Reprint from



Salt and the evolution of monopoly

David D.Bloch - [M.R.Bloch Salt Archive]



Abstract   : Common Salt was generally in very short supply during critical periods from ancient times until the Industrial revolution.  Salt might be compared to oil in today’s economies
 except that it also was needed to sustain animal and human life and only incidentally was it to become the main supporting commodity of a communities’ economy.  It was so basic to any domesticated community that it had to be regulated. Its supply and its sources had to be defended and guaranteed. 

Like water, it was an essence of survival though far less ubiquitous.    

Today's global warming technology has shown that climatic changes at the poles’ ice caps specifically the Antarctic can have a direct influence upon the rate of melting [or freezing] of the ice and on eustatic sea levels.   One such rise seems to have occurred during the early Roman period and more than 200 known archaeological sites in the Mediterranean are still covered by 1 to 3 meters of sea. They include the solar evaporation facilities of ancient salt makers that had enabled the liberal Greek and early Roman societies to live free of coercion and monopoly that are the envy of many of us today.



”Common salt” [NaCl] is necessary for human life. It is no less needed for life than the air we breathe and the water we drink.   If the water concentration in the body is to remain constant, the regulation of the body salt intake and its excretion is a direct function of this constant. [Denton-[1]]  Salt deficiency is as equally lethal as a water deficiency.

The ‘hunter gatherer’ had a plentiful and immediate supply of salt in the blood of the freshly killed meat protein he brought to his kin.     As society developed into populous agricultural communities and livestock was domesticated and herded, perishable meat and fish had to be preserved with an efficiency that allowed long periods of storage, transport and distribution.     The development of an ancient technology that could eliminate bacteria or at the very least seal all the remaining liquid tissues from atmospheric contact, led to many methods of preservation.  By far the most effective and most widely used was draining the carcass and dehydrating it of all potentially decomposing tissue liquids by an osmotic process, involving sprinkling salt or  soaking the meat in brine.

Figure 1 Fula mixture of two thirds salt and spices admixed into most  Chinese food preparations provides preservative .

 This preserving salt, absorbed into the meat coincidentally replaced the drained blood tissue salts as consumed by the “hunter gatherer” in previous ages, and so salt continued to fulfill the original physiological component inherent in freshly killed meat. This technology became the main form of hygienic sacrifice on the altars of most of the ancient world’s temples providing a community with its main protein diet.  The quantities of salt needed for this single process were considerable and perhaps constituted the first elements of monopolizing salt and the few known sources 


Figure 2 The temple in Jerusalem - model showing the position of the altar, and production lines with posts for hanging carcasses and the stripping processes

Figure 3 Egyptian salting and packing poultry into amphorae as ameans of preservation

By the beginning of the Roman period salt had become a very basic everyday commodity used in many other developing technologies, such as glassmaking, textiles, armory, tanning, and medicine some of them bye-products to the critical meat and fish [Garum] preservation industry.  It has been suggested that salt consumption per person for all purposes in the ancient world may not have been very much less than it is today.

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Figure 3 éHELLER MONEY  HALLE  -  Minting money is possible when perceived value [salt] was in supply


The principle technology that enabled the increasing production of salt for these numerous developments was that of solar evaporation on vast coastal flats and marshes suitable for sea brine concentration in open dike pans.  Solar heat in the Mediterranean and peat or wood burning on coasts further north was used for the energy to crystallize the salt in the final stage of the process.

In the past three millennia small fluctuations and more recent eustatic oscillations of sea levels have catastrophically [ for coastal salt making] caused flooding and breaks in the necessarily long brine concentration   cycles of these facilities which were dependent on a precise tide level to fill them.


Figure 4 Moroccan coastal salt evaporation pans

From tracings of old shorelines, from carbon-14 dating and from sparse historical records a rough chart of these fluctuations can be made and then linked to population and demographic movements. [Bloch ; Fairbridge-[2]].

This cycle of minor changes may be associated with the same changing ice conditions that depended on albedo variations caused by dust and volcanic ash on the white surface in the Antarctic. A less than white surface that absorbed rather than reflected heat in turn caused glaciers to melt quickly at their base and surge down into the sea. [Wilson ; Bloch-[3]] Recent investigations claim that a fast fractionating process resulted in the melting and breakup of the ice shelf this year. 


After the mighty 100-meter ocean rise [Daly-[4]], Neolithic man moved everywhere back and forth between coastal and inland habitats, accommodating his life to this sea oscillation. The early period of these movements is not well documented until we come to the time of the Judean Kings 1000 BC [sea level -G] then the ocean was certainly above present day sea levels. Between the 7th [sea level - F] and 6th [sea level graph E] centuries BC the ocean receded. One fact seems reasonably certain: at the height of the ancient Greek and Phoenician civilizations, around 500 BC, the ocean level was from one to two meters lower than it is today. From then on for 1000 years, from 600 BC  to 400 AD, a steep rise caused many of the Mediterranean sea ports to be inundated, including the Portus of Ostia and the neighboring Roman saltpans which had to be moved inland [Meiggs R.-[5] ] . The Portus was successively rebuilt by the Emperor Claudius, near the present Fumicino airport, and finally by Trajan still further up the Tiber as a six-sided basin, two meters above present day sea levels. By 400 A.D., they too were flooded. The areas at Ravenna and Aquilea [Gotz-[6]] and Classis, previously deep inland, turned into ports and were almost the only ones near salt-works to survive in Italy. Today, their remains can be seen, high and dry, about 10 km inland from the coast [Bloch-[7]].


Figure 5 The Roman quay at Aquilea            

This temporary loss of salt producing Italian sources caused a salt famine in the Western Roman Empire.     Early in this development the African and Asian salt mines, as well as desert lakes, had become salt havens for the European civilization. This explains the otherwise senseless determination of the Roman emperors Vespasian and Titus to conquer desert strongholds like Masada on the Dead Sea [Yadin-[8]].       By the 6th century AD the Levant ports and other towns in Palestine had become important trade centers and grew to be great cities [Bury-[9]].

Consequently the inland salt lakes and mines of Asia Minor, the Tatta salt lake in central Turkey, the Dead Sea hinterland areas, and North African mines became prosperous. They shipped salt and “salted” proteins to the Empire in forced though benevolent exchange for “security”, and military aid, or in return for gold.    However this soon stopped when Rome depleted of gold and inevitably weakened locally by authoritarian regimes had nothing left to offer except slaves.


Figure 6 Jebel Usdum - Solid salt of the mountain of Sdom at the Dead Sea

The effects of a further rise [sea level -D] in sea levels by the beginning of the 5th century AD must have been catastrophic in Western Europe.     Between 450 AD and 500 AD the population density fell to a fraction of what it had been, despite an influx of Germanic tribes from the north [Bury-[10]].     During the Dark Ages the salt traffic almost disappeared and the coasts of Britain and France became deserted. The western parts of the continent were an under-developed area and people began to migrate to the more arid zones where natural salt outcrops not dissolved by the wet climate were known to exist.

By the 10th century AD [sea level -B] the ocean had again receded and people along the European coasts in the most part freely reactivated their salt making.  According to the Domsday Book in 1086 AD hundreds of saltpans were operating again in the English estuaries. Yarmouth [Ives-[11]] was founded on a newly emerged island, because of the drop in sea level [Goswin-[12]], to become the main focus of the English fish salting industry. It bridged an interval of 400 years since Garonium, the Roman town by now in ruins and which had ceased production and export of “garum” fish sauce. Along the west coast of France, in Normandy, at the mouth of the Rhone, in Sicily and the Crimea, salt production was again in full swing.  The revival of European coastal salt making brought invaders. In about 700 AD Europe’s population vacuum began to fill violently. Norsemen took over the British and French salt centers; from the east the Arabs invaded first North Africa and then Spain, finally clashing with the Norman conquerors in Provence.     Ravenna, Classis and Aquilea appeared to have “silted up” and Venice, like Yarmouth, emerged from the flood and began to thrive.

Concurrently for example, trading towns in the Judean hills such as Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, Arad, Mamshit and Abdat, decayed. They had been rich and well populated for some 800 years while the caravans brought salt from the Dead Sea to the agricultural and fishing people in the coastal plains. But now they lost their salt trade to the new maritime conquerors. They became depopulated again repeating the earlier history of 600 BC under similar circumstances.    In Egypt, Maenas [Forster-[13]] and the other trade centers in North Africa probably suffered in the same way. Another group of inland sources like Volterra and Cosenza in Italy which had attracted the Germanic tribes during the general migration period, lost their importance again by about 700 A.D. when the coastal flats re-emerged.

Of these newly established maritime flats the one with the greatest potential was Nourmoutien, then occupied by the Vikings (834 AD). It became part of the famous “Bay” salt and wine emporium at Bourgneuf, which was to supply Scandinavia, England and the Baltic by the sea routes during the Middle Ages [Agate-[14]].      A similar revitalization took place in the Rhone and Dnieper deltas where the Vikings restored the salt-works in the Carmargue fishing and salting towns as well as those on the Crimean Peninsula. This sea level remained relatively low for the following three centuries, during which time millions of tons of peat provided fuel for salt makers.   Great cavities were left behind to become known as the Dutch “meers”, the French “clairs” and the English “broads” - lake-like reminders of their former service [Dendermonde-[15]].    A new rise [sea level A] caused flooding in the Dutch, French and English tidal peat areas and closed them down.    

The reduction of coastal activity was fortunately now compensated by a renaissance of inland salt mining technology and brining methods in England, Burgundy, Germany, Poland and Austria [Carle-[16]].  However not without considerable social consequence and loss of freedom in the sense that these operations were dependent on fuel, either wood or coal [Needham-[17]].  An important and unforeseen effect of this shift was the need to create, develop and maintain forestry for fuelling the new furnaces. The monopolies governing the supply and transport of these essential components in the production of salt from these few sources themselves became the exclusive responsibility of eager authoritarian regimes.  They created tax controls, check points, borders and artificial 'limites' later to become the national borders of the sovereign states and countries we know today. 

Most transport was by river or by pumping brine through long wooden pipelines, both of which could be effectively controlled strategically by relatively small armed forces. Caravans of 1000 camels protected by carnets de passages tax payments were common.

A radical change, both technologically and politically, occurred in the late 16th century when the old Chinese brining method was revived in Cheshire and north Germany. It consisted of deep hole drilling, then bringing up the brine and boiling it by means of burning coal [Nef-[18][19]]. It is the technique of using these modern fuels to extract salt from sea water and dissolved rock salt which finally made salt available with no limit to quantity. It also became an inexpensive, widely distributed almost forgotten innocuous commodity.


It may be arguable that anything and everything can be taxed by an authority.  However in a liberal or “free” society this relies on the democratic agreement of a community and by definition would allow only a small [if any] central authority.  It seems the Athens of the 5th century BC was such a society and many of the populations along the Mediterranean coast where the then low sea levels allowed coastal “salt winning” were all basically independent. “Free and Autonomous” meant avoiding any direct taxation of citizens. Even the competing temples of the gods necessary for the daily ‘sacrifice’ of domesticated animals, were not yet a centralized expense. It is true there were indirect taxes on the income from slaves [Greek hal-ootinei: exchanged for salt] or the use of community owned salt pans, harbors and fisheries and even the tithe system of the temples.  The integral requirement of salt for these services was taken for granted and easily supplied. It may even have been paid by the inhabitants in the form of salt. Initially  this was for a legitimate community service.  However in 400 BC as some coastal salt supplies began to dwindle [sea level E – D], the temple authorities were forced to guarantee themselves other sources. Caesar and then Augustus turned to the mines and lakes of Asia Minor. Modeled on public life and customs of the Greeks, 94 known “city states” were established [  ] in the colonies and were awarded status as ‘free and autonomous’.  The young men’s and the Elder’s associations began to thrive and acquired a corporate character.  Many ‘city states’ began minting their own coins. Perhaps Alexander the Great was summoned to search for the great Tatta salt lake in Anatolia, the great salt desert of Persia and even as far as the salt mountains of the Indus valley.  Many of these ‘city states’ were directly on the trading routes between the Tatta salt Lake and the increasingly salt hungry destinations at home.  

Any resistance to comply with increased taxes because salt supplies became less reliable in turn meant that any temple authority had to be in a position to force implementation. The associated tanning bye products were needed to produce the now necessary leather armory and ordinance and the chain of authority became directly and indirectly more powerful..

As the sea rose however it was not force or the expense of the military might of the conquering armies that drained the western civilizations of their last vestiges of what had been our model of democracy, freedom and equal rights, The early glorious years of Imperial Rome had not been destroyed by the greed and corruption of a few ruling misfits, but by a cruel circumstance that created the conditions of monopoly.  It forced anyone and everyone to accept its terms.  It was the monopolizing of this innocuous commodity that  bent mens’  


The historical scars of the salt monopolies are still in evidence and the now quaint legislation still on the statutes was operative in most countries at the beginning of the 20th century  vividly demonstrated by Gandhi in India. The monopolies ran concurrently with periods of salt famine. Episodes such as the controversial and violent latter half of the Roman period and the move to the Levant, or the despicable inequality of the Gabelle regime were necessarily accompanied hand-in-hand with fiercely authoritarian regimes to protect and oversee them.   Resulting social upheaval forced the focus of communities away from the slowly flooding coastal salt sources that had been synonymous with more liberal civilizations and undisturbed coastal salt making. They were drawn toward the few known highly protected inland salt quarries, brine springs and salt lakes catered by military supply lines and ‘via salarium’.  The salt famines provided periodical significance to those places that have regularly suffered the cycle of prosperity and decay.

Peaceful maritime Trade and liberal regimes grew with the ability of those blessed with salt sources, to supply themselves and barter salted goods. War, on the other hand, cursed those same communities when the lines of supply became unreliable and defense and protection became synonymous with monopoly and coercion.  It is perhaps no coincidence that the word for ‘war’ in ancient Hebrew [mel’chama] means literally   “a fight for [salt and bread] “   Similarly we may also find the words for salt in the etymology of "peace" : salaam, shalom,  salute, salvete!  And even a rejoicing, [Greek; salt=hal] 'hallelujah!   The salt monopolies and their enforcement were the most practical of instruments for wielding power until the end of the Industrial Revolution when the invention of modern burning fuels allowed the efficient mass production of salt. The remnants of these authoritarian regimes are still with us, and anti-trust law is not yet fully enforced.  Heads of Communities still mistakenly consider many basic public services to be their exclusive domain and duty.  

Of the modern corridors of power only democracy has visibly embraced anti-trust legislation.  To this writer [with an admitted mono-mania for salt], the recent failures of communism and fascism were primarily due to the non existence of anti-trust law.







Bibliography - e-mail: David Bloch >


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