The ancient Romans and agriculture

The ancient Romans and agriculture

In ancient Rome, agriculture over time had become a way of life.
This transition was obviously gradual and Ovid testifies to it in the Fasti:
“Ceres was the first to improve human nutrition by replacing acorns with better food.”
In fact, it seems that the first Romans ate on acorn flour, the most abundant food, since oak woods abounded in Rome, until by divine advice (we are in the matriarchal era and the priestesses advised for inspiration and oracles), they decided to cultivate the cereals until then in the wild.
Spelled was the most used cereal but Ceres (Latin: Cere, from which the term cereal derives) held a bundle of ears of wheat in his hand, and so did the Goddess Opi, for which it was certainly cultivated immediately, but only later did it he realized it was the most nutritious and healthiest cereal.
Cicero considered agriculture to be the best of Roman occupations. In his treatise On duties, he declared that: ‘among the occupations in which the gain is assured, none is better than agriculture, neither more profitable, nor more pleasant, nor more suited to the free man.’ When one of his clients was mocked in court for preferring a rural lifestyle, Cicero defended country life as a ‘teacher of economics, industriousness and justice’ (thrift, diligentia, iustitia).
It is also remembered that Cato, Columella, Varro and Palladio wrote manuals on agricultural activity.
The basic cultivation in ancient Rome was wheat and bread was the basic food of every Roman table.
In his treatise De agricultura (“On agriculture”, 2nd century BC), Cato wrote that the best production was the vineyard, followed by: an irrigated garden, a willow plantation, an olive grove, a pasture, a wheat field, forest trees, a vine supported by trees, and finally a wood of acorn trees.
Although Rome relied on the produced resources of its many provinces obtained through wars and conquests, the wealthier Romans developed the lands in Italy to produce a variety of products. “The population of the city of Rome constituted a large market for the purchase of food produced on Italian farms”.

Land ownership –
Land ownership was a determining factor in the distinction between the aristocracy and the plebs, and the more land a Roman owned, the more important it would be in the city. Soldiers were often rewarded with land from the commanders under whom they served. Although farms depended on servile labor, free men and citizens were hired to supervise the slaves and ensure the farm ran smoothly.
Archaic Rome was founded on small landed property. According to tradition, Romulus had assigned each citizen a plot of two iugeri (half a hectare); later the land assigned to the Roman soldier was seven yugeri.
When Rome began to conquer lands across the border, these became “agro-public”.
A part of this land was divided into centuries and assigned to soldiers to ensure their subsistence. Other lands were leased to private individuals who cultivated them and passed them on as an inheritance, but the property remained state owned. The word Agriculture derives from agro and culture.
Naturally the military commanders, until Caesar only aristocrats, had the largest lands, which they could make work by colonists and slaves.
The Roman Senators could not be traders, a category reserved for equites, who imported and exported goods across the border, so their only investments were in land, thus hoping to limit their craving for riches. But of course this craving was not appeased by the laws either.
In fact, after the Punic wars, the Senators circumvented the law with various artifices that forbade occupying more than 500 iugeri (100 hectares) of public agro-agriculture, buying large estates, that is, enormous agricultural territories, cultivated by slaves.
With the agricultural law of 111 a.c. the public agro became private, becoming a real income for the landowners by now. The rustic villas were thus transformed into sumptuous suburban villas, and the fields were transformed into large pastures with herds or flocks to be entrusted to slave-shepherds, who would guide them in the transhumance towards the Adriatic or the Tyrrhenian Sea.
During the 5th century BC, the lands were divided into small family-owned plots. The Greeks of the period, however, had begun to use crop rotation and to have large estates. The Roman contacts with Carthage, Greece and the Hellenistic east, improved the methods of Roman agriculture, which reached its peak in production and efficiency between the late age of the republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.
It is known that the size of farms in Rome could be divided into three categories. Small landholdings could have from 18 to 108 iugeri, where one iugero was equivalent to about 0.65 acres or a quarter of a hectare. The medium-sized properties had between 80 and 500 yugeri. The large estates (called latifundia) had over 500 yugeri.
In the era of the late republic, the number of large estates increased. Wealthy Romans bought land from plebeian peasants who could no longer earn a living; in fact, from 200 BC, the Punic Wars called plebeian peasants to arms for long periods of time.

Agricultural techniques –
“I do not cease to be amazed by the fact that of the other arts less necessary to life, there are masters, while there are neither teachers nor disciples of the science of the fields” (Columella).
We owe above all to Pliny the Elder the specifications on all the news concerning peasant and pastoral activity, but also to Cato the Censor, Varro and Columella.
During the Roman period the first agricultural treatise “De agri cultura” of 160 BC, by Marco Porcio Catone was born, in which the peasant is exalted as a social condition:
“From farmers, on the other hand, very strong men and very valiant soldiers are born, and their income is fair and safe from any insecurity, nothing hateful; and those who dedicate themselves to agriculture are not drawn to bad thoughts.” The book is a treatise on agriculture, and an investment for the landowner if he follows the right canons, coupled with a detailed cookbook.
The center of the large property consisted of the rustic villa which had a main part and a rustic part, for the slave quarters and the tool warehouse. Regarding crops, Cato put the vineyard first, then the vegetable garden, the willow grove to tie the vines, the olive grove, the meadow for the cattle, the sown crops, the coppice and the acorn forest.
The labor was to be of slaves, in teams controlled by a male and a female, also slaves, who acted as factor.
The vineyard was to be about 100 iugeri (20 hectares), worked by 16 slaves, that is, by the two farmers, ten laborers, a plowman or bifolco, a donkey, a willow worker (or binder of vines) and a swineherd.
The main cultivation, however, was that of cereals: wheat, spelled, barley, on which the nutrition of men and horses was based. While the ancient Roman nourishment was spelled, in the republican and especially the imperial age it moved to wheat, much more nutritious and healthy.
The recommended olive grove was 240 iugeri (48 hectares), worked by 13 slaves, for the production of oil whose sale, like that of wine, was very profitable. The olives were squeezed in stone containers, pounding with clubs and sticks.
Around 40 BC Lucio Giunio Moderato Columella wrote “De re rustica”, describing as a factor his uncle’s experiments on the crossing of farm animals, and giving practical advice on agriculture. He also wrote a treatise on trees: “De arboribus”.
Almost simultaneously Marco Terenzio Varrone wrote another “De re rustica”, with various advice on how to manage small and large land estates, on pastoralism and on animals that could be raised with satisfaction in suburban villas.
Caesar established that 1/3 of the shepherds, until then slaves, had to be free and therefore paid men, so the work contracts improved for the peasants. The settlers, who used the oven and the mill, made themselves available during the busiest times of the year, but otherwise worked for themselves.
For the harvest, however, things got worse, so much so that it was decided to limit the agricultural area destined for pasture and vineyards, because cereals were insufficient and had to be imported, when the state already lavished so much for the landless population. In fact, every year Rome gave to citizens who did not own real estate, the annual grain for survival.
The Romans improved grain growth by watering the plants with the use of aqueducts, and there is increasing evidence that part of the process was mechanized. For example, there was widespread use of mills in Gaul and Rome to turn wheat into flour. The most impressive remains that still exist are found in Barbegal, in the south of France, near Arles. Sixteen water mills divided into two columns were fed by the main Arles aqueduct, in which the outflow of water from the first supplied the next in the series. The mills apparently operated from the end of the first century AD. until the end of the III century. The capacity of the mills has been estimated at around 4.5 tons of flour a day, enough to supply bread to the 12 500 inhabitants who occupied the city of Arelate at that time.
The vertical water wheel was well known to the Romans, described by Vitruvius in his De Architectura of 25 BC, and mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia of 77 AD. There are also later references to floating water mills from Byzantium and to sawmills on the Moselle River by the poet Ausonius. The use of sequential water mills was widely used in Roman mines.
There is direct evidence from bas-reliefs on the use of some kind of automatic harvest in the harvest of ripe wheat. It is believed that either the Romans or the Celts before them invented the mechanical harvester or rather a rudimentary forerunner, which cut or tore the ears leaving the stalk on the ground, and was pushed by oxen or horses. Pliny the Elder mentions this device in Naturalis Historia XVIII, 296. The machine had been forgotten in the Middle Ages, when the use of sickle and sickle for crops returned.
But in ancient Rome it was not cultivated, obviously only wheat and cereals; other crops found space which, often, were also linked to the availability of water.
Horticulture was widely practiced in the ancient world, albeit on more limited areas worked; this obviously required a greater demand for irrigation (with flowing water or well / cistern) and processing, with hoe and by hand, and not with plowing (hoeing, weeding), due to the need for fertilization (with ash, dung donkey, guano colombino), because they did not require biennial rests (fallow), the alternation of crops on the individual plots is sufficient to maintain the fertility of the soil. Moreover, the ancients knew and exploited the fertilizing potential of legumes, which allowed crop rotation even on open fields.
Alongside horticultural cultivation, wild varieties of cultivated species (bulbs such as today’s lampasciuni), and non-cultivated species (asfodelo, scorzonera), were currently being collected.
Among the poorer classes and small owners, horticulture replaced cereals: a half-hectare plot could not bear the burden of the ox for plowing. Therefore legumes with their great protein and caloric value could partially replace cereals.
The advantage of the vegetable garden compared to the field was also that of being able to immediately reap the fruits, along the various seasons, of products that did not require threshing, grinding, pressing, etc. of salads, onions and cucumbers, they ate raw.
As far as arboriculture is concerned, this was above all olive growing and viticulture, and then the fruit trees that bore spontaneously and did not require work.
Olive cultivation was imported to Rome from Greece, through the colonies of Magna Graecia. In Italy there were widespread species of wild olive trees (oleastri), to which grafting practices were applied to make them fruitful.
While olive growing did not require a large labor investment, because pruning was enough, the cultivation of the vine was much more complex. Not only did you have to take care of the plant and harvest the grapes, but then you had to transform the grapes into wine, much more complex than transforming the olives into oil. Furthermore, the wine, once matured, easily turned into vinegar, if not carefully treated.
Both viticulture and olive growing were not only provided for Italian consumption, but were also exported over long distances. In fact, being the place very suitable for cultivation also due to the strong volcanic presence, then as now, the Italic products were particularly valuable and appreciated.
In the zootechnical field, the cows provided the milk, while the oxen and donkeys carried out the heavy work on the farm. The milk of the sheep and goats was used in the production of cheeses, while their skins were considered valuable. Horses were not used for the most part in agriculture, but used by the wealthy in racing or wars. Sugar production focused on beekeeping, while some Romans raised snails as a luxury food.

Land management –
The Romans used four methods of managing agricultural land:
– direct work performed by the owner and his family;
– land rented to third parties or sharecropping, which consisted in the division of the products between the owner and the sharecropper;
– work performed by slaves owned by aristocrats and subjected to continuous supervision;
– other arrangements in which the land was leased to a farmer.
In this regard Cato the Elder (also known as Cato the Censor) was a politician and statesman of the second half of the Roman republican age and described his point of view on how a plot of land of 100 yugeri should be managed. He argued that such a farm should have: “a foreman, the foreman’s wife, ten laborers, an ox driver, a donkey driver, a man in charge of the willow grove, a swineherd, for a total of sixteen people; two oxen, two donkeys for the carriage of the wagons, a donkey for the work in the mill. ” He also said that a farm should have: “three fully equipped presses, jars in which to collect five harvests, for an amount of eight hundred cradles, twenty jars for the storage of waste from wine presses, another twenty for grain, and separate covers. for the jars, six amphorae half covered with fibers, four amphorae covered with fibers, two funnels, three wicker strainers, [and] three strainers to dip into flowers, ten jars for [treatment] of grape juice. . “
In the Roman Empire, a family of 6 had to cultivate 12 yugeri / 3 hectares of land to be able to satisfy the minimum nutritional need (without animals). If the family owned animals to help cultivate the land, then 20 iugeri were needed. The same amount was needed for subsistence if the land was cultivated using the sharecropping method, as in 2nd century AD Proconsular Africa, in which case one third of the total crop went to the owner as rent payment (see Lex Manciana) .
As for the manpower, most of the work was done by servants and slaves. Slaves were the main workforce. In Roman society, there were 3 methods of obtaining a slave. The first, and possibly the most common, method of obtaining a slave was to buy one at the market. Slaves were bought at auctions and bought from slave traders or traded between slave traders. Another method in which slaves were acquired was through conquest in warfare. As Keith Hopkins explains in his writings, many owners went to war and returned with prisoners. These prisoners were then brought back to Roman territory and were then sold to another citizen or made to work on the farm of the one who had imprisoned them. The last method of obtaining a slave was through birth: if a slave gave birth to a child, that child became the property of that slave’s owner. Slaves were relatively easy to use because they were considered property; their treatment depended on the humanity of their owners, who met the needs of their slaves with what they wanted to spend, not what they owed. Supervisors motivated slaves by imposing punishments and bestowing rewards. ‘If the supervisor opposed the crimes, they would never do them again; if he instead let him allow, the master should not let him go unpunished. ‘ although total cruelty to slaves was considered a sign of bad temper in Roman culture, there were few limits to the punishments that a slave supervisor or owner could inflict.

Guido Bissanti





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