Standard Article

You have free access to this content

Agriculture, Roman Republic

  1. Nathan Rosenstein

Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah20007

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

How to Cite

Rosenstein, N. 2012. Agriculture, Roman Republic. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

Italy's landscape and climates are quite diverse. Consequently farming practices vary considerably by region. No brief description of Italian agriculture can encompass all of its variations and this article must restrict itself to generalities.

The most widely grown crops were grains, furnishing between 70 and 80 percent of calories in an ordinary person's diet. Wheat was preferred, but barley, millet, and other grains were cultivated to feed animals and humans in times of need. Legumes of various sorts and a variety of fruits and vegetables, particularly oil, wine, and vinegar, rounded out the diet, supplemented by wild plants, fruits, nuts, and honey. Animals provided transportation and traction for plowing–oxen by preference but donkeys and even cows could be pressed into service–as well as being a source of food. Milk became cheese; meat was eaten only rarely. And animal manure was critical in sustaining the fertility of the soil in a world without access to chemical fertilizers.

The agricultural year began in the fall. Plowing for grain crops usually commenced in September, with sowing a month later. The goal was to have the crop sown when the autumn rains began, providing the moisture necessary for seed germination. Grape and olive harvests also came in the fall. Work tapered off over the winter, picking up again with the spring-sown crops and culminating with the grain harvest. This occurred in the late spring in warmer regions and as late as July in cooler areas. Thereafter, farm work slackened until it was time to plow and plant again in the fall.

A good harvest depended critically on the rains, which in the Mediterranean can vary greatly from year to year. Those years when not enough rain fell meant poor harvests or even crop failure, and starvation threatened. Families that depended on what they grew for their livelihood therefore practiced several strategies to mitigate this risk. Farmers planted a variety of crops so that if one failed others might sustain the family until the next harvest. Storage was crucial. Crops saved from good years could see a family through a lean one. Wealth might be stored in assets like animals or jewelry or even cash, reserves to be drawn on in times of need. Social ties were also important: aiding neighbors in trouble created obligations that could be drawn on when the situation was reversed. And a young man's military service both reduced the number of mouths a farm had to feed and offered the possibility of acquiring wealth through booty or donatives.

However, for many years, scholars believed that the consequences of Roman warfare gradually undermined the viability of the smaller farms from which Rome drew its soldiers. As long as the republic's wars were fought close to home and mainly in the summer, when there was little work to do on the farms, warfare did not adversely affect agriculture. But once armies had to be maintained year-round to fight wars overseas, agriculture in Italy began to suffer. The conscription of their men for long tours of duty deprived farms of essential labor. Simultaneously, conquests in the second century enriched the Roman and Italian upper classes, and lacking other outlets for their newly acquired capital they invested it in land. Lots of farms were now for sale since a lack of manpower had caused many to fail, so prices were low. To work the vast estates they were creating, the new owners also bought in slaves. An abundant and therefore cheap supply had been furnished by those who surrendered to Rome's armies and were thereupon enslaved. And encouraged by the growth of Rome and other Italian cities where dispossessed farmers had migrated in search of work, estate owners focused on cash crops, especially wine and oil, to feed this burgeoning population. Those small farms that remained also now began to go bankrupt because they were unable to compete with the greater efficiency of the slave plantations. Or their owners were simply forced off their land by wealthy neighbors who coveted their property. By the mid-first century, large, slave-run estates, the so-called latifundia, dominated the rural landscape.

Recently this reconstruction has sustained damaging criticism. The archaeological record does not reflect a big drop in the number of small farm-sites throughout second and firstcentury Italy. Also, commercial farms needed temporary labor for crucial operations like the harvest, so their owners had an interest in ensuring a source on nearby small farms rather than forcing their owners off their land. Transporting crops to market meant that commercial farms had to be located near a river, the sea, on a major road, or near Rome. Elsewhere, small farms faced little challenge from slave-run plantations. And small farms were largely subsistence operations, with only limited involvement in the marketplace; direct competition with commercial farms was minimal. Equally important, the size of the market dictated the extent of commercial agriculture. About 2 percent of Italian farmland supplied all the wine and oil Rome and the other Italian cities consumed in the Late Republic; in the second century when their populations were smaller, even less land was necessary. Grain required considerably more land, but much of what was needed came from farms in Sicily, Sardinia, and North Africa. Further, the urban market was divided among a substantial number of producers. The share each could obtain and hence the size of his farm was quite modest in most cases, on the order of tens of hectares rather than hundreds. Finally, because men married late but began their military service around age seventeen, few families lacked essential labor when sons went to war.

The problem on most small farms was too many workers, not too few. Fathers continued to work their farms. If they died or were incapable, substitutes could be found; if not, women were as able to plow as men. As a result, population growth rather than the rise of slave-based commercial agriculture appears to offer a better explanation for the social and economic turmoil of the Late Republic.

References And Suggested Readings

  1. Top of page
  2. References And Suggested Readings
  • Brunt, P. A. (1971) Italian Manpower, 225 bc-ad 14. Oxford.
  • De Ligt, L. (2006) “The economy: agrarian change during the second century.” In N. Rosenstein and R. Morstein-Marx, eds., A companion to the Roman Republic: 590605. Oxford.
  • Frayn, J. (1979) Subsistence farming in Roman Italy. London.
  • Hopkins, K. (1978) Conquerors and slaves. Cambridge.
  • Rathbone, D. (1981) “The development of agriculture in the ‘Ager Cosanus’ during the Roman Republic: problems of evidence and interpretation.” Journal of Roman Studies 71: 1023.
  • Rosenstein, N. (2004) Rome at war: farms, families, and death in the Middle Republic. Chapel Hill.
  • White, K. D. (1970) Roman farming. Ithaca.