Capitalisms Last Frontier #4 How Rome was Fed

Roman horticulture and agricuture appears to use ideas and techniques spread from East to West with civilisation, with ideas transmitted from Persia via Greece.

The practical necessities of growing were accompanied by the chance of economic gain. Cicero In his treatise On Duties, declared that

“of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a free man.”

Ownership of large areas of land defined the Roman Senetorial Class until the time of Diocletian, after which it became hereditary. The more land a Roman owned, the more greater their social standing in the City.

Roman authors left us several treatises on horticulture and agriculture.  Although we know that Roman cities possessed many ornamental gardens these work focus on the practical rearing of food plants.

Cato gives exact directions for cultivating the asparagus.  Pliny and Columella treat at length on grafting and inoculating, on pruning the vine and olive, and on stirring the soil among fruit trees generally.

Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (AD4-AD70) was a former soldier, and like many if not most former soldiers took up farming.

His De Re Rustica – the rural economy-  in twelve volumes is the key text on Roman agriculture, and one volume was exclusively on horticulture.  He was such a successful farmer that he bought and owned several estates at at Ardea, Carseoli, and Alba.

During the times of the rapid growth of the Roman Empire its success came from a system which expanded the margin of cultivation, booty from which agricultural colnaie  were formed as a way to compensate legionaries in smaller landholdings.

As long as there was a frontier to expand, this self reinforcing system of growth through agricultural expansion could continue.

Ancient Rome was originally a city state of small family farms. Agriculture extended to most of the peninsula except for the more difficult, highest and most swampy areas.

Ager publicus – public land – was land owned by the Roman polity rather than individuals. In imperial times it became synonymous with land owned by the emperor. Sulla, Caeser and Pompey distributed most of the remaaining Ager Publicus, often at great cost of reclamation, to their legionaries. Hence-force additional Ager publicus could only come from conquest.  And the ferocity of the Roman legions could be reinforced by the boost to morale that the potential for a land grant on retirement. Social mobility was possible as a plebeian could become a patrician, a landowner. (Roselaar, Saskia T., Public land in the Roman Republic: a social and economic history of the ager publicus, 396-89 BC (Oxford, 2010))

According to Max Weber by this process the Roman ager publicus was transformed into privately-owned land, or its equivalent in the form of long-term, inheritable leaseholds.

Despite laws restricting the size of landholding much of the ager publicus was ‘leased’ to wealthier citizens who rarely paid rent. In 111 BC, a new law was passed which allowed individual smallholders to assume ownership of their part of the ager publicus

In late republican times Rome found itself at war with Punis. With many farmers called away from war for long periods farms became decayed and many were sold to wealthier citizens. This led to the expansion of larger farms.  In distressed times smaller farms of colonaie were accumulated by larger landholders of latifundia ,

By imperial times with the ager publicus expanded through conquest and comprised vast landholdings at the fringes of empire.  In theory owned by the emperor in practice almost all of it was under private occupation.

As well as slave labour there was sharecropping, direct work by families and hired labour.

The latifundia quickly started concentrating because of economies of scale, because Senetors did not pay land taxes and because of the ompetative advantages of slavery. There is also evidence of farming being highly mechanised, with the adoption of water powered mills and even mechanical harvesting of grain, using technology adopted from the Gauls.

Owners accumulated and expanded by purchasing smaller neighbouring farms.  The latifundia were a form of agribusiness.

By the 2nd century AD, latifundia had displaced small farms as the agricultural bedrock of much of the Roman Empire.

Roman society was destabilised. The small farms of the Roman peasantry were bought up by the wealthy and their vast stock of slaves.

Landless peasantry were displaced to urban centres such as the City of Rome, relying on bread and circuses.

Pliny the Elder argued that the latifundia had ruined Italy and would ruin the Roman provinces as well. He complained that at one point just six owners possessed half of the province of Africa.

But conservative Pliny was also opposed to the new commercial villas as in Colmellas writings.  The profit focus was seen as antithetical to the ideal of the gentleman senetor.

Apart from grants of the ager publicus and inheritance the most common way of acquiring land was through buying it.  The Roman Empire had a highly developed land market.  It also had a highly developed market in slaves to work the land, often acquired as captives during war.

The further farms were away from cities or ports the greater the expense of transport, and also the greater the security risks.  So the furthest flung edges of the empire tended to be organised in self-sufficient latifundia, which often needed to organise their own defence.  With the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire this self sufficient household economy formed the basis of medieval feudalism.

Roman agriculture was enormously productive.  One seed of grain typically yielding 8 to 10.  Few areas recovered these yields until the C19.

Subsistence farming for a family of six typically required three hectares of land to provide crops and enough seed for the next year, although to include a one third payment to a landlord requires cultivation of at least five hectares of land.

Early classical economists such as Petty and Cantillon became fascinated by this relationship – what they called the land/labour par – and it can be expressed as a mathematical relationship showing the source of agricultural value and land rent from physical surplus and also setting the optimum size of farms.

The roots of this land-labour, or food, theory of value became somewhat obscured.  In large part because of Adam Smiths very poor acknowledgement of his French sources.  Hence it became over simplified and misunderstood as a ‘labour theory of value’.

Grain was not grown near Rome.  It was most suited to growth in large latifundia – and so in the provinces.  Rome was particularly relient on Egypt, which grew half its grain.

The increasing size of Roman Cities (there were at least half a sozen with populations of over 100,000), especially the titan Rome itself, required huge imports of grain.  The clearing of the Mediterranean of pirates in 67bc finally removed the barrier to the expansion of the grain trade and the size of the city of Rome itself.

About one third of grains were distributed by the government to the poor and two thirds by the private market. Farmers could grant surplus crops to the government in lieu of a monetary tax. This allowed rulers to gain popularity with the masses through free grain distribution and also help to feed the legions at no direct monetary cost. Unfortunately it also left farmers with little incentive to increase productivity or output, since more crop translated to more taxes (and more free grain distributions).

As Kessler and Temin write (2007)

The literature about the ancient world is full of speculations about how this economic activity was organized. Modern thought has focused on the informal parts of this system, friendship and patronage, but it increasingly acknowledges that the ancient economy operated primarily on the basis of private markets. It is one thing to say that Cicero transmitted business through people he called his friends; it is quite another to specify how these agents made their decisions or how the many inhabitants of Rome who were not his friends were fed. The volume of goods being traded was too large to be dealt with informally, and the government was too small to have administered it directly.

The Roman Empire then operated a market economy both in land and food, and using a common coinage and legal system. Feudalism and self sufficiency only predominated at the fringes of Empire, where the reach of the cities of Rome were less.

Close to the cities with lesser transport costs, but lacking the economies of scale of the Wheat growing provinces of North Africa, villa farming focussed on high value added groups expensive to transport longer distances, such as Wine, or impractical, such as perishable meat and fresh vegetables – classic market gardening.

Columella, his farm close to Rome, urged growing of vines as more profitable as Wheat. Olive oil and Wine were important exports from Italy.

Until the Christian period Rome had banks which issued credit, secured interest, and paid interest on deposits. The Roman preference for coin though hindered the spread of banking. As we famously know from the new testament temples, as in Ancient Greece, were major banking centres. Probably arising from the use of money, rather than physical tithes, for payment of religious tributes.

Though the Roman Empire had industry it was primarily an agrarian-slave empire. Its largest industry by far was mining, providing building materials for cities and metals for war. The hardest jobs, such as mining and milling were often given to slaves.

Small scale craftwork predominated – but the factory system was not unknown. Pottery works have been uncovered in ancient Greece and Rome. In various parts of the Roman Empire factories manufactured glassware and bronze ware and other similar articles, both for trade and domestic consumption. We know that Rome traded such goods widely for basic resources, even outside the fringes of empire itself.

Rome even developed a middle class outside the strict pleblian-patrician boundaries. Before the republic the higher ranks of the armour developed as a knights class. Later the Knights quit the cavalry but retained their status as the leading voting block in the Comitia Centuriata- the senior people’s assembly.

Patricians considered merchant activities off limits for them – it lacked dignitas. Since there was no government administration the Senate looked to the Knights to handle the business of the Republic. The first of these “businessmen” were called Publicans.

Publicans were employed by the state to manage public contracts: to collect taxes, manage mining companies, and oversee road construction. These contracts were awarded at auction and their duration was five years.

During the Punic Wars Publicans built ships for the Roman Navy and equiped the Roman Army. The nobility began to covert the profits of the Knights and become involved in sea trade, until a law was passed in 218 BC forbidding Senators from owning large ships.

The Senate chose to utilize the Knights commercially, instead of creating a civil service, and as a means of displacing their political claims.

The influence of the historian M. I. Finley Ancient Economy (1973) has cast a long shadow on studies in this area. The Ancient Economy (1973) Finley launched an all-out attack on the modernist tradition within the discipline of ancient economic history. Following the example of Karl Polanyi, Finley argued that the ancient economy should not be analyzed using the concepts of modern economic science, because ancient man had no notion of the economy as a separate sphere of society, and because economic actions in antiquity were determined not primarily by economic, but by social concerns.

Finley viewed Rome as primarily a ‘Consumer City’ rather than a place of consumption utisling a phrase and archytype from Weber.

In recent years Finleys ideas have come under great assault, for underestimating the importance of economic motivation, for denying the critical role of technological changes and that the decription of Rome as a ‘consumer city’ – utilising Cantillon’s conception that cities such as Rome arose had their justification in housing a nobility that then had requirements for manufacture of luxury goods. (Roman Urbaanism – Beyond the Consumer City, HM Parkins 1997).

For Finley there was a ‘wall’ between the economic activity of land and the money economy – caused by the reluctance of patricians to engage in trade. He also made much of the absence of double entry bookeeping.

As Edward M Harris concludes in the classical review

“On the Roman side, Finley’s ideas have found few supporters and many critics. For instance, Macve has shown that the conclusions Finley drew about economic attitudes from the absence of double-entry bookkeeping are unfounded. In a survey of the archaeological evidence for the economy of the Roman Empire, K. Greene has written “the level of economic activity revealed by archaeological research makes the ‘minimalist’ approach of historians such as Finley untenable. J. D’Arms has brought weighty objections againt Finley’s view that the Roman elite did not get their hands dirty with investments in commerce, lending, and handicrafts. In a careful analysis of the Heroninus archive D. Rathbone has shown that Finley greatly underestimated the degree of economic rationality in estate management. Tchernia has estimated that contrary to Finley’s view the demand for wine at Rome could not have been met by the supply provided by local vineyards, but by long-distance trade. D. Engels has drawn on evidence from Roman Corinth to argue that the ancient city was not a “consumer city” but a “service city.” …More recently, E. Cohen has questioned Finley’s dogmas about the prevalence of loans for consumption and about the role of private banks.”

In the light of modern research we have to question – without modern preconceptions of capitalism – to what extent the Roman Empire comprised a form of Classical Capitalism, and critically whether and why the fall of the Roman Empire and civilisation represents the historical example of the total collapse of a capitalist economy?

In the next sections we will examine the relevance of the traditional Marxian divide of ‘primitive accumulation’ preceding capitalist growth, before examining what elements of a social system are critical to it being a self sustaining capitalistic, including whether or not it is compatible with salvery,  one and then looking at how and why Rome experienced a social and economic breakdown.

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