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Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World by P. Garsney

Book Review by Pertinax

This is not one of those attention grabbing titles that will appeal to the sword and combat enthusiast, nor to the afficionado of heavyweight power politics and great personages. It is however a piece of subtle, steady and scholarly discourse that gives weight and texture to any Romanophiles imagining of the Roman (and Grecian) world. I personally found that the work helped me form a more grounded mental picture of the Attic and Italian countryside, its pattern of landholdings and the nature and dynamic of its inhabitants.

Famine versus scarcity is the central topic of the work, with an extensive logical development of the argument that, whilst shortage was commonplace and localized (and an anticipated condition), famine was relatively rare but of dire consequence to state and individual alike. Famine could indeed only be averted by appeasing the Gods.

The existence of ancient Cities depended upon their ability to control and exploit a specific agricultural hinterland (and its working population of subsistence farmers), so any successful City needed a mechanism of control and distribution of consumable grains. The surprising fact appears to be that few if any Cities of antiquity had any mechanism for the relief of famine, being reliant upon the personal intervention of their wealthy citizens performing acts of (apparent) selflessness in the distribution of private goods gratis or subsidized /price controlled goods for sale. These persons unsurprisingly being the wealthy few who dominated the governance of those communities.

Some useful points arise from the narrative of the argument, that (in Italy in particular) the range of ecosystems is massively diverse within a small land mass (then and now) in relation to soil and climatic profiles (the modern opposite to this would be to consider the Canadian prairies as “non-diverse“). Within this climatic framework huge internal fluctuation in yield took place. The peasant farmers strategy to this situation is to minimise risk taking and to gather a working surplus for any possible lean years, extrapolation of modern climatic data can be used to hint at the likely failure rate of various crops , and hence the likelihood of sufficient commodities being available within this risk strategy. The physical appearance of the Greek and Roman land is informed by the nature of its cultivators, the peasant farmer has by his very limited modus operandi physically small holdings (either contiguous with varied usage as in central Italy or scattered over different height and various inclinations to the sun in the South, ie: a strategy to reduce risk from localized failure in each case).So we would not anticipate an “open” landscape that we might see in modern Britain or Europe.

Some data relating to the Attic region suggest the following likely crop failure rates:
Wheat -a 1:4 chance of failure (quite a high figure -this is due to either too much or too little rain).
Barley - a 1:20 chance of failure (much less than wheat).
Legumes - a 3:4 chance ( a massive failure rate most years).

However the grain crops tend to fail at the same time, so the upshot is if a subsistence population can make do with barley stored against bad times, you have a fighting chance of getting through the failure of the wheat crop. Not a very thrilling diet, but better than the alternative. The peasant diet is also notably thin on meat, or indeed any luxury item such as wine, complex proteins would need to be from spelt flour (a much more complex endosperm than modern wheats or legumes such as lupins).This information is very interesting as we see clearly a failure rate that moderns would consider disastrous, but the ancient rural population was thoroughly attuned to.

This is the countryside, what then of the Urbs that required the intimate support of these producers?

Famine as a cataclysm struck Rome between 509 and 384 BC about one year in nine, and reached a disastrous apex between 123-50 BC of one in five years. Nearly every episode being attributable to civil war or disorder disrupting the mechanism of collection.

A considerable section of the work is devoted to analyzing Attic grain supply and the political/social rise of the City, interestingly Athens never had to import grain to feed even half of its population until the Peloponessian War. Patronage in both Greece and Rome as an essential factor of good governance is given consideration, indeed it holds a fundamental role in the vertical, social bonding of societies and achieves its most visible public form in the relief of famine. Only Crete, Samos and Rome came to have mechanisms for the public distribution of grain, as a matter of course, Crete being the most ancient of these where the mechanism was a direct link to the idea of the Polis, the state is the Citizen at large - rewards and windfalls are therefore to be shared in “messe” by these same Citizens.

Rome, in the 5th C BC lacked the ability to help the urban poor, susceptibility to crisis being engendered easily by war and civil dislocation. The defeat of the Veii (to the North of Rome) becomes the decisive moment whereupon Rome moves from a city bounded by its own hinterland to an actively acquisitive entity. The digestion of the neighboring territory aided the plight of the urban poor, by bringing significant controllable supplies to the City from this moment onwards.

This expansive acquisition became the motif of Roman strategy, extension of food production to conquered or client lands as a a palliative to domestic shortfall and an imperative to expansion in its own right. The history of the assimilation of provinces is , in essence, the monopolisation of an existing grain production - Egypt is an excellent example, grain previously traded eastward became the monopolized perquisite of Rome.

The disruption of grain production caused by slave revolt (initially Sicily) was the focus for prompting the grain reforms of 142, a rise in legion numbers also placed strain on the infrastructure.

The Republican introduction of a provincial grain tax was a structural economic ploy to ensure a basic urban grain supply, but this was a crude mechanism depending as it did upon the harvest of any given province. Initially response to any crisis (in the Republican era) was ad hoc and “traditional”, the aediles sent for supplies to be made available at discounted prices; an aedile or general could thus gain considerable personal kudos and reinforce his patronage structure. Production increased in Sicily and Campania as a matter of policy, but the major event in terms of economic strategy is the development of Africa as grain tax paying province rather than indemnity paying ally. The structural changes did not help at once given very rapid urban population growth, indeed a sort mutually self reinforcing snowball effect of increasing supply bolstering population growth now commences.

The Gracchian reforms are discussed in the light of their truly revolutionary nature, both in the relationship of the implications regarding the physical mechanism of collection/dissemination of supplies and the deep seated Patrician opposition to the distribution of grain to the plebs. The Patrician objection being essentially a desire to maintain the competitive kudos of personal Patronage within their own social group, outwith any ability of the State to alleviate distress and dilute the value of such personal gestures.

The Augustan crisis is perhaps the most vivid (if not the last) of the food shortages known to us, and nicely illustratse the relationship of the Divine Augustus to his perceived “client base” ie: a display of civilitas in partaking of the entertainments of the people and being personally present to hear their protestations or accclamation.

This book has style and depth, a considered and balanced approach to epigraphic interpretation, a reasoned approach to the extrapolation of modern climatic data to defined eco-systems, and a measured interpretation of the political ramifications of food supply. Reading the work gives a solid foundation to understanding the entwined dynamics of demographic change, food provisioning/supply and the social weight of those policies impinging on this dynamic.

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