Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.09.63

Richard Alston, Onno van Nijf (ed.), Feeding the Ancient Greek City. Groningen-Royal Holloway Studies on the Greek City after the Classical Age 1.   Leuven:  Peeters Publishers, 2008.  Pp. x, 207.  ISBN 9789042920378.  €75.00.  

Reviewed by Brian Rutishauser, Fresno City College (
Word count: 2425 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This collection is the first to be published out of a series of four workshops on the "postclassical Greek city" held from 2003-2006 under the auspices of the Royal Holloway Department of Classics at the University of London, and the University of Groningen's Department of History. This volume collects papers presented at the third workshop in Athens in 2004, and boasts six pieces on Roman history, one on Hellenistic, one on Classical (for the first time in the span of the workshops), and one that traverses both Greek and Roman topics. All the contributions approach the issue of relations between urban centers and their surrounding rural areas, although they cover a rich variety of geographic locations, time periods, and historical circumstances.

Richard Alston's introduction discusses various models of urban interaction with the countryside and how they are addressed by the volume's contributors. In summarizing the papers Alston makes several interesting points of his own, such as the statement that variations in the social and economic structures of ancient urban centers caused variations in their political organization as well. John Bintliff discusses economies of scale as derived from population sizes of ancient cities, citing this as a neglected area of study. For classical Aegean Greece, Bintliff examines recent evidence that 80 percent of Normalpoleis had all their territory within a two-hour walk from their urban center. Kirsten's concept of a polis as a Dorfstaat or large village is here adapted to a model of urban populations that commuted on foot to the countryside to raise crops. Throughout the Archaic period some of these communities absorbed others in their hinterlands (with survey evidence from Boeotia given as a case study). Attica is presented as an exception to the rule, with most of the Athenian population living in demes rather than in the city center. Those demes closest to the asty are more densely clustered than ones further removed, and Bintliff hypothesizes that their inhabitants specialized in crops that were sold directly to the urban market in Athens. Moving to the Roman imperial period in Britain, Bintliff surmises that the economic stimuli of taxation and Romanization was what led to the formation of "market foci" in areas such as East Anglia. Whether or not these "foci" achieved status as Roman towns, they enabled the locals to buy and sell goods. Thus, the economic nature of population centers in Roman Britain, and not their political nature, could be paramount.

R.J. van der Spek examines Hellenistic urbanization in the heartland of Mesopotamia, and takes issue with the assumption held by many historians that Babylon went into decline after the campaigns of Alexander the Great. He begins by examining estimates for surface area and population for cities such as Uruk and Babylon during earlier Mesopotamian history, while admitting that making such estimates solely from archaeology can be highly problematic. Cuneiform records, however, can be used to fill in the gaps and this represents one source for the continued usage of the site of Babylon. Surveys of southern Iraq conducted in the mid-20th century reveal steady growth in areas of occupation. It appears that the Tigris region saw a greater increase than that near the Euphrates. An examination of yield estimates for grain leads to the assertion that the new Hellenistic capital at Seleucia-on-the-Tigris was not dependent on imported food. The cuneiform Astronomical Diaries of Babylon record prices of a range of commodities, including grain, and this enables van der Spek to draw a similar conclusion for the ability of Babylon to be fed (at least in times of peace) from its own territory.

Gocha Tsetskhladze's piece represents one of two articles in this collection that relate directly to Classical Greek history. Tsetskhladze reiterates his position, advanced in earlier articles, that the common assumption that Athens depended on regular grain imports from the Black Sea region in the Classical period is not supported by the evidence. He cites recent archaeological and palaeobotanical work (much of it originally published in Russian or Ukrainian) which demonstrates that neither the Scythians nor Archaic Greek colonists in the area exported grain to the Greek mainland. Athenians did begin to replace Ionians as colonists starting in the early fifth century, but this did not give rise to grain exports either. In the entire region only the Bosporan kingdom could have (and did) supply grain to Athens, at least from the reign of Satyros I (433/2-389/8 BC), but the importance of Bosporan grain was exaggerated by Demosthenes for personal reasons.1

Andrea U. De Giorgi explores the relationship between the city center of Roman Antioch and its hinterland. Urban growth at sites such as Antioch, according to De Giorgi, was affected by systems of supply from the countryside. The Amuq Valley Regional Project, a survey of the area surrounding Antioch carried out by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, provides much of De Giorgi's data and covers a variety of landscape types. The expansion of the urban center was accompanied by a corresponding increase in rural settlement in its environs, which De Giorgi interprets as satisfying the city's demand for food instead of long-range imports. New taxation procedures established by provincial governors may have spurred locals into exploiting uncultivated land to help fulfill their obligations, leading to a large number of new sites that peaked in the first century A.D. The density of sites increases with proximity to the city center, along with a change in cultivation strategies--this echoes Bintliff's statements (see above) on Athens. The Orontes River played an important economic role as the canal constructed by Vespasian (now identified from satellite imagery) gave new possibilities for the movement of not only troops but also cargo. Antioch also became a hub for a series of inter-province roads constructed in the early imperial period. The evidence from archaeological surveys dovetails in some instances with the literary record from authors such as Libanius. Olive oil production in the Jebel al-Akra area also corresponds to testimony concerning an oil dole in the city, although it remains unclear how such cultivation was organized.

Laurens Tacoma shifts the perspective to Roman Egypt and to the question land ownership by urban dwellers. Egypt possessed over 50 urban centers (although not all had city rights), and evidence from papyri has been used by various scholars to make a wide range of population estimates. Tacoma provides a formula for the calculation of levels of urbanization based on such variables as inhabited area and population density, and calculates a rough level of 20 percent for Egypt overall (a high figure, as the author admits). Land registers from Hermopolis give a figure of just over 25 percent of all cultivable land in the Hermopolite nome being in the hands of inhabitants of the town, making it theoretically possible that the urbanites could feed themselves from the produce of their own holdings--yet the actual proportion of urban landowners was smaller than these numbers would suggest, with a substantial number of them classifiable as smallholders. In the Hermopolite registers most lands in urban hands were also within walking distance of the town center. Lease contracts from Oxyrhynchos show a large number of intra-urban leases, which Tacoma takes as an indication of the existence of a large pool of urban laborers who worked holdings but did not own them. Thus, the number of urban dwellers with "direct access" to local food supplies was very low, and this made large urban centers in Egypt more vulnerable to crises than smaller communities.

Institutionalized public interest and intervention in the grain supply of Roman cities is the topic of Paul Erdkamp's contribution. Most historians have assumed that private benefactions made up shortfalls in these communities. Cities in Asia Minor, however, show evidence of official sitonia or grain funds that were eventually permanent and apparently unrelated to the incidence of grain shortages. Rather than simply administering grain doles, officials known as sitonai made many decisions concerning the supply. Moreover, officials in other parts of the empire that worked predominantly in other capacities, such as agoranomoi or aediles, could also have supervision over the grain supply and thus represent a multitude of ways to publicly approach the issue in the Roman world. Private contributions to these funds could be crucial, with Dio Chrysostomos' words to rioters in Prusa during a shortage providing a textbook case. The orator defends himself against accusations of grain hoarding and also of refusal to provide money for the local grain fund. From time to time elites could also draw upon outside sources to help alleviate crises. Erdkamp argues that these actions by local elites were not merely for their own aggrandizement but to fulfill popular expectations that they would assist the community in maintaining supplies and keeping prices down, thus maintaining the social order in their towns.

The well-known Athenian Oil Law promulgated by Hadrian (IG II2 1100 and SEG 15.108) is the topic of Kaja Harter-Uibopuu's contribution. This decree mandated that olive farmers render one-third of their harvests to imperial elaionai officials, who would purchase the oil from the farmers at the current market price to ensure that supplies remained stable. This type of coercive purchase by imperial officials is known from several other Roman contexts (such as in Sicily), but had no precedent in Greek practice. The decree also established procedures for punishing malfeasance which shared some aspects with Classical Athenian practice such as phasis and eisangelia. The Athenian boule and ekklesia had some authority in these proceedings, and this is interpreted by Harter-Uibopuu as a conscious effort on Hadrian's part to hearken back to classical concepts and appear as a new Athenian lawgiver. At the same time, the decree included the right of appeal to the emperor or proconsul, so that local autonomy was not absolute. The author proposes that this may have been done to protect merchants from areas outside Athens.

The possibility of malfeasance committed by individuals in regard to the grain supply is explored by Christina Kokkinia. An honorary inscription for Veranius Philagros in the town of Cibyra in Lycia thanks him for sending embassies to the imperial government in Rome that, among other things, accomplished the removal of one Tiberius Nikephoros. This man had been accused of being part of a conspiracy to hoard grain in Cibyra during the reign of the emperor Claudius. Rather than the traditional interpretation of Nikephoros as a corrupt Roman official, Kokkinia sees him as a member of the local elite who took 3,000 denarii a year as a kind of bribe so as not to manipulate the grain supply by means of some short of shadowy cabal of associates. Apparently Philagros took the initiative in journeying to Rome and appealing to the emperor himself in order to get Nikephoros banished. Kokkinia also draws more attention to the potential cumulative effect of many small-scale transactions on local grain markets.

Arjan Zuiderhoek addresses almost an identical topic to that covered by Erdkamp, municipal grain funds and elite paternalism, and comes to similar conclusions. However, Zuiderhoek examines more closely the parallels between ancient Roman grain funds and those in medieval Europe and in China, citing all as institutional solutions to the structural social issue of variations in the grain supply. Unlike these parallel examples, Roman municipal grain funds were primarily stocked with cash, not actual grain, and thus avoided the pitfalls of perishability and other factors. Rather than being chronically insolvent, these funds would in Zuiderhoek's view have operated well during most years. He criticizes the view of Strubbe, Garnsey, and others that wealthy benefactors were mainly responsible for alleviating grain shortages. Although the grain funds did accept contributions from such individuals, Zuiderhoek characterizes these instances as unusual enough to have merited commemoration in inscriptions when they did occur. Elites could also have helped alleviate shortages by selling their own grain at below current, but above market prices. This is cited as another example of paternalism, especially in the Eastern empire, where urban society had become so hierarchically-structured that the lower classes were viewed as the "children" of the upper to a certain degree. This "infantilization" of the Roman subject-at-large is a key component of Zuiderhoek's thesis.

Harry Pleket's short epilogue is more critical in its analysis of the papers than Alston's introduction. A few examples will suffice. Pleket questions Kokkinia's explanation of the Nikephoros affair, returning to the older view that he was an imperial official, and also emphasizes what he sees as the inability of the local elites in Cibyra to deal with the situation. He also criticizes Tsetskhladze's reluctance to accept Demosthenes' figure for grain imports from the Bosporus to Athens, as well as his general skepticism concerning this region as a source of food for Athens.

All in all this is an intriguing collection that raises many important issues concerning classical landscapes, both urban and rural. In particular, this volume illustrates how Finley's model of the ancient "consumer city" remains valuable, yet requires further nuancing across time and space in the classical world. These studies demonstrate that there was significant variety in the patterns of infrastructure connecting these cities to their hinterlands. Most of the papers on Roman history focus on the imperial heyday of the 2nd-3rd centuries AD, and it may prove fruitful if future conferences in the series could broaden the chronological focus into the later Roman period to show possible contrasts.

The text is well-produced and very nearly free of typos (p.53 n.10 "except" in place of "expect"; p.48 n.9 Garnsey 1998 instead of 1988; p.154 n.37 "disolved"). A few color elements added to some of the maps (such as in Bintliff's and De Giorgi's contributions), though utilized sparingly, add some nice production value.


Richard Alston, Introduction 1

Chapter 1. John Bintliff, Considerations on agricultural scale-economies in the Greco-Roman world 17

Chapter 2. R.J. (Bert) van der Spek, Feeding Hellenistic Seleucia on the Tigris and Babylon 33

Chapter 3. Gocha R. Tsetskhladze, 'Grain for Athens'. The view from the Black Sea 47

Chapter 4. Andrea U. De Giorgi, Town and country in Roman Antioch 63

Chapter 5. Laurens E. Tacoma, Urbanisation and access to land in Roman Egypt 85

Chapter 6. Paul Erdkamp, Grain funds and market intervention in the Roman World 109

Chapter 7. Kaja Harter-Uibopuu, Hadrian and the Athenian Oil Law 127

Chapter 8. Christina Kokkinia, Grain for Cibyra. Veranius Philagros and the 'great conspiracy' 143

Chapter 9. Arjan Zuiderhoek, Feeding the Citizens. Municipal grain funds and civic benefactors in the Roman East 159

Harry W. Pleket, Epilogue 181


1.   For a different take on this issue see Alfonso Moreno. Feeding the Democracy. The Athenian Grain Supply in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC (Oxford University Press 2007).

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