Home Engineering The dark side of technology
Growth of cities and long-range food transport—early Rome
Farms need labour, but when successful, there is both a need and an ability to support larger populations. Consequently, small hamlets develop into larger towns, and this in turn means there has to be trade and transport of all types of goods. Most importantly, the towns can only survive if food is produced and delivered to them whilst it is still tolerably fresh. The pattern has meant that big towns needed farms within a very large and accessible catchment area. This requires technology both for transport and storage, plus (and certainly not least) many low-paid workers on the farms. Big successful empires focussed on those in the towns and cities, as this is where there was wealth and political power. They generally solved the labour problems with slavery. Democracy may have been a fashionable concept, but it only applied to a fraction of the population (e.g. as in ancient Greece).
Rome is a classic example of a city that grew at the expense of an ever-larger local agriculture, supplemented by imports from colonies. So there was a growth of land and sea transport, which offered the option of more exotic foods than came from the local region around the city. In terms of labour, there are various estimates that to support the ideas that for each ‘noble Roman citizen’, there had to be 15—30 slaves working in the fields, transport, or within the city. Life at the top was fine, but for the majority it was dreadful.
To control such numbers of slaves, and to exploit the colonies, it was necessary to have a substantial and well-trained army. By default, this was consuming food rather than producing it. Nevertheless, the military were skilled engineers, and as a consequence, the cities in the Roman Empire gained effective water supply systems with impressive aqueducts that have survived to the present day.
The Roman Empire grew over the entire Mediterranean and became dependent upon it. In part this was because their local soil productivity declined steeply with continuous farming. Rome therefore became ever more dependent on imported food supplies. This was an unstable situation, and when in 383 AD there was a major drought in the Mediterranean, there was a consequent famine in Rome. The first attempt at a solution was to expel foreigners and many others from the city. However, this was totally inadequate, and the army of Alaric, a Visigoth, capitalized on it and moved in to exploit the famine to capture the city. His success was of course claimed as a great military victory, but in reality his victory was due to lack of water, over-exploited resources, excessive transport distances, and a nation that was mostly slaves without any motivation to fight. He won, so the story of the victory was his version.
It is easy to be critical of the Romans, as they are far in the past and we have less bias in our judgements. However, precisely the same pattern of exploitation developed throughout all the other major European nations in later centuries, and the pattern continues to the present day.
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