- Roman agriculture
Ancient Roman agriculture was highly regarded in Roman culture. Of the many commentators who praised simple rural life and endowed it with the aura of ancient Roman virtues,
Virgilin his Georgicsstands pre-eminent. Ciceroconsidered farming the best of all Roman occupations. He writes in "On Duties": “But of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman…” It is a life Cicero used in "" to defend Sextus Roscius, whose country living was attacked by prosecutors: “But a country life, which you call a clownish one, is the teacher of economy, of industry, and of justice,” Cicero said. [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Cic.+S.+Rosc.+74] Cato, Columella, Varroand Palladiuswrote handbooks on farming practices in Rome. Cato’s "De Agricultura" ("On Farming") provides information about farming in the second century BC. In "De Agricultura", Cato wrote that the best farm was a vineyard, followed by an irrigated garden, willow plantation, olive orchard, meadow, grain land, forest trees, vineyard trained on trees, and lastly acorn wood. Cato the Censor, Columbia University Records of Civilization: On Farming, translated by Ernest Brehaut (Columbia University Press)]
By the 5th century, Greece had started using crop rotation methods and had large estates while farms in Rome were small and family owned. Rome’s contact with
Carthage, Greece, and the Hellenistic East in the 3rd and 2nd centuries improved Rome’s agricultural methods. Roman agriculture reached its height in productivity and efficiency during the late republic and early empire. [ Howatson, M.C. (1989), The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Oxford University Press)pp. 17-19 ]
The Roman Farm
The farm sizes in Rome can be divided into three categories:Small: 18-88 iugeraMedium-sized: 80-500 iugera (singular
iugerum)Large estates (called latifundia): over 500 iugera. White, KD (1970), Roman Farming (Cornell University Press)] Latifundiaincreased in popularity in the late Republican era. Elite Romans were able to buy land from peasant farmers who could no longer sustain their lands. Starting in the 2nd century B.C (200 BC) the Punic Warspeasant farmers for called to fight for longer periods of time. [ Cornell, Tim (1982), Atlas of the Roman World (Facts on File) pg 55]
Cows provided milk, oxen and mules did the heavy work on the farm. Sheep and goats were cheese producers, but were prized even more for their hides. Horses were not important to Roman farmers, most were raised by the rich for racing or war. Sugar production centered on beekeeping. and some Romans raised snails as luxury items.
The Romans had four systems of farm management:1) direct work by owner and his family2) slaves doing work under supervision of slave managers3) a sort of tenant or
sharecroppingpractice, the owner and a tenant dividing up farm’s produce4) farm leased to a tenant. Cato the Elder(also known as "Cato the Censor") was a politician and statesman in the mid-to-late Roman Republic and described what a farm of 100 iugera (approx. 63 acres) should have:
[It should have] a foreman, a foreman's wife, ten laborers, one ox driver, one ass driver, one man in charge of the willow grove, one swineherd, in all sixteen persons; two oxen, two asses for wagon work, one ass for the mill work.
Three presses fully equipped, storage jars in which five vintages amounting to eight hundred cullei can be stored, twenty storage jars for wine-press refuse, twenty for grain, separate coverings for the jars, six fiber-covered half
amphorae, four fiber-covered amphorae, two funnels, three basketwork strainers, three straingers to dip up the flower, ten jars for [handling] the wine juice...
There was a massive amount of commerce between the provinces of the empire, all the regions of the empire became interdependent with one another, some provinces specialized in the production of grain, others in wine and others in
olive oil, depending on the soil type.
Columella writes in his Res Rustica, “Soil that is heavy, chalky, and wet is not unsuited to the growing for winter wheat and spelt. Barley tolerates no place except one that is loose and dry.” [ Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, On Agriculture (Res Rustica), (Loeb Classical Library), Book II page 145 ]
Pliny the Elderwrites extensively about agriculture from books XII to XIX, in fact XVIII is The Natural History of Grain. [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Plin.+Nat.+toc]
Some crops grown on Roman farms include wheat, barley, millet, pea, broad bean, lentil, flax, sesame, chickpea, hemp, turnip, olive, pear, apple, fig, and plum.
Straboconsidered the Po Valley(northern Italy) to be the most important economically because “all cereals do well, but the yield from millet is exception, because the soil is so well watered. The province of [Etruria] had heavy soil good for wheat. Volcanic soil in Campaniamade it well-suited for wine production.
In addition to knowledge of different soil categories, the Romans also took interest in what type of manure was best for the soil. The best was poultry manure, and cow manure one of the worst. Sheep and goat manure were also good. Donkey manure was best for immediate use, while horse manure wasn't good for grain crops, but according to
Marcus Terentius Varro, it was very good for meadows because "it promotes a heavy growth of grass plants like grass."
Iugerium (iugera)0.65 acres
The vast majority of Romans were not wealthy farmers with vast estates farmed for a profit. In the
Roman Empire, a typical family of 3.25 persons would need between 7-8 iugera of land to meet minimum food requirements (without animals). If a family owned animals to help cultivate land, then 20 iugera is needed. There would not be a surplus production on this farm. Although lucky peasants who had land on good soil might be able to manage a small surplus, about 20% of the harvest. The annual consumption of grain in peasant families may be between 105-185 modii (35-62 bushels) (singular modius see Roman measures). Under the figures calculated by Varro and Columella, poor peasants may be able to produce 16-25 modii (5-9 bushels) of wheat per iugerum and 20-30 modii (7-10 bushels) of barley.
For yields of wheat, the number varies depending on the ancient source. Varro mentions 10:1 seed-yield ratio for wheat as normal for wealthy landowners. In some areas of Etruria yield may be as high as 15:1. Cicero indicates in his case against Verres a yield of 8:1 as normal, and 10:1 in exceptionally good harvest. But Paul Erdkamp mentions in his book The Grain Market in the Roman Empire, that Columella was probably biased when he mentions a much lower yield of 4:1. According to Erdkamp, Columella wanted to make the point that "grain offers little profit compared to wine. His argument induces him to exaggerate the profitability of vineyards and at the same time to diminish the yields that were obtained in grain cultivation. At best Columella provides a trustworthy figure for poor soils; at worst, his estimate is not reliable at all." In Rome prices of wine and olives don't change much when there is a low harvest. That's because they are not required for survival, so the prices stays relatively the same. They were also easy to store and were not "subjected to an annual fluctuation of their market prices." But, just as today, good-quality wine increases in price when stored for a long time.
Egyptwas also important in providing corn to Rome. Normally, shipments of Egyptian corn may have amounted to 20 million modii or more annually. This number can be found in the Epitome de Caesaribus. 20 million modii of wheat was enough for half or two thirds of Rome. Pliny the Youngerpainted a picture that Rome was able to survive without Egyptian corn in his speech the "Panegyricus" in 100AD. In 99 there was some Egyptian crisis due to inadequate flooding. Erdkamp, Paul (2005), "The Grain Market in the Roman Empire", (Cambridge University Press) Pgs 42-44, 49, 243, quote on page 228 ]
"For long it was generally believed that Rome could only be fed and maintained with Egyptian aid, so that this vain and presumptuous nation used to boast that they must still feed their conquerors, that their river and their ships ensured our plenty or our want. Now we have returned the Nile its riches, sent back the corn we received. It has had to take home the harvest it used to dispatch across the sea. Let this be a lesson to Egypt. Let her learn by experience that her business is not to allow us food but to pay a proper tribute.
For a thorough overview of Roman farming, KD White's Roman Farming is an excellent resource. It compiles information from Roman authors and addresses all aspects of Roman agriculture. There are detailed charts of soils, agricultural terms, animal husbandry in Rome, system of crop rotation and many others. The Romans had a remarkable array of farming equipment. For anyone wishing to learn more specifics about farming equipment KD White's book on Farm Equipment of the Roman World would prove very helpful. The book includes diagrams of Roman farming equipment. Paul Erdkamp's The Grain Market in the Roman Empire provides a through details of the farming economics and ancient marketing.
Buck, Robert (1983), "Agriculture and Agricultural Practice in Roman Law", (Franz Steiner Verlag Gmbh Wiesbaden)
Erdkamp, Paul (2005), "The Grain Market in the Roman Empire", (Cambridge University Press)
Cato the Censor (1933), "Columbia University Records of Civilization: On Farming", translated by Ernest Brehaut (Columbia University Press)
Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, "On Agriculture (Res Rustica)", (Loeb Classical Library)
White, KD (1970), "Roman Farming" (Cornell University Press)
White, KD (1975) , "Farm Equipment of the Roman World" (Cambridge University Press)
* Columella's Res Rustica in Latin [http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/columella.html Complete text in Latin] at
The Latin Library
* Columella's Res Rustica in English [http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Columella/home.html Books I‑IV in English translation] at
*Latin text of Varro [http://www.readme.it/libri/2/2048022.shtml Rerum Rusticarum de Agri Cultura]
* Pliny the Elder's Natural History [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Plin.+Nat.+toc]
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