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Latifundia are pieces of property covering tremendous areas. The latifundia (Latin: lātus, "spacious" + fundus, "farm, estate") of Roman history were great landed estates, specializing in agriculture destined for export: grain, olive oil, or wine. They were characteristic of Magna Graecia and Sicily, of Egyptmarker and the North African Maghreb and of Hispania Baetica in southern Spain. The latifundia were the closest approximation to industrialized agriculture in Antiquity, and their economics depended upon slave labour.

Today, latifundia are only found in Latin America and Italymarker and the term is often extended to describe the haciendas (in Spanish) and fazendas (in Portuguese) of colonial and post-colonial Brazilmarker, Mexicomarker, Venezuelamarker, Uruguaymarker, Cubamarker, Chilemarker (called latifundio or simply fundo) and Argentinamarker. These originated under colonial law allowing forced labor recruitment and land grants for military services. In post-colonial times, ending the dominance of the latifundia system by implementing agrarian reforms became a popular goal of several governments in the region.

Ancient GreeceThe landscape of the Greek mainland does not lend itself to large estates. Olive oil and wine for trade were typically produced by many small groves and vineyards, concentrated in fewer hands at the presses and shipping ports. The grasslands of Thessaly and Macedon were pasture for grazing horses. Meat was not a staple in Mediterranean diets.

The Hellenistic (Greek influenced culture) latifundia were typical of the export-oriented agriculture of coastal Syriamarker and Ptolemaic Egypt.

Ancient Rome

The basis of the latifundia in Italy and Sicily was the ager publicus that fell to the dispensation of the state through Rome's policy of war in the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD. As much as a third of the arable land of a new province was taken for agri publici and then divided up with at least the fiction of a competitive auction for leaseholdings rather than outright ownership. Later in the Empire, as leases were inherited, ownership of the former common lands became established by tradition, and the leases became taxable.

The first latifundia were accumulated from the spoils of war, confiscated from conquered peoples beginning in the early 2nd century BC. The prototypical latifundia were the Roman estates in Magna Graecia (the south of Italy) and in Sicily, which distressed Pliny the Elder (died AD 79) as he travelled, seeing only slaves working the land, not the sturdy Roman farmers who had been the backbone of the Republic's army. Latifundia expanded with conquest, to the Roman provinces of the maghreb and in Hispania Baetica, the south of Spain. Large villa holdings in the Campania around Rome, in the valley of the Po and in southern Gaul organized populations in a self-sufficient economy, more similar to the haciendas of Latin America, while they produced oil, wine or garum for exportation. The practice of establishing agricultural colonia as a way to compensate Roman soldiers formed smaller landholdings, which would be accumulated by large landholders in times of want. Thus the direction, over time, was in larger consolidations of landholdings.

Latifundia could be devoted to livestock (sheep and cattle) or to cultivation of olive oil, grain, and wine. However, in Rome, they did not produce grain and Rome had to import grain. Ownership of land, organized in the latifundia, defined the Roman Senator class. It was the only acceptable source of wealth for senators, though Romans of the elite class would set up their freedmen as merchant traders, and participate as silent partners in profits to which senatores were disqualified.

The latifundia quickly started economic consolidation as larger estates achieved greater economies of scale and senators did not pay land taxes. Owners re-invested their profits by purchasing smaller neighbouring farms, since smaller farms had a lower productivity and could not compete, in an ancient precursor of agribusiness. By the 2nd century AD, latifundia had in fact displaced small farms as the agricultural foundation of the Roman Empire. Such increased productivity enabled single farm laborer to produce enough cereals to feed an estimated 30 people. It was a level of worker productivity unsurpassed before the 19th century.

Such consolidation was not universally approved, as it consolidated more and more land into fewer and fewer hands, mainly Senators and the Roman emperor. Pliny the Elder argued that the latifundia had ruined Italy and would ruin the Roman provinces as well. He reported that at one point just six owners possessed half of the province of Africa.

But then again, Pliny the Elder was very much against the profit-oriented villas as presented in the writings of Columella. His writings can be seen as a part of the 'conservative' reaction to the gain- and profit-oriented new attitudes of the upper classes of the Early Empire. (Martin 1971)


In the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the largely self-sufficient villa-system of the latifundia remained among the few political-cultural centres of a fragmented Europe. These latifundia had been of great importance economically, until the long-distance shipping of wine and oil, grain and garum disintegrated, but extensive lands controlled in a single pair of hands still constituted power: it can be argued that the latifundia formed part of the economic basis of the European social feudal system. The gift of a villa, or of a series of them, owned by a powerful patron was at the basis of all the great monasteries and abbeys founded in Western Europe until the time of Charlemagne, when the land-gifts, significantly, tended to be of forest instead. In the 6th century Cassiodorus was able to apply his own latifundia to support his short-lived Vivarium in the heel of Italy. Shortly thereafter, Monte Cassinomarker was founded in a former Imperial villa. But in the 10th century the Abbey of Clunymarker was founded on a gift of the duke of Aquitaine's chase, or hunting forest.

In the Iberian Peninsulamarker, the Castilian Reconquista of Muslim territories provided the Christian kingdom with sudden extensions of land, which the kings ceded as rewards to nobility, mercenaries and military orders to exploit as latifundia, which had been first established as the commercial olive oil and grain latifundia of Roman Hispania Baetica. The gifts finished the traditional small private ownership of land, eliminating a social class that had also been typical of the Al-Andalusmarker period.

The possessions of the Church did not pass to private ownership until the desamortización, the "secularization" of church-owned latifundia, which proceeded in pulses through the 19th century.

Big areas of Andalusiamarker are still populated by an underclass of jornaleros, landless peasants who are hired by the latifundists as "day workers" for specific seasonal campaigns.

The jornalero class has been fertile ground for socialism and anarchism. Still today, among the main Andalusian trade unions is the Rural Workers Union (Sindicato Obrero del Campo), a far-left group famous for their squatting campaigns in the town of Marinaledamarker, in Seville province.These latifundias were run by serfs.

North and South America

A comparable social system exists in agricultural Californiamarker, where the latifundia of the Central Valley are the basis of corporate agribusiness. This was a development whose parallels in Antiquity were specifically noted by Edmund G. Berry in 1943: "The same latifundia are appearing again in the United States.... and with them the colonimarker" Mechanized agriculture was driving out the iconic family farm, as slave labor and then free serf labor had made Roman estates profitable. Mexican land grants in California had pre-existed statehood and were supported by American court decisions. Today, small holdings persist in the corporate-owned landscape, as they had persisted in al-Andalusmarker.

Latifundia (latifundios in both Spanish and Portuguese) in Spanish-speaking Latin America are often called haciendas. In Argentinamarker and Uruguaymarker, the word is estancia. In Portuguese-speaking Brazilmarker, they are called fazendas. Such quasi-feudal estates were prevalent in the colonial era.

That the large corporate hacienda farms of international agribusiness have similarities with the Roman latifundia in the extent of holdings, and efficiencies in mass production that drive out small competitors is a cliché of ideology with some truth in it. The parallels are more useful for ideological purposes; the differences inform authentic history. Modern South American latifundios are blamed for economic inequality and strife.



  • Stephen L. Dyson, The Roman Countryside (Duckworth Debates in Archaeology)
  • René Martin: Recherches sur les agronomes latins et leurs conceptions économiques et sociales, Paris, 1971.

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