Well it could be that not many of you had heard of the Sumerians and their Empire, the Bronze Age was a long time ago after all. But most people, I think, will have heard of the Roman Empire. Moving into the Iron Age they were, in fact, an incredibly successful Empire.
They began small, don't all Empires. Italy didn’t in fact have incredibly fertile land. To feed a growing population those in control looked around for new trading partners. There are some very fertile lands around the Mediterranean Sea, and the Romans decided to go to war to obtain access to them. Well it wasn't that simple of course, I am condensing decades of history into a few paragraphs, and I am cherry- picking my arguments here. Fighting a number of wars, over a number of years against the Carpathians, Rome gained control of the Mediterranean. This included the amazing fertility of the Egyptian floodplains around the River Nile. The breadbasket of the Mediterranean, as it was to turn out to be.
Much of these years of warfare were in fact waged by the Roman Navy. We don't hear much about the Navy; it is the Roman soldiers marching across the world that lives in our imagination. The wars were extensive and prolonged. Hundreds, probably thousands, of trees had to be felled to build the ships that were to win the new lands. We know about the dangers of felling too many trees, especially in hilly areas such as Italy!
The Romans at the end of this slaughter had access to better quality grain, wheat, which Egyptians grew well, was more nutritious than the barley that the Romans grew. Grain was the bedrock of any civilization and Rome was no exception. They also could import food from all around the Mediterranean Sea. Enough food for the populace and enough to start accumulating a surplus to strengthen their trade routes. Now speculators moved in, buying up the small scale farms around Rome, dispossessing the peasant farmers, building villas and investing in olive groves and vineyards. Niche foods, which would obtain large profits.
The farmers migrated to the cities. At one stage, in the first century BC, the population of Rome stood at 1 million. If you consider just this one city and the population, then begin to wonder how all those people were fed. It was a logistic nightmare, but, the Romans were good at logistics.
They have left their trace in every country they conquered. It was almost a ‘do it by numbers’ operation. They definitely came, saw and conquered. They set up an amazing network of overland, as well as sea, routes, to facilitate their trading partners. But this was the Iron Age not the steam age. Road haulage was done by oxen and cart, it was slow and dangerous. Sea transport was totally dependent on prevailing winds and clement weather. Over land were thieves and bandits, on the seas the danger came from piracy; the problem of bandits and pirates is an age old one. If you can take your food and your luxury goods without any effort, apart from killing a few people, why not?
Another problem Rome had, from the beginning, was that the water approach was very shallow, so the large ships required to bring in huge shipments of grain had to stop at a place Ostia, which is 15 miles from Rome. The large granary ships would stop there, transfer cargo to a flotilla of smaller craft, to finish the journey to the city. To unload a shipment of a years worth of grain for the city required 4,500 return trips of three days of these smaller boats.
And harvests only occurred once a year, so a whole years worth of grain had to be brought in and stored. One of the large granaries indicates that it had 225,000 ft.² of storage space, the Coliseum only had 29,000 ft.² This particular granary was not the only one that the city possessed. Building a granary of this size, which would keep your grain in good condition for an entire year, was in fact quite a feat which for a long time the Romans managed very well. The granary had to be weatherproof, rodent proof, dry and cool, well ventilated and well protected from thieves. Our ancestors from long ago were very clever people.
Of course with the Empire, demand for luxury goods grew. I am almost convinced that consumerism is inbuilt into our genetic code! At one stage Italy was importing more than it was exporting. An imbalance was building up, and a steady stream of silver was trickling outwards paying for goods and reducing the roman treasury.
One of the most desired luxury goods was pepper. As one reads about the history of food exchange and trade one finds these enticing little spices and herbs, that we all use so casually, caused more trouble than you would think they could possibly be worth.
So ships left Rome using wine and timber and olive oil for ballast and returned loaded with pepper. This spice attracted the speculators; huge fortunes were made and destroyed on the back of it. I have a Roman cookery book, I collect cookery books, and pepper seems to be in almost every recipe. I can only think that the normal Roman fare back then was very bland. Nowadays people invest in the banking/financial system – or maybe they don’t after this last fiasco! Back then they invested in olives, wine and pepper.
Rome almost starved many times, at one stage pirates launched an all-out attack at Ostia, sinking the ships and looting the warehouses, Rome tottering almost to it’s knees from starvation and riot, caused the Senate to pass new immediate laws regarding the control of piracy, not an easy decision as the laws went against the grain of their principles, but what would you do when the city was rioting; more of them then there are of you! These periodic starvations instead of teaching the Romans a valuable lesson in not congregating too many people in one place if you couldn't feed them, just made them march out to conquer more lands.
The collapse of food security was not what brought Rome to its knees. But it was part of the problem. A succession of bad rulers, corruption and unwise decisions. An increasing financial shortfall, all helped as well. Because of their Empire the land around Rome had become heavily degraded, not helped by the stripping of all those trees. This in itself might not have been so disastrous if the farming was still small-scale and the climate was with them. At the height of their power the Romans were living through a very benign warm period of climatic history. During their decline the climate was also declining its pleasantness. The weather became cooler, the growing season became shorter, rainfall decreased. Then if the land had been in good heart, and didn't have the task of feeding millions, disaster might still have been staved off.
When those at the top, who are meant to lead and to organise, would rather play with expensive toys and over indulge on the good life, when the money system goes skew whiff, then the essentials of life soon cease. Armies need paying or they vanish into the mist, the population needs feeding or they drift back to the countryside. Road routes need constant repair, security needs to keep thievery of the highways or the peasants will not risk their lives taking food to the markets. When the markets fail, trade routes crumble. Those who can, return to the land to scratch out an uncertain future. Empires don't fail overnight it takes time. They grow, they overextend, and then they are ripe for defeat and chaos . . .
Here come the dark ages. . .
Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by Evan D.G.Fraser & Andrew Rimas
A Splendid Exchange; How Trade Shaped the World by William Bernstein