Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.10.08

Michael Decker, Tilling the Hateful Earth: Agricultural Production and Trade in the Late Antique East. Oxford studies in Byzantium.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.  Pp. xxvii, 326.  ISBN 9780199565283.  $135.00.  

Reviewed by David K. Pettegrew, Messiah College (

[The Contents are listed at the end of the review.]

The economy of the Late Antique Mediterranean has attracted major scholarly interest and debate over the last decade. While the appearance of major tomes have offered sweeping views of early medieval commerce and production,1 a new picture is emerging also from numerous regional studies of specific cities and territories.2 Tilling the Hateful Earth is distinct in its comprehensive study of agriculture, trade, and production across a Late Roman diocese, the Oriens, and in its composite approach that gives balanced attention to written sources in addition to material culture. The work will be valuable to scholars for its synthetic pictures of rural life in the early Byzantine east, attention to the writings of agronomists, and specific contributions to debates about the late antique economy through a quantitative approach.

The explicit aims of Tilling are "to bring to life the late antique landscape" of the eastern Mediterranean (p. 1) and contribute to debates about the nature of the late ancient economy. To achieve these, Decker examines agriculture and settlement across the entire diocese of the Oriens, an area incorporating some fifteen different Late Roman provinces spread over the lands of modern-day Cyprus, eastern Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Palestinian territories. Chronologically, he covers the four centuries from the foundation of Constantinople that witnessed tremendous political, cultural, and geographical realignments. Such latitude allows the author to adopt a 'catholic approach' (p. 6) that makes use of both plentiful textual evidence—hagiography, theological tracts, homilies, agronomist literature, among many others—and the material results of regionally-based archaeological investigations. The author surveys and samples the evidence throughout while basing his arguments especially on detailed discussions of the Geoponica, a 10th century agrarian handbook preserving the works of late antique writers Vindanius Anatolius and Cassianus Bassus, and archaeological case studies of the best- investigated sites of the Levant. Where evidence is lacking for the late antique Oriens, Decker supports his case from other regions, or earlier or later periods.

Much of the work (Ch. 1-5) provides a detailed overview of the countrysides of the Oriens and the agricultural production of cereals, vines, and olives, through written sources and archaeological case studies. Following a brief introduction, Chapter 1 introduces the geography, soils, climate, water sources, settlement, and population of the Oriens in a manner too brief given the extensive area under investigation and its varied ecology. The second chapter surveys the textual and archaeological evidence for different forms of productive engagements with the countryside —the villages, imperial and aristocratic estates, isolated farmsteads, towers familiar from regional studies—and makes the strong case for a heterogeneous social tapestry that included small and medium scale farmers alongside large estate owners.

Chapters 3-5 discuss in detail the Mediterranean triad of crops grown in late antiquity. These chapters survey the production of cereals, olives, and vines based on late antique agrarian handbooks that expanded on agricultural practices of earlier Roman agronomists in their discussions of seasons of planting, selection of different types of grain, wine, and olives, and techniques of cultivation and harvesting. Decker has two larger points to make here. He argues through a quantitative approach (see below) that while grains were the least intensive crop, they required the greatest amount of land to meet subsistence—at least a mid-sized farm (40 iugera or more)—and that in a world with good access to markets, olives and vines always had greater potential to meet the demands of subsistence and generate profit. Secondly, he challenges the notion that late antique agriculture was irrational, overly conservative, primitive, or oriented merely toward subsistence. The handbooks show land owners interested in producing substantial quantities of wine and olive oil, and consciously improving quality through experimentation with selection of soils and fruits, preparation of soils, sowing, plant management, and processing. This interest in profiting from agriculture is also evident in numerous olive and grape presses in many provinces of the east, and the ubiquity of eastern wine and oil amphoras across the Mediterranean, Black Sea, Red Sea, and Arabian Peninsula.

Chapters 6-8 present evidence for intensification and an expanding economy in the late antique territories of the Oriens. Chapter 6 surveys the archaeological evidence for expansion of agriculture into arid territories like the steppe lands of Syria and Phoenicia and the desert of Negev. The proliferation of late antique settlement in these areas suggests that wealthy farmers made the desert arable by investing in hydraulic infrastructure and irrigation networks like canals, dams and reservoirs, underground qanats, terracing and check-dams, run-off farms, and water-lifting devices. Chapter 7 presents evidence for forms of mixed farming regimes common to the Levant and argues that integrative approaches were compatible with specialization and profit. Chapter 8 argues for active commercial markets through a survey of written evidence for specialized markets and traders and the ubiquity of transport amphorae, and quantitative arguments about the scale of trade with the west (for example, the author calculates that in the fifth century, 100 small shiploads of eastern Late Roman 1 amphorae may have reached Carthage per year and 200 may have reached Rome).

While Decker foregrounds the agrarian handbooks to depict inherent dynamism in late antique agriculture, he strengthens his picture through a number of interesting quantitative exercises of a sort common to literature surrounding the ancient countryside and economy. For instance, he reckons that the movement of the 420,000 modii of grain from an imperial estate in AD 362 to the city of Antioch would have mobilized 2,500 cultivators for the harvest and 28,000 camels for the transport (p. 83-84). From standard estimates of individual consumption rates of wine, he computes (p. 122) annual demands for a hypothetical family of six (598 liters per year) and the entire urban population of Antioch (15 million liters). We learn that Edessa's estimated population of ca. 50,000 people would have required between 182,000 and 850,000 liters of olive oil a year—depending on the hours a liter of oil would burn—to light the lamps in their houses (pp. 150-151). The number of known wine presses in the village of Qirqbize in northern Syria forms the basis for estimates that 50-75% of the village's wine harvest over a seven-week season would have been surplus available for export and profit (p. 144). The point of all these calculations it not to establish objectivity but to provide the reader some "shade of reality" (p. 83) of the incredible potential scales of production and exchange in the east in late antiquity. The author's use of numbers is careful and tends to follows accepted standards, conservative estimates of yield rates, or, where there is debate, range of estimates. These exercises become less unconvincing as the number of assumptions and steps in quantification increase in such aspects as population sizes, caloric requirements for families and cities, seed to yield ratios, practices of fallowing, amount of land under cultivation, land quality and tax burdens, rent rates and labor costs, and losses in processing and storage, among others.

The major drawback to Decker's composite approach is that by flattening disparate examples into a common picture, it downplays real differences in patterns of environment, economy, settlement, and human culture that always characterize and make up different regions. Those who have grown accustomed to approaching the ancient economy through regional approaches and local micro-environments3 will be bothered by the inevitable losses of context that result from averaging the differences (p. 112). The notion (p. 15) that "Nearly every major city in the eastern Mediterranean lay on, or in close proximity to, a perennial river," for example, ignores the cities of entire provinces (e.g., Cyprus). The general picture of "unprecedented settlement on the land in the fourth through seventh centuries" (p. 22) overlooks the subtle differences of habitation growth and change in various regions and provinces. The yield ratios for wheat and barley from a single papyrus forms the basis for generalization "for Oriens in general" (pp. 82- 83), while a single comment from the medical writer Oribasius becomes evidence that emmer and einkorn wheat were very common in the Late Antique east. The composite picture, in other words, is crafted from the particular texts and archaeological studies that are relatively uneven. The reader may walk away justifiably wondering whether the composite would actually work for a particular individual territory at a particular point in time.

In the end, though, Decker's general picture of a healthy economy faring well above subsistence is convincing. Tilling the Hateful Earth will be extremely valuable in its synthesis of an enormous corpus of archaeological scholarship on the late antique east. That this work is so thoroughly researched and clearly written should make it a new starting point for research of the eastern Mediterranean in the later Roman period.

Table of Contents

1 The Land: Climate and Geography
2 The Countryside in Late Antiquity
3 Hand to Mouth: Grain in Late Antiquity
4 The Vine
5 The 'Queen of All Trees': The Olive in Late Antique Agriculture
6 Invading the Desert: Irrigation and Agrarian Expansion
7 Mixed Farming and Limited Specialization: Methods and Means of Intensification
8 Trade, Agriculture, and the Economy of the Late Antique East
Appendix: The Value of the Geoponica as a Source for Late Antique Agricultural Practices


1.   Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History, Oxford 2000; Jairus Banaji, Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour, and Aristocratic Dominance, Oxford 2001; Michael McCormick, Origins of Communications and Commerce, A.D. 300-900, Cambridge 2001; Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800, Oxford 2005.
2.   E.g., William Bowden, Luke Lavan, and Carlos Machado (eds.), Recent Research on the Late Antique Countryside, Leiden 2004.
3.   Horden and Purcell 2000.

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