Back in 2017 I posted some information on the price of cloth and clothing in western Europe in 1500 and compared it to Eve Fisher’s modern calculations based on her and her friends’ skill at spinning, weaving, and sewing. I just realized that we can do similarly for the Roman empire in the year 301 CE thanks to the late Veronika Gervers.
A retired economist in another country wants to know how we know that many ancient slaves were prisoners of war, kidnap victims, or the children of slaves. Ok! Readers who don’t want to hear about slavery and child abandonment might want to skip this one.
So in the Ur III period around 2000 BCE we see massive numbers of people being rounded up and deported into labour camps near Ur. Some were starved to death so their supervisors could sell their rations, and others seem to have been blinded to stop them running away (they could still haul water and do other simple tasks). A bit later we have contracts where parents sell their children to someone willing to feed them during sieges or famines. Moving on to the 8th and 7th century BCE, the archive from Nippur (Oriental Institute Publication 114) and the Iliad describe people being captured by raiders and bandits and either ransomed or enslaved. A little later we see massive numbers of captives being dedicated to the gods in Babylonia, where they would work for the rest of their lives for the temple (although it is worth noting that these širāku had what we would call human rights other than the right to move freely and choose their employer- there were even worse statuses to be placed in). We also see that people with unfree status were tattooed or branded so they could be identified if they ran away. Later stories about Solon around 600 BCE describe how farmers in Attica fell into debt and were forced to sell themselves and their lands, possibly share-cropping for one sixth of the produce (the ἑκτημόριοι “sixth-parters”).
Starting with the first surviving Greek historians Thucydides and Herodotus at the end of the 5th century BCE, we have account after account of prisoners of war and the populations of captured cities being sold into captivity or executed by Greek cities or Persian kings. We also know that one of the biggest employers of slaves near Athens was the silver mines, and mine slaves seem to have had a very short life expectancy. Early Greek and Latin had words for “home-born slave” and “bought slave” and slave-holders told each other that the first kind was best. In Egypt under the Ptolemies, letters and slave names indicate that many slaves were abandoned children left out with the trash: whoever took them in and fed them owned them. There is an Akkadian phrase which may mean something similar: where Greeks said that these foundlings came “from the dungheap” (ἀπὸ κοπρίας), Babylonians seem to say they came “from the dog’s mouth” (ie. they were about to be eaten by stray dogs: ša pī kalbi). The idea that if someone was going to die and you save them, you can do what you like with them is very common in different cultures because it let masters tell themselves that whatever they did was not as bad as killing.
A lot of historians throw around the term ‘agricultural surplus.’ By this they mean food which the farmers and their livestock don’t eat, and which can be used to feed stonemastons and metalworkers and scribes and priests and gentlemen farmers. In this theory, societies have to find a way to produce a larger surplus before they can produce things historians like such as books. I think this term is one of the terms which historians borrowed from economists in the early 20th century.
At first the idea seems harmless enough: if a family needs 20 bushels of barley to feed itself and its animals and have seed for next year, and they harvest 30, they will probably trade 10 for something else or use it to fatten stock. But in the real world there is rent and taxation. And when you look at the science of nutrition, you find that there is a range in the amount of food that farm workers eat. At the low end, they can’t work very well, lose most of their children, and die young of chronic diseases or infections which their weakened body can’t fight off; at the high end, they have a varied diet, grow taller and stronger, and can be pretty sure of having surviving children. Its not actually the case that people need a certain number of calories of Generic Food ™ a day, above which they just get fat and below which they die. Taxes and rents often come out of this margin in between. And it is usually taxes and rents which pay for the stone buildings, the scholars writing treatises on ethics, and the beautiful silver cups.
For 10,000 years or so, clothing was so expensive that most people could only afford a few outfits. Then over the past lifetime they suddenly became so cheap that for people in a rich country, storage space is the main concern. We see traces of this in inventories of family property during divorces outside the Valley of the Kings, in Babylonian invoices for one suit of clothing per soldier per year, and then in medieval post-mortem inventories and sumptuary laws, but it continued later than we like to remember. A snatch of old verse was stuck in Robert Heinlein’s head:
There’s a pawn shop on the corner Where I usually keep my overcoat.
Now, today a synthetic winter coat would hardly be worth pawning (a day’s minimum wage?), but a woollen one of 2-5 yards of fulled cloth could last decades and cost accordingly. A passage by George Bernard Shaw touches on this from another angle.
A conversation with Nathan Ross inspired me to track down two essays by Steve Muhlberger on what I think is the key issue in the fall of the western Roman empire. (The debate “were foreign invasions or civil wars more destructive?” is a bit of a semantic issue, since soldiers tried to be as Germanic as possible and wealthy Germans in the Imperium tried to become as Roman as possible: its never going to be easy to define figures like Stilicho as either Roman or barbarian). It has long been obvious that the fifth century saw light beautiful pottery, stone houses, roofs with leak-proof terracotta tiles, and philosophers who could do original work vanish from Europe north of the Alps, but recently archaeologists have noticed that people buried in Post-Roman Europe seem to be living longer and eating better than their ancestors who bore the Roman yoke.
My second reflection is on the current debate about the fall of the Roman Empire (the fifth-century fall) between people who equate it with “the End of Civilization” (Bryan Ward-Perkins) and people who don’t think it was an ending of unprecedented significance (say, Peter Brown and Walter Goffart). I really think that the unresolved and maybe unresolvable debate is about what civilization is. Is it a situation where a leisured minority sit around in the palace library, enjoying bread made from Egyptian wheat and dipping it in Syrian olive oil or Spanish fish sauce, and debating the great ideas of the ages, while other people dig minerals from the earth in dirty, dangerous mines, or harvest cotton in the hot sun, and die young? If that’s it, then there was probably a lot less “civilization” in large parts of the formerly Roman world after AD 400 than there had been for some centuries, in that it was far more difficult to assemble a large variety of enviable luxuries in one spot through the routine operations of centralized imperial power. And there is more civilization now, because here I sit, not even close to being rich by Canadian standards, but able to read, think and then speak to a privileged minority around the world while hundreds of millions sweat profusely (and all too often, die young).
But it might be worth considering whether the height of luxury — whatever luxury you prefer — is the only measure of civilization.
I say, bring on those resilient decentralized networks and extend them as far as we can. The only alternative is slavery for somebody.
Some people on the Internet are curious about how much a shirt cost in the middle ages. Now you could try to answer that question by trying to calculate how long it would take to spin and weave the linen and sew the shirt, combining your guesses in an elaborate chain of assumptions using your modern education. A certain Eve Fisher imagined and calculated and came up with the figures $3500 or $4200 for a shirt like those depicted by painters like Peter Brueghel the Elder. This has been re-posted by a number of popular websites, and several weavers and spinners have dropped by her website to comment that they are not so sure about some of her assumptions. But did you know that we can skip all of these guesses and calculations, and the questions which they pose about whether we spin and weave as fast as people in the past, and just ask medieval people how much they paid for a shirt?
One of the big problems facing anyone studying ancient economies is that it’s very difficult to tell how much things cost at any given time. Records of market prices are sparse at the best of times and often nonexistent, and even where such records exist, they’re usually exceptional or represent only a single transaction. But sometimes historians get lucky …
Gamers and novelists often want to know something which historians are not eager to answer: how much did practical things cost in the past? Historians of older periods tend to be very aware of the limits of a source which just says “five pounds of iron nails worth thus-and-such,” and admire the work of specialists in recent times who construct methodical serieses and statistics and turn them into charts with lines and inflection points. But characters in a short story or an adventure game are much more likely to buy a drink or a sword than ten bushels of barley. The writers of roleplaying games almost never have time to do the research, unless the game is set in very recent times and they can mine their collection of old Sears Catalogues and Baedekers. (Also, their customers tend to become just as attached to “a longsword costs 15 gold pieces” as they are to “magic missile always hits,” and in our decadent and decimalized age they sometimes revolt against something as simple as pounds/shillings/pence). So this week, I thought I would honour the release of Matthew Riggsby’s GURPS Hot Spots: The Silk Road with a list of some resources which I have found.
Economists such as Gregory Clark and Brad DeLong like to tell people that between the dawn of time and 1800 or 1900 there was no growth in GDP per capita and very slow population growth. As an ancient historian this leaves me scratching my head. I decided to write this post after reading the 1998 version of DeLong’s ideas but similar ones appear to be common.
Last week I mentioned that one Hittite document tells the commander of a frontier post how they are to guard, build, and maintain their post. While the section on the curtain wall is badly damaged, the section on the watchtower is mostly intact:
Let the ?[watc]h? tower be 4 cubits around the top, but around the bottom let it be 6 cubits, and let it be encircled with a copper rain-gutter and a ?gallery?. Let the gallery be 6 cubits in circumference, and let it protrude 5 spans.
The word URUDḫeyawallit is not known elsewhere, but because it is proceeded with the determinative for copper and begins with the word for rain it fairly clearly means “copper rain-gutter”. The measurements of length and the word translated as “gallery” are not as well understood (the later could be more like “battlements” or “palisade”). I am not sure that the scholar who excerpted this text noticed what I did, because he didn’t translate the determinative.