Just a Little Bit of History Repeating

It seems I cannot escape politics even by retreating into my books.

From The Italian Baker, by Carol Field, Chp. 1, Bread in Italy:

Wheat and bread shaped the destiny of Rome and were intimately tied to its rise and fall. In early Roman days, all land belonged to the state, except for small parcels of acreage given to soldiers returning home from the wars. The state protected the farmers, but as its ambitions grew, the need for more capital led to the decision to let land to the rich. These wealthy landlords, who forced small farmers to abandon their fields, were able to combine parcels of land into vast estates. Rather than grow wheat, they turned their farmland into pasturage, which was more profitable. Wheat-growing was virtually abandoned, and the small farmers were forced to the city, where they melted into the growing mass of the dispossessed and unemployed. Caesar, Augustus, and Nero provided free grain to keep the restive unemployed from rebelling, hoping that bread and circuses would distract them, but each ruler was forced to import ever greater amounts. The constant search for more grain was partially responsible for the expansion of empire. While Trajan established the first bakers’ school in A.D. 100, and the architect Vitruvius discovered hydraulic milling, which could produce more flour from the same amounts of grain, Rome continued to swallow up territory until the empire stretched from Britain to the deserts of Africa and grew too large to be controlled by a single ruler. When the empire was divided between east and west, Rome lost control of the vast wheat fields of Egypt and Africa, which fed its population. The end of the wheat supply coincided almost precisely with the fall of the empire. Barbarian tribes plunged across the borders and virtually dismembered the state. The once rich arable land, which had been given over to pasturage, reverted to swamp. Bread, as the Romans knew it, disappeared from Rome and the farther reaches of Italy.


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