Friday, February 1, 2013

Ten Ancient Mistakes IV

Yesterday's Post on Rehoboam might have worked as well for today's topic:

#4 Pathetic Revenues

Dan Peterson and I wrote about one such situation in our article entitled "Graft and Corruption":
By the end of the first century A.D., Greece and Italy and even Asia Minor were dependent for grain on other countries that produced it in large quantities, as they could not. Greece and Asia Minor were fed by southern Russia, while the Italian peninsula looked anxiously to Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, Gaul, Africa, and Egypt for its support. The spread of the culture of vines and olive trees, both in the West and in the East, meant not only economic ruin for Italy (owing to a shortage of agricultural products for exchange), but could, in very rough times, result in a corn (grain) famine throughout the Empire, as indeed happened in A.D. 93. Rome had claimed Egypt as a personal dominion of Caesar under Augustus, and thus had the bread basket of the empire to supply it, but Greece and Asia Minor, less fortunate, were obliged to tough it out with only the dwindling supplies from southern Russia. These were diminished still further by the imperial army's share, for the Roman government had prohibited "the export of corn [grain] from Egypt to other places than Rome save in exceptional cases." "Thus over-production of wine and olive-oil both in the East and in the West meant a permanent crisis in the East."

Obviously, "the Roman government could not afford to let the Eastern provinces starve." Hence, emperors took measures to encourage grain production and to limit that of wine and oil. But little is known about such measures. As moralists would have seen it, the greed abounding in Roman society had infected its agricultural base. Therefore, to stop the profiteering that he believed was starving the empire, Domitian (died A.D. 96) ordered a halt to all new vineyards and the destruction of half of the existing ones. (The decree was rescinded before its full execution). But Roman policy was inconsistent.
The problem was that olives and wine were cash crops. They brought the individual farmers more money. Grain did not fetch the prices that the olives and wine did. But people needed grain to survive. To keep the Roman welfare state going, Rome needed grain. It levied taxes in grain. In A.D. 93 the Roman empire did not have enough grain to feed its population. It had insufficient grain revenues.