Orcs, Trade & Slaves : The Economics of Mordor

url  You would be hard pressed to complain about the imagination and creativity that went into making Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy which includes languages, deep and intricate histories and even detailed maps.  However Tolkien was undeniably better at history than economics which brings us to this week’s question….where did the orcs get their food?

As the map above illustrates, Mordor is a farmers nightmare.  Depicted as an ashen wasteland where nothing grows, no rivers run through it and the ground is littered with rocky fissures with little to no rain fall, we can safely assume that Mordor is not an agricultural power house.  With that in mind the Dark Lord must have been trading with an outside power.

url-1                                                                                           In order for the balance of trade to work, Mordor must have something of value to trade as its hard to threaten with an army that someone else feeds.  It’s hard to imagine that the orcs were highly skilled labor, but they could have been exporting swords.  Sauron had mines, and forges so the mass production of swords could easily function as an export good.  Keep in mind that Mordor’s political system is that of a dictatorship, so there’s no need to pay the orcs just keep them fed.  This frees up any capital you might gain from exports to be spent on food supplies, after all even the Dark Lord’s army marches on its stomach.   Trade seems likely for Mordor, orcs farming is odd if not impossible, but it comes with its own difficulties.

Mordor is landlocked and surrounded on three sides by suspiciously straight lines of mountains.  While these natural boundaries are ideal for fending off attackers, it does make trade precarious and expensive.  In the North-West there is the active volcano of Gorgoroth, from which no rivers run,  to the South East lies the undrinkable bitter Sea of Nurmen, thus,  all trade must travel by land which is 14 times more expensive than by sea.  Mordor is beginning to look more and more like a closed economy  typically plagued with underdevelopment.

For the sake of argument let us assume that the balance for trade was struck between one neighboring nation and Mordor. In order for Modor’s economy to work they would need to have constant wars to keep up the demand for swords.  If Sauron were to not start a war surely morale would drop, followed by an economic meltdown and starvation.

Slaves are certainly a possible answer and the effiiceny of slave agriculture sparks heated debate.  In a slave system can there be any specialization of labor? Studies have shown that individuals work better with rest and I doubt that many slaves get time off from work. Furthermore farming is extremely difficult…wouldn’t the slaves do as little as possible just to avoid punishment?   Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman contest these ideas in their book Time on the Cross which discusses the economy of the U.S. south on the eve of the Civil War. Time on the Cross argues that the plantation system was more complicated and that it was extremely efficient and that the southern states economy was on rise as the Civil War approached.  Engerman and Fogel’s findings have been debated and some have been discredited by historians Herbert Gutman and Peter Kolchin who write that Time on the Cross focuses on one plantation and ignores the human abuses that occurred in that time period.

While Mordor would have no concern for it’s slaves  it does raise the question of the slave trade. There doesn’t appear to be any slaves in the rest of Middle Earth so where are they coming from? Are they captured men and women? Who regulates them? It’s doubtful that the orcs could regulate a team of farmers forced or not to work so even with forced agricultural labor Mordor won’t be productive.

With this economic model in mind its hard to imagine what the orcs get out of serving Sauron.  The fiery eye upon the mountain and ring wraiths may not care if the lands are covered with sulfur and ash but the orcs must eat.  What on Middle-Earth are they thinking serving a Lord who rules over a bankrupt nation with no imports? Even in the conquest of Gondor the lands will be turned into a similar wasteland so there’s no prospect for future riches.

In the real world economy Mordor would be riddled with debt.  Orcs would become refugees streaming westward in hopes of employment in Gondor.  Rather than closing its gates to invading armies Minas Tirith would be coping with huge numbers of immigrants.  Orcs would hire themselves out as labor for a square meal and a days pay while the mounted bands of Rohirrim would patrol the borders and turn back those looking for a better life.  Dark Lord or not Sauron would have to borrow heavily to keep Mordor from emptying of its populace. One ring or not, the real power is in the purse strings.

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2 responses to “Orcs, Trade & Slaves : The Economics of Mordor

  1. Hahahahaha, oh man even when Tolkien gives us information on economic matters there are still those who deny that they are feasible (and also complain that there’s so little of this informations). It is said that Nurnen is a very fertile region, a great farmland producing food for armies and there are nets of roads through which are brought ,,wagon-trains of goods, booty and fresh slaves”. You ask how is it that slaves can effectively farm? Well look then on the example of Roman empire they kept slaves for anything work in mines, work on fields and in houses of population doing typical labour, also Sauron rules a significantly large empire of conquered lands to the East and South from where great numbers of soldiers pour into Black Land (Gorgoroth plain is also a place where huge military camps are located, a bit similar to roman fortified camps, there are also as you mentioned mines and forges, some camps are whole towns of huts and drab buildings and not only those are settlements of orcs but men too and they most likely have wells, also there are streams and muddy pools of water in the area, especially in Morgai a region with plant life, thorn bushes, brambles, trees and swarms of vicious insects, not exactly pleasant place but habitable) having such a great amount of resources it’s easy to maintain the realm, as for slaves of the fields around Lake Nurn they most likely lived there for whole generations with additional ones being brought with the spoils of war, orcs themselves seems to know and use currency as example of Azog purse of money shows (the orcs of Misty Mountains who plundered Moria also paid tribute to Sauron in mithril taken from there but they were reluctant to mine due to presence of Balrog), they also accumulate wealth through raids and waylaying travellers in mountains passes, it is possible that they engaged in commerce either among themselves or with renegades of other races adn orcs in Sauron’s empire are free to trade with numerous tribes of Easterlings and Haradrim (orcs like riches too).

  2. Also orcs have employment not only as soldiers, but also workers. They are skilled craftsmen, miners, builders and engineers. They built and constantly maintained great infrastructure of Mordor, net of well made roads, fortifications and walls of strongholds, doing repairs and modifications from time to time (presumably the uppermost tier of Minas Morgul that was said to be revolving was build by orcs for adapting the fortress city for their purposes), they work in mines too, tunneling for miles and miles, passages and underground ,,cities”, often also widening and interconnecting existing caves and caverns when they found them, they also construct various machinery (siege engines, and whatever other mechanisms they needed) they produced tools for various tasks, armour and weapons, they gather resources and use them.

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