Friday, May 8, 2015

Good History Can Be Boring: Grexit, Or, The Too-Late Bronze Age

The Greek forest fires of 2007. Boring or not?

Lots of things happened this week that I'm tempted to write about. VE Day happened, but I'm going there anyway, next month.

 The "fight of the century" happened, 96 years after the fight of the last century.

Unfortunately, the wrong guy won, and it distinctly was not the fight of the century. That takes the pleasure of finding similarities between Jack Dempsey versus Jess Willard and Floyd Mayweather versus Manny Pacquaio. so I won't be drilling down to bring in Dempsey's avatars and explaining why Dempsey beat Willard so savagely. Or why Warren G. Harding and Conan the Barbarian echo and mirror Dempsey, and why it call comes down to the 1934 California gubernatorial election.  I probably couldn't do the connections I see justice, anyway.

Finally, I had dinner at Double DD Pizza, absolutely the best Kitsilano pizza joint/sports bar/Greek restaurant that happens to be next door to the Comic Shop.

The thing that really jumps out at me here is that this meal doesn't feature anything made with corn meal or whichever "millet" it was that seventeenth century travellers saw everywhere. (?)  Or it jumps out for a second until I remember that restaurants usually serve the kind of food that people want to eat, and the silent absence of millet salads and cornmeal mush from the menus at the restaurants I frequent probably says it all. (Here's the 20th Century data for greek millet production, for what it's worth, and Wikipedia on the likely millet covered, broomtail, a heat-loving, dry season summer crop.)

So put millet and corn aside. What does dinner at a Greek restaurant tell us about that time around 1100BC when Greece exited an international order that wasn't working for it? Quite a lot, I suggest. We keep looking for exciting causes (Barbarian invaders! Climate change! Bronze shortage! Bronze surplus! Iron weapons! Social revolution!), without investigating the everyday ones. 

At first glance, the uniform fire layers in Late Mycenaean palaces is a pretty strong indication of somethign dramatic. It doesn't have to be, though, because the story is pretty clearly one of agricultural abandonment, and modern society has run an extended experiment on agricultural abandonment in the Greek landscape, and the result was the 2007 fires. Fifteen hundred square kilometers burned in two weeks, and that is with modern firefighting technology. (I am indebted to Paul Henne for this observation.) If the population of the Peloponnese contracted abruptly at the end of the Late Bronze Age and abandoned farms across a large part of the peninsula, then, twenty years later, a series of devastating forest fires swept those areas and burned everything that couldn't run. Dramatic, to be sure, but not dramatic in the way that historians usually tell things.

Now for the boring explanation: a Greek historian, writing about the period of Turkish rule, also a period of prosperity for the Peloponnesian Greeks, at least through 1770 or so (which he manages to credit to America rarther than the Turks), talks about a "return to the plains." He's mainly explaining Attica here, and the actual chapter even finds Attica boring compared with Istanbul and "Trebizond." (Let it go, guys. Let it go.) 

I'm not going to go that far afield --focus can be a good thing, and the 21,000 square kilometers and one million Greeks of the ancient and modern Peloponnese, alias the Morea, has more than enough history, and more than enough plains, for this idea to explain the "LBA Grexit." Trade means commercial agriculture and cash crops, and a land market of some kind, and the kind of cash crops then imply certain arrangements of land tenantry, at least in the Greek countryside. No trade means efficient subsistence agriculture to free up surplus labour for import-replacement, and, in the Greek countryside, that implies different settlement patterns.

 The Peloponnese, where this dinner originated, at least conceptually:

To the table, then, starting with the lamb. Your average Greek Early Modern peasant ate somewhere between 11 and 20kg of lamb a year. Even with a strong bias to the low side, that's actually a fair amount of meat, at least compared with our understanding of the peasant/Mediterranean diet. And then you have talk of Greek pork sausages. (Maniotes are very proud of their citrus-cured pork sausages, and I thought I'd post an image here. It turns out that they're called loukinakos, and are easy to find in "Astoria, Queens." Scare quotes are because Queens, New York, needs named neighbourhoods, while 'unconquerable Mani' has all but disappeared from the face of the Earth.) 

Enough about pork. Lowland, arable-focussed Argolid villages typically had 7 sheep/goats per family, and upland villages as many as 11. About half of all families had a brace of oxen, with calves and old animals that needed to be culled. There were also fowl, native and domestic, pigs for garbage disposal and to root in fallow land, horses for sport and war, and donkeys as the ubiquitous beasts of burden. The Marxist inclined agricultural historian will prefer to insist that all the meat was sold to pay taxes, rent and tithes, but in periods of subsistence agriculture, this does not so obviously apply. However, lambing is in the late fall, with culled lamb available from Nov-Feb, or from December to Easter. another cull before the grazing fails in summer  in October mark the return of the herders to their winter pastures, and a final round of culling for feasting. The major celebrations of Greek country religion are synchronised with the lambing rather than the reverse, but the dates are worth marking for the other servings at the table. It's also worth noting that St. Elias and St. George are the patron saints of the high places in modern Greek religion.

Citrus is usually seen as an introduction of the Turkish era, mainly because it is a modern cash crop. Since cash crops are kind of the point of all this, I'll let that go for now and move on to the potatoes. Potatoes are an American import. In the Mediterranean climate, there are two potato harvests, a summer crop, planted in January and February, and harvested in April, May and June, and a winter crop, planted from August to September, and harvested in November and December. One way of looking at this is that the traditional feast seasons fit the potato harvests. If my meal is a version of the Christmas/Easter/Virgin Mary something something/feastdays of St. Elias and St. Nicholas meals, then that might explain why, out of all the American imports, it is the potato, and not, say, polenta, which appears on the table. The modern Cypriote potato cycle emphasises that the winter crop is less important than the summer crop. Assuming that the potatoes themselves are fine with being planted in either cycle, the question here is labour. This tells us something that we already know (from the lamb cycle), about labour. Many hands are downhill in January and February, uphill in August and September. Still, the implications of this need to be explored. 

Third, rice pilaf,  A 1975 agricultural survey, cited by David Brewer, has wheat making up 50% of the cereal grain production, barley 25%, corn 14%, with small amounts of rice and oats making up the balance. (157) The key here is that this is almost modern agriculture. Rice clearly wasn't grown in the LBA. It doesn't seem to have been an important crop in the late medieval/early modern, either.  Given its heavy water demands, it seems a very unlikely Greek crop altogether, and it sounds as though it wasn't grown in any quantity after World War II. So what the heck is it doing on this putative Easter dinner plate? One answer is that rice is replacing millet in recipes. Another clue is found when we turn to the the Southern Argolid Survey project's attempts to get at the Greek agriculture of the deep past. It has turned up a Turkish tax register showing wheat, barley, mixed wheat and barley, oats, chickpeas, unspecified legumes, olives, carobs and wine, cotton and flax.

Take a step further back in time, a Late Helladic IIIB assemblage from the Argolid shows figs, einkorn, oats, “linseed,” lentil, vetchling and olive. I throw the scare quotes in because I am not entirely sure that the author of this section of the Southern Argolid survey is aware that "linseed" and flaxseed are, as far as I know, the same thing. Maybe there's a variety of flax that produces the distinctly unappetising wood finishing drying oil and another that produces the "flaxseed" and "flaxseed" oil that you spend so much for at the supermarket. I'm reaching for something funny to say, but this is really a matter of each to their own. Some people like flax, and it is high in omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.

So I won't bring up the bread delivery guy who told me that you can always tell when the flax bread was expired from the fishy pong of the shelves. What I will talk about is the land that it is grown on. Flax, and cotton, are water-hungry crops which flourish on deep alluvium soil. In other words, they are crops likely to be displaced by rice. In the old days, everybody needed clothes, and that meant that they needed textiles. That is not true today, with global low-cost producers driving traditional industrial crop growers out of the market. The rapid tenfold expansion in land under rice in Greece is economically rational from this point of view. Wear jeans, eat pilaf.
Fourth, pita bread with yogourt dip. The role of bread in the Greek diet is no surprise. The way I was taught rural history, the home meal of the average peasant meal consists of a kilogram of weedy grain and a hand mill, plunked in front of you on the table. Knock yourself out! 

This might be taken to suggest the limits of a surplus-extraction model of early modern agriculture, did I not actually work for a living. Still, it's not what we get here: not because of the pita bread, which is actually as close to my scenario as you are going to get, post watermills, but because of the yogourt dip.

 When he can get his head out of the Clasiscal past, J. P. Mahaffy will occasionally tell us about the actual Greek countryside through which he travelled. It's very green in spring, for example, and the innkeeper in Tripolitsa tried to rip him off by overcharging him for wine. He also tells us that he could never get milk for a meal without sending a boy across the valley for it. Even though there was yogourt and cheese everywhere, the liquid milk that went into it had been efficiently disposed of by the time he looked for it. As the Southern Argolid people poin out, this is because a class of itinerant cheese merchants were very efficiently buying it up. Mahaffy doesn't seem to have a clue about this, and neither, the Survey ruefully reports, do they. Were there cheese merchants in the Late Bronze Age? They don't even know if there were cheese merchants in the Eighteenth Century! Assuming that there were, we know (implicitly) something about the salt trade in the Peloponnese. The milking season is January--May, for what it is worth. 

Fifth,  anise-flavoured aperitif. Not liquorice, unfortuately, because liquorice actually comes up. In 1685, Bernard Randolph tells us that the Greeks exported olive oil, raw silk, wax, honey, soap, hides, butter, cheese, raisins, currants, figs, wine, wheat, barley, rye, oats dry acorns (raw material for tanning), and dyestuffs, all raised from their bucolic landscape with oxploughs that needed no wheels, for there were few weeds --except for the liquorice root, the one blight on this Arcadian landscape. (See what I did there?) I typed this list out at length not because I care about liquorice, but because this is a good, contemporary list of Greek exports, and like much of the really first class research which I am reproducing in this blog, comes from Jameson et al. Here's the Google Books link, this time

Next, Sir-Salad-Not-Appearing-in-this-Picture: a Mediterranean salad with warm feta cheese on cucumbers, marinated tomatoes, sweet onions and olives. It's not in this picture because it was just too damn delicious to live. Truck gardening is the most profitable kind of farming, and now that I am talking about something that is being grown right now, quite profitably, in the Peloponnese, I do not have to speculate about how, when and where. 
On the way from Sparta to Anavriti, by Photoprotis, at Panoramio

Anavitri, Laconia, by mixalis leimonitis, Panoramio
The plains of the Eurotas are filled with truck gardens now. That clearly would not be the case in the Late Bronze Age. Early Modern Greeks were great gardeners, but you only need so many cucumbers.

About the olives. . .If there's anything we know about the Mediterranean diet, it is that it is all about the olive. Yet the olives in the salad, barely more than garnish, are the only evidence of their presence. There aren't even any olives in the pilaf, and, contrary to what foodies a dozen fad cycles ago tell me, there is no extra-virgin olive oil to dip my pita in, much less the kind of perfumed/scented olive oil about the production of which the Pylos Linear B archives make such a big deal.* . There is, of course, olive oil on my plate, above. Just about everything on it is marinated with some. Nevertheless, the olive is a pretty timid presence here compared with what one might expect. The Southern Argolid people go so far as to suggest that animal products were a more important source of dietary fat in the Greek early modern diet than the olive.

Weird. At first. The story I was told about the olive is that frugal Mediterranean peoples make efficient use of their land by planting the drought-tolerant olive and vine on hillsides, and cereals in their flat arable land. It is an efficient way of making use of scarce agricultural land (which we know is scarce in all ages because of Malthus). So why should olive, or, more importantly, olive oil production be so comparatively unimportant, much less fluctuate historically, as the pollen data shows that it did?

The answer is that the story I was told turns out to be wrong. Yes, at various times in the past, olives have been planted in pretty unlikely, hilly, rocky places. There they stand today, as evidence of the Meditteranean peasant's famed frugality. The key, though, is that these are the good trees. Olive tree productivity turns out to be highly idiosyncratic, but if you set out with constrained inputs of labour and capital, with the intention of producing the maximum amount of olive oil, you do not plant trees on the hillsides. You plant them in deep arable, with plenty of water. The olive trees may need these resources less than grain, but they still produce better --up to 30% more than an olive tree on a slope. Even in the case of watered arable created by terracing, an actual Argolid farmer is more likely to grow animal fodder!

In theory, an olive tree will produce about as many calories as the grain it produces, but the cold calculus of calorie production is clearly not decisive. Neither wheat nor olive is going nto produce anything so well as the fig tree, and no-one would call  the fig tree the star of Greek agriculture. A little fig baklava, and the rest goes as animal fodder --much like its southern cousin, the date. 

Over time, the landscape is going to turn into one of nucleated olive groves on low, flat land, where the landlord thinks this will pay, and isolated, older, productive olive trees on a variety of landscapes. As Lin Foxhall tells us, wealthy Athenian landowners often owned individual olive trees or small groves scattered across Attica as a result of this piecemeal development --and, intriguingly, contributed to it by planting isolated trees or groups of trees, rather than the apparently more efficient large orchards. Culturally and economically, she adds, this says a great deal about the role of slavery in ancient Greece. For an olive tree to take properly, especially within a tight window of five years to production, it should be fairly carefully tended: not only pruned and watered, but spaded, to drive the roots into the ground, rather than allowing them to spread out, as they will otherwise tend to do. Who can a landowner trust or compel to camp out next to an olive tree? His slaves. As Robin Osbourne generalises, an isolated settlement location in a Classical Greek countryside is likely to be the home of a slave. This is even more clear when we see that labouor dependency flows from largescale landownership, and that a market in land requires a market for the products of that land. 

Osbourne and Foxhall's Classical Athens is a market economy because of the demands of taxation and liturgies.  The crops grown in rural Attica are those that will sell on Athenian markets. The Early Modern period is quite different. The "return to the plains" in the period between, oh, say, 1600 and 1770, from places like Livadia, Mystras, Mani and Anavitri to Navarino and Sparta, Vacalpoulos tells us, before he wanders off to remind us at length that Istanbul and Trebizond used to be Greek is driven by America. 

Part of this has got to be an unwillingness to credit the Ottoman regime with any positive influence. Certainly, the seaside towns are growing,  and Greek merchant shipping is appearing on the oceans, carrying wheat and and other products west towards Marseilles, and who knows where else where there might not be customs records to document it. But it has nothing to do with the stability and order brought by Ottoman rule. It's America, pulling the Greeks down from the hills and out to sea.

How about a story, now?

'The first of these rulers [of Mani], Liberakis Yerakaris, reigned in the middle of the seventeenth century. By the age of twenty he had served several years as an oarsman in the Venetian galleys and made himself the foremost pirate of the Mani. Captured by the Turks and condemned to death, he was reprieved by the Grand Vizier---the great Albanian Ahmet Küprülü---on condition that he accepted the hegemony of the Mani. He undertook the office in order to avenge himself on the strong Maniot family of the Stephanopoli with which he was in feud. He at once besieged them in the fort of Vitylo and captured thirty-five of them whom he executed on the spot. For the next twenty years he used his power and influence with the Sublime Porte to campaign all over Greece at the head of formidable armies, siding now with the Turks, now with the Venetians, marrying the beautiful princess Anastasia, niece of a Voivode of Wallachia (a member of the Duca family), ending his life, after adventures comparable to anything in the annals of the Italian condottiere, as Turkish Prince of the Mani and Venetian Lord of the Roumeli and Knight of St. Mark. The Turks did not repeat the experiment for a hundred years. . .
That's certainly one way of putting it, because the beys of Mani did not disappear. In 1821, one of them Petro Mavromichalis, led the earliest phases of the Greek revolution in the Peloponnese. The legacy of the Black Michaels comes down much  later, one member of the family being prime minister in 1910. How curious, then, that this rebellious bey of a province of pirates and ancestor of prime ministers should have benefitted from the patronage of a cousin who was an admiral in the Turkish fleet. Şükür Mehmet Bey. It being impossible to erase this man from history, we are at least assured that he is somenow not very relevant to the real story. (Because he is a Muslim and a Turk!) In the old days, a traveller tells us, the folk of Mani would gratefully greet any visitor who came by land, and seize by force any ship that took refuge in their harbours, turning it to piracy. A strange kin to flourish under the patronage of a Turkish admiral. 

And by "strange," I mean ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Back to the shore, to the deep arable, if it existed. Paul Cartledge, for one, insists that it does not. Cartledge is a very respectable authority. Author of a major history of Laconia, he insists with scientific rigour, on the primacy of geology in studying ancient agricultural societies. My hero! Or he would be, if he did not insist, following the pioneering work of J. L. Bintliff of Leiden that the deep alluvial of the Eurotas basin was laid down in an erosion event in Late Antiquity, the so-called "Younger Fill." Apparently, before the increased rain of the Little Climactic Optimum washed down all that fine silt, the creek beds below Sparta were filled with rock and gravel. 

Others, I think it is safe to say, are more skeptical.  With that preliminary out of the way, we should at least acknowledge that Cartledge has done an excellent job of showing how an older deposit of "Neogen soils" were actually the key agricultural resource of the old Eurotas. A friable, calcium rich family of soils now seen mostly at the top of hillocks and in natural terraces above the valley bottom, the major Neogen resources in the vicinity of Sparta are equally accessible from the townsite and from Mystras.  Plotting distances to working farms from the two towns show that they are functionally equivalent as central places. Cool!
"Looking from the picturesque ruins of the amphitheatre of Sparta to the isolated cone of Mystras, where was the capital of the Greek Despotate of Morea, and daydreaming about getting a date with Lady Ada when I get back to London" 
I think we can sidestep the Younger Fill argument by moving down river a bit to somewhere that pricks the tender conscience: the Plain of Helos, at the mouth of the Eurotas. Pausanias, very late in the history of writing about the history of Sparta, tells us that the old city of Helos was one of the first victims of Sparta, that its old inhabitants were reduced to slavery by the conquering Lakedemonians, and thus give the name "helots" to the subjugated agricultural clients of Sparta.

I don't know: Nino Luraghi might be the most profound authority on the subject, or he might be some kind of academic Kool Ade merchant, but I am guessing, looking back over the eighty years since the idea of a "Spartan mirage" was first broached, that he's probably the former.  Without wandering off over the Taygetus to Messenia, it suffices to note that we're still looking for ancient Helos, and that "helot" is much more likely to be derived from "captive" than from a town name. It was certainly important to the Spartans that their dependent agricultural labourers have a collective identity against which the Spartans proper could identify themselves; but, at the same time, to be an ethne in ancient Greece was to have a presumptive title to a home territor and civi freedom within it, and that was not on for the actual helots, the inhabitants of the plain of Helos at the mouth of the Eurotas. 

At the mouth of the Eurotas.

One final piece, and, I hope, it will All Make Sense: "reverse transhumance." Per the Argolid project, "real" transhumance involves living in the lowlands and driving your flocks up into the heights in the summer. "Reverse" transhumance involves living in the uplands and driving your flocks down to temporary pastures in the winter. We've already noticed exactly this kind of pattern in the case of the village of Valtetsi on the plain of Tripolitsa, high in Arcadia over hollow Lakedaemonia, near ancient Tegea, where the wattle-and-daub Temple of Athena Alea began receiving votives at some point in the 800s. 

Why live in the hills? Certainly, summer in the lowlands sucks due to heat and insects. More importantly, the flocks have to be in the highlands in the summer because that is where the forage is. This is also where the shepherds will be, and where the dung ends up. The dung needs to go onto the land between harvest and the next planting. Which is to say, in the summer. When the herds are in the uplands. If the upland farms are more productive, due to dunging, this is where you concentrate your labour. And unless it suddenly occurs to you that it would be fun to carry the grain downhill, this is where you store it. That arable plots accessible from upland settlements might be Neogens, more easily exploitable, is just icing on the cake.  

This does not mean that the downlands are not valuable. After all, the community will be down there, in temporary homes, during the winter. (Why temporary? Presumably because it is a bad idea to built permanent homes by the seaside in places like the swamps behind Navpoli or the plains of Helos. I don't know. The fact that the peasants who wintered over in the lowlands were quite visibly living in tents in the 1800s is probably an indication that this was a good idea.) 

The question is: who gets left there in the summer? And the answer would seem to be the people who are in charge of the olives. The Early Modern "return to the plains" is the return to a cash crop economy then, focussing on the export of olive oil, and it is also a return to dependent relations, to a landlord economy. This is the opposite of the unaccountable freedom of unconquerable Mani.

Maybe I'm wrapping this up a little to glibly, too quickly, because I am due up the hill at the campus library very soon: but if the coming of a newly invigorated trading economy means a "return to the plains," then it seems boringly clear that an end to a trading economy means a return to the hills.

The last time I broached this subject, I suggested, glibly and out of a mostly romantic attachment to the green hills of summer, that the Greek exit from the Late Bronze Age was about a return to the hills of Arcadia and the Taygestus from the lowlands of Messenia and the Eurotas, with just the barest hint of a clue from the shift from Sparta to Mystras, from Helos to Mani. 

The more that one looks at the way that Early Modern Greeks actually lived, the more it seems that this thesis is rooted in the boring details of the Greek everyday agricultural round.  Or, I should probably say, Mediterranean, because it will do as well as an explanation for why the population of the Algerian coastal plain migrated up to Constantine, or for the rise of Madrid. Less boringly, it is an argument for grass and meat against "the Mediterranean diet."  Which seems a little paradoxical in light of the way I started with a Greek dinner out, but, then, the centrepiece of that meal is a huge chunk of lamb. 

Some kind of meditation about the way that Greeks like to eat, as opposed to the way that they are told to like to eat  might be in order here. Excitable people wait for Grexit in terms of chaos, even revolution. But if, instead, the Late Bronze Age ended in a passive strike, if everyone started going up the hills after Easter (cheeses loaded on donkeys). The fiery holocaust comes  twenty or thirty years after people learn to stop caring.

The fires of 2007 were too late, in the sense that by the time people noticed that they were going to happen, it was far too late to stop them. That is what happens when history springs from neglect, when actually attending to things has been too boring for too long. If there is to be Grexit, if there is to be fires, it is because the timber was not cleared in time, and it will be long after people have abandoned the work of clearing it. Helots had become Maniots.

*True story: at the height of the craze, the company made an enormous purchase of flavoured/scented olive oils, all packaged in tall, narrow, classy glass bottles. Then they distributed them to the stores with instructions to put them in shadow boxes in the Produce department. Bang went the stocking trucks into the shadow boxes, just occasionally, every now and then, and down went the unstable bottles to crash and smash all over our fancy plank floors. Fortunately, it was a one-time distribution, so with every accident, there was less to clean up. Eventually, there was no inventory at all. I think we might even have sold some.

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