Friday, 29 June 2012

Foodie in Aarhus

So, having completely forgotten about the fact that I'd started a food blog, finding myself in Aarhus with 2 days to kill before a food symposium, I realised that if I were to be in any way credible, I needed to start 'contemplating cuisines' once more. So I have- and here is, if not my first encounter with Scandinavian cuisine, probably my most thoughtful!

Night 1: NFK: Nordens Folkekokken

A menu (at a reasonable price) that took me 2 hours of walking in circles to find. In typical Laura fashion, I did absolutely no preparation, but instead headed off in a particular direction from my hotel opposite the Aarhus Cathedral and walked the streets, as it were. Mine was a pleasant eventual encounter- a set menu ranging from 2 to 7 courses, all of which were paired with wine- I'm in!

My decisions were typical- to start poached salmon paired with a Sicilian white. It came perfectly presented with a Danish cream cheese and lemon curd. I really appreciated this starter because it was light, yet satisfying and came accompanied with freshly baked bread to soak up the excess alcohol as this was my first meal since the plane 7 hours previously. The salmon itself had been cooked to perfection and did not have that overpowering oily fish consistency that is often a problem I have with salmon. The wine- a 2011 Grillo-Inzelia was refreshing and exactly what I needed after my trip about town...

The main course was also fish (Kulmule)- Hake on a chanterelle mash accompanied with fresh chanterelles, peas and a potato mash. This too was cooked to perfection and the fish melted in my mouth. The chanterelles were also not over-powering, but rather brought out the flavour of the fish that I'm used to eating fried back home (see previous blog at some of these attempts :) The only criticism that I can level at this dish was that it was quite rich and could have done with something to break the creamy textures of the fish, mash and chanterelles other than just a few peas. The white accompanying this was also an Italian one, but was a lot deeper in flavour with a smokiness complementing its fruity overtones- Triade Campanien 2010. (You will also note that at this point I remembered that I could also play around with Instagram for my photos :)

The final course was a selection of Scandinavian cheeses with a relish and honeyed nuts. Although I was worried that my choice may prove too much after the rich main course, my fears were unfounded and the variety and size of the portions was quite satisfactory. The blue in particular went really well with the nuts and the softer, Swedish cheese required the relish to bring out its qualities. The Puglian 2009 Passitivo finished the meal off in style.

So, it looks like my culinary experience has gotten off to a good start (as has my relationships with Instagram) and I'm super keen for the next instalment of my Danish food experience. I will try to do some research in the meantime so as to put an academic spin on this in relation to farming systems, which is what we will be discussing at this conference

Friday, 6 April 2012

Good Friday = Fishhhhh

It was quite coincidental that I started blogging again during the Easter holidays and that my posts are therefore quite religiously oriented, but I guess that the underlying reason for this is two-fold. First that it's only during these holidays when I actually take a breath in and feel like I can do something other than pure academia and secondly, a lot of the religious fiasco involves food... hence my Good Friday ritual

Having eaten nothing all day, I come back after sitting in Church for approx 3 hours to fry myself some fish as my mother would always do. As ingrained as lamb is for me on Easter Sunday so is re-enacting my mom's delish fried fish what I look forward to after a day of fasting. The only problem being that the fish that we get back home is a lot harder to come by in the UK than I would have liked.

So, Thursday afternoon I headed to the Covered Market fish market to get me some, white fry-able fish. With my asking for a hake or kingklip equivalent, the man behind the counter smiled benevolently and said- I can give you hake. Pardon? (thrown off my guard) Yes- hake- just choose which piece you want...

Now as you all know in order to fry fish in batter, this requires a fish fillet- so I'm expecting him to offer me the cod or even haddock fillets that are right in front of me, but instead he points to a pile of darnes (I just looked this up now- it is a cut of fish on the bone with the skin still on). In my terror and not wanting to look like a lazy fool I point at two that I think I may be able to butcher into fillets later, pay and proceed on my way.

Until this afternoon when I return home salivating for my fried fish, chips and greens... I take the fish out and- as I'm sure most of you know- completely fail in my task of transforming the darnes into fry-able fillets. Instead I land up with two chunks and 4 smaller piles of what is probably white fish flesh that I've unsuccessfully tried to stick together.

Well, I think- at least there is the batter- maybe that might work

and here Jamie Oliver to the rescue with his brilliant Italian fish batter recipe which can literally save any disaster in the kitchen (and which I tragically can't find the link for online- the trick is to use sparkling water and olive oil in the batter with the flour and the egg yolk to make the batter)

By some utter miracle this managed to hold my poor butchered fish together for long enough to cook and actually look like the piece of fish it was originally meant to be and was actually quite delicious.

(The same cannot be said for the oven bake chips that in my laziness I opted for- rule number one is never to take the short cut)

So, all's well that ends well- I'm one less species of meat in the fridge and already salivating over the prospects for Sunday's lunch :)

Thursday, 5 April 2012


Taking a look back over the photos from my time at Oxford, I realise how much time has been spent in a kitchen- I even have entire albums dedicated to to my friend Esteban's kitchen (where we would gather every week or so, alternating cooking a meal for upwards of 30 people- whoever said large-scale catering was hard?). It was a culinary world tour- Colombian style tarragon chicken, to Yoko's amazingly fresh sushi and even I rolled out my mom's 'Biddy's chicken' recipe that is probably one of the easiest thing to prepare in bulk because all the work goes into the marinade the night before!

And this tradition continued even as friends came and went- living at the top of Headington Hill in St Hilda's JSL house, nobody would come to visit us so had to entice them up with tons of good food and of course, plenty of wine. We were so successful that all of our 'exchange dinners' tended to be one-way which suited us well enough...

Having moved into private accommodation with 3 good friends (all boys- though Robert actually cooks, and quite well), I have continued to use my attempts at cooking as an excuse to get good friends together- and it has continued to work remarkably well and new friends have been added into the mix. The trick is actually to keep it as simple as possible- which is not difficult given student budgets and the limits of our college/rental kitchens (in fact the only redeeming feature of The White House where I currently reside is its new kitchen which we insisted upon before moving in).

Food has become not only the means to and end- as a social gathering, but is itself a way of understanding each other, our diverse cultural backgrounds and upbringings. So whenever people used to ask me to cook something 'South African' I would be at a loss- waiting for the sun to come through and having a braai used to be my only response, but I have since learned that anything I feel like cooking, as a South African, can be considered a South African meal. I've done the traditional bobotie (after a trip to the South African shop to get the necessary indigenous ingredients like Mrs Balls hot chutney), but even steak on rolls dripping in hot chillies and olive oil is what I would call a Prego roll = typical Portuguese South African cuisine!

And so the tradition continues, food brings people together- we learn more about each other through cooking and being cooked for... bonding through the sharing of an honest meal.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012


Right, so a new year... and a new blog, well, sort of! So the thesis has been handed in and I'm awaiting my viva so I can now, instead focus on what really matters to me and that is FOOD!!!

From now on this blog is not going to be solely about complexity, but about the complexity of those everyday mouthfuls that most of us (at least those of us with access to this blog) take for granted everyday- what is it about food that makes it so special? Food as a right, food as an experience, food as nutrition and as custom... I could go on for a while (and will) but at the moment my real focus is on food as celebration and ritual- cue Easter!

Once a year I don my domestic hat and decide to have all my friends who have been abandoned in Oxford at Easter over for Easter Sunday lunch. I have once again stocked up the fridge with a leg of lamb and a chicken, I've also sent out the e-mails requesting assistance with the additional dishes- Michael is bringing salad, Anika and Yuan are in charge of dessert and Raj is bringing the booze. But as I prepare for this every year I wonder what it is about Easter that makes me feel like I have to celebrate- but not just with any old food, but always with the roast lamb- it is the central element of the meal and Easter would just not be Easter without it (see photo from last year above...

and the year before that)

You see, it's all about the lamb and it hears back to my mother and her Easter lunches and of course there is the religious element too- Jesus as the sacrificial lamb and the lamb Jews eat over Passover (which is at the same time of course)

But enough about the lamb- Easter is also all about good friends being brought together to share in a good meal and I think that that's what makes it so special and that is why I'm really looking forward to this Sunday where I get to lord it over the kitchen once more, with a glass of red wine in hand and pouring more of it over my leg of lamb... mmmm, delish!!

Monday, 21 March 2011

What can we learn from the classics? Part II: The politicisation of grain

'Hunger has always beenpart and parcel of the human experience- in archaic Greece, late medieval Italy, Tudor England, Stalinist Russia and present-day Asia, Africa and Latin America' (Garnsey, 1998: 272)

The story of grain in Ancient Rome is that of survival. A commodity essential for human existence became a political tool as those who governed its supply, access and provision gained increasing power. The evolution of a system politicising grain is noteworthy and provides a useful background and context for discussing and understanding the critical role of foodstuffs in modern society. Although the poor of the periphery are still producers, can it be said that there is a ‘system’ in place for distribution of necessary nutrition to those who require it? Rome was in no way a welfare state, but the importance of grain to feed armies and to stop the powerful mob mobilising and rioting meant that at the very least basic food needs were, to a certain extent, met . The State took on this obligation, albeit slowly and perhaps often reluctantly, and it resulted in a system that grew and evolved into one of efficiency whilst the government itself was stable as it was for hundreds of years (Tengström, 1974: 89). Do the aid organisations of today provide the same service as the grain system of the Romans or are they still in the process of evolution? Should they be fulfilling this role of supply and redistribution, for example of food aid packages to starving countries? If redistribution is a necessity, is the current system sufficient or should it go higher up the chain of command to include those multinational organisations such as the World Bank and branches of the United Nations (e.g. the FAO and UNDP)?

The Roman Empire could be considered a microcosm of the world today where we also face the problems of supply and distribution in a globalising world where the rich seem to have access and the poor suffer. The exploitation of the provinces and peasant farmers in the ancient world has its contemporary equivalents as proposed by Kautsky (1988 [1899]) and this exploitation gradually built itself into the accepted bureaucratic system so typical of today (Tengström, 1974, Kehoe, 1988). Hegemonic rule and the outsourcing of food production to the provinces to feed the powerful few (Rome and her armies) could see parallels in the super-powers of the contemporary world. However, running together with this narrative of a people exploited, runs the story of the power of the mob and its role in politicising grain to such an extent that Gaius Gracchus felt the need for a dole to be instituted that could never be fully removed. The power inherent in the Senate and the Emperor was absolute, but only if they provided the ‘bread and circuses’ for the people . There is thus the double power of those in control of the supply and distribution and those demanding it. Veyne (1990: 418) phrases it beautifully when he states that

“in that period when there was nothing between direct democracy and authority by absolute right, the possession of power had unreal effects. The rulers wanted to offer symbolic proof that they were in the service of the ruled, for power could not be either a job, a profession or a piece of property like any other. The right to be obeyed is a superiority, and every superiority needs to be expressed, since otherwise it will cause itself to be doubted…”

Although Veyne (1990) argues that the dole was not a form of euergetism, I believe that it was nevertheless a necessary symbol of political power whilst simultaneously an acknowledgement that sustaining the needs of the people was necessary in order to retain this power. In this way grain became a politicised commodity.

‘In antiquity, food was power’ (Garnsey, 1999: 33) and the main food source for ancient people in the Mediterranean was cereal crops, the most prominent of which was wheat. Casson (1980: 21) refers to grain as the ancient equivalent of oil today and it is therefore not surprising to find that many of the political struggles and mini revolutions in ancient Rome were either centred on grain or used it as a tool to realise political ends. The importance of an adequate food supply to a populace and the way in which this was used as a means of control or manipulation by politicians is, however, not unique to ancient civilisations. A Human Rights Watch report ‘Not entitled: The politicisation of food in Zimbabwe’ (HRW, 2003), is indicative of the fact that food has significant political qualities that can be used to highlight power balances and shifts even in contemporary society. Although parallels between contemporary developing societies and ancient civilisations have been drawn (Garnsey, 1998), little has been done to link what can be learnt from a study of classical antiquity and their highly developed political systems with the politicisation of commodities occurring today.

It is Galen who refers to the city ‘as the seat of exploitation in the ancient world… that community of non-producers which exercised political, administrative and financial hegemony over the adjacent countryside’ (Garnsey, 1983a: 56). Rome, who drew tribute in cash and kind from much of the Mediterranean world during its peak in order to sustain its governing class, armies and citizens, perfectly encapsulates the urban-rural dichotomy. But, is this a fair assertion to make? It can just as easily be argued that Rome’s strength came not from her separation from the urban, but rather through her very rural beginnings as an agricultural community, which were never entirely forgotten though the centuries of her history. Indeed, Heitland (1921) in his epic work on agriculture in the ancient world from the point of view of labour, asserts that it was through agriculture that Rome consolidated her position as the main power on the Italian peninsula (Heitland, 1921: 133). Indeed, the policy of establishing poorer citizens and later army veterans on land throughout the newly conquered empire is one of the vital explanations for Rome’s being able to retain control over so vast an area for such a long period of time. At the same time, this practice further entrenched the dialectic relationship that Rome, the city, had with Rome, the Empire .

Roman society’s culture, ideals and behaviour are readily traced back to its beginnings as an agricultural society with a people dependent on the food that they could grow themselves as was the case with all post-nomadic, pre-industrial societies. This, together with the centrality of its legendary armies resulted in the traditional ideal of the ‘farmer-soldier’ being perpetuated through stories and legends about the great Roman heroes who embodied Roman morals (Heitland, 1921: 135). These close ties with ‘the rural’ continued throughout the Republic and Empire and were used as a constant moral reminder of the ‘strenuous patriotic and frugal lives of the heroes of old’ (Heitland, 1921: 135). Even when lavishness and extravagance seemed to be the common trait amongst the Patricianate, those such as the elder Cato were honoured for remaining true to the Roman ideals of living off the land. Indeed, the ‘myth of the noble peasant, self-sufficient and content with simple wants haunted Rome during the height of her power’ (Rickman, 1980a: 28).

Further examples of this dialectic are found in the political system where members from the ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ voting tribes were often intermingled by the Censors, which although it led to a diminishing political role for the rural tribes in the later Republic, emphasised that despite a city wall, there was no real border delineating the city of Rome from what lay outside the sacred boundary of the city (March, 1926). This focus on agriculture and ties to the land is easily explicable when one takes into account that food was always a primary concern of people in antiquity as their crops were more susceptible to climatic variability, droughts, floods, disease and war. The Mediterranean climate in particular is dry and crop failures were regular, making it necessary for farmers and those reliant on farmers for their food to be resilient (Garnsey, 1983a: 56). It is therefore not surprising that both the Greeks and Romans placed significant importance on the goddess of agriculture (Demeter and Ceres respectively). Ceres was also the goddess of grain and she is often portrayed with an ear of wheat and a farming implement as she is credited with having shown humans how to cultivate the earth. The use of cereals in ancient sacrifices and rituals (mainly traditional far or emmer wheat in Rome) and the consumption of puls (a porridge made from far) in moralistic myths of Rome (Garnsey, 1999: 18) sets the stage for the political significance that was gradually to be embedded in this agricultural commodity. Rickman (1980: 24) states that ‘the feeding of Rome was always a political as well as an economic problem and it involved much more than simply putting food into the stomachs of the inhabitants’ and there was to be increasing power embedded in whoever had control over the means of feeding the populace.

Due to the climatic conditions that prevailed in the region, wheat and to a lesser extent barley were the staple food sources for the majority of Mediterranean populations (Garnsey, 1999: 19). Even the upper classes retained bread as a central part of their diets even if this was the pure white bread made from refined Triticum aestivum wheat and not the ‘extra dirty’ class of bread, which had a high phytate content and fewer vital minerals (Garnsey, 1999: 21). The role that grains played in nutrition was also more significant in the city because there were no alternative food sources that could be substituted to enhance nutrient intake by the masses.

By the time of the early Empire and in particular the reign of Claudius from 41-54 A.D. the importance of the grain supply and distribution in Rome was self-evident in the exclusive magisterial role given to the praefectus annonae by Augustus in A.D. 8. However this was not always the case. There was a slow transition from the early Republic through the transition into the Empire during which time grain became politicised and it was necessary for governmental control over the commodity to become more pronounced.

The first mention of food crises in Rome are in accounts by Livy and Dionysius. He refers to the secession in 492 B.C where the plebeians retired to an area outside the city in order to compel the Patricians to listen to their demands. The peasants left their lands and refused to cultivate, leaving Rome in a food crisis which resulted in the Patricians granting the plebeians wishes and establishing the office of the tribune of the plebs, which was a magistrate who would look after the needs of the common people. This office would later play an instrumental role with regards to the governing of the grain supply to Rome and political events around food issues in the city. Once again in 477 B.C. there was the first recorded violent uprising by the masses in response to a food crisis, which demonstrated the powerful force a starving populace could become when mobilised to act in their own interests.

Garnsey (1988: 170) relates a legend recorded by Livy about the food crisis in 440 B.C. According to the story, L. Minucius (whom Livy refers to as the praefectus annonae) was given control over the grain supply during a time of shortage and he accordingly attempted to import grain from neighbouring regions by land and sea, but this endeavour was unsuccessful and so he resorted to the equally unsuccessful job of attacking grain-dealers, reducing slave’s rations and forcing those people with stocks to release them. Meanwhile a private citizen, S. Maelius managed to secure large quantities of grain from Etruria and Campania and began selling it at a very reduced price in order that the people did not starve. As this was an affront to Minucius, he had Maelius assassinated by the Master of the Horse, Servilius Ahala who may have been acting on behalf of the Senate. Minucius subsequently began to distribute the grain assembled by Maelius at the cheapest possible price and the shortage came to an end a year later. Stories such as this illustrate most clearly the importance of an adequate supply of grain in Rome and the political events that could be created around a deficiency in this supply. It also highlights the tensions in Roman society where it was the preserve of senior senators to curry favour with the populace by sourcing emergency grain and distributing it cheaply thereby gaining the gratitude of the people (Garnsey, 1988: 171). Fabius Maximus is recorded as having taken such action to avert a food crisis in 290 B.C. Dionysius records that ‘The Consuls… took great care to supply the city plentifully with both grain and all other provisions, believing that the harmony of the masses depended on their well-being in this respect” (Garnsey, 1988: 179). The resentment towards the tribunate in the Late Republic for enacting popular grain laws can be traced back to this underlying sentiment that it was not for individuals to show generosity to the public, but to act only for the benefit of their dependents as patrons (Garnsey, 1988: 171).

Grain as a driver of Empire and a diplomatic tool

After the first Punic war against Carthage in 241 B.C. a large part of Sicily became a province of Rome and later in 238 B.C. the island of Sardinia was also incorporated under Rome. This changed the dynamic of grain supply drastically as Sardinia and Sicily are both ideal for cultivating cereals and so they became key sources of Roman grain. Indeed, instead of paying tribute in cash, Sicily sent an annual tithe of wheat to Rome and there was precedent for a double tithe being asked from 191 B.C. but this was only a sporadic occurrence and was not institutionalised until the lex Terentia Cassia was enacted in 63 B.C. By this stage ‘the agricultural performance of Rome’s home territory was less relevant to the situation of Roman consumers as Rome’s capacity to acquire supplies of food from other states, by force if necessary’ (Garnsey, 1988: 173). A similar situation exists today where a liberalised world-trading regime assumes that people’s access to food should not be constrained by a bad harvest in their home country as it can be sourced on the open market. This assumption is, of course, inherently problematic, but these will be discussed at a later stage.

The period directly after the first Punic war (241 B.C.) until the tribunate of Gaius Gracchus in 123 B.C. is one of great political significance in the use of grain as a diplomatic instrument and political mechanism. The first significant diplomatic role that grain played was in 237 B.C. when King Hiero II of Syracuse came in person to Rome with 200 000 modii of wheat for the Roman people. As the Kingdom of Syracuse was the last remaining area of Sicily independent of Roman rule, this was a significant gesture by the King, reiterating his loyalty to Rome, but also reinforcing the treaty of 263 B.C. granting him rule of the south-east and eastern coast of Sicily. During the second Punic war (218 – 203 B.C.), Hiero II was of great help to Rome who was struggling to maintain her armies and feed her capital whilst Hannibal took control of the grain harvested in Etruria and southern Italy during the battle of Lake Trasimene. After his death, Hiero was named ‘that most loyal servant of the Roman Empire who had made his kingdom the granary and treasury of the Roman people’ (Garnsey, 1988: 184). Just how effective his policy had been was illustrated after his death when his son Hieronymus changed sides and lost and the kingdom which was incorporated into the rest of the Sicilian province by 211 B.C. Grain no longer came to Rome as a gift from Syracuse, but as an annual tribute and the consul Laevius is said to have compelled the Sicilians to lay down arms and start cultivating the soil in order to feed Rome during the ongoing war against Hannibal.

A similar diplomatic approach was undertaken by the Carthaginians and King Masinissa of Numidia who always outbid the offers made by Carthage. After the second Punic war was finally won by Rome in 203 B.C. Africa became a source of grain and in the period directly afterwards (203 – 196 B.C.) the price of grain dropped substantially in Rome as the aediles were able to source cheap grain from Africa. However, it was only after the end of the third Punic war in 146 B.C. when the new province of Africa proconsularis was established that Africa became a key source of grain and the triad of Africa, Sicily and Sardinia were to maintain Rome’s granaries until Augustus’ annexation of Egypt in 31 B.C provided another regular supply to a growing population.

The period leading up the Gracchian law of 123 B.C. was one of turmoil in Rome as it was fighting multiple wars. Slave revolts in Campania in 143 B.C. and the civil war in Sicily from 134-131 B.C. severely affected Rome’s grain supply and rising prices in 138 B.C. forced a tribune, C. Curiatus, to ask for senatorial action to buy more grain, but the consul Nasica Scipio refused. The number of legions that maintained by Rome increased from five in 128 B.C. to nine in 124 B.C. Together with the severe food shortages that Rome had experienced over the previous century, unrest in the provinces and the political tension in Rome meant that the time was ripe for a revolutionary tribune to take matters into his own hands. Gaius Gracchus was a tribune of the plebs who was first elected into office in 123 B.C. Apart from carrying on his brother’s work, there were many factors leading up to his lex Sempronia frumentarii, but ultimately the most powerful of these was the Roman mob. ‘Conditions in Italy tended to make the Roman mob politically omnipotent’ (Marsh, 1926: 19) and it is this hungry mob, which was likely soon to become supreme in the State that Gaius Gracchus found himself facing (Marsh, 1926: 24). Gracchus’ revolutionising agrarian law dealt with every aspect of grain provisioning, including contracting for grain collections to be made in Asia, redistributing land, building granaries for storage in the city and most crucially the legal requirement of distributing cheap grain to every registered male Roman citizen. Although these 5 modii per citizen could be considered a bribe to the populace (Marsh, 1926: 24), it was nevertheless necessary under the political climate of Rome and it also reinforced Gracchus’ conviction that it was the duty of the State to feed her people and Rome (unlike Greece) had the funds with which to do this (Garnsey and Rathbone, 1985: 24). Apart from attempting to avert a rebellious crisis (which was only postponed until the Civil War in 91 B.C.), the Gracchian law essentially marked the beginning of an official Roman system of grain supply and distribution (Garnsey and Rathbone, 1985: 24).

Despite the evident importance of grain, the responses to secure the grain supply were piecemeal and haphazard. Often situations would arise where individuals could take strategic advantage of the grain crises that seemed so frequent during this period and use them to further their political careers as was the case with Pompey. In 102 B.C., M Antoninus was given a special command to eradicate pirates after a shipment of grain had been lost. He was unsuccessful in this endeavour and the pirate raids continued to be a problem until 67 B.C. when the grain convoys were attacked, Ostia was raided and the ships docked there were burned. This effectively cut Rome off from its grain supply creating a major crisis . The Senate elected the general Pompey to an extraordinary command to rid the Mediterranean of pirates, which he did within three months; to much praise and acclaim. The significance of this task and his victory became more evident when in 57 B.C. he was put in charge of the grain supply (cura annonae) for five years. So great was his power at this appointment that after Caesar’s assassination in 43 B.C., the Senate passed a law stating that no single person was to be put in charge of the grain supply for the city as a whole, presumably because he would have too much power.

The chain of distribution

The significance of being in charge of the grain supply is explicable on scrutinising the tax collection system in the provinces. When grain was collected as a tax (or the tithe in Sicily), it was left in the hands of agents or frumentatores (usually merchants of Equestrian rank because property was a requirement for security) who contracted with governors (or the Senate in the case of the Asian provinces) for the right to collect and often transport (though this could be contracted to shippers (navicularii)) the grain to Rome. Whoever was in charge of allocating these contracts had huge power and merchants would make and use influential contacts in order retain, make or renew a three year contract. The method employed by Pompey and later by the Emperors was to grant citizenship to those frumentatores and shippers who assisted with the grain supply during times of crisis. However, the emphasis had moved from contracting agents to collect the supply to creating incentives for shippers to transport the grain to Rome as state control over the grain supply was becoming more apparent from the late first century A.D. (Rickman, 1980b: 272). Claudius also offered special privileges to those shippers who were already citizens if they helped to transport grain during times of shortage.

Although Pompey monopolized grain politics from the supply side, others sought acclaim within the city itself by dealing with the distribution of the grain, often with the intention of capturing the popular vote. The dictator Sulla, after successfully marching on Rome, abolished the law regarding State grain in 81 B.C., but it was resurrected sporadically and in 62 B.C. the lex Porcia extended the number of dole recipients in an unexpected move by the arch-conservative Cato. In 58 B.C. the tribune Clodius abolished payment for State grain, making it officially a dole to citizens. He also tried to put the corn lands, contractors and stores under the control of one man, Sextus Cloelius, but was unsuccessful. Caesar later cut the number of recipients on the grain list by half in 46 B.C. Augustus in 2 B.C. finalised this process by limiting the number of recipients to 200 000, which is still a significant number considering the population of Rome was estimated at around a million at this time. Other grain legislation enacted by Caesar (or Augustus) in 59 B.C. was the lex Julia de annona, which was aimed at punishing anyone who deliberately held up the flow of grain. Statutes dealing with grain speculation were also passed making traders liable to a fine by the aediles if they were found speculating in grain (e.g. by storing it) from 198 B.C. The dole (frumentationes) was also seen as a means of defending the people by stabilising what could be a wildly fluctuating market as the government was guaranteeing to underwrite those who provided grain for the frumentationes (Cameron, 1973: 3).

War played a large part in disrupting the grain supply in Rome and making it the strategic political weapon that it was. This was not only because the supply was cut-off from the city or destroyed, but because so much grain had to go to feeding the legions. In the years 75 B.C. to 73 B.C. Rome went from having 24 to 34 legions and 5 rebel legions which all required feeding with State grain. Events like the famous gladiator revolt led by Spartacus in 73 B.C. also severely disrupted grain supply and distribution and these events occurred frequently in the late Republic. Towards the end of the Republic, during the war between the second triumvirate food riots once again broke out as Sextus Pompeius secured Sicily and blocked the grain supply thereby forcing Antony and Octavian to agree to a fragile peace treaty in 40 B.C. In 22 B.C. Augustus assumed the dictatorship and also the charge of cura annonae though it is assumed that he continued to co-operate with the Senate about matters concerning grain (Chilver 1949: 18). He did not reform the grain system until late in his reign and followed previous republican methods of distributing free grain from at his own expense during shortages in 23 B.C. and 18 B.C. His response in 6 A.D. during the grain shortage resulting from floods, a revolt in Illyria and nomadic incursions in Africa proconsularis was to evacuate people, ration provisions and double the dole. These responses were all ad hoc just as those under the Republic. It was only with his appointment of the praefectus annonae in 8 A.D. who was solely in charge of the grain supply that a system of control began to develop. This position was viewed as a symbol of the Emperor’s public commitment to the corn supply (Garnsey, 1983b).

The supply and distribution of grain remained central throughout the centuries of the Roman Empire and was gradually modified to the point where the dole was no longer of grain, but of bread (as had been supplied during the games). rain is primarily a source of sustenance, but because of its significance in this role, it becomes a political commodity too. The political system of ancient Rome makes it an interesting and less complex story of the gradual politicisation of grain.

Friday, 18 March 2011

What can we learn from a return to the classics? Part 1

So, in my infinite wisdom, not satisfied with interrogating complexity through a complex systems theory lens- or critiquing modelling- I have decided that we need to return to an analysis of the ancients. Yes, in this blog I return to the mythical plains of Ancient Rome and Greece for a discussion of the cyclical nature of food crises, the social and cultural aspects that we often forget to include in our macro-analyses of food and the power-dynamics surrounding food.

The story of a stable and secure food supply for all is only a very recent phenomenon: and only a phenomenon for those lucky enough to live in the developed world- the majority of us who are now completely disjoined from the source of much of the food that we eat. However, food crises are not a thing of the past- far too many people are still classified as hungry (925 million people according to the WFP in Sept 2010), 98% of whom live in developing countries. In Ancient Greece and Rome, there was a regularity and inevitability of crises of food shortage and hunger, which is reflected not only in the importance given to food through religious ceremonies, sacrifice etc but through the laws and institutional arrangements to safeguard the supply and distribution of food as well as by its lavish consumption by the elites who has access to it (Garnsey, 1999: 2). The food system was fragile and people were vulnerable to hunger- much the same as today in vast areas of the world. Much of the discussion about today's food system is that it is unprecedented- that is true in terms of scale and global connectivity. However, I argue that the processes underlying the current food system are the same as those that underlay the food system around the Mediterranean, especially under the Roman Republic:

1- agricultural supply subject to environmental variability
2- an urban population that needs to be fed from rural farms
3- a food processing and distribution system controlled by the private sector
4- rich elites who can afford to buy food from exotic locations as a symbol of status and wealth
5- these elites often over-indulging to the point of obesity
6- the state still very much in control of what and how food is traded and distributed: regulation because they know that democracy and a hungry populace will hold them to account
7- a process whereby food can be redistributed to the needy outside of conventional trade: before this was done by euergetism (generosity for the benefit of the civic community by the elite acting as individuals) and now this is done through the process of food aid (WFP, USAID etc...)

However, contrary to our current food system, there was a much finer recognition of the importance that food played in their lives- as well as its volatility- and so there was a much greater focus on storage and reserves and on how to get food from where it could best be grown (North Africa in particular) to the great urban centre that was Rome.

What can we learn from backcasting our glance to look at the cycles that food has undergone over the millennia? What led to the failure of these food systems and, similarly, what made them resilient to shocks? Did private enterprise succeed in redistribution where public institutions failed or euergetism as too small a scale to be a great socio-economic leveller? (Garnsey, 1999: 6) and if this is the case, what would a modern equivalent be?

Although these processes defined a much smaller and arguably less complex food system than the global one we currently inhabit, they nevertheless hold true... see Part II for the next discussion


Sunday, 14 November 2010

The complexity of justice

Wow! Having found myself attending Chuks Okereke's class on climate and justice this term at Oxford, my head is not only swimming, but I'm about to take a jump off the deep end ... pause for awkward silence.

Is it posible to achieve justice in the presence of complexity? And I don't just mean the multifaceted nature of the concept (rather than conception :-) itself, but that when we talk of the implementation of justice within complex systems, it no longer seems ascertainable. This is because not only is justice a complex issue in and of itself, but to which part of the system are we referring when we say we want it to be just and equitable. Justice implies trade-offs and compromise, but with a complex system one never fully has a grasp of the whole picture: of what the possible feedbacks could be, what the knock-on effects are and whether this will actually result in a less just system. In order for there to be justice within a system, that system needs to be defined: this is a political process in itself and loaded with areas for exclusion of relevant stakeholders. Can a system ever be 'just' if at the stage at which it is defined we cannot hope ever to achieve full participation?

We can, of course, make vast improvements in our level of inclusion at the decision-making stage, at being reflexive of our own preconceived notions and ideologies that are framed by our backgrounds (both disciplinary and others), but is this sufficient? On the other hand, throwing our hands up in despair at the complexity of it all is also not particularly helpful and it could be argued that it reinvigorates the inequality f no-one is standing up to it. (This post has now been severely reconfigured in light of Ariella Helfgott's class on system theory and resilience so apologies for the conflation and confusion of ideas :-).

I clearly don't have the answers, but I just wanted to throw it out there as a problematic to which I may later return. It brings up issues of how to deal adequately with uncertainty and complexity- not to ignore them nor to try to minimise or eliminate them, but to incorporate them in our system governance, which includes the loaded notions like justice.

Until then- my head is stuck in another random post so I will return to this question at a later stage!