BMCR 2006.12.09

The Grain Market in the Roman Empire: A Social, Political, and Economic Study

, The grain market in the Roman Empire : a social, political and economic study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. viii, 364 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521838789 $95.00.

Table of Contents

In this new book, Paul Erdkamp, a prominent scholar of the Roman army and economy, presents an extensive discussion concerning the economic, political, and social influences that shaped the grain market during the Roman Empire, with a particular focus on the city of Rome. The book is aptly named since the main focus of the discussion is the grain “market.” Erdkamp uses the term “market” not in the concrete sense, but the abstract. Erdkamp does not examine the physical remains of Roman markets, such as fora, horrea, or nundinae, but the basic economic forces of the ancient economy, such as supply and demand, production and productivity, euergetism, market integration, and the relationship of both the peasant farmer and the wealthy aristocrat to the grain market. As a result, the book focuses on the functions, not the institutions, of the grain market under Roman hegemony.

This book is written by a historian for ancient historians and fully utilizes the scant literary and epigraphic evidence available. In his Introduction (pp.1-11), Erdkamp immediately warns the reader that his book does not analyze the price formation of specific grains, the everyday running’s of the cereal market, or a quantitative report of imports and exports between various regions, all subjects dealt with by other authors in various works.1 Erdkamp correctly states that we do not have sufficient extant material sources for the Roman world to undertake reliable, comprehensive statistical analysis based only on the material evidence. As a result, almost all of Erdkamp’s evidence comes from philological and epigraphic evidence, accompanied with the necessary caveats about the material’s aristocratic biases and representations of usually only ideal situations. The area, however, in which Erdkamp shines, is his use of ethnographic materials. The inspiration for most of the book comes from parallels with the food supply and grain market in early modern, pre-industrial Europe. Erdkamp believes that the Roman world as a pre-industrial society was not fundamentally different from early modern Europe. He is correct in most cases since the dominance of agriculture in the economy, the integration of the market, and the high cost of transportation are all legitimate parallels between ancient and early modern Europe. One major difference, however, is the use of slave labor. Although it is practically impossible to discuss the profitability of ancient slavery, Erdkamp never properly addresses slave labor and its potential effect, or lack thereof, on the grain market. Perhaps this is due to the cloudy picture of the employment of slaves in agriculture and the lack of any real quantitative evidence. Nevertheless, peasant farming always coexisted with larger estates in the Roman Empire and the latter was often worked by slaves or leased out in smaller units to tenants. Throughout the Oeconomicus, Xenophon describes a farm owner who lives in the city and leaves his farm in the hands of a slave bailiff who supervised slave labor. Columella warns Roman gentlemen farmers not to live too far away from their land for fear of hindering direct supervision of his slave workers.2 The first chapter (pp.12-54) “Production and Productivity in Roman Agriculture” is an examination of the means of production of cereal farming in the Roman world, i.e. land, capital, and labor. Erdkamp quickly separates peasant farms from wealthy farms as distinct types. According to Erdkamp’s framework, the peasant farmer hardly ever participated in the capital market. Small-scale farming often occurred on land of poorer soil quality, as opposed to the well-to-do farms which usually contained the most fertile soil. Peasants had little land to work, which in turn most likely increased the practice of inter-cropping. This, with the addition of a lack of manure and the annual production of the same primary food crop, often led to soil exhaustion. Erdkamp suggests that peasant farmers worked their land more intensively than their wealthy neighbors and places the peasant farmer in a pessimistic system of diminishing marginal returns, in other words, each additional unit of input tended to result in less and less extra output. It is at this juncture where Erdkamp differs from his predecessors. Garnsey assumed that peasants extensively worked the land, since they lacked the necessary capital for further investments.3 On this point Erdkamp is correct. While it is true that since peasants often lacked surplus capital for any additional investment, almost every Roman peasant household could increase its labor power in order to increase its output, albeit with an increasing inefficient outcome as more labor was put into the endeavor. In this framework, cereal productivity was not so much determined by soil fertility or weather conditions, although these have dramatic effects on short-term production, but by human settlement patterns. If a large harvest yield was gathered in an area dominated by subsistence-level peasant farmers, much of the harvest was largely consumed by the peasant-producers. On the other hand, if the same harvest was gathered from the estates of wealthy landowners, a much larger surplus was generated. As a result, the human landscape, not the natural, had the greatest effect on surplus grain production.

Erdkamp turns the second chapter (pp.55-105), “The World of the Smallholder,” into an exploration of the degree to which peasants were integrated in the economy, as a whole. Erdkamp concludes that the peasant farmer was only integrated to a small degree into imperfect markets, characterized by high instability of prices and an insecure exchange value of goods and services. On account of the foibles of the market, almost all peasant households stressed autarky and self-reliance. Small-scale farmers usually shunned the specialization of labor-intensive crops since it forced them to rely on the unpredictable nature of the market. Using the evidence from small-scale farmers in early modern Russia, Erdkamp suggests that once their levels of production had reached safe subsistence levels, many Roman peasants decreased their labor input and sacrificed additional levels of income in order to avoid the grind and toil of additional, back-breaking work. This, however, does not mean that all peasants quit working as soon as their subsistence household goals were met, but when culturally, not biologically, determined goals were successfully completed. Erdkamp based this idea on the work of Chayanov and his studies on Russian peasantry.4 However, in recent times, Netting has presented a sound critique of Chayanov’s assumptions.5 Netting proved that most historical farming communities produced far beyond the basic level of subsistence whenever possible, and only under cases of extreme duress did farming societies elect not to produce beyond the bare minimum. Erdkamp also states that throughout the Empire, some markets were more integrated than others. The coastal regions of the Mediterranean, with its access to reliable, less expensive trading and supply routes, were much more integrated than the markets of isolated regions.

Chapter Three (pp.106-142), “Farmers and their Market Relations,” discusses the connections between the market and two types of farms: the profit-oriented, large-scale farm and the subsistence-oriented peasant farm. Again, Erdkamp creates a dichotomy between the food market of large, coastal urban areas and smaller, inland markets. On the largest level, the urban food market existed on a massive scale. Aristocratic landowners could sell their grain in bulk, defraying the cost of transportation, to a variety of specialized middlemen, who in turn could sell their product to grain sellers, millers, bakers, and the general public. Erdkamp points out that the role of the gentleman farmer was not always profit maximization since most landowners often sold their products in bulk during the harvest time when prices were often the lowest. By following this course of action, large farm owners sacrificed any potential profits by waiting until agricultural prices reached their highest level, usually a month or two before the harvest, but avoided the risks associated with market speculation. As a result, the aristocratic farmer preferred long-term security over short-term profits. If peasant farmers had any surplus to sell, it was most likely sold in kind to local members of their community. Erdkamp, however, points out that if peasants sold their products outside of their community, they had opportunities to do so in a number of different ways, including selling in towns directly to consumers and/or grain merchants, selling to grain merchants outside city gates, or selling to itinerant traders at periodic markets. It needs to be stressed, however, that Erdkamp believes that the role of the small producer in supplying urban markets was much more limited than that of the large landowner. In this sense, Erdkamp takes a “top-down” perspective when dealing with urban grain production. Within this type of framework, the main processes of food production and food distribution which supplied urban areas were mostly controlled by the upper levels of society. As a result, the peasant farmer had little effect on the urban grain market as a whole. Although this statement is true for much of the ancient world, the traditional view of the ineffectiveness of peasants on the market has recently been challenged by a number of anthropologists and historians. In fact, numerous scholars have shown that in a number of circumstances peasants were able to create large-scale, inter-regional agricultural systems.6 There is no reason not to believe that these “bottom-up” types of systems could not exist under Roman hegemony in some regions of the Empire.

In the third chapter, Erdkamp investigates the market relationships of large-scale farmers and the rural peasants, while in the fourth chapter (pp. 143-205), “Market Integration: Connecting Supply and Demand,” he examines the degree to which these groups participated in an integrated market. Market integration is defined as the level to which a market is capable of compensating for drastic changes in annual yields. In the ancient world, storing surpluses locally and transporting outside surpluses to regions experiencing food shortages were the only ways for a community to deal with not obtaining a safe level of food production. At the same time, market integration is the degree to which trade could respond to the forces of supply and demand in different regions. The essential question to historians of the Roman economy is did a highly integrated market, with an efficient overseas transport system, exist in the ancient Mediterranean? Following the model offered by Horden and Purcell, Erdkamp correctly describes the Mediterranean as not a uniformed macro-region, but a conglomeration of bioclimatic micro-regions.7 As a result, even in the Mediterranean littoral area, connectivity, isolation, and market integration were unevenly spread. Erdkamp believes that the ancient Mediterranean closely paralleled early modern Europe since a “global” network of commercial centers existed in both time periods which utilized efficient shipping lanes, while at the same time, other areas on the Mediterranean coast were underdeveloped and isolated. Regional price differences not only reflected transportation costs and the annual grain cycle, but also regional differences based on the conditions of production, market, and ease of transportation. For the most part, a large majority of villages had markets with low levels of integration. Small and medium-sized communities were primarily supplied from the immediate hinterland and almost all grain purchases were made locally. Only large cities could afford the luxury of utilizing long-distance trade and buying grain in bulk.

In the fifth chapter (pp. 206-258), “Rome and the Corn Provinces,” poor market integration is the driving force behind Erdkamp’s description of the relationship between Rome and the grain producing regions of the Empire, and how grain was transported and distributed within Rome itself. Erdkamp does not break any new ground when he states that Sicily and Egypt were vital for supplying the enormous belly of the city of Rome. Erdkamp comes to the conclusion that 30-40% of Egyptian and Sicilian grain was taken as taxes-in-kind, an amount that was not oppressive to the native farmers. Nevertheless, the question of how much was left over for the native farmers to sell on the overseas market once the demands from taxes and the internal markets were satisfied remains unanswered.

Once Erdkamp explains where the grain that fed Rome came from, he turns to the question of who transported, stored, and distributed it. When it comes to the argument of who managed the grain supply of the city of Rome, Erdkamp takes the middle-road between Finley and Rickman.8 Finley stated that much of the grain importation and distribution was under strict governmental control and diminished the important of private entrepreneurs. On the other side of the coin, Rickman stressed the central administration’s heavy reliance on the corpora of shippers, grain dealers, and warehouse owners. Erdkamp argues that due to the low integration of the grain market in most of the Roman Empire, the most reliable way to secure a consistent, sufficient grain supply was to collect taxes-in-kind in the grain producing regions of the Empire, namely, Sicily and Egypt. While the Roman government relied on private shippers, traders, and bakers for transportation, storage and distribution, the private entrepreneurs were closely supervised and directed through governmental contracts and incentives.

The sixth chapter (pp. 258-316), “Urban Food Supply and Grain Market Intervention,” is concerned with the regulations placed upon urban food markets in towns and cities in order to overcome the poor integration of the grain market. Most historians believe that the emperor, urban aristocrats, and rural elites only intervened with the food market and food supply on a limited basis, usually as forms of euergetism, i.e. symbols of the privileged class’ care for those less fortunate than they. Erdkamp agrees with this statement up to a point by proposing that the western provinces relied much more on local aristocrats to help the local population with temporary food shortages than in the eastern Mediterranean. Erdkamp argues that the elite involvement with the food supply was a matter of self-interest and continuation of the social status quo when local elites attempted to ensure a sufficient market supply and steady prices. In contrast, the eastern provinces appear to have had permanent institutions that officially dealt with occasional harvest shocks.

All in all, Erdkamp’s work is a successful discussion of an important and fundamental area of Roman history. Too many Roman historians tend to ignore the effects which food and the forces of the economy have on social and political spheres. Nevertheless, a few shortcomings exist. While the work says that it deals with the Roman Empire, much of the focus is centered on the city of Rome itself. It is true that scarcity of evidence obliges the historian to focus on the center of the empire, yet important smaller systems existed in the Roman Empire that did not include Rome, Sicily, and Egypt. For example, trade of grain and meat in the North Sea is well attested between Roman Britain and Northern France and the loess region of the Rhine Delta. Another shortcoming is that there is almost no discussion on the effect of the military on the landscape. The legions and auxiliary units stationed on the frontiers had a substantial impact on the food supply and market of large areas. What was the extent of the military’s impact on the market? For example, the legions stationed on Hadrian’s Wall and on the Rhine River had a large impact on the agricultural landscape since the military forts became strong areas of consumption. Did permanently stationed Roman army curb or incite harvest shocks? The lack of this discussion is surprising since Erdkamp has published extensively on the grain supply of the Roman army.

Overall, The Grain Market in the Roman Empire is a valuable addition to the scholarly literature on the supply and distribution of food within the center of the Empire and the forces of the ancient market. Erdkamp’s attention to the complexities of the economic, political, and social forces and his use of appropriate ethnographic evidence makes his case a persuasive one. Erdkamp’s familiarity with the literary and material evidence and his fluency with the theoretical forces that drive the ancient market will ensure that his ideas remain an important element in the discussion of the Roman economy for years to come.


1. Important earlier works include G. Rickman, The Corn Supply of Ancient Rome (Oxford, 1980); P. Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge, 1988); P. Herz, Studien zur römischen Wirtschaftsgesetzgebung (Stuttgart, 1988); J. Durliat, De la ville antique à la ville byzantine: le problèeme des subsistances (Rome, 1990); A.J.B. Sirks, Food for Rome: The Legal Structure of the Transportation and Processing of Supplies for the Imperial Distributions in Rome and Constantinople (Gieben, 1991).

2. Columella, De Re Rustica, 1.7.6-7.

3. P. Garnsey, “Non-Slave Labour in the Roman World,” in P. Garnsey, ed. Non-Slave Labour in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge, 1988), 37.

4. A.V. Chayanov, The Theory of Peasant Economy, D. Thorner, et al., eds. (Manchester, 1966).

5. R. Netting, Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive Sustainable Agriculture (Palo Alto, CA, 1993).

6. H.C. Brookfield, Exploring Agrodiversity (New York, 2001); E. Mayer, The Articulated Peasant (Boulder, CO., 2002); V.L. Scarborough, The Flow of Power: Ancient Water Systems and Landscapes (Santa Fe, NM, 2003).

7. P. Horden and N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford, 2000).

8. M.I. Finley, Ancient Economy (London: 1973); G. Rickman, “The grain trade under the Roman Empire,” in J.H. D’Arms and E.C. Kopff, eds., The seaborne commerce of ancient Rome: studies in archaeology and history (Rome, 1980), 261-275.