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Technology in Greek and Roman agriculture

There were relatively few major innovations in agriculture during classical antiquity. The watermill, first invented in
the Hellenistic period, became increasingly common in late antiquity, and archaeological remains have been found
throughout the western Roman empire. Two Roman authors, Pliny the Elder (first century AD) and Palladius (fourth or fifth century AD) describe a harvesting machine, called a vallus, sometimes dubbed the ‘ancestor of the combine
harvester’, employed on large estates in Gaul.

It was mounted on wheels, pulled by an ox, and was equipped with metal teeth to cut off the ears of corn. An
exceptional representation of the harvester was discovered in Buzenol in Belgium in 1958. Sixty years later,
scholars still debate about the exact appearance and function of the vallus. While mechanical inventions were few,
if we accept a broader definition of technology, one that includes various crafts and skills, there were some
important agricultural advances in classical antiquity.

In particular, the Romans perfected the art of tree grafting, the joining of a scion to a rootstalk, which is essential in propagating fruit trees that are not productive when growing from seed. Grafting methods allowed the
Romans to transplant fruit trees from central Asia to the Mediterranean basin, and hence to northern regions. For
instance, the Romans propagated the sweet cherry that grew in Pontus (modern Turkey) to Italy, and then to Roman
Britain. They also perfected techniques to ‘graft’ together trees that are not compatible – to be compatible, trees
must be of the same genus, preferably of the same species. Thus, the agronomical writer Columella (first century AD)
describes at length how he developed a method to ‘graft’ an olive onto a fig.

From the point of view of modern botany, this was not truly a graft (where scion and rootstalk end up sharing vascular tissue), but rather a method in which the olive took root in the fig. Still, it was a great feat of horticultural skill.


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