Tiller girls shortage

February 21, 1997

Julia Hinde reports from the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle

STRICT segregation of the sexes may have played a part in the decline of Athens, a classicist told this week's AAAS meeting.

Eva Keuls of the University of Minnesota told the meeting that historians may be mistaken in their belief that the Athenians' attack on Sicily in 415 bc, which saw the Athenians twice defeated and from which Athens never recovered, was a tactical error.

She suggests instead that the expedition was in fact necessary to feed the city because Athens lacked productive female farmers. It was the strict segregation of the sexes in the slave population as well as the free that prevented the city being able to provide food for its citizens.

While women slaves, says Professor Keuls, were restricted to domestic work and prostitution, agricultural work was left to male slaves. Neglected by male landowners more interested in classical learning, slaves were prone to sabotage and desertion in times of stress. "This created an unviable local agriculture."

"The real motivation was to secure the grain supply of Sicily for Athens," she said. "When the Spartans invaded Athens, the entire population went inside the city walls," said Professor Keuls. She argues that they would not have given up land so easily unless agriculture was already unviable.

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