Most land in ancient Greece and Rome was privately owned. Private ownership and the assessment of tribute* on land led to a system of subdivision that reorganized the land into a checkerboard pattern and later influenced the layout of cities. Outside the cities, most land was used for agricultural purposes.
First arising in the early Greek city-states*, private ownership of land evolved from common ownership into the dominant form of land ownership throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. Private ownership also became an important form of land ownership in later European cultures.
* tribute payment made to a dominant power or local government
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
Greece. The common land of the early Greek city-state was considered the property of all its citizens. However, common land could be assigned to individual citizens in equal shares—an important step toward the privatization of land. Eventually, most agricultural land came to be owned by individual citizens, although some land was owned by temples. Like much other privately owned land, temple-owned land was leased to tenants for a share of the revenues. The only land that was not privately owned was land of a lesser quality, fit only for the communal grazing of livestock.
Ownership of land became one of the most important rights of citizenship in the city-state. Even in Athens, where there was extensive development of crafts and trades, as many as three-quarters of the citizens owned some land. The proportion of people owning land in smaller city-states was probably even greater. There were no legal restrictions on the sale of these privately owned lands. However, land was considered to belong to the entire family, not just to an individual, and individuals were discouraged from selling the family’s land.
Ownership of the royal lands of the Hellenistic* kingdoms, including the Seleucid dynasty in Syria and Mesopotamia and the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, grew out of a different tradition of land holding. The previous monarchies had claimed total ownership of huge areas of land, which were divided into small plots that were leased to individuals. Under Greek rule, these royal lands continued to be owned by the ruling class, which demanded large revenues from those who leased the land.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
Rome. The idea of private land ownership spread from Greece to Rome and became the dominant mode of land ownership there as well. As in Greece, some land was owned by temples, and the sale of privately owned land was legal but discouraged. In the case of Rome, land sales were governed by a formal procedure that had to occur before land could be transferred from one owner to another.
The Roman emperors were also influenced by the Hellenistic tradition of royal land ownership. They obtained huge amounts of the most productive land, including large tracts of land throughout Italy, western Europe, and North Africa, and they used the revenues from the land to support the people and institutions of Rome and other Italian cities. The provincial* lands belonged to the state and usually could not be owned by individuals, although Italian temples, priesthoods, and other religious groups (such as the Vestal Virgins) also owned land in Egypt and other Roman provinces.
Private land ownership and the assessment of tribute on land required a means of measuring and subdividing tracts of land. A gridlike division of land that intersected north-south and east-west boundary lines developed, probably originating in the Near East. This system of land division became widespread in Greece and later in Rome. It was used first to reorganize the rural landscape and then to plan cities and towns, especially in new colonies.
Greece. Different soil and water requirements of various crops influenced the ways in which rural land was divided, making the practice more difficult to detect in the countryside than in urban centers. The first towns and cities in Greece were built where water and farmland were available to support an urban population and where economic and strategic factors were also advantageous.
The actual work of establishing boundaries between plots of land was done by land surveyors. Surveyors must have been plentiful in the Greek world because any type of land transaction—boundary disputes or assessment—would have required their services. By the classical* period, there is direct evidence for the work of surveyors and also of city planners. There were many planned cities in Greece, in which the streets were straight and narrow and laid out in a grid. There were virtually no open spaces outside of the agora, or marketplace, which was usually located in the center of the city.
The founding of colonies provided an opportunity to build, or at least to plan the growth of, whole new cities. Remains of some early Greek colonies show a grid of rectangular city blocks divided by large streets and an area reserved for an agora. The keen sense of equality among members of the citizen class was no doubt particularly pronounced among the members of a new colony. This is reflected by the generally equal subdivisions of urban space in early colonial cities.
During the Hellenistic period, the utilitarian, gridlike layout of Greek cities was softened by a growing appreciation of the natural landscape, which became integrated into overall urban plans. For example, a hillside might be terraced and covered with a collection of large buildings and monuments, with the most significant of these located at the top of the hill.
Rome. A link between rural land division and urban planning was also found in the Roman world. Early Rome was influenced by the knowledge and experience of the Greek colonies—most of them planned—that dotted the coastal regions of southern Italy and Sicily. As in Greece, Roman land surveyors reorganized the land in Italy and in Rome’s colonies and provinces by imposing a gridlike system on the land. This system ignored traditional boundaries and natural features of the land. Its main purposes were political control and the determination of tribute.
* provincial referring to a province, an overseas area controlled by Rome
* classical relating to the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome
Although Roman surveyors, like their Greek counterparts, worked mostly in the countryside, their skills were also called upon for planning new towns and cities. The earliest visible evidence of Roman urban planning comes from central Italian towns of the 300s and 200s B.C. Roman towns and cities were centered on a forum, which was a large, rectangular, open space, similar to the Greek agora.
Outside towns and cities, much of the land in ancient Greece and Rome was used for farming. Some land was devoted instead to timber, and a few areas were quarried or mined. Although both Greece and Italy have mountainous terrain with thin, poor soil, the land is well-suited for growing grapes, olives, and figs, and these were important crops in ancient times, much as they are today. Livestock, such as sheep, goats, or horses, grazed in many areas, and grains grew in the few areas where soil was fertile and the land well-watered.
Greece. Land suitable for grazing livestock is relatively scarce in Greece except in the northern region, which was famous in ancient times for raising horses. Here, the best pasture region lay along the coast, where a long stretch of lakes and marshes provided ideal conditions. The nearby mountains to the north provided grazing during the summer months.
Land suitable for growing grain was primarily along a handful of valleys, such as the plain of Argos in southern Greece, where the soil was most fertile. In eastern Greece, the soil of higher ground was preferred for growing grain. Most of the grain-growing land was sown with barley, which thrives on soils that are too poor for growing wheat. During alternate years, the land was left fallow, or unplanted, so that moisture and organic processes could replenish the soil’s nutrients. Because so little land was available in Greece for growing grain, early Greek colonists settled where conditions were favorable for grain farming, particularly the well-drained lower slopes of mountains.
Rome. Although a large part of the Italian peninsula was mountainous and infertile, Rome, too, was primarily agricultural from its earliest days. Before about 300 B.C., most land was cultivated by small, self-supporting farmers. The small Roman farm of this period was not much different from the small Italian farm of today. The land was likely to be divided into grain fields, pastures, woodlots, fruit orchards, grape vineyards, a vegetable garden, and perhaps a grove of oak trees.
Small, self-supporting farms were eventually replaced by large estates that were worked by slaves. These large estates supported the growing cities, particularly Rome, until about A.D. 200. The development of Roman agriculture was largely neglected, and the people who worked the land were generally oppressed. Gradually, the major landowners withdrew into self-sufficient units, which starved the idle ruling class, weakened the empire, and led to the feudal manor system that was to continue for the next thousand years. (See also Agriculture, Greek; Agriculture, Roman; Cities, Greek; Cities, Roman; Taxation.)
The Romans developed an elaborate system of surveying cities and the lands around them called centuriation—from centuria, a square that measured about 2,400 Roman feet, or just under half a mile, on each side. Using centuriation, each piece of land could be located and measured precisely and assigned a tribute status down to a thousandth of a pint of grain. Vast areas of Italy as well as the rest of the ancient Roman world, including much of western Europe and North Africa, were centuriated. The checkerboard patterns from Roman surveys marking these lands are still visible today in aerial photographs.