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Agriculture in the Roman Empire
(2 of 3)
The Patricians (groupname)
Ital333, Prof. Barbara Nucci, March 1999

A Chronology of
Events in Italy

60,000 BC - 1300 AD

1300 AD - 1998 AD




Baths of Baiae;
Observations and Inferences
The Casamari Abbey
The First 400 Years
Agriculture in the
Roman Empire
Pope Julius II

Eleonora Pimentel
The Parthenopean Republic

The Effect of Mussolini's 
Pronatalist View on Women


      The shortage of agricultural workers is attributable to two different factors.  The number of slaves working in the Late Empire decreased because as the Empire began to conquer and settle new provinces they began to grant certain people citizenship as opposed to turning them into slaves.  This meant that all the newly conquered individuals, who had been previously taken as slaves, were no longer available. (C.  Colyer, personal communication, Feb. 2, 1999).  In addition, many of the poor, who had been working the lands, had fled from the countryside to the city to receive the social services available only in the cities (B.  Nucci, personal communication, Feb. 7, 1999).  This shortage of workers prompted a search for new ways of accomplishing agricultural work, hence tenant farmers.  In the beginning, tenant farming was an attractive option.  Under the Mancian Law, dating to Hadrian's rule, tenant farmers that worked imperial land or private estates had semi-ownership of the land as long as it was cultivated.  The only right they did not have was the right to sell the land.  They typically lived rent-free, anywhere from five to ten years; depending on what they grew (Lewis & Reinhold, 1990 p. 96).  It is no wonder that many of the free Roman citizens that were poor saw tenancy as a way to a better life.

      Private landowners often broke their estates down into smaller pieces to be leased out to tenant farmers.  Columella felt that if a landowner were going to live far away, he would be better off having his land leased out to tenants as opposed to being managed by slaves.  He cautioned that unsupervised slaves were likely to mismanage land and animals, while tenant farmers would have a personal stake in turning a profit (cited in Lewis & Reinhold, 1990 p. 87).

      Leases were varied based on where the land being farmed was located.  In North Africa, most tenant farmers used the land in exchange for a specified number of days of work for the landlord and a payment of rent in the form of produce (Lewis and Reinhold, 1990 p. 96).  According to Columella and the Amherst Papyrus, in Egypt and Italy, the tenants usually were not responsible for any private work for the landlord.  However, they did pay a certain amount of rent that came from the crops they produced (cited in Lewis & Reinhold, 1990 pp. 90-5).  According to the Amherst Papyrus, all of the tenant farmers, in all of the lands, were responsible for the annual operations necessary for the farmland.  These operations included the planting, sowing, irrigation, plowing, and hoeing of the land (cited in Lewis & Reinhold, 1990 p. 95).  In return for this, these workers had the rights to all crops produced beyond what they owed their landlord for rent or the government for taxes.  In theory, this would mean that the tenants could earn a healthy profit for their labors.  It was almost as if they were working purely for themselves.

     As time passed, tenant farmers became indebted to their landlords.  This can be attributed to years of poor crops and increasing rents.  This led to a condition where tenant farmers, which had previously been free, became tied to the land they were working until they paid off their debts.  According to Pliny, they were often unable to do this before they died, and the burden of debt would be passed down to their sons (cited in Lewis & Reinhold, 1990 pp. 92-3).
Furthermore, by the fourth century AD, many careers became hereditary.  For instance, if a
person's father had worked as a soldier, his son was required to do the same.  This was to insure the constant supply of much-needed positions would always be filled.  Under Emperor Constantine, tenant farmers and their descendants were permanently tied to the land they worked (Theodosian Code V., xvii, 1: AD 332; cited in Lewis & Reinhold, 1990 p. 437).  In this way, a tenant farmer that had originally been working primarily for himself, was turned into a serf of the manor.

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