Tag Archives: Food

Rome’s Fifth Century Grain Supply

I took a break from reading about Christianity to catch up on some things that have been laying around here a while and came across several good articles in last fall’s issue of the Journal of Late Antiquity. Among these is an analysis by Jason Linn of the city of Rome’s grain supply between the signing of a treaty between Rome and the Vandals in 442 and the resumption of hostilities in 455 after Valentinian III’s death.

Genseric_sacking_Rome_45519th century painting of Geiseric’s sack of Rome in 455 by Karl Briullov. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For background, Roman cities were something of an anomaly, or at least appear that way to those of us who are interested in the Middle Ages. The Medieval city was relatively modest in size through most of the period and its population appears to have been largely supported by local agricultural production. A Medieval city with a population of 10,000 was large, one with a population of 50,000 was huge, and possibly unknown in Western Europe before about the millennium. In contrast, the Roman Empire possessed several cities with populations of over 100,000 and Rome, Alexandria(probably), and – later – Constantinople over 500,000 and, in the case of Rome at least, possibly approaching a million. These cities could not have been supported by local agricultural production, except for Alexandria due to Egypt’s fertility, but must have been part of more extensive trade networks. 1

I’ve been interested in discussions of trade networks for several reasons. Among these are as indicators of economic wealth, particularly among elites, how involved medieval people were in the wider world compared with their immediate environment, and what types (and the extent) of networks existed. In the case of Roman cities, one purpose for these networks was to provide a more basic need; to feed the population.

Some of the theories that have been proposed include that with the loss of Roman North Africa, the city also lost the annona which was basically a taxation paid in kind by agricultural areas. Instead Rome had to pay the Vandals for its grain. A related theory is that this supply was less reliable than the taxation system and resulted in food shortages in the city. Linn sets out to disprove both of these concepts.

Linn believes that the treaty of 442 was not some sort of watershed as it has often been viewed. While he believes the grain supply from North Africa did decrease, the western empire possessed enough agricultural land to make up this shortage.(298-9) He discusses this using a combination of reasoned argument, evidence related to grain production, and coinage. There are multiple sub-arguments within his overriding thesis and I’ll try to touch on some of these as I go along.

He opens by discussing the provisions of the treaty. The treaty itself does not survive, just reports of it from various sources. Without going into too much detail, Linn believes that this treaty was signed from a relative position of Roman strength. He accepts Procopius’ report that one of the terms of the treaty involved Geiseric handing over his son, Huneric, as hostage, something which would be doubtful if the Vandals were completely dictating the terms.(301) 2

The terms of the treaty have been debated with some believing that the grain shipments from North Africa represent an economic transaction and that Rome paid for what it received. Linn believes this is not supportable and that the grain was sent to Rome free of charge. He discusses Roman coin finds in North Africa and says, “Hardly any Roman coins from the mid-fifth century have been found in Carthage.”(309) Linn believes that this indicates that Geiseric possessed the ability to compel North African farmers to produce grain for Rome without financial return, possibly continuing a taxation in kind system. 3

Linn is careful to note that it is almost certain that less grain was sent to Rome than had been prior to the Vandal conquest.(306-309) Procopius indicates that much of the land allocated to Geiseric’s Vandal subjects was granted tax-free. Some land went out of production. Meanwhile, the local population level did not change substantially so a higher proportion of grain would have been required to meet local needs.

While the grain supply from North Africa would have been reduced, Linn believes that local regions such as Sicily, parts of Gaul, and Italy would have been able to make up the difference.(315-6) He also spends a fair amount of time discussing how by this time Rome had fewer mouths to feed.(317-21) I won’t go into detail on this but his two main points are that the size of the standing army was radically reduced by this time and that the population of Rome was, at most, about 500,000, substantially reduced from its height. In addition, much of the army that remained received their pay in coinage rather than in grain. 4

One additional piece of evidence which I think deserves mention is that, based on contemporary sources, it appears that Rome had enough grain to feed its population during the period. Between 442 and 455 there is evidence for a single famine, from 450-2, and this affected all of Italy, not just Rome, indicating a broader event, either due to weather or some other factor, and not a failure of the annona payment.

I enjoyed this article. Linn uses a lot of evidence, enough for you to see how he arrives at his conclusions. I have some questions about a couple of those (see footnote 4, below) but based on the evidence he provides I think his overall conclusions are on fairly solid ground; Rome was adequately fed between 442-455, grain continued to arrive from North Africa, and this was along the lines of a free payment, not something Rome had to buy.

1 Amazingly, I haven’t read anything which specifically discusses Late Ancient/Late Antique population in detail. The book I’ve seen most frequently referenced is Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G., The Decline and Fall of the Roman City. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2001). ISBN: 978-0-19815-247-7.

2 Other than a brief comment Linn does not discuss the possibility that this arrangement may have been something Geiseric wanted as a precursor to his son’s possible marriage to Valentinian III’s daughter and to become, possibly, Emperor through marriage. Without some sort of textual evidence this is impossible to prove but Geiseric showed himself, throughout his career, to be an able ruler who was able to take a long-term view. I can hypothesize him thinking something along the lines of, If my son marries Eudoxia there’s a good chance he could become Emperor. It would be a good thing if he spent a few years in Rome so if and when the time comes, he’ll have learned the things he needs to so he can handle the job. I could see him thinking along the same lines when it came to making sure the grain got through – that Rome would be more willing to accept a Vandal Emperor if they couldn’t blame his father for not feeding Rome, and that by continuing the custom of free grain from North Africa, Geiseric and Huneric could demonstrate their worthiness to be rulers of the Western Empire if the opportunity arose. There’s also the concept that if Rome continued to receive grain, it would be less motivated to cross the Mediterranean and try to get North Africa back as it tried (and failed) to do in 460 and 468. As you can see from this lengthy note, I can come up with a bunch of reasons why a treaty which included free grain shipments and a “hostage” may have been exactly what Geiseric wanted. Also, I think it’s important to note that many scholars believe Huneric was sent as a hostage in 435, not 442. Linn outlines his reasons for disagreeing with them on page 300.

3 Every time I read more about North Africa in the fifth century I become a little more impressed with Geiseric. He certainly is viewed badly by contemporary sources but even these criticisms point to his ability as a ruler. Even his repression of Orthodox Catholicism in favor of Arianism, despite Victor of Vita’s account, points to an ability to do so without negatively impacting much beyond the type of service conducted at churches. He had the foresight to begin building a fleet of ships well in advance of his crossing into Africa and 25 years later the Vandals, who had just about zero experience with the sea prior to reaching North Africa, were able to assemble a fleet and sack Rome. Under his rule the Vandals went from a nothing grouping to ruling one of the wealthiest areas of the Empire and, evidently, without causing massive local disruptions, at least long-term (other than to Orthodox Christianity).

4 To be honest, Linn’s use of this last piece of evidence puzzles me. Even if the army was paid in cash rather than grain they still would have had to eat, resulting in little or no net change in total grain requirements. This and his lack of emphasis on the possibility that Huneric may have been sent to the Roman court because Geiseric wanted it that way are the two pieces of this article I have my strongest doubts about.

Linn, Jason, “The Roman Grain Supply, 442-455,” Journal of Late Antiquity 5.2 (2013), 298-321.

Victor of Vita, Victor of Vita: History of the Vandal Persecution, John Moorhead, ed. and trans. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1992). ISBN: 978-0-85323-1271-1.


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Kalamazoo 2012, the Final Day: Goths and Old Food Nicely Presented

Sunday at Kalamazoo was another dark, semi-drizzly day. Lots of people use this for a travel day but I’m fortunate since I live relatively nearby and can make Sunday sessions. These are often some of the best (this year is a good example of that) and I very much recommend it to those attending, if you can make it work. I have occasionally skipped the final session, as I did last year to get an early start or if I run into someone who needs a ride to the airport and doesn’t have one, but usually I stick around to the end. One other last-day benefit, which I haven’t taken advantage of in a while, are the book discounts.

In any case, after loading all my stuff (I think it was only two trips to the car this year) I headed back to Valley II for Session 520: Sixth-Century Italy: Representing the Gothic War. The first paper was by Brian Swain, a Phd candidate from The Ohio State University, “‘A modern-Day Empire Worthy of a Tragedy’: Jordane’s Commentary on the Gothic War of Justinian.” This was something of a revisionist paper, which was fine by me. Recent scholarly opinion has come to view Jordanes as promoting an aggressive Roman/Byzantine policy toward the Goths and he is considered pro-Roman and anti-Goth (though I have read articles where Jordanes is considered to be arguing in favor of the legitimacy of Gothic rule in order to view the war as a legitimate effort by Justinian to battle Those Evil Arians and Defend Orthodox Christianity). Swain believes that Jordanes should not be viewed as pro or anti anyone – that he is more nuanced, particularly when you consider his Romana Breviarium along with the Getica. He provided a fairly detailed review of Jordanes where at various points in the two works he praises Justinian, casts doubt over Byzantine claims to dominion over the Goths, calls for the war to end through an agreement with the Goths, blames Justinian for its length and closes with a commentary on the ineptness of Roman rulers which could be interpreted as criticizing Justinian. I haven’t read the Getica in some time. Clearly I need to and also get my hands on the Romana Breviarium (if I don’t have it here already). I enjoyed this paper though it will take my reading the two sources to figure out whether I agree with it or not.

Next up was Jonathan J. Arnold presenting, “Manly Goths, Effeminate Romans.” Last year he gave a cool paper on Theoderic’s moustache. This year his topic was bit bit weightier (except when you look at the underlying theme of the prior year’s which was that of people over analyzing sources to sometimes find stuff that isn’t there). He opened with a quote from Walter Goffart’s Narrators of Barbarian History (I have this but haven’t read it yet) where Goffart uses a quote to demonstrate that Romans were portrayed as masculine, Goths as feminine/effeminate. Arnold believes that the quote Goffart uses supports this however if you examine Italian/Gothic sources, the reverse characterization is largely true. I’ll offer several examples (I have over a page of notes so I won’t give all of them). Ennodius has an epigram on Boethius where Boethius and the Romans are depicted as weenies (sorry – this is how I jotted it down in my notes) and Theoderic is described in a panegyric as warlike, a military victor, and has rescued Italy which has become weak and womanly under the Romans. Theoderic is masculine, strong and a manly man, including a speech to his mother where he is depicted as stating this outright. Through Theoderic a female Rome will be renewed, rescued by the masculine and warlike Goths. Cassiodorus celebrates Theoderic and the Goths as manly. The Goths are Italy’s defenders, trained as men of the God Mars. While there are a few good Roman men, overall Rome is militarily weak. Amalasuintha is depicted as a manly Goth who happens to be a woman and is contrasted with Galla Placidia who is too gentle and weakened Rome through peace. In contrast, in Jordanes’ Getica Amalasuintha is despised as weak and the manly Romans are victorious over the effeminate Goths. This was a very good paper with a lot of information.

I have another page-and-a-half of notes for the next paper by Tina Sessa of The Ohio State University, “Perceptions of War and Decline in Sixth-Century Italy.” Sessa was concerned with how the Christianization of Europe impacted viewpoints of war and how war impacted the evolution of Christianity. She stated that war cannot just be looked at in the context of attitudes but that impacts such as the loss of life and property and interactions of different societies must be considered. She used Gelasius’ depictions of the War between Odoacer and Theoderic in 489-93 to consider the war’s impacts. Based on Gelasius, barbarian violence was harmful, regardless of who was responsible. Churches were negatively impacted, including those in the south which really weren’t involved in the war. Among the Pope’s activities in response to war, he radically reduced the requirements for one to become a bishop due to need and a shortage of qualified clerics. He wrote to Palladius telling him to restore a deposed bishop, Stephanus, as his deformity was caused by war. She closed by discussing methodological issues in trying to figure out how to separate the rhetoric of war from the reality of war’s impacts on ecclesiastical life. My apologies for the weak summary. I recall this as being a very good paper but I’m afraid I haven’t done justice to it. And this was a very strong session overall. I don’t know if it was my absolute favorite but it ranks up there.

As did Session 571: Diet, Dining and Everyday Life: The Uses of Ceramics in the Third-to-Ninth-Century World. This session was a treasure. I’d decided earlier that due to my fascination with peasants I’d go to this over the final session on the Ostrogoths. I very nearly reconsidered considering the quality of the previous session but I ended up sticking to my plan and was glad I did, though I have 5 pages of notes for three papers which will make summarizing this a bit difficult. There were a few common points for all three papers; residual evidence of food is extremely rare, enough so as to make it nearly useless; faunal evidence (remnants from animals) can be unreliable for a variety of reasons including decomposition rates of different remains and scavengers, however it is often necessary to rely on it while recognizing the limitations and; pictorial and textual evidence often presents an idealized version of life. Also, none of the papers covered anything later than the seventh century.

Andrea Achi from the New York University Institute of Fine Arts opened with, “And How did They Eat: An Investigation of Food Storage, Processing, and Consumption Patterns in a Late Antique Household.” She gave a detailed description of a portion of the Dakhla, Egypt archaeological site, in particular evidence for food storage, preparation and consumption in an elite household, headed by one Serenos. On the site they found a large storage room filled with small bowls of varying sizes. They also found platters for shared, family style dining. Cooking pots were of fairly uniform size however cooking bowls were more varied. They did not find any large serving platters leading to the thought that these may have been made of more valuable materials than the locally produced ceramics. A couple of interesting notes were that as bones showed no evidence of burning, meat was probably either boiled or braised. There was an absence of extensive ovens in the home leading researchers to believe that the home may not have been used for cooking, just for reheating. However they do not know where the food was prepared. Possibly there were communal ovens which have not been found or they may have used a second floor of the house, which has now been destroyed. Beyond that, these folks ate well, produced their ceramics locally, except for amphorae, and weren’t too particular about what they did with bones. And if I ever read much on Late Antique Egypt I need to find a copy of Roger Bagnall, ed., The Kellis Agricultural Account Book.

More artifacts were in store when Elizabeth de Ridder Raubolt of the University of Missouri-Columbia presented, “Art and Artifact at the Late Antique Communal Meal.” I really enjoyed this one. She used a combination of archaeological and textual evidence to discuss how meals were conducted in the 4th through 6th centuries. Meals were taken reclining on a large, curved couch with a center table accessible to all diners where each person could see and speak to the others. There was a hierarchy of diners with the most important placed at either end. Large platters seem to have been important in elite dining however ceramics came to be more frequently used as time went on and it has been argued that African Red Slip (ARS) platters may have replaced silver in Christian households. Later in the period ARS becomes less common, being found only in the larger sizes, not used for smaller bowls, indicating possible problems with supply. Good paper and she used a lot of images to illustrate her points.

Image of the Last Supper from the Rossano(6th century Italy) Gospels. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. Note Judas reaching for food, his eyes cast down while the others all show reverence towards Christ.

The final paper of this session and, for me, the 47th Congress, was “Pots and Pantries: Correlating Cooking Ware with Dining Habits in Visigothic Spain by Scott de Brestian of Central Michigan University. I have a ton of notes for this one however he covered two primary themes for the period from the end of Roman rule to the early 7th century. One was whether the type of cooking ware used is a good indicator of what was eaten and the other was what changes in cooking ware could tell us about society. He mainly looked at two types of ceramics; casseroles, which were broad, flat, two-handled baking trays and; ollas which were large cooking pots which could be suspended by the neck over a fire and were used for slow cooking and for boiling meat. Traditionally ollas have been linked with eating pork while casseroles to eating sheep and goat. In the interior of Spain very few casseroles were found, almost all ollas, with a couple of exceptions. However faunal evidence indicates that while pigs were a substantial portion of the diet, they ate more sheep and goat. In addition, in Sainte-Blaise in Southern Gaul, ollas comprised 26% of 5th-6th century finds and 40% in the 7th century but faunal evidence indicates no significant dietary change. Brestian believes there is little evidence that looking at the types of pots used is a valid way of determining what was eaten.

Another area he covered was ceramic quality. About 50% of early 5th century cookware was improved Terragona. This declined to 15-20% by the 7th century. Over time, the use of African Red Slip pottery also declined. These were replaced by locally produced imitations. This decline shows a loss of wealth and also a decline in competition. The wealthy had fewer competitors and it took less of a display to demonstrate their status. Where previously elites possessed the entire range of high status vessels, now they used a selection. The one exception to this seems to be the Visigothic kings who had all vessels, demonstrating that elite dining rituals were now something expected of the king, not all elites. Another good paper accompanied by a lot of images which I haven’t captured adequately, and a very good session.

In place of a K’zoo summary post, I’ll throw in a quick paragraph here. I had a good time and went to some really good sessions. The accommodations continue to improve, especially with Wi-fi in most rooms. I was also more social than the previous year which was nice. As of now I’ve made four of these in a row, a record for me. Unfortunately, I’d say the odds are against my being able to attend next year. I think I’ll have a big May conflict and will probably take a year off. That’s OK, it’s not like I’m about to run out of books any time soon. Look for my 2012 posts to make it to my Kalamazoo page in the near future.


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