as the Peloponnese.

The Doreans also used fire to convert large areas of forests to grasslands for the same reason.

Wildfires contributed as well

In the Iliad, Homer speaks of wildfires in ancient Greece as well, allowing us to presume that the Mediterranean climate is in itself conducive to wildfires as well:

“And as when consuming fire falls upon thick woodlands and the witching wind beareth it everywhither and the thickets fall utterly as they are assailed by the onrush at the fire.”

The Historian Thucydides also describes a wildfire that took place during the third year of the Peloponnesian War (429 BC).

While the Plataeans were besieged by the Spartans, an unusual storm followed a large blaze that the Spartans had started around the city:

“And a conflagration arose greater than any one had ever seen up to that time, kindled, I mean, by the hand of man; for in times past in the mountains when dry branches have been rubbed against each other a forest has caught fire spontaneously therefrom and produced a conflagration.”

In the books “Studies in Ancient Technology” edited by Forbes, it is said that fire was very important to the ancient man who applied burning “to extend the forest fires to fertilize the cleared spaces.”

Fires shaped ancient economy and ecosystem

Burning trees and forestland contributed to the economy of ancient Greeks, while at the same time it changed the ecosystems of the land.

In ancient times, the coastal zone of the Greek peninsula from today’s Albania to the Peloponnese and from the Peloponnese to Halkidiki was covered with productive pine forests.

Around big rivers — like the Axios River in Macedonia — large oak forests grew in isolated stands.

However, ancient Greeks had to burn down forests to create grasslands for feeding livestock, primarily, and secondarily, to be able to systematically cultivate the land.

Virgil, in his Georgics, wrote:

“Often, too, it has been useful to fire barren fields, and burn the light stubble in crackling flames; whether it be that the earth derives thence hidden strength and rich nutriment, or that in the flame every taint is baked out and the useless moisture sweats from it, or that heat opens fresh paths and loosens hidden pores, by which the sap may reach the tender blades, or that it rather hardens the soil and narrows the gaping veins, that so the searching showers may not harm, or the blazing sun’s fierce tyranny wither it, or North wind’s piercing cold.”

In Xenophon’s “Economics,” the famous Greek historian reports about the importance of fires in Ancient Greece:

“I imagine that the stubble may be burnt with advantage to the land, or thrown on the nature heap to increase its bulk.”

Alexandros Letsas in his three-volume “Mythology of Agriculture,” from 1957, reports that ancient Greeks used to burn the stubble or the herbage and dry leaves as a way to fertilize the fields.

Australian professor speaks of abandonment of the land

David Bowman, Professor at the School of Natural Sciences at the University of Tasmania spoke to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency after the deadly fire at Mati on July 23, 2018.

“The traditional agricultural landscape of the Mediterranean found in Greece has changed,” he said.

“This kind of landscape has been lost with the modern urban sprawl and the abandonment of the land as people began to flock to the cities,” Bowman stated.

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