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Gaius Lelius Sapiens and reform of agricultural land law

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Mosaic showing a Roman farmer, cattle and plow
Mosaic showing a Roman farmer, cattle and plow

Gaius Lalius Sapiens was a Roman politician in the mid-2nd century BCE and friend of the famous Roman leader Scipio Africanus the Younger – the conqueror of Carthage in 146 BCE. Lelius received his nickname Sapiens, meaning “Wise”, from his contemporaries for the decision to abandon the proposal to reform the law on agricultural land.

It assumed the establishment of the maximum area of ​​state land that a Roman citizen could have for cultivation; this was to prevent the accumulation of state lands by the rich, and thus the impoverishment of citizens who had no chance to compete with the huge latifundia of the aristocracy and equites, where more and cheaper products were produced. Unprofitable farms forced citizens to give away or sell their lands; in such a situation, they practically did not present any assets and, according to the census, were not eligible for military service. This, in turn, caused problems with recruits and a threat to state security.

Some Roman politicians, seeing the problems that ordinary Roman citizens and Italian allies had to face, saw the need for change.

The idea of ​​carrying out the agricultural reform was taken up by Scipio Africanus the Younger himself, who was supported by Gaius Lalius Sapiens. These were the first plans to carry out major changes in Roman society, dominated by wealthy patricians who appropriated more and more lands. However, Lelius finally dissociated himself from the bill, and the reform collapsed; apparently, Lelius did not want to exacerbate the mood in society.

A similar reform will be undertaken in the future by the Gracchi brothers, who will be murdered by optimates who oppose this idea. The owners of large estates opposed at all costs any reforms that could take away their lands, for which they spent huge amounts of money and purchased a large number of slaves for work.

The first successes in the division of state lands will appear in the 1st century BCE when ambitious commanders such as Sulla, Pompey and Caesar will provide their veterans with land for cultivation.
Regardless, the Roman army in the 1st century BCE took on a professional character and the presentation of the property was no longer required for service in the legions; so the problem resolved itself.

Sources
  • Paweł Rochala, Powstanie Spartakusa 73-71 p.n.e., Kocewia Mała 2022

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