Agriculture in the Roman Empire
(2 of 3)
The Patricians (groupname)
Ital333, Prof. Barbara Nucci, March 1999
Baths of Baiae;
Observations and Inferences
The Casamari Abbey
The First 400 Years
Agriculture in the
Pope Julius II
The Parthenopean Republic
| 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
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).