Friday, January 27, 2017

The Fall of Rome, VII: Bread, Circusses

Those are some happy elephants, because Tirupati deluxe bran is the best bran. 

iam pridem, ex quo suffragia nulli / uendimus, effudit curas; nam qui dabat olim / imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se / continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat, / panem et circenses
--Juvenal, Satire X. (Note that like any Nineteenth Century parliamentarian on his feet to deliver a zinger on the Balkan Question, I've cut and pasted out of Wikipedia.)

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy."
- Elmer T. Peterson.

In this week of so much going astray down south, the fact that the nominee for American Secretary of Labour has riffed on the idea that democracies are destroyed by social welfare benefits ("bread and circusses") might easily take a back seat to more pressing concerns about his boss. 

But! I'll start with the attribution, which is a spanking new, modern thing for which we can thank Google, even if my store of gratitude to Google is being drawn down by the gradual disintegration of Google Books, although that's a rant for another day. Traditinally, we see this quote attributed to much more famous people than Elmer T. Peterson, and he himself began this tradition by attributing it to a  a minor Nineteenth Century thinker with a funny name. He did so in a 1951 letter to the editor published in a minor Oklahoman paper, which raises the question of how it entered the public record so quickly. Peterson himself was a writer, but his literary record [pdf] is pretty second rate, and it would be surprising if many people took him very seriously. "Alexander Fraser Tyttle," on the other hand, is someone to reckon with! I suppose.

Perhaps Peterson noticed the general shortage of actual examples of welfare payments destroying democracies. After all, he may have had the Juvenal "bread and circusses" line in mind, and perhaps even has some recollection of being rather brusquely informed that Juvenal came a full century after the Republic. Perhaps, although this is asking a lot of the basically optimistic mind of the early 1950s, which feared only communist roentgens,  someone even pointed out that rich tax evaders have a better record of destroying regimes than poor handout beneficiaries.

This is what makes the Roman example so handy, in that rich people might evade taxes and even attend gladiatorial games, but they certainly do not stand in bread lines. Not that Peterson needed to explore things very deeply. Everyone knows that the ancient Romans gave out a corn dole to the urban poor of Rome. 

Cheesecake Factory.

Of course, the more common "but" here is that the plebs frumentaris were not, in fact, poor. The bread allotment was a privilege, not a social welfare measure. Permit me, though, to go in a slightly different direction with my "but." I'll be back on track soon enough.

Okay, I'm pretending that this cheesecake has a traditional graham cracker crust, even though I'm pretty sure it doesn't. Work with me, etc. 

The Graham Cracker is a common American confectionary staple derived from an unleavened wholemeal biscuit flour with an . . . interesting history. Graham four pushes obsessions about milling, white flour, and "chemical additives" in bread back into the 1830s. That is, it predates the advent of the steel rolling mill and sinister cabals of large biscuit bakers that even a first-class scholar like Professor Collingham is tempted to blame for the insipid commercial white bread of more recent times. 

The crude outline of the story is that every grain of wheat consists of an outer shell of cellulose, the "chaff;" a "plume." or beard, of more cellulose; a "pericarp," or cellulose-rich but also sugar-containing outer layer normally called "bran;" an endosperm of mixed starch and protein, notably including gluten; and a "wheat germ" which is basically like the chick in the egg. The wheat germ is largely vegetable fat to provide dense energy for the seedling in its first phase of growth, but also containing fat soluble B-complex vitamins. Per modern food regulations, "whole wheat" ["wholemeal"] flour must contain germ and bran in the same proportion as found in a typical wheatberry. "White flour" has both the bran and germ removed to promote bread softness, low-residue digestibility (it makes less poop) and keeping properties. The simplest, one-sentence summary of this blog posting is that the bran, wheat germ, and chaff removed from white flour are sold as animal fodder, and that this is worth thinking of in connection with the Fall of Rome. 
The ruins of the Roman water mills at Barbegal, near Arles,France.  According to a common interpretation of the Roman economy, its  precapitalist nature discouraged investment and innovation, and a famous test case is the failure of the water mill to spread in the Empire, Unfortunately for this thesis, the water mill did spread, and there is a certain morbid entertainment in seeing this uncomfortable fact accommmodated in the theory without challenge. Photo credit: By maarjaara - originally posted to Flickr as Mill walls, CC BY 2.0, 

In the previous six installments, I have proposed that the economic-military explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire is broadly correct. Under severe stress in the mid Fourth Century as a result of bad monetary policy, the Empire was further hampered by a military institution which was only affordable at an operationally-inadequate number of equids. Confrontations with the Sassanids in the Middle East made this inadequacy insupportable. When expedients failed, the Empire in the west quite literally dissolved under the stress of finding a long term solution.

The former is the well-known "the Empire fell because of feudalism" thesis, and I only belabour it because I don't think people take horses and cowboys seriously enough as historical subjects. What can I say? I'm the great grandson of a Presbyterian China missionary turned hobby rancher. It's in the blood.  
God knows what Great Grampa Colin was thinking when he took this land, but the view from the family cemetery is gorgeous! It's also on the Internet, which makes me a bit uncomfortable, even if I'm pretty sure that a cousin took this picture.

The latter is, of course, my stab at relevance. Here's the theory, as far as it goes: The Roman army was a makework project for the idle rich, and not a "grand strategic" instrument of defence policy. All the legionnaires were sent off to winter camps in places where there was lots of firewood and meat to eat*, and the Empire undertook to provide them with a regular supply of oil and wine so that they would feel like members of their social class (upper class officers, middle class soldiers, I'm thinking); and a regular supply of silver to build up family capital, so that their parents would be happy to send their sons off for as much as twenty years. The latter implied a regular supply of silver at Rome, since the monetary instruments available to the Emperor were crude, although probably not nonexistent. This was only possible if Rome ran a current accounts surplus with the rest of the Empire; and while you would think that this wouldn't be so hard a thing for a capital city to achieve, evidently it was. An extended crisis ensued in the Third Century, driven by soldiers who weren't getting paid, and an apocalyptic reading of events in the 260s suggest the kind of social collapse that James M. Scott has proposed for the small paddy states of Southeast Asia. By 269, it was very possible that the entire "Roman" Empire would soon disappear as people stopped being Roman, in favour of ethnogenesis as new tribes which didn't have to pay taxes. 

"Barbarians," in other words. 

Then, Emperor Aurelian built a wall around Rome (See? Contemporary relevance!) --and everything got better? Well, not better, but the crisis was ratcheted down to manageable proportions, even if the army had to be reformed so that most of its members were enfeoffed --to borrow a technical term in the hopes that everyone will understand that it is not meant to carry heavy theoretical weight. Perhaps I should say, "settled with a timariot"?  Anyway, granted land, or the tax revenues of that land, paid in kind, to be disposed by the holder. 

This last has the obvious difficulty of persuading the tenant farmers on the land to render a sellable surplus, which, in turn, requires a market for agricultural surplus, and in my recent recap I made heavy weather of the point that cavalry horses are agricultural surplus of a kind. The mystery of how a wall around Rome might have had such significant effects suggested to me that, intended or not, it allowed collection of an excise tax on tradable goods entering Rome --that this revenue source is the secret of Aurelian's restoration of the Roman Empire. But people like to evade taxes, and the second order effect of this miracle of sound finance was the final collapse of long distance trade within the western Empire --or perhaps an admission that it was gone and never going to come back. (Becase of a shortage of money and dislocation ot the top, you see. An oblique discussion of the supposed problems of the current day is the basic requirement of any good theory of the fall of the Roman Empire.)

At this point it is objected that long-distance overland trade within the Empire --say, from the Rhineland to Rome-- is an economic irrelevancy, and we are off on a discussion of wagons, harnesses and roads; which I sidestep, because it is the point of this blog, with a loud "Yeah, but what about cattle drives?"

If you have the patience to listen to two versions of an overlong cowboy ballad, notice the way that the popular Fifties entertainerm Marty Robbins, suppresses the Spanish jargon of the original version. White America has an ethnogenesis, too!

Today, though, we're not going out on the trail, but keeping close to the stockyards of Rome. The handwaved claim here is that, at the end of the day, any animals brought to Rome over the Roman roads will have to be fattened up before they can be sold or sacrificed.

So: bread. 

Juvenal is referring to the fact that the Roman wealthy very definitely did celebrate regular “circuses,” or games, that everyone found highly entertaining, and that there was a regular issue of "bread" to the citizens of Rome, although it was actually in the form of grain until Aurelian. This seems to have been instituted by  Gaius Gracchus in 123BC, while Septimus Severus added oil around 193, and Aurelian added salt pork and wine. This annona, or allowance, was a huge driver of the whole Roman economy, and by the end of Antiquity was being delivered to a number of cities, not least among them Istanbul, and it is theorised that the fall of Egypt to the Persians, which cut off the annona to Istanbul, also brought about the end of Antiquity. (All the people who had congregated in the city to enjoy the Egyptian surplus went home, urban living collapsed, and there was no-one left to write and recopy books, so that not only activity but also the printed record is lost.)

While that is what Juvenal meant, everyone else has read this as a "corn dole" to the Roman poor --in part because Gracchus has that kind of reputation. In fact, the law had nothing to do with the poor, except in the sense that the Gracchi were concerned that the poorer citizens of Rome, the pleb, weren't getting their fair share of the tribute the conquering Republic had levied on the world. All Romans should benefit, not just the richest of the rich. So they moved to offer every deserving adult male citizen of Rome of the plebeian order a guaranteed maximum price on a monthly allotment of grain. This was in no sense a subsistence ration. An adult male citizen of the city of Rome consumed about 200kg of wheat flour a year, plus or minus 50kg, and the inital maximum subsidised purchase is documented at 165kg a month! We assume that the ration is based on the citizen being the head of an family of relations and slaves, but all citizens were qualified from their official entry into manhood, which took place between their eleventh and fourteenth year, and (family) fatherhood came late, not early, to Romans. We think that there were 200,000 registered recipients [plebs frumentaris] under Augustus, and that the number did not change much thereafter, as it had before. 

To what extent this fed the citizens of the city is unknown. Rome is frequently described as having a population of a million, but this implies a very implausible population density and irremediable problems of sanitation, especially given that most of these citizens would have been dependent on backyard wells and backyard lavatories. I'm also glad to see that I am not just some crackpot relying heavily on strange facts in a brilliant, if little-cited book on Roman water engineering. because we are uncertain of the city’s actual population. The commonly cited “million” is a hypothesis based on a census that counts the number of residences, without being very clear about the number of inhabitants of each of these nsulae. The predominant idea, supported by excavations in Ostia, is that these are large apartment blocks.

Eight hundred million people living in 50,000 person, hundred-story buildings because there's no living space, and everyone's on welfare because there's no jobs to feed the eight hundred million people and maintain the super giant buildings. --How does any of this make sense? Oh, wait, I know. Poor people suck.

Unfortunately, given the numbers we have to work with (15 square kilometers within the walls ;roughly half the city dedicated to public monuments; 1300 mansions; 46,000 apartment blocks, they're also very small apartment blocks. Writing in the Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome, which is the kind of thing we bien pensants read when we're trying to pretend to be more knowledgeable about a subject than we actuallly are, Nicholas Morley points out that the scholarship long since went from reconstructing population from the numbers, to justifying the validity of the numbers. Given that not all Roman numbers are credible, he prefers to forget about the ocuont of insulae, and work with archaeology, and, specifically, recovered site plans from Ostia and Pompeii, which show a population ranging from Pompeii (250,000), to 475,000 (Ostia), with a bias to the upside of the numbers for Ostia, so perhaps half a million. Morley takes between 200,000 and 250,000 as being in receipt of the cornn dole, estimates that there was one non-recipient, ranging from freedmen to the upper class, for every recipient --and comes up with unrealistically large numbers that he must trim down to meet his thesis.

In the end, we have to fiddle with one or another of our premises or recorded numbers, or accept that Rome had the highest population density in history. Call me a cynic, but the premise I would prefer to gun for is the majestic integrity and efficiency of Roman law. Given repeated attempts to purge the rolls, I will assume that there were numerous recipients of multiple rations, and that the annona penetrated widely into Latium from a Rome of perhaps a half million people.

Next, we have another little problem. White, wheaten bread contains only 70% of the digestible (by cow standards) matter in a given amount of wheat, and, as noted when I talked about Britain's wartime National Loaf, an "extraction rate" of much above 85% is likely to be very unpopular. Assuming that pampered Romans ate only fine baguettes, an issue of 165kg of grain is an issue of 30kg of animal fodder –two day’s worth for a horse, a little less for a cow-- along with the actual human food. For every sixteen people, in a modern milling environment, you have enough feed to fatten a cow. And, yes, pigs do eat bran, although their mash should be enriched with other fodders.

Traditionally, this problem has been ignored, I think because historians tend not to be millers. Even I'm putting a brave front on in insisting that there must have been a residual of fodder in the grain ration because the hull/chaff is removed. Things might be more complicated than that. Where necessary, and that more usually means the history of bread than the history of Rome, it is more-or-less waved away with the assumption that the Romans, like all virtuous ancient people, ate wholemeal loaf, which was the point of my lead-in. Here, the Internet gives us no direct help. A very interesting but completely pointless article from Civilisations is online, describing how archaeologists analyse remnant bread, and explaining why there's not more bread found in archaeological contexts. (Spoiler: It's because it's usually eaten.)   This guy baked a loaf of bread from the recipe in Cato the Elder's On Agriculture, a recipe allows no leaven at all, which leaves me to wonder if Cato is shitting us (unlike his victims, who will be shitting later). My understanding is that the On Agriculture is shitting us, or, to put it more politely, "is complexly situated." 

More interestingly, Pliny the Elder, who is evidently unaware that innovation won't be invented for another seventeen centuries, is a font of knowledge about the backwards practices of grain eating in ancient days. He's also a bit of an old-timey  economic historian, in that  his technological history is completely wrong and easily refuted by easily obtainable evidence. He thinks that the Romans used to eat simple porridge, and only advanced to breadmaking in the last few centuries. In reality, breadmaking predates agriculture. At least give him credit for not being a Whig about it. (He thinks porridge-eating ancient Romans were more frugal, hence more moral, etc, etc.) On the other hand, when he's on point about how bread was baked and eaten in his day, he's more interesting, although I'll put that off for a moment to discuss some outstanding archaeological evidence.
This is from Pinterest, and is described as Libum, a sacrificial bread made with two kinds of cheese, eggs, and laurel leaves in the dough. I'm just reproducing it for the scoring.

A baker at Pompeii took a moment to secure 84 loaves in his oven before leaving Pompeii in 79 AD, giving us an excellent sample base at one moment in time. Even if, unfortunately, it was left to Nineteenth Century excavators to do the discovering. Although carbonised, original colour can be inferred (I understand from the Delwen Samuel article), and it is clear that the Pompeii loaves were, made with a wholemeal, if not wholegrain flour. They are taken to be commercial bread not just because they were found in a bakery, but because the tops were commercially stamped and scored in sections, similar to a pizza. So wholemeal is in the picture. However, we also have pastries and confectionaries from the same city. Turning to classical sources, it is unsurprisingly discovered that the elite prefer white, soft loaves. They are inclined to ascribe these virtues to the origin place of the grain rather than the baker's art, but you do not get such loaves without excluding the bran, and Dr. Delwen has done some more substantial work, establishing that Egypitian New Kingdom bread was baked from a variety of recipes and flours.  (Some spelt, mostly emmer, no intentional barley inclusion: flour from raw emmer, sprouted emmer, and roasted, sprouted emmer. "All grades" of flour milled.)

As already noted, the "corn dole" was of raw grain for its first three centuries. This is the most practical way of doing things, in that it leaves the choice of the final flour grade in the consumer's hands, and is convenient for feeding domestic pigs and poultry. Fishponds are apparently in the picture, too, but it is hard to imagine fishponds as backyard activities.There is a slight problem here, in that no Classical-period small mills/bakeries have been found in Rome yet, in contrast to the 8 found in Ostia, with more assumed on the basis of the number of discarded millstones found. Although, given that the bakeries have not been found, perhaps our assumptions about how grain was handled in Rome need to be revisited. 
Sure enough, it turns out that the Classical authors have something to say about this, describing how thrushes, pheasants, fish, etc. are raised at Rome for the delectation of the rich. Romans ate the strangest things, such as for example fish sauce. I am, however, going out on a limb to claim that more effort was put into  egg-laying poultry. 

In any case, this exploration of cranky contrarianism is founded on the assumption that the Roman state was ramshackle, ill-run and corrupt, and a stubborn belief that cattle ranching and cattle driving are important parts of the Roman economy, because why wouldn't they be? (How much more iron clad can an argument get?) On this basis, the fact that the numbers do not add up, implies that the "corn dole" was actually a massive exercise in kleptocracy, with the state extracting grain from the provinces and handing it over willy-nilly to a near random lot of jobbers, on the asusmption that the profits would ultimately come back to the wealthy elites who owned the feedlots around the city. (And who had deep and perhaps even informal family ties with the range lands at the Imperial periphery.) I think this picture holds tolerably well for thebyproduct of milling at least, and for the portion of the personal ration which was diverted to domestic livestock. The question remains whether the system was completely corrupt, and the actual grain went directly to the feedlots.

As already noticed, as part of his reforms, Aurelian substituted bread for grain. I'm taking this as acknowledging the end of the racket. Rome's privileged place in the imperial order was breaking down, presumably because the emperor rarely held court there. The addition of salt pork and wine to the dole then might be a compensation? If so, it was not enough to buy Aurelian peace. 

*If you're wondering about the relevance of the link, it is a handwave in the direction of the idea that the ritual calendar of the cohors XX Palmyneorum indicates very frequent rite, and a great many victims being eaten, especially in the winter. The further inference is that this diet would also be enoyed by soldiers elsewhere, although the evidence is somewhat mixed.

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