Friday, March 10, 2017

The Fall of Rome, IX: Transhumance and Local Elites

Transhumant pastoral agriculture is the movement of herds of livestock from one pasture, for fairly obvious reasons. 

That being said, there is "transhumant" agriculture, and "transhumant agriculture." On at least two occasions in the last millennium, herding peoples have moved between the Dzungarian Basin north of Urumchi in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and the Volga steppes north of the Caspian Sea in Russia; in the 1870s, sheep were routinely herded from the Midwest around Chicago to ranges in Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, and back. This is long distance transhumance, and clearly a very different thing than having a farm at the bottom of a mountain/on the bench above a drowning river valley, and taking the sheep to the fodder in season.

The argument here is that the fall of the Roman Empire (and by that I mean the crisis of the Third Century) is linked too, but not caused by, the breakdown of long-distance transhumant pastoral agriculture. It's not a new argument, in general, but the particular sequence of events I am pushing is perhaps somewhat novel. More importantly, the evidence to support the argument is accumulating. Which is why this post --apart from my needing a break from more ambitious projects. 

Night crew rotation! (Semi-autobiographical comment on the persistent labour shortage-that's-somehow-not-a-shortage.)

First of all, obviously long-distance transhumant agriculture is primordial. Take the "agriculture" out, and we humans have been doing it for a very long time, because it's just another way of saying that they're following the herds, which organise themselves for "transhumance" perfectly well without human intervention.

(This is where I link to the "Buffalo Trace" that became America's first interstate, and invited everyone to wonder at the depths and mysteries of the founding of the United States, at the first glimmers of the written record.)

Here's a picture of the sheep moving out of a paddock on a big Australian "station," as they call them, because  Australians speak English funny.

The condition of the top cover in the foreground demonstrates why you would want to transhumant. Ah ha, you may say! Isn't transhumant herding between high, mountain pastures, and low ones. Aren't we all romantic about it. Didn't the Silencers have an inadvertent hit when they recorded a rock version of the classic Scottish folk air, Wild Mountain Thyme? Why, yes, they did, and yes, it sometimes is. 

Come, and trip it as you go 
      On the light fantastic toe; 
      And in thy right hand lead with thee  35
      The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty; 

That Milton. Wild and crazy guy. So, if Australians should decide to focus on producing sheep, nature has put a pretty big obstacle in their way, in that their country is pretty darn flat, with an average elevation of 330 m. I wrote that first sentence, editing not included, before I actually looked up my facts. It is a lot higher than I expected, and for a moment I was wondering if the intuition that guided my comment above was wrong. Fortunately, 330m turns out to be the lowest for any continent, Wikipedia says).

Infographictastic! The "Thuinen" in question is Johann Heinrich von Thunen (1783--1850). Here's an app for doing your own von Thunen models, courtesy of San Jose State University.  The source of the graphic is A. Rizakis, "Rural Structures and Agrarian Strategies in Greece under the Roman Empire, Maethmata 60, 40.: 

Fortunately, Nature has granted Australia a great deal of semi-arid country highly suited for pastoral agriculture. Per the "Thunen model," there is lots of Zone 5, and lightly fantastic toeing is on. The Roman Empire was, first and foremost, a Mediterranean phenomenon, and things were different there:

Horizontal Transhumance Versus Vertical: Or, Why the Mediterranean is Different From Australia
Average Elevation (meters)
United Kingdom
New York

(I've tacked on some American states for comparison at the bottom.)

As you can see, there's pretty good reason for seeking out mountain pastures in Italy, Greece, Algeria and Morocco. At the same time, long-distance transhumant agriculture is a tricky thing.  The Rizakis article, linked to above, is a good historiographic look into the question of whether Greek agriculture in the Roman period was dominated by large, capitalistic landlords, investing in long-distance transhumant agriculture, or by smallholders raising livestock as auxiliaries to primarily arable agriculture, with short-distance transhumant, and feeding of flocks from the fallow stubble. Not surprisingly, the state of the art conclusion is "both;" and better-known and established, stylised facts about Greek agriculture under the Roman Empire, such as the rise of the villa and the late Roman ruralisation of the population can be fitted into the debate with more-or-less difficulty.  

I've already twice linked to Francesco Carrer's "ethnoarcaeological" paper on high altitude dairy agriculture in the Roman era twice. Here's another link to what is still a pdf that will download itself  (if I haven't screwed the link up

And here, by the way, are two other papers I found while looking for the Carrer paper again, because I am too lazy to look at my old blog posts when I could just type search terms into the window.  

Good thing I did, because here's Kevin Walsh's paper, which I now recall as being quite influential. It is local study that shows that that permanent settlement at high altitudes in the Mediterranean littoral alpine zones were occupied in the Late Iron Age and Medieval periods, but not during the Roman era (also a whole slew of conference paper abstracts that often, although not always, support Carrer and Walsh's timing).

Walsh's intention is to take on climate determinism. Assuming that the weather was colder in the earlier Holocene and the "Little Ice Age" than in Roman times, he wants to argue that social factors, not climatological ones, determine human occupation of marginal zones like the high Alps.

Carrer, on the other hand, is being "ethnoarchaeological," in the sense that he uses more recent data, and data from other parts of the world, to explain what might be going on in Roman times. Specifically, he shows that highly capitalised transhumant agriculture often brings animals down from the high pastures to lowland plains. This agriculture focusses on the production of wool for sale, and empties out the middle and higher elevations of permanent, settled populations. Conversely, a less-heavily capitalised, subsistence agriculture settles the middle elevations permanently, and exploits higher elevation pasturage for a dairy-focussed agriculture. Instead of concentrating on wool production, the farm produces cheese --whether fresh cheese for immediate, local production, or dried, heavily salted cheeses for sale on the market.

A hard-grated, heavily salted, cheese. The aging process seems to be mainly about drying it out so that it will keep, but the chemistry is complicated. 
So if "ethnoarchachaeology"is on the table, how about a little bit of Late Bronze Age? Saro Wallace has starred in this blog before, as the originator of a powerful paradigm for understanding the collapse of that early international order: Doctor Wallace thinks that Crete, at least, underwent a "successful," or even "positive" collapse. (By a slip of the tongue I have been known to refer to it as a "constructive collapse," which I think works, too.)

It turns out that while the idea was developed in a scholarly monograph, the outlines of the argument can be glimpsed in a paper, conveniently available online through JSTOR. Using what "Carrer" would call "ethnoarchaeological" arguments --in this case, talking to Cretan old folk about how they used to do t hings-- Wallace argues that the Late Bronze Age collapse was precisely from long-distance, transhumant agriculture to subsistence agriculture, in which livestock supplement arable. 

At the height of the palatial system, Wallace says (or, rather, quotes), Crete may have supported 400,000 sheep. On the basis of more recent data, this would have required pretty much all of the island's available pasture, and broadly implies that Crete must have been integrated into an export economy that could absorb this much wool --even given the likely low productivity of Bronze Age sheep. Nevertheless, this would have provided employment for only about 2.5% of an estimated 100,000 Cretans; the rest lived in settlements at lower altitudes and practiced intensive agriculture, at least in part to provide fodder for the sheep. 

Perhaps less than a century later, Cretans lived in "refuge" settlements, typically in the 400--1200m ASL elevation band. The particular sites chosen were defensible rather than economically convenient, but they did allow for some arable farming; and here, specifically, is where the ethnoarchaeological perspective comes in, because we can see from how Cretans did it recently, how they might have done it in 1050BC. Again, there is largescale settlement in the middle elevation bands, with arable extending, often on terraced slopes, up to the practical elevation limit, at which altitude can be found the mandres, or shepherds' workshops, where the work of dairying, shearing, and cheesemaking is carried out. The livestock grazes pastures above, and associated with the settlements, and the fallow stubble, in a classic in-field/out-field agriculture in which the "out-field" is the upper slopes.
Does a cow shit in the woods? Not if you can help it --it's wasteful.
Exactly how the island of Crete transitioned from one state to another is not entirely clear --apart from the Egyptians onshoring all the shepherding jobs, whether by choice or of necessity, and whatever that might have meant, what with the Sea People and all that. (Make Egypt Great Again!) The emphasis on "defensible settlements" suggests that the collapse, while constructive, wasn't all that peaceful. 

However, at this point, because I am a denizen of the Internet, I am reminded of a defence of Herbert Hoover making the rounds again of late. (It's deep in the comments of this thread, which presents an elegant, if inadvertent, explanation for why the Romans might have stopped mining bullion at the beginning of th Third Century.) In his memoirs, President Hoover positions himself as the opponent of his "liquidationist" Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, who felt that nothing ought to be done about the Crash of '29, as things would come back on their own quickly, as they had in 1873. Hoover, he tells the readers, then pointed out to Mellon that, in 1873, 70% of Americans still lived on the farm. When industrial employment dried up, people just returned to the family farm and resumed --subsistence agriculture. 

In the Late Bronze Age, things are clearly more traumatic, but we also have the issue of land ownership. In both recent Crete and classical Greece, the sheep tended to be grazed on public land, owned by either the state, or, in Classical times, the polis, with grazing rights were disposed of as usufruct by a combination of rents and taxes. The "social" factors that Walsh adduces as explaining the ebbs and flows of high altitude settlement are thus pretty clear: When state/empire/polis ceases to impose its control on the land, people are free to squat the landlords's grazing land and do as they please. 

As I say, the evidence for this happening, is piling up. It is often dangerous to make claims based on "failed" Roman towns like Silchester.  There is a reason for their failure, after all, so the fact that they're just sitting there, in a green field, waiting for the archaeologist's shovel is not a reason for seeing them as clues to unlocking the mysteries of the fall of the Roman Empire. The towns that didn't fall are under modern ones; but then there is Falerri Novi.

By Howardhudson at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5,
How can you not make a big deal of a complete Roman urban enceinte with nothing (much) inside? It's only 50km north of Rome, perfect for a day trip, and we even know how it was founded. The Romans moved the population of Civita Castellana there after a failed revolt in 241BC, specifically, we are told, because it was less defensible. The hometown of the Emperor Gallienus's wife, archaeology shows that the "urban project" of "aggressive, enforced, lowland colonisation" had failed by the end of the Third Century, as the residents moved back to Civita Castellana, where their descendants, presumably, live today.

The quotes, by the way, and much of the interpretation, comes from Neil Christie's recent book. Professor Christie takes a somewhat different emphasis from my own, focussing on the stylised history of the Third Century as one barbarian invasion after another. ("His core asssumption relates the 'fall' to external, chiefly military events (and not supposed internal weaknesses," to quote Damian Fernandez's review, just linked.) At the same time, in the preceding section, he has a fascinating discussion of Gorsium, a Roman city in western Hungary, just east of Lake Balaton, Another easily-excavated city, because "failed", in this case we can link the failure even more specifically to urban riots in 258. Although reoccupied under the Tetrarchy, the temples were, conspicuously, not. Instead, the new Gorsium had military workshops where the forums and temples previously were, and a large, palace-like structure, probably a provincial governor's residence.

This brings us round to the religious changes of the Third Century, which are practically all that we do know about it, there being a strange lacunae of historical writing from the period. 

Consider: the basic facts of the period are now thought to come from a court historian who wrote a History of the Emperors from Augustus to either 337 or 357, and then did something very, very naughty, so that none of the historians who cribbed from his work dared to name him.  It would be very nice if we could make up a theory that related his purging to his writing, but it would be pretty heavy going to explain how the book came to survive, in that case. What is interesting is that our sole, putative source, comes almost a century after the difficult times of  the mid-Third Century. It is, perhaps, not surprising that we have no source from the period itself --but why don't we have a Tetrarchic court historian? It is not as though people forgot how to write history --Eusebius is in precisely the right time frame.

Something happened under the Tetrarchs --specifically in the West, and something that interrupted the continuities of Roman history. Again, we knew this. We owe much of our understanding of local Roman history to the "curial" class of rich, local landowners who formed the local civil service, such as it was, built the Roman infrastructure of the cities, and put lots of inscriptions on them so that we can date them and study Roman elites. The received opinion, informed by both much ranting in the late Roman legal digests and the counts of available inscriptions, is that by the late third century, no-one wanted to be a curial any more, and the problem was worst in the West. 

What happened? The last time I took on Roman history, it was with the intention, perhaps not well carried through, of showing that it is pretty hard to pull an overarching explanation, top-down explanation from the political history of the "lost Ennmanische Kaisergeschichte." Or, rather, that we already have the explanation that the author wants to provide us: that Principes tend to become tyrants when they succumb to the indulgences of power; and even if that were a problem unique to the Third Century, one might doubt that an evergreen cliche of Ancient history has much explanatory power here. As bad as Gallienus might be, we're no closer to understanding how his father managed to get a whole army taken prisoner by the Persians, or why and how it was possible for the whole west of the Empire to split off and become a Gallic splinter state. 

On the other hand, Eusebius does tell us. "God did it" is obviously not very satisfactory, but God only really gets into the mix in 250, when Emperor Decius ordered everyone in the Roman Empire to sacrifice to the gods and for the well-being of the Emperor. This is interpreted as a "loyalty oath," and the assumption is that it is a response to uncertain times. For my part, I am not entirely convinced that an empire that had just gone through a six year minority was in "crisis." "Woe to the land when the king is a child," etc, etc. "Autopilot" seems like a more logical setting than "crisis."

Whatever: Decius wants the whole Empire --Jews specifically exempted-- to sacrifice. Many Christians did sacrifice, and, for them, things blew over. Others did not, and there was a persecution, and some infamous martyrs were, well, martyred.And in the midst of all the religious focus, it is easy to miss the point that the Third Century Roman Empire was in the midst of a major anti-sacrificing trend that embraced Neo-Platonists and Manichaeans as well as Christians. Other mystery cults, such as those of Mithras and Jupiter Dolichenus seem to have gone into decline in the same period in which the Christians and, to a lesser extent, the Manichaeans were thriving under persecution. 

I'm not going to make any grand, explanatory leaps here --just observe that things don't become fashionable or unfashionable for a reason, and that even choice of religion has economic underpinnings --a case that has been made for Christianity in the past. Would it be surprising if non-sacrificing religions became more popular as sacrificial victims became more expensive? Or that the Emperor Decius might intervene to goose sacrificial activity? Less animals, more expensive animals, belt-tightening, less sacrificing. How do we get this economy going again, the Emperor Decius asks himself? An edict requiring everyone to sacrifice!

On the basis of simple geography, high altitude grazing is going to be very important to the economies of the countries of the Mediterranean littoral. We don't have to wonder how Late Bronze Age Crete managed to sell the clip of 400,000 sheep to appreciate that their production is significant in a pre-modern economy, and that the way that they are exploited is going to resonate through all levels of society. If they are being colonised by subsistence farmers moving up from the low country, than that means that there is not product to support the activities of curial landlords, or to provide something for long distance trade to, well, trade. The only question is how you fix this kind of loss of confidence in an exchange economy. We know that it can be done wrong

Emperor Decius, Herbert Hoover. . .  The parallel is not exact, since Hoover lost the election of 1932, while the Emperor Decius was killed, with his son, in the terrible Battle of Abritus. Unless the story that Gallus arranged for his death is true, and we decide to notice the suspicious resonances of the story of the death of Emperor Decius and that of the Decii Mures. If so, it was presumably Publius Licinius Valerianus or his son, Gallienus, who memorialised Decius this way, as Gallus and Aemilianus hardly had the chance. He also perpetuated Decius' edict on sacrifices, which is presumably why God did for him. God's plan seems awfully roundabout and slow in execution, but it did take long enough to work itself out that you would think that the new order in the highlands was an accomplished fact by the time that Constantine got right with Jesus. Whether the two things are in any way linked is another matter. 

Mithras is down with sacrificing. By Unknown - User:PHGCOM, 2006, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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