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Overview of Late Antiquity--The Classical Prologue

Section 2: The Mediterranean -- Climate, Crops and Cities

Steven Muhlberger

Before the Christian era began, a common Mediterranean style of life had evolved, based on climate and crops. Mediterranean countries (and some of the shores of the Black Sea) have a cool rainy season lasting from November to May and a hot dry one between May and November. In this climate grains such as wheat and barley are planted in the autumn when the rains come, and mature in the early summer before heat and drought kill them. In antiquity, these grains supplied the basic food: bread, immense amounts of it, or if not bread, grain made into porridge. It was a world without the potato, and one in which meat was expensive. There were two other major crops: the olive, which supplied fat in the form of cooking oil, and the grape, which provided not just joie de vivre but also nutrition (both carbohydrates and vitamins): Wine was no luxury, it was a staple. All three foods were necessary parts of daily life. Every village and town plowed its best and flattest lands for grain fields; olive trees and grape vines were located on the low hills that lay behind almost every town on the coast.

This Mediterranean trinity of staple foods was supplemented by other crops and animal foods. Chickpeas were an important source of protein. Irrigated gardens close to houses produced vegetables: onions, lettuce, asparagus and cucumbers were common. Orchards provided a variety of other fruits not quite as vital as the olive, but still nutritious and highly prized: apples, pears, peaches, apricots and cherries. The chief animals kept were pigs, which are cheap to feed, sheep, and goats. Sheep and goats were fed part of the year on the fallow land -- that half of the arable (plowed) lands which was allowed to rest each year, to conserve moisture and soil nutrients. In summer, the animals were driven up into the mountains that, like the hills, were not far from every Mediterranean town and village. (The mountains, unlike the coast and lower hills, got rain during the summer.) Some cattle were kept, but mainly as work animals, for plowing and pulling carts. Asses were also used for transport. Horses were for luxury and for military use.

Two important features of Mediterranean agriculture should be pointed out. First, although it is often scorned by historians of post-18th century agriculture, it was well-adapted to the climate, and quite capable of supporting large numbers of people if properly implemented. Second, the essential elements constitute an important link between the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia. The rainfall pattern typical of the Mediterranean is found as far east as Karachi in modern Pakistan; all the Mediterranean crops and animals except the olive were used in antiquity in Mesopotamia and Iran, where many of them originated.

The physical setting and the productivity of Mediterranean agriculture made possible an urban-rural way of life derived from and similar to the older civilization of Southwest Asia and Egypt. I use the phrase "urban-rural" to emphasize that the vast majority of people in the ancient and early medieval Mediterranean basin were directly concerned with raising food in one way or another. This includes many people who lived in sizable towns and cities, who nonetheless worked in the fields outside their home settlement or raised grapes or treefruit or even animals inside it. But "urban" appropriately describes Mediterranean culture, too. There were many cities in the Mediterranean basin, and they dominated the countryside.

Most were small by our standards: a regional center might have only 10,000 to 20,000 inhabitants in A.D. 300, though a few cities held half a million or more people. Yet even the smaller places with a population of 1000 or so were urban communities in their context. The cities were market centers for the surrounding countryside. The local landowners and officials based themselves in the cities. The cities were religious and cultural pacesetters. In A.D. 300, as in earlier times, the agora or forum (Greek and Roman terms for a city's central marketplace) served as a meeting place where the menfolk of the town and some of the women (generally the poorer and less respectable ones) met to talk, argue and celebrate as well as buy and sell. In many of these towns, at various times, there was a marketplace for ideas as well as goods. It was in the Athenian agora of 400 B.C. that Socrates and the other sophists had taught; around A.D. 50, Paul the apostle had done the same, in Athens and dozens of other cities; during our period, other teachers would be able to gather crowds in urban markets to hear the latest word, the latest doctrine. No doubt there were dumpy towns with no preachers worth hearing or writers worth reading, and entire periods when intellectual life was sluggish; but life in an ancient town could be very exciting. Just as today, great changes in urban opinion and taste could take place in a surprisingly short time.

This vital urban life was a product of not only of the success of Mediterranean agriculture, but also of the relative ease of trade around the sea. In any historical period, urban and proto-urban trading settlements tend to stimulate diverse, intense agricultural production. In ancient times, and often in modern times too, specialized agriculture is the foremost urban industry. The existence of an active market makes agricultural investment desirable and profitable.

The specific Mediterranean style of agriculture we have been discussing is closely associated with urbanization. Before 800 B.C., most of the basin (the west and center) was quite innocent of cities and large scale trade. The distinctive crop combination of olive, grape and wheat was also absent. In the years following 800 B.C., the older civilized centers of Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt reached out to the west for new resources (especially metals, but very likely leather and slaves too) to feed their growing economies. An advance of agricultural techniques, an increase of population, the development of cities trading with Southwest Asia, Egypt, and each other, all took place at much the same time at what we can visualize as a wavefront of economic growth. It was not climate alone, nor simply the rich potential of native plants, that made possible Mediterranean agriculture. The sea's role as a highway, carrying travelers willing to buy local goods, was equally important.

From 800 B.C. on, the entire Mediterranean was integrated into a cosmopolitan world, a "developed" world, that had long existed farther to the east. In this world, centralized power, whether economic, political, or military was possible. So were mass cultural and religious movements.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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