June 09, 2011

Geography, Luxury and Empire

Reading Mark Whittow's Making of Byzantium, I was struck by Whittow's observations about the boundaries of the Near Eastern Empires in the Ancient and Medieval World. Whittow proposes a topography of the Near East that identifies agricultural areas (Egypt, the lower Mesopotamian delta, parts of Western Turkey, Thrace, the southern Caspian shore) and plateaus (the Iranian and the Anatolian) that bordered upon vast areas of arid plains. Whether to the south or the north the Arabian desert and the great Central Asian Steppe (from China in the East to the Ukraine and Hungary in the West) were conduits for nomadic tribes to invade the Empires of Persia, Byzantium and later the Arabic Caliphates from. What Whittow observes though is a fundemental issue which I suspect is at the base of any answer to Gibbon's famous question about why Western civilisation will not fall in the same way that the Western Roman Empire did (to barbarians). These areas could never become part of an empire because they were too arid, too poor to be worth conquering. The settled peoples could not conquer the vast steppe- instead they had to live with it- and often via creating negotiating partners, they created the very forces that would later undo them. This geographical, Braudelian perspective on the Empires of the ancient world is reinforced by Whittow's emphasis on the agricultural basis of their fiscal strength: as late as the 17th century between 63% and 94% of Ottoman revenues came from the land tax alone, compared to between 4 and 6% from customs.

What this emphasizes to me is the vast importance of agriculture in understanding these empires and that means the vast importance of land fertility in understanding their location and their extent. What changes in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is the rise of other sources of wealth and the rise in wealth generally within society: Karl Gunnar Persson in his essay on European Economic history gives figures for urbanisation which are interesting in this context. According to Persson roughly 20% of the population of Italy were urban city dwellers in 200 AD: that should be compared with a European figure of around 40% in 1600 and an English and Welsh figure of 50% by 1850. All those figures are approximate- particularly the Italian and the European figures (the later English figure depends on censuses) but they give an indication of what was going on inside these civilisational centres. More and more people lived inside the core towns and cities and more and more of the economy by 1800 was dominated by industrial production. What we see therefore across the 18th and 19th Centuries and into the 20th is an expansion in the resources that states can deploy to influence the arid areas of the Eurasian landmass: the settled peoples have more wealth to lever into dominating the nomadic peoples. So part of the story of industrialisation is a story about evolution to avoid these crises of nomadic invasion. That's not to say that ancient civilisations could not extend their power (see Rome and Gauls, China and numerous peoples) but there are limits to the attractiveness of arid land when your primary source of wealth is agriculture.

Whittow's argument makes sense when bound together with Persson's analysis. Lastly though it makes a mockery of one of the ancient and modern explanations for Rome's decline and critiques of modern civilisation. For it is luxury not virtue that promotes the arts of urban dwellers: luxury creates the improvements in GDP that enable the settled nations to leverage their power outside the natural confines of the agricultural hinterland and the plateaus. Bernard Mandeville would have been delighted to find not only that private vice creates public virtue but that it also extends military power. This paradox may be incorrect for certain periods of time: but as a general principle it is at least interesting to consider.

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