Ownership and Exploitation of Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World 9780198728924, 0198728921

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Table of contents :
Cover......Page 1
Ownership and Exploitation of Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World......Page 4
Copyright......Page 5
Contents......Page 6
List of Figures......Page 8
List of Tables......Page 10
List of Abbreviations......Page 11
List of Contributors......Page 14
Prologue: Land and Natural Resources and Roman History......Page 16
The market model......Page 19
The substantivist model and its kin......Page 21
Demographic models......Page 25
The NIE model......Page 26
Defining Our Theme......Page 31
Economic Growth in the Roman World......Page 33
Specialization......Page 35
Technology, Innovation, and Growth......Page 37
Agriculture and Underemployment......Page 40
Subsidiary Labour in the Roman World......Page 44
Population growth and the division of labour in city and countryside......Page 45
The Labour and Food Market......Page 49
Conclusion......Page 52
Part I: Ownership and Control......Page 56
Introduction......Page 58
Historiographical Origins......Page 59
Reconsidering the Evidence......Page 62
4: The Imperial Property and its Development......Page 77
Introduction......Page 86
The Sources......Page 87
Conflicting Interpretations......Page 91
Imperial Acquisitions......Page 94
Alienation of Imperial Property......Page 97
Implications: The Rules of the Game......Page 99
Introduction......Page 103
Private Property and Tenancy......Page 106
Private and Imperial Land in Roman Egypt......Page 111
Legal Institutions and Private Land......Page 119
Conclusion......Page 121
Introduction......Page 122
Ownership-an Unlimited Right?......Page 125
New Institutional Economics......Page 127
(a) Ownership in motion......Page 129
Praescriptio longi temporis......Page 135
(b) Ownership in its economical context......Page 139
Conclusion......Page 145
Introduction......Page 147
Natural, Man-made, Public, Private......Page 148
Water as a Commodity: Private Hydraulic Resources......Page 151
Cooperation......Page 157
Servitudes......Page 160
Introduction......Page 165
Water Supply and Sewage Systems in Ostrogothic Italy......Page 167
Baths......Page 174
Mills......Page 176
The Role of the Church......Page 179
Conclusion......Page 181
Part II: Organization and Modes of Exploitation......Page 186
Introduction......Page 188
A traditional view: Capital, market(s), and slaves......Page 189
The free peasantry......Page 192
Villas and the free population......Page 194
Old ways, new situations......Page 196
Beyond Slavery......Page 198
Conclusion......Page 200
Introduction......Page 202
Resources from the Land beyond Agriculture......Page 204
Sergius Orata and oyster farming......Page 211
Coastal estates and tuna fishing......Page 214
Fishermen and Villa Owners: Competition for Control......Page 216
Conclusion......Page 220
Introduction......Page 222
The Reality of the Boom: Ceramic Distribution......Page 223
Survey evidence: Olive oil and wine production......Page 227
Amphora Production......Page 235
Explaining the Causes of Economic Change......Page 238
Conclusion......Page 247
Introduction......Page 249
The Social and Legal Framework-Palmyra as a Tribal Society......Page 250
Land and Water Resource Allocation in and around Palmyra......Page 254
Conclusion......Page 262
Introduction......Page 264
Dietary Assessments......Page 265
Pigs......Page 267
Cattle......Page 268
Sheep......Page 274
Conclusion......Page 285
Part III: Exploitation and Processing of Natural Resources......Page 290
Introduction......Page 292
Conclusion......Page 302
Introduction......Page 304
Polychrome Marble and the Roman Emperor......Page 305
Roman Centurions and Imperial Quarries......Page 311
Hadrian's 'Intervention' of ad 136/7-A Hypothesis......Page 321
Conclusion......Page 326
Introduction......Page 330
No Shortage of Gold Mines......Page 331
Gold Mining and its Relationship with Imperial Power......Page 337
Gold Transfer from East to West......Page 343
Conclusion......Page 350
Part IV: Conclusions......Page 352
18: Conclusions......Page 354
Part I Ownership and Control......Page 355
Part II Organization and Modes of Exploitation......Page 360
Part III Exploitation and Processing of Natural Resources......Page 363
Bibliography......Page 365
Index......Page 414
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OXFORD STUDIES ON THE ROMAN ECONOMY This innovative monograph series reflects a vigorous revival of interest in the ancient economy, focusing on the Mediterranean world under Roman rule (c.100 BC to AD 350). Carefully quantified archaeological and documentary data is integrated to help ancient historians, economic historians, and archaeologists think about economic behaviour collectively rather than from separate perspectives. The volumes include a substantial comparative element and thus will be of interest to historians of other periods and places.

Ownership and Exploitation of Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World Edited by PAUL ERDKAMP, KOENRAAD VERBOVEN, and




Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP, United Kingdom Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and in certain other countries # Oxford University Press 2015 The moral rights of the authors have been asserted First Edition published in 2015 Impression: 1 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, by licence or under terms agreed with the appropriate reprographics rights organization. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above You must not circulate this work in any other form and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Data available Library of Congress Control Number: 2014952416 ISBN 978–0–19–872892–4 Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY Links to third party websites are provided by Oxford in good faith and for information only. Oxford disclaims any responsibility for the materials contained in any third party website referenced in this work. The editors wish to thank the Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie van België voor Wetenschappen en Kunsten (KVAB) and the Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek Vlaanderen (FWO) for their generous contribution to the conference ‘Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World’, 26–28 May 2011, Brussels.

Contents List of Figures List of Tables List of Abbreviations List of Contributors

1. Introduction: Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World in Historiographical and Theoretical Perspective Arjan Zuiderhoek 2. Agriculture, Division of Labour, and the Paths to Economic Growth Paul Erdkamp

vii ix x xiii 1


PART I. OWNERSHIP AND CONTROL 3. Landed Wealth in the Long Term: Patterns, Possibilities, Evidence Kyle Harper 4. The Imperial Property and its Development Elio Lo Cascio 5. Imperial Wealth in Roman Egypt: The Julio-Claudian ousiai Laurens E. Tacoma 6. Property Rights over Land and Economic Growth in the Roman Empire Dennis P. Kehoe 7. Property Rights in Ancient Rome Éva Jakab 8. Water Use and Productivity in Roman Agriculture: Selling, Sharing, Servitudes Christer Bruun 9. ‘Watered . . . with the Life-giving Wave’: Aqueducts and Water Management in Ostrogothic Italy Yuri A. Marano

43 62 71

88 107






10. The Nature of the Villa Economy Alessandro Launaro 11. The Variety of Villa Production: From Agriculture to Aquaculture Annalisa Marzano 12. The African Boom: The Origins of Economic Growth in Roman North Africa Matthew S. Hobson 13. The Local Economy of Palmyra: Organizing Agriculture in an Oasis Environment Julia Hoffmann-Salz 14. Changes in Animal Husbandry as a Consequence of Developing Social and Economic Patterns from the Roman Mediterranean Context Michael MacKinnon






PART III. EXPLOITATION AND PROCESSING OF NATURAL RESOURCES 15. Salt in Asia Minor: An Outline of Roman Authority Interest in the Resource Isabella Tsigarida 16. Centurions, Quarries, and the Emperor Alfred M. Hirt 17. The Mining, Minting, and Acquisition of Gold in the Roman and Post-Roman World Fernando López Sánchez

277 289


PART IV. CONCLUSIONS 18. Conclusions: Overview of Presented Arguments Paul Erdkamp, Koenraad Verboven, and Arjan Zuiderhoek


Bibliography Index

350 399

List of Figures 9.1 Ravenna, lead fistula from the city acqueduct stamped with the name of Theoderic


9.2 Rome, plan of the Janiculum salient, showing the Via Medici and American Academy watermills and branch of Aqua Traiana


9.3 Rome, plan of the late floor made of reused millstones in the Hadrianic tabernae on the Via Nova


9.4 Ravenna, plan of the baths adjoining the episcopal complex built by Bishop Victor (AD 537–545)


9.5 Rome, lead fistula from the basilica of San Lorenzo stamped with the name of Stefanus praepositus


9.6 Naples, lead fistula stamped with the name of Catuli Agapitus ex cons (ule) pat(ricius)


10.1 Overall trends for the rural free population of Italy, 200 BC to AD 100


10.2 Areas of villa growth in combination with different rural free population trends, 200 BC to AD 100


11.1 Tor Caldara: Position of the sulphur deposits in respect of the villa building


11.2 Lucus Feroniae (modern Fiano Romano): Villa at Prato La Corte


11.3 Formiae: Plan of the fishpond near modern Via Vitruvio


12.1 Known ancient fish processing sites in Tunisia and in the Roman world more broadly


12.2 Published survey regions of the Carte Archéologique


12.3 Diagram showing the relevant parts of two different types of olive press


12.4 Location of sites found by the Carte Archéologique in the regions of Sidi El Hani (064), Oued Cherita (072), and Mahdia (074)


12.5 Stone elements related to pressing found by survey in Tunisia


12.6 Figure showing the minimum number of presses per site in Tunisia


12.7 Known African sigillata and amphora kilns in Tunisia


12.8 Known kiln sites of north-west Libya


12.9 Main regions of centuriation identified from aerial photography, the location of the seven free communities mentioned in the Lex agraria of 111 BC, and the four possible Marian foundations located west of the Fossa Regia


12.10 Location of the seven agrarian inscriptions in relation to the probable route of the Fossa Regia



List of Figures

12.11 Civic promotions from the Flavian to Severan dynasties


14.1 Sheep metacarpal GL (greatest length) vs Bp (breadth proximal) plots among geographic regions of Roman Italy


14.2 Sheep metacarpal GL (greatest length) vs SD/GL (smallest breath of the diaphysis/greatest length) plots among geographic regions of Roman Italy


14.3 Sheep metacarpal GL (greatest length) vs Bp (breadth proximal) plots for Italy across temporal phases of Roman antiquity


14.4 Sheep metacarpal GL (greatest length) vs SD/GL (smallest breath of the diaphysis/greatest length) plots for Italy across temporal phases of Roman antiquity


14.5 Sheep metacarpal GL (greatest length) vs Bp (breadth proximal) plots for various regions of the Roman Empire across time


14.6 Sheep metacarpal GL (greatest length) vs SD/GL (smallest breath of the diaphysis/greatest length) plots for various regions of the Roman Empire across time


17.1 The Dioscuri Castor and Pollux and the birthday of a new military detachment in North Western Spain


17.2 Dinar with the legend Ma’din Amir al-Mu’minin bi’l-Hijaz, struck with gold of the Hejaz (Arabia)


17.3 Lightweight solidus of 20 siliquae of Phocas, 603/607


17.4 Tremissis struck at the city of Venasque, in Southern Gaul


17.5 ‘Pseudo-Imperial’ solidus struck in Gaul with the name of Anastasius I, Byzantine emperor (491–518)


17.6 Solidus of Marcian, Emperor of the East (450–457)



List of Tables 3.1 Units of measurement


3.2 Land prices in the imperial period


3.3 Hermopolite land registers (c.AD 350)


3.4 Large properties (100 arourai +) in Egypt, AD 200–600


3.5 Apion wealth and income


3.6 Landholding in the Greek census inscriptions (in iugera)


3.7 Converting income figures to property sizes


3.8 Land prices in late antiquity


3.9 Grain prices in late antiquity


3.10 Net surplus in grain (modii per iugerum)


3.11 Agricultural rents in late antiquity


3.12 Large properties: incomes and wealth converted to land


3.13 Comparing giant incomes in the early and late empire


12.1 Recent surveys of Tunisia (ranked by presses per km2)


14.1 Frequency (by % of total NISP) for pigs for ‘pre-Roman’ and ‘Roman’ sites from various regions of the Roman Empire


14.2 Log difference values for cattle by time period and geographic region in Roman Italy


14.3 Withers’ height ranges, means, standard deviations and sample sizes for sheep among Roman contexts in the Mediterranean region


List of Abbreviations AE Ael. NA AL Amm. Marc. App. B. civ. App. Max. App. Mith. Arist. Gen. an. Aur. Vict. De Caes. Aur. Vict. De vir. ill. BGU Caes. B. Afr Cass. Dio Cassiod. Var. Cato, Agr. Cic. Att. Cic. Caecin Cic. De or. Cic. Hort. Cic. Leg. Agr. Cic. Leg. Man. Cic. Off. Cic. Q fr. Cic. Verr. CIG CIL CISem CJ Claud. de bello Columella, de arb. Columella, Rust. CTh Dessau, ILS Dig. Dio Chrys. Diod. Sic. Epit. de Caes. Festus, Gloss. Lat. Florus Fr. Vat. Fredegar

L'Année Épigraphique Aelian, De natura animalium Anthologia Latina Ammianus Marcellinus Appian, Bella civilia Appendix Maximiani Appian, Mithridatic wars Aristotle, De generatione animalium Aurelius Victor, De caesaribus Aurelius Victor, De viris illustribus Berliner griechische Urkunden Caesar, Bellum Africum Cassius Dio Cassiodorus, Variae Cato, De agricultura Cicero, Epistulae ad Atticum Cicero, Pro Caecina Cicero, De oratore Cicero, Hortensius [fragments] Cicero, De lege agraria Cicero, De imperio Cn. Pompeii Cicero, De officiis Cicero, Epistulae ad Quintum fratrem Cicero, In Verrem Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum Codex Justinianus Claudian, de bello Gothico Columella, de arboribus Columella, de re rustica Codex Theodosianus H. Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae Digesta Dio Chrysostomus Diodorus Siculus epitome de Caesaribus Festus, Glossaria Latina L. Annaeus Florus Fragmenta Vaticana Chronicle of Fredegar

List of Abbreviations Frontin. Aq. Gai. Inst. Gell. NA Greg. Ep. Greg. I, Reg. Epist. Greg. Tur. HF Hist. Aug. Claud Hist. Aug. Hadr. I. Eph IK ILLRP Inst. Iust. Isid, Orig. Joseph. BJ Juv. Sat. Lib. Pont. LSJ


Frontinus, de aquae ductu urbis Romae Gaius, Institutiones Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae Gregorius, Epistulae Gregory I, Registrum Epistolarum Gregory of Tours, Historiae [History of France] Historia Augusta Claudius Historia Augusta Hadrianus Inscriptiones Ephesi Inschriften griechischer Städte aus Kleinasien Inscriptiones Latinae Liberae Rei Republicae Institutiones Iustiniani Isidorus, Origines Josephus, bellum Judaicum Juvenal, Satires Liber Pontificalis Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th edn, rev. H. Stuart Jones (1925–40): Suppl. by E. A. Barbour and others (1968) LTUR II Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae II [Forum Traiani] LTUR III Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae III [Mercati di Traiano] LTUR IV Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae IV [Palatium] LTUR V Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae V [Thermae Traiani] Macrob. Sat Macrobius, Saturnalia MAMA IV Monumenta Asiae Minoris Antiqua IV Marcian. Inst. III Marcianus, Institutiones III Marcian Herakl. Epit. Marcian of Herakleia, Menippi periplus maris interni (epitome Peripl. Menipp. Marciani) Mart. Epig. Martial, Epigrammata Mart. Spect. Martial, Spectacula Not. Dign. Or. Notitia dignitatum in paribus orientis Nov. Novellae Nov. Val. Novellae Valentiniani P.Bad Veröffentlichungen aus den badischen Papyrus-Sammlungen P.Bingen Papyri in honorem Johannis Bingen octogenarii P.Cair. Isid. Papyri Cairo Isidoros P.Charite Das Aurelia Charite Archiv P.Dura Excavations at Dura-Europos P.et O. Eleph. DAIK Les papyrus et les ostraca grecs d'Elephantine P.Flor Papiri greco-egizii, papri fiorentini P.Gess. Griechische Papyri im Museum . . . zu Giessen P.Hibs Hibeh Papyri P.Landlisten Zwei Landlisten aus dem Hermopolites P.Lips. Griechische Urkunden . . . zu Leipzig P.London Greek Papyri in the British Museum P.Oxy Oxyrhynchus Papyri

xii P.Mich. P.Stras. Paulus, Sent. Paus. Philo, In Flacc. Philostr. VS Pliny, Ep. Pliny, Nat. Hist. Pliny, Pan. PLRE Plut. Vit. Caes. Plut. Vit. Luc. Polyb. Procop. BG Ps-Joshua Sall. Iug SB SEG Sen. Ep. Solin. Stat. Silv. Suet. Aug. Suet. Claud. Suet. Dom. Suet. Galba Suet. Iul. Suet. Tib. Suet. Tit. Suet. Vesp. Syn. Ep. Tac. Agr. Tac. Ann. Tac. Ger. Tac. Hist. Theoph. Chron Thuc. TLL Ulp. Val. Max. Varro, Rust. Virgil, Aen

List of Abbreviations Michigan Papyri Griechische Papyrus . . . zu Strassburg Iulius Paulus, Sententiae Pausanias Philo Judaeus, In Flaccum Philostratus, Vitae sophistarum Pliny, Epistulae Pliny, Historia Naturalis Pliny, Panegyricus Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire Plutarch, Vitae Parallelae Caesar Plutarch, Vitae Parallelae Lucullus Polybius Procopius, de bello Gothico Ps-Joshua the Stylite Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum Sammelbuch griechischen Urkunden aus Ägypten Supplementum epigraphicum Graecum Seneca, Epistulae morales Solinus Statius, Silvae Suetonius, Divus Augustus Suetonius, Divus Claudius Suetonius, Domitianus Suetonius, Galba Suetonius, Divus Iulius Suetonius, Tiberius Suetonius, Divus Titus Suetonius, Divus Vespasianus Synesius, Epistulae Tacitus, Agricola Tacitus, Annales Tacitus, Germania Tacitus, Historiae Theophanes, Chronographia Thucydides Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Ulpianus Valerius Maximus Varro, de re rustica Virgil, Aeneid

List of Contributors Christer Bruun University of Toronto Paul Erdkamp Vrije Universiteit Brussel Kyle Harper University of Oklahoma Alfred M. Hirt University of Liverpool Matthew S. Hobson Leiden University Julia Hoffmann-Salz Universität zu Köln Éva Jakab University of Szeged Dennis P. Kehoe Tulane University Alessandro Launaro University of Cambridge Elio Lo Cascio Sapienza Università di Roma Fernando López Sánchez Wolfson College, Oxford Michael MacKinnon University of Winnipeg Yuri A. Marano Collège de France Annalisa Marzano University of Reading Laurens E. Tacoma Leiden University Isabella Tsigarida Universität Zürich Koenraad Verboven University of Ghent Arjan Zuiderhoek University of Ghent

1 Introduction Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World in Historiographical and Theoretical Perspective Arjan Zuiderhoek

PROLOGUE: L AND AND NATURAL RESOURCES AND ROMAN HISTORY The history of the Roman people was indissolubly tied to the land. This was so, in the first place, because Rome was a pre-modern agrarian society, an organic economy where all production, agricultural as well as artisanal, was dependent on the land where food and raw materials were produced or extracted from below the soil through the expenditure of (for the most part) human and animal energy. To a remarkable degree, however, the course of Roman social and political development was also influenced and often determined by issues related to the exploitation and, especially, the distribution of land. Land and agriculture, and the conflicts surrounding them, shaped Roman institutions and moulded the ideological outlook of, in particular, the social and political elites. In a sense, the history of Roman land is the history of the Roman state, and of Roman society. As in the Archaic Greek polis, the true member of the early Republican city state from which the Roman Empire eventually developed was a man who fought for his city on the battlefield, voted in its assembly, and, crucially, owned land in its territory. The early struggles between patricians and plebeians, dimly perceived in the pages of Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, seem to have had the issues of land redistribution and agrarian debt at their core. Roman conquest, the founding of colonies on conquered land, its transformation into ager publicus, and the conflicts arising out of the distribution and exploitation of such public land, all fired the Gracchan crisis and subsequent internal struggles, while the assignation of land to large numbers of veteran soldiers was a major bone of contention between the powerful


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

warlords who eventually caused the disintegration of the Roman Republic. Under the empire, it was their control of rents and taxation in kind from vast imperial estates and provincial land which constituted the economic basis of the emperors’ power, and allowed them to feed the sprawling megalopolis of Rome and provide for their armies. Meanwhile, the extraction and exploitation of natural resources such as (precious) metal, clay, sand, and stone on a scale never seen before in the Mediterranean region led to a production and construction boom of such magnitude that its enormous legacy of metal tools, weapons, coins, glass objects, pottery, buildings, and other artefacts has been keeping, and, by the looks of it, will keep, archaeologists busy for several centuries. It seems fitting, therefore, that this book, the first volume resulting from the project on Factors of Production in the Roman World run by the Roman Society Research Center (a collective of ancient historians based at Ghent University, the Free University of Brussels (VUB), and the University of Kent) should be devoted to the theme of Land and Natural Resources (volumes on Labour and Capital will follow in due course). If economic history is the study of the structure and performance of economies through time,1 then in recent Roman economic history the emphasis has been squarely on performance.2 Historians and archaeologists have devoted their energies chiefly to locating intensive or per capita growth in the Roman economy, primarily through searching for the appropriate proxy data that might be diagnostic of such growth. So far, despite strong claims made by some scholars, this search has proved somewhat elusive, primarily due to the methodological difficulties involved in analysing what are often complex and multifaceted archaeological data sets.3 Our aim, therefore, is to refocus attention on structure, to probe whether the preconditions for economic growth were actually present in the Roman economy, and if so, how such growth came to be (and, given that the empire eventually fell, why it stopped again, or, alternatively, why it wasn’t there in the first place . . . ). Yet we should be careful to avoid the pitfalls of the old primitivist/modernist and substantivist/formalist debates, which were mostly about structure, and concentrated primarily on exchange, i.e. the size and importance of trade and markets and their alternatives, reciprocity and redistribution, the level of ‘embeddedness’ of the economy, and on the prevailing mentality towards economic activity. Despite the brilliance of some of the participants, and the stimulating analyses produced, given the absence of truly conclusive data either way, these debates ultimately resulted in an intellectually unproductive mutual exercise in nay-saying. By focusing on the fundamental infrastructure of any economy, the production factors, land, labour, 1 2 3

The famous formulation from North 1981: 3. See e.g. Bowman and Wilson 2009. See Scheidel 2009b and Wilson 2009b for examples and discussion.

Introduction: Historiographical Perspective


and capital, and their modes of exploitation, and by bringing novel theoretical perspectives to bear on an ever-expanding mass of historical and archaeological data relating to these subjects, we aim to avoid a similar stalemate, and to provide a range of stimulating and productive perspectives on Roman economic activity. The central question of the entire project, however, is a simple one: did the Romans exploit land, natural resources, labour, and capital in ways conducive to economic growth, or not—and if so, how and why (not)? In an agrarian economy land is the ultimate factor of production, and it is with land and natural resources that we therefore start. As said, recent work in Roman economic history has placed particular stress on the analysis of economic performance. This emphasis is notably present in the Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. Yet it is noticeable too that in this same publication, agriculture and natural resource exploitation are not subjected to a separate and sustained analysis, not even among the chapters outlining the ‘determinants of economic performance’. This is odd, both because of the crucial importance of these sectors to pre-industrial economies in general and because groundbreaking work has recently appeared on exactly these aspects of the Roman economy.4 We believe, therefore, that this is a fundamental omission that needs to be remedied. The topic is of great importance, especially from a comparative historical perspective: at stake is the material base of the only world empire in European history. Was the story of Rome’s rise and decline, and the divergence between its eastern and western parts ultimately the story of the rise, decline, and diversity of its agrarian productive potential? The present volume is the product of an international team of scholars. Each chapter is written by a specialist on the topic concerned. The chapters have been grouped under several thematic headings (e.g. Part I Ownership and Control; Part II Organization and Modes of Exploitation . . . ), which enhances the conceptual and methodological integration of the book, without sacrificing intellectual diversity and creative disagreement. To further reinforce the volume’s conceptual unity, I shall, in this introductory chapter, present a brief outline of earlier approaches to land and natural resources in ancient economic history and discuss their relative merits and drawbacks. Following on that, I sketch a theoretical perspective on the exploitation of land and natural resources based broadly on the ideas of the new institutional economics (NIE), a theoretical approach that seems to the editors fruitful and in need of further exploration, even if some valid criticism has been mounted against


Banaji 2002; Erdkamp 2005; Kehoe 2007. Note in particular also the ongoing activity of the Oxford Roman Economy Project (, accessed 20 February 2014), directed by Alan Bowman and Andrew Wilson, which has in recent years hosted conferences on ‘The Agricultural Economy’ and ‘Metals, Mining and Coinage’, for the proceedings of which see Bowman and Wilson 2013 and Wilson and Bowman (forthcoming).


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

it, to which I shall also briefly refer.5 It is this perspective that we, as editors, have asked our contributors to take into (critical) consideration while writing their chapters. We have done so not in order to force them into some kind of theoretical straitjacket, but to provoke them into asking new questions, finding novel solutions to old problems, and perhaps to produce stimulating kinds of disagreement. Finally, to conclude this Introduction, I offer a description of the way in which we have conceptualized the theme of ‘land and natural resources’ for the purpose of this volume.

MO DELLING L AND AND NATURAL RESOURCE EXPLOITATION IN THE ROMAN WORLD What follows is a necessarily highly selective discussion of past socio-economic analysis of land and natural resources in the Roman world. Its main purpose is to draw attention to some overarching approaches, or models, that have directly or indirectly guided such analyses, with the aim of comparing and contrasting these models with the approach to the study of land and natural resources that we wish to explore in this collection. Inevitably, in such an exercise much is overlooked, and subtleties are disregarded for the sake of clarity. The principal question with regard to the role played by land and natural resources in the Roman (or any) economy concerns the manner in which they were exploited, their mode of exploitation. Was such exploitation for instance mainly effected through the state and its dependencies (i.e. provincial urban governments), following hierarchical lines? Or was it mediated through the market, or through some historically specific mix of both these options? What, moreover, was the nature of the institutions and organizations involved in the exploitation of land and natural resources?

The market model Let us start with the issue of markets. Did factor markets actually exist in antiquity, or, more specific to our current topic, were there in effect functioning markets for land and natural resources in the Roman world? Most ancient economic historians in the period prior to the work of M. I. Finley (with the 5

NIE also provides the theoretical starting point for the Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World, see Scheidel et al. 2007. For some criticism of its application in that volume see Bang 2009. See Kehoe 2007 for an earlier attempt to employ NIE-based models in Roman agrarian history, and Lo Cascio 2006a for an NIE-approach to the role of the state/emperor in the Roman economy.

Introduction: Historiographical Perspective


notable exception of some sociologists and anthropologists interested in the ancient world, such as Max Weber and Karl Polanyi) would have answered such a question in the affirmative. The work of scholars like Tenney Frank and Michael Rostovtzeff, to mention only two of the most famous names from that generation, is generally empiricist. They had little time for explicitly applied interpretative models, social scientific or otherwise. At basis, however, and quite implicitly, their arguments were broadly and vaguely (neo)classical in kind: the economy of the Roman Empire was ruled by the laws of supply and demand, and economic actors were chiefly motivated by profit. Naturally, conditions for many peasants were primitive, the state did interfere on behalf of the population of Rome and the army, and cities strived for a degree of selfsufficiency, but overall market exchange was the leading factor in the economy.6 Thus Rostovtzeff could for instance describe the developments in Italy in the second century BCE preceding the Gracchan crisis as the introduction of a new ‘capitalist’ commercial agriculture by Rome’s leading ordines and a new ‘city bourgeoisie’, producing for an Italian urban and international market.7 In recent times, after the sustained attacks on it by Moses Finley and other scholars who stressed the limited nature of ancient markets and trade, this older, more empiricist ‘modernism’ has given way to a much more methodologically and theoretically sophisticated form of modernist/formalist argument. To mention but two examples, first, in the early 1990s Dominic Rathbone published a detailed study of the management of the Appianus estate in the Fayum district of Roman Egypt in the third century CE, based on the surviving extensive papyrus archive relating to the estate. His conclusion was clearly that the estate was an economically rationally managed agricultural enterprise producing for external markets. Its owners, according to Rathbone, were very much preoccupied with increasing the estate’s productivity, and, hence, their profit margins.8 As a second example, in recent years the economist and economic historian Peter Temin in a series of papers has developed the argument, while adopting an explicitly neoclassical economic perspective, that the Roman Empire was in fact a single integrated market economy, comparable to (parts of ) early modern Europe and America. On the question of a market for land, Temin writes: ‘[r]emarkably small local variation in Roman land prices ( . . . ) was the result of market exchanges, that is, of purchasers rushing to buy land that was offered cheaply and thinking long about buying expensive land’.9

6 ‘The period of Augustus and of his immediate successors was a time of almost complete freedom for trade and of splendid opportunities for private initiative’, in which Italians and provincials could ‘enter into the channels of a world-wide trade if they would’. Quotes combined from Frank 1933a: 407 and Rostovtzeff 1957: 54. 7 8 Rostovtzeff 1957: 17–23. Rathbone 1991. For a critical review see Kehoe 1993. 9 Temin 2001: 179. See now in particular Temin 2012b for a full exposition of a market-based approach to the Roman economy, with some attention devoted to institutional aspects.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

The market model in its purest neoclassical form has great merits, chiefly among which is that it is analytically very clear-cut. If we accept its central assumptions, it allows us to devise a seductively logical model of the functioning of the Roman economy (its structure), which we could then use to analyse Roman economic performance. Its clarity and simplicity are, however, at the same time also its main weaknesses. For in resolutely foregrounding the impersonal interplay of supply and demand, much of what is distinctive about Roman society and culture, the institutions, organizations, ideas, and mentalities that actually make up the cultural mix that we call ‘Roman’ are either overlooked or judged economically irrelevant or ‘irrational’. Thus precisely that which is historically interesting about the ancient past, those aspects of Roman society that are decidedly ‘un-modern’, is minimized or explained away. One of the strengths of an NIE approach (see subsection The NIE model), is that it holds the possibility of assigning an economic role to precisely those typically Roman institutions and organizations, as historically specific answers to the hidden costs of economic transactions ignored by conventional neoclassical analysis. Also, the market model begs a number of important questions in general, but also specifically relating to the theme of land and natural resources. Why, for instance, if markets were so ubiquitous and functioned so well, was the exploitation of some natural resources, particularly the mining of (precious) metals and quarrying, so dominated by the Roman state? Why, in addition, did the Roman state control so much agricultural land, for so long, as ager publicus?10 Why were members of the Roman elite not far more engaged in increasing the productivity of their landed estates than they seem to have been—‘satisficing’ rather than maximizing profit, according to some scholars (see next subsection)? Why was so much land inherited rather than bought or sold?11 And so on.

The substantivist model and its kin Time, then, to look at a different model. Dissatisfied with what he perceived as the anachronistic modernizing approach to ancient economic history championed by Rostovtzeff and others, the Cambridge ancient historian Moses Finley developed a radically different perspective. Inspired by Max Weber’s and Karl Polanyi’s analyses of pre-modern economies as qualitatively different from modern capitalism, Finley argued (though he never used the term itself) that in the ancient world, the economy was embedded in society. An ideology of agricultural self-sufficiency and status considerations governed and determined ancient economic behaviour. Ancient man maximized status instead of 10 11

A similar question could arguably be posed with regard to imperial estates. Even though land could be and indeed was often sold on after inheritance.

Introduction: Historiographical Perspective


profits, and used his economic resources to do so. This common cultural– psychological framework characterized both Greek and Roman society, and could thus be termed ‘the ancient economy’. Markets, although present, were local and regional, and reciprocity and state redistribution were as important as commerce in the allocation of goods. Most wealth was in land, most of which was owned by elites who used it to generate a secure income that allowed them to participate in the politics of the cities they governed, and to live the lifestyle appropriate to their status and position. Productive investment was almost entirely absent in most sectors of the economy. The prevailing mentality, and the economic behaviour that followed from it, differed so radically from the mentality and behaviour prevalent in capitalist market economies, Finley argued, that modern neoclassical economics, essentially a theory to explain (or rather legitimate) capitalism, could not be used to analyse the ancient economy.12 All this has serious consequences for an analysis of production factors in antiquity. In the Finley model, there is actually very little room for the development of factor markets. For instance, according to Finley, the ancient world lacked a concept of labour as a production factor. Paying a wage was viewed as buying the person, not his or her labour power. Consequently wage labourers and craftsmen were likened to slaves, and their situation was unbecoming of the freeborn citizen.13 Due to such ideological considerations, Finley argued, citizens were generally unavailable as labourers, and slaves and other unfree groups (e.g. the helots at Sparta) or semi-free groups such as freedmen often took their place. No proper labour market, in the modern sense, ever developed. The situation was similar with respect to capital (again, according to Finley and his students). Lending at interest was generally frowned upon, especially between citizens, and the citizen-elites of the ancient world generally lent and borrowed money among themselves interest-free, and mostly for nonproductive purposes. Since elites, who controlled most wealth, hardly invested in industry and trade, most traders and craftsmen were ‘small fry’: poor, low status individuals (freedmen, resident foreigners). Bankers reflected the status of their clientele, being mostly glorified pawnbrokers and money changers, apart from the small minority who acted as primitive banks of credit and deposit for that other small minority, inter-regional traders. With regard to capital goods, most of these tools and implements would have been made by the farmers and craftsmen themselves, and the same happened on the estates of the wealthy. An ideal of autarky prevailed. Because of all these factors, Finley argued, proper markets for financial capital or capital goods never really developed.


Finley 1985.


OCD s.v. labour (Paul Millett); Cartledge 2002.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

Property markets, finally, remained equally underdeveloped. Finley stressed that the inability of non-citizens to own land or real estate in Greek poleis, and the strong moral opprobrium incurred by any Greek or Roman citizen speculating with the ancestral patrimony, which one was supposed to keep intact for the next generation, prevented the development of a proper market for land. Most real property was inherited, and what was acquired came as windfall (another’s bad luck, economic, demographic, or otherwise), not through systematic profit maximizing investment strategies, the concept of which did not even exist. Land was not considered a commodity in the proper sense; ancient Greek and Latin had no words for professional ‘land-sellers’ or ‘property sellers’, and the linguistic situation surely reflected social reality: we have no attestations of people earning their living by buying and selling real estate.14 Yet if the allocation and exploitation of land and natural resources was not in the first place motivated by market incentives, as Finley thought, how then? One answer is the state. Roman emperors drew huge amounts of agricultural surplus as rents from their own estates and as taxes in kind from the provinces, which were then used to feed the populace of Rome and the armies, a clear example of state redistribution or administered trade that ‘was of singular importance under the Roman empire’.15 The state was also heavily involved in the exploitation of natural resources, e.g. mining and quarrying (though some of the work was farmed out to private contractors).16 In a recent study, Peter Bang has proposed that the distribution of landed property among the Roman imperial elite was largely a consequence of imperial rule and tribute extraction (Rome being a typical tributary empire), with the market playing only a subsidiary role at best. According to Bang, one mechanism was for senators and knights to extend usurious loans to provincial communities for the payment of taxes, and then to confiscate local land when the debtor community failed to repay (a common occurrence). Investment in provincial land of gains made from extortion and bribery while governor of a province was a further possibility.17 Another answer to our question is the household. Most peasants tried to minimize risks rather than maximize profits, and aimed generally for selfsufficiency, even if they had to generate a surplus for buying necessities they could not themselves produce (e.g. salt, iron) and to pay off rents, debts, and taxes. Various scholars, though not always agreeing with all aspects of Finley’s model, have furthermore stressed the ‘satisficing’ tendencies of Roman large 14

Finley 1981: 71–3, 1985: 117–20. Garnsey and Saller 1987: 48. For criticism of this position, see Lo Cascio 2006a, who emphasizes the role of the market. See also his chapter (Chapter 4) in this volume. 16 See Hirt 2010 and his chapter (Chapter 16) in this volume. 17 Bang 2008 esp. 93–110. 15

Introduction: Historiographical Perspective


landholders, who preferred a ‘low-risk, regular income, the corollary of which was an aversion to investment’.18 The Finley model has provided illuminating insights into many aspects of Greek and Roman economic life, and despite claims to the contrary, continues to be relevant in several respects (for one thing, the Weber/Finley model of the consumer city remains the best model available for analysing urban/rural economic relations in the ancient world).19 Yet Finley did seriously underestimate the role of markets (for production factors as well as for goods and services) in the Greco-Roman world, and the size and complexity of ancient trade, as recent research has made clear. He also overstated the psychological and institutional uniformity of the ancient world across time and space, effectively using his model of the economy of the Classical Greek polis as a template for the Roman economy, which it does not fit.20 The Roman economy was considerably more complex and dynamic than Finley allowed for. Yet the stress Finley and his students placed on mentalities, statuses, and institutions has proved salutary, and has prompted much fascinating research into the effects of these factors on economic activity. At the same time, Finley never did entertain the possibility that the institutional set-up of the GrecoRoman world (mentalities included) might actually also foster a certain degree of economic efficiency, given its specific historical context, rather than serve as a hindrance to growth, as he thought it did. This was so, on the one hand, because he was mainly concerned with structure rather than performance, but also, on the other, because, like Smith, Marx, Weber, and Pirenne before him, Finley sought the origins of the modern industrial capitalist economy with its sustained intensive growth in the commercial cities and expanding free markets of late medieval and early modern Europe. Since, in his view, the ancient world lacked such cities, such markets, and the whole mentality and incentive structure associated with capitalism, there could also be no per capita growth. However, this ignores the possibility, which an NIE approach allows us to entertain, that Roman economic development might have its origin in efficiencies generated by the Roman institutional set-up, which displayed its own, historically specific rationality, given the constraints to which Roman society was subject. Before we turn to our discussion of the NIE approach to land and natural resources, however, we first have to turn to another factor that the Finley model ignores, i.e. demography. 18 De Neeve 1990: 372; see also Kehoe 1992: Egyptian estate owners specialized only to a limited extent in profitable viticulture, preferring on the whole a less risky diversification of crops. Wilson 2009a: 215–16 briefly suggests a contrary view, based on the archaeological evidence for viticulture in Roman Egypt. See Marzano 2007 for a recent thorough reassessment of the social and economic role of villas in central Italy. 19 e.g. Erdkamp 2001; Scheidel 2007a who both stress, however, that, pace Finley, the model does not necessarily imply an ‘underdeveloped’ economy without growth. 20 Hopkins 1983 xi–xiv.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

Demographic models Ever since the work of Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, many scholars have considered the land/labour ratio a crucial variable in the economic history of pre-industrial societies. In brief, as the population rises, cultivable land, of which there is ultimately only a fixed amount, becomes scarcer. Consequently rents rise, benefiting landowners, while wages fall, as do the living standards of tenants and agricultural labourers. Social inequality increases. As the population continues to grow, remedies might be sought, such as bringing marginal lands into cultivation, or applying labour or capital more intensively to existing lands; but such strategies are increasingly ineffective due to diminishing returns. Eventually, a crisis point is reached, whereupon famine, disease, or conflict, or a combination of these, reduces population numbers. In this new situation, land is abundant, but labour is scarce. Hence rents decline but wages rise, and the living standards of small farmers and the working poor improve. Social inequality decreases. In such a model, the manner and intensity with which land and other resources (e.g. forests, fisheries) are exploited are largely a function of population. Historians and archaeologists might then go in search of signs that cycles such as the one crudely described above did in fact take place; that is, they might look for indications of intensification in agriculture (irrigation, terraces) and cultivation of marginal lands, or for evidence of rising or declining rents, wages, and prices of land and foodstuffs. Some scholars, notably Bruce Frier and Walter Scheidel, have argued that such a neo-Malthusian/neo-Ricardian model offers the best perspective on the Greco-Roman economies in the long run.21 The problem with such a model, however, is not that it is untrue, but that it often operates on a far larger timescale than that it on which most economic historians wish to concentrate, i.e. two or three centuries or more (from the late Republic until the demographic crisis of the Antonine Plague in the 160s CE, to the population recovery of the later third/early fourth centuries CE and onwards), whereas what we generally want to know is, for instance, how the Roman economy operated and performed in the (first half of the) first century CE. Another problem is that the model assumes that factor markets not only existed but functioned flawlessly, responding quickly to changes in the land/ labour ratio. But that, of course, is precisely something which we should investigate (and this volume is an attempt to do so), rather than accept as a given. Similar demographic trajectories, moreover, might result in varying social and economic outcomes in different regions, because of initial differences in socio-political relations and institutional arrangements, as Robert Brenner demonstrated for late medieval and early modern Western and


Frier 2001; Scheidel 2004.

Introduction: Historiographical Perspective


Eastern Europe.22 Could the same be true for different regions/provinces of the Roman Empire? Here, an NIE approach might prove particularly helpful. It has been argued that some pre-modern societies were able to stick quite closely to the Malthusian ceiling for a relatively long time, without descending into demographic crisis, i.e. that they were for some considerable time able to feed, clothe, and shelter fairly large numbers of people, even improving the living standard of sizeable groups among them.23 Some would argue that such an episode, such a period of ‘efflorescence’, is precisely what took place in the Roman Empire during the late republic and early principate.24 If, as some scholars have argued, innovation in Roman agricultural technology during this period (e.g. the spread of the watermill) did not lead to substantial and widespread productivity gains,25 might such efflorescence, if it indeed happened, in fact be mostly because of a more efficient organization of production, particularly in agriculture and resource exploitation? Did the early Roman Empire, ceteris paribus, have a comparatively efficient institutional set-up, stimulating growth? This brings us, finally, to the role of institutions.

The NIE model The NIE essentially developed out of the dissatisfaction of some economists with the mismatch between the descriptions and predictions of neoclassical models and real world outcomes. Why, for instance, if two economies start out with more or less exactly the same endowment, qualitatively and quantitatively, of production factors, does one economy grow while the other stagnates? Why, if the market is indeed the most efficient allocator of goods and resources, do firms actually exist? Markets, if left to themselves often do not produce the individual and social benefits that neoclassical economics predict. Why not? Institutions, was the answer of economist Ronald Coase, followed later by Douglass North, Oliver Williamson, and others. In the real world, transactions are costly. These hidden costs of economic activity, ‘search and enforcement costs, bargaining and decision costs, policing and enforcement costs’,26 in sum, transaction costs, generally overlooked by traditional neoclassical economics, are, according to the NIE, crucial to economic performance. Societies with institutions that, however unintentionally, are better at lowering such costs than the institutions of other societies are economically more efficient 22

Brenner 1976. The Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century CE is a good example; see de Vries and van der Woude 1997. 24 e.g. Jongman 2007b. 25 For contrasting views see Saller 2002 and Wilson 2002b. 26 Dahlman 1979: 148. Cited by Ogilvie 2007: 656. 23


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

than those other societies, and will thus experience (higher) per capita economic growth. What then are institutions? Douglass North defines them as ‘the rules of the game in a society or, more formally . . . the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction’.27 These can be made up of ‘formal constraints (rules, laws, constitutions), informal constraints (norms of behavior, conventions, and self-imposed rules of conduct), and their enforcement characteristics’.28 The character and structure of a society’s institutions is determined by that society’s shared mental models, that is, its value systems, mentalities, world view. The institutions, the ‘rules of the game’, in turn shape both the internal structure and the behaviour of organizations in society, that is, ‘groups of individuals bound by some common purpose to achieve objectives’, the ‘players of the game’.29 These can be groups of any kind, political, economic, religious, educational, and so on. Adopting this analytical framework for our purposes in this volume, we might then ask: did Roman society have an institutional set-up that encouraged the efficient exploitation of land and natural resources (through a lowering of the transaction costs involved in so doing)? For instance, did the structure of Roman property rights foster efficient land and real estate markets? Did Roman agricultural slavery or tenancy structures ensure the efficient exploitation of cultivable land? How efficient were Roman villas as agricultural enterprises? What about Roman peasants and their methods of cultivation? Did the Roman idealization of agriculture and the sturdy yeoman somehow contribute to the productivity of Roman agriculture? Did centuriation practices, colonial land distributions, the structure and exploitation of ager publicus stimulate efficiency and growth? What about irrigation practices, absentee landownership, extensive cattle ranching? How about the organization of Roman mining? Questions abound (see section entitled Defining Our Theme). Several caveats are in order, however, before we optimistically proceed with our analysis. These originate in a number of criticisms that can be and have been levelled against the NIE, both by ‘practitioners’ and outsiders. As we shall see, however, such criticism, when taken properly into account, has only served to strengthen the NIE model as a tool for economic historical analysis. First there is the issue of markets. Though the NIE was originally conceived as a means of refining neoclassical analysis while retaining the latter’s emphasis on price-setting markets, it soon turned out that a thinking through of the implications of transaction costs and institutional efficiency might lead to the conclusion that in some contexts, allocation via social organizations other than the market might actually be more efficient. This, according to Coase, is why firms exist even in modern market economies: ‘internalizing’


North 1990: 3.


North 1994: 360.


North 1990: 5.

Introduction: Historiographical Perspective


some transactions into organizations set up along hierarchical lines is simply less costly than leaving them to the market.30 This idea has relevance for our present topic as well: it might, for instance, provide the key to an explanation of why the Roman state was so heavily involved in some areas of natural resource exploitation or, more generally, why non-market forms of exchange such as reciprocity and government redistribution remained such enduring features of Greek and Roman economies. It also makes it easier to comprehend the great stress the Roman agronomists place on the relative autarky of their model estates (e.g. Varro, Agr. 1.16.4). North too has increasingly expressed doubts about a purely markets-andefficiency-centred approach to economics and economic history, even if institutional factors are taken into consideration: ‘Economists of a libertarian persuasion have for some time labored under the delusion that there is something called laissez faire and that once there are in place “efficient” property rights and the rule of law the economy will perform well without further adjustment.’31 The market is of course itself an institution. Rather than simply assume its existence and efficiency a priori, we should explain its origins and functioning in different historical settings.32 Humans, moreover, are not the completely rational beings, in possession of all the necessary information for making informed and rational choices, that neoclassical theory assumes them to be. Rather, human mental capacity is limited, and the information actors possess is always incomplete: thus human rationality is bounded. To compensate, humans devise ideas and ideologies (shared mental models) and institutions derived from them, the ‘rules of the game’. Yet there is no implication that such institutions are or should always be economically efficient, North argues.33 This leads on to a second criticism of NIE approaches, especially as applied to economic history. Enthralled by the possibilities offered by NIE to integrate an analysis of institutions into economic history, many economic historians have given all kinds of pre-modern institutions (serfdom, craft and merchant guilds, village communes, and so forth) an ‘efficiency makeover’.34 According to Sheilagh Ogilvie, in the terms of Alexander Pope, many NIE economists and economic historians consistently assume that ‘whatever is, is right’. There is however no intrinsic reason why a society’s institutions should necessarily be ‘efficient’, in the sense of lowering transaction costs and fostering economic growth. For instance, conflicts over the distribution of resources might all too 30

Coase 1937; North 1977; Bang 2009: 204. North 2005: 122. 32 For an attempt to do just that see Greif 2006; Boyer 2009 for some valiant criticism. 33 North 1992: 3, 1993: 1. 34 Ogilvie 2007 for this trenchant critique; the term ‘efficiency makeover’ appears on p. 654. The broadly NIE-inspired Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World is not entirely free of this tendency either; see Bang 2009: 203. 31


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

easily lead interest groups, especially if they possess coercive power in the form of a (partial) monopoly of violence, to promote an institutional set-up that benefits them and their allies at the expense of the rest of society.35 Thus Bang has recently argued that the Roman emperor and imperial and provincial elites might well have abused the coercive powers at their disposal in ever expanding their landholdings and thus their hold over the agricultural wealth of society. He concludes that such ‘rent-seeking of the Roman government and the landed aristocracy may be a very important part of the explanation why the Empire ( . . . ) was unable to derive full advantage from the blessings of peace’.36 Institutions can restrict access to resources to certain privileged groups (e.g. the rule that only Athenian citizens could legally own land or real estate in Attica) or set legal limits on participation in certain activities (e.g. the lex Claudia limiting senatorial involvement in maritime trade), arguably impairing economic development. Institutions might also become economically inefficient if they survive relatively unchanged into periods where the circumstances that prompted their creation no longer exist. Path dependence makes it costly to change institutions once they have become fully established and accepted, and stakeholders will resist change. Thus many an institution lives on long after its initial efficiency effect has ceased. Institutions, moreover, do not exist in isolation. They are generally part of an interconnected framework of institutions that support each other in various ways, and have evolved together over time. The institutions within such a framework might complement each other in such a way as to increase economic efficiency, but they might also do the opposite. Thus, in pre-modern economies or modern less developed countries ‘institutional interlinkages among markets’ might stimulate the ‘retention of existing techniques and institutions despite alternatives that are known to be more productive’ since ‘[a]ny innovation would disequilibrate an entire system of interlinked markets, and so is rejected unless it provides substitutes for everything it threatens to displace’.37 Thus institutional inefficiency can become systemically ingrained and persist over time, even despite the presence in the society in question of knowledgeable actors capable of designing better alternatives.38 None of the above criticisms, however, truly undermines the analytical usefulness of NIE for historians and archaeologists, if employed in a ‘catholic’ 35

36 North 2005: 51, 61–3, 67; Ogilvie 2007: 662–7. Bang 2009: 205. Ogilvie 2007: 675. 38 Refinements from within the field as described in the previous paragraphs in fact incorporate much of the traditional criticism against old-school neo-institutionalism, as recently restated forcefully by Boldizzoni 2011, i.e. that, despite its supposed critical attitude towards neoclassical theory, the market is still always and everywhere ahistorically placed centre-stage in NIE analysis, and that institutions are solely judged in terms of their efficiency contribution or viewed as consciously designed by historical actors with economic efficiency gains in mind. 37

Introduction: Historiographical Perspective


sense. NIE is probably best conceived of as a toolkit, an assembly of analytical concepts that can be used to study the causes of both economic growth and stagnation in historical and contemporary societies, and the mentalities and institutional frameworks that (intentionally or unintentionally) promoted or retarded such growth, fostered greater equality or inequality, and thus influenced the course of socio-economic development through time.39 If used with care and precision, these concepts arguably allow us to perform a finely tuned inspection of the ways in which land and natural resources were deployed in the Roman economy, and the economic effects of such exploitation. Ogilvie champions a multivariate approach,40 in which the origin, development, and functioning of institutions is studied simultaneously from an efficiency angle as well as from the perspective of the distributional conflicts to which they might give rise (rent-seeking and its effects).41 We should also, following North, pay serious attention to the ‘cultural’ origins of institutions, the ideologies and mentalities (shared mental models) that shape and determine their workings (without making the twin mistakes of assuming such world views to be static or regarding the relationship between ideas, institutions, and actions as simple and unproblematic).42 We should, furthermore, be aware of the accidental origin of some institutions, of contingency.43 To provide one obvious example, the geographical spread of Roman landsurveying techniques and agricultural practices (centuriation, the villa economy) was ultimately a consequence of the successes of Roman conquest. Once in place, however, such institutions continued to function for centuries.44 Finally, institutions can of course be economically inefficient, yet at the same time promote ‘efficiency’ in another social sphere, e.g. that of politics or religion. Using productive agricultural land as the capital base of a munificent foundation for what was, strictly economically speaking, wasteful expenditure on public buildings or games and festivals not only increased the symbolic capital of the donor, but as an act of euergetism also contributed to the maintenance of socio-political stability in the civic community, oiling the wheels of public life. Sacrificing to the gods substantial numbers of healthy livestock that for years on end would have gone on pulling ploughs and carts or producing milk, wool, and eggs might make little economic sense (though


For a similar argument in favour of NIE in Greek economic history see Morris 2001. Ogilvie 2007: 680–1. 41 Here we might, for instance, think of the conflicts of interest between the central authorities and local civic elites, or between cities and soldiers, which came sharply into focus during the crisis of the third century CE. 42 Denzau and North 1994. For a wide-ranging discussion of the role of cultural beliefs in shaping Roman economic behaviour and institutions see Verboven 2012. 43 Ogilvie 2007: 667–8, 675–9. 44 Alternatively, had for instance Carthage defeated Rome, an entirely different institutional set-up might have become the dominant pattern in Mediterranean lands. 40


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

the meat was often consumed by the community after the sacrifice) but satisfied a deep social and psychological need through maintaining the pax deorum and hence significantly reduced the level of anxiety in society. Thus, the NIE offers us the means to take into account and analyse productively a wide range of possible outcomes of the Roman use and exploitation of land and natural resources.

DEFINING OUR THEME Despite its obvious importance to our understanding of Roman economic life, the theme of land and natural resources as such has, as mentioned above, received scant attention in recent Roman economic history. As I hope the foregoing has made clear, it is nonetheless a topic that allows a rich and diverse exploration of Roman productive practices, especially, the editors would argue, when approached from a broad NIE perspective. How then might we define ‘land and natural resources’? What should we include, what do we leave out? For the purposes of this volume, the editors thought it best to adopt a broad definition and to include the exploitation of uncultivated lands (hunting and gathering, grazing, logging) and fishing as well as techniques to bring new land under cultivation, all types of farming, mining, and quarrying, but also e.g. the exploitation of deposits of clay, sand, and chalk for the making of ceramics, mortar, and bricks, the harnessing of the power of wind and water, techniques of irrigation, and the management of water for washing, drinking, waste disposal, and so on. Horden and Purcell offer a useful concept with their focus on ‘connectivity’, which encompasses not just the connectivity of geographical regions, but also the integration of various non-urban activities, many of which were organized within the context of large landholdings and estates (villas).45 This suggests that it might be profitable to take into account both agriculture and animal husbandry as such (i.e. the ecological aspect) as well as the investigation of the wider context of rural activities, that is, economic activities occurring in the countryside (the social and economic aspect). The discussion of agriculture in relation to economic and demographic growth in turn points the way to such topics as the determinants of land productivity, the spread and development of agricultural techniques, and the degree of integration of arable farming and animal husbandry. It also seems of vital importance to study the exploitation, processing, and distribution of various natural resources (agricultural and non-agricultural) in 45

Horden and Purcell 2000.

Introduction: Historiographical Perspective


their interaction with each other. To give one example: iron ore (rather than finished goods) was used as ballast in ships sailing towards Africa, while these ships in turn transported olive oil from Africa to outside consumers. Therefore, iron ore and olive oil were part of an integrated trading system. Hence, we might well include changes in the markets (supply, demand, the nature of trading channels) for agricultural goods and natural resources, in particular from the point of view of the integration of the trade in agricultural and nonagricultural goods. The actions of both private and public actors, that is, individuals, organizations, local and regional polities, and the state, provide a further necessary dimension. This means that we include as part of our theme possible economic implications of political and administrative decisions and actions regarding land and natural resources that did not have immediate acquisitive aims, such as, e.g. centuriation practices and agrarian legislation. What was the role of the ager publicus under the republic, of imperial estates under the empire, and of church property in late antiquity? What effect did the creation of a new imperial ‘bureaucratic’ elite in late antiquity have on the (re)distribution of land and natural resources? How did the annona affect the production, processing, and distribution of agricultural products? Many of these themes, topics, and issues are addressed, explicitly or implicitly, in the chapters written by our contributors. Naturally, not each and every subject could be dealt with in great detail, or even dealt with at all, but since this volume is by no means envisioned as ‘the last word’ on the theme of land and natural resources in the Roman world (if that were even possible), but rather as a stimulus to further research, this does not much matter. A great deal of fascinating work remains to be done, both in terms of model building and data gathering, and that is as it should be. If this volume should prove to be an inspiration to scholars to undertake such further study, then its purpose will have been served.46


I would like to thank my co-editors Paul Erdkamp and Koenraad Verboven and the anonymous reviewers for OUP for many helpful comments.

2 Agriculture, Division of Labour, and the Paths to Economic Growth Paul Erdkamp


Economic Growth in the Roman World We live in an era in which economic growth at a rate of a few percentage points per year is regarded as more or less the norm. Any lower, and we are in crisis. In all societies up until the modern era economic growth was comparatively low or non-existent. Some societies did indeed achieve economic growth for prolonged periods at a rate that was high at least in pre-industrial terms. China, for instance, whose economy is now growing at the speed of a runaway train, experienced much economic progress in the eighteenth century, leading some modern historians to ask why China did not continue on the same path as the European economy did after 1800. The same question has been raised concerning the Roman Empire. However, it might be more useful to first ask to what extent the Roman Empire did indeed experience economic growth and what causes we may identify to explain what growth there was. I do not think that anyone would still argue that stagnation rather than growth characterized the economy of the Roman world, or the ancient world in general. Various indicators of economic growth have been pointed out, varying from pollution in the Greenland ice cap to Mediterranean shipwrecks.1 The extent of urbanization itself can be used as an indication of economic performance. In comparison to rural dwellers, people in cities tend to produce less essential goods.2 An increase in urbanization means that the 1

For example, Jongman 2007a; Bowman and Wilson 2009. According to the economist Kuznets 1966: 271 urbanization represents ‘an increasing division of labour within the country, growing specialization, and the shift of many activities from nonmarket-oriented pursuit within the family or the village to specialized market-oriented 2

Labour and the Paths to Economic Growth


economy is able to sustain a higher level of non-essential consumption.3 But our study of growth is hampered by the fact that we cannot really measure economic growth in the Mediterranean area in this period, nor can we really measure economic performance in production or distribution at any given time. Our quantifications are inevitably in very rough and relative terms, like ‘more’ or ‘less’, ‘much’ or ‘to a large extent’. We simply do not have the same range of data that would allow us to analyse developments over time with the same kind of statistical accuracy that is possible for later societies. And insofar as we do possess quantifiable data on some economic aspects, the blind spots that remain mean that we cannot explain what happened without employing models that have been developed for other, later societies. To begin with, the phrase ‘economic growth’ can mean different things.4 There was ‘extensive economic growth’ in the sense that the Roman world covered over time a wider geographical area, while also the population of this area increased significantly from the early first millennium BC to the first half of the first millennium AD. However, this is growth in the sense of expansion, resulting in ‘more of the same’: a bigger economy, but not necessarily with higher levels of production or consumption. The more interesting question is to what extent ‘intensive growth’ led to significant structural change. Intensive economic growth is defined by the increase of per capita production and consumption of goods and services.5 If there was economic growth in this sense, the economy must have grown faster than the population. The distinction between extensive and intensive growth is vital for the kind of economic process that we may envision. If the population grew in combination with an increase in per capita income, this meant that the market for goods and services expanded. This in turn widened the scope for the division of labour, as each specialist found a bigger market for his/her particular good or service. A bigger market meant more stability and less risk. The market also became bigger if the geographical scale of distribution increased, i.e. as supralocal market integration was improved. As Adam Smith pointed out, division of labour raised overall levels of productivity and production, and was thus an important factor in achieving structural economic growth. Increased availability of non-essential goods, moreover, stimulated both agricultural production and the urban economy. These developments, however, should not be seen as inevitable and did not happen automatically, as various conditions

business firms’. Nevertheless, we should be careful to equate ‘urban’ with ‘non-agricultural’ when discussing ancient economic growth. See Erdkamp 2012. 3 Lo Cascio 2009b: 87–106. In general, Persson 2010: 32, 64–7. 4 Cf. Saller 2002: 257–8. For a survey of different kinds of ‘economic growth’, see Goldstone 2002. 5 Temin 2012a: 61.


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regarding market integration, transport, transaction costs, and the employment of labour had to be met.6

Specialization ‘Smithian’ growth is based on the productivity gains that were the result of increased market integration and specialization, triggering a process of growth as the various determinants of economic performance spiralled upwards in a movement of mutually enforcing improvement. Market integration may be taken as the starting point of these interlocking developments.7 Improved market integration increased the scope for specialization, as it lowered the threshold of risk and effort in connecting supply and demand. One may distinguish two forms of specialization: regional and individual. A higher degree of regional specialization allowed farmers to concentrate on those crops to which soil and climate were best suited, thus improving levels of soil and labour productivity in agriculture. Specialization in certain crops also lowered the threshold for investing capital in the installation and tools required for these activities. Regarding the Tiber valley, for example, Goodchild notes a shift in the site location in the ager Veientanus that may reflect a shift in cropping strategies away from grains to olives, vines, or animal grazing. The ager Veientanus was at the heart of Italy, a region that had been intensively cultivated for centuries and where the scope for clearance of new land was limited.8 If the economy of central Italy grew, it was not so much in the sense of extensive growth, i.e. expansion, but in the sense of intensive growth, i.e. improved performance. It is important to note that not only the geographic conditions of soil and climate stimulated specialization, but also the economic and demographic conditions of agriculture. Population growth increased pressure on the land, reducing plot size and increasing labour input per acre. Under such conditions, labour-intensive crops like olives and grapes allowed more efficient use of available labour than did relatively labour extensive crops like barley or wheat. We may, for instance, think of the smallholder depicted in Ps.-Vergil’s Moretum, who cultivated various vegetables on part of his land that he, so the poem tells us, did not eat himself, but brought to the local food market. Likewise, the cultivation of non-edibles that were used in manufacture allowed a better use of available land, as the income from even a relatively small plot 6 A recent long-term study concludes that increased market integration in Europe, though falling short of being a sufficient condition, was a necessary condition for Smithian growth (Chilosi et al. 2013); cf. Bateman 2011, who argues that development of the domestic market is more important for economic growth than large-scale integration within Europe. 7 Grantham 1993; 1999. However, see Bateman 2011: 466. 8 Goodchild 2006; 2009; Goodchild and Witcher 2010.

Labour and the Paths to Economic Growth


might earn sufficient money to buy more staple foods than could be grown on the same plot of land directly. As more labour could be fruitfully absorbed by labour intensive crops, labour productivity improved even more.9 At the same time, cash crops provided the raw material for the non-food producing sectors.10 Individual specialization raised productivity levels as a result of increased expertise and lower thresholds for capital investment. Improved market function allowed increasing specialization in smaller segments of the market, resulting in more expertise in the tasks that were executed and thus in higher labour productivity. The female labourers mentioned by Pausanias (7.21.14), who specialized in producing linen headdresses and dresses in the town of Patrae, probably reached higher levels of productivity than rural women who spun yarn and made clothing as part of their wider household tasks.11 Increased specialization in one sector also lowered the threshold for investing capital in those tools and equipment that eased the production process and/or improved labour productivity. One might think of looms or—even more capital intensive—fulleries in textile production. Population growth and urbanization stimulated specialization, as they resulted in higher densities of potential buyers and sellers, and thus lowered transportation and transaction costs. For this reason, specialization is more a feature of the urban economy than of the countryside. It is not so much that there are more potential customers in the city, but rather that they are concentrated, while in the countryside buyers and sellers are widely distributed, thereby increasing the threshold for specialization.12 Hence, in big cities one finds artisans who make the upper or lower halves of shoes, as Xenophon (Cyropaedia 8.2.5) writes, while in the countryside the carpenter might make chairs, tables, and even build the house. Increased specialization itself creates better conditions for specialists, as George Grantham points out, as it lowers the extent of autarky and at the same time increases the number of people offering goods and services. Hence, as specialization increases, the artisan will find more customers, and at the same time more people that offer the services and goods that he requires, such as transportation, food, and tools. In other words, in so-called thick markets (in contrast to thin markets with low densities of buyers and sellers) lower transaction costs again increase levels of productivity. The thicker the market, the smoother runs the economy.13 For

9 A similar link has recently been proposed (Geraghty 2007) between Italian production of wine and Egyptian cultivation of wheat. However, while the method utilized in this article is potentially fruitful, the variables as used here are often crude and outdated. 10 Regarding England, see Wrigley 2006: 460–5. 11 On women’s textile work, see Erdkamp 2005: 90–4. 12 On the economic relations of buyers and sellers in Rome, see Holleran 2012. 13 Grantham 1999: 217–22.


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these reasons, the ager Veientanus undoubtedly profited directly and indirectly from the proximity of Rome’s huge market and from the population density of central Italy in general. In short, the essence of Smithian growth is that it raises total production and productivity levels of land and labour—and, undoubtedly, capital as well—by changing the conditions of economic activities without requiring any significant innovation.

TECHN OLO GY, I NNOVATION, AND GRO WTH Let me start, however, with an assumption underlying a predominantly pessimistic scenario that is prevalent in recent publications regarding the Roman world. Bruce Frier, Walter Scheidel, and Peter Temin all seem to agree that, lacking any significant technological progress, the ancient world could not escape the detrimental effects of population growth.14 Walter Scheidel has argued that insufficient innovation and technological change in the ancient world merely allowed economic expansion, but ruled out significant economic growth. The main processes that furthered economic growth did so mostly in terms of lateral expansion and not so much in terms of intensification and innovation.15 Ester Boserup’s model of economic growth famously postulated that population growth was not merely a dependant of changes in productivity, but was itself a determinant of changes in production. Land is a limited good, and as the population grew, the cultivators of the soil were forced to make better use of it, leading to changes in agricultural technology that generally meant an increase in labour input in order to increase soil productivity. However, Scheidel sees little evidence for technological responses to population pressure in the ancient world beyond mainland Greece in classical times.16 ‘Given low levels of technological change, living standards may more commonly have been manipulated through institutional arrangements that governed the rate of surplus extraction via rents, taxes, tribute, serfdom, and slavery, without significantly altering average consumption levels in the population as a whole.’17 In other words, predation may have forced surplus production upwards, and population growth may have induced the ceiling of total production to have lifted, but per capita income remained low owing to

14 15

Frier 2001: 139–59; Scheidel 2007a: esp. 50–74; Temin 2012a: 60–9; cf. Harris 2011: 27–9. 16 17 Scheidel 2007a: 52. Scheidel 2007a: 53. Scheidel 2007a: 55.

Labour and the Paths to Economic Growth


the absence of sufficient technological change. In short, the population was caught in a Malthusian poverty trap.18 The predominant pessimistic view on the scope for meaningful per capita growth in the Roman world leads to two questions: (1) Was meaningful technological innovation indeed absent in the Roman world? (2) Was new technology indeed a precondition for sustained per capita growth? Andrew Wilson pointed to several instances of the introduction of new technology in the Roman world.19 Typically, these were not so much Roman inventions, as the theory behind them stemmed from Hellenistic times; but the widespread application of these technologies had to await the Roman period. The most important example studied by Wilson might be the watermill and water-lifting devices, remains of which can be found throughout the empire. The watermill is a significant technological step, as it opened up a new source of energy in a world that—except for sailing—largely utilized animal and human power, as the latter depended on food and thus were dependent on the land. Water-powered installations were used to mill grain, to crush ore in mines, and to saw stone and wood. The huge installation of sixteen watermills that were fed by an aqueduct near Barbegal in Gaul—probably milling the grain for nearby Arles—constitutes the most impressive example of this technological innovation in the Roman world. Another example of the practical use of new technology is the screw-operated olive press. Many costly multi-press installations are known throughout the Roman world, in particular in Gaul, Istria, and Africa. The examples studied by Annalisa Marzano shed light on the willingness of Roman landowners to invest in costly equipment.20 Despite these examples of technological innovation, one may doubt whether these really significantly altered the nature of agricultural or industrial production. While there is no denying the importance of the availability of energy,21 the changes in energy availability brought about by these techniques were not revolutionary. Compared to the total energy consumption their impact was rather limited. More significant may have been the increase in the size of livestock, in particular oxen, as shown by the study of animal bones. Wrigley has shown that larger oxen and horses in medieval England, which were a result of improvements in the feeding and breeding of livestock, tremendously increased the energy that was available to the workforces on rural estates.22 If we may apply this finding to the similar increase of livestock in Roman times, there may have been an epochal increase of energy utilization on the land of wealthy farmers. The size of oxen on Roman sites clearly


The question whether economic growth was inevitably followed by a concomitant rise in population is beyond the scope of this article. I will deal with this issue in a forthcoming publication. 19 20 Wilson 2002b. See also Schneider 2007. Marzano 2013a. 21 22 See for example Goldstone 2002: 361. Wrigley 2006: 451–3.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

reflected their use in traction. We may quote MacKinnnon’s study of the zooarchaeological evidence concerning cattle: ‘Width and depth measures for Etruria/Latium jump dramatically from Republican to Imperial times, more than corresponding height increases. This implies stockiness was selected for first, before height. Local agricultural, dietary, and transport needs, tied to Rome’s growth, may have necessitated stockier, meatier, more muscular cattle be bred initially to cope.’23 Oxen were fed from the land, and this development reflects as much an improvement of agricultural methods as a revolution in energy use. Nevertheless, despite the positive impact on agricultural labour productivity by such Roman techniques as watermills, oil presses, and improved livestock, it would go too far to argue that such innovations by themselves caused per capita income of the entire population to be significantly raised. This leads us to the second question: is technological advancement a precondition for economic growth? George Grantham has answered this question negatively. In his view the emphasis on technology—or, for that matter, other exogenous factors such as climate change or changes in social values—stems from a misconception that he calls the doctrine of exhausted opportunity.24 The assumption underlying the reliance on technological change to explain economic growth is that the productive capacities of a society are always fully realized. In other words, each society shows the highest levels of production that are possible given its resources and technology. Logically, if this were the case, any increase in production would require conditions to change, either by a revolution that brings a more commercially minded elite into power, a benevolent climate change, or the introduction of new technologies. Grantham denies the validity of this assumption, pointing out for example that, in contrast to the traditional view there were no revolutionary techniques that explain the huge increases in agricultural productivity in western Europe in the High Middle Ages. He also criticizes the focus on production as the motor behind economic development, as this approach sees increases in production as the cause of progress and the rest as following on from it. Grantham argues that, if societies perform under their productive potential, the motor behind economic development may have to be sought in those economic conditions that hamper the fuller realization of latent productive capacity. Hence, change is driven by wider developments, not simply production. A reversal of the causality, assigning a causal role to consumption rather than production, also characterizes other recent approaches to European economic history, such as de Vries’s ‘Industrious Revolution’, which argues that increases in production are a response to changes in consumer behaviour. According to de Vries, the increased 23 24

MacKinnon (Chapter 14 in this volume). See also Kron 2002. Grantham 1999, esp. 204–5.

Labour and the Paths to Economic Growth


availability of consumer goods to the common people from the sixteenth century onwards triggered a widening in the employment of labour and, hence, an increase in the input of labour. In sum, changes in market conditions, not technology, drove economic development. If the market for a certain product changed, then different production methods might become more attractive.25 The examples of technological change that we have seen above fit this approach very well, as it was not so much the technology that was new in Roman times, but the conditions that allowed its widespread employment. The stable demand for olive oil in Rome and other cities of the Roman world lowered the threshold for capital investment and thus stimulated landowners to build multi-press installations on their estates. In a similar way, the widespread utilization of water technology, the theory of which was a product of Hellenistic times, was a response to changed conditions, which stimulated landowners and authorities to invest their money in costly installations and equipment. Likewise, changes in the size and stature of cattle, made possible by better feeding practices, reflected growing demands for meat and transport capacity in the intensively growing economy of central Italy.

AGRICULTURE AND UNDEREMPLOYMENT At first sight, it might seem that population growth in such regions as the ager Veientanus did indeed put stress on surplus production, leading to a decrease in non-food producing sectors. One could argue that, if all things else remained equal, population growth would have resulted in a lowering of labour and soil productivity in agriculture. Population growth would lead to the increasing use of marginal lands, thus lowering average soil productivity. As demographic growth would be insufficiently compensated by the clearance of new land, the input of labour per unit of land would increase. As a result of diminishing returns, the productivity per unit of labour would decline. The combination of lower soil and labour productivity would decrease surplus production, thus causing shrinkage of the economy in per capita terms. In my view, obviously this is not what happened. Many parts of the Roman world, including the ager Veientanus, went down a different path. The mistake in the above argument is that it focuses too much on soil productivity and does not allow for large increases that could be achieved in labour productivity. As economic historian Robert Allen observed in his study of agricultural productivity in Europe between 1300 and 1800: ‘Crop yields have received considerable 25

De Vries 2008; cf. Allen 2003: 430: the success of English agriculture was a response to market conditions, not an autonomous cause. See also Allen and Weisdorf 2011.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

attention [ . . . ] However, labour productivity is arguably a more important variable in explaining the transition to an urban, industrial economy.’26 With regard to the pre-industrial Low Countries and England, part of the explanation for economic growth in the face of a rising population has to be sought in the utilization and employment of labour. In his study of the division of labour in pre-industrial France, George Grantham pointed out a discrepancy between the proportion of the population that was employed in agriculture and the theoretical productivity of labour employed in agriculture. ‘The share of the population strictly required to sustain a minimum level of subsistence was probably at most 40 per cent; in agriculturally advanced regions it was about one-third.’27 In reality, however, the share of agriculture in the division of labour was much higher than that. Early modern Italy shows exactly the same picture. On the one hand, Italian agriculture was characterized by a high level of soil productivity; on the other hand, however, the agricultural sector was over-manned, leading to low labour productivity. What distinguished British agriculture around 1800 from Italy and France was not soil productivity, as this was similar to that in other western European countries, but labour productivity, which was much higher than in surrounding countries.28 In England a mere 40 per cent of the population did indeed work on the land.29 So, if Goodchild and Witcher estimate that one countrydweller (i.e. food producer) was enough to feed four city-dwellers (i.e. nonfood producers), this might reflect more the agricultural potential of the ager Veientanus than its actual performance.30 We may learn from the comparison with pre-industrial Europe that it may not have been so much soil fertility or agricultural technology that limited the size of non-agricultural sectors. It was rather the underdevelopment of nonagricultural sectors, as a result of which too many people worked the land, that caused high levels of structural underemployment, which in turn limited labour productivity in agriculture and thus the size of the surplus. The extent of the underemployment of available labour is a crucial factor that is usually left out of the analysis of economic growth in antiquity.31 Changes in surplus production in the Mediterranean region were probably much more the result of changes in the structure of landholding and the wider economy than of technological innovation.


27 28 Allen 2000: 1. Grantham 1993: 487. Allen 1988: 117–18. Grantham 1993: 487; Wrigley 2006: 454; Broadberry et al. 2013. 30 Ancient agriculture was able to produce levels of soil productivity that were similar to those in early modern Italy or France. On comparative levels of productivity of smallholders, tenants, and large estates, see Erdkamp 2005: 12–54. On yields, see also Spurr 1986; Sallares 1991; Kron 2008. 31 Significantly, underemployment does not occur in Scheidel’s model of real income growth in Italy. Scheidel 2007b. 29

Labour and the Paths to Economic Growth


Agriculture in pre-industrial societies has been designated a ‘residual employer’, meaning that that part of the population that could not find employment outside agriculture was employed on the land. A comparison of levels of soil and labour productivity between smallholders, tenants, and estates shows that the low levels of surplus produced by smallholders are mainly due on average to an unfavourable ratio between land and household members. Technologically, ancient agriculture was able to produce levels of soil productivity that were similar to those in early modern Italy or France. Hence, changes in surplus production were much more the result of changes in the structure of landholding than of technological innovation. The extent to which smallholders employed their labour in strategies other than subsistence farming depended on the one hand on the availability of employment and on the demand for the goods and services they could produce, on the other on the urge to do so. In his seminal study of the Russian rural economy, the soviet economist Alexander Chayanov pointed out that the Russian peasantry’s use of available labour was determined by their production goals.32 Russian peasants aimed not merely at survival, but desired a certain, albeit low, level of non-essential consumption. Hence, their production goals were somewhat above subsistence. In order to adjust their production to their production goals, farmers can adjust the input of labour, capital, and/or land. In general, the high input of one production factor will reduce its productivity, but increase that of the other factors. This basic fact also underlies Boserup’s model of growth. Take for example primitive farmers engaged in ‘slash and burn’ practices. They invest relatively little labour in vast stretches of land, resulting in high labour productivity and low soil productivity. As population grows, less land is available, forcing farmers to invest more labour in less land, leading to lower levels of labour productivity, which is compensated by working harder and higher levels of soil productivity. If plots are small, farmers have to work hard just to make do, unless they have the capital and opportunity to invest in profitable cash crops. In order to reach their production goal, Russian peasants primarily adjusted their input of labour. Available capital was minimal, and land was treated as a given factor, as the size of the land was not easily adjusted to the size of the household. In theory, high availability of land could have resulted in relatively low input of labour or in the increase of production goals. In reality, the low availability of land had to be compensated by higher input of labour. Hence, in order to achieve the desired production goals, Russian peasants adjusted the input of labour to available land. Higher input of labour increased levels of soil productivity at the expense of low levels of labour productivity. Hence, further


Chayanov 1966.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

increasing production goals under conditions of high pressure on the land required very high input of labour, which meant that many more hours of work would have been necessary to make the land yield slightly more produce. The need to work hard to earn a little more depressed the Russian peasantry’s consumption. Chayanov used the idea of ‘drudgery avoidance’ to explain that peasants would rather have not worked at all than maximize their output. In the absence of sufficiently attractive alternative ways of employment, there simply was insufficient incentive to work harder. If peasant households realized sufficient income to support their members at a level they regarded as adequate, not working at all was a valid option. Hence, high levels of underemployment, and at the same time low production goals, were the result.33 In most pre-industrial societies members of peasant households were rarely engaged solely on the land, and the same goes for their work animals. Hence, it is impossible to equate rural labour with agricultural labour. The labour present in smallholding households was divided between agricultural employment and subsidiary employment. The subsidiary employment of human and animal labour within the peasant household consisted of seasonal employment outside the farm, for instance in transport or construction, but also involved the processing of raw materials like flax and wool, and the manufacture of finished goods, such as textiles. Since these workers already invested much labour in the land, any additional input of labour on their farms resulted in little additional output from the land. Thus, the opportunity cost of subsidiary employment was low.34 In other words, employing part of the labour outside the farm did not cost much in terms of lost farm production. Hence, the income resulting from the subsidiary employment of labour did not need to be high to constitute an attractive alternative to work on the farm. It is important to distinguish subsistence needs from desired living standards. Desired living standards, which were above subsistence level, and in many cases also the need to pay rents and/or taxes, stimulated the use of available labour. However, while the farm did not offer full employment for available labour, this does not mean that the farm did not fulfil the basic subsistence needs of the members of the household. Under normal circumstances, the members of most smallholding households were largely or fully sustained by the farm, which meant that the income of subsidiary labour could be below subsistence levels. In early modern Europe much labour in nonagricultural sectors consisted of subsidiary peasant labour. De Vries states that, while the European population remained overwhelmingly rural until the nineteenth century, the rural population became increasingly engaged in

33 34

Chayanov 1966. On the economic concept of ‘opportunity cost’, see Temin 2012a: 57.

Labour and the Paths to Economic Growth


non-agricultural activities.35 I would suggest that subsidiary labour became increasingly important in the Roman world too.36

SUBSIDIARY LABOUR IN TH E ROMAN WORLD Non-agricultural labour in pre-industrial societies is closely linked to agriculture, and this was undoubtedly also the case in the Roman world. I have argued elsewhere that, just as in later times, much seasonal work in the city and the countryside was performed by seasonal workers from the countryside. For example, long-distance shipping was limited to the period from March to October, which meant that economic activity in harbours showed an annual cycle of peak labour demand in summer and a slack period in winter. Ships were loaded and unloaded by hand, which meant that in cities like Ostia and Puteoli thousands of stevedores were employed during the summer, but not during the winter months. It is very unlikely that this was servile work, as it would have been unprofitable for slave-owners to hire out their slaves for only half of the year. It is equally unlikely that the free urban populace performed these jobs, as they would have been unemployed during winter, and incomes were not high enough to build up reserves to tide them over until work resumed, the more so as grain prices would rise in winter and early spring. Not only are seasonal workers from the countryside the most likely option, we find support for that in the annual migration of seasonal workers in early modern Italy, who, coming from the Apennines or lower Alps, found work in cities like Rome, Florence, Milan, and Turin. Land transportation offers another example, not only regarding the seasonal employment of men, but in particular of the main source of traction in heavy transport: oxen. Just as in later times, farm oxen would be employed in transportation precisely at the time of year that they were not needed on the land. The building inscriptions of Eleusis in fourth-century Greece offer the best illustration of this phenomenon, but it must have been more widespread.37 One may ask why rural households would employ labour above subsistence needs. Part of the answer is opportunity cost, which refers to the income that is 35 de Vries 2008: 94. Grantham estimated that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, between one-quarter and one-half of the working population in France invested their labour in both agriculture and other sectors. 36 Hence, I disagree with the assumptions underlying Lo Cascio’s estimate of output per worker on the basis of the urbanization rate. He assumes ‘that we can consider the rural population not engaged in agricultural activities as not substantial’ and ‘that the time allocation between agricultural and non-agricultural work for all workers is constant’ (Lo Cascio 2009b: 93). Both assumptions are invalid. 37 In more detail, Erdkamp 1999, 2001, 2008.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

lost by employing labour in one way rather than the other. As we have seen, the law of diminishing returns implies that additional work on the farm would yield less and less income. At some point the income of that same labour outside the farm will yield a higher income. In particular when the higher demand for labour raises wages in summer, it becomes more profitable to perform unskilled work in a harbour or urban construction than work additional hours on the farm. Part of the answer is to buy goods or services that smallholders cannot produce themselves, such as iron tools, large storage vessels, ropes, etc. and to pay taxes and rents in cash. One might argue that, unlike in Russia, the land market in the Roman world was sufficiently flexible to allow smallholders to adjust the land they cultivated to the labour present in their households. In Egypt we see that smallholders would lease plots of land, possibly at those times in their family cycle when the number of workers within their household was high. Insofar as smallholders leased land, they improved their labour productivity.38 However, we should not overestimate the extent to which smallholders in central Italy, for example, could lease additional land. Both population growth and the expansion of large landownership increased the competition for land. Large landowners probably preferred prosperous tenants, who were willing to work their land intensively under long-term contracts, not smallholders who were temporarily seeking to add some fields to their farm. Lack of capital and aversion of the risks involved would have been further impediments for smallholders adjusting land to household size. Most importantly, we should see these as alternative, not conflicting, strategies. Smallholders will have weighed the advantages of leasing additional land against those of increasing subsidiary employment, in each case depending on a wide range of variables, including local landownership structure, marketing opportunities for various crops, soil quality, household composition, employment opportunities, financial reserves, and possible assistance to relatives and patrons. All these options were part of the smallholder’s subsistence strategy, but the point is that conditions changed and thus also the strategies that smallholders adopted.

Population growth and the division of labour in city and countryside As we have seen, economic developments occurred against a background of demographic growth in both city and countryside. It is generally agreed that during the early Roman Empire the number and size of cities grew more than the population at large. In other words, to a large extent population growth 38

Rowlandson 1996: 202–79.

Labour and the Paths to Economic Growth


occurred in towns and cities. Now, what was the effect of population growth on the division of labour between agricultural and non-agricultural employment and on the balance between rural and urban population? Although speculative, we may sketch the following scenario: as the population grew, the availability of land decreased, thus lowering the marginal product of agricultural labour. Growth of the rural population required the intensification of agricultural labour and the shift to more labour-intensive crops. The point at which it became more useful to cultivate cash crops and to employ labour outside the farm (and also the need to do so) shifted towards an increase in subsidiary employment. The shift towards non-agricultural labour resulted in the more than proportionate increase of the non-food producing sectors, in both the rural and urban context. In short, as a result of population growth (1) high levels of underemployment were transferred into higher levels of agricultural and non-agricultural employment; (2) there was an increased shift towards the city. One feature of the increased utilization of labour available in society is the likely increase of seasonal and temporary migration.39 Seasonal migration is not so much a response to slack periods on smallholders’ farms as to the increased opportunities to earn a good income outside one’s farm at certain times of the year. Seasonal workers occur in our sources, for instance in the story of Vespasian’s grandfather who brought workers from Umbria to gather the harvest in the Sabine district (Suet. Vesp. 1.4). One can also think of the use of oxen in the transportation of heavy building material precisely at a time when their labour was not required on the land. The records of Eleusis, for example, show that building material was transported between July and September, i.e. the time of year that the animals were not needed on the land.40 Comparison with later times up to the early twentieth century clarifies the economics of seasonal migration. Interestingly, seasonal migrants in the Mediterranean world did not necessarily leave their farms when there was least work to do on their land, as one would expect if seasonal underemployment was the driving force behind this phenomenon. Instead, they often left the women, young children, and old folks in their households to do the harvesting and processing of the crops. The timing of their seasonal employment on the estates of the rich landowners, in transportation and urban construction, was determined by the peak in demand for labour, and thus the peak in wages that could be earned.41 The point is that increased employment opportunities during this time of year induced rural households to make better use of available labour. The cyclical nature of the general economy that was enforced by agriculture and the seasonality of shipment ensured that also

39 41

40 Erdkamp 2008, esp. 424–37. Salmon 2001: 199–200. On seasonal labour in early modern Europe, see Moch 1992; Hoerder 2002.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

in the Roman world there was a similar annual cycle of expansion during summer and contraction during winter. Temporary migration is a response to the combination of changes in a household’s composition, which resulted in low productivity and thus low opportunity cost of certain members of the household at certain stages of their development, and opportunities to earn a better wage elsewhere. In early modern Europe countless individuals, mostly women, sought employment as servants in the urban households of the rich, but that option was blocked in antiquity by the predominance of slaves in the domestic sector. Hence, in Roman times, men found employment more easily in the cities than did women. We see this reflected in probable ages of marriage, which were sufficiently low for women—common ages of first marriage lying between 16 and 22—to rule out a meaningful period of employment outside their household. However, the much higher ages of first marriage of men allowed them to earn a living many years before they married. One important employer in republican Rome undoubtedly was the army, as most legionaries were in their late teens and twenties, while the evidence seems to point to a normal age of marriage from their late twenties onwards. One further stimulus of this process that turned high levels of rural underemployment into employment consisted of the increased concentration of landownership. While the smallholder never disappeared, we do see a rise in estates that either functioned as productive units on a sufficiently large scale to make optimal use of a permanent servile workforce supplemented in peak times by day labourers, or rented their land out to tenants whose optimal employment of available labour was also in the interest of the landowner. We may compare this to developments in early modern Europe. The headway in terms of labour productivity that English agriculture had on its counterpart on the continent was largely due to the shift to large farms that reduced the input of labour per acre.42 Finally, we may take the textile industry as an example. The production of textiles consisted of various stages, beginning with the production of raw material such as wool or flax. The spinning of wool and the processing of flax could just as well be undertaken in rural households as in urban workshops, as it did not involve high levels of capital investment in tools or equipment, nor did it entail the cooperation of a large workforce or require much education or training. Hence, the raw material could just as well be processed in the context of rural households as in urban workshops. Weaving occurred either in urban workshops, in workshops that were part of rural estates, or in the households of smallholders. The relationship between the owner or producer of the raw material (wool, flax) and the owner or manager


Allen 1988: 126–30.

Labour and the Paths to Economic Growth


of the production unit could be diverse. Some smallholders probably processed their own wool into woven cloth. A different situation emerges from evidence for the woollen industry in northern Gaul in the third century, consisting of a funerary monument of the Secundinii family. In his study of the organization of the activities of this family John Drinkwater concluded: ‘they produced these fabrics in and around Trier, by recruiting and organizing a large and specialized, and therefore highly dependent, workforce, of spinners, weavers, fullers, dyers, etc., paid by the piece.’43 In other words, the Secundinii family employed workers, partly rural, who did not produce or own the raw materials that they processed. The woollen industry provides an example of rural households who divided their available labour between agriculture and subsidiary labour. The main element that stimulated the use of rural labour was that it was cheaper, as it did not need to rely on its income from manufacture for its entire sustenance. Economic history has devised the term ‘externalization of reproductive costs’ for this phenomenon, as a result of which rural labour was cheaper than urban labour.44 On the other hand, there were advantages to the employment of urban labour. The division of the production process among several specialists was easiest when these were concentrated. The concentration of workers and traders in one place was easier to manage and thus less costly. Large investment in installations, such as a fuller’s workshop, also stimulated concentration of activities in an urban surrounding. The price level of the product undoubtedly made a big difference. Labour costs played less of a role in the manufacture of expensive goods whose price elasticity was very large. The level of skill was higher among full-time professionals. Expensive up-market products, for which skill and the availability of a market were more important conditions than costs, may, therefore, have been produced primarily by ‘professional’, urban textile workers.45 It is important to note that there is an economically crucial distinction between the expansion of subsidiary labour and the structural shift towards non-agricultural (or, rather, non-food producing) sectors. As we saw in the previous section, Subsidiary Labour in the Roman World, the fact that agriculture could support more labour than it could fruitfully employ meant that the labour engaged in subsidiary tasks was sustained by the agricultural (food producing) work. Hence, such labour could be cheap, as the income could be below subsistence level. In other words, to some extent agriculture made the expansion of non-agricultural sectors possible, but only to the extent that this labour was sustained by agriculture. A further shift, in which such labour became detached from the land, meant that it had to be sustained by the income it produced. A full-time weaver or muleteer was therefore more 43 45

Drinkwater 2001: 298. Erdkamp 1999.


For a more detailed discussion, see Erdkamp 1999.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

expensive than a farmer doing labour on the margins of his work on the farm. The same applies to seasonal migrants from the countryside temporarily finding work in the towns and cities. In short, the increase of subsidiary labour is limited by its dependence on the farm.46 The shift to full-time work in nonagricultural sectors required a further step. Moreover, the expansion of nonagricultural activities stimulated urbanization, as the shorter distances and higher densities of people lowered transaction and transportation costs in an urban context. In other words, as demographic growth and the better functioning of markets stimulated the proportion of people fully engaged in nonagricultural sectors, more people tended to live in towns and cities.

THE L ABOUR AN D FOOD MARKET The main constraining factor determining whether more rural labour was employed outside the farm and whether this caused a further shift to permanent, urban labour, consisted of the level of demand for such labour and the level of risk involved in market involvement. If there was insufficient demand either for labour or its produce in terms of goods and services, the shifts towards non-agricultural subsidiary and permanent employment that were sketched above could not occur, leading to high levels of underemployment. This was the situation in Russia, where by far the largest part of the population did not have the means to offer any demand for goods or services, while the landowning elite spent their income in a manner that did not benefit the wider economy either. In contrast, in a situation of sufficient demand for nonagricultural goods and services, population growth would lead to the increased employment of labour outside subsistence farming. While population growth and restraints on the availability of land would have stimulated the employment of labour outside agriculture, this would only have happened if the market functioned well enough to connect the supply and demand for labour, goods, and services. High costs and great risks in participating in commercial channels would have restrained economic development. Conversely, the lowering of costs and risks of participating in the market exchange of labour, goods, and services stimulated specialization and division of labour. As risks decreased and the stimulus to participate in markets increased, the number of people engaged in market exchange increased, which in turn lowered the cost of market transactions. The extent to which the market succeeded in offering a secure food supply was vital for the extent to which people chose subsistence strategies away from 46

On the role of proto-industrialization in economic development, see Allen 2003, esp. 422–3.

Labour and the Paths to Economic Growth


agriculture. Subsistence strategies that made use of the market for labour, goods, and services to fulfil the household’s needs by exchanging the income of their labour (a wage, or the price of their goods or services) for the food and other essentials they needed, involved a risk. Such subsistence strategies would fail when the supply of food failed or when the demand for their labour, goods, or services caved in. High food prices would absorb all available buying power and thus temporarily unleash crises within the non-food producing sectors. Inadequate supply to the local food market caused economic malaise as a result of which the demand for all other goods and services crashed.47 It is only rarely that we get a glimpse of the non-spectacular aspects of famine in our literary sources. Describing a famine in Syria in c.500 AD, ps.-Joshua (ch. 39) writes: ‘Everything that was not edible was cheap, such as clothes and household utensils and furniture, for these things were sold for half or a third of their value, and did not suffice for the maintenance of their owners, because of the great dearth of bread.’48 The point is: the more volatile food prices were, the riskier were the non-food producing sectors. Hence, the extent to which the market was able to overcome harvest failures and supply problems—in other words, the extent of market integration that was achieved—was crucial for the extent of specialization and division of labour. This also meant that the improvements in the workings of the market opened up opportunities for economic growth, as they reduced the risks involved in participation in the market. I have argued elsewhere that the degree of connectivity in the Roman world should not be exaggerated, even along the Mediterranean coasts of the Roman Empire.49 The opportunities for relatively cheap transportation offered by the Mediterranean Sea have been rightly emphasized, but the sea itself did not establish connectivity. Hence, not all regions connected to the Mediterranean shared the same levels of market integration. Considerations concerning the costs and ease of transactions—infrastructure, including credit and banking, and communications—favoured the commercial centres, which were part of a network of long-distance trade. Away from this network, communications were slower and less reliable, and infrastructure less predominant, increasing the costs and risks of trade. Connectivity and isolation were unevenly spread across the Mediterranean world. Somewhat simplified, we may distinguish a core, consisting of a ‘global’ network of commercial centres and those regions that were lucky to be situated along busy shipping lanes, and a periphery that contained economic zones that were at best regionally integrated, at worst underdeveloped and isolated. However, while things were hardly ideal, they certainly improved in the first centuries AD compared to earlier times. Again, it is not so much the technological advances in transport that constituted the main progress, but improvements in 47 48

A phenomenon that was famously analysed by Abel 1974. 49 Quoted from Garnsey 1988. Erdkamp 2005: 175–205.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

communications and the reduction in transaction costs. One may quote K. G. Persson regarding pre-industrial Europe: ‘Dramatic changes in transport costs probably accounted for little of the new phase in market integration; what counted was the slow emergence of a robust trading network and homogeneous information penetrating Europe at a faster rate.’50 A comparable improvement of communication and trading networks undoubtedly occurred with the rise of the Roman Empire, even though not all regions profited equally from this development. Analysing the relative weight of various costs in overseas trade and assessing the changes of these costs in Roman times, Scheidel comes to the convincing conclusion that the change that had most impact on overseas trade was imperial state formation. ‘Hegemony and subsequent direct rule created uniquely favourable conditions for maritime trade by cutting the costs of predation, transactions, and financing to levels that were lower than in any other period of pre-modern Mediterranean history.’51 In sum, while we should not overestimate the performance of ancient food or labour markets, we do see substantial improvements in the workings of the market that resulted in lower transaction costs at least in the core regions of the Roman world. The increased scale of urbanization offered stable markets for many goods, foremost food, and services, such as transportation.52 The economic impact of the metropolis Rome transformed the economy of vast stretches of central Italy and beyond.53 The increased scale of urbanization offered stable markets for many goods, foremost food, and services, such as transportation. The agronomists advised landowners to cultivate ‘roses and violets’, ‘flowers for garlands’, and ‘many other products for which there is a demand in the city’.54 Crops like these are much more labour-intensive to cultivate, and allowed the household to intensify the employment of their land and labour in a profitable way. At the same time, it shows that farmers had sufficient trust in the stability of the food market not to fear that sudden price rises would leave them with unsaleable garlands and, in the case of smallholders, no money to buy bread. Of course, shortages occurred, sometimes with hunger and riots as a result, but not so often as to rule out specialization in non-food crops in the first place. Numerous smaller cities and towns changed their hinterlands on a much more modest scale, but on aggregate


51 Persson 1999: 100. Scheidel 2009a. Grantham 2008: 161 sees the presence of urban markets as the main factor stimulating agricultural productivity. Interestingly, economic growth in Qing, China, is also ascribed to a mix of developments that we also see in the Roman world, including the administrative integration of a vast area, the increasing scale and extent of market integration, and the emergence of commercial agriculture. Goldstone 2002: 359. 53 Pleket 1993; Morley 1996; Erdkamp 2001. On the stimulating effect of London on the economy of England, see Wrigley 1990: 101–12. 54 Esp. Varro, Rust. 1.16.3–4. 52

Labour and the Paths to Economic Growth


they significantly improved opportunities for people to earn an income by producing goods and services for the urban market. The advances in market integration were crucial for the developments that have been outlined above, as they reduced the risks that were inherent in market reliance. As the workings of the market improved, it became less risky to use labour and commodity markets as a means to achieve production goals. The reduction in risks allowed wide segments of society to make more efficient use of the labour available in their households. It became more attractive to increase the labour invested in subsidiary employment, producing goods or services for the nearby market. In some regions the combination of population growth and increased market integration stimulated a shift from agriculture to non-agricultural sectors, either as subsidiary, rural labour or as permanent, urban employment. Increased utilization of labour and raised levels of productivity, in which we should certainly not rule out the impact of technological innovation and the necessary investment of capital, raised economic performance. In short, against the background of political and administrative changes in the Roman Empire, population growth stimulated the non-agricultural sectors, thereby utilizing parts of the available labour pool that would otherwise have remained unemployed or relatively unproductive on the land.

CO NCLUSION Although agriculture remained the predominant sector in the Roman economy, models of economic performance should not be based on rigid assumptions concerning yields, farm size, household composition, and subsistence strategies. Most fundamentally, economic growth offered a wider range of economic options to individuals, which allowed a much more balanced allocation of resources. The most important economic resource of the rural and urban population was their labour, and the wider range of specialization and employment opportunities allowed an increase in production that did not depend on technological innovation. Even when assuming that farmers’ practices in arable farming remained relatively unchanged over the centuries, higher land productivity was the result of increased specialization in crops that most suited the soil and microclimate of each particular field, while the growth of the non-agricultural sectors, offering employment seasonally or permanently to members of rural households, allowed a more efficient use of available labour on the land. The range of crops that could be grown profitably expanded, as did the range of goods consumed by both rural and urban populations. Rather than assuming more grain-producing farmers, we might


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

want to envision a more diverse agricultural landscape and higher than average living standards.55 Chayanov showed that people would not engage in work simply because employment was available. They would only work if their labour would yield a product that they regarded as worth the effort; whether the effort was worthwhile or not depended on spending opportunities and motivation. Consumption opportunities and a raised standard of living would induce households to raise their income, either by increasing subsidiary labour or by choosing a more labour-intensive employment strategy. Models of aggregate economic production reckon on an average income in the range of 1.5 times subsistence in Roman times;56 even a small rise to, say, 1.75 times subsistence would alter our estimates of spending patterns significantly. Most importantly, a slight improvement in average living standards caused changes in consumption patterns, as people would not spend their higher income on basic subsistence needs. Per definition, an average income of 1.5 times subsistence means that the largest part of that income consists of or is spent on subsistence needs. A small increase therefore means a more than proportionate increase in spending on different goods and services.57 Changes in consumption would inevitably be met by changes in production, widening the scope of goods and services produced, lowering the threshold to specialization, stimulating free workers to work harder and increase their income, improving market opportunities, and so forth. In short, consumption opportunities were crucial in stimulating the use of available labour. Intensification of labour consisted of more subsidiary labour, the shift to labour-intensive cash crops, and/or the turning away from the land altogether and trying to make a living in handicrafts or wage-labour. The latter strategy would involve them deeper in the market, but given sufficient trust in the workings of the market, that was a risk that people were willing to undertake. Of vital importance for central Italy were the market opportunities and stability offered by the proximity of the Roman Empire’s capital city, although the hinterlands of other commercial centres enjoyed similar beneficial circumstances. Obviously I am not arguing that the whole population in the entire Roman world profited from marketing opportunities, subsidiary labour, or specialization in order to achieve utopian levels of well-being. Poverty

55 De Haas et al. 2011 attempted to show rising living standards for the common people in the archaeological material, but, unfortunately, the results of the analysis were inconclusive. 56 Scheidel and Friesen 2009. 57 As Jan de Vries in his book, The Industrious Revolution, has shown, consumption is very much an underestimated factor of economic change. Regarding early modern Europe, a steady increase in working days is related to a greater income and more spending on non-essentials (de Vries 2008: 87–92). A long-term study on England by Allen and Weisdorf 2011 concludes that such an ‘industrious’ revolution, where increased consumption opportunities stimulate labour intensity, is only visible among urban labourers, but not rural labourers.

Labour and the Paths to Economic Growth


remained a fact of life everywhere, and large segments of the population continued to live precariously close to minimal subsistence levels. Developments will have differed regionally, with some parts profiting more from increased market integration and stability than others. But we should not forget that the same applies to early modern Europe, where the shift from agricultural to non-agricultural employment in England was not matched by equally rapid change in France or Italy. The poorest in society remained as poor as they had been, while the top layers remained excessively rich. The economic and social impact may have been most significant in the middle strata of society and in the towns and cities. Signs of economic growth in the Roman period are the apparent increase in services and the consumption of a wider range of goods. These fundamental changes are reflected in the use of land and natural resources, as different crops would be grown and more and different resources would be exploited to cater for the needs of the larger and slightly wealthier population. The Roman economy had not only expanded in the sense that there were more people than ever before, but all the indicators show that also per capita consumption had risen.

Part I Ownership and Control

3 Landed Wealth in the Long Term Patterns, Possibilities, Evidence Kyle Harper

I N T R O D U C TI O N When historians of the Roman world talk about ‘large estates’ or ‘massive properties’, what are the quantitative dimensions behind such qualitative adjectives? Quantitative analysis has the potential to be illuminating, even when, as is so often the case for antiquity, the data are sparse and only orders of magnitude are recoverable. The most conspicuous successes—for instance, the work done on the demography of slavery, which has been simply transformative—replace ill-founded assumptions with carefully delineated possibilities and demand internally coherent assumptions.1 It is in that spirit that a particular narrative trope in the history of the Roman economy should be approached: the claim that, over the course of Roman imperial history, the rich accumulated ever larger estates, as property was concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. This story of continuous accumulation, if not always clearly situated in time and space, is deeply embedded in a number of enduring meta-narratives of Roman economic history: the ruin of the small farmer and the instability of the late republic; the crisis of the slave system and the rise of the colonate; even the dissolution of the western imperial state. Many of these narratives have a Marxist flavour, but the belief in a progressive concentration of landed wealth is widely held.2 This chapter begins by tracing the origins of the accumulation thesis, to see how it became embedded in a certain set of narrative tropes very early in the historiography of the Roman economy. Then, the prime literary and documentary 1

Scheidel 1997 and subsequent literature, synthesized in Harper 2011: 67–99. See next section, Historiographical Origins, for a range of citations from the secondary literature. 2


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

witnesses for enormous estates are gathered and considered from various angles. An attempt is made to translate wealth and income figures into a single scale to allow more extensive comparisons. The dangers of such an exercise (which relies on a number of uncertain conversion ratios) are obvious, so a number of different methods of comparison are explored. Finally, the largest portfolios of the later Roman Empire are compared with some attested properties in the early empire, to ask whether the richest had truly become richer, absolutely, or proportionally, or not at all. Finally, it is concluded that the data we do have at our disposal are insufficient to validate the accumulation thesis, which rests on shaky foundations.

HISTORIOGRAPHICAL ORIGINS The accumulation thesis is both extremely old and remarkably persistent. It has its origins, of course, with Pliny the Elder, who is clearly to blame for all of this. In an editorial aside in the eighteenth book of his Natural History, Pliny earnestly tells us that the ‘latifundia have been the ruin of Italy, and now the provinces too; six owners held half of Africa when Nero had them done to death’.3 It is not easy to see how Pliny’s grousing worked its way into the modern historiography, to become the centre of a narrative of constant accumulation. A very earliest instance appears in Barthold Niebuhr’s 1804 dissertation, in which he wrote It would be a worthwhile undertaking . . . to follow up the process of the variations in the land-ownership through the history of the Roman Emperors . . . to investigate the rise of those princely estates, which in times of decline of the Empire gave enormous incomes to the aristocratic families.4

But, in his great Roman History, Niebuhr actually says little about the history of land tenure in the imperial period. The first clear expression of the ‘accumulation thesis’ belongs to the remarkable Edouard Laboulaye, an unofficial disciple of von Savigny, who, among other things, conceived of the Statue of Liberty. His 1839 work, the Histoire du droit de propriété foncière en occident, lays out the story in direct terms. After the failure of the Gracchi to restrain the growth of large properties, the enrichment of the Roman elite progressed inexorably. By purchase, by violence, the rich dispossessed the small farmer and replaced him with slaves. Appian is cited side-by-side with the eighteenth book of the Natural History of Pliny,

3 Pliny, Nat. Hist. 18.7.35: latifundia perdidere Italiam, iam vero et provincias—sex domini semissem Africae possidebant, cum interfecit eos Nero princeps. 4 Momigliano 1982: 12 (author’s original translation).

Landed Wealth in the Long Term


who is called a ‘perceptive patriot who could see the future’.5 Almost simultaneously, in 1840, Adolphe Dureau de la Malle published an ambitious treatise on the Économie politique des Romains. His work was ahead of its time in terms of method, for instance trying to use carrying capacity to estimate population levels; its specious precision (for example, there were 2,312,677 slaves and freedmen in Italy on the eve of the Second Punic War) is charming. Dureau de la Malle claimed that the concentration of properties in the early empire was ‘the principal cause of the weakening of the population and productivity of Italy’, and he declared that the subject had been ‘entirely neglected’ from the standpoint of political economy. Dureau de la Malle pulls together—in the space of one paragraph, in fact—the three star witnesses who have remained to this day the foundation of the case for constant accumulation. Pliny and his ruinous latifundia has already been encountered. The other two are Aggenius Urbicus, a late Roman gromaticus who claimed that there were private saltus larger than the territory of an entire city, and Olympiodorus, the fifth-century historian whose mesmerized description of western senatorial wealth needs to be considered in detail, for which see pp. 56–8.6 It is revealing that the accumulation narrative was expressed almost simultaneously and with such clarity in both the historicist school of law and in nascent historical materialism. From there it is easy to trace the idea across the nineteenth century, through Marx (where it is most evident in the Grundrisse), through Weber (who placed his own accent on the ever more autarkic character of the grand estate), through Eduardo Ciccotti.7 Ciccotti argued that the growth of large estates led to a decline in the productivity of slave labour and ever greater class antagonism, an idea which would become a staple of orthodox Marxist thought, reaching its finest expression in the work of Elena Staerman.8 The influence of the accumulation narrative across the twentieth century is simply too extensive to chronicle. We can highlight the contribution of A. H. M. Jones, who provided what is still one of the best empirical discussions of the problem, and the fundamental studies of Domenico Vera, who integrated archaeological evidence with the traditional

5 Laboulaye 1839: 84f.: La république ne fut plus composée que de riches et misérables, tous également corrompus par l’extrême misère ou l’extrême richesse . . . Les grandes propriétés ont perdu l’Italie, s’écriait Pline, et voilà qui perdent les provinces! cri perçant d’un patriote qui lisait l’avenir . . . La concentration de la propriété, en amenant une extrême indigence, avait forcé les empereurs de nourir la plebe et de l’amuser pour l’étourdir sur sa misère; panem et circenses, c’était à Rome la loi des pauvres. 6 Dureau de la Malle 1840: vol. 2, 218ff. 7 See Harper 2012; Ciccotti 1971 [1899]: 217: la concentrazione della proprietà immobiliare, nelle tavole di Veleia e da Plinio deplorato per l’Italia non meno che per le provincie, era l’effetto di uno lungo processo storico, che già era maturato sotto la Repubblica, portando gli amari suoi frutti. 8 Shtaerman 1964.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

narrative.9 The story of progressive accumulation is hardly a straw man or some hoary old tale. In just the last few years, some of the most compelling and authoritative interpreters of the ancient economy have restated the claim.10 The mid-nineteenth-century roots of this narrative need emphasizing for a few reasons. First, the accumulation thesis is essentially pre-archaeological. It rests, and has always rested, on a few dramatic literary sources, and simply could not have anticipated the finely pixilated view of the countryside that would emerge from the soil. For that matter, the story develops before the auxiliary disciplines of papyrology and epigraphy. Indeed, the most trenchant criticisms of the accumulation thesis have come from archaeologists and papyrologists. Although ‘monumental’ villas were part of the fourth-century landscape so too were medium-sized and smaller installations. Despite the obvious difficulties of inferring tenurial relationships from archaeological remains, it is suggestive that one careful survey concludes that the percentage of medium-sized farms increases and that there is ‘no evidence’ for the latifundist thesis.11 Second, the accumulation thesis posits a linear development progressing over some five or six centuries in a way that is simply not plausible anymore; few today would try to see Tiberius Gracchus, Pliny the Elder, and Olympiodorus through the same telescope. Third, and most subtly, like so many stories of the ancient economy to emerge in the nineteenth century, the accumulation thesis is in its very essence a ‘primitivist’ theory.12 Land is treated not as a factor of production, as a scarce resource with a price that moves in coordination with the price of labour and the demand for commodities, but as a mystified instrument of power wielded by a nebulous, transhistorical elite.

9 Jones 1964: 778: Generation after generation of peasants abandoned their holdings, sold them to wealthy neighbours, mortgaged them and suffered foreclosure, or surrendered them to patrons in return for protection. To set against this, there was very little increase in peasant holdings . . . Estates, when they came on to the market, seem never to have been broken up . . . There was always an abundance of rich men eager to snap up any land that was offered for sale . . . ; Vera 1995: 331: alcune costanti nella conformazione tardoromana delle campagne siano la diretta conseguenza di una accelerazione della secolare tendenza alla concentrazione della proprietà terriera, i cui effetti già si notano alla fine del I secolo e in età traianea e che avranno gli esiti strutturali che sono palesi ai primi del IV secolo. 10 Lo Cascio 2009a: 64–5: Un altro sviluppo che sembrerebbe essere suggerito dal complesso della nostra documentazione è quello verso una progressiva sempre maggiore concentrazione della proprietà; Wickham 2005: 156: The western senatorial elite . . . could boast both ancestry . . . and gigantic wealth, possibly, in the case of its leaders, greater in relative terms than any other aristocracy ever. Giardina 2007: 752: the conditions of society and production in the countryside in late antiquity appear to have been quite varied, but the principal elements, in the context of the rapidly increasing accumulation of land, were the spread of large parcelledout properties and of farm tenancy. 11 Lewit 1991: 31–5; cf. Lewit 2004. 12 See Morley 1998: 113–14 for perceptive remarks.

Landed Wealth in the Long Term


RECONSIDERING THE EVIDENCE The scale of large estates is a vast and unruly problem. The most that might be hoped for is to bring some quantitative discipline to bear on the question. In an ideal world, we would do so by performing the sort of audit of wealth and income which Scheidel and Friesen have recently offered to elucidate the aggregate patterns of land tenure and to calculate an empire-wide Gini coefficient.13 Obviously this is not possible, so in the real world we must take the imperfect and scattered data which we have and make the most of them. This chapter gathers the datasets we do have at our disposal (and it is possible to supplement and amend what Duncan-Jones already used in his pioneering efforts); even though these datasets are disparate in time and space, they shed some light on the problem.14 Second, we can try to expand the data at our disposal by converting evidence for wealth and cash incomes into estate size. This is hazardous, and it should make us nervous, but no less nervous than resting content without probing the meaning of wealth and income figures. It will be revealing, hopefully, to put side-by-side the evidence from Egypt, the Aegean, and the West, and then from the high empire and the late empire. Some quick reminders about scale would not be out of place (see Table 3.1). 

A small family subsistence farm, although smaller land allotments are well attested, and variety was assuredly normal, was in the order of 10–20 iugera (1 iugerum = 0.2518 hectares).15 Total sizes are notoriously difficult to extract from the agricultural writers. Cato says an ideal farm is 100 iugera, but he also imagines an olive plantation of 240 iugera. Saserna talks of a 200 iugera arable farm, as does Columella, who analyses a 7 iugera vineyard. But it is impossible to know the overall scale of the properties they imagine anyway.16 Of much greater interest are the minimum census requirements for the aristocratic orders of Roman imperial society: HS 1,000,000 for senators, HS 400,000 for equestrians, and—far less securely—HS 100,000 for decurions. These were minima, and Scheidel and Friesen have recently suggested averages (conservative in my view) of 5,000,000, 600,000, and Table 3.1 Units of measurement Gold: 72 solidi = 1 pound; 100 pounds = 1 centennaria Wheat: 1 modius = 6.8 kg; 1 artaba = 30 kg Land: 1 iugerum = 0.2518 hectares; 1 aroura = 0.2767 hectares

13 15 16

14 Scheidel and Friesen 2009. Duncan-Jones 1982, 1990, esp. 121–42. Garnsey 1998: 91–106; Erdkamp 2005: 18–22. Heitland 1921: 164–73, 250–69; Duncan-Jones 1982: 325–6.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World 150,000, respectively.17 It is no simple task to imagine how much land these figures imply. There are two challenges: conceptual and empirical. Conceptually, De Neeve and others have criticized the idea of a ‘normal’ land price.18 De Neeve argued that land prices were a function of rents, and because these varied across time and space, there was no normal price. While his critique was illuminating, it ultimately goes too far. There is no ‘standard’ price of land, but there is quite simply always a mean price. Of course, it is unknown, and because the parameters must be set so wide to incorporate even the few attested figures, confidence in the averages must be highly qualified. But orders of magnitude are essential to make sense of the wealth figures (see Table 3.2).

Columella imagined a land price of HS 1000 per iugerum. Duncan-Jones, in a rather elaborate calculation, estimated the price of land in Africa at HS 390 per iugerum.19 The papyri yield average prices of HS 141 for the first century and 183 for the second.20 Garnsey and Saller take from these divergent indices an average of HS 250/iugerum, but here a range of 250–500 HS/iugerum is used.21 In that case, average senatorial wealth would imply landed property of something like 10,000 to 20,000 iugera; average equestrian wealth something like 1200–2400 iugera; average curial wealth something like 300–600 iugera, a plausible amount which adds credibility to the calculations for equestrian and senatorial wealth. The place to wade into the late antique record is Egypt. The rich papyrological record offers three important advantages. First, the papyri provide direct evidence for the size of individual properties, so that conversion from cash wealth or income figures is unnecessary. Second, the late Roman papyri allow perhaps the only snapshot of aggregate tenurial structures. The Hermopolite land registers from the early- to mid-fourth century offer an unparalleled glimpse Table 3.2 Land prices in the imperial period Columella Africa Garnsey-Saller 1C average, Egypt 2C average, Egypt a b c d e

17 19 21

HS 1000 per iugeruma HS 390 per iugerumb HS 250 per iugerumc HS 273 per iugerumd HS 318 per iugerume

Columella, Rust. 3.3.8. Duncan-Jones 1982: 347–8. Garnsey and Saller 1987: 76. Carrié 1997: 124. Carrié 1997: 124.

Scheidel and Friesen 2009. Duncan-Jones 1982: 347–8. Garnsey and Saller 1987: 76.

18 20

De Neeve 1985. Duncan-Jones 1982: 366.

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of landholding patterns. Already in his fundamental 1985 study of the land registers, Bowman realized the challenge these documents posed for the latifundist narrative.22 Even more so, Bagnall, in his analysis of 1992, emphasized the significance of the fact that the landlists from Hermopolis only record urban landowners, and if we incorporate village landholders, then the idea of a concentration of property miserably fails (it is worth considering that the same may be true of the well-known western documents from Veleia and Ligures Baebani).23 Indeed, the fourth-century papyri witness the vibrant coexistence of moderately large estates (that is, properties of several hundred iugera up to properties of 1000–1500 iugera) with small-scale landholding (see Table 3.3). Most importantly for this discussion, the papyri are rich enough to allow an analysis of property-holding patterns across time. The most sophisticated account has been presented by Banaji.24 According to his analysis, in the third and early fourth century, landownership in Egypt was dominated by two groups: (1) Alexandrian and (2) municipal elites. For the third century, he points to the wealth of the Alexandria lady Calpurnia Heraclia, whose estates were at least 1700 arourai around AD 245, and an Alexandria councillor’s will of AD 268, which reflects a property of just over 1000 arourai—what Banaji calls a ‘typical middle-sized property’ for this social set.25 For the fourth century, his key evidence is the land registers, which reflect the abiding strength of what he calls ‘substantial medium-sized properties’ in the range of 500–1000 arourai.26 The largest owner in the Hermopolite in the early fourth century was Hyperechius, who must have owned over 5000 arourai, a property that was split among his heirs by the time of the land registers. We can also point to a property recorded in Hermonthis, in upper Egypt, in AD 338, on the order of 1500–2000 arourai (P.Lips. 97).27 These Alexandrian and municipal elites, holding estates on the order of a few hundred to a few Table 3.3 Hermopolite land registers (c.AD 350)a Property size (ar.) 500+ 200–499 100–199 50–99 20–49 10–19 0–9 a

Number (in registers G, F) 1 9 16 23 56 68 128

8 8 30 38 83 86 188

Bowman 1985: 158–9. Urban landowners held 25–30% of all land in nome.

22 25 27

23 24 Bowman 1985. Bagnall 1992. Banaji 2001–7. 26 Banaji 2001–7: 111. Banaji 2001–7: 111. Bagnall 1996: 126–7; Harper 2011: 172–5.


Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World

thousand iugera, document the time before the truly ‘Great Estates of Byzantine Egypt’. A minor problem is worth noticing before considering the scale of the great estates. Banaji does not consider the testimony of the Appianus estate, reconstructed in such detail by Rathbone.28 The estate of this Alexandrian aristocrat is glimpsed primarily through the archive of a lower-level manager, Heroninos. Rathbone estimates that Appianus owned 400 arourai in the village of Theadelphia, and 1000 arourai in Euhemeria. In what he admits is a highly speculative effort to project the total scale of Appianus’ property, Rathbone’s best guess is 16,000 arourai in the Arsinoite nome. If this is remotely credible, it would at least complicate the narrative of the Byzantine ‘Great Estates’ by suggesting that even these were not totally something new under the sun in the sixth century (see Table 3.4). Banaji has narrated the rise of these estates in great depth. From the late fourth, and more particularly from the early fifth, century, we witness the displacement—or rather, reconstitution—of the older Alexandrian/municipal elite by a new aristocracy of imperial service, paid in gold. The fifth century is something of a black hole in the papyrological record, but from the late fifth/ early sixth century, the dominance of this new social class is evident in the Table 3.4 Large properties (100 arourai +) in Egypt, AD 200–600 Year


Size (arourai)


225 245 260 268 300 308 308 330 338 347 347 347 350 350 350 525 525 586 600

Claudia Isidora Calpurnia Heraclia Appianus Alexandrian councillor Hyperechius Tiberinos Souchiaina & Horion Aurelia Charite Hermonthis landowner 1st Tier (500+; n=1) 2nd Tier (200+; n=9) 3rd Tier (100+; n=16) 1st Tier (500+; n=8) 2nd Tier (200+; n=8) 3rd Tier (100+; n=30) Monastery Christodora Apion oikos Theodora

1000+? 1700+ 16,000? 1092 5000+ 205 134 498 2000? 2092 341 147 1036 324 150 >300 3000? 25,000