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Roman agriculture

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Mosaic showing a man feeding the animal.

Probably the first inhabitants of Rome were breeders, farming came later. At the beginning of the 3rd century BCE, the Roman state was an agricultural society. Most of the empire’s subjects worked in the fields. They were small, several-hectare farms. After the Second Punic War, the situation of farmers changed, not to say deteriorated.

They suffered poverty, many peasants spent many years in the army, and the land was wasted, while others sold their land to great owners and supplied the town plebs. And when Rome expanded to include provinces that supplied grain, their production ceased to be profitable in Italy. Some farmers switched to breeding (cows, sheep, goats, pigs and horses). In the first century BCE, small-scale peasants were still getting rid of their land, and in Italy, huge latifundia began to multiply, on which colonies or slaves worked. The first latifundia were established in Italy in the 3rd century BCE, as a result of combining leases of public land, buying or seizing land for small farmers for debt, and purchasing land of proscribed people for a song. In 133-123 BCE Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus (plebeian tribunes) tried to introduce an agrarian reform that was to parcel out latifundia. However, the reform was unsuccessful. The rapid influx of slaves from the Roman conquests finally eliminated free citizens from farm work. Pliny the Elder used the phrase: “great estates have lost Italy” (Latifundia perdidere Italiam). Thus, the Roman historian and writer emphasized the situation of the Roman peasant who could not withstand competition with the great latifundia.

Cultivation and working conditions varied. It was puzzling to constantly idealize rural life. Many Romans found the life of farmers easy and pleasant, not realizing the real hardships of rural life (bad weather, primitive tools). There were also poems praising the work of the shepherds.

Gallic-Roman harvesting machine.

Senators invested in lands in Italy, but also, encouraged by the peace ruling in Empire, used the fertile soil abroad. The Romans cultivated more land by moving Mediterranean vegetation and proven farming methods north to Gaul, the Rhine Valley, and the Balkan Peninsula.
Grain, wool, olives, and wine were the main trading commodities throughout the Empire. There were Roman vineyards in Gaul, and olive groves were grown in North Africa. The Romans also learned new cultivation techniques in humid climates, which allowed them to use land in northern Gaul and Britain. Landowners lived in cities – the richest of them lived in Rome itself. The largest landed estates were powerful enterprises. In one such estate near the city of Pompeii (known as Boscatrecase) she stored 100,000 jars of wine. Large estates in other provinces had much lower labour costs, which was to the detriment of agriculture in Italy. As a result, Rome imported wheat from Egypt and Africa, wine from Gaul, oil from Spain and Africa, figs, dates and plums from Syria, cereals from the south, and vegetables from the northern provinces.

An interesting fact is that in the vicinity of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey), the Romans grew rice.

During the early empire there was a change in the agriculture of Italy, largely due to the problem of the labour force. The ethnic composition of slaves and their preparation for work on a farm clearly changed. Instead of highly skilled slaves from Hellenistic countries, whose enormous influx was characterized by the decline of the republic, at the beginning of the empire, mostly “northern barbarians” came to Rome: Gauls, Germans, and Britain. They did not know how to work in vineyards and olive plantations; they knew only pastoralism and, at best, the cultivation of cereals, so they could only be employed in the vineyards as unskilled workers. At this time, in many estates manual work on the land (hoeing) is abandoned, and a harrow is introduced, which results in savings in terms of manpower.

However, the most important factor in losing Italy’s economic advantage was the competition of the western provinces. Countries such as: Galia Spain or Dalmatia had very good natural conditions for fruit growing. Gradually, the people of these provinces learned the higher agrarian technique and began to massively plant vineyards and olive orchards. Gaul grew into the main wine producer in the western part of the Empire, and olive oil from Spain began to crowd Italian oil from the markets.

Cato the Elder is the author of the work De agri cultura (“About the farm”), which is the oldest prose written in Latin, fully preserved to our times. It is a handbook for running a land estate. It also contains simple cooking recipes.

An important Roman work concerning agriculture is Marcus Porcius Cato – “About the farm” (De argi cultura) from the 2nd century BCE. Cato popularized the concept of villa in Roman literature – a medium-sized property focused on selling its products. Cato owned many properties in Campania and shared his experience in managing them with the Romans in general. He believed that an ideal land estate should have between 100 and 240 yugers of land (25-60 ha). The smaller one might have been villa geared towards viticulture (100 Jugers – 25 ha), but it required a relatively large amount of work. Therefore, it was necessary to purchase no less than 16 slaves for it.

The estate focused on the production of olives – olive orchards – could have up to 240 Jugers (60 ha). A group of 13 slaves was enough for it. Cato devoted a lot of space to the organization of slave labor. At the head of the slaves he put an estate manager, known as vilicus, who, being a slave, had a number of privileges, including the right to have a wife, called vilica, who ran the farm. Ordinary slaves lived in ergastula, which had a prison character. They often worked chained to prevent their escape. Kato recommended feeding them solidly during the field works and saving on food in winter. He also believed that a slave could not be allowed to idle. He must be occupied from dawn to dusk so that after work he can only think about sleeping. The old and the sick had to be disposed of as quickly as possible by selling them.

The type of farm promoted by Cato spread especially around Rome, numerous Villae were built in Lazio and Campania, and in the areas surrounding the larger cities of the Empire. These were groups of often dispersed estates owned by individual nobilitas. Some of them are of the Catholic villa type, others as farms cultivated by tenants. The description of the already established way of running a farm appears in the works of Cicero at the turn of the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE.

Agricultural calendar according to Marcus Terentius Varro

Varro (116 – 27 BCE) wrote De re rustica, a textbook on agriculture, valued until modern times. It consists of three books in the form of dialogues, each of which is devoted to a different topic. When writing this treatise, the author used his own experience, literature on the subject and the knowledge of people experienced in this field.
In the field of agriculture, Varro deviates from the traditional division of the year into 4 seasons and divides it into 8 periods of about 45 days each. The individual field work suits them. The beginning of the periods in the agricultural calendar of Varro is associated with astronomical and natural phenomena:

  • Period I – begins with the advent of Favonius – the western wind equivalent of the Greek Zephyr, its first gusts heralded the beginning of spring, according to Varro on February 7;
  • Period II – the spring equinox falls on the 23rd of March after the addition of 45 days;
  • Period III – the east of the Pleiades signaled the beginning of summer, following the addition of another 44 days on May 7;
  • Period IV – summer solstice: the longest day of the year and the shortest night, taking into account the next 48 days, was June 24;
  • Period V – the appearance of the Psa constellation, identified by the Romans as Sirius, fell on July 21 after the next 27 days;
  • VI period – the autumn equinox after the next 67 days – September 27;
  • Period VII – West of the Pleiades, after adding 32 days – October 28;
  • Period VIII – the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice, after another 57 days it was December 24th.

In each of these periods, Varron recommends carrying out specific agricultural work and so in:

  • Period I (February 7 – March 23) – plant all kinds of seedlings, cut trees in plantations, scatter manure in meadows, dig around the vines, cut roots that are above the ground, clean meadows, plant wicker plantations, clean the fields of weeds with a hoe;
  • Period II (March 24 – May 7) – fry the crops, that is, clean the fields of weeds, plow the ground with oxen for the first time, cut willows, fence meadows, plant and thin olives;
  • Period III (May 8 – June 24) – dig or plow young vine plantations and crush the soil, thin them, that is, leave the strongest shoots from the grown shoots, i.e. the first and second, sometimes even the third. Everything that is forage should be mowed: first bean mix, grain mix, vetch and finally grass. Immediately after harvesting the hay, irrigate the meadows that require it. During dry periods, water fruit trees every morning;
  • Period IV (June 25 – July 21) – most people harvest during this period. The ploughing must be stopped. After the first ploughing, the soil must be broken up, that is, plowed again to break up the lumps. You should sow vetch, lentils, peas, and lentils. In the vineyards, the plowed ground has to be broken up a second time;
  • Period V (July 22 – September 26) – straw needs to be mowed and piled (if only ears were cut during the harvest), plowed the fields a second time, and re-irrigated meadows mowed;
  • VI period (September 27 – October 28) – you have to sow grain, broad beans, harvest grapes and harvest grapes. After that, you should start pruning the vines and branching them out, and planting fruit trees. It is better to perform these treatments in areas with more severe frosts earlier;
  • Period VII (October 29 – December 24) – plant lilies, crocuses and roses. New ditches should be dug, old ditches cleared, vineyards and vines climbing trees should be pruned, picked and collected olives;
  • Period VIII (December 25 – February 6) – drain water that may accumulate on sown fields, clear the fields of weeds with a hoe, prune vineyards and trees in plantations.

Ager publicus

In ancient Rome, there were the so-called public lands (Ager publicus), which were public land administered by the state. According to tradition, the founder of ager publicus was Romulus, who allocated plots of land to the citizens of Rome for 2 jugers (a unit of area corresponding to the later morga), while the rest of the land was allocated to collective cultivation. The ager publicus consisted of lands taken from the enemy, taken from rebellious allies, and “no man’s lands”. A large part of them were taken from, for example, Italian cities that supported Hannibal.

Each citizen could use 500 jugers (about 125 hectares) of public land – such a limit was to be introduced by the leges Liciniae Sextiae from 367 BCE, but part of the state land was auctioned, the part unlawfully appropriated by wealthy citizens as “nobody’s” (ager occupationis). In the second half of the second century BCE, many wealthy landowners occupied many times more, while vast numbers of poor citizens were deprived of land at all. The Gracchi reform (begun in 133 BCE) was to end this situation.

In the 1st century BCE Roman leaders: Sulla, Julius Caesardid Pompey the Great pursued a policy of giving away public land to veterans. It is worth mentioning Julius Caesar introduced two agrarian laws in Campania in 59 BCE The main change was the prohibition of compulsory purchase of land without the consent of the owner. The earth was also allowed to fill, in the first place promised to Pompey’s deserving veterans. These most important points of the reform had to be approved by the senate.

In imperial times, ager publicus was enormous in size and formally belonged to the emperor. In fact, however, it was mostly privately owned.


Initially, a mortar with a pestle was used to grind the grain, and in later times, querns consisting of two flat stones, where the upper stone was moved along the lower one. Throughout the day, on such querns, it was possible to grind grain into flour for 8 people (approx. 3 kg). Most often this “honourable” work was performed by a slave. As the burrs progressed, they were given a circular shape so that the upper stone rotated around its axis along the lower stone (the oldest burrs of this type come from around 1000 BCE), thanks to which the slave operating the burrs could grind 12 times more grain than before (approx. 36 kg).

In the 6th century BCE, the first primitive mills were used:

  • crane mill – top stone attached to a trunnion rotating beam; pushing and pulling alternately the free end of the beam moved the upper stone along the lower one in an arc;
  • roller mill – the upper cylindrical stone was rolling on the lower stone; good for pressing oil, not effective for grinding grain.

Eventually, rotary mills were created, which took the hourglass shape, where the lower, stationary stone had the form of a cone, and the upper cylindrical one was hollow from the bottom according to the shape of the lower stone, and from the top it had a second conical hole through which the grain was poured. A special wooden pivot in the centre of the “hourglass” made it possible to adjust the clearance between the stones, which made it possible to obtain the desired fineness of the flour. The horizontally protruding spokes of the capstan allowed the stone to rotate around its axis. The driving force of the mill was the donkey or, more often, the slaves, because the bad construction of the harness used in those days (around the animal’s neck) and the usually too short capstan arms made the donkey’s work extremely inefficient – in the end, the use of slaves was cheaper.

In the 2nd century BCE, Philo of Byzantium described the principle of operation of the backwater and hopper water wheel. At the end of the Republic, the water wheel became widely used for lifting water (tympanum, bucket wheel, Archimedean screw) and for grinding grain. Evolution was a combination of the principle of a mill and a water wheel (the first mentions of water mills are found in Strabo around the 1st century BCE) by means of a toothed gear.

Three basic types of water mill drive were used:

  • horizontal wheel – the simplest structure, not requiring a gear, the water wheel and the millstone were connected by a rigid beam; very inefficient, only suitable for rapid current use;
  • drive wheel – requiring the use of gear, inefficient; the large mass of water required with a lazy river current;
  • seed wheel – as above, much more efficient, necessary water drop equal to at least the height of the mill wheel.

The use of a grain mill allowed the grain to be ground on a large scale. Around 170 BCE, the profession of a baker was introduced in Rome. Documents from CE 200 describe a mill with a set of 16 mill wheels near Arelate, possibly with feed wheels. In the 4th century CE in Gaul, a similar principle was used for sawing marble blocks. In the 6th century CE, water mills were probably the only source of flour production in Rome.

  • Litewski Wiesław, Rzymskie prawo prywatne, Warszawa 1994

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