Class and grain

As part of our research for The Time of Troubles, we have come across the class struggle of grain, or perhaps the in-grained class struggle. Our focus is the Hellenistic era in the eastern Mediterranean. When we enter our era, barley and two basic types of hulled wheat – emmer (Triticum dicoccum) in wetter areas and einkorn (Triticum monococcum) in the Levant and parts of northern Greece – were dominant. Apart from areas under irrigation (such as Egypt or lower Mesopotamia) or well-watered by other means, the average yield was 4:1, or a net product of 400 kilograms per hectare. Both barley and wheat can be used for the staples of beer and bread, although barley was much preferred for beer. Indeed, it may be argued that a major motive for human beings opting to live in such villages, with all their problems, was precisely the desire to produce alcoholic beverages from cultivated grains.

At the same time, class factors began to determine the preferences for barley or wheat. Barley (Hordeum vulgare) was already regarded by the Greeks as a food fit for slaves, peasants, and the poor. Barley is tougher than wheat, and requires less water and labour – precisely why it was preferred by those who knew its value. Both alcohol and bread played crucial roles in the class struggle over the granary. As for alcohol, the Romans and indeed Greeks preferred wine to beer, and with the spread – at least in the poleis – of Hellenistic cultural assumptions, wine displaced beer as the preferred beverage for the citified – on occasion threatening grain supplies since so much land was given over to viticulture. As a consequence, barley was not needed for such refined folk, although it remained a staple in the countryside and among peasants.

Further, the same classes and their aspirants preferred fine-floured bread rather than the course and tough loaves of the village dwellers. On slave estates and in villages required to provide produce for the local polis, the pressure was on to grow so-called naked grains rather than hulled grains, especially high-yield bread wheat (Triticum aestivum), poulard wheat (Triticum turgidum) and durum wheat (Triticum durum). Not only do they require less labour than hulled grains, but, depending on the type, they produce relatively fine-floured breads and semolina. In particular, the most desired bread was the Roman panis siligneus (siligo designated wheat flour), which was produced best in colder zones such as the Crimea, northern Italy and Gaul. If this type of wheat flour was not available, a local variant would have to do. By contrast, the peasants continued to grow the tougher hulled wheats, along with barley and oats, which were courser, more durable, and resistant to disease. Their breads the Roman ruling class called, with some disdain, panis plebeius. Slaves and city poor would also eat such bread, along with types of porridge. It is not for nothing that Josephus noted in the first century CE that in Galilee the rich ate wheat while the poor ate barley.


2 thoughts on “Class and grain

  1. When I volunteer at our local windmill, I discuss the change in bread-eating habits, relative to wealth and class. Where once only the rich ate fine white flour made into bread, and the poor coped with grains and wholemeal, modern society has now turned this full circle. Poorer families buy cheap sliced white bread, and the middle and upper classes eat granary and wholegrain bread for reasons of health and aesthetics.
    A similar theme can be seen with porridge and cereal, with the adoption of rough muesli, and coarser porridge oats alongside whole wheat cereals, all supposedly healthier, and providing better roughage.
    I enjoyed this, Roland.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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