Social Scientist. v 18, no. 200-01 (Jan-Feb 1990) p. 83.


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REVIEW ARTICLE / SHEREEN RATNAGAR*

Responses to Risk and Crisis

Peter Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World:

Responses to Risk and Crisis, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, pp. xix + 303, Paperback,-fi-10.95.

The blurb recommends this book to all social scientists interested in the problem of famine, past and present. I don't, as the focus is not on famine but on the organization of food supplies of two cities, Athens in the Classical and Hellenistic Periods, and Rome under the Republic and Empire. Here I will discuss not the handling of the classical sources, but Garnsey's approach to famine, food scarcity and risk.

Coined money first made its appearance in the ancient Mediterranean world; the consensus seems to be that initially coinage was issued to make several high-level and standardized state payments, especially to mercenaries. Agricultural produce then became subject to marketing, though we cannot assume that all agricultural production was henceforth for the market. One would have welcomed some fresh theoretical formulations on the ancient Mediterranean system of food marketing, and its repercussions on food production itself, but Gamsey's discussion of the food supplies of Athens and Rome does not include an analysis of marketing practices. The question is important, for the advent of grain marketing must have brought about a major disjuncture in economic processes and peasant life.

One is not, of course, implying that because coins were in use, the Greek and Roman economies were just like ours today. Coins were issued by states to defray their own expenses. In Republican and early Imperial Rome, the number of coins in circulation fluctuated with the number of legions in the field; if there were no pressing expenses the state did not mint coins. The trading of one kind of coin for another (metallic contents varied) was widespread over the Roman empire;1 and there was a continuous debasement of the denarius, its silver content being over 90% under Nero (AD 54-68) but less than 60% under Septimius Severus^AD 193-211).

The Greek and Roman world was not one of commodity relations. Wage labour was not fully developed, and wealth was not used as

* Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.



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