Staring Evil in the Face: Some Thoughts on Hanson’s “The Other Greeks”
Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (The Free Press: New York, 1995)
I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labour of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labour it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern.
– John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good,” 6 February 1837 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Slavery_a_Positive_Good
I finally read The Other Greeks by Victor Davis Hanson in summer 2018. This book, published in 1995, contains an argument that farmers working 9- to 13-acre (
20-30 3 to 5 hectare) plots were key to Greek culture wrapped in two rants about the decline of the American family farm and the decadence of American academics. Victor Davis Hanson’s writings on ancient agrarianism are less famous than his political columns and his ideas about Greek warfare, but I enjoyed working through this book. Farming is obviously a topic that Hanson cares deeply about, and because he put so much care into this book I can tell that he sees some of the implications of his argument.
The ancient history in this book is interwoven with the story of a 40 acre farm near Selma, California which the Hansons have held for five generations (only three generations were able to make a living from it, his parents got jobs in town and he tried to keep the farm going after his grandfather retired but found that the only way was to use his salary and royalties from teaching and punditry to subsidize the farm). In his view, both classical Greek and modern US culture were at the best while society was dominated by rural small farmers, and any threat to this class is a threat to freedom and democracy.
To my knowledge, Victor Davis Hanson has never written about why his Swedish great great grandparents were able to take a share of “the richest farmland in the world” for a token price in 1875, just like Wikipedia estimates that the indigenous population of the San Joaquin Valley fell 93% from 1850 to 1900 but falls silent on what exactly happened (today all the nations of the Yokuts are a few thousand strong, about as many as one of the little farming towns Hanson loves).
There is a debate about what share of the population belonged to the traditional property-owning, hoplite-fighting, speaking-in-the-assembly class. If you read this book quickly, you will see that the families with 10 acres or so of land who he calls yeomen made up “half to a third” or “a near majority” of the free male population. At first that seems like a large proportion, but his yeomen have “small farms for a family and a slave or two” (pp. 207, 208, 459). He estimates 80-100,000 adult citizens, 10,000? adult metics, 80-150,000 slaves, total “perhaps nearly 200,000 adult residents of Attica” in the fifth century BCE (p. 209), and 12,000 hoplites out of 60-000-70,000 adult residents of Boeotia. So Hanson believes that there was a glorious age of freedom as long as Greece was run by “yeomen” farmers, and believes that his “yeomen” families made up 15-22% of the population of Attica and 13,000-25,000 adult men.
Many other experts think this is too high. In “The Myth of the Middle-Class Army” (p. 54), Hans Van Wees estimates that they comprised 9 to 30% of the citizens of Athens (between 3,000 and 10,000 adult men). In another article he argues that there were three slaves for every free person in Athens a few years after the death of Alexander (“Athens’ property classes and population in and before 317 BC: Demetrius and Draco,” Journal of Hellenic Studies (2011) 131 pp. 95-114.) In Men of Bronze, Lin Foxhall argued that there is no sign of a dense network of medium-sized farms in the archaeological record until the end of the sixth century BCE. Part of the dispute is technical issues such as whether half the grain fields were left uncultivated in a given year: Hanson’s “yeomen farms” are smaller than van Wees zeugitai farms because he thinks they could get more from a smaller piece of land, and Hanson relies mostly on literature whereas Foxhall focused on archaeology. But I want to focus on what Hanson is arguing, not whether he is correct.
If you read The Other Greeks carefully, you see that “a third to one half” of the citizens being yeomen farmers translates to a fifth or a sixth of the population. And while Hanson says again and again that he does not like big estates worked by gangs of slaves, in a footnote on page 457 he tells you how these one or two slaves fit into the lives of his yeoman farmers with 10 or 12 acres:
Agricultural slavery, even more than homestead residence, made intensive agriculture possible. It prevented the spread of helotage. It sharply defined the independence and freedom of the rising Greek yeoman in a way not found elsewhere.
And he also admires the way Greek colonists gave each other equal plots of land in a beautiful grid designed with Greek geometrical science (pp. 194-196). He does not have a lot to say about whose land it was before they arrived, but readers of The Western Way of War or Carnage and Culture can get the general idea. When Macedonian or Persian barbarians threaten to conquer “westerners” Hanson launches into a flow of eloquent speech about freedom and slavery, but when “westerners” are about to conquer and murder or enslave foreigners he slips into a flat descriptive mode or just drops the subject. And he is very frank about the tyranny of ancient and modern farmers over their wives (pp. 130-135).
So when you look closely, The Other Greeks is arguing that its wonderful balanced regimes of homesteaders were ruled by about 15-20% of the population. We hear about a widow spinning for piece-work pay in the Iliad, and male and female labourers hired by the year in Hesiod’s Works and Days, but Hanson seems to think it was important for Greek freedom that these lowly free workers were replaced with slaves: he describes the poor Athenians who accepted pay for jury service as “the mob on the dole” (p. 5) and hired farm workers as “shiftless” (p. 70). And he thinks that slaves may well have formed the majority of the population of Attica in this period. That kind of argument that slavery is a positive good and necessary for anyone to live a civilized life was last current before the American Civil War, although Hanson does not approve of large plantations or race-based slavery.
“Agricultural slavery … sharply defined the independence and freedom of the rising Greek yeoman”? I think Hanson has read and understood the ideas of thinkers like Samuel Johnson (“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”) or Edmund Morgan (American Slavery, American Freedom) who observe that people who talk about freedom often mean the freedom to dominate and enslave. He just does not find that kind of freedom despicable.
Underlying and fundamental to our most basic philosophy is our concern and respect for the dignity of the individual. … Upon reflection, it is easy for us to realize that our conception of the dignity of the individual could have originated only in Christianity. … the Christian religion, born on the border of East and West, found its acceptance in the West, and became a part of the heritage and culture of the West, as contrasted to the East of the Orientals. … There are also those in this world who are the devisees of a totally different heritage and with whom we have no identity in either antiquity or modern times…. Our society may well be said to be… the exemplification of the maximum development of the Western civilization…. At the opposite extreme exists the Eastern heritage, different in every essential, not necessarily in a way that it is inferior, but different…. The chasm of difference between the two… is in heritage, the force that shapes the man to form unchangeable, except, if at all, by the infinite passage of time…. Oriental and Hawaiian groups constitute in excess of 70% of Hawaii’s population. This large segment of the population has a heritage… in a word, Eastern…. There is serious doubt in my mind as to whether the Hawaiian people would not be seriously handicapped, possibly even precluded, in defending themselves from such as the communist-dominated Longshoremans Union by the imposition upon them of Western institutions of government, since their heritage has not equipped them to comprehend the philosophy essential to the effective operation of these institutions. … There is even greater doubt in my mind that the Hawaiian people could contribute to the degree of harmony remaining in the conduct of affairs of our Federated Republic…. An abandonment of the United States of America in favor of a United States of America and Pacific— precedenting a United States of the World— would actually benefit no one but toll the death-knell of our Federated Republic…
– US Senator (for South Carolina) Strom Thurmond, a prominent opponent of the Civil Rights Act and supporter of racial segregation who angrily denied that he was a racist, “Against Hawaii Statehood” (1959) https://delong.typepad.com/files/thurmond-hawaii.pdf
In sum, the Greek agrarian city-state had been able to fashion an unusually egalitarian social, political, and military system, but one (like many modern liberal states) closed to the larger, ever-present (and growing) world of have-nots surrounding the polis, the other who desperately wanted the economic and social advantages of polis life. Herein lay the dilemma. To open up the discriminatory gates of polis citizenship was- as modern states have often discovered- to corrupt the carefully constructed equilibrium and the unifying agricultural heritage that had evolved over two centuries of agrarianism. For the Greek geôrgoi to refashion the traditional polis for all residents might just as likely lose it for everyone.
– Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks (1995), p. 364
To Hanson (and Thurmond) creating the good community for some requires holding others outside or keeping them as hewers of wood and drawers of water. And at some point, whether you define those others in terms of race, “heritage,” religion, or culture is an academic quibble. Most people look, talk, and worship like their parents and schoolmates, so talking about race, culture, or religion lets you exclude the same people. As Roel Konijnendijk has written, Hanson’s vision of the good society is white supremacist in practice, even though he firmly rejects racial theories. If you poke around in the darker corners of the internet, you can find open racists like F. Roger Devlin lecturing him for lacking the courage to push his arguments as far as they can go or begging him to contribute to their journals (both links are to the Wayback Machine- ed.)
One of the reasons for the primacy of violence is that, unlike the industrial world, in the agrarian world wealth can generally be acquired more easily and quickly through coercion and predation than through production. Consequently ‘specialists in violence are generally endowed with a rank higher than that of specialists in production.’
– Moshe Berent, “Anthropology and the Classics: War, Violence, and the Stateless Polis,” The Classical Quarterly 50.1 (2000), p. 258 (thanks Josho Brouwers)
If you know some world history or ethnography, you know that there are plenty of societies where most families have about the same size of house, the same quality of diet, and bury their dead with the same things as most people of the same age and gender (and yes Mr. Thurmond, there were millions of Christians in Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, and India before the first white Anglo-Saxon Protestant arrived). Those societies were not always organized around patriarchy and private land ownership, and sometimes they even let women work in the fields, but they didn’t leave a lot of writing because until recently the materials were too expensive (and because settler states in the 19th and 20th century often destroyed their records, or just declared them irrelevant so that eventually someone threw out grandpa’s box of old books to make room for a new television). If civilization, however defined, is going to survive this century, I think that self-organized communities of equals committed to humane values are more likely to save it than Hanson’s violent farmers who care about nothing more than passing on the farm better than their father left it to them (and there is a lot of inspiration for those communities in classical Greek texts, just not the bits of those texts which are cited in this book). I think we need to look forward to the way we can make a changing world as consistent with our values as possible, not pump ourselves up with stories of a vanished golden age and higher cultures erasing lower ones. (And The Other Greeks sort of agrees, there is praise for Parent-Teacher Associations and farmers’ co-ops alongside the warnings that political action is useless, your neighbours will steal your water and your vine-props, and the family farm in the United States is doomed). But I think it is important to be frank that our disagreements are not just about what the ancient world was like, but about what kinds of social order are worth defending, and that you can’t divide Hanson’s books into some that describe the past and others which try to change the present.
This blog is not funded by a public-sector pension or The National Review Online, just by my gentle readers on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay
This post was written in ?2018? and edited and scheduled at the beginning of 2020 before the present tragic situation in Europe. I delayed it from its scheduled publication date of 21 March.
Further Reading: If you want works on early agriculture by someone who believes that early Greek and Roman small farmers achieved something special but doesn’t argue that slavery was a positive good, check out the works of Geoffrey Kron (although I am a bit concerned to read a 33 page article on the classical Greek economy which focused on “equality” but does not mention slaves in Greece at all and only mentions serfs in Greece once). Two Oxen Ahead by Paul Halstead sounds fun and describes actual Greek farmers raising staple crops. And if you want a direct attack on this kind of politics, check out Gwynne Dyer’s Waiting for the Canadian Hordes (2004) or Gabriel Schoenfeld’s Sophistry in the Service of Evil (2019).
If I ever publish these ideas in print, I may track down and talk about a passage on “whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically?” in “Editorial: Why the South Must Prevail,” William F. Buckley Jr. ‘s The National Review, 24 August 1957
Edit 2020-04-29: Corrected the figure in hectares (although I don’t have a paper copy of the book available to check)
Edit 2021-04-16: For another statement by a far-right American that the ideal government would be run by the richest 20%, see David Forbes, “The Secret Authoritarian History of Science Fiction” https://www.vice.com/en/article/9ak7y5/the-secret-authoritarian-history-of-science-fiction “In ‘Constitution for Utopia,’ written in 1961, (editor and crank John W.) Campbell (Jr.) argued outright that the best possible government would only allow the wealthy—specifically the wealthiest fifth of the population—to vote.” This essay was reprinted by other hard-right science fiction writers like Jerry Pournelle.
Edit 2021-09-28: converted to block editor after migrating to self-hosted wordpress
Edit 2021-10-21: fixed links which were broken when WordPress introduced the block editor
Nice post, Sean.
Thank you! With this and a forthcoming chapter on how VDH drove research on Greek warfare down one path and away from other possibilities, I think I have said what I need to say. (Forthcoming since 2015 but that is another story).
One thing that has always bothered me is that scholars of Classical Greece see 10-12 acres as sufficient not just for a family but also for a slave, whereas medieval scholars see 12-13 acres as being the bare minimum for a family who will risk starvation in a bad year. I don’t know what the main difference is, but it makes me suspicious of the low figures given to “middle class” and “wealthy” Classical farms.
I don’t know much about ancient farming, but that depends a lot on the quality of the land, whether it is irrigated, and how well it is worked (and Jonathan Jarrett will tell you that the numbers for crop yields in early medieval Europe are less certain than some people tell us). The late Republican and early imperial Romans were farming fish that we can’t farm, and farmed game was a “once a month or so for a festival” dish for working families in Roman cities.
My medieval library is in Canada, so I can’t talk about numbers for medieval farming.
Oh, and there is also tax and rent: a farm that is enough for you and your family might be one where you have to choose between feeding yourself and feeding your children if you are sharecropping or renting. Subsistence is a political concept too.
My notes from the “Agrarian History of England and Wales, Volume II” say that “approximately minimum of 10 acres needed to feed a family of 4.5 persons with the three field system and 13.5 acres with a two-field system.” I took the note from p772 and, IIRC, the source was J.Z. Titow’s “Winchester yields : a study in Medieval agricultural productivity”
Christopher Dyer, in “Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages”, gives the net yield of seed for a half yardlander (~15 acres in Dyer’s example) as between 8 quarters 7.5 bushels (2590 litres) and 10 quarters 2 bushels (2972 litres), depending of the system of rotation. This equates to either no surplus or no more than 2 bushels (although I think Dyer meant quarters) surplus. A bad harvest year, where yields dropped by 20%, would mean either debt or breaking even, again depending on the rotational system used. A cottager with only 12 acres would have at best broken even in a good year. Some economising could be done, such as brewing less or weaker ale, but even so there’s not much surplus even in a good year, and making rent is likely to take up almost all the surplus.
These are all based on actual recorded yields of the various crops planted (wheat, barley, oats, peas) from the manors around Cleeves, the village Dyer was using as a model, as recorded after the tithe had been taken, and he factors in the number of animals based on surviving records from the area as well.
A quarter is ~290 liters, and Dyer estimates the daily calorific intake of the peasant family as 11 000 calories (2900 to the husband, 2150 for the wife, 6000 between the 3 children), with 9000 of these calories coming from the wheat, barley and oats in the form of bread and pottage (1920 litres) and the remaining 2000 calories coming from the annual bacon, milk, cheese and ale (brewed from 870 litres of barley).
I’m currently trying to work up an apples to apples comparison, but not having access to Foxhall and Forbes or Gallant is really making things difficult. I’ll keep you posted.
Okay, finally worked some things out for Ancient Greece. It’s a tad stream of consciousness, and it probably goes into more detail than it needs to for a blog post not focused on this matter. Sorry about hijacking things!
Sowing weights per acre for medieval crops were 2 bushels (72 litres) an acre for wheat, 4 (144 litres) for barley, 3 (108 litres) for peas and 3 (108 litres) for oats. Gross yields (adjusted by 10% to account for the tithe taken from medieval harvests) are 288 litres for wheat, 704 litres for barley, 312 litres for peas and 360 litres for oats. This puts the average yield of English barley above HvW’s maximum (857kg/ha vs 794kg/ha), but English wheat had much lower yields than HvW’s maximum (411kg/ha vs 629ha). HvW is deliberately using maximum yields to make a point about the relative wealth of the zeugitae and the amount of land they held, so I’m going to go with Garnsey’s approximate figures of 406kg/ha for wheat, net of seed, which is functionally identical to Garnsey’s estimate of 406kg/ha net of seed (“Famine and food supply in the Graeco-Roman world”, p102), and 558kg/ha for barley. The barley is substantially lower than the medieval figure, because it seems that seeding rates were more 4:5, 4:6 or 5:6 wheat:barley in Antiquity, instead of approximately 1:2 as in the medieval period (Columella, “De Re Rustica” 2.9.1, 2.9.15-16, Varro, “De Re Rustica” 1.44.1).
These figures are somewhat more optimistic than Robert Sallares’ “The Ecology of the Ancient Greek World-Cornell University Press”, p374-5 and 389, which relies on Columella’s “De Re Rustica” to provide a gross yield of 4:1 (504kg/ha with a net of 378kg/ha), although Columella doesn’t specify whether the grain is wheat or barley. I’m ultimately choosing a slightly more optimistic figure because barley fails less often in Attica than wheat does (5.5% vs 28%), but the 558kg/ha for barley is still well below Sallares’ maximum of 650kg/ha.
In terms of grain use, I’m working with the slightly non-traditional figure of 65% of all calories being grains, based on what Gallant has reportedly calculated (although I don’t have access to his book) and increased the proportion of calories from other sources, such as legumes and wine. I have also decreased the calories requirements calculated by Dyer from 2900 for the husband, 2150 for the wife and 6000 for the three children to 2500 for the husband, 2000 for the wife and 5500 for the three children to better reflect the calorie intake of modern subsistence farmers (eg: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0186406). The remaining diet consists of, by calories, 12% wine, 12% oil, 6.7% legumes (peas in this case), 2.3% figs (or other fruit), and 2% meat, dairy, fish or other animal products. I’ve constructed this based on a number of sources, including Roth’s “The Logistics of the Roman Army at War” and rations on medieval galleys, and have adjusted amounts of meat and other high more expensive elements down in favour of more vegetables. It’s not going perfect, but it’s the best I can do with the resources I have at hand.
For a family needing 10 000 calories daily, and using the FAO’s nutrition tables for the Near East (http://www.fao.org/3/X6879E/X6879E03.htm#ch3.I.1), the family will require 1.987kg of barley, 1 litre of wine, 173ml of oil, 197g of legumes (peas), 76g of olives (or other fruit) and ~80g of meat, cheese or other animal product each and every day. This translates to 725kg of barley, 365 litres of wine, 50 litres of oil, 72kg of of legumes, 27.7kg of figs or other fruit and 29.2kg of meat, cheese or other animal products.
Just as an aside, in order to check the accuracy of my estimate of daily consumption, the barley would cost 1.3 obols at market, the wine would cost 1.22 obols at the market, the oil would cost 0.32 obols, the legumes perhaps 0.2 obols, the figs are 0.04 obols, and the meat perhaps slightly under an obol. This comes out as just over 4 obols, which is 1 obol more than Aristophanes says is needed to feed a family for a day, so the diet is maybe too rich. The resources a farmer had access to, however, are different from the urban poor, so I’m going to leave the figures as they are.
The barley can be grown on 1.3 hectares (3.2 acres), the wine on 0.15 hectares (0.37 acres), the oil on 0.12 hectares (0.3 acres), the legumes on 0.57 hectares (1.4 acres), the figs can be grown on a single tree and the meat/cheese/whatnot is assumed to be raised on a separate pasture. The total land required comes to 2.13 hectares (5.27 acres), implying a total farm size of 4.26 hectares (10.54 acres). The total size can be reduced to a total of 3.3 hectares (8.15 acres) if the legumes are replaced by barley, since peas, at least, are a fairly inefficient crop in the pre-modern world.
Of course, this is just subsistence, and in a bad year the whole family will starve. Removing a child will bring the daily calorie intake down to 8185 calories so that, without legumes, only 2.76 hectares (6.82 acres) are needed, leaving 0.54 hectares (1.33 acres) for cash crops. If wheat was grown, 219kg could be grown on this area (6 medimnoi, 4 hekteis), which would bring (at 6 drachma a medimnos), 40 drachmas. A family of 5, with 10 acres, could grow 305kg (9 medimnoi, 1 hekteus) of wheat surplus to their requirements, which would bring them 55 drachma.
Both these figures would be sufficient to purchase a basic hoplite panoply, but there are other costs to take into consideration. A basic exomis for a slave cost 7 drachmas 3 obols in the late 4th century, and Plutarch records Socrates saying that an exomis cost 10 drachma. A late 4th century source also puts a slaves himation at 10 drachma 3 obols, half the price of a presumably high quality himation in the early 4th century mentioned by Aristophanes, and their sandals cost 6 drachma a pair. If the family only bought three sets of new slave grade clothing every other year, cutting down worn out clothing for the youngest/two youngest children, that would amount to 72 drachma that year, or 36 drachma per yer. Adding a slave only reduces spending money and increases the costs. Farm animals, too, would eat into this money, and a single ox would cost at least 77 drachma
(most prices from Takeshi Amemiya’s “Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece”, with some corrections from “The Attic Stelai: Part II”, by W. Kendrick Pritchett and Anne Pippin)
I’ve already pointed out the effect of a bad year on the finances of these marginal farmers, where they might harvest less grain than they need to survive, and it would also greatly reduce what they could make.
Hans van Wees makes the point in his chapter for “Men of Bronze” that the Crimea is the only region where the colonies have land plots close to Hanson’s idealised 10 acre block, with many of them being 11-12 acres. The evidence for all the other colonies shows larger farms, including at Metapontum where just 8% are 11 acres, and even Hanson has admitted that “we hear most often of farms from ten to twenty acres” in Classical literature.
It seems to me that you really need to get over 15 acres before someone is able to reliably afford a hoplite panoply without running a risk of financial ruin or putting themselves deeply into debt. Anyone with less than this, and in my opinion anyone with much less that 20 acres, can’t really be called “middle class”, either, or even very comfortable.
>I can’t tell you whether his estimates of farm sizes are plausible, but I can say that as a Canadian who grew up on stolen land and an immigrant in a distant country who dutifully learned the local languages and started eating Semmeln with Senf and Feinkost, the political program of this book sends chills down my back.
I haven’t read much of “The Other Greeks”, except to skim through it, but what I did pick up is definitely chilling and I really do applaud you for pointing out the awful undercurrent running all the way through the text. Sorry again about hijacking it with bean counting.
Thanks Jonathan! Give me a week or two and I might have some thoughts on the numbers.
I think a lot of people have fond memories of reading a VDH book when they were 14 and liking the image of brave hoplites coming together like a football scrum, and have not read one cover to cover since and thought about what the hints and code words are saying. In these books the political program comes first and the ancient sources are chosen to support it.
Also, I agree that those of us who don’t farm need to keep in our heads that 10 or 12 acres is a tiny farm (unless we are talking about something like greenhouses or irrigated orchards). But ever since humans committed to farming, there have been a lot of people who have less land than that, whether they are called slaves or helots or field hands. Compared to someone who gets a place to sleep, a starvation ration, and one change of clothes every two years, someone who owns 10 or 12 acres and a bronze shield and a bronze helmet and a sword is not doing badly.
The 10-12 acres and a bronze shield, helmet and sword is where I have major problems with current theories. 10-12 acres means 5-6 acres farmed in a single year. In crude terms, this is 1129-1356kg of barley. Assuming that a family of 5 requires 10 000kcal per day, about 2.92kg of barley grains, which works out at 1066kg per year. In this case, a farmer with 10 acres will have barely enough to feed his family, let alone pay any rents or taxes, or purchase other important household goods. During a good year, barley probably sold for 3 drachmae per medimnos, with there being 27.47kg of barley per medimnos, so the 10 acre farmer would earn 6dr 5obl for his surplus. The 12 acre farmer is better off, with 290kg of surplus, which would net him 31dr 4obl. This is probably enough to buy a basic panoply of shield, helmet spear and maybe sword or cuirass, but you also have to factor in at the very least the cost of shoes and clothing which, in the 4th century, probably ran a minimum of 16 drachmae per person every other year (i.e. for a family of 5 might have needed to spend that 30 drachmae every year to replace worn out clothing).
Additionally, 558kg/ha of barley is a figure for the average year. A bad year, if the crops didn’t fail completely, might see a 20% reduction in yield, putting the 10 acre farmer a 900kg of barley and the 12 acre farmer at 1085kg. The 10 acre farmer is thus below subsistence, while the 12 acre farmer has virtually no surplus to sell.
This is a very crude model, since barley probably only made up 65-75% of the diet and I haven’t factored in oil, wine legumes or animals to the mix. It’s basically just proof of concept about why I have reservations about the idea of a hoplite having only 10-12 acres while I try and work out a good way to compare apples to apples.
Those numbers sound pretty similar to the ones in Hans van Wees’ “The Myth of the Middle-Class Army” but when I could get to a library or a bookstore I would also check out the chapter by Lin Foxhall in Kagan and Viggiano’s Men of Bronze (2013) and something by Hanson to see what numbers he is working from (either “The Other Greeks” or “Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece”). Like I said, many people think there were not a lot of farms in Hanson’s ideal size of 10-12 acres, or think that the men with shiny bronze armour had farms on the order of 20 to 64 acres. But I am not an expert on ancient farming, and I wrote this review because ancient historians have spent a lot of time talking about whether lining up to fight 8 men deep was “typical” or just “not uncommon” and not about how Hanson’s description of ancient Greece is really a prescription for the United States.
(One warning: van Wees takes his numbers from Aristotle around 330 BCE talking about Solon who died in 560 BCE, and “Solon” was one of those names to conjure with like “the Founding Fathers,” “Adam Smith,” “the bible,” or “Daniel Boone”- all kinds of things were attributed to “Solon” to give them more authority).
I can’t tell you whether his estimates of farm sizes are plausible, but I can say that as a Canadian who grew up on stolen land and an immigrant in a distant country who dutifully learned the local languages and started eating Semmeln with Senf and Feinkost, the political program of this book sends chills down my back.
I would also agree that the specialists in early Greece don’t look very often at medieval source or what medievalists are saying about similar problems: people use 19th and 20th century data for crop yields, and compare armed men in archaic Greece with European colonial troops or New Guinea highlanders or Danish riot police but not the Battle of Maldon or the Flemings at Courtrai. Hanson really really does not like any people ruled by kings or emperors, and he does not have a lot of good things to say about Christianity despite 20 years of speaking at far right conventions: the past he likes to think of skips from Cicero to the American Revolution with a stop at Cortez’ conquest of Mexico.
As for the ancient Near East, he knows Herodotus and enough Evangelical code-phrases to make small talk with other speakers and sell books to their congregations, but that is as far as it goes. And he does not seem to know anything about Iron Age peoples in Europe other than Greeks or Romans. He has no interest in any ancient people other than Greeks and Romans, and his Greeks are really stand-ins for his grandfather and his neighbours.
When the Horse Collar was invented in addition to the farmer, their family and other labourers grain or corn farms had to grow food to feed the horses used for plowing and other activiies. I have heard that before tractors up to 40% of the grain produced went to feeding the horses.
Many agrarian societies involved some sort of social hierarchy. Serfdom in the UK persisted until Scottish Born Serfs were freed in 1799. An exception to the end of Slavery in the USA is that “vagrants” can be convicted and assigned to whatever work the State wants them to do.
Tractors and other farm machinery eliminated the use of horses on farms and the need for so many farm workers. There was an economic link between farm horses and horse transport. Female horses tended to be kept on farms to breed more. Male horses tended to be sold for use in transport. When mechanized transport took over the income from selling male horses disappeared, affecting the economics of using horses to pull farm equipment.
I was surprised to learn that Canadian Farming is generally more highly mechanized than in the USA, with larger average farm sizes. USA exceptionalism would have put it the other way round, at least in the minds of many USA residents.
I think he could have taken the position that this was a tragedy or an original sin, and that you could have a society of equals in huts or a society with all the durable goods and philosophers and slaves, but then he would have to give up the position that Greece from 700 to 300 BCE was an especially admirable culture and that the only choices were between one aristocrat and nine serfs or two “middle” farmers and eight slaves and landless workers. As it is he goes back and forth, he wants you to know that it was wicked for the Spartans to enslave the Helots or the Persians to invade Greece but when Cortez lands in Mexico or a shipload of ancient Greeks lands on a beach in Italy he refuses to talk about right and wrong.
There are a few lines in Aristotle about how if we had walking statues and tripods which came when called like Hephaestus, we would not need all these slaves, but I don’t know if Hanson ever talks about them. He could have taken the position that Greek freedom was better than what came before it but still flawed compared to California in 1950, but then he could not say what he wants to say about ancient slaves and modern migrants.