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Farming was an important part of ancient Roman culture. Though Romemarker relied greatly on resources from many of the provinces it acquired during it conquest and warfare, wealthy Romans developed the land in Italy to produce a variety of crops as well. "The people living in the city of Rome constituted a huge market for the purchase of food produced on Italian farms.” Land ownership was a dominate factor in distinguishing aristocracy from the common person, and the more land a Roman owned, the more important he would be in the city. Soldiers were often rewarded for their services in Rome with and acquisition of land from the commander they served. Though run mainly on slave labor, it is argued by some historians that other Roman citizens benefited from farms through jobs as well. Free men and citizens were hired at farms to oversee the slaves and ensure that the farms ran smoothly.

Acquiring a farm

Aristocrats and common people could acquire land for a farm in one of three ways. The most common way to gain land was to purchase the land. Though some lower class citizens did own small pieces of land, they often found it too difficult and expensive to maintain. Because of the many difficulties of owning land, they would sell it to someone in the aristocracy who had the financial backing to support a farm. Though there were some public lands available to the common person for use, aristocrats also tended to purchase those pieces of land, which caused a great deal of tension between the two classes. “Mass eviction of the poor by the rich underlay the political tensions and civil wars of the last century of the Roman Republic.” Another way to acquire land was as a reward for going to war. High ranking soldiers returning from war would often be given small pieces of public land or land in provinces as a way of paying them for their services. The last way to obtain land was through inheritance. A father could leave his land to his family, usually to his son, in the event of his death. Wills were drawn out that specified who the land would go to as a way of ensuring that other citizens did not try and take the land from the family of the deceased.

Aristocracy and the land

Though some small farms were owned by lower class citizens and soldiers, much of the land was possessed by the noble class of Rome. Land ownership was just one of many distinctions that set the aristocracy apart from the lower classes. Aristocracy would “reorganize small holdings into larger more profitable farms in order to compete with other nobles.” It was considered a point of pride to own not just the largest piece of land, but also to have land that grew high quality produce. As Marcus Cato wrote “when they would praise a worthy man their praise took this form: ‘Good husband good farmer’; it is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come.” The land owners would produce a variety of crops depending on the season, and focused on trying to acquire the best possible farm under the best possible conditions. Cato discusses many of the primary focuses of the farmer and how to distinguish a great piece of land. He notes that a good farmer must take precious time to examine the land, looking over every detail. Not only did the land need to be perfect for purchase, but the neighbors must maintain their farms as well because “if the district was good, they should be well kept.” Individuals looking to buy a piece of land had to also take into consideration the weather of the area, the condition of the soil, and how close the farm would be to a town or port. Careful planning went into every detail of owning and maintaining a farm in Roman culture.

Running a farm in Rome

While the aristocracy owned most of the land in Rome, they often times were not present at the farms. With obligations as senators, generals, and soldiers at war, many of the actual landowners spent very little time working on their farms. The farms instead were maintained by slaves and freedmen paid to oversee those slaves. The overseer of the farm had many responsibilities that coincided with maintaining the land. He was responsible for ensuring that the slaves were kept busy and for resolving conflicts between them. An overseer had to be dependable and trustworthy in that the land owner had to know that the person they hired to run the farm was not going to try and steal any of the produce from the farm. Overseers were also responsible for ensuring that both servants and slaves were properly fed and housed, and that they were assigned work fairly and efficiently. They had to ensure that any orders given by the owner of the land were followed diligently and that everyone on the farm honored the gods completely and respectfully, which Romans believed was necessary to ensure a bountiful harvest. Good inscription evidence of how the system was organsied is visible in the Lex Manciana

The majority of the work was done by servants and slaves. Slaves were the main source of labor because of the low cost of owning and maintaining a slave. In Roman society, there were three main ways to obtain a slave. The first and possibly most common way to gain a slave was to buy one on the market. Slaves were purchased at auctions and slaves markets from dealers or were traded between individual slave owners. Another way slaves were acquired was through conquest in warfare. As Keith Hopkins explains in his writings, many landowners would go to war and bring back captives. These captives were then taken back to Roman territory and either sold to another citizen or made to work on the capturer's farm. The final way a slave could be obtained was through birth: If a female slave gave birth to a child, that child became property of the slave's owner. Slaves were relatively cheap to use because their payment was only food, shelter and clothes. Overseers ensured that slaves maintained a high level of motivation by providing some form of reward to harder working slaves and severely punishing slaves who did not work to their potential. “If the overseer sets his face against wrongdoing, they will not do it; if he allows it, the master must not let him go unpunished.

Problems for farmers

Even though farming was an important part of Roman culture, it came with many difficulties. Many farmers faced hardships as a result of problems with the land and conflict with individuals from other provinces. One problem that farmers faced was weather and terrain difficulties. If a farmer was not careful about where he started his farm, bad weather patterns and unfertile soil would ultimately be his demise. Cold weather would destroy crops and bad soil would make is difficult if not impossible to grow crops. Farmers also had to be wary of purchasing land too far away from a city or port because of war and land conflicts. As Rome was a vast empire that conquered many lands, it created enemies with individuals whose land had been taken. They would often lose their farms to the invaders who would take over and try to run the farms themselves. Though Roman soldiers would often times come to the aid of the farmers and try and regain the land, these fights often resulted in damaged or destroyed property. Land owners also faced problem with slave rebellions at times. Slaves, realizing that they outnumbered the overseers by a vast proportion, would easily turn on them and revolt against the land owners. Civil wars would also break out, often because of conflicts between the wealthy land owners and the poor common people who may have lost farms to the land owners due to previously mentioned problems. "In addition to invasions by Carthaginians and Celtic tribes, slaves rebellions and civil wars which were repeatedly fought on Italian soil all contributed to the destruction of traditional agricultural holdings."


Marcus Cato, On Agriculture, 1-2,5[818963]

Keith Hopkins, "Conquerors and Slaves, pgs 1-9, 1978

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