Pure Agriculturalism

3 July 2010


If you look at a map of the Mediterranean, you will see that the Italian peninsula thrusts down through the center of the sea, and if you look at the Italian peninsula you will see that Rome is just about in the center of the west coast. What this means is that Rome is very near to the geographical center of the Mediterranean. The ancient Roman state, both in its republican and its imperial form, was a political entity based on geographical unity, but this was not the geographical unity of a contiguous landmass; rather, Roman power and prosperity was based upon the geographical unity of the Mediterranean Sea.

Rome as an enthroned king on a medieval map.

Recently in The Agricultural Paradigm I noted that the tumult and intellectual ferment of the English Revolution was entirely internal to agricultural civilization. Today it dawned on me that the same is true of Rome: the entire odyssey of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire was an event internal to agricultural civilization, and the rise and fall of the Roman Empire constituted the greater part of what we now identify as classical antiquity. Classical antiquity emerged, flourished, and declined all within the context of agricultural civilization.

Roman farmers didn't get much glory, but they made the empire possible. Moreover, they made what followed the empire possible also.

It is often said that Rome was not built in a day, and it is equally true that Rome did not fall in a day. The eclipse of Roman power was the eclipse of the Mediterranean basin as a unified commercial region. As intra-Mediterranean commerce came under pressure and consequently declined, the old inland estates of the Roman aristocracy become a safe refuge both from increasingly uncertain trade centered on the Mediterranean and from cities, which, due to their riches, became the targets for plundering barbarians. These havens in a violent world ultimately became the basis for the self-sufficient manorial economy of the Middle Ages.

The rural estates of Rome's patrician elite were luxurious and elaborate. There is a detailed description of such a villa in the Letters of Pliny the Younger. Many attempted reconstructions (as above) have been made.

The new civilization of medieval Europe that arose from the wreckage of the western Roman Empire was a civilization based on the manorial system — therefore rural, therefore disconnected from cities and their urban institutions, therefore local, and therefore provincial. Medieval civilization was unambiguously an inland civilization based upon the contiguous landmass of the European peninsula. Great coastal cities linked by sea-borne trade to the rest of the world eventually emerged in late medieval civilization, but they were always peripheral to it, and in the earlier stages were wholly absent.

Medieval civilization was a paradigm of the agricultural paradigm.

Medieval European civilization more perfectly represents the Agricultural Paradigm than many other instances of civilization that were nevertheless also part of the agricultural paradigm. This is one of the things that makes medieval civilization distinctive and particularly deserving of study. It is also a lesson to us that, throughout its long history, agricultural civilization took a variety of forms, some closer to the implied “ideal” of the agricultural paradigm, while others exemplified less pure species of the genus.

Pastoralism, here mapped in a distinctive color against the rest of the world in green, represents just enough difference from agriculturalism that it produces distinct social institutions, even though like agriculturalism it represents a rationalization of the food supply for human societies.

My intuition suggests at this point that deviations from the pure species of the genus of agricultural civilization represent either a looking back to nomadic socio-economic structures or a looking forward to industrial socio-economic structures. That is to say, the more particular instances of agricultural civilization depart from a purely agricultural paradigm, the more they approximate nomadism or industrialism. One of the themes of Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation documentary series (my copy of which I lost to my recent theft because it was in the same bag as my computer) in the first episode is how, during the early Middle Ages, people were on the move. Today we would call them refugees. The fall of the Roman Empire in the west created one of the most catastrophic refugee crises in Western history. This period of early medieval history represents an approximation of nomadism in the context of the agricultural paradigm. The quasi-industrial cities of Flander’s medieval cloth trade, so well documented in the work of Henri Pirenne (whose work I discussed yesterday in The Division of Labor), represent an approximation of industrialism in the context of the agricultural paradigm.

Does the baseline of pure agricultural civilization, interrupted by throwbacks to nomadism and anticipations of industrialization, exhibit a pattern? This is the next question, and one which I will save for another day.

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4 Responses to “Pure Agriculturalism”

  1. xcalibur said

    The idea that Rome was built around the Mediterranean, and relied on it for travel and trade, is an important insight.

    Isn’t Ancient Egypt the best example of pure agriculturalism?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Pure agriculturalism is an imprecise classification as I have used it here. Perhaps it could be made precise with some effort. By “pure agriculturalism” I had in mind societies such as early medieval western Europe in which there was little trade, few great seaports, little monumental architecture, and civilization was almost entirely focused on the self-sufficient manorial estate. It might be thought of as a civilization without a “central project” (an idea from Frank White that I recently mentioned in Getting to Starships).

      There are many such societies in world history; I mentioned the western example because I am most familiar with western history. A scholar of other civilizations might point to periods in the history of other civilizations that exemplify this kind of social order. But, clearly, Ancient Egypt with its eschatological preoccupations and its central project of building pyramids and temple complexes, was not purely agricultural in this sense; similarly, the monumental architecture of civilizations of the western hemisphere — say, the Mayas and Aztecs, which also seems to have been driven by eschatological preoccupations — does not describe a purely agricultural society as I had in mind. The civilizations of Khotan in Asia or of Byzantium both were constructed over trade routes, and commerce played significant roles in the development of these civilizations.

      Best wishes,


      • xcalibur said

        I see. So a society of pure agriculturalism is near or at subsistence level. Since manorialism was very localized, the early medieval era was as close to subsistence agriculture as it could be while still maintaining a larger culture.

        Likewise, Egypt, Rome, Greece, China, etc. may have had agriculture at their roots, but they built complex social layers on top of their agricultural foundation, e.g., Egypt built a state religion and monumental architecture on top of its agriculture, Greece built city-states on top, etc.

      • geopolicraticus said

        Yes, that’s pretty much what I meant. Purely agricultural societies are only one notch up from subsistence agriculture. The social structures pure agriculturalism supports are largely limited to local elites, and their economies are self-contained.

        Sometime I would like to make a study of the relation of manorial estates to the few surviving seaport cities of early medieval Europe. When one reads the history of the early medieval period, shipping and port cities are almost absent, but they become wealthy and prominent with the revival of trade as depicted, for example, in Henri Pirenne’s Medieval Cities.

        Best wishes,


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