Friday, June 20, 2008

potestas frumenti et benzi

The power of grain and oil.

Apparently, not I alone am interested in the connection between oil today and grain in ancient Rome, about which I wrote earlier. Chris Jones at LatinLanguage has a thorough and fascinating discussion of annona, the market supply and price of grain in the city. He concludes [emphasis added]:

[T]he annona was an issue that always haunted Roman politics through the Republic. A repetiton of this basic pattern is seen in the Gracchi Brothers, Saturninus, Caesar and Clodius, cases where self-serving demagoguery is not always so clear a motive.
Though the unelected emperor didn’t need to worry as much about the plebs, the wiser emperors knew the power of public opinion and the role of the annona in swaying it (after all, it’s half of Juvenal’s famous panem et circensis). The most startling example is Vespasian’s victory in the Year of the Four Emperors (68 ACE); while Galba, Otho, and Vitellius raced to Rome to be crowned and deposed in succession, Vespasian moved to occupy Egypt and secure Rome’s breadbasket.
Oil is arguably as important to the modern American economy as the annona was to ancient Rome’s. It’s always dangerous to press historical analogies too hard, but their study can often provide a new insight.

I agree with nearly all of this. Power over a limited and valuable resource lends heavy political clout. The masses who rely on obtaining this resource within their budget schema are much more inclined to support a politician who can guarantee stable, cheap access. In the Year of the Four Emperors (68 AD), Vespasian wisely came to this same conclusion, and his occupation of grain-producing Egypt was instrumental in his victory.

But this last argument, I believe, would be a very difficult one to make. Oil is an integral part of the American economy. We depend on it to such an extent that our demand for gas, even with prices in excess of $4-per-gallon at the pump, remains relatively inelastic. Nevertheless, we do have some leeway, and are exercising these options. We are driving less (HT: MarginalRevolution) and using mass transit more often.

The Romans did not possess the same limited flexibility. As remains the case in poor and developing nations today, a shortage of grain did not mean changes in routine for the urban poor...more likely, it meant starvation and death.

Indeed, I think this final argument that Chris is not voicing particularly strongly. He rightly identifies the powerful allure of a closer comparison, and here likewise rightly resists it. His greater point about the politics is still quite correct. Just as the grain supply for Romans, gas is an essential part of the lives of millions of Americans, and so will feature prominently in political campaign (as it already has, most notoriously with the foolish "gas-tax holiday" pandering).

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