Ancient History & Civilisation

Part IV





Agriculture was the primary industry of the Roman people. The peasant-farmer was the backbone of the state, and Rome’s conquest of Italy, which was won by the sword, was consolidated by the plough. Later Romans identified the ideal citizen of early days with a Cincinnatus who was called from the plough to the dictatorship or a Manius Curius whom Samnite envoys found cooking his own meal of herbs. The early festivals of Rome, the predominance of the later rustic tribes over the urban tribes, and many personal names such as Fabius (Beanman) and Lentulus (Lentilman), all testify to the pre-eminence of agricultural interest. Whether the earliest settlers on the Palatine were primarily given to pasturage or agriculture, it was the latter manner of livelihood that prevailed in historical times and was doubtless encouraged under the Etruscan domination. It is unlikely that many farmers in Latium sank to a condition of serfdom or that the overthrow of the Etruscans seriously affected agricultural conditions. But even if the economic distress of the fifth century was not caused by an attempt of serfs to become free peasants and members of the plebeian class, the early political history of Rome was dominated by the land question (pp. 73ff.). The need to create a military organization to preserve the state forced the nobles to make political and economic concessions to the lower classes. The farmer-soldier extended the frontiers of his city, and land-hunger was satisfied by founding new ‘tribes’ and fortress colonies which spread the Roman system of peasant husbandry throughout Italy.

In early days agriculture was not regarded as a means by which the state could exploit the natural resources of Italy: it was a domestic matter under the direction of the paterfamilias who was responsible for the support of his family. The farmer lived on his plot of land which he cultivated with the help of his sons and sometimes of clients or slaves. Since such slaves were mainly Italian, they were regarded as humble dependants and part of the family, not as mere chattels. The arable land around the homestead was chiefly devoted to the production of spelt (far) for food and oats for fodder. The staple diet was a kind of porridge, prepared from ground meal, water and salt, together with such garden vegetables, as beans, lentils, onions and garlic. In the fifth century wheat and bread began to supersede the earlier porridge. Figs, grapes, apples, pears, nuts, milk and honey swelled the menu; little meat and practically no fish was eaten, though bacon was highly esteemed. A rough wine was produced and the cultivation of the olive was gradually introduced from southern Italy. Agricultural methods were primitive, governed by tradition and rule of thumb. The ox and ass supplied labour. Tools and appliances were simple: the plough long remained unimproved. Irrigation and drainage, which had been fostered by the Etruscans, became less effective under private enterprise. In course of time the more skilful or fortunate farmers outstripped their neighbours and consequently a gradual inequality in the size of estates became apparent, so that the amount of land held by one man was limited by statute (p. 106).

Pasturage, though less important than agriculture, was widely practised. In early times the peasants could supplement the produce of their small allotments by grazing animals on common land. Some parts of Italy were more suited to pasturage than the production of corn; when the Romans gained control of the upland country, which provided good summer pastures, they could keep larger flocks and herds by changing the grazing ground according to season, as is done in Italy today. In time this led to the growth of large estates, for the small farmer would not find it worth while to send a few beasts to distant pasturage. But before the Punic Wars the farmer devoted his time chiefly to tilling the soil, apart from grazing a few animals on the wastes and commons near his farm.1

Rome’s conquest of Italy involved the disappearance of earlier conditions with the advance of Roman peasant husbandry.2 The Greek cities of southern Italy had formed part of the capitalist system of the Hellenistic world; with Sicily and Sardinia they long remained one of the world’s richest grain markets. They exported much grain to Greece, while Etruria and Carthaginian Sicily and Sardinia supplied the Punic cities of Africa, which concentrated on commerce and the production of wine, olive oil, and fruit for the western markets. The Greeks of Italy and Sicily also produced wine and oil in competition with Greece itself and North Africa. While metal industries flourished in Campania and Etruria, wool was produced particularly in Apulia. In central Italy, where there were few towns, conditions of life were more like those in Latium, though tribal grazing was perhaps more common than individual ownership of land and agriculture. In Etruria the conquering aristocracy had reduced many of the inhabitants to serfs, who worked on their large estates or in industry. Further north were Celtic shepherds and peasants with pasturage predominating. Rome’s conquest involved fewer changes in the north than south. The Celts were driven back. Part of Etruria was colonized, part may have continued its old manner of life. Most Greek cities in the south, succumbing to the Samnite tribes and Roman colonization, became cities of peasants; few remained centres of the more progressive economic life of earlier times. Thus Italy became mainly a nation of small farmers.

Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean had greater economic repercussions on Italy itself than on the provinces, where conditions remained much the same as before. War and provincial administration filled the pockets of senators and equites, who often returned to Italy and looked around for safe investments. Land attracted most of their capital, and it so happened that the state had much land of which to dispose. The Hannibalic War had resulted in a great increase of Rome’s ager publicus, while the land had been so devastated that it was difficult to attract the small farmer back to it. Apart from the foundation of a few colonies, the state was ready to lease out large allotments to any who had the capital and vision to undertake the venture. A slow revolution took place: land now became an object of speculation to be exploited as a regular source of profit. The owner no longer lived as a farmer on his estate, but entrusted it to the management of a steward (vilicus). As the ravages of war in Italy had created a shortage of free men willing to settle on the land, and as foreign wars had flooded the Italian slave markets, servile labour soon began to oust free labour on the bigger estates. Thus in many parts of Italy, especially in the south, peasant husbandry gave place to a capitalist system of large estates worked by cheap labour and devoted to pasturage and stock-rearing or to the cultivation of the vine and olive. The absentee owners swelled the ranks of the aristocracy and the well-to-do middle class of Rome and the Italian cities.

We have far more knowledge of agricultural conditions in the second, than in preceding centuries, thanks to the survival of Cato’s book on agriculture which gives a vivid picture of life in Italy. He appears to advocate grazing as the most profitable use of land, at any rate in certain districts; the demand for horses and wool was increasing, while more mutton and beef was eaten. In discussing his preference in crops Cato, who was probably thinking chiefly of the district around Rome and parts of Campania, advocates viticulture, vegetable gardening and the raising of osiers for basket-weaving and vine-props (when the estate was near a town), olive plantations, meadow land for fodder, and lastly cereal culture. There was a decreasing supply of olives from Greece and an increasing demand in Italy; their cultivation required little labour except at harvest-time when the resident slave labour of the estate would be supplemented with free workers operating under contract. Further, much of the land of an olive plantation could still be used for grain or sheep-grazing. The low esteem in which Cato holds cereals is partly due to the restricted district which he was considering. Wheat from the Sicilian tithes in no way swamped the markets of Rome, but supplied a very small part of the needs of Italy. After Zama wheat was cheap, but during the wars of the second century army requirements prevented much provincial grain reaching the open market at Rome, so that cereal culture was helped rather than hindered by the foreign wars. The effect on the home market of competition caused by the importation of foreign corn was very limited.3 In the uplands pasturage spread at the expense of arable farming because it was more profitable, and cereal farming was left to the small farmer or to the tenants or serfs of the great landowners in certain districts.

Thus in many parts of Italy capitalist farming, on both a large and small scale, replaced peasant husbandry. Agricultural methods on the large estates differed little from the old, apart from the introduction of servile labour, though some of the slaves would have knowledge of the more scientific estates of the east. Arable land was fertilized with manure and legumes, which in some years were ploughed under as cover crops or used in rotation with wheat. Apart from this it is uncertain whether attempts were yet made to relieve exhausted soil by rotation of crops, except that land might be allowed to stand fallow for a year as rough pasturage. More important than any improvements in method, more important even than changes in production, was the increase of servile labour which drove numerous free workers off the land. Some might be absorbed by commercial enterprise abroad, but many drifted to the towns and the capital itself. Since no Industrial Revolution took place to engage their activity they soon became a useless mass of unemployed, until Tiberius Gracchus sought to give them a new start by raising the cry, ‘Back to the land’.

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