A Measured Harvest: Grain, Tithes, and Territories in Hellenistic and Roman Sicily (276-31 BCE)

Persistent identifier: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:WalthallA.A_Measured_Harvest.2018


During the reign of the Syracusan monarch Hieron II (276-215 BCE), Sicily’s famed agricultural resources were, for the first time, comprehensively mobilized through an administrative system designed to collect an annual grain tithe from cities within his kingdom. Hieron’s administration was so effective that the Romans, eager to feed their growing population, retained the tithe and applied it to the whole of the island, thereby transforming the new province into the grain basket of their burgeoning empire. My project, A Measured Harvest, recasts this narrative in terms of grain measures, coin circulation, monumental granaries, and patterns of rural land use—the material elements of agricultural administration and economy.

Project Description

During the reign of the Syracusan monarch Hieron II (276–215 BCE), Sicily’s famed agricultural resources were, for the first time, comprehensively mobilized through a sophisticated administrative system designed to collect an annual grain tithe from city-states within his kingdom. Hieron’s administrative system was so effective in harnessing the productivity of the island that the Romans, eager to feed their growing urban and soldier populations, retained the annual grain tithe and applied it to the whole of Sicily, thereby transforming the first of their provinces into the grain basket of their burgeoning empire. As Roman authority replaced that of Hieron in Sicily, so the groundwork was laid for Rome’s expansion across the Mediterranean. This traditional narrative of agricultural administration in Hellenistic and Roman Sicily is based largely on a single courtroom speech of Cicero (Verr. 2.3). Yet, a substantial body of archaeological material has passed largely unnoticed and underappreciated for its documentary value to ongoing scholarly discussions about the economic and political significance of the island’s agricultural resources.

My project, a monograph provisionally entitled A Measured Harvest, takes a different approach and recasts this narrative in terms of monumental granaries, patterns of rural land-use, standardized grain measures, and the circulation of bronze coinage—material elements of agricultural administration emerging from excavations and intensive landscape survey on the island. Taken together, these material elements offer a rich and contextual perspective on the role that agricultural administration played in the political, economic, and social environment of Sicily between the third and first centuries BCE. Agricultural institutions provide a remarkable point of continuity between the Hellenistic and Roman administration of Sicily, but have yet to receive comprehensive treatment. Approaching this continuity through the archaeological record will dramatically alter and enrich our understanding of a diverse set of issues, including the development of Hellenistic royal administration, the nature of agrarian economies in the ancient Mediterranean, and the impact of agricultural policy (e.g. taxation-in-kind) on rural land use and productivity. In this light, I advance the argument that agricultural taxation, rather than being a universally repressive burden on producers, allowed for economic opportunities heretofore unseen in Sicily.

During my time as a CHS Fellow in the Fall 2017 semester, I made great progress on the first three chapters of my monograph, making full use of the exceptional bibliographic resources of the library and tapping into the intellectual support systems provided by my fellow fellows, senior advisors, and the entire CHS community.

Chapter One, From General to King, begins with a historical outline of Hieron II’s rise to power in a time of great political upheaval in Sicily, from the death of Agathokles in 289 to his acclamation as basileus in 269. Having set the stage, I discuss the salient aspects of Hieron’s basileia, which are known to us from surviving literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence. I pay particular attention to the output of the Hieronian mint and the changing visual language employed by Hieron over the course of his long reign to bolster his claims to kingship. Laying a foundation for arguments made in subsequent chapters, I identify the cities subject to Hieron’s authority and define the nature of the political relationship between Hieron and these poleis. Here, I discuss the controversial question of Hieron’s relationship with Rome and argue that the treaty of 263 concluded between Hieron and the Roman Senate played a defining role in shaping the political legitimacy of his basileia as much as it shaped the physical boundaries of his kingdom. This chapter places the Hieronian kingdom in conversation with the Hellenistic monarchies of the eastern Mediterranean, advancing the notion that his was a personal monarchy modeled on many of the same practices for legitimizing autocratic rule that develop in the generation after Alexander III’s death.

Chapter Two, Consolidating a Kingdom, explores the administration of the Hieronian kingdom with particular focus on systems put in place to extract agricultural resources from the territories subject to Hieron’s political authority. I begin with a discussion of Hieron’s agricultural tax laws, known to us by later sources at the lex Hieronica. I identify the key operational features of the tax administration, as can be reconstructed from literary and material sources. Next, I focus on one of the central tools of the Hieronian tax administration, standardized units of measurement, and go on to explore the benefits of standardization for the state’s interest in extracting resources from subject territories. Here, I address the theoretical and historical underpinning for Hieron’s prerogative, as sovereign, to establish units of measurement and value. Returning to the archaeological record, I present the material evidence for standardization in the Hieronian kingdom—focusing on weights, measures, and coinage. I demonstrate that grain measures, a largely unstudied class of artifact among Sicilian excavation material, may be taken as indices for the emergence of a sophisticated tax administration in southeast Sicily during the third century BCE. My research suggests that ceramic grain measures of standard form and volume were first manufactured in Sicily during the reign of Hieron II. That this standardization should be understood in terms of facilitating the assessment and collection of the tithe is illustrated by the existence of grain measures stamped with inscriptions designating their official status. With regard to modeling the processes and procedures involved in accomplishing the unification of measurement across a politically and geographically diverse landscape, I argue that the standardization of volumetric measures in Hieron’s kingdom offers a fruitful case study for scholars studying similar processes in the larger Hellenistic kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean.

Chapter Three, Productive Landscapes, turns our attention to the productive territories of the kingdom and looks at developments taking place in the countryside. Drawing on the results of intensive landscape survey projects conducted over the past three decades, I identify broad trends in agricultural land use and productivity that are vital to understanding the island’s role in the Mediterranean grain trade. Archaeological evidence collected from intensive field surveys around cities such as Gela, Morgantina, and Centuripe are used to identify diachronic patterns in rural occupation, as well as networks of movement between center and periphery, city and countryside, interior and coast. These trends are considered in light of the highly-organized tax administration that developed during the Hieronian period. The second portion of Chapter Three follows grain and other agricultural goods from the countryside into the urban centers where it was assessed, stored, and redistributed. Morgantina, located on the western border of the Hieronian kingdom, serves as a case study. There, two monumental, public granaries of Hellenistic date served as centralized points for the collection and redistribution of the agricultural tithe during the third century. I investigate these buildings as documents of Hieron’s agricultural policies, and explore the economic and political motivations for communal grain storage. Here, I address two questions; first, were these the products of civic or royal policy? And, second, can the granaries serve as the basis for reconstructing the agricultural productivity of the city’s territory? My conclusions here are informed, in part, by archaeological data that emerged from a six-week excavation, which I directed inside the West Granary at Morgantina during the summer of 2011. As discrete units of volume, the granaries provide a vivid glimpse into cereal productivity and land use in the territory of Morgantina during the Hellenistic period. Analysis of the architecture and artifacts recovered in the excavation of these two buildings will contribute to a coherent picture of their construction, use, and eventual abandonment in the late second century BCE, after the absorption of Sicily into Rome’s empire. The abandonment of Morgantina’s granaries and subsequent construction of possible grain warehouses at the coastal sites of Kamarina and Catania would appear to reflect administrative changes introduced by the Romans. A study of these changing networks of collection and distribution is paramount to understanding how the Romans extracted resources from their first province.

In the coming months, I hope to complete the last two chapters of my book. Chapter Four, Bridging the Divide, switches perspective and looks not from the top-down view of Hieron’s royal administration but at the impacts that such policies had on stimulating trade throughout the kingdom. Drawing on work in the field of New Institutional Economics, this chapter builds the case that institutions put in place to facilitate royal taxation fueled intensive exploitation of agricultural resources and, in turn, created the appropriate conditions and stimuli for economic growth based on the sale of surplus grain. Chapter Five, Sicilia Frumentaria, serves as a conclusion by considering points of continuity and discontinuity in the agricultural administration of Sicily following the island’s absorption into the Roman empire. Drawing on both literary and archaeological sources, I examine the structural changes made to Hieron’s tax administration during the first century of Roman rule, as the scale of the tithe grew to encompass the whole of the island.

Select Bibliography

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Campagna, L. 2004. “Architettura e ideologia della basileia a Siracusa nell’età di Ierone II.” In Nuove prospettive della ricerca sulla Sicilia del III sec. a.C., archeologia, numismatica, storica, ed. M. Caccamo Caltabiano, L. Campagna, and A. Pinzone, 151–189. Messina.

Carcopino, J. 1965. La loi de Hiéron et les romains. Rome. Orig. pub. Paris, 1914.

De Angelis, F. 2000. “Estimating the Agricultural Base of Greek Sicily.” PBSR 68:111–147.

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Dimartino, A. 2007. “Per una revisione dei documenti epigrafici siracusani pertinenti al regno di Ierone II.” In Guerra e pace in Sicilia e nel Mediterraneo antico (VIII–III sec. a.C.): Arte, prassi e teoria della pace e della guerra, II, ed. C. Ampolo, 703–717. Pisa.

Di Stefano, G. 2001/2002. “L’attività di ricerca della Soprintendenza a Camarina e nella provincia de Ragusa fra il 1996 e il 2000.” Kokalos 47/48:687–728.

Erdkamp, P. 1998. Hunger and the Sword: Warfare and Food Supply in Roman Republican Wars (264–30 B.C.). Cambridge.

Garnsey, P. 1988. Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Responses to Risk and Crisis. Cambridge.

Lehmler, C. 2005. Syrakus unter Agathokles und Hieron II. Die Verbindung von Kultur und Macht in einer hellenistischen Metropole. Frankfurt am Main.

Pinzond, A. 1999. “Maiorum sapientia e lex Hieronica: Roma e l’organizzazione della provincial Sicilia da Gaio Flamino a Cicerone.” In Provincia Sicilia, ed. A. Pinzone, 1–37. Catania.

Serrati, J. 2000. “Garrisons and Grain: Sicily between the Punic Wars.” In Sicily from Aeneas to Augustus: New Approaches in Archaeology and History, ed. C.J. Smith and J. Serrati, 115–33. Edinburgh.

Walthall, D.A. 2011. “Magistrate Stamps on Grain Measures in Early Hellenistic Sicily.” ZPE 179:159–169.

———. 2015. “Recenti scavi nei granai monumentali a Morgantina.” In Morgantina ieri e oggi, ed. L. Maniscalco, 82–91. Enna.