By modern standards Roman agriculture was technically simple, average yields were low, transport was difficult and costly, and storage was inefficient. This limited urbanization (and hence ‘industrialization’) obliged the bulk of the population to live and work on the land. Nevertheless, in the late republic and earlier Principate agriculture and urbanization (see urbanism (Roman)) developed together to levels probably not again matched until the late 18th cent. Roman agriculture broadly fits the ahistoric pattern which is commonly seen as characteristic of the Mediterranean region: based on the triad of cereals, vines (see wine) and olives, at the mercy of a semi-arid climate with low and unreliable rainfall, and dominated by small farms practising a polyculture aimed principally at self-sufficiency and safety. But two factors—the geophysical diversity of Italy (let alone of Rome's provinces), and the effects of political and social developments—led to historically important variations between areas and across time in the organization and practice of agriculture. Since the 1950s there has been an enormous growth in archaeological research—surface survey of rural areas, excavations of farmsteads, study of the ancient environment (through pollen, seeds, bones)—which is taking our knowledge and understanding of Roman agriculture far beyond what could be discovered from the evidence of the literary sources.
In archaic Rome the land seems to have been controlled by the élite, and the majority of Romans were dependant labourers (nexi). The concept of private ownership of land (ager privatus) had probably developed by the late 6th cent. bce, and by the later 4th cent. Rome had become a state of citizen-smallholders. The political aim behind this development was the creation of a large conscript army of smallholders who could afford to arm themselves (the assidui); as this army defeated Rome's Italian neighbours the Roman state annexed tracts of their territories which were often distributed in small plots to create more assidui, although some was left as nominally ‘public’ land (ager publicus) and appears to have been dominated by the élite who now used enslaved enemies as their main agricultural workforce. This cycle of conquest, annexation, and settlement continued, almost without interruption, into the early second century bce, and settlement schemes, albeit thereafter using confiscated land, continued into the early Principate. The face of Italy was changed: forests were cleared and drainage schemes undertaken, as in south Etruria and in the Po valley; the territories of the ubiquitous Roman colonies were divided into small farms of similar size by rectangular grids of ditches, banks, and roads (centuriation) which are often still traceable today; these examples and the obligation on most of Rome's Italian allies to supply infantry on the Roman model encouraged the wider diffusion of this pattern of peasant smallholding.
Rome's massive overseas expansion in the 2nd and 1st cent. bce boosted agricultural developments which had already begun in the 3rd cent. The large and long-serving armies of conquest required huge supplies of grain, wine, wool, and leather, the Celtic aristocracy under and beyond Roman rule enthusiastically adopted wine-drinking as a mark of status, and the city of Rome swelled as the capital of an empire and the centre for conspicuous consumption and display by its increasingly wealthy leaders. The boom in demand for agricultural produce, and the continuous supply of cheap slave labour, encouraged the élite to expand their landholdings and to invest in market-oriented production. A significant differentiation between larger and smaller farms emerges in the archaeological record, and also regional patterns of types of agriculture. While in southern Italy relatively extensive forms of agriculture, that is cereal cultivation using chain-gangs of slaves and large-scale stockbreeding with seasonal movement between upland summer pastures and winter stations in the coastal plains (transhumance), were probably predominant, central western Italy (the semicircle around Rome and her main ports) was dominated by the so-called ‘villa system’, that is intensive production on medium-sized estates (around 25 to 75 ha.; 60 to 180 acres) of wine, olive oil, and other cash crops, including wheat (see cereals), vegetables, fruit (see food and drink), and also small game and poultry, with a permanent nucleus of skilled slave labour topped up at seasonal peaks with casual labour hired from the free rural poor. These forms of agriculture flourished into the 2nd cent. ce with some reorientation: consumption by the frontier-based armies of the Principate and the Celtic aristocracy was increasingly met by the development of local Roman-influenced agricultural production, but the growth of Rome and general urbanization of Italy in the Augustan period greatly increased domestic demand in Italy. Roman estate owners showed considerable interest in technical and technological improvements, such as experimentation with and selection of particular plant varieties and breeds of animal, the development of more efficient presses and of viticultural techniques in general, concern with the productive deployment and control of labour, and, arguably, a generally ‘economically rational’ attitude to exploitation of their landholdings (see technology). A technical literature of estate management emerged, drawing on Carthaginian and Hellenistic predecessors, which is represented to us principally by the manuals of Cato (Censorius), Varro, and Columella (see agricultural writers).
The development of this estate agriculture put pressure on the peasant smallholders, although military needs led to some dramatic and bitterly opposed attempts to revive an independent peasantry in central Italy, notably the Gracchan programme (see sempronius gracchus (3), ti. and sempronius gracchus, c.) of the later 2nd cent. and the settlement schemes for veterans in the 1st cent. bce. The decline of the peasantry should not be exaggerated: excavated small farms show that some peasants too produced for and profited from the same markets as the large estates, and in hillier areas and the Po (Padus) valley the peasantry remained strong. But as the Roman army became mercenary and then, under Augustus, professional and more cosmopolitan, the political will to maintain an independent peasantry in Italy gradually evaporated, and it seems that peasants increasingly became tenants rather than owners of small farms. The problems of the 3rd cent. ce reduced the inflow of imperial revenues to Rome and Italy, and as the level of urbanization and demand for agricultural produce declined, so did intensive farming. Large estates were becoming more concentrated in the hands of a fewer noble families (and the Church), and the legal standing of the poor declined further. The result was a tendency, not general but widespread, to move to more extensive agriculture based on the labour of tied tenants (see coloni), although paradoxically this was the period in which Roman-influenced estate agriculture flourished most in some of the less troubled provinces, notably Britain and Egypt. See agricultural implements; farm-buildings; latifundia; pastoralism; peasants; ploughing.
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