This was originally a paper that I wrote for a class of mine called "Life and Death in the Ancient World." For related information, see Ancient Roman Food, although one should be aware that those foodstuffs were only eaten by the filthy rich rather than the average Roman.

Marshall Hodgson, in his influential work on Islamic history, at one point puts forth a theory regarding the demography of the ancient Islamic world1. The basics of this theory are that the people living in ancient cities had a very high death rate due to their increased susceptibility to disease as well as warfare and its related perils, while those persons living in the hinterlands were less susceptible to these calamities, but suffered more from periodic food shortages than the urban population. Also, the urban population was replenished primarily by the rural population through migration, since it was unable, due to its higher death rate, to replenish its numbers without that immigration. The purpose of this paper is to point out that this generalized model is also applicable to classical populations like those of Greece and Rome due to their social organizational methods, which were similar to those later found in the Near East that Hodgson studied. The types of organizational methods that are most salient with regard to explanation of the trends noted by Hodgson are the social networks found in and between citied classical society and its surrounding hinterland.

In order for a relationship to exist between any two actors, some sort of exchange must take place between them. This exchange can be material, ideological, or emotional in nature. Throughout this paper, I operate on a rather idealized and obviously simplified model in which the cities have extensive and readily available internal social networks which are also connected more tenuously with surrounding farms and more tenuously still with other cities. In this model, the idea of the availability of social networks becomes much more relevant than in modern studies. The lack of modern technological advancements in those times greatly limited the frequency of exchange in the ancient setting between most people. Thus, even where relationships existed, they may not have been implemented very often, thereby limiting exchange along those pathways. In the cities of this model, social networks were made more extensive and available mostly because of physical proximity. In fact, the networks of many large cities were so available as to be inescapable due to the overcrowding of the population. The cities also depend on relationships with surrounding farms and with other, neighboring cities, as well. These relationships are much less available, though, due to the physical distance that impedes immediate exchange with those entities. Circumstances differed, though, for the farms of the surrounding countryside. Their physical isolation from the cities and one another decreased availability of networks and made the inhabitants of the farms less able to exchange resources via whatever relationships outside of the immediate vicinity of the farm existed for the residents of the farms.

The idea of social networks is central to this argument primarily because of the focal role played by exchange in regulating the frequency and severity of the aforementioned population-limiting calamities. The most obvious example of this fact comes in the form of plague and infectious disease. As is widely known in modern times, the spread of infectious disease is largely dependent on physical contact with an infected individual. Given this fact and the fact that in ancient times it was virtually impossible to participate in any sort of exchange whatsoever without engaging in at least a small degree of physical contact due to technological limitations, one would expect to find higher rates of infection in places in which social networks are more extensive and more available. Thus, the limited availability of the networks of rural dwellers allows them to escape the high rates of infection found in the more physically dense and therefore more densely networked city. Unfortunately, literary evidence for this is difficult to come by given the natural predilection of almost every ancient writer to focus much more on the town in which he lived rather than the countryside. Jackson, though, draws much the same conclusion, if in less specific terms2, and Duncan-Jones makes obvious through his omission of rural folk as an important link in the network of plague transmission3 that they were unimportant in that regard. Further, some theorists have argued that a minimum host population is required for an infection to exist with regularity over time4, implying that even if not every disease existed in perpetuity, those that did would have existed in urban populations exclusively, sparing the sparser rural populace. Even though the citied populations had higher access to doctors and help from other members of their networks, this privilege was virtually useless in terms of saving the life of an infected individual. Doctors’ technology as they themselves described5 it was frankly wrong and their treatments therefore useless in terms of saving the life of an infected individual. Even if doctors had had access to useful treatments, their clients were primarily, if not exclusively, the upper class. Thus, they would not have made a dent in the infection rates of the city as a whole. This possible advantage of the urban populations, then, was useless in practice during times of epidemic. Although nearly anyone who had any contact whatsoever with other people ran the risk of contracting infectious disease, rural populations suffered less severely from the epidemics of the time than did the urban inhabitants, who were essentially at the mercy of any disease that entered their environment due to their large and available social networks.

The circumstances are somewhat reversed when one approaches the problem of famine. When speaking in terms of naturally occurring crop shortages (as opposed to food shortages caused by the disruption of grain transportation, which we shall approach separately), cities must have been better off than the countryside for two reasons. First, cities existed as a center for keeping and distributing grain. Further, grain was often both imported and exported from one region to another5. This would have been impractical, if not outright impossible, without the centralization in cities of large quantities of grain and its subsequent organization for transport from one place to another. Even in relatively democratic societies, the city appears to have exerted enough political pressure over the countryside to provide itself with both food and surplus. In Galen, the urban population is depicted as acting collectively to take the grain necessary for their survival from the inhabitants of the farms, somewhat to the rural population’s detriment: “Those who live in the cities, in accordance with their universal practice of collecting a sufficient supply of corn to last a whole year, took from the fields all the wheat, with the barley…So the people in the countryside, after consuming during the winter what had been left, were compelled to use unhealthy forms of nourishment…I myself saw some of them at the end of spring and almost all at the beginning of summer afflicted6.” Although it is debatable which segment of the urban populace actually took the rural populace’s food, the fact that the urban populace did take it and that they apparently made a regular practice of it supports the idea that they were much better off in times of food shortage in general. Further, the fact that many of the landowners of the time resided in cities implies that they would bring a large portion of the crop grown on their land into the city for easier access. The system of rent-in-kind on which the Greeks and Romans appear to have operated with their tenants7 would have left a certain amount for the actual resident farm laborers, while siphoning off a large portion of the excess for export to the city. Similar practices seem to have been followed by other ancient Hellenized peoples as well8. The siphoning of excess from the farms to the city would have made it more difficult for the residents of the countryside to save food for periods of shortage. This must have meant that residents of the farms were in a much worse situation in a time of natural food shortage than were their urban counterparts.

Urban populations also appear to have had mechanisms in place to ensure a relatively egalitarian distribution of food resources among city dwellers, thereby mitigating the impact of food shortages that did occur. As stated previously, the cities served as centers for the storage and distribution of surplus from year to year. Mechanisms such as patronage by politicians and rich members of society existed within both the Roman and Greek system. The emperor in particular served as a public provider in times of food scarcity9. Also, though, modern comparative evidence10 implies that the urban poor made use of less official means to redistribute scarce material resources, especially food, throughout their social networks. In this case, the social networks that were so dense and available in the cities were extremely advantageous to the residents thereof.

Rural dwellers, while not exactly formally excluded from these redistribution processes, almost certainly had less access to them for a few reasons. Research suggests that the less extensive a given social network is, the less possibility exists for collective action by its members11. Thus, in terms of political power, residents of the farms would have been at a relative disadvantage despite the fact that their numbers were almost certainly greater than those of the city dwellers, due to the political insignificance of the rural population stemming from its inability to act concertedly. Thus they would have lacked the power necessary to either retain food from the urban population or to demand much food from the urban center after it had been collected there. In addition, the lack of availability of whatever social networks existed for farm dwellers would have made it even more difficult for them to call in favors in the form of food or to actually retrieve whatever food to which they might have been entitled in the manner in which the debatably similarly disenfranchised urban poor probably did. Thus, food shortages would have been made more acute in the countryside than in the city due to the relative lack of social networks there and the lack of availability of the ones that did exist.

Warfare would also have had different impacts on dwellers of the town and city. It functioned as a social disruptor in two senses. Firstly, it cut off relationships that may have been available to populations to which it occurred. The most crucial of these relationships would have been the supply lines from either country to city or from one city to another. The extreme example of this occurrence would have been a siege situation, in which the overt intention of the besieging army was to starve the urban populace into submission. However, armies tended to cut off supply lines in less obvious ways as well13. In addition to the more general tendency of warfare and armies to disrupt trade generally and rather nonspecifically, the army itself must be fed. When on the march, the most available source of food for an army would have been the surpluses kept in towns, which they may have taken in the form of tribute in the case of conquered territory, or which they may have paid for in the case of friendly territory. Either way, though, the impact on the inhabitants of the towns from whose granaries the armies must have requisitioned these materials would have been the same. The reduction of available food would have had the same effect, whether paid for or not, and would have been especially detrimental in times of general shortage. Thus, either by way of severing supply lines to a settlement or by creating an abnormal drain on its supplies, an army would have a detrimental effect on the food availability of a given area by acting as a social disruptor. The effect would be especially pronounced in an urban area because of the fact that the urban area’s relationships of supply from the country and its internal relationships, both necessary for its continued survival, would be disrupted, bringing on artificial food shortages. Rural populations, assuming that they produced their own food, would be relatively unaffected by army-related famine. The most change that they were likely to experience was a simple change in the identity of the higher-ups on the political food chain demanding their surplus grain.

Food shortages are not the only way in which an army would unintentionally make its presence known, though. As previously noted, an army would have trade contacts with people in nearly every area that it passed. This, coupled with the previously mentioned fact that these relationships would necessitate physical contact between the actors in these situations, would mean that an army would basically run the risk of picking up a new disease every time it moved to a new area and came into close contact with new people. If one assumes that an army is in terms of social networks similar to a town, except that it moves, then one comes up with a picture of a moving avenue of disease transmission. Anyone that came into contact with any part of it would be at higher risk of catching disease than normal. The Antonine plague is clearly and repeatedly stated to have its roots in a Roman army’s return from campaigns to the east14. Many other diseases must have been given great mobility by troop movements as well15, and the social unifying force provided by the empire cannot be overlooked, either, in assessing mobility of plague. Given the fact that armies tend to focus on settlements and urban centers in their campaigns and movements and that rural peasantry is of little importance to an army for many of the same reasons that it is of little political importance for the town itself, one easily deduces that an army acting as a disease transmitter would impact the towns with which it comes into contact much more heavily than the countryside. Thus, by way of introducing a large foreign element to the vital networks on which the urban population depends for survival, warfare becomes extremely detrimental to cities, while having a relatively small impact on the less socially dependent rural population.

Although some overlap must have naturally occurred between the two categories, the city and its surrounding hinterland formed two distinct but inseparable entities with consideration to their social ties. The population of each also fell victim to different calamities at different rates as well, with the rates largely depending on the nature and availability of the social networks that existed within and between the city, other cities, and the countryside. Warfare and disease hit the cities harder because of the fact that these calamities penalized dependence on dense, available, and unavoidable networks of social contacts, which existed in urban centers. Famine affected the countryside more severely because of the fact that its impact was largely mitigated by the existence of the aforementioned networks that either did not exist in the hinterland or were not as available there as in the city. Overall, then, Hodgson’s initial argument regarding general well being in the face of calamity appears to have carried over to the Greek and Roman versions of these two general slices of the population.

  1. Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization 2: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods. University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1961. pp.85-91.
  2. Jackson, Ralph. Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire. University of Oklahoma Press, Tulsa: 1988. p. 175
  3. Duncan-Jones, Richard. “The Impact of the Antonine Plague,” in Journal of Roman Archeology, v.9: 1996. p.114-115.
  4. Cockburn, T. Aidan. “Infectious Diseases in Ancient Populations,” in Current Anthropology, v.12, Issue 1 (Feb. 1971), p. 50.
  5. Hippocrates. Hippocratic Writings. Penguin Books, London: 1983. Virtually any prescription for treatment in this book, where treatment is even recommended, which is itself rare, would be discarded as useless, if not actually harmful, by modern doctors, despite what were certainly the best intentions of its authors.
  6. Rathbone, Dominic. “The Grain Trade and Shortages in the Hellenistic East,” in Trade and Famine in Classical Antiquity. University of Cambridge Press, Cambridge: 1983. pp. 45-53.
  7. This passage comes from a handout passed out during class. Although I have found it referred to by several other authors, I have been unable to locate the original source, other than to say that it comes from the writings of Galen.
  8. Corbier, Mireille. “City, Territory, and Taxation,” in City and Coutry in the Ancient World, p.221-223. For other views, see Ian Morris’ article, “The Early Polis as City and State,” p.34 of the same volume, in which Morris states that the early polis obtained grain from its hinterland but fails to state how exactly, also, John R. Patterson’s “Settlement, City, and Elite in Samnium and Lycia” presents a curiously roundabout model of essentially the same thing as enacted by the Roman emperor (p.155), while W. E. Heitland’s Agricola (Cambridge University Press, London: 1921.) brings forth some evidence to the contrary which I think is misinterpreted (p.365). He states that money rent was the “usual plan,” but takes his evidence from lawsuits regarding stoppage of payment. The frequency of these cases could just as easily be evidence of cash in short supply on farms rather than commonness of rent in cash arrangements.
  9. Olmstead, A. T. “Land Tenure in The Ancient Orient,” in The American Historical Review, v.32, Issue 1 (Oct. 1926), p.3.
  10. Patterson p. 155
  11. Stack, Carol B. All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community. Harper and Row, New York: 1974. pp. 32-44.
  12. Maxwell, Gerald and Pamela E. Oliver. “Social Networks and Collective Action: A Theory of the Critical Mass. III,” in American Journal of Sociology, v.94, Issue 3 (Nov. 1988), pp. 502-534.
  13. Garnsey, Peter. “Famine in Rome,” in Trade and Famine in Classical Antiquity. p. 58.
  14. Duncan-Jones, Richard. “The Impact of the Antonine Plague,” p.116.
  15. Duncan-Jones, Richard. “The Impact of the Antonine Plague,” p.136.

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