Collections: Bread, How Did They Make It? Part IV: Markets, Merchants and the Tax Man

As the fourth and final part (I, II, III) of our look at the basic structure of food production in the pre-modern world (particularly farming grain to make bread), this week we’re going to look at how at least some of the delicious food we made in the last post might make its way into the hands of people who are not farmers or even farm owners.

In the previous three posts, I have mostly just used the magic word ‘markets’ to describe how the food produced in the countryside gets to the cities and people who are not farmers. As we’ll see in this post, that is a bit of an oversimplifying fib, both in that the phrase ‘markets’ covers a lot of complexity, but also (as we’ll see) some of the major drivers of moving that food from the countryside into towns doesn’t involve money or market interactions. That said, we’re going to start with market transactions, because while they are actually the minority-type in many of these societies, they are more readily familiar and understandable, I suspect, to modern readers. Then we’ll move to extraction as the other category.

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Point of Sale

I want to start by leaning on (with small modifications for clarity) Paul Erdkamp’s taxonomy of the various options by which food might get into the stream of commerce. A small farmer might sell their grain (I) directly to city-dwellers, (II) indirectly, via urban middlemen and grain merchants, either in the market or (III) ‘at the gate’ (meaning selling to merchants who come out to the farm in order to buy; the difference being who transports the food to the city), (IV) to itinerant traders at periodic rural markets or (V) to other local small farmers. As we’ll see, large landholders have a somewhat larger range of options within this taxonomy, but the fundamentals are the same.

While all of these sale methods certainly happened, in every society I have looked at, Option I – selling directly to city-dwellers – is fairly rare for grains and other bulk agricultural goods. Market gardeners, selling fruits, vegetables (and sometimes flowers) often do sell this way, maintaining a high-intensity garden near town and a shop or stall in the town market. Likewise, while Option V – small-scale trade between farmers – absolutely happens, it is typically non-monetary: the banqueting of neighbors discussed in the first post. Where it is monetary, it is typically quite small scale and very short distance. By and large, small and mid-sized farmers hadn’t the time, expertise or infrastructure to sell their goods directly. They needed to be farming, not manning a market stall or trying to figure out how to store their goods close to the point of sale. And of course large landowners, being rich, aren’t going to stand in the market square either (and in many cases don’t want their obvious representative doing so either, see below). So while I and V happen, they’re not too common or too large a portion of total trade and we may lay them aside for this discussion.

That leaves Options II, III and IV, all of which involve selling grain to a middle-man merchant of some sort. The main difference is the location of sale (in town, at the gate, or at periodic rural markets). Outside of large cities and major ports, markets were likely to be periodic, occurring only on certain days (typically around once per week). In Roman Italy, these were the nundinae (‘ninth days,’ although it was an 8-day cycle as the Romans count inclusively); the nundinae were minor festivals, days of rest and merrymaking, but they were also the days when the rural markets would be open – the rest-day from agricultural labor enabled farmers to head into local towns to buy or sell whatever they needed (interestingly, at Rome, the nundinae were dies nefasti – state business couldn’t generally be conducted on them – so poor farmers hoping to use their day off to participate politically were out of luck). Similar periodic markets are common in the Middle Ages (and even today; most ‘farmer’s markets’ in the United States are periodic, including my town’s). The periodic nature of these markets is an adaptation to agricultural rhythms; for a market to function there need to be a lot of people together all at once and the small towns that dotted the countryside simply didn’t have the density to do that all of the time.

Via Wikipedia, a fresco showing market activity, with merchants showing off wares of fabric (left) and goods in pots (center) from the House of Julia Felix at Pompeii, first century CE. Please note: the importance of pottery in modern archaeology has given many students and the general public the idea that the ancients were always shipping pots around for sale, as if there was a vast market in pottery. Generally, people were buying what was in the pot, not the pot itself.

But as noted, our farmers are unlikely to be selling their grain directly to customers. Instead, they are likely to be using some sort of middle-man merchant, which brings us to:


Merchants are a bit of a break from the people we have so far discussed in that they, by definition, live in the realm of the market (in the economic sense, although often also in a physical sense). As we’ve seen so much of the world of our farmers and even our millers and bakers was governed by non-market interactions: horizontal and vertical social ties that carried expectations that weren’t quite transactional and certainly not monetized. By contrast, merchants work with transactions and tend to be the first group in any society to attempt to monetize their operations once money becomes available. I find students are often quick to feel identity with the merchant class, because these folks are more likely to travel, more likely to use money, more likely to employ or be employed in wage-labor; they feel more like modern people.

It thus tends to come as something of a surprise that with stunning consistency, the merchant class tended to be at best cordially disliked and at worst despised by the broader community (although not typically to the point of suffering legal disability, as did some other jobs; see S. Bond, Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean (2016) for this in Rome). This often strikes students as strange, both because we tend to think rather better of our own modern merchants but also because the image they have of the merchant class certainly looks elite.

Via Wikipedia, a manuscript illustration showing the Horseman of Famine depicted as a grain merchant (from Revalations 6:5-6), holding the scales he would use to measure out grain.

For the farmers who need to sell their crops (for reasons we will get to in a moment) and purchase the things they need that they cannot produce, the merchant feels like an adversary: always pushing his prices to his best advantage. We expect this, but remember that our pre-modern farmers are just not that exposed to market interactions; most of their relationships are reciprocal, not transactional – the horizontal relationships we discussed before. The merchant’s ‘money-grubbing’ feels like a betrayal of trust in a society where you banquet your neighbors in the good years so they’ll help you in the bad years. The necessary function of a merchant is to transgress the ‘rules’ of village interactions which – and this resounds from the sources – the farmers tend to understand as being ‘cheated.’

At the same time, while most merchant types are humble, the high-risk and potentially high-reward involved in trade meant that some merchants (again, a small number) could become very rich. That, as you might imagine, did not go over well for the traditionally wealthy in these societies, the large landholders. Again, the values here often strike modern readers as topsy-turvy compared to our own, but to the elite large landholders (who dominate the literary and political culture of their societies), the morally correct way to earn great wealth is to inherit it (or capture it in war). The morally correct way to hold that wealth is with large landed estates. Anything else is morally suspect, and so the idea that a successful merchant could – by a process that again, strikes the large landholder, just like the small farmer, as ‘cheating’ – leap-frog the social pyramid and skip to the top, without putting in the work at either having distinguished wealthy ancestors or tremendous military success was an open insult to elite values. Often laws were put in place to limit the ability of wealthy non-aristocrats (likely merchants or successful artisans) from displaying their wealth (sumptuary laws) so as to keep them from competing with the aristocrats; at Rome, senators were forbidden from owning ships with much the same logic (Roman senators being clever, they still invested in trade through proxies while at the same time disapproving of the activity in public politics).

Such disdain appears, with varying justification, in the sources of every pre-modern agrarian society I’ve studied, to one degree or another. One commonplace of Greek and Roman thinking – despite these being very active, maritime societies – was that the first production of ships and the first sailing was in some essential way a profanation of the divine realm of the sea, a space humans ought not have ever ventured into – and certainly not for anything as mean as profit (e.g. Euripides, Medea 1-6; Catullus. 64.1-20; Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 627-632; Seneca, Medea 1-12; 301-379, inter alia – thanks to my old grad school pals Buddy Hedrick and Michael Hoffman for helping with some of the references which had long atrophied away in my historian’s mind). Alternately merchants, especially small scale merchants who do short-distance, small volume trade as opposed to long-distance sea trade (e.g. Cic. De Off. 1.150-1), was mean and unbecoming (e.g. Plb. 6.56.1; Liv. 21.63). As far as elites were concerned, merchants didn’t seem to produce anything (the theory of comparative advantage which explains how merchants produce value without producing things by moving things to where they are most valued would have to wait until 1776 to be mentioned and the early 1800s to be properly explained) and so the only explanation for their wealth was that they made it by deception and trickery, distorting the ‘real’ value of things (this faulty assumption that the ‘real value’ of things is inherent in them, or a product of their production, rather than their use value to an end user or consumer, does not go away in the modern period).

Merchants also – almost by definition being foreigners in their communities – often suffered as members of ‘middleman minorities,’ where certain tasks, particularly banking, commerce and tax collection are – for the reasons just discussed above – outsourced to foreigners or ethnic minorities who then tend to face violence and discrimination because of the power and prominence those tasks give them in society. Disdain for merchants was thus often packaged with ethnic hatred or racism – anyone exposed to the tropes of European or Near Eastern antisemitism (or more precisely, anti-Jewish sentiment) is familiar with this toxic brew, but the same tropes were applied to other middlemen minorities engaged in trade – Chinese people in much of South East Asia, Armenians in Turkey, Parsis in India and on and on. Violence against these groups was always self-destructive (in addition to being abhorrent on its face) – the economic services they provided were valuable to the broader society in ways that the broader society did not understand.

I am not going to include a picture of any one of the thousands and thousands of hateful, racist images attacking middleman minorities on these terms which litter both the historical record and the current internet. They are not hard to find. Instead, via the British Museum (1958,0712.1397), here is a 19th century hand-colored etching of a cat with kittens:

Now I should stress that the degree of disdain varies quite a lot from one place and condition to the next. Societies that depended heavily on trade, or where merchants occupied positions of authority – trade-oriented medieval Italian city-states, for example – often had a more positive understanding of their merchants. But by and large, agrarian societies viewed merchants with hostility and suspicion, even when it was understood how necessary they were.

All of that said, when we talk about merchants, we ought to be clear that the occupation covers a vast range of individuals, from small-scale land-based merchants moving grain on a single pack animal and making barely enough in profits to survive to the vast wealth of successful merchants encompassed in figures like the (fictional, mind you) Trimalchio, who might own fleets of ships and trading ventures. But of course merchants make their profits typically by moving goods from places where they are common and cheap to places where they are needed and expensive. Which brings us to:

Transport or One if by Sea, Twenty if by Land

This won’t be a complete overview of trade and transport options for bulk goods prior to the industrial revolution – that would be its own series – but just a discussion of some of the key features.

The most basic kind of transport is often small-scale overland transport, either to and from the nearest city, or in small (compared to what we’ll discuss in a moment) caravans moving up and down a region (Erdkamp, op cit has a good roundup of evidence for this). The Talmud, for instance, seems to suggest that much of the overland grain trade in Palestine under the Romans was performed with itinerant donkey-drivers in small caravans – and I do mean small. Egyptian tax evidence suggests that most caravans were small; Erdkamp notes that 90% of donkey caravans and 75% of camel caravans consisted of three or less animals. These sorts of small caravans don’t usually specialize in any particular good but instead function like land-based cabotage traders, buying whatever seems likely to turn a profit at each stop and stopping in each town and market along the way. Some farmers might even do this during the off season; in Spain, peasants often worked as muleteers during the slow farming season, moving rents and taxes into town or to points of export for their wealthy landlords and neighbors.

Truly long-distance bulk grain transport overland wasn’t viable for reasons we’ve actually already discussed. There is simply nothing available in the pre-modern period to carry the grain overland that doesn’t also eat it. While moving grain short distances (especially to simply fill capacity while the main profit is in other, lower-bulk, higher value goods) can be efficient enough, at long distance, all of the grain ends up eaten by the animals or people moving it.

Via Wikipedia, a relief of a corbita, a small Roman-period coastal vessel. Found at Carthage, it was probably made in the region, c. 200 CE. This is te kind of ship we might expect to be used for cabotage trading over short distances.

The seaborne version of this sort of itinerant, short-distance trade is called cabotage. Now today cabotage has a particular, technical legal meaning, but when we use this word in the past, it refers not to the legal status of a ship but a style of shipping using small boats to move mixed cargo up and down the coast. In essence, cabotage works much the same as the small caravans – the merchant buys in each port whatever looks likely to turn a profit and sells whatever in demand. By keeping a mixed cargo of many different sorts of things, he protects against risk – he’s always likely to be able to sell something in his boat for a profit. Such traders generally work on very short distances, often connecting smaller ports which simply cannot accommodate larger, deeper-draft long-distance traders. Such cabotage trading was the background ‘hum’ of commerce on many pre-modern coastlines and might serve to move grain up or down the coast, although not very much of it. Remember that grain is a bulk commodity, and cabotage traders, by definition, are moving small volumes.

Via Stanford’s ORBIS Project, a map of the travel time to Rome for bulk-commodities like grain (progressively darker zones indicate longer travel times. Notice how dramatic the differences can be: Carthage is much ‘closer’ to Rome in bulk-good-transit-time than other parts of Italy. Even far away Alexandria is closer than most of Spain, Gaul or the Balkans!
Note that this only calculates travel time – it doesn’t even consider the cost imposed by pack animals eating the food in transit!

But when it comes to moving large volumes, the sea changes everything. The fundamental problem with transporting food on land is that the energy to transport the food must come from food, either processed into muscle power by porters or animals. But at sea, that energy can come from the wind. So while the crew of a ship eats the food, the ship can be scaled up without scaling up the food requirements of the crew or the crew itself. At the same time, sea-transit is much faster than land transit and that speed is obtained from the wind without further inputs of food. It is hard to overstate how tremendous a change in context this is. Using the figures from the Price Edict of Diocletian, we tend to estimate that river transport was five times cheaper than land transport, and sea-transport was twenty times cheaper than land transport. So while the transport of bulk goods like grain on land was limited to fairly small amounts moving over short distances – say from the farm to the nearest town or port – grain could be moved long distances en masse by sea.

Now the scale and character of long-distance transport is heavily impacted by the political realities of the local waterways. If the seas are politically divided, or full of pirates, it is going to be hard to operate big, slow vulnerable grain-freighters and still make a profit after some of them get seized, pirated or sunk. But when we have periods of political unity and relatively safe seas, we see that this sort of transport can reach quite impressive scale. For instance the port regulations of late Hellenistic and Roman Thasos – itself a decent sized, but by no means massive port – divided its harbor into two areas, one for ships carrying 80-130 tons of cargo and one for ships 130+ tons (those regulations are SEG XVII 417). A brief bit of math indicates that the distribution of free grain in the city of Rome – likely less than a third of the total grain demands of the city – required the import, by sea of some 630 tons of grain per day through the sailing season. The scale of grain shipment in the back half of the Middle Ages (post-1000 or so) was also on a vast scale, with trade-oriented Italian cities exploding in population as they imported grain (Genoa being particularly well known for this, but by no means alone in it); with that came the reemergence of truly large grain-freighters.

Detailed terracotta model of a merchant ship, made c. 750-500BC in Cyprus, now in the British Museum (1894,1101.182). Like most merchant ships, it is shorter and round, with a wide hull optimized for cargo-space instead of speed (warships tend to be long and narrow to be fast in the water).

The balance between small-scale overland trade, coastal cabotage, and large-scale long-distance bulk shipping varies quite a lot from time-period to time-period and region to region. If you want to get a sense of how much it can change, last week I recommended Abulafia’s The Great Sea (2011), which is an excellent primer.

But so far, we’ve been working on the assumption that, for some reason, farmers want to give up part of their harvest. Except that, as we’ve discussed, our small farmers – and even the large ones – are often largely self-sufficient, or at least desire to be. With an ideal production of “subsistence and just a bit more” their ideal level of market interaction is minimal. So how do we get this vast amount of food sloshing around the trade lanes?


That brings us to taxes and rents, categories which are often less distinct historically than we may suppose. In concept, of course, rents are things you pay to farm on land someone else owns, whereas you pay taxes to the state for farming on land you own. And in some societies, these distinctions are often quite clear; for instance in the Roman Republic, there were rents paid by tenant farmers to large landholders which were quite distinct from the tributum, the standard tax paid to the state (although there were two fuzzy categories even here: the vectigalia were state revenues from things the state owned, mostly mines and such, and often grouped in with taxes while the ager publicus – ‘public land’ owned by the state – could be leased out, such that a farmer on ager publicus would pay rent to the state, rather than an individual).

But to take one of the most ambiguous possible system, the produce given up to the local lord under the medieval system of manorialism is both kind of a tax (in that the individuals paying are subjects of the lord who effectively is the state) and also kind of a rent (in that the lord claims ownership of the lands in question; his serfs are, in effect, semi-non-free tenants). Similar blurry lines emerge in many places where the state or temple (or Church) were major landholders, be it medieval Europe or the Bronze Age Near East.

(Terminology aside: Note that the economic system in much of medieval Europe is better understood under this term, manorialism, rather than ‘feudalism.’ Feudalism, as a term, has been generally going out of style among medievalists for a long time, but it is especially inapt here. In a lot of popular discourse (and high school classrooms), feudalism gets used as a catch-all to mean both the political relationships between aristocrats and other aristocrats, and the economic relationships between peasants and aristocrats, but these were very different relationships. Peasants did not have fiefs, they did not enter into vassalage agreements (the feodum of feudalism). Thus in practice my impression is that the experts in medieval European economics and politics tend to eschew ‘feudalism’ as an unhelpful term, preferring ‘manoralism’ to describe the economic system (including the political subordination of the peasantry) and ‘vassalage’ to describe the system of aristocratic political relationships.)

In most ways, though, we can treat rent and taxes together because their economic impacts are actually pretty similar: they force the farmer to farm more in order to supply some of his production to people who are not the farming household.

There are two major ways this can work: in kind and in coin and they have rather different implications. The oldest – and in pre-modern societies, by far the most common – form of rent/tax extraction is extraction in kind, where the farmer pays their rents and taxes with agricultural products directly. Since grain (threshed and winnowed) is a compact, relatively transportable commodity (that is, one sack of grain is as good as the next, in theory), it is ideal for these sorts of transactions, although perusing medieval manorial contacts shows a bewildering array of payments in all sorts of agricultural goods. In some cases, payment in kind might also come in the form of labor, typically called corvée labor, either on public works or even just farming on lands owned by the state.

The advantage of extraction in kind is that it is simple and the initial overhead is low. The state or large landholders can use the agricultural goods they bring in in rents and taxes to directly sustain specialists: soldiers, craftsmen, servants, and so on. Of course the problem is that this system makes the state (or the large landholder) responsible for moving, storing and cataloging all of those agricultural goods. We get some sense of how much of a burden this can be from the prominence of what seem to be records of these sorts of transactions in the surviving writing from the Bronze Age Near East (although I should note that many archaeologists working on the ancient Near Eastern economy are pushing for a somewhat larger, if not very large, space for market interactions outside of the ‘temple economy’ model which has dominated the field for quite some time). This creates a ‘catch’ we’ll get back to: taxation in kind is easy to set up and easier to maintain when infrastructure and administration is poor, but in the long term it involves heavier administrative burdens and makes it harder to move tax revenues over long distances.

Multiple views of one of approximately 20,000 clay tablets found at Kültepe (ancient Kanesh) from the Assyrian merchant’s quarter, dating to c. 1850 – 1700 B.C.  This one concerns trade in precious metals.

Taxation in coin offers potentially greater efficiency, but requires more particular conditions to set up and maintain. First, of course, you have to have coinage. That is not a given! Much of the social interactions and mechanics of farming I’ve presented here stayed fairly constant (but consult your local primary sources for variations!) from the beginnings of written historical records (c. 3,400 BC in Mesopotamia; varies place to place) down to at least the second agricultural revolution (c. 1700 AD in Europe; later elsewhere) if not the industrial revolution (c. 1800 AD). But money (here meaning coinage) only appears in Anatolia in the seventh century BC (and probably independently invented in China in the fourth century BC). Prior to that, we see that big transactions, like long-distance trade in luxuries, might be done with standard weights of bullion, but that was hardly practical for a farmer to be paying their taxes in.

Coinage actually takes even longer to really influence these systems. The first place coinage gets used is where bullion was used – as exchange for big long-distance trade transactions. Indeed, coinage seemed to have started essentially as pre-measured bullion – “here is a hunk of silver, stamped by the king to affirm that it is exactly one shekel of weight.” Which is why, by the by, so many ‘money words’ (pounds, talents, shekels, drachmae, etc.) are actually units of weight. But if you want to collect taxes in money, you need the small farmers to have money. Which means you need markets for them to sell their grain for money and then those merchants need to be able to sell that grain themselves for money, which means you need urban bread-eaters who are buying bread with money, which means those urban workers need to be paid in money. And you can only get any of these people to use money if they can exchange that money for things they want, which creates a nasty first-mover problem.

We refer to that entire process as monetization – when I talk about economies being ‘monetized’ or ‘incompletely monetized’ that’s what I mean: how completely has the use of money penetrated through this society. It isn’t a one-way street, either. Early and High Imperial Rome seem to have been more completely monetized than the Late Roman Western Empire or the early Middle Ages (though monetization increases rapidly in the later Middle Ages).

Via Wikipedia, a Lydian gold coin, c. 620-564 BCE. The earliest coins really do go to show that was is being produced here is measured and stamped units of precious metals. Little concern is given to having a regular shape because what matters is a regular mass in metal. Later coins would feature innovations like raised edges and more regular circular shapes to deter folks from filing away the edges of the coin in order to cheat their transactions.

Extraction, paradoxically, can solve the first mover problem in monetization, by making the state the first mover. If the state insists on raising taxes in money, it forces the farmers to sell their grain for money to pay the tax-man; the state can then take that money and use it to pay soldiers (almost always the largest budget-item in an ancient or medieval state budget), who then use the money to buy the grain the farmers sold to the merchants, creating that self-sustaining feedback loop which steadily monetizes the society. For instance, Alexander the Great’s armies – who expected to be paid in coin – seem to have played a major role in monetizing many of the areas they marched through (along with breaking things and killing people; the image of Alexander the Great’s conquests in popular imagination tend to be a lot more sanitized).

(Naturally this is a wildly oversimplified description of this process. If you want more information on this, Keith Hopkins’ famous article, “Rome, Taxes, Rents and Trade” Kodai (1995/6) models this effect for the Roman economy. Aperghis, The Seleukid Royal Economy (2004) discusses this effect in the Seleucid empire. I should also note that monetization seems to have been an inherently fragile phenomenon; any disruption to the ability of the state to mint coins or in the trade and market system which ensured there was something to buy with those coins and the countryside would rapidly demonetize. Consequently monetization, especially among the lower classes who are the least exposed to coinage, tends to be an ebb-and-flow phenomenon over time.)

Better Living Through Exploitation

The irony of all of this extraction is that while it is often nasty and predatory, it can have some positive long-term effects, because the extra food that the farmers are being effectively forced to produce moves through either state-redistribution or market mechanisms to an increasing population of specialist non-farmers who in turn provide benefits for the broader society, sometimes including the farmers.

Metal tools, improved plows, large mills and bakeries would all be impossible without specialist smiths, wood-workers, architects, millers and bakers, for instance. And those merchants, moving food around from where it is common to where it is scarce can – if there are enough of them and trade is sufficiently unrestricted by things like wars – serve a valuable stabilizing role on the otherwise wildly destructive volatility of prices for things like food and other essentials. Moreover, specialization and trade encouraged distance travel, which might bring foreign disease, but might also bring new agricultural technologies.

If the extraction is done in coin, then the effects of monetization are layered on top of this. While we talked about the reasons why money provided at best an imperfect store of value for farmers, it was valuable in order ways, but only if the economy was deeply monetized such that even the very small purchases a farmer might make could be handled in cash. The great advantage of coinage is that it tremendously reduces transaction costs and allows for more complex business arrangements, which in turn enhance the overall efficiency of the underlying economy.

Abstract concepts are hard to illustrate in pictures sometimes, so via the British Museum (1831,1212.19), here is a 18th century British print of a girl with a kitten. Though I should note that this kind of artwork of kittens are the sorts of goods made possible by the specialists created by high-equilibrium societies.

Moreover, if a large, interconnected zone of monetized markets should form and stick around long enough (as under the Roman Empire, for instance), long distance sea-trade can cause local economies to reorganize around comparative advantage, specializing in producing cash-crops for other regions, while importing missing essentials. Thus first century CE Roman Italy produced significant amounts of wine for export, while at the same time relying on imports of olives from North Africa and grain from North Africa, Sicily and Egypt. Likewise, parts of England were able to specialize in wool production (processed into textiles and sold in the Low Countries), while importing other agricultural goods. Since certain areas of the world are better suited to some kinds of agriculture over others, the end result of this was increased production efficiency overall.

This actually leads back to a point that has come up in the comments a number of times: why I don’t ascribe to the automatic assumption that there is an inherent Malthusian trap in the pre-modern world. While certainly there is some population figure that would trigger a Malthusian crisis, the normal assumption being made here is that agricultural production is fundamentally static. But it isn’t. What we see instead are agricultural systems capable of operating at multiple equilibria (the plural of equilibrium).

You can imagine a low-equilibrium society, where trade and monetization are minimal. In this environment, it is very hard for small farmers to get access to productive capital (plow-teams, manure, mills) and so agricultural productivity is low. Because agricultural productivity is low, it is hard for the society to support many specialists, which in turn means fewer tools, plow-teams, manure and mills. The system is in a stable equilibrium, but at a relatively low level.

But take the same society and increase trade and monetization. Access to capital gets easier through monetary means and increased trade means increased agricultural specialization, which increases overall out; the trade compensates for the added risk of pushing closer to mono-cropping in each region by evening out prices. Because agricultural productivity is high, the society supports many specialists. Some of those are freeloading aristocrats and large landholders who do little but extract rents and live lavish lifestyles, but many are productive specialists who produce the capital necessary to improve yields, or maintain the trade systems that support everything. This society is operating at a higher, stable equilibrium.

Without changing any farming technology – that is, we haven’t invented anything, although existing technologies are more available in our high-equilibrium society – or the amount of land available, or the quality of the land, the second society is going to support far more people, potentially at a significantly higher standard of health for the decades or centuries it takes for population growth to catch up to the increased production ceiling. Even once the total population pushes against that ceiling, it may benefit from the availability of produced goods (tools, textiles, buildings, infrastructure) which continue to be produced by the specialist non-farmers, even if food once again becomes tight. It is better to live in danger of starvation in a well-made house with decent clothes, good tools, fine poetry and fun civic festivals than it is to live in the same danger of starvation, but alone in a mud-hut with none of those things.

(As an aside, this is the crux of my Grief and Loathing argument against Sparta. Instead of allowing the helot surplus to create a class of specialists who might improve life for everyone, Sparta redirected that surplus to the most unproductive class of individuals ever to live, whose sole product was violence against the helots. Effectively the Spartan system created a uniquely low equilibrium society, even under conditions where every other neighboring Greek polis was moving to a higher equilibrium under the influence of coinage, urbanization and specialization. It is not that the helots were poor – many farmers were poor – but that they were artificially kept poor, by a uniquely exploitative and useless ruling class.)

We can actually see the effects of a society moving from a lower equilibrium to a higher one and then back down again in the Roman world. Because the nature of the Roman economy is such a long-standing debate, a tremendous amount of archaeology and scholarship has gone in to charting it; what they tend to show is that economic activity increased significantly in the Mediterranean from the second century BCE to the first century CE, before holding steady at a relatively high level into the second and possibly even third centuries. Population expands, urbanism increases, evidence suggests that diets, even among the poor, seem to improve. Life appears to have – slowly, fitfully, and in ways that while significant compared to other ancient societies would seem tiny in comparison to modern economic growth – gotten better, in an absolute sense.

And then the fragile systems of trade and monetization that created that prosperity begin to break down as the Empire collapses. Bryan Ward-Perkins documents the archaeological evidence for real decline in living standards (which, by the by, runs counter to what was often supposed – that regular people did better once their imperial masters were out of the picture; in this case, it turns out they did not, though in other cases they may have). Population contracts and the loss of specialist non-farmers leads in some cases to the loss of key productive technologies, perhaps most famously, ceramics – that is, the making of pots (I struggle to communicate how important a technology this is, or how fundamental) – becomes a lost technology in post-Roman Britain, when the cities where the professional potters lived faded away as the trade which sustained them broke down.

(Not that the Middle Ages are all doom and gloom! Indeed, they lead in many places to an even higher equilibrium by the twelfth century, before the singular disruption of the Black Death make it hard to generalize from the evidence)


I should stress here at the end that this entire series has been just an overview of the basic structures of cereal farming. This is a massive topic and there is a lot of regional variation. In particular this last essay on markets and extraction varies wildly from society to society, as these are social institutions constructed by people and so less constant than things like growing seasons and so on, which are more constrained by simple biology. And while this is the end of this series on cereal farming and bread, I do want to note that a lot of you in the comments have raised great questions about other kinds of agriculture and animal husbandry: legumes, pasturage, ranching, olives, fruit, gardens, and so on. And I hope we will get to those topics!

But what I hope this series has done is at least illuminated a little bit the world of the countryside outside of the cities and outside of the tiny elite that some history and almost all of popular culture focuses on when thinking about the past. The veritable legions of small farmers, the handful of larger farmers, the millers, mill-workers, bakers and merchants who form the vast bulk of the human terrain of the pre-modern world and thus the greatest share of human experiences in that world. And at the same time revealed the ways in which those lives are shaped by economic forces rooted in what we might call the organic economy – distinct from our modern economy by the fact that almost all of the energy in it comes through agriculture (or forestry).

While this is the last of the essays on grain production, I also hope it will serve as a useful foundation for discussing other kinds of production in pre-modern societies, because every other kind of production fundamentally relied on food production in order to survive.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat a sandwich.

154 thoughts on “Collections: Bread, How Did They Make It? Part IV: Markets, Merchants and the Tax Man

  1. James Masschaele has an interesting article on transport costs in 14th century England (, which suggests that the ratio of sea:river:land transport costs was 8:4:1, so that sea transport was only eight times cheaper than land transport. I’ve often wondered whether this is because the Edict of Diocletian was more concerned with long distance bulk freight, rather than short coastal freight, or if it’s a combination of higher average tonnage and more ships in the 3rd century CE when compared to the 14th century England.


    1. I think geography is also a factor. The Mediterranean is basically ‘interior lines’ for Rome, whereas sailing from one part of England to another means following the coast instead of taking a more direct route.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, I didn’t consider that. It’s also just occurred to me that land transport might have been unusually cheap in 14th century England – it was cheap compared to early modern transport – so it might be a combination of the two factors there.


      2. Also the weather was very important. The Med tended to be more sheltered for coastal sailing than the coast of England. I suspect weather was more critical than distance (though related obviously, as the further you have to sail, the greater risk you’re taking). The coast of England was dangerous!


  2. I found a typo! I found a typo! (might as well get it started)

    it was valuable in order ways, but only if –> it was valuable in other ways, but only if

    Other points:

    Sea transport has (possibly) another advantage, less energy overall needed to move things a similar distance. At least in modern times this is the case. Physical reasons I’m not entirely sure of, I think it’s that water just lets you build things bigger (water is smooth to move through, land is not smooth to travel over, plus water can support things through buoyancy while land you have to specially build support structures), plus a square cube effect (friction in water goes as the square of the length of something, it is based on the area, while the space to carry things goes as the cube), and it looks like both of these apply to ancient ships in addition to modern ones.

    “Having to carry the stuff you use to move” was a problem for early steam powered ships, but more efficient engines + bigger ships solved this issue.

    It is surprising how much of this stuff is familiar even in modern times. As a budding economist, the stuff about trade, monetization, specialization, etc. is all very familiar to stuff I’ve learned, and a lot of the general principles are the same even today. (Same applies to your ancient cities blog post). Not sure what I’d do with this similarity, admittedly.


      1. Uh-oh! Looks as if Bret hasn’t had time to make corrections. Here are quite a few more:
        Caption for corbita: This is te kind of ship -> This is the kind of ship
        sells whatever in demand -> sells whatever isin demand
        either processed into muscle power by -> processed into muscle power by either
        most ambiguous possible system, -> most ambiguous possible systems,
        Caption for gold coin: show that was is being -> show that what is being
        population of specialist non-farmers -> population of specialist nonfarmers
        smiths, wood-workers, architects -> smiths, woodworkers, architects
        increases overall out; (unsure what intention was here/?)
        loss of specialist non-farmers -> loss of specialist nonfarmers
        from the evidence) -> from the evidence.) (insert missing period)
        people and so less constant -> people and so areless constant


    1. That advantage of water is a reason why inland water transport became so popular.

      Unless you reliably have wind and current in opposite directions (I think this is the case on the Nile at least some of the year), before the invention of the steam engine inland water transport must be muscle powered in at least one direction, whether that’s by humans rowing or poling the boat, or by humans or animals on the bank towing it. But that is still much more efficient, and scales much better, than pack animals or wagons even on a good road.

      (The exception here is where you only want to transport heavy/bulky goods in one direction, such as floating timber down a river).


        1. Common figures on Wikipedia is that one horse can move roughly:
          – 1/8 of a ton as a packhorse;
          – 1/2…3/4 ton on a bad road (I understand this means bumpy but firm dirt);
          – 3 tons on an improved road (IMO this means a smoothed gravel surface);
          – 10 tons on a plank road or wagonway (wooden railway, basically);
          – 30 tons on a canal.
          Interestingly, seagoing ships weren’t all that large by comparison. The famously efficient fluyt displaced only 200-300 tons.


      1. >>> before the invention of the steam engine inland water transport must be muscle powered in at least one direction

        It’s a myth that ships can only follow the wind. A ship can go in any direction as long as there is wind.

        This includes going fully against the wind, moving alternatively in diagonal to the left then diagonal to the right. (A quick google image or youtube search will show you)
        It’s not the most efficient or the most comfortable to sail but it does just fine. Certainly better than being stuck or heading backward.

        Thinking about it, boats may not be able to maneuver efficiently in relatively small rivers. That’s probably one of the reasons why sea transport is much cheaper than river transport.


          1. It works well enough that Arthur Ransome’s children’s books–Coot Club and The Big Six included not just small pleasure sail boats but also larger trading wherries that traveled the Norfolk Broads under sail power. Apparently there are only 8 known surviving ships now.


  3. Great article! I only wish I had an insightful question to ask, because this has been a great series which deserves better discussion and more notice.


  4. One problem to the farmer of money taxes is that the goodness of the harvest varies inversely with the amount of money you get for it. A bumper crop will bring down the price of grain and so make you sell more to get enough to pay the tax.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As much as I love talking about Lord of the Rings or dunking on Sparta, I think this might be my favorite series on the blog (so far!). I’ve had a fascination for the mundane aspects of history for quite a while, and learning about how all the people who weren’t knights, explorers, kings, etc. lived makes history feel less like a wargame’s lore and more like a real place where people lived.


  6. I’ve read that a lot of Roman-style international trade hung on for a while after the fall of the empire and only went into a wholesale decline after the rise of Islam turned the Mediterranean into a Christian/Muslim war zone. Is this accurate or old/bad scholarship?


    1. Bret would be able to give that question a proper answer, but that seems plausible. The Eastern Empire held on for a lot longer than the Western Empire did, so it makes sense that at least in the Eastern Mediterranean that a lot of the old trade routes kept on functioning to some degree after 476.


    2. This model is known as the Pirenne Thesis, after it’s creator, Henri Pirenne. It has some supporters, particularly on the medieval side of the equation, but remains a minority view. More recent archaeology has tended to weaken, not strengthen, Pirenne’s old argument and I think the trend now is to call for moving away from even arguing if the model is accurate or inaccurate and rather to ask completely new questions.

      I tend to think that the archaeological evidence pulled together by Bryan Ward-Perkins (op. cit. above) is fatal to the economic core of the Pirenne Thesis – it tends to show the breakdown of trade and the splintering of the Mediterranean occurred quite a bit earlier than Pirenne would have it. At the same time, some current work on medieval Mediterranean interconnectedness tends to also suggest that the post-7th century drop-off was not as severe as Pirenne would have it.

      I fall into the camp that tends to think that, at this stage, Pirenne obscures more than he clarifies, and is best left behind.


    3. The relevant volume in the Penguin History of Europe, (Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome, 2009) attributes the collapse in the West to the Vandal conquest of North Africa, which meant the state was no longer sponsoring bulk transport of grain from there to Rome.


    4. FWIW, Wiki Early Middle Ages says “Archaeologists have identified only 40 percent as many Mediterranean shipwrecks from the 3rd century as from the first.” also “The very small number of shipwrecks found that dated from the 8th century supports this (which represents less than 2 per cent of the number of shipwrecks dated from the 1st century). There were also reforestation and a retreat of agriculture centred around 500. “

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The high transportation costs of grain also help explain why whiskey was a popular cash crop for Appalachian America since it was VASTLY VASTLY easier to transport a volume of whiskey than the grains that would go into producing that much whiskey. You wouldn’t get the same gains from producing beer since it’d be a lot heavier since it’s less concentrated. This explains why the Whiskey Rebellion happened in areas far from maritime trade.

    I’m not sure about other examples of this, but I’d assume the same thing would apply to vodka. Hell of a lot easier to transport vodka than the potatoes used to make the vodka.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Terrain less suited to agriculture than other areas… unruly population living at the edge of state control… an economy based around exporting a mind-altering substance to more urbanized areas… Appalachia ~ Arrakis.


  8. One caveat and one issue:

    Caveat is that long-distance trade was very much a socially-rewarded occupation in many pre-industrial societies, and more specifically in what might be called ‘palace societies’ – the Bronze Age, early Islamic Middle East, early Scandinavia, steppe nomads. These societies were held together by gift-exchange between elites, with the gift more valued if the more exotic. Lapis lazuli, robes of honour, ivory knick-knacks, pearls…the man who brought these things to the palace gate was likely to be feasted. Mesopotamian rulers show a lot of concern for protection of merchants, as do Islamic codes and steppe rulers. For good reason – because if the ruler ran short of prestige goods, rule faltered.

    The issue is that you confuse monetisation with coinage (a common mistake). Money is a transferable debt, and most ‘money’ is and always has been a token of debt. Bret buys take-out, hands over plastic card; now banks owes Bret $10 less, restaurant $10 more. In ancient Ur, temple issues clay peg for 2 sacks of barley; local official hands over peg for one, takes sack; temple deducts from his account. In medieval England, king needs the catapults refurbished at a royal castle – the exchequer issues tallies and an authorisation to a master carpenter, who uses these to requisition materials, food and transport as he and crew travel, do the work and return (see David Bachrach in the Journal of Military History 68 (October 2004): 1083–1104). Exchequer audits and reconciles returned tallies against tax obligations.

    Coins and ‘unit of account’ are separate things. Silver or gold weights are a convenient unit of account (few arguments about quality, widely accepted, high value to weight when the residual needs to be settled) – the actual coinage is more variable and much, much smaller than the amount of credit in circulation.

    The introduction of coinage is associated with large-scale use of mercenaries, who want to take their earnings home and are outside the credit system. It’s ancillary to the credit system – which operated happily for two millennia before its introduction, and operates still as the main form of exchange.


    1. I disagree on a few things here.

      First, the state’s decision to protect merchants legally and militarily cannot be taken to mean that the aristocrats doing this like merchants, think merchants are good people, or would allow merchants a meaningful political role. The Roman Empire took great steps to protect trade in its borders, and elite Roman (and Greek) sources are pretty open in their dislike for the merchant class (one of the things MI Finley gets right – a statement I do not say often). Ship owners were legally barred from being in the Senate, as I note. And when push came to shove, the Roman state was much more morally comfortable making decisions that bothered merchants and businessmen than elites or landholders. All of this despite a clear pro-trade state policy. You can enjoy taxing people you hate, it turns out.

      So I think you want to separate law codes that protect merchants (so that their revenue is available to be taxed) with actual attitudes, elite and otherwise, towards those merchants. Especially when those merchants are middleman minorities – who tend to be legally protected by the ruler right up to the moment they aren’t and are being massacred in the streets or expelled from the country.

      On the issue of money, here I also disagree. There is a significant difference between societies that record tax obligations and trade long-distance in bullion and societies where there is regular everyday use of coinage in small amounts. We generally talk about the latter being ‘more monetized’ because they are more actively using money. Money, in the formal definition has to fit three key criteria: 1) a unit of account, 2) a store of value and 3) a medium of exchange. Debt that is transferable between just two parties isn’t enough – to be *money* it needs to be able to be exchanged with a third party.

      Tax remissions do not appear generally to have this quality. Systems where the state requisitions from an individual and then discounts that from their tax obligations aren’t money because there is no way to use your tax obligations as a medium of exchange. You cannot give your partially fulfilled tax obligations to a third party, in exchange for goods and services. That isn’t money, it is merely taxation in kind. Especially since the items requisitioned are generally things for which the individual was already tax-liable for (labor, grain, etc). I’d also caution against using 13th century AD institutions to understand 13th century BC ones – by the 13th century, Europe is heavily monetized. *Very* heavily monetized by ancient standards.

      But the real question with monetization in a society is not “do they have money” (we see the idea of value expressed as bulk weights of silver as early as the Code of Hammurabi) but “who has access to it and uses it.” As far as we can tell, in the third or second millennium BC in Mesopotamia, the answer is “only merchants engaging in long-distance trade, along with kings and temples interacting with them.” Even in the first half of the first millennium BC, the local small farmers don’t have bulk silver – much less coinage – to pay taxes with. They pay taxes in grain. This is the crux of the point Aperghis makes – the Seleucids end up literally founding cities to serve as markets so that the locals can sell their produce for silver so that they can pay taxes – because they had not been doing that before. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t – Aperghis is deep in the evidence there (including non-Greek sources) and it really is a different economic world.

      So monetization is a question of “How far down the social ladder has the use of money – be it bullion money or coinage – penetrated.” The significant of the advent of coinage is that you finally get units of exchange small enough for regular people to use them. We think about exchange in silver and gold – that’s our elite sources talking. Regular people did business in small copper and bronze coins in the ancient world. Asses and Obols more often than the smallest silver denominations like denarii or drachmae (and *certainly* not aurei). One denarius in Italy bought more than a modius of wheat (2-3HS= 0.5-0.75 denarii as standard price; Rickman, Corn Supply of Ancient Rome (1980) for figures); a modius of grain, at about 6.75kg would be enough to feed a Roman soldier on active duty for about a week (of course a denarius was famously the standard wage for a full day’s labor by a daylaborer).

      When we do see coinage appear in Lydia, it’s worth noting it is denominations in electrum – way too big for daily transactions. Which makes perfect sense: coinage is being produced only for the sort of people who already use money (that is, bullion money): the wealthy and merchants. It’s only when we get into Ionia much later in the sixth century that we start to see denominations small enough to actually use in day-to-day transactions – suggesting that common folk have started using the stuff.


      1. The bit about merchants being valued in Scandinavia reminds me of some Icelandic Sagas. Landowners competed for the honor of hosting a merchant since they got the first pick of the wares. Also lots of stories of people giving walrus ivory or live polar bears or whatever to kings in Denmark and Norway and being given honors and rich gifts in return. So not officially merchants as it’s all gift giving but it ends up being prett6 much the same thing in the end result.


        1. In China, for long periods, you brought tribute to the emperor and received his gifts in return. Many countries simply sent merchants as “ambassadors,” and there could be quite a bit of haggling about the richness of the tribute requiring finer gifts in return.


        2. Yeah, my understanding is that Scandinavian magnates were heavily involved in trade. I’ve also read that the periods of heavy viking raiding were precipitated by disruption to established trade networks to the silk road, causing magnates to go raiding to meet their social and material obligations (gift giving and feasting) that were previously financed by trade or the taxation of trade (Sølv, blod og kongemagt by Anders Lundt Hansen).

          And as you say, the tone of the Icelandic sagas are not really disparaging of trade activity, as you find in later medieval periods.


    2. Having ” a lot of concern for protection of merchants” can go either way. Perhaps the king regards them with particular concern, but perhaps the merchants are in particular danger because they are held in scorn.


  9. Comparing across genres – the high cost of preindustrial land transport really reminds me of the rocket equation. A major reason why space travel is so expensive is because a pack animal (er, rocket engine) consumes enormous amounts of food/propellant and every additional kilogram of food/fuel requires even more food/fuel to cover the cost of moving that first kilogram.

    To extend the analogy to sail-powered sea transport: as a result, a lot of science fiction settings thus rely on non-rocket ways of getting around (warping spacetime, teleporting through gates, solar sails, etc.).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, yes, the famed tyranny of the donkey equation.

      But you’re quite right. At least the donkey doesn’t have to deal with relativistic mass.


    2. The comparison can be extended within overland transport itself. Specific impulse corresponds to the question of how much food can one draft animal transport. Thus improved roads, canals and rivers navigable to shore-drawn boats can be seen as having higher Isp with appropriately large effects on trade (and military logistics).


  10. My understanding is that the Third Century soldier-emperors currency debasement and subsequent effective hyperinflation and demonetization was major contributor to massive bureaucratic expansion of the Diocletian-Constantine reforms in an effort to keep the border soldiers and escort armies supplied with in-kind taxation. The imperial bureaucracy went from ~250 mostly Italic aristocratic officials and their ~10,000 enslaved staff managing the a single Imperial administrative layer of ~50 provinces in the High Empire to ~40,000 bureaucrats recruited from the provincial aristocracy manning the now three layers divided into 4 Praetorian Prefectures, 13 Dioceses, and ~100 Provinces all to provide the administrative intensity needed to keep the soldiers combat effective.


  11. On the first point – I agree with regard to Greece, Rome and most medieval societies. My examples are of Bronze Age and similar societies.

    On the second – by ‘transferable’ I mean precisely transferable to third parties. Money starts as a record of debt with the transferability gradually widening, ending in coins where the token is essentially anonymous as to debtor and creditor. But most money in circulation today has limited transferability (eg your credit or debit card is personal to you).


    1. Re the second point, surely my credit or debit card is not itself money. The card is just a means of recording transactions that are conducted using dollars – or more specifically, the card is the means that I use to authorize my bank to transfer dollars from my bank account (i.e. dollars owned by me) to my counterparty’s bank account (i.e. into the ownership of my counterparty). It’s the dollars (in this case existing in the form of an electronic record) that are the money, and they are fully transferable.


      1. Just as, in ancient Sumer, you paid by annotating a clay tablet issued by the temple, which kept the central accounts. Or, at the tavern, you ‘pay’ when another notch is put on your tally-stick. Money, as in unit of account, is not separable from accounting. A coin or bank-note is a token that says ‘the community using this currency recognises a debt to the holder redeemable in goods/services or equivalent currency’. Silver and gold were widely recognised, easily standardised, so widely accepted. But never the major form of currency – that’s always the circulating debt recorded on clay, papyrus, parchment, tally-sticks, computers…As Bret notes, there’s small change for local market transactions (introduced after silver coins), but that is small change [the Seleucids were keen on markets because they increased the monetary tax take, but the basis of Seleucid power was Greek mercenaries, paid in silver].

        That’s why there’s no determinate amount of money circulating. There’s M1, M2, M3, and so on (some definitions go as high as M20), on a sliding scale of transferability, liquidity and soundness. Everybody tries to trade up in risky times (old times, go for gold; modern times – go for US treasuries), or widen the pool in easy times.

        Same applies to the ‘store of value’ definition. What is being stored are claims on production. If they can not be collected/enforced, then the value lapses (eg, you have a pile of South Vietnamese piastres, Confederate State of Georgia notes or Tsarist Russia bonds). In your example, your bank owes you – if it goes, your money goes (see the 30s, or numerous bank failures before then). Now, that bank debt is guaranteed by the state up to some limit – that’s the ultimate in safety. But it’s still a debt – if the state fails, ‘your’ money disappears.


        1. If a bank account is a debt and not money because it disappears when if the state fails the same applies to paper currency. The vendor at my local farmers market only takes cash, but my larger purchases over the internet don’t take cash so I wouldn’t say the bank account is less transferable. As for anonymity, its true a bank account can be frozen, unlike a strong box of cash. However currency can also be declared illegal as India did with its large notes. So for the purpose of discussing the monetization of the economy talking about treating currency and bank accounts basic equivalents is valid even if the Fed starts making distinctions and making discounts on bank accounts making monetary policy.


  12. As always, great post. I now organize my week to have the time to read your blog on Saturday 🙂

    “Faulty assumption that the ‘real value’ of things is inherent in them, or a product of their production, rather than their use value to an end user or consumer, does not go away in the modern period.”

    The idea that there is no inherent value in production of things other than what market will pay for them is also faulty and dangerous. Most western countries now pay the price for following it over the past decades: We have to change this thinking.


    1. This is an area in which mainstream modern economics has parted ways with (or moved on from) Adam Smith. Smith thought that conditions of competition would always reduce prices to the cost of production (including transport).


    2. This is an important point, but (I think) in a different way than you suggest. What the article you cite describes is primarily a political and military rather than an economic problem. On the other hand, studies in psychology/behavioral economics have shown that what price people are willing to pay for a good depends quite a bit on priming and especially on what price the seller is trying to charge, to the point that participants in at least one experiment were willing to pay to buy something when that was suggested to them but expected to be paid to take it when that was suggested to them instead. So, aside from cases where people don’t have the money to buy something, prices don’t always reach an efficient equilibrium as simply as you might expect, because of how the expected supply of a good affects its demand.


      1. Why would I engage in such a pointless exercise? I’d rather think about the technologies needed for distribution of tap water in a city and collection of waste water and value of those things for people living there. As an aside, I think my personal definition of a present “3rd world country” would be along the lines: a place where you have internet and smartphones but you don’t have waterworks.


  13. On Rome, I (vaguely!) recall there were laws which forbade Senators to engage in trade, which resulted in a lot of younger brothers etc. remaining members of the Equestrian class.

    In China, merchants were officially below peasants in ranking.

    And of course the frowning on trade persisted into the works of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope (as parody) and the Wind in the Willows.

    Speaking of China, great efforts were made to preserve the Grand Canal, which served to bring southern rice to northern cities to feed the soldiers needed to hold back the steppe people.


    1. I don’t think ‘frowning on trade’ has quite gone away today. There are still plenty of societies where social class is distinct from wealth. The stereotype of the vulgar nouveau riche is alive and kicking.

      Even in the US, a nation whose national unifying myth is the accessibility of the ‘American dream’, you can see people valuing old money. There are tangible benefits to coming from a ‘good family’ and having a certain kind of education, accent, and mindset.

      The difference is that the elites who resent new money are not so entrenched in control of society, and have to accept that there are other competing sources of personal power and influence.

      Given that social mobility has been falling across large parts of the world for a few decades, it’s quite possible that everything could shift further towards an acceptable elites / disreputable merchants dichotomy again.


      1. For instance, I have literally seen people discussing how to argue that lawyers, doctors, and other experts are entitled to more respect while at the same time arguing that billionaires should not exist on grounds of equality. They still resent money-making.


        1. Isn’t that an argument about how money is made, and how much? Landlords didn’t object to making money – they objected to the way merchants made it. Also, hard to justify Bezos levels of wealth.


        2. Yeah, that has a lot more to do with how the money is made (extracted from ownership of capital, with favorable tax rates from the state), and the sheer quantities of it and the power that grants over other people, plus those quantities while other people are going homeless and hungry.

          And then there’s Matthew 19:23-24.


        3. Also, doctors and lawyers aren’t really “aristocracy” or old money, ( or “merchants” or new money either definitely ). They’re skilled labor / craftspeople – similar to the blacksmiths or dyers or knights or weavers or millers – just a waaaay lot up higher on that ladder than most tradespeople we’re used to thinking of.

          They definitely have a different place and way of making their cash or a living, than say, the owner of a factory, or a hospital, or a company which * employs * lawyers.


        1. I have literally seen someone declare that if we just got rid of the landlords, people would just go on living where they are, minus the rent.


        2. I think this is another case of simply not understanding what they do to earn the money, or why that is valuable. Just as before the Industrial Revolution, people said of merchants “they just move stuff around, what do they *make*?” due to a faulty notion of value, nowadays many people ask “they just organize other people’s work, what do they make?” due to a faulty notion of cooperation.

          (More cynically, gregarious people may have a subconscious idea that people’s work should be organized through personal relationships, in which case they have an advantageous position, rather than through impersonal contracts, spreadsheets and other systems, in which case people with different personality traits have an advantage. This would smoothly extend the comparison: just as military aristocrats would be contemptuous of merchants and artisans because they had little military virtue, instead holding a relatively WEIRD system of values, gregarious people naturally view their own strengths as virtues and disparage the value-systems/narratives that would put others over them.)

          Liked by 1 person

      2. Today’s Old Money looking down on New Money is probably similar psychologically to the ancient landowners looking down on merchants, but today’s Old Money and New Money have the same kind of wealth; they’re all business owners. The difference is that New Money haven’t learned the manners and customs of their new class.

        Socialist resentment of the rich is a different animal; they make no distinction between old and new money, and would have made no distinction between the ancient landowners and merchant princes. They see extraction as the only path to extreme wealth; however it is you say you made your billion, you really got it by seizing it from the workers who actually created that wealth.


  14. Arab society seems to be one of the few to have placed merchants in a position of honor. The prophet Muhammad was a trader, and in fact it was his reputation for fair dealing that gave him a receptive audience.


      1. I’m old enough that Pirenne was taught in my history classes.

        One of the arguments about trade in the Mediterranean, not just by Pirenne, is that the Islamic societies around the Med seem to have had a blind spot about the value of seaborne transport. Warships, sure, Arab fleets were a menace across the Med from the 7th century CE on. But commerce was largely dominated by Europeans. The example most often brought up was camel trains walking back and forth across the coast of North Africa instead of using the ocean that was literally a few kilometres away.

        But that was a long time ago, happy to be corrected by someone with more up to date knowledge.


        1. There was certainly a huge Arab trade presence in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Much of the immense wealth of Egypt was because it was the best route for trade from the Indian Ocean into the Med.

          But I agree that I can think of few examples of Arab ships trading in Christian/European ports. I wonder if that was the Christian/European governments mistreating them more than the Arab/Muslim governments mistreated Venetian, Genoese or Sicilian ships that visited their ports to trade.


    1. Hmm, was Arab society primarily agrarian or grain-oriented? I don’t know but my gut suggests not. Having read Scott’s Against the Grain I’m thinking of the Arabs as pastoral and more nomadic, thus more inclined to valuing trade. Someone else mentioned Viking raiders; Vikings farmed at home, but seem ‘barbarian’ in Scott’s terms, not a fully developed state, thus again with different biases.

      I’m not expressing this well. Trying to poke at an idea that the difference isn’t arbitrarily cultural but related to the production and organization of a society: it’s the highly sedentary, highly devleoped, agrarian states that ascribe low status to merchants.


      1. From my reading, while all pre-industrial societies were basically agrarian, some did not have a locally-based landlord class. They were organised around a centre (temple, palace), which extracted the surplus and distributed it to administrators and specialists (craftspeople, scribes and so on). Or, in a slightly more primitive form, direct from the royal hand to retainers. This is early Mesopotamia, Egypt, early Islam, Kievan Rus, Scandinavia. In these, the elites compete for control of/favours from the centre rather than direct control of the peasantry. Merchants are more valued because they either bring critical materials (copper, tin in the Bronze Age) or supply the exotic goods that are the markers of prestige and central favour. Importantly, they are not challenging the basis of elite status.


        1. Counting over societies rather than people, most societies weren’t agrarian but hunter-gatherer. 🙂 Then of non-foraging societies, you have pastoralist, shifting cultivation, and cultivation of non-grain staples like taro or cassava. And peoples that would shifting between foraging and cultivation as circumstances dictated. I’m not sure how much peoples of eastern North America could be said to have a landlord class at all, local or otherwise,


          1. True. I should have said something more like all complex agrarian societies are based on extraction from farmers.


      2. Arabs were grain focused like other near east societies. The Bedouins weren’t but they were a small minority. Most Arabs end up being people who converted religiously and culturally to the dominant social group. They were a grain focused society. The idea of the Arabs of the Islamic conquests being uncouth barbarian Bedouins and not an urban and developed agricultural society is just myth making.


  15. Great article, as always – thanks.

    One question on the map, though. I may be misreading it, but it seems to say that the North-West corner of Spain is closer to Rome (2-3 week bracket) than the areas to its south and east (3-4 week bracket): is this a mistake, or am I misreading it, or is there something else going on?


    1. If you go to the link Bret provided to the ORBIS project, they have all sorts of buttons to play with, and more details shown. It looks like their fundamental model is distance from city to city, with regions basically tacked on based on which city they are closest to. The cities in west Iberia aren’t coastal – but the way the map is generated, that part of the ocean ‘belongs’ to those cities anyway.

      The ports they show are Flavium Brigantium and Olisipo, which have different names in the Wikipedia map here:
      (Brigantium and Felicitas Iulia, respectively). Name difference might be due to the maps reflecting different dates. But as you can see, those cities are in the NW and SW corners of Iberia, and there aren’t major ports in between. So the model is really showing travel time to either Bracara Augusta or Conimbriga, and to get to those cities, you sail to one of the above ports then walk the rest of the way.


  16. I have a question about the relationship between merchants and the elites. You mention that senators and other roman elites saw naval merchants with disdain, both because they saw them as earning undeserved riches and because they considered the sea to be outside the domain of mortals. But if these naval merchants are so useless and morally abhorrent, only good for squeezing them for any taxes and duties you can extract from them, why did the Romans actively suppress piracy in the Mediterranean with military force? I always thought that they did this to protect their merchant lanes, but why would you spend a lot of money and blood to protect the sea lanes for some abhorrent profiteers? Doesn’t this suggest that at least some people in power realized the importance of these merchants for the roman economy?

    Or are these military campaigns against the pirates mostly personal revenge campaigns (like Caesar’s), and the positive effects on trade and prosperity were lucky side effects?

    PS: Thanks a lot for this excellent blog. It is truly fascinating to learn so much about how vastly different even the most mundane things worked in the past, particularly for common people. Foreign country indeed.


    1. To read the ancient sources (Xenophon, in particular, is valuable here) it is because they 1) liked tax revenues and 2) liked being able to buy foreign luxuries. They were not fond of the people who supplied those things, but they liked the things themselves.


      1. Except when they were worrying about ‘luxury’ undermining manly virtues as you pointed out in the Fremen mirage. And even then it was mostly other people’s indulgences they worried about, not their own.


    2. This was partly economics and personal revenge, as you suggest. Another part of it was personal safety: even the elite sometimes traveled by ship, and when pirates were strong enough they sometimes attacked coastal towns and cities in addition to ships. An extreme example of this is the attack on Ostia (the port at the mouth of the Tiber) in 68 BC, in which pirates burned the Roman navy ships stationed there, kidnapped two senators, and disrupted the grain supply to Rome with the damage they did. Given how strong the pirates were and how ineffective previous attempts to deal with them had been (in 74 BC, M. Antonius Creticus (father of the triumvir), elected praetor and charged with dealing with the problem of piracy, was actually defeated by the pirates in a naval battle), Rome’s response was to give Pompey the Great control of a large army and fleet with imperium over the entire Mediterranean to get rid of the pirates.


      1. Thanks a lot for your replies, that clears things up. So bascially people would argue for sending a military expedition to secure the supply of , protect the costal towns, or defend Rome’s honor (I assume they also considered it embarassing if pirates can just sail up and down your coast and kidnap senators with impunity). However, nobody in their right mind would argue for a military campaign to protect merchants or save them from bankruptcy because that surely wouldn’t get many votes.


  17. It amuses me to note that farmers’ attitudes toward merchants haven’t changed much. “The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways,” said JFK.


    1. It is, of course, not true – any one working for pay buys things at retail and sells their labor at wholesale. This is most obvious for people working in professional services where they are paid by the hour and sold by the hour to their employer’s clients. Easy to spot the differential between the retail rate that the client pays and wholesale rate that you are paid.

      But it’s true for almost any employee.


  18. I share Brett’s grief and loathing for Sparta, but their Greek contemporaries didn’t, including their rival Athens. That’s one of the reasons for the Spartans mirage, the writers of the time idealized Sparta and used her statist institutions as a starting point for creating their own ideal city states. Stability at a low level wasn’t considered a problem by members of the elite, which most philosophers were, or at least hangers on, but a desirable quality.


    1. As can be expected, the elite like societies where the commoners don’t get a say, and this still exists today. Why else do the intelligentsia keep talking about China like it’s the wave of the future?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Why else do the intelligentsia keep talking about China like it’s the wave of the future?”

        I imagine because it has become much more important over the last generation, is expected to become more important still, and seems to have weathered this years crisis much better than most OECD countries. And the US seems to have done worse.


        1. Acknowledging China is a big player and likely to get bigger in the future is not the same thing as admiring her form of government and aspiring to imitate it. I’m old enough to remember when the USSR was the future. There is a definite fondness for dictatorial rule among a certain type of thinker. And the weakness goes all the way back to the Greeks.


          1. No, but “acknowledging China is a big player and likely to get bigger in the future” is pretty much the same thing as “talking about China like it’s the wave of the future”.

            To quote an Alan Furst novel about 1940 Poland: “The pessimists were learning German; the optimists were learning English; the realists were learning Russian.”


  19. As always, great post!
    Could you maybe tell us more about the relationship between state/tax collectors and farmers?
    How was the tax payment enforced? I imagine the punishments must have been rather harsh, if the farmers had to decide between paying taxes and properly feeding their children.
    How was decided how much each family had to pay? Did the taxman appraise the totality of each families assets?
    Did the state demand the same tax each year, or was the tax lowered if the harvest had been bad?


    1. That’s a topic with a LARGE variation. At one point China had a per-capita tax and the fact that peasants were killing their small children because they could not afford to pay it only slowly brought about an exemption for children under five.


  20. I’m having trouble understanding how banqueting could serve as a significant way to use surplus. There’s only so much a person can eat, and there’s only so much extra weight a person can carry and still remain able to work. As a storage mechanism banqueting sounds basically no different from eating your own grain to store the calories as fat. It makes more sense as a way to even out distribution. I harvested better this year so you eat my food today. Next year the situation may reverse. But the amount of evening out has the same biological limitations. Further, while there will be some variation between the success of neighboring farmers in a given year, wont they be highly correlated both in terms of yields and harvest time? So the farmers in a community are all going to tend to want to banquet each other at the same time. That seems like it would also serve to limit the effectiveness of banqueting as a way to use surplus.


    1. I get the impression that “surplus” means anything beyond the bare minimum food you need to keep working and keep your kids alive. I don’t think these people were in any danger of becoming overweight.


    2. From the previous posts it seems that a big part of banqueting wasn’t so much distributing food at the actual banquet but in strengthening ties so that if you were a stand up guy who threw good parties then if something horrible happened and your crop was destroyed (but your neighbors were doing OK) then they’d help you out in non-banqueting ways until you got back on your feet again.


    3. “As a storage mechanism banqueting sounds basically no different from eating your own grain to store the calories as fat.”

      This years body fat might not be of much use to you in five years time. But your neighbours remembering that your generosity this year allowed their children to avoid starving to death, can be valuable for a long, long time.


      1. I understand about building networks of reciprocal relationship and how that serves as a survival strategy. But banqueting, specifically, does not seem capable of helping “their children to avoid starving to death”. First, if you have a poor harvest you need support year round or at the end of the year when you’ve run out of food, not a single banquet from a generous neighbor. Are these banquets a carefully scheduled sequence between multiple families designed to help a particular needy family at different points of the year? That’s certainly not the impression I get from the reading. Second, a banquet wouldn’t be targeted in that way would it? When you banquet your neighbors are you picking one family in particular or are you inviting everyone? Third, what I’m getting at in the sentence you quote is that banqueting was presented as a way to use surplus food. But if everyone is banqueting everyone else then all that surplus you are “using” is being eaten at banquets. That eating will displace some normal non-banquet food eating (because you just ate and aren’t hungry), and assuming you eat more during a banquet than usual you will store excess food as fat. But that is effectively the same, from the perspective of surplus food storage, as putting a little more grain in your body and a little less in your granary. And finally, an awful lot of the bad and the good for a given year are going to be communally shared. A single family may suffer from an illness or an accident, but things like weather and war will strike everybody. When there is a drought who is banqueting whom?


        1. The point of the banqueting AFAIK isn’t to get calories when you need them, the point of the banquet is to build up social relationships so that later on if you’re starving your neighbors will help you out through various non-banqueting means.


        2. Yea, i think taking it literally, (or getting less that thorough informaiton) as, literally just “banquets” like some sort of fancy dinner party might make it not make as much sense?

          But as more of a catch-all, “banqueting” could involve “loans”/gifts of various products, definitely including significant quantities of flour or grain, but also other agricultural products you might have an over-supply of, and possibly crafted goods like sheets, blankets, mittens, shears, etc. as well. (with very little if any expectations of any sort of one-to-one repayment, but measured more in generalities)

          And yes, it could also include arranging banquets as literal meals and festivals – which are maybe not targeted directly at anybody, and involve large swathes of the community. This sort of thing could also be helpful in the sense of….. imagine you have a weekly hobby club or d & d group or whatever, you go to, and this week you bring the snacks, the fact that next week it will be someone else’s turn to bring the snacks can be actually quite helpful if it turns out that you haven’t been able to afford to make yourself lunch that week;.


    4. Well, how else are you going to use a surplus?

      Not a flippant answer, as mentioned a few chapters back even the most durable crops only last three to five years and the majority of fruits, vegetable and animal products are going to last weeks to months at best. Selling it makes little sense as money is only useful for immediate concerns and getting it to the towns and cities is a complicated and expensive job. There is very little to do with extra food beyond eat it, share it with your neighbors so they can eat it or share it with the gods so they can ‘eat’ it.


  21. Oh one more comment…

    The discussion of demonetization reminded me a bit of some Korean financial institutions. During the dictatorship it was REALLY hard to get a loan (all of the money was being funneled into the conglomerates) so something grew up called “곗돈” (gyae-don). You’d get a bunch of people (usually 3) each kicking in X amount of money a month and the amount of money would slowly increase from the first month to the 30th. So if you need money NOW you can sign up to be one of the first people to get money, if you want to make some interest you can sign up to be one of the last people. Now the obvious problem is people signing up to be first and then skipping out on making later payments, so you get some guy as a guarantor of the gyae-don and bring HEAVY social pressure to bear to make sure everyone pays up. Having an extended family where people trust each other enough to run a round of gyae-don is very useful if the banks aren’t being helpful. This isn’t much done anymore but still happens a bit, I took part in one twice to help pay for my jeonsae (전세).

    Jeonsae is renting without paying rent. You pay a HUGE deposit (the actual value depends but it’s generally a bit over half of the market value of the apartment) and then you get to live rent free and then get your money back when you leave. Often you sign on for a two year lease and then have to kick in more jeonsae if you want to sign a new contract. Often done by people saving up for a house and lets landlords be more liquid.

    Not quite demonetization but interesting what sort of things grow up when you have to figure out financial systems with the banks not being helpful to normal people. With banks becoming a bit more normal these days these older things are dying off but still exist.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. This sentence doesn’t parse:

    ‘Alternately merchants, especially small scale merchants who do short-distance, small volume trade as opposed to long-distance sea trade (e.g. Cic. De Off. 1.150-1), was mean and unbecoming’

    Referring to Scott’s Against the Grain again: he suggests merchants were looked down upon because they were hard to tax by the institutions at the time, unlike fields of grain.

    He also seems rather more skeptical of the benefits of ‘civilization’ for the peasants supporting it; many of the drawbacks (diseases, food insecurity, vulnerability to extraction) stem simply from being committed to grain agriculture in the first place, but he argues that elites fostered grain farming precisely because it was easier to extract.


    1. Grain farming was spread by particular peoples. The Levantine, Anatolian and Iranian farmers who spread it out across West Eurasia. The spread was mostly these people displacing other peoples who lived in those regions before, though not without sometimes significant admixture in some cases.

      If it was elite spread or just non-elites spreading it on their own as they colonized new areas, it’s hard to say.

      Scott James is a far-left anarchist who has an axe to grind. By his own admission his work is one of propaganda, trying to spread his particular vision of what a just society should be.

      You shouldn’t take his work that seriously. He gives a very biased and partial view of the evidence.


      1. James Scott, his actual name, is in this book summarizing other people’s research, with lots of references. If you can point to specific ways in which he’s wrong, great. Certainly a lot of it matched up with what I already knew.

        Cereal farming also spread in northern China (millet), southern China and Asia (rice), and the Americas (maize). Anyway, we’re talking here not about the Neolithic spread of farming but of crop balances within a state.


        1. James Scott’s only example of a state enforcing the peasants grow a certain crop is the Prussian state forcing peasants to grow potatoes, a tuber, instead of grain. Take that as you will.

          He has no evidence grain farming was forced on people. Literally none, except his primarily aesthetic dislike of states.


          1. Not read that one by Scott, but I can easily supply examples from colonial practices of peasants being coerced (often very harshly) into growing cash crops and exploitable crops in place of traditional mixed farming. In Sri Lanka, coffee, in Bengal, dye-stuffs, in Indonesia spices and so on. Quite explicitly to gather taxes in currency rather than kind – so generating wealth transferable to the metropolis. Often with marked deleterious effects on nutrition, health and the environment.


  23. Scott seems to have a very romantic idea of life before or outside of civilisation. I’d like to trap him in a confined space with Napoleon Chagnon, and have him discuss Chagnons estimate that 2/3rds of Yanomami men were killed by other Yanomami men, and half of the women captured/gang-raped/forcibly married in inter-village warfare.


    1. While nomadic band violence does generally seem higher than I’m used to, picking out the Yanomami seems like picking out Saudi Arabia as a representative modern nation. They’re also not necessarily ‘pristine’, after 500 years of disease and colonialism, including European slave raids that wiped out other tribes.

      One can certainly overromanticize the past in the pushback, but there is a legitimate pushback to the standard narrative of civilizational progress. Especially if you look at the 5000 years of pre-industrial civilization. More intense violence in non-state, more grinding oppression in state societies (and occasionally massive intense violence too, like the Thirty Year’s War, raiding Africa for slaves, various genocides, or the Second Congo War.) More control of one’s time and work in non-state societies.

      I’m currently reading Sahlins’ Stone Age Economics which starts with “The Original Affluent Society” and goes from there. Even ‘primitive’ agriculturalists seem to have a lot of leisure time, and spare capacity (multiple mid-century estimates of society populations being 60% of the estimated carrying capacity), which may well explain how states can exist (forcing more of that capacity to be used and surrendered) or how sharecroppers can afford to give up half of their crop (working 10 hour days instead of 5.)


      1. AFAIK the yanomani aren’t nomadic, they have small horticultural villages.

        While of course there’s enormous variation early neolithic horticultural/agricultural societies tend to have very high rates of violence compared to earlier and later societies.


      2. Chagnon picked the Yanomani to study precisely because they were the most pristine group he could find to study. In particular, they had plenty of land per person, and little contact with outsiders, so all their wars, if they were about any resource at all, were about women.

        Europeans visiting North America in the century before Jamestown was settled surely saw the inhabitants in a pristine state, if the term has any meaning. All their villages were fortified against attack from each other, and they had a tradition of torturing adult male captives to death by dismembering, flaying, or burning alive. (Although the Europeans praised the Americans for their chivalry towards women.)

        And IIRC, in one of Neil Olivers books he notes that about half the neolithic bodies dug up in Europe had arrowheads still in them, which seems quite a sobering thought. I could go on, but I think the pattern seems clear.


    2. Even if there’s more violence in the nomadic cultures, offsetting that can be more deaths from disease, less nutrition, more food vulnerability, more daily low-level violence in class and gender oppression, more slavery. Agriculture wasn’t a clear improvement for most of the agriculturalists.


      1. To be fair, agriculture also supports a much larger population. I get your point, and I can easily imagine that the average nomad might be better off than the average agriculturalist, but one shouldn’t discount the fact that it allows a lot more people to exist in the first place.

        Also, I don’t get how becoming agriculturalist makes one more likely to become enslaved. Isn’t the determining factor for slavery whether the *enslavers* are agriculturalists? And the enslavers presumably benefit from slavery, so they surely wouldn’t count this as a disadvantage. While the total level of slavery might be lower if *everybody* is a nomad, once there are agriculturalists around I don’t see how you can reduce your risk of falling into slavery by staying nomadic yourself.

        Or do you mean that there would be less slavery in a hypothetical world where agriculture is somehow impossible?


        1. Agriculturalists need fields and farms to survive, which don’t move around. If a slave/small group of slaves runs away, they can maybe take farming tools with them but they still have to find another place to farm. Problem repeats itself if the former slave owners, or would-be new enslavers, show up.

          Hunter-gatherers, nomads, pastoralists are not tied to a small patch of ground. They can move away from threats, which also makes it easier for a small group to split off and survive on their own. So while they certainly have low status individuals, and maybe a few slaves, it’s harder to keep them if they’re too badly treated.


          1. Nomadic peoples can certainly move to the next valley over- unless it’s populated by another nomad group. Of course if the first group is determined and strong enough, they may kick the second group out of that valley, and they in turn may move onto another group’s territory….

            I’ve often considered how quickly the America’s were populated–it makes sense that it wasn’t a random walk, but that the people in the early waves were continually being pushed south.


  24. “By Matthew 19:23-24 standards, every single American is rich.”

    Eh, kind of. Most of us have amazing housing and material goods, and an amazing amount of money passes through our hands. OTOH, many of us worry about getting enough to eat, which produces an odd mix of being wealthier than emperors and poorer than desert foragers.

    And it’s hard to argue that a homeless American living under a bridge is rich by any standard.


    1. They can go to homeless shelters where they get marvels beyond the dreams of emperors.

      And poor people don’t worry about going hungry. They just go hungry. Regularly.


          1. Having magical lighting is effectively meaningless if you can’t *eat.* Not being able to afford food has been a standard for “way too poor” for millennia, and there’s no reason to arbitrarily change the rules now. The only goal that would serve is to define the poor out of existence with a fallacious argument like “by definition, no one can be poor in a civilization that’s put a man on the moon.” Which simply isn’t true.


          2. Some are, some aren’t.

            Food insecurity and malnutrition in America are *facts.* They are not figments of liberal imagination.

            Seriously, what is the purpose of this entire line of rhetoric? Why is it *necessary* to insist so fiercely that no one in America is truly poor, truly unfortunate? Why play rhetorical games like “our civilization has electricity so the poorest American is better off than a Roman emperor” and “those poor people over there are fat so there aren’t American poor people who lack food?”

            Would it be that harmful to just admit “yes, a modern American whose belly is empty because they cannot afford both food and rent is unfortunate in the same way as an ancient Israelite whose belly is empty because they cannot afford both food and rent?”


          3. Yes, it would be extremely harmful. People who insist that it is “the same way” are the leading cause of death by starvation in the 20th and 21st century.


          4. Let’s be careful here that we’re having a friendly debate over ideas and not assigning blame to particular people here in these comments. No one here is intentionally causing starvation or famines. So let us ratchet down the rhetoric, shall we?

            And, to be frank, the leading cause of famine in the 21st century is civil conflict by a long way not domestic first-world politics (because civil conflict both disrupts local agriculture and at the same time makes it extremely difficult to deliver humanitarian food aid). The leading cause of famine and starvation in the 20th century was probably Collectivization, followed by the World Wars, followed by British mismanagement in India.

            For what it is worth, I would contend that from my own research looking at subsistence societies, it seems both accurate to say that 1) poverty in the USA is bad and often comes with food insecurity, but less frequently (but still sometimes) with actual starvation and malnutrition, but that 2) it is on a completely different scale than the same things happening in developing countries. Food insecurity as measured in the United States is typically not the same thing as food insecurity measures in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; likewise, the poverty line in the United States is 6,175 times higher the global poverty line.


          5. It is discourteous to call his notions “domestic first-world politics” when he is explicitly making them global and historical in scope.


  25. “One commonplace of Greek and Roman thinking – despite these being very active, maritime societies – was that the first production of ships and the first sailing was in some essential way a profanation of the divine realm of the sea, a space humans ought not have ever ventured into – and certainly not for anything as mean as profit (e.g. Euripides, Medea 1-6; Catullus. 64.1-20; Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 627-632; Seneca, Medea 1-12; 301-379, inter alia).”
    Is it known where this idea came from? Euripides specifically presents Medea, after settling in Greece, suffering as a result of living in a foreign country (“Schooled by misfortune, the poor woman [Medea] has learnt what it is to be parted from one’s fatherland”, in ln. 30-40 as translated in James Morwood’s Oxford University Press edition), but that seems like less of a concern for a merchant who travels to make money than for a permanent expatriate. Horace, in Ode 1.3, seems to connect the idea to his general Epicurean idea (as expressed in, for instance, Ode 2.16) that a wise person should seek happiness in their own personal life and avoid getting involved in things beyond their control:
    Nequiquam deus abscidit (ln. 21)
    prudens Oceano dissociabili
    terras si tamen impiae
    non tangenda rates transiliunt vada.
    Audax omnia perpeti
    gens humana ruit per vetitum nefas …
    Nil mortalibus ardui est: (ln. 37)
    caelum ipsum petimus stultitia …
    But this idea predates Epicureanism: Euripides, whom you cite, lived in the 5th century BC, while Epicurus was only born in 341 BC. The other poets you cite don’t seem to explain the idea.

    Also, on the subject of Malthusian crises: how seriously should I take Peter Turchin’s theory of demographic cycles in premodern history? Basically (at least according to the summary of his book at ) Turchin argues that a premodern society not using many of its resources, ruled by a state or group of states strong enough to prevent frequent warfare within their borders, will tend to grow in population, becoming more efficient in the way you describe but also expanding faster than that efficiency can keep up in the long run; once it reaches the highest population its land area, technology, current organization, etc. can support, it becomes vulnerable to famine as well as disease (partly because of the increased trade); these events will kill large numbers of the farmers who make up most of the population, but the hereditary elite will be insulated from them for a while because they can buy or forcibly take (depending on the society) as much food as they need, so their population will keep growing; once this difference has increased enough to lower the elite’s standard of living, they will tend to start fighting over what resources are left, and the resulting wars will not only kill even more of the farmers but also impede trade and reduce land usage (since farmers will have to live in defensible locations and will be constantly under threat of war, rather than being able to farm peacefully in the land best suited to farming); once enough of the elite have died in these wars that the reduced population can support the rest, they will no longer need to fight; the result will be a much lower population than the maximum the land and technology can support even with their less efficient economic organization, so the cycle will start over. He claims that this theory explains significant parts of the history of premodern states. However, not being an expert on any of the areas he uses as evidence or tries to explain, I have little idea of whether the theory is right or even points in the right direction.


    1. I have read Turchin. Jack Goldstone (Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World)
      uses a similar framework to explain the linked crises of the late 16th/17th centuries – more recently also examined by Geoffrey Parker (Global Crisis, 2017), with an eye to environmental issues – the Little Ice Age.

      My own take on Turchin is, that while it’s plausible, the data is too fragmentary to reach firm conclusions.


  26. Here’s a random question – violence against Parsis? Can you link to more info on this?

    I’m loosely aware of minor problems between Parsis and Muslims (Parsis owned newspapers which occasionally printed “mohammed sucks” type articles, often not written by Parsis), but this had very little to do with racism or anti-merchant attitudes. I’m also totally unaware of any negative (vs comical) stereotypes about them. The only ethnic stereotypes I know of relate to their extreme pickiness about husbands and the resulting lack of fertility.

    The general impression I have is that Parsis have mostly been treated as just another random non-Muslim/non-Dalit minority (i.e. basically peaceful segregation with trade).

    I’d love to learn more about what you’re referring to here.


  27. So, what do you do without money at a smaller scale than ‘taxation in kind’? The answer I’m imagining is “be very self-sufficient” plus maybe giving things to your neighbours and keeping track of who’s not a mooch.


    1. Do you mean in terms of state revenues, or commerce and exchange? What the state is doing is taxing in kind and then using those resources directly to feed, clothe and house workers doing the things it wants.

      For the small farmer doing exchange – a lot of it seems to be gift exchange, combined with strong traditions where visitors or hosts (or both) customarily give gifts.


  28. Low and high equilibria: I have an admittedly half-baked hypothesis that, while on average higher equilibria give higher qualities of life (even as food is equally expensive in both), in the particular field of women’s freedoms higher equilibria may have negative effects.
    In a lower equilibrium, manufactured goods (including textiles) are scarce, therefore expensive, thus women’s productive capacity gives them (to put it bluntly) a valuable bargaining chit, and over time this negotiation reaches an equilibrium with the culture granting comparatively speaking decent treatment for women. In contrast, in a higher equilibrium material goods are more abundant, cheaper, thus women have a lesser economical power and consequently the culture sanctions worse treatment (less permission of independent movement, a social life more strictly controlled by male relatives).


  29. “the merchant buys in each port whatever looks likely to turn a profit and sells whatever in demand. By keeping a mixed cargo of many different sorts of things, he protects against risk”

    It’s cool to see that there’s a historical basis for the Free Traders of SF, a la Norton?, Cherryh merchanters, and Liaden traders.


  30. Considering the initiation of coinage, I hypothesize that it was the state that done it, primarily in order to collect money taxes to pay soldiers. Maybe that’s a bit too crude… The state needed a way to pay for large projects (armies being one example, perhaps monumental architecture, aquaducts and roads being others) other than the comparatively inflexible payment in kind, especially when paying skilled specialists, some of whom might be foreign. And the state, if sufficiently centralised, has a monopoly over the creation of coin with all the advantages flowing from there. Merchants, then, are tapping into an existing physical coinage as a means of exchange.


    1. Coins appear a lot (2 millennia at least) later than credit systems – and these continue on in parallel. They do not replace barter or payment in kind (payment in kind continues up to quite recent times – both the Roman soldier and the C18 British seaman received a large chunk of their pay in kind – it’s simply more efficient to collect and distribute food and other basics in bulk than to hand out coins and let everyone buy their own – although Greek states hiring rowers did this). Coins appear at the same time as large-scale use of mercenaries – particularly Greek mercenaries. They are outside the credit system and want to take their earnings home in portable, liquid form, so an IOU on the treasury plus a fancy robe won’t do.

      Precious metal is the ultimate evidence of solvency (Clauswitz: ‘battle is to war as cash settlement is to commerce’ that is- it’s the test of whether your credit is good or your power as great as appears. But credit continues to be the normal method of payment for both merchants and states. As an example, see the Gezira letters – documents among medieval Jewish merchants found in Cairo. One complainer is bitter that by spreading rumours about him, rivals are undermining his credit in distant ports such as Syracuse and so forcing him to trade at a disadvantage. So there’s local coins, silver or gold as backstop to credit and for paying foreigners, and credit.


  31. Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue also describes sea voyaging as a remnant of our sinful ways, which will fade away in the new order to come.


  32. This is so interesting, thank you. Could you provide some more illustrative numbers of the labour structure? E.g. 80-90 per cent subsistence would correspond to 1? Percent miller/mill-worker? I appreciate that would depend on the time, place and technology, but would be super interesting to ballpark (and clearly show how e.g. improvements in technology could create additional surplus labour).


    1. We don’t have that kind of occupational data from the ancient world, or even much of it from the medieval world. Your best bet would be to look at early modern census data; the earlier the better. That’s far enough outside of my specialty though that I don’t know where to point you.


  33. “his faulty assumption that the ‘real value’ of things is inherent in them, or a product of their production,” Really?
    How about if I give you all the raw materials for a computer. Are you prepared to go build it, including the lithography? Or, to make my argument even clearer, are you prepared to write the operating system, drivers, and software to *use* your computer? Is that not *all* the work of production?

    So, unless you want to refer to the industrial, or cyber, working class as “farmers”, I think you’re wrong, and Marx was far more correct on this point.


    1. No, Marx is wrong.

      Your example of programming an operating system is an excellent one. Let’s say two programmers both set out to code operating systems and they both spend 100 hours doing so. They have invested the same amount of labor, using the same equipment. But one of them is a very fine programmer and the other is a careless programmer. And so the first operating system runs smoothly, while the second is full of bugs.

      Which one is more valuable? The Labor Theory of Value from Das Kapital (without any of the later modifications tacked on by more economically literate Marxists) says that both operating systems should be of equal value: they had the same raw resources and the same labor inputs. But obviously the smoothly running, competently coded operating system is more valuable – you would never take the bug-filled operating system if the smoothly-running one could do the job. Because what you care about in selecting a final product is not how much work or resources went into it, but how much use you can get out of it.

      It is a neat demonstration of how value derives not from the inputs of time, labor or resources, but rather from the output: the end use-value of the final product. Of course you don’t have to take my word for it; any number of economics have pointed out that the labor theory of value is functionally worthless as a tool for understanding an economy – so many they have their own Wikipedia page ( But if you want a single, extended and sometimes tedious demolition of Das Kapital, check out L. Eubank, Why Marx Was Wrong (2011) (


      1. >Which one is more valuable? The Labor Theory of Value from Das Kapital (without any of the later modifications tacked on by more economically literate Marxists) says that both operating systems should be of equal value: they had the same raw resources and the same labor inputs.

        That’s a well-known straw-man argument. ‘N hours of work’ is not assigned a constant, equal value, and the fact that you have so poorly understood a point Marx made himself indicates that you have only a superficial understanding of his claims and theory.

        Indeed, the distinction of “Socially necessary labor” is made on the very wikipedia page you cite. The fact that you clearly didn’t read the very sources you linked indicates that you are unwilling (or unable) to discuss this subject in good faith.


        1. Marx has been falsified in every prediction he made, and it was Marx himself who declared he was “scientific.” The person to blame for people’s failure to study his works any more closely than those of Paracelsus is Karl Marx.


          1. >”I did not read the book, because I believe it states XYZ, so I believe it to be incorrect.”

            >>”If you read it, you would see it doesn’t state XYZ. You have imagined a stance not taken in the text”

            >”Well, regardless of what it actually says, I still *believe* it’s incorrect, so I won’t read it.”

            What a wonderful argument from ignorance. You remind me a lot of this onion article:

            That you’re taking this stance *here* is particularly amusing, since this blog has spent a considerable amount of time interpreting history and fantasy works through the lens of historical materialism.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. So you’re arguing that if I read Marx I would find that he did NOT claim that revolution would start in the most industrialized nations first?


  34. Eubank, with a major axe to grind.

    But since you picked an o/s, let’s look at it in the real world: first, no o/s is written by one person, they’re all written by teams. And some folks are good at one thing, and not good at others. Once they’re produced the whole thing, it works AS A WHOLE. Now, is the programmer who’s not good on one section (let’s say i/o) but ok at another (let’s say scheduling), worth less than the one who’s good at the former, and less good at the latter? You don’t pay for parts of an o/s, you pay for the whole thing.

    Or let’s go to the factory floor, and an assembly line. You’ve got a new guy who’s really fast on his piece, but may make errors, and another who’s been there a long time… and is reliable, and gets it right. Who’s worth more? But you’re not paying for each one, you’re paying for the product that the *team* produced.

    Hell, for that matter, take your car to a shop (as I did yesterday). Different jobs are in a book that tells the mechanics how long it should take. You’re going to pay that, no matter if they run ahead, or fall behind. The point is the job’s done… and someone’s time made your car worth more than it was before you took it into the shop.

    By working on it, they’ve increased the value – yes or no? Without the team of programmers, you have a very expensive box that does nothing, until the work that they do makes it valuable to you.


    1. Took a break to start dinner, and had another thought: are you asserting that farmers do not create value by sowing, weeding, watering, and harvesting food crops, which otherwise would be far less abundant?

      Of, hell, even the merchant, moving food from where its grown to where its needed does so by *labor* – aren’t the folks moving the products adding value that would not be there, if it stayed where it was produced?


  35. “I’ve often considered how quickly the America’s were populated–it makes sense that it wasn’t a random walk, but that the people in the early waves were continually being pushed south.”

    OTOH, maybe the vanguard was happy to head south, at least up to a point. Warmer and more food.

    There’s also a decent chance that the first settlements were coastal, so west to east pushing? Or maybe two separate waves, inland hunters moving south behind an occupied coast.

    I wonder if leapfrogging happened. “This coast is occupied, keep paddling.”


    1. I figure the first wave was moving into a paradise full of large herbivores who hadn’t learned to fear them. Then, later, people started getting pushed into deserts and other less desirable places.


    1. Our understanding of the emergence of coinage and the ancient economy in general has changed and improved somewhat since 1914.

      But it also seems like several of y’all are imputing a model of the ancient economy which I am not using. The word ‘barter’ appears nowhere in this series. I am not implying that non-monetized economies engaged in extensive spot-trades via barter. Some of that doubtless happened, but it was not the primary way of exchanging goods. I am not suggesting a pre-coinage barter economy.

      Rather, if you will refer to the first post, you will find that outside of state activity, most of the exchange is happening in a ‘gift economy.’ Those exchanges are not rigorously tracked for value and generally not – drawing by analogy from modern undermonetized societies – understood in exact, mathematical terms. Instead they’re understood in terms of social relations (“I give a gift when I visit/am visited by X person”) or a more general obligation (“Bob helped me out, so in the future, I will help Bob out”). You could argue, in some sense, this is debt, but it is not precisely tracked or monetized in any way.

      Large cities, with their markets as well as long distance trade, obviously cannot work on this system, but remember: most people had basically nothing to do with large cities, their markets, or long distance trade. Most people were farmers in villages. Market transactions – at least in the Near East – including long distance trade and some state activity, were done in debt units, typically units of account borrowed from the state-run redistribution economy. Those units were denominated in precious metals by weight – a Babylonian shekel (which shows up as a unit of value in the Code of Hammurabi) was a unit of weight in silver. Presumably local merchants who knew their customers or business associates might well run a tab keeping track of debts, though it is also not hard to imagine the difficulties in efficiency this would pose for a business dealing with lots of transactions.

      Coinage was invented in Lydia (something your linked article gets embarrassingly wrong – even Herodotus knew coinage was invented in Lydia and modern archaeology has backed him up on this point), from which it diffused into Greece and the Archamenid Empire (we are now, I should note, in the 7th century and well into the iron age in both regions). Your article insists that the Greek coinage standard was not weight based and that these coins were ‘tokens.’ I can only chalk this up to the article being a hundred years old; in any event it is wrong, Greek coinage was . While there were several currency standards in Greece, they were absolutely weight based and converted between on that basis (albeit often at a discount; see the Athenian Coinage Decree, for instance). The Attic standard eventually comes to dominate the others in the fifth century.

      I should also note that your article is quite out of date on the details of the emergence of Roman coinage and again, the insistence that they became “mere tokens” is just wrong (based in part, presumably, on a confusion with the chronology of changes to the weight of the as). On the development of Roman coinage, see M.H. Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage (1987).

      In any event, we can be pretty abundantly sure that such coins were valued based on their metal content because that is how our Greek and Roman authors convert between those systems – which Hellenistic period authors (like Polybius or Diodorus) do quite frequently. All of those conversions can be understood if they are back-computed by weight-units – even the ones that involve “mere token” currency. Metal content mattered.

      Now when we talk about ‘monetization’ in the ancient world, I want to note that this is a term of art in the discussion of the ancient economy to describe the increasing use of coinage. Perhaps it would be better called ‘coin-itization’ – but in the scholarship on the topic, it is called monetization, so that is what I call it. In any event the distinction between the non-monetized gift economy of the villages (where most people were) and the debt-monetized economy of the towns matters here in marking the different courses coinage takes in Greece vs. the Near East.

      In the Near East, while coinage is adopted as early as the reign of Darius I, it doesn’t seem to penetrate heavily into society and indeed, as the trade networks become more interconnected, is often displaced by foreign (typically Greek of Phoenician) coinage. But in Greece, we see the use of coinage filter down to the average farmer to a much greater degree than contemporary (Late Archaic, Classical period) Near East or Egypt. Instead it seems fairly clear that it is Alexander the Great and his need to pay his soldiers in coined silver (and thus their need and desire to buy things in coined silver – and thus Alexander’s successor’s need to tax in coined silver) which prompts the greater use of coinage in the Near East. On this, see M. Aperghis, The Seleukid Royal Economy (2004).

      So there we go. Be wary of using very old scholarship – our understanding of the past has, in fact, changed meaningfully in the last 100 years. Our understanding of the Near Eastern economy pre-Alexander is, in particular, in a bit of a flux (lots of debates about the scale and meaning of the ‘redistribution economy’ in the Bronze Age) and I’m not a specialist there though I try to keep up with what the specialists are doing.


  36. I got really intrigued by this comment:

    > Population contracts and the loss of specialist non-farmers leads in some cases to the loss of key productive technologies, perhaps most famously, ceramics – that is, the making of pots (I struggle to communicate how important a technology this is, or how fundamental)

    Is there any chance that you publish a post (or a series) about ceramics?


  37. typo: This post is so final it doesn’t link to A (the rice appendix).
    I would also be interested in elaboration on ceramics and their role. Britain lost the technology of clay pots? But it had been around for thousands of years! How does that… Suddenly human knowledge feels a very fragile thing.


    1. Not even remotely an expert but: ceramics need being able to recognize natural clay, having a source of it, and being able to build and use good kilns. It doesn’t *sound* outside the potential scope of a subsistence household, but I know that ancient Greece had pottery workshops to make the good black and orange (and white) stuff. So it’s plausible to me that even peasants would just buy what they need, rather than making their own crude earthenware.

      Then if war and/or plague takes out your urban specialists and cripples the trade network… no more good pottery. You could try to re-invent it, or you could switch to lined baskets for food storage. AFAIK basket-making *is* a household skill, and even if pottery had displaced it, I’m guessing women who know how to weave cloth — most of them — can use that knowledge to re-invent basket-weaving. In a pinch, you can put grain in lined pits, I imagine. Not ideal — pests! humidity! — but hey, them’s the Dark Ages.

      This is all speculation; I hadn’t even heard before that anyone had lost ceramics.


  38. …but to the elite large landholders (who dominate the literary and political culture of their societies), the morally correct way to earn great wealth is to inherit it (or capture it in war). The morally correct way to hold that wealth is with large landed estates. Anything else is morally suspect…

    This of one of those statements that is simultaneously a pretty serious revelation and really, really obvious once you hear it. Of course the elites are going to see and frame their livelihoods as moral, with all possible challenges being necessarily immoral.

    While certainly there is some population figure that would trigger a Malthusian crisis, the normal assumption being made here is that agricultural production is fundamentally static. But it isn’t.

    When you get down to it, the only thing Malthus got right was that the human population is subject to its environment’s carrying capacity.
    …though to be fair, the concept of “carrying capacity” wouldn’t be formalized in biology for another 40 years, so that’s not nothing. (I’m not sure how much it actually is, since “carrying capacity” is just a quantification of the obvious…)


    1. You’d think it would be obvious that if you kill members of a species faster than it can reproduce, it will go extinct, and yet people were surprised when it happened. Lots of things I think are obvious get disbelieved by living people. So expressly stating there was a limit to human population may be worth something. And didn’t Malthus talk about exponential growth as well? That we managed to increase the food supply rapidly (with dubious sustainability, and that population growth actually slowed down and started to level off, I think doesn’t rebut his “if this goes on” analysis.

      I think I can include only one link before being moderated so but his “previously” post has

      “What very few people realize is that Malthus was right about most of human history — indeed, he was right about roughly 58 out of 60 centuries of civilization: living standards basically did not improve from the era of the first Pharaohs to the age of Louis XIV, because any technological gains were swallowed up by population pressure. We only think Malthus got it wrong because the two centuries he was wrong about were the two centuries that followed the publication of his work.”

      “And here’s the sense in which Malthus was right: he had a fundamentally valid model of the pre-Industrial Revolution economy, which was one in which technological progress translated into more people, not higher living standards. This homeostasis only broke down when very rapid technological change finally outstripped population pressure for an extended period.”

      With a graph showing income fluctuating between 0.75 and 1.5 on a particular scale, before shooting up to 12 and beyond by 2000 AD… for some of us; another fraction of the global population sinks to long-term lows.


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