Bread, How Did Ancient Civilizations Make It? Part I: Farmers!

This essay will hopefully be the first post in a series (II, III) covering some of the basics of how things in the past, particularly in the ancient world, were made. This isn’t a how-to guide (we’re not going to go into that much depth) but instead intended as a window into the many tasks that made a pre-modern society work, tasks that are so often left out of the modern imagination of the past. Throughout, I want to highlight not only the jobs, but also the people who did them and the human landscapes they created.

Each entry in this series is likely to come in multiple parts – as you will soon see, almost everything worth making has to be made in quite a few steps and each step is often complex enough to occupy its own weekly post. I think this series will run in four parts (possibly with a fifth part addendum), but no plan survives contact with my tendency to overwrite. I wanted to start with farming instead of something more flashy and exciting like iron production (where I know there is quite a lot of interest in how one goes from reddish rock to polished sword), for the simple reason that agriculture sits at the foundation of every other form of production. Every person in an agrarian society whose job – mining, smithing, tanning, timber-cutting, trading, tailoring, everything – doesn’t involve primary food production is subsisting off of the food production of others, typically (as we’ll see) many others.

That said, this post is mostly about farmers more than farming (we will talk about the mechanics of farming, just not right away!). One thing I want to highlight in this series are the many different jobs and occupations and the people who did them who tend to lurk in the background of our imagination of the past, where they appear at all. And in the case of farming in much of the pre-modern world, the survival strategies of subsistence farmers exert a very strong shaping influence on the countryside and life for non-farmers (terminology note: ‘subsistence’ farming refers to farming directed primarily towards the survival of the farmers and their families; in much of the pre-modern world, there was a fairly sharp divide between most farmers who farmed on a subsistence basis and the largest market-oriented estates of the wealthy, who will be our focus next week).

As a final caveat before we dive in, I specialize in the economy of the ancient Mediterranean, so my observations here are going to tend (where not otherwise noted) to be most true in the Mediterranean world, in that period (c. 650 BC – 450 AD). Where I know there are major exceptions, I’ll try to note them, but it’s simply not possible to know every production permutation everywhere and at every time. For this series, we’re going to focus on wheat production, with a bit of a Mediterranean bias (but I’ve tried to pull in some evidence from North China as well; by and large I’ve found that wheat cultivation seems to create similar patterns everywhere, but there is local variation).

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