Subsistence and Survival: The Peasantry

Garnsey, P. 1988.  “Subsistence and Survival: The Peasantry.”  In Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World: Responses to Risk and Crisis, 43-68.  Cambridge.

Presenter: Sean Hipps


  • Sarah Kendall
  • Christina Gentil
  • Mallory Pigmon
  • Abby Rosenson

14 thoughts on “Subsistence and Survival: The Peasantry

  1. Please answer as many of the following questions as you would like. Click the “reply” button beneath the question to answer. Be sure to explain as best you can, and support your responses with evidence from the text.

  2. If you had to decide as a farmer whether to stick with small safe farming techniques or to take a chance and go big attempting to make a killing which would you pick? Would having a bad harvest the year before factor in? Would having a patron influence the decision?

  3. Garnsey states on page 53 that. “storage was an economic necessity for a peasant”. Do you agree with this statement and do you believe in general storage was vital to all people? Do you think storage was easily obtained by people of lower status?

    • I do agree with Garnsey’s statement. Having a proper storage system was vital to the success of any framer. During barren winters, the food in a farmer’s storage was his and his family’s only source of sustenance. Without proper storage techniques, a farmer may run the risk of not being able to provide for his family during the agricultural off-season. I feel like storage was easily obtained by farmers of all statuses. There were simple tricks to store food, like the one we have talked about in class, where you put your grain in the ground and the top layer rots but it seals in and protects the rest. This type of storage doesn’t require any equipment, just the knowledge of the technique. It was important to built up a personal storage but also to make connections with other local farmers in the event disaster hits and your stored grain spoiled. A farmer could then turn to a neighbor and relay on their stored food, if they were willing to oblige. Creating such a community within a local town can be the difference between people starving to surviving a harsh winter. When pulling together the available resources, there is a bigger chance of the group surviving.

      • Christina is hinting at the nature of Social Storage, storage through delayed reciprocity and the maintenance of relationships within and beyond the community. Which do you believe was more important to Mediterranean peasants in antiquity Social Storage, or direct storage?

        • I think Social Storage would be more important; not only does it tangibly supply a society, as direct storage does, it helps maintain the social hierarchy of patron and client relationships. It gives storage higher purpose for a society.

  4. Starting on page 58 Garnsey begins to explain patronage. How does the text compare to our prior understanding and readings on patronage? What are some similarities and differences?

    • I don’t think I had really considered the emergence of patronage prior to reading this article. When Garnsey presents patronage in the beginning of this section, he seems to suggest that there is not a lot of evidence for certain kinds of patronage early on. I thought we had talked a lot about rural patronage in class, but perhaps I am misunderstanding what he means by rural patronage. He says that we have evidence for patronage with elites and even high ranking plebs – are these cases all urban? When we discussed the concept of a patron giving land to a client to farm, is that not a case of rural patronage because the patron, himself, is from the city rather than the countryside? On page 62, Garnsey discusses how Pliny, though based in Rome, may have rented land out to a tenant – Does that mean that this is not rural patronage either?

      Overall, many of the general aspects discussed here are similar. Garnsey acknowledges the possibility of patronage turning into an exploitative system and he states that clients would turn first to kinsmen before turning to their clients for help. This seems relatively consistent with what we discussed in class. He does however look at specific evidence more carefully than we have discussed. This is helpful, however, in terms of understanding the timeline and where patronage was or was not happening (or at least where we do and do not have evidence of it happening).

      • What about the nature of the sources used by Garnsey allows him to make the statement that there is “no evidence” for early rural patronage? Is there a fundamental misunderstanding of the data here?

        • Most of Garnsey’s primary sources are very prominent individuals, so he argues that, if rural patronage were present, they would not have left it out. For example, Pliny was a substantial absentee owner in Italy, so Garnsey argues that he would have written about rural patronage. I am not convinced that these sources offer reasonable proof towards a lack of rural patronage because they all are all prominent individuals who work on a relatively large scale. Is it possible that rural patronage was happening on a smaller scale than is discussed in the article? If not, why would his sources be less likely than others to report rural patronage?

  5. On page 58 Garnsey states, “…I prefer to view patronage as a potentially unstable relationship whihc, because of the unequal bargaining position of the two parties, can easily slide into overt exploitation”. Do you agee with this statement, and if so why? Provide examples if possible.

    • I actually agree with this statement. It allows for variance in character of patrons and clients. As he claims before this, exploitation did not necessarily ALWAYS exist, but the system has flaws which COULD allow it to happen. He stresses that it is difficult for on to claim that exploitation was prevalent, especially due to the lack of rural patronage evidence (though, like Abby, this “rural patronage” confuses me). Though I’m unsure exactly what he means, I know he acknowledges the lack of evidence to show exploitation.

  6. “Patronage worked best when patrons were integrated into the rural community” (Garnsey 61). Do you think this statement held true in ancient society? Why would patronage not have flourished as much in urban communities?

  7. Near the end of this article the way children were regarded from birth is discussed. There seemed to be a shortage of girls Garnsey explains through sources referenced, one tells of a ratio of 118 boys to 28 girls. From what we know about adult women and their treatment, do you think the way girls were treated from birth influenced the attitudes of society? Does it make sense that adult women seemed to have low value in society after reading how infant girls were regarded? Whether you agree or disagree please explain why.

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