A very popular story today explains that when people learn agriculture, they quickly breed to fill the landscape and got hungrier and hungrier until a war or a plague came. In this view, peasant life was a zero-sum game and shaped by the scarcity of land and the ability of those who claimed it to squeeze resources from those who worked it: there just was not enough land for everyone to have enough to eat, and if a village cleared woods or turned hillsides into rice paddies and harvested four bushels where they used to harvest three, before too long there would be four villagers where there used to be three and they would all be hungry again. This has been strengthened by archaeologists studying the first farmers and people working in poor countries since 1945, but the core idea goes back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus in 1834 and to early population historians who saw that every 200 years the population of England was high and wages were low until disaster drastically reduced the population and a period of low population and high wages began. This story is a good match for part of the historical record, but people who look at other parts tell other stories.
Quite a few Assyriologists suspects that ancient Mesopotamia had more land than people to work it. They see Babylonia as a place like Subsaharan Africa, Southeast Asia, or early modern Eastern Europe where the basic problem for a would-be king was how to keep people living outside your palace rather than moving a little way away where farming was a bit harder but the taxman and the landlord did not take most of what you produced. Living off mostly barley or dates with a bit of sesame oil or ghee or cheese was not the most attractive way of life. In the Achaemenid period, irrigated land does not seem to be worth very much, the expenses in agriculture were water rights, plows, oxen, and labour, and kings spend a lot of effort building canals and settling people along them, often driving them to their new homes at spear-point. Some people who I respect have a suspicion that the šušānu or “grooms” of Achaemenid Babylonia, a class of lowly rural workers, were people from the marshes, meadows, and steppes in Babylonia who had been concentrated in this way. In earlier periods, people from the palaces and temple are quite frank that travelling in the countryside is dangerous, that taxmen and conscription officers may be murdered if they get too pushy. As we saw last week, many people’s maps of ancient Near Eastern empires look a lot more like maps of the wars in Syria and Iraq, with most of the country away from the cities and roads belonging to nobody, than they look like today’s maps which pretend that every spot on earth outside Antarctica belongs to exactly one sovereign state (even if the Sentinelese refuse to teach outsiders their language so someone can tell them that the United Nation says they are part of the State of India, and the Principality of Sealand denies that it is part of the UK).
The Reverend Thomas Malthus was an Anglican clergyman who died in 1834, so he had a certain point of view on the agency of women, the rightful authority of kings, and the ability of the lower orders to restrain their sensual impulses. We are different people in 2020, and we don’t have to take his point of view as gospel. One of the big puzzles in history is why sometimes people limit their family sizes and sometimes people breed until their lives are hard; another is why some people toss off their human parasites and other people are bled white by them. If our global civilization is going to survive this century, I think we need to look at how humans have lived in many different ways in the past, so could live in many different ways in the future.
- Richardson, Seth (2012) “Early Mesopotamia: The Presumptive State.” Past & Present, No. 215 (May 2012), pp. 3-49
- Van de Mieroop, Marc (1999) The Mesopotamian City (Oxford University Press)
- Scott, James C. (2009) The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press: New Haven, CT)
Edit 2021-07-29: I should add a link to my explanation why Agricultural Surplus is a Dangerous Idea