Roman agriculture: Wikis


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In ancient Rome, agriculture was highly regarded. Virgil in his Georgics argued that simple rural life was endowed with the aura of virtues. Cicero considered 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 Pro sox. Roscio Ameriae 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 retorted. The staple was of course wheat, and bread was the mainstay of every Roman table. [1]

Cato, Columella, Varro and Palladius wrote 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.[1] 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.[2]


Farming practices

The farm sizes in Rome can be divided into three categories. Small farms were from 18-108 iugera. (One iugerum is equal to about 0.65 acres). Medium-sized farms were from 80-500 iugera. Large estates (called latifundia) were over 500 iugera.[3]

In the late Republican era, the number of Latifundia increased. Wealthy Romans bought land from peasant farmers who could no longer make a living. Starting in the 2nd century B.C (200 BC) the Punic Wars called peasant farmers away to fight for longer periods of time.[4]

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 most Roman farmers, many were raised by the rich for racing or war. Sugar production centered on beekeeping, and some Romans raised snails as luxury items.[3]

The Romans had four systems of farm management: direct work by owner and his family; tenant farming or sharecropping in which the owner and a tenant divide up a farm’s produce; slaves owned by aristocrats forced to do work and supervised by slave managers; and other situations in which a farm was leased to a tenant.[3]

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, in his opinion.

He claimed such a farm should have "a foreman, a foreman's wife, ten laborers, one ox driver, one donkey 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." As well, he stated that such a farm should have "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, [and] three straingers to dip up the flower, ten jars for [handling] the wine juice..."[1]

There was much 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.”[5]

Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about agriculture from books XII to XIX, including chapter XVIII, The Natural History of Grain [2]

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.

Greek geographer Strabo considered 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 Campania made 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."[3]


The vast majority of Romans were not wealthy farmers with vast estates farmed for a profit.[citation needed]

In the Roman Empire, a family of 6 persons would need to cultivate 12 iugera/ 3 hectares of land to meet minimum food requirements (without animals)[6]. If a family owned animals to help cultivate land, then 20 iugera was needed. The same amount would also be required to meet subsistence levels if the land was farmed using sharecropping, as in Africa Proconsularis in the seond century AD, in which case a third of the total crop goes to the landowner as rent[7] (See Lex Manciana).

Such figures detail only the subsitence level. It is clear that large scale surplus production was undertaken in some provinces, such as to supply the annona with grain.

Under the figures calculated by Varro and Columella,[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

For yields of wheat, the number varies depending on the ancient source. Varro [8] mentions 10:1 seed-yield ratio for wheat as normal for wealthy landowners. In some areas of Etruriouise 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.

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 did not change much when there was a low harvest.[citation needed] That's because they are not required for survival,[citation needed] so the prices stays relatively the same.[citation needed] They were also easy to store[citation needed] and were not "subjected to an annual fluctuation of their market prices."[citation needed] But, just as today, good-quality wine increases in price when stored for a long time.[citation needed]

Egypt was also important in providing wheat to Rome. Normally, shipments of Egyptian wheat may have amounted to 20 million modii or more annually.[citation needed] This number can be found in the Epitome de Caesaribus.[citation needed] Twenty million modii of wheat was enough for half or two thirds of Rome.[citation needed]

Pliny the Younger painted a picture that Rome was able to survive without Egyptian wheat in his speech the Panegyricus in 100 AD.[citation needed] In 99 there was an Egyptian crisis due to inadequate flooding.[9]

Pliny the Younger stated[citation needed] that for "long it was generally believed that Rome could only be fed and maintained with Egyptian aid". However, he argued that "Now [that] we have returned the Nile its riches,... her business is not to allow us food but to pay a proper tribute.[9]


  1. ^ a b Cato the Censor, Columbia University Records of Civilization: On Farming, translated by Ernest Brehaut (Columbia University Press)
  2. ^ Howatson, M.C. (1989), The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Oxford University Press) pp. 17-19
  3. ^ a b c d White, KD (1970), Farming (Cornell University Press)
  4. ^ Cornell, Tim (1982), Atlas of the Roman World (Facts on File) pg 55
  5. ^ Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, On Agriculture (Res Rustica), (Loeb Classical Library), Book II page 145
  6. ^ Kehoe, D, 1988, Econonmics of Agriculture on Roman Imperial Estates in North Africa, Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
  7. ^ Kehoe, D, 1988, Econonmics of Agriculture on Roman Imperial Estates in North Africa, Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
  8. ^ Green, C.M.C., 1997, 'Free as a Bird: Varro de re Rustica 3', The American Journal of Philology', Vol. 118, No. 3 pp. 427-448
  9. ^ a b Erdkamp, Paul (2005), The Grain Market in the Roman Empire, (Cambridge University Press) Pgs 42-44, 49, 243, quote on page 228

Further reading

KD White's Roman Farming compiles information from Roman authors and addresses all aspects of Roman agriculture using detailed charts of soils, agricultural terms, animal husbandry in Rome, and a description of crop rotation systems. KD White's book Farm Equipment of the Roman World includes diagrams of Roman farming equipment. Paul Erdkamp's The Grain Market in the Roman Empire describes 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)

External links



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