Isograms of cost of food transport to Rome

What the Roman Empire Knew About Food Miles

 

Isograms of cost of food transport to Rome

http://orbis.stanford.edu

Provisioning Rome, one of the world’s largest cities, if not the largest with as many as a million people by about 55 B.C., was one of the greatest challenges of the Ancient World.

Bread was the basis of the diet, supplying most of the calories for most of the population. So getting grains, particularly wheat, into Rome was the major provisioning problem.

The map above shows what it cost to get grains to Rome from different parts of the Mediterranean. It’s by classicists Walter Scheidel and Elijah Meeks at Stanford, and is on their wonderful site, Orbis: The Stanford Geospatial Network Map of the Roman World. They say:

Conventional maps that represent this world as it appears from space signally fail to capture the severe environmental constraints that governed the flows of people, goods and information. Cost, rather than distance, is the principal determinant of connectivity.

Or in other words, miles are less important that what the cost of traveling those miles.

For most of history, travel by water where the current or the wind supplied the power was much, much cheaper than travel by land where animals (human porters, mules, oxen) provided the power.  Those animals had to be fed. Even if there was a lot of grass or other food along the way, they needed grains for energy.  As quartermasters from Alexander’s time to World War I knew, animals quickly went through the grains they were transporting.

The Orbis map above shows that it made sense to import wheat from Egypt, the Black Sea, or North Africa at a price of between 2.5 and 4.5 denarii a kilo rather than bringing it by sea than from overland the much shorter distance from the inland northern Mediterranean where transport costs quickly went above 4.5 denarii a kilo.

And if you wonder about all these strange measures, a kilo of grain is 2.2 lbs.  It will make a little over three 1 lb loaves of white bread or four 1 lb loaves of wholewheat bread. (A small American wrapped loaf weighs 1lb).

All except the rich (who got many of their calories from oil or wine or perhaps meat or cheese) would have needed at least a pound of bread a day. For those engaged in heavy labor it was more like 2 lbs.

A pound loaf of bread cost about 2 denarii (a pair of army boots was 22 denarii, a farm laborer might get 2 denarii a day plus what he received in kind, mainly food).

Let’s assume the pound loaf was wholewheat. Then the cost of shipping the wheat for four loaves (8 denarii) from Egypt or north Africa was at least 2.5 denarii.  Or in other words about 30% of the cost of a loaf of bread was for the shipping.

This is a minimum. If the loaf were white, if the cost of shipping was more than 2.5 denarii, then the percentage going to shipping went up sharply.

This does not count the cost of growing the wheat, or of grinding, sieving, kneading, shaping, and baking the loaves.

Roman mill and bakery

An integrated, state-regulated mill and bakery in Rome. Reproduced from Cuisine and Empire.

Remember, these are all order of magnitude estimates, which would have varied with weather, time period, etc.

But two things stand out. The miles wheat was transported mattered much less than whether that transport was by land or sea. And supplying a city such as Rome was costly, difficult, and did not allow much room for error (missed shipments).

And do take a look at the Orbis site. Quite fascinating in itself and as an example of what computers can do for the historian. I wish I had had it when I was writing Cuisine and Empire.

 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

15 thoughts on “What the Roman Empire Knew About Food Miles

  1. Barbara Rotger

    This is thought-provoking — in some ways it reminds me of Von Thunen’s model. Looking forward to checking out the ORBIS site.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      You’ll like the ORBIS site, I’m sure Barbara. And yes, It does have echoes of von Thunen, if he’d been dealing with topography as complex as the Mediterranean and soils as variable.

      Reply
  2. dianabuja

    Nice blog, Rachel, on a topic of such importance — provisioning people in ancient and pre-modern history. .A major reason that the Ptolemaic dynasties – and then the Romans – were so fond of Egypt and of tax-farming for grains in northern Egypt was, of course, water transport practically from the field to Rome or elsewhere. So, there are many manuscripts (demotic, greek, latin). that provide secondary information on waterwheels, and related items used in grain agriculture in Egypt during these years. Will share this blog!

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Diana. And I do hope you will blog on the mss that give information on waterwheels, etc. I’d love to know more. And of course I had the benefit of the great Orbis maps though much of the rest is in my book.

      Reply
  3. robyneckhardt

    What strikes me is that except for the horse (and the slaves), the middle panel looks a lot like a typical firin in Turkey today.
    I love this post and the Orbis site, thanks for the link.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Interesting, Robyn. Workers (not slves) at shaping tables and all? And yes, the Orbis site is great. Perhaps you can use the data on Turkey in some way.

      Reply
      1. robyneckhardt

        Yes but not shaping tables just separate sections of counter. This photo ( http://eatingasia.typepad.com/eatingasia/2014/04/f%C4%B1r%C4%B1n-wood-oven-bread-bakeries-in-turkey.html ) cuts out much but there’sa worker weighing out hunks of dough, another roughly shaping into balls, another shaping them again, another rolling out the pide, another scoring the pide and sprinkling on sugar, then the last stretching the pide before he places them on the paddle. When they come out, a worker brushes bran off their bottoms and finally the owner wraps them in paper and hands to customers.
        Mesmerizing.

        Reply
        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Robyn, a lovely post, which I had missed. And I’d certainly missed the parallels to the Roman bakery. I was going to make some off-the-cuff remarks about continuity but obviously if these are a recent introduction in Turkish towns, that’s not so. So I suppose it’s the logic of bread making.

          Reply
  4. dianabuja

    Just so happens I’ve been exploring Ptolemaic and Roman matters in ‘antique Egypt’ of late so will certainly be putting up some stuff – unfortunately, Orbis is quite difficult to use from here due to internet links problems… mss from these eras are often written bilingually – in both demotic and greek – reflecting changing ethnicities and rulers in the Nile Valley.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Thanks for the fascinating post, Diana. I’ve tried in my comment to see what this quantity meant. Hopelessly rough of course. But it gives me chills to even be able to have a shot at imagining life so long ago. By the way, the wheat and lentils don’t sound so very different from rural Egypt today, do they?

      Reply
  5. Pingback: Provisioning Rome with Grain – But the Workers must eat, Too! | DIANABUJA'S BLOG: Africa, The Middle East, Agriculture, History and Culture

  6. Roger Pearse

    Very interesting – thank you. I’d like to know more about the collapse of the population of Rome in the 5th century, and I imagine this all factors into it.

    Reply
    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      If you are asking whether the breakdown of the grain supply chain caused or accelerated the collapse of the population of Rome, I have never seen that asserted among the many, many assertions about the fall of the western empire. I think the removal of the main capital to Constantinople re-directed the supply. But we need to get Diana Buja in on this. I enjoyed browsing your blog by the ay.

      Reply
      1. dianabuja

        Just saw this and the question of Roger Pearse (agree, he has a great blog). There continues to be a great deal of debate about this important issue; just what constitutes a ‘market economy’ in Egypt, Rome, Egypt and related is undergoing considerable debate. There are up-and-coming luminaries who are addressing this and related issues, transcending traditional classical boundaries that are grounded in a positivist, classical world/mindset, including – Monson (Stanford), Morris (Stanford) Manning (Yale), Moyer (Michigan) – among others. I particularly like the work of the latter two, who obtained their degrees from the OI, esp. focusing on Ptolemaic and early Roman times from an Egypt perspective – not [just] a classical viewpoint.

        Reply
        1. Rachel Laudan Post author

          Hi Diana, Thanks for the very useful list of scholars working on this, which has gone straight on my follow up list. To make my position clear, I have no particular stake in what a market economy might be in the ancient world. I take it you (and they) would agree that there are costs associated with the long distance (even short distance) transport of foodstuffs whatever the nature of the economy. How those costs are borne of course will be associated with the form of the economy.

          Reply

I'd love to know your thoughts