Agriculture was of primary importance to the ancient Romans. Rome itself began as a farming community, and farming devel- L oped into a major economic activity throughout the Roman empire. Roman farmers adopted farming techniques developed in neighboring regions, such as Greece and North Africa. They also improved agricultural methods and spread these improvements to Roman settlements in the provinces*.

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

Farms and Farm Labor. During the early years of the Roman Republic, agriculture consisted primarily of small family-owned farms. Largely selfsufficient, these farms sometimes used slave labor. The farmers often sold their surplus crops in town and city markets.

As Rome expanded, much of the land it conquered became the property of the Roman state. In the early republic, the patricians* (and in later years, the nobles) began taking over some of the public land, occupying more than the law allowed. Often they took the land without paying even the nominal rent tax. On this land, they eventually created huge agricultural estates known as latifundia. Unlike the self-sufficient family farms, the latifundia operated as profit-making businesses. They were owned by absentee landlords and worked mostly by large groups of slaves. During the period of the late republic, this type of estate farming dominated agriculture. In southern Italy, these estates became huge grazing ranches. Overgrazing, especially by sheep, caused such severe soil erosion in the region that the land has not fully recovered to this day. Although Italy contained some of the largest estates, large estates also existed in all provinces of the empire. The latifundia became essential in meeting the food needs of towns and cities.

Many farm owners were required to perform lengthy military service overseas. They could not easily farm their plots and were often eager to sell them. As a result, many small farms were sold to wealthy landowners, whose great estates became even larger. Some of the farmers who sold their land moved to the cities to find work. Others became farm laborers or tenant farmers, who leased land from the large estates and paid rent in both money and crops.

* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic

Principal Crops. The main crops in the Roman empire were grains (such as wheat and barley), grapes, olives, and figs. Fruits—such as apples, peaches, pears, plums and cherries—were also important crops. Roman farmers grew nuts, including almonds, walnuts, and chestnuts, and various vegetables and herbs.

Roman farmers planted grain primarily in lowland areas that had adequate rainfall or irrigation. The Po River valley of northern Italy and the regions of Etruria, Umbria, and Campania near Rome were all suitable for growing grain. Grain also grew well in the Roman provinces of Egypt and Africa. In Roman times, before the advancing Sahara desert changed the landscape, the northern regions of Africa were more fertile and better watered than they are now. In fact, the fertile coastal region of the province of Africa became the granary* of Rome because of its importance in grain production.

Farmers grew grapes, olives, and other crops wherever climate and soil conditions were suitable. Grapes and olives usually grew well on the lower slopes of hills, while nut trees often occupied the higher slopes. In some regions of the empire, farmers specialized in particular crops. For example, Rome’s eastern provinces became known for the production of rice, cotton, and hemp.

Livestock. The Romans raised many domestic animals—some for food and others for work. Throughout the empire, farmers used oxen, mules, and donkeys to help with plowing and other tasks. In some Mediterranean areas, cattle also served as work animals.

Sheep were the principal source of meat and milk in the Mediterranean areas, and they were a source of wool in other regions. Cattle also provided meat and milk as well as leather. Roman farmers made cheese from the milk of these animals. The Romans also used the milk of goats, and made ropes and sacks from the hair of certain types of goats. Pigs and poultry, raised throughout the empire, were important sources of meat. The Romans also used the eggs, quills, and down of their poultry. They raised horses for riding, for use in battle, and for sporting events, but seldom used horses for farm work.

* granary storage place for grain


Wine making was an important activity in ancient Rome. Roman workers harvested the grapes, placed them in large vats, and stomped on them with bare feet to release the juice. The juice ran through pipes into tanks or pottery containers. The Romans drank some of the juice as new wine and boiled down the rest to use as a preservative or a thickener for thin wine. Then they removed the pulpy mush left in the vats and placed it in a special press to squeeze out the remaining juice. The juice from the pressing was allowed to ferment in jars, creating finer and more potent wines.

Technology. Historians know a great deal about Roman agricultural activities and technology. Much of this knowledge comes from the works of such ancient writers as Cato the Elder, Varro, Columella, and Pliny the Elder. In addition, archaeologists have studied ancient Roman farm tools. From these archaeological studies, historians have determined that Roman agriculture was complex and innovative.

The Romans approached agriculture as a science. They learned about different types of soils and chose crops to plant based on soil type and climate conditions. They improved the quality of soil by adding natural fertilizers, such as manure and the pulp from making wine and olive oil. They varied the size of their fields to suit the crop and the farming methods used. Many large farms had elaborate systems of crop rotation to keep soils fertile. The normal rotation cycle included a fallow period, during which time the land was left unplanted. Farmers usually continued to plow fallow fields two or three times a year to kill weeds and to help the soil retain moisture. After the fallow period, farmers would plant one season of a root crop, followed by a season of a grain crop, and finally a season of mixed grasses. In this way, the soil could replenish itself over time because not all plants took the same nutrients from the soil.

The Romans studied the drainage patterns of fields, dug trenches to drain wetlands, and devised ways to irrigate dry fields. They also built stone-walled terraces on slopes in order to make hillsides suitable for cultivation. To use the land more efficiently and to reduce the need for weeding, Roman farmers often cultivated several crops together. For example, they planted vegetables among grapevines or olive trees.

The Romans used a variety of farm tools designed to perform specific tasks. They made notable advances in the design of plows to suit certain soil and climate conditions. One of the most important of these was a wheeled plow, with a double-edged blade that could be used to turn over heavy soil. This was a great improvement over the ard, a wheelless plow with simple iron blades that could dig only shallow furrows in light soil.

Several Roman inventions made harvesting easier and more efficient. One of these was a new type of sickle for harvesting grain that eased the strain on the user’s wrist. Another invention was a large, well- designed scythe for mowing tall grasses. A third remarkable invention was a harvesting machine that consisted of an enclosed wooden frame on wheels. The harvesting machine had metal teeth at the front, and the farmer used mules or oxen to push it through the field of grain. The metal teeth cut off the tops of the grain plants, which then fell into the wooden frame behind. For threshing*, the Romans used a tribulum—a weighted board, which was invented by the Greeks, that was fitted with sharp stones or metal rollers on the underside. They dragged the device across the grain on the threshing floor, and it easily separated the grain from the stalks and husks.

* thresh to crush grain plants so that the seeds or grain are separated from the stalks and the husks

In maintaining their orchards, the Romans improved the existing techniques for grafting* and devised some new ones. This not only improved the quality of fruit but also made it easier to introduce new varieties from other parts of the empire. The Romans also improved pruning tools and developed new ones to increase the efficiency of their work.

These new technologies and scientific methods spread throughout the Roman empire, replacing or improving the farming methods used by local people. As a result, the Romans helped improve agriculture and increase food production throughout much of Europe and North Africa. However, despite their innovations and scientific approach to agriculture, the Romans eventually faced problems of soil exhaustion from overusing the land. Bad weather sometimes caused crops to fail, resulting in occasional food shortages within the empire. (See also Agriculture, Greek.)

* graft to insert a shoot or bud from one kind of tree into a slit in a closely related tree so that it will grow there

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