Famine in the Ancient Mediterranean
'Bread and circuses' - the control and availability of grain was the key to political power and social stability in the ancient world.
Everyone has heard of the seven fat years and seven lean years of Genesis. The famine of 499-502 at Edessa in Northern Mesopotamia as chronicled by Joshua the Stylite is less familiar:
The famine was sore in the villages and in the city; for those who were left in the villages were eating bitter vetches, and others were frying the withered fallen grapes and eating them, though even of them there was not enough to satisfy them. And those who were in the city were wandering about the streets, picking up the stalks and leaves of vegetables, all filthy with mud, and eating them. Others cut pieces off dead carcases, that ought not to be eaten, and cooked and ate them.
But what caused famine? How frequently did it descend on the Mediterranean region in antiquity? What steps were taken to prevent its occurrence or alleviate its effects? To what extent did 'famine relief' measures evolve in response to popular pressure?
Grain was the basic food in the Mediterranean in classical antiquity, more so than it is today, supplying perhaps two-thirds to three-quarters of the food energy requirements of the average consumer. The main grains were wheat and barley (in their several varieties). Oats, millet and rye were not commonly grown, rice was rare and maize unknown – as was the potato. No pommes frites, no paella in the ancient diet. (No spaghetti either, the hard wheat which is the basis of the modern pasta industry being unobtainable or simply not used for this purpose.)