Oil, Wine, and the Cultural Economy of Ancient Greece from the Bronze Age to the Archaic Era

Catherine E. Pratt, Oil, Wine, and the Cultural Economy of Ancient Greece from the Bronze Age to the Archaic Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021). 9781108835640.

Reviewed by Evan Vance, University of California, Berkeley, evan.j.vance@berkeley.edu.

How did oil and wine become constitutive features of Greek culture, both within the Greek peninsula and in the broader Mediterranean? Pratt pursues this question by tracing the production, consumption, and movement of oil and wine over five geographic and chronological periods: the Minoan Neopalatial era, the Mycenaean palatial era, the post-palatial era, the Early Iron Age, and the early Archaic period. A secondary question is how these crops, and the communities that produced them, responded to changing climatic conditions, with the goal of considering what the study of ancient climate responses can contribute to understanding our current climate crisis.

Chapter One presents a robust introduction to Pratt’s theoretical framework of assessing the “entanglement” between commodities and communities. Pratt identifies oil and wine as “cultural commodities,” which “can be defined as things that have become deeply entangled with humans through increasing ties of dependency that are reinforced by a high value constructed within multiple contexts of exchange” (1), or alternatively, “products that continue to be produced because they have become indispensable for the functioning of social and economic exchanges well beyond economic advantage” (9, emphasis Pratt). She outlines a spectrum of entanglements, from centralized entanglements, in which a low number of strong agents control activity, to decentralized entanglements, in which a higher number of weaker agents shape activity. This chapter also introduces the methodological problems of studying ancient climate change, such as using proxy data and evaluating ancient reactions, along with the evidence for how olives and vines react to various climate stimuli (23–38).

The five chapters that follow trace the changing entanglement of oil and wine over different periods by analyzing oil and wine production, storage, and the use of these commodities in feasting, rituals, gift-giving, and commercial exchange. Pratt concludes each chapter by assessing how access to these commodities was granted or denied, and thus how their value may have been perceived and their entanglement may have changed.

In Chapter Two, Pratt argues that the Minoan Neopalatial period presents a “tipping point of entanglement” (47) because of the increased scale of production, consumption, and social organization around wine and oil. In comparison to the Protopalatial period, feasting was on a larger scale and took place in organized, central places, such as central-court buildings. Feasts used huge quantities of homogenous equipment, such as thousands of conical cups. Pratt suggests that because people had increased access to oil and wine, these commodities became more desirable and culturally central. The overall entanglement is characterized as decentralized: while central-court buildings stored large quantities and varieties of oil and wine, the locations of presses and the variety of fabrics used for storage vessels suggest that production remained relatively independent.

In Chapter Three, Pratt turns to the Mycenaean palaces on the Greek mainland and at Knossos. Pratt emphasizes that relative to Neopalatial Crete, Mycenaean Greek palaces intensified their central control over wine and oil production, storage, and use, all of which are suggestive of a more centralized entanglement. The increased dependency of palace elites on commodities made them less flexible in the face of system collapse at the end of the Bronze Age, but also influenced the continued relationship between commodities and culture in the post-palatial period.

In Chapter Four, Pratt traces continuity and change in the cultural roles of oil and wine in the post-palatial period. As with other aspects of life in the period, storage, feasting, and trade in oil and wine took place more locally and at smaller scales relative to the palatial period. Storage was increasingly localized and concentrated in multiple locations rather than in one central building. Feasting involved a complex interplay of adaptation and modification of palatial behaviors. The smaller scale of feasting in particular may have increased the value associated with oil and wine by making them available to reduced cohorts of individuals. Trade increasingly took place in more regional settings, using increasingly simplified shapes relative to the transport stirrup jar of the palatial period. Pratt suggests that these phenomena gave rise to symmetrical local nodes (195): individual communities had similar relationships to wine and oil, but each relationship was negotiated and replicated on a local level.

Chapter Five addresses the question of continuity between the post-palatial period and the Early Iron Age. Pratt argues that while oil and wine remained important to commensal, gift-giving, and commercial exchanges, new uses of these commodities suggest that they were adapted to the changing social and environmental contexts of the Early Iron Age. She highlights the role of “conspicuous storage”[1] in validating leadership; the increasing role of sanctuaries as sites of commensality, perhaps expanding dependency on these commodities to a wider group; and the role of the North Aegean in maintaining commercial ties between the Greek peninsula and the larger Mediterranean. Pratt raises the interesting question of who had the authority to marshal these resources in sanctuary contexts (212), but does not explore it further, which is a missed opportunity in light of Catherine Morgan’s suggestion that sanctuaries were early drivers of economic institutions.[2] Pratt pays particular attention to the production and consumption of North Aegean I and II amphoras. The increasingly narrow production range of the latter in the Thermaic Gulf suggests that different shapes were becoming a way to identify quality, prefiguring the regional amphora shapes known in later periods. Ultimately, the continued use of oil and wine in the key areas of feasting, ritual, and distribution shows that social practice remained reliant on these commodities, even as other features of palace life faded out of relevance. The Early Iron Age reflects a change from regional networks to larger-scale networks and increasing decentralization.

In Chapter Six, Pratt explores how the cultural role of wine and oil changed in the context of the nascent archaic polis. Production remained largely a decentralized affair—there is again little evidence for presses themselves, with the exceptions of centralized installations at Klazomenai and Azoria. Production may have benefited from the warming environment that followed low temperatures culminating around 800 BCE: Pratt suggests that this cycle of resilience could have helped to fuel polis development. Particularly interesting is the observation that different types of commensal experience proliferated. The increase in privately-sponsored feasts—whether the proto-symposium or wedding feast—shows an increase in the ability of individuals to control a personal surplus, rather than the public surplus of the palatial systems or the few powerful individuals of the Early Iron Age. The existence of many surplus-holders suggests that there were many individual producers, a portrait in line with literary sources such as Hesiod. In the commercial sphere, Pratt traces the profusion of amphora shapes, with a focus on the distribution of SOS and Corinthian A amphoras. Overall, the trend is towards less centralized control and a higher scale of exchange, suggesting that more and more individuals encountered these commodities and acknowledged their cultural value. This chapter displays much of the pay-off of the longue durée comparison built up through the preceding four chapters. The contrasts drawn between the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age throw the preceding observations into sharper relief and contribute to the overall cohesion of the narrative.

The concluding Chapter Seven, “Conclusion: Cultural Commodities and the Future of Oil and Wine,” revisits the central theme of cultural commodities and explores the relevance of the argument for contemporary Greece. Pratt summarizes the chronological shift from hierarchical to less-hierarchical control of surpluses, and explores the unique relationship between oil, wine, and Greek cultural practices: “People became dependent upon oil and wine for the proper functioning of social and economic exchanges” (304) in a way that made them key features of group identity in defining Greeks within the wider Mediterranean world. Rather than the typical narrative of post-palatial decline, this history of oil and wine emphasizes the cultural continuities around oil and wine that connect the Bronze Age and the Archaic period.

Pratt closes with some thoughts on the need for agricultural adaptation in Greece today, since climate change models predict that the areas suitable for wine and oil cultivation will change geographically. The lessons of adaptation and product branding found in the ancient evidence could assist Greece’s contemporary oil and wine producers.

Two online appendices, hosted on the Cambridge University Press website, discuss references to the production, varieties, and uses of oil and wine in Homeric epic and Hesiod’s Works and Days, respectively. The appendices are referred to largely in Chapter Six (on the Archaic period) to substantiate conclusions drawn from the archaeological evidence. The appendix on Homer is worth reading even in isolation, as it presents Pratt’s categories of commodity use in these epics and provides a compelling illustration of the cultural importance of these commodities.

Each chronological chapter is fascinating in its own right, and the overarching theoretical framework holds them together well. Pratt returns to this framework at the end of each chapter to assess entanglement, but I, at least, would have appreciated even more incorporation of the theoretical framework in the analysis. For instance, Chapter Three features a very interesting discussion of the contrasting feasting practices in Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece, from the performance and status involved in the process of ladling wine from a krater to a kylix—a very visible vessel in the hand—to the “illusion of social homogeneity” (120) entailed in the conical cups. But presumably this shows a different sort of control over commodities, or a different social use of commodities, not necessarily a change in the notion that commodities were (1) centrally controlled and (2) important to social practice. In what way is it a change in dependency or in the centralization of dependency? The details included are rich, but it is not always clear how the intermediary conclusions contribute to the overall thrust of the argument.

Outside of the author’s control, the production of the book leaves something to be desired. The maps in the printed edition are blurry and, even in the digital edition, maps that are color-coded are printed in black and white (e.g., 230, map 5.2, where the possible production locations of North Aegean amphorae are said to be color-coded red and blue but appear in black and white). This choice is unfortunate, especially given the obvious care put into the volume’s many figures.

The individual chapters provide useful studies of the social and economic history of each period, as mediated by the evidence for oil and wine production, consumption, and exchange. One could also profitably explore the sections on storage, trade, etc. in each period for a more thematically limited chronological survey. The book as a whole is valuable reading for all interested in the transition from the Bronze Age to the early polis—it is particularly refreshing to see a book that joins the Archaic period to the Bronze Age, rather than including it as a poorly-attested prequel to the Classical period. Those interested in food production and its cultural value will also find much to contemplate in Pratt’s writing.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction (1–45)
2. Developing a Relationship of Dependency: Oil and Wine in the Minoan Palatial Era (46–95)
3. Controlling the Relationship: Oil and Wine in the Mycenaean Palatial Era (96–154)
4. Maintaining the Relationship: Oil and Wine in Postpalatial Greece (155–96)
5. Rebuilding the Relationship: Oil and Wine in Early Iron Age Greece (197–244)
6. Expanding the Relationship: Oil and Wine in the Early Archaic Period (245–97)
7. Conclusion: Cultural Commodities and the Future of Oil and Wine (298–314)


[1] Following Susanne Ebbinghaus, “Protector of the City, or the Art of Storage in Early Greece,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 125 (2005): 51–72.

[2] Catherine Morgan, Early Greek States beyond the Polis (London: Routledge, 2003), 149–55.

[3] Bikai identifies at least thirty Phoenician transport amphoras mixed with the votive dump from phases A2–B1, dating from the mid-ninth to the mid-eighth century, in Peter Callaghan et al., “The Iron Age Pottery from Kommos,” in Kommos IV: The Greek Sanctuary, Part 1, ed. Joseph W. Shaw and Maria C. Shaw (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 210–335, at 302–12.

[4] E.g., Hermann Michael Niemann, “A New Look at the Samaria Ostraca: The King-Clan Relationship,” Tel Aviv 35 (2008): 249–66.


1. On page 84, you write, “One could ask why the entanglement between people and oil and wine in the Minoan palatial era matters to the greater trajectory of Greek history. The answer is that this era marked the beginning of a never-ending relationship of dependency…that would hold Greek people together with oil and wine to the point where their identities melded into each other.” Could you elaborate on how you define the Greek world or Greek culture in this context? How Greek is Minoan Crete? In Chapter 5, you discuss the absence of olive cultivation north of Thessaly in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the substitution of linseed oil (202)—what are the cultural implications therein? What would you make of the concentration of Phoenician amphorae at Kommos?[3] Or of the management of special stores of oil and wine found in the ninth-century Samaria ostraca?[4] Does the cultural dependency you trace in your book need to be uniquely Greek or are you exploring one regional subset of a much broader Mediterranean phenomenon?

Thank you for your questions. That’s a great point—eventually there is something defined as “Greekness” or “being Greek” as a collective (certainly after Herodotus’ call upon to hellenikon). The Minoan era isn’t “Greek”, in fact, it’s not even “Minoan” since that is just the name we give to those people and that era. It is just the time when we can start to see these relationships of dependency that will then continue until we do get to something called “Greece.” And when we get there, olive oil and wine will be staple products of their own cultural identity, as discussed in the conclusion. This could, indeed, be one part of a much broader Mediterranean phenomenon, but it would depend on how those individual cultures view olive oil and wine within their own identities (and something beyond the scope of my book!).

2. I think your book is a very effective exploration of how we can study societies by the way they generate, organize, and dispose of surplus. I don’t know if I’m convinced by the category of cultural commodity that you develop for oil and wine. Are wine and oil unique as commodities, or are they simply archaeologically visible in a way that other foodstuffs are not? Several times in your analysis, the production, storage, and consumption of grain is discussed (e.g., LHIIIC Mycenae on p. 162; cereal exports in the archaic period on p. 247). One could suggest that meat and grain are also essential to the correct functioning of feasting and sacrificial ritual. You include a huge array of data and details in your analysis, and the same depth would certainly not be possible for grain, legumes, dairy, honey, etc. At times wine and oil seem to feature in your analysis as proxies for a much larger system of control of foodstuffs. Are these commodities barometers or agents of cultural value?

I do, in fact, believe that olive oil and wine are unique in this particular cultural milieu and as it progressed over centuries. You can see those other commodities (e.g. barley, wheat, even honey) archaeologically and through residue analysis, and they are not often found in the same contexts and used in the same way, or given the same value as olive oil and wine (as demonstrated by something as simple as the containers used to hold them or their value inside trade networks). The networks generated by the surplus production of oil and wine and their use in ritual, domestic, and trade contexts do tend to be different from other commodities.

3. I have one final question about organization. You separate out the appendices on the grounds that Homeric society cannot be dated and thus cannot be confined to the chronological divisions of your chapters; however, out of eleven references to the appendices, nine occur in the chapter on the Archaic period (one in a footnote). I thought the appendix on Homeric epic offered a particularly compelling illustration of cultural commodities as a concept, especially as a complement to the archaeological evidence in the body of the text. What factors went into the decision to separate the appendices and host them online?

It was a difficult decision. It was partly practical, in that my book was already quite long and the appendices were too large to include in print. It was also a choice, as I said, to avoid taking a particular stance on the difficult and complex arguments around Homeric dating, textualization, and cultural continuities (or asynchronies). I did think that the results of the Homeric analyses were worth including in some form, though, and I do plan to work with the material further in a later publication (so stay tuned!).

Thank you for your responses, and I look forward to your future work!

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