Classics Roman Agriculture
Jesper Carlsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0406


The Roman Empire was an agrarian society. Most of the population tilled the land, but many rural laborers were slaves or tenants who did not own the land on which they worked. Economic behavior has always been embedded in a deep cultural context, and it is beyond dispute that an agrarian approach underlies Roman economic thought. The traditional ideal of a Roman citizen was as a farmer and as a soldier like the Republican hero Q. Cincinnatus, who allegedly was ploughing his land when the Senate appointed him dictator, and returned to it after a victorious sixteen-day military campaign. Although it was merely an ideal, land owing was considered the most social respectable form of investment for the elite, and, according to a law of 218 BCE, senators and their sons were forbidden to own large transport vessels. The role of agriculture in the Roman economy and the agrarian institutions changed over time, as Rome expanded and transformed from a small city-state in central Italy in fifth century BCE to one of the Mediterranean great powers after the Second Punic War (218–201 BCE) and finally the only superpower in the first five centuries CE. The development of Roman agriculture can be deduced from data available from written evidence—literary and legal sources, inscriptions, and papyri—and archaeological material, where excavations of farms and villas together with field surveys are important. Information about the development of the settlement pattern in certain regions depends on this evidence, but distribution maps may reflect only the degree of publications of archaeological fieldwork in these areas. The crops varied according to climate and geography, and there are huge differences between the Roman provinces from Britain in the north to the provinces of North Africa in the south and from Spain in the west to Syria in the east. The recent rapid development of paleoethnobotany has offered much new data on crops and agricultural practice in different regions. These regional diversities are also reflected in settlement patterns and the rural labor force. More traditional forms of labor, such as tenants and dependent peasants, dominated the rural manpower in the provinces, and agricultural slavery was widespread only in Italy and Sicily, with the exception of managers of estates owned by the elite. This diversity became even more profound in Late Antiquity with the transformation of society and the economy together with the slow disintegration of the empire.

General Overviews

Roman agriculture was a rather neglected topic by classical scholarship until around 1900, but now it occupies a central position in modern studies of ancient Rome. A fruitful and lively debate has been ongoing in recent decades on the character of Roman farming and rural settlement, and Capogrossi Colognesi 2012 analyzes some of the approaches to Roman agriculture with a very different focus, which have characterized studies in the field. Books and articles on Roman agriculture are based on textual information, archaeological material, or a combination of such source material, and they are written by scholars trained as historians, philologists, or archaeologists. Gummerus 1906 is path-breaking in its analysis of management of Roman slave-staffed estates, but it is based solely on three Latin agricultural writers. White 1970 is still the most comprehensive synthesis of agricultural practices, while Flach 1990 is profound on the literary sources but outdated on the archaeological material. Marcone 1997 is a shorter overview in Italian centered on written evidence, but very precise, and it includes some provinces as Dyson 2003 does. Robert 1985 and Tietz 2015 are two syntheses in French and German. Robert 1985 has many plans of villas and illustrations, including mosaics and reliefs illustrating agricultural work. Tietz 2015 is more devoted to the literary sources. Frayn 1979 and, more recently, Hollander 2019 discuss the role of the small peasant farmers, long ignored by scholars, in agricultural production in Roman Italy and the provinces. See also Hollander and Howe 2021 (cited under the Roman Empire).

  • Capogrossi Colognesi, Luigi. 2012. Padroni e contadini nell’Italia repubblicana. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider.

    Collection of eight articles on modern scholarship and Italian agricultural history from archaic times to the early empire.

  • Dyson, Stephen L. 2003. The Roman countryside. London: Duckworth.

    Brief synthesis on settlement patterns in the countryside, with chapters on villae rusticae and the results of recent archaeological field surveys in Italy, North Africa, Britain, Spain, and France.

  • Flach, Dieter. 1990. Römische Agrargeschichte. Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 3.9. Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck.

    Synthesis of the history of agriculture in Italy from c. 300 BCE to Late Antiquity based on Roman agronomists, law, land surveyors, and older excavations of villas and farms.

  • Frayn, Joan M. 1979. Subsistence farming in Roman Italy. London: Centaur.

    The book analyzes the economy and other aspects of the small farm in Italy from the fifth century BCE to the second century CE, including the agricultural calendar. Pastoralism and architecture are the themes of two other chapters.

  • Gummerus, Herman. 1906. Der römische Gutsbetrieb als wirtschaftlicher Organismus nach den Werken des Cato, Varro und Columella. Klio Beiheft 5. Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.

    A pioneering study of the management of Roman estates according to the three Latin agricultural writers.

  • Hollander, David B. 2019. Farmers and agriculture in the Roman economy. London: Routledge.

    The book examines the economic behavior of Roman farmers very broadly defined in Italy between 200 BCE and 200 CE.

  • Marcone, Arnaldo. 1997. Storia dell’agricoltura romana: Dal mondo arcaico all’età imperiale. Rome: La Nuova Italia Scientifica.

    A handy survey in Italian of Roman agriculture from the eighth century BCE to the fifth century CE not only in Italy, but also in the Roman provinces of Spain, Gaul, Africa, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. One chapter concerns Roman farm equipment and another the changes in the labor force from slaves to tenants.

  • Robert, Jean-Noël. 1985. La vie à la campagne dans l’antiquité romaine. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

    French-language handbook of Roman agriculture in Italy with many illustrations and quotations from Latin sources.

  • Tietz, Werner. 2015. Hirten, Bauern, Götter: Eine Geschichte der römischen Landwirtschaft. Munich: C. H. Beck.

    DOI: 10.17104/9783406682346

    Overview in German of Roman agriculture based primarily on the literary sources and the excavations of villas in the Bay of Naples. One chapter is devoted to agriculture in different provinces in North Africa, Gaul, Germany, and Lycia.

  • White, K. D. 1970. Roman farming. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    Still the comprehensive survey of Roman agriculture with a focus on technical conditions.

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