Tag Archives: Journal of Late Antiquity

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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ICMS Session Report VII: Session 457 – Early Medieval Europe III

Saturday, May 15, 2010
Session 457
Early Medieval Europe III

This session opened with an exchange that was half humorous and may indicate a bit of tension. As I’ve mentioned before, Ralph Mathison is the editor of the Journal of Late Antiquity (JLA). He apparently had requested that they plug JLA. The plug he got was pretty tepid – “You should think about submitting to this but make sure you submit to Early Medieval Europe (EME) first.” The sense I had was that EME may not be completely enthralled with the appearance of a new publication that covers much of the same period. I have no idea if that’s justified or not – I know when I subscribed to JLA I hoped that it wouldn’t negatively impact EME which I also enjoy very much.

I’m reminded of a forward I once read to a very good (fiction) book where the author (of the forward) said (paraphrase), “XXX isn’t in competition with writers such as so-and-so (I’ve ditched much of my fiction so I couldn’t find the quote if I wanted to but several prominent authors were named) but with the bumbling yahoos who don’t know what they’re doing and write cheap, trashy stuff.” I hope that the JLA-EME dynamic can be viewed the same way – additional quality publications are rarely bad – people don’t complain about a new, quality book on something even though work’s previously been done on the same topic do they? This should enhance the field, not detract from it. I know this isn’t always the reality – there is a pool of readers – but I hope it is.

This relates to a recent post by Magistra. I don’t have her perspective as a potential author, just my own as a reader. It raises an interesting question about my own reading/subscription habits. I subscribe to JLA and not EME because of the price – $30 vs $100 and I don’t feel I should apologize for that. However I also pay a hundred bucks for an Academy membership so I can get Speculum – there’s a 5-year wait for it to appear on JSTOR and I don’t want to wait that long. So in essence I’m rewarding Speculum for failing to be as accessible as other journals I read such as EME, Medieval Archaeology, American Historical Review, and English Historical Review. Rewarding someone for poorer service? That does seem a bit off for some reason – though the 20% off books published by Cambridge may pay off.

Enough of that – time to move on to the session.

The first paper was by Ralph Mathison of the University of Illinois, “Desiderius of Cahors and the End of the Ancient World.” There must be some reason for the change of the end of this from “Antiquity” as listed in the Congress program to “the Ancient World” but the subtlety of that escapes me.

If my memory isn’t completely faulty, I believe Dr. Mathison is currently working on a translation of some (or all – I don’t actually know) of Desiderius’ surviving material. I’m hoping it’s published through an accessible (for me) press such as Liverpool’s Translated Texts for Historians series. But in any case, Dr. Mathison is well qualified to discuss Desiderius.

Dr. Mathison is a proponent for recognition of Late Antiquity as a unique, discrete period with its own set of characteristics. For myself, I have not become highly involved in or even closely followed these discussions. My reasons for believing that Late Antiquity as its own field of study has value is not a particularly academic one, or even related to the various unique features (and there are several) which set it apart from the antique/classical/ancient and medieval periods. I believe it has value because of the need to educate people – generally non-academics – that there was a transition period in Western Europe (and in the East as well though it seems there’s less resistance to that) which makes the term “fall” inappropriate to use when discussing the end of the Roman Empire. There’s a mindset out there among the public which is “Romans-Good, Medievals-Bad.” It’s unfortunate that things are so bad that it may take turning to completely new terminology to counter this but this attitude is so ingrained and so widely held that it may take that. 1

In this paper Dr. Mathison proposes that with Desiderius’ death a critical stage was reached which can be used as the ending of antiquity. He bases this on an analysis of his life, writing style and circle of associates. I’ll apologize in advance for the summary of this paper being a bit light on specifics. I got caught up in what he was saying and have relatively few notes, but I think I have the main points covered.

Dr. Mathison relates how Desiderius was titled “Last of the Romans” (one of my failings was not writing where – possibly in his vita?) and how he lived a very Roman lifestyle including engaging in public building projects and restoring much of Cahors’ failing infrastructure as its Bishop. He had a circle of friends, a group of aristocrats with whom he frequently exchanged letters. His writing style was excellent; correct, classical Latin. He received training in grammar and rhetoric and Dr. Mathison believes this points toward a secular school.

Dr. Mathison focused on his aristocratic circle and letter writing. Desiderius’ circle was small by ancient standards – about 10 individuals. And after his death, this tradition of exchanging letters ended, for a time (there was certainly a medieval epistolary tradition). He described Desiderius as providing the last link to a literary epistolary tradition that dates back to classical Greece.

Based on the end of this tradition, and as one of the last individuals to use Latin in a classical manner, Mathison believes that the death of Desiderius marks the end of antiquity.

This was an interesting paper. As I said, I ended up doing more listening than taking notes. I recall having a question for myself on whether this literary tradition may have moved from Gaul to Visigothic Spain – Isidore was who came to mind as well as writers such as Sisebut and Julian of Toledo. However on returning home I looked into this and Sisebut’s death pre-dated Desiderius and Isidore wrote in a much more “medieval” style (whatever that means – my non-Latinity is showing here) so that question of mine was answered with a simple “no.”

There are a variety of characteristics by which we might try to establish the end of Late Antiquity, be they political, cultural, an exploration of mindset, etc. Literary tradition ranks right up there with any of them and this paper showed me that it’s something I need to look into much more carefully than I have so far.

The second paper was “Literacy, Law and Libido in Early Medieval Spain” by Graham Barrett, a PhD student at Balliol College, University of Oxford. This paper discussed how adultery was viewed in 9th through early 11th century Spain, both as it was referred to in the legal texts and how it was prosecuted and punished.

Barrett found 30 charters between 711 and 1031 which concerned adultery and its prosecution. Among the general concepts was that the penalty for adultery usually involved the forfeiture of property and that adulterous clerics were the responsibility of bishops who would proscribe a penalty and penance.

Barrett discussed some incidents chronologically to describe how the handling of adultery changed over time. Earlier in the period adultery was a crime against a person. In one example he cited, a woman was carried off but the act was unconsummated. The man gave the woman half his property, was sentenced to be publicly lashed and was forbidden to marry her. In a second example concerning a willing abductee the couple were permitted to marry but were placed in servitude to her guardian/parent in exchange for this sentence.

Later this changed. He cited a case from May 7, 979 where a married man committed adultery and was sentenced to forfeit his lands to the local authority. Adultery had now become a public crime, one which royal agents might charge someone with if the offended party did not.

Barrett believes that by the late 10th or early 11th century adultery had become a purely public crime. He also related some interesting cases. One was where parents initiated the prosecution against their son – apparently adultery was perceived as a stain against their honor. Another case resulted in the woman being sentenced to whipping but the man involved donated property in lieu of this.

The public prosecution of adultery was not pursued equally as 4 counts, related to each other, were responsible for half of the prosecutions. The prosecution of adultery had apparently become a tool of power used by this family.

This was another very good paper. He presented a paper at last year’s Congress – I believe on slate finds in the Spanish Meseta. I was impressed with him then and I was this time too. His paper was well organized and structured, he provided detailed evidence in his discussion of how adultery and its prosecution changed over time, and he was in complete command of his topic, which became even more evident during the question period. He also provided a handout which was helpful, though likely less so for me than others due to my lack of Latin (though I could work my way through a good portion of this – I took Latin over 25 years ago – just haven’t used it since).

This session’s final paper was presented by David Dry, a Master’s student from the University of Florida, titled, “Episcopal Inheritance: Replicating Power in the Merovingian Era.”

Dry’s paper involved a discussion of the power struggle between clerics and secular authorities during the Merovingian period, in particular how bishops attempted to maintain control of episcopal appointments.

He opened with a discussion of Clermont-Ferrand. In this case the local clerics appointed Cato as bishop, without royal approval, as required by Merovingian law. Cautinus, another cleric, went directly to the King and was appointed by Theudebald. The resulting power struggle ended with Cautinus installed as bishop. An amusing sequel to this is that Cato was later offered the office of Bishop of Tours but declined, thinking he might still have a shot at Clermont-Ferrard by directly requesting it of the king. When this failed he decided he was willing to take the Tours job but Lothar basically told him he screwed up by not accepting it in the first place and took back the offer.

Using this case as an example, Dry moved to a discussion of characteristics of episcopal succession. This often became a local power struggle and could be violent. Royal control was a significant aspect of this and generally the appointees were Gallo-Romans. Clerical appointees often were selected based on their political utility, loyalty to the throne, and personal wealth.

The episcopal office frequently involved the performance of duties that paralleled those of a governor. Bishops were often responsible for building programs, judicial decisions and even defending their cities.

Merovingian law was at odds with canon law which stated that selection of clerical officeholders was the responsibility of local clerics. Merovingian law required that these appointments be approved by the King. Gregory the Great was pretty disgusted with some of the things that went on including royal and lay appointments rather than clerical selection and the sale of offices through simony.

Dry recounted a few more instances of clerical-secular power struggles which I won’t repeat. However his message was clear – there was a tug-of-war in Merovingian Gaul over who had the power to appoint bishops, the lay aristocracy had frequent conflicts with clerics, and things were anything but peaceful.

This was a good paper. I think it’s important to recognize Masters level work – one reason why I’ve tried to state the level of those giving papers through these summaries. If he was a PhD and certainly a professor I would have looked for a bit more insight into this. The Merovingian lay-clerical conflicts went well beyond this, for example with Chilperic tearing up wills granting property to the Church, the use of churches as sanctuaries against royal justice, etc. And it wasn’t always a matter of conflict. As Barbara Rosenwein discusses in Negotiating Space (Cornell, 1999), charters of immunities were frequently issued by Merovingians to churches and monasteries. And the growth in the number of monasteries and churches during the period indicates that things weren’t all bad – I think Dry could have at least mentioned some of this to set the stage – and then discuss his specific topic. An over-reliance on Gregory of Tours (hard not to rely on him a lot for this) might be something else I’d warn him against. However he covered his topic well and certainly illustrated the sense of lay-clerical conflict in Merovingian Gaul – one of the fascinating aspects of the period, particularly considering how completely different the relationship dynamic between lay and clerical authority was during the Carolingian period.

I enjoyed this session. Good papers, topics I enjoyed and speakers who were engaging and interesting.

1 I have a feeling many people working in the field will be less than enthralled with my “public perception” reason for naming a new period. I can understand this – in my field we are, right now, changing the terminology we use for certain issues, purely on the basis of public perception. I’m less than thrilled with this – to me the language we use now is fine and accepted by those working in the field – but it’s where we’re going. I imagine to someone not working as a professional these terminology changes seem very appropriate and even desirable due to the perception issue.


Posted by on May 30, 2010 in Conferences


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This is a Good Publication

I’m not Ralph Mathisen and I don’t even portray him on TV – though I’d give it a shot if that meant I’d lose about 30 lbs and grow hair on the top of my head – and yes, I realize the weight thing’s my own fault (though I’d be interested in knowing how male pattern baldness fits into natural selection). I want to put a plug in for the Journal of Late Antiquity (JLA), which Dr. Mathisen is the editor of.

I try to read three Medieval History Journals – or at least mostly read them. Those are Speculum, Early Medieval Europe and JLA. I also try to scan The English Historical Review and The American Historical Review. For these last two, mainly for reviews so I can add books to my ever-growing “to buy” list.

I subscribed to JLA for two reasons. First, last year at Kalamazoo Dr. Mathisen promoted it at the Society for Late Antiquity Sessions. Second, it’s cheap – $30 annually for an individual subscription, which gets you two issues. And the reason I’m writing this post is because, after having received three issues, I’m very impressed by the quality. For 30 bucks, it’s been well worth it.

The latest issue (Vol 3, No 1) arrived a couple of weeks ago. Among the articles is one by Bernard Bachrach discussing fortification building in 3rd and 4th century Gaul and the implications this has for the degree of financial distress of the Empire in the late third century and articles by Walter Goffart and Guy Halsall discussing Goffart’s taxation theory regarding the settlement of Barbarians on Roman lands in the Fifth century. And Mark Handley has provided another addition (274 of them actually) to Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. Earlier issues have included articles by Adam Becker, Timothy Barnes, Peter Heather, Neil McLynn, Bryan Ward-Perkins, Michael Richter and many others.

The articles are quite good and the price is very reasonable. The one area it is lacking in, so far, is that it does not contain the number of book reviews as the other journals I mention above. For subscription info, go to the JLA page at Johns Hopkins University Press.

So if you attend a Society of Late Antiquity Session at Kalamazoo and Dr. Mathisen mentions JLA; for whatever it’s worth, I also give it a thumbs-up.

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Posted by on April 18, 2010 in Resources


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