Agriculture in Early Latium

Frank Tenney

Italy’s wealth in ancient times as in modern lay in her food-producing soil. Gold was never found in the peninsula, and but little silver. Iron and copper were mined only in a narrow strip of Etruria, too circumscribed to entice many Romans into industries. The commerce of the seas was developed and held by people less well endowed with pro- ductive land, races compelled to trade if they were to survive. Agriculture was therefore Italy’s industry, in particular the cultivation of the Western littoral composed of the ejecta of the many volcanoes between central Etruria and Naples, and of the deep allu- vial deposits of the Po valley. The hardy farmers of the Roman Campagna it was who organized the irresistible legions that united Italy and through the united strength of Italy the Mediterranean world, and it was the submersion of this stock of farmers that hastened the end of ancient civilization.

The ancestors of the Latin peoples who shaped the Roman republic can now be traced from beyond the Alps.1 About two thousand years before our era scattered groups of them were coming over the central and eastern Alps from the Danube into the Po valley, settling at first in lake dwellings, then throughout the central part of the Po valley in villages well protected by moats and artificial water channels. They were far more civilized than the neolithic savage tribes that were then somewhat thinly scattered over Italy. Cultivators of the soil, these Italici made use of domestic animals and good bronze farm implements, and they probably partitioned as private property the land which they took. It is not likely that the savages who were there before contested pos- session with any vigor. Peoples who use land chiefly as hunting ground do not risk enslavement or death in the defense of their lands. These early invasions spread over a long period, but they were uniform and thorough-going in their results. The villages and cemeteries of the Italici usually show a consistent culture and little evidence having absorbed foreign elements.2 These tribes took most of the fertile land of the Po valley during the second millennium (an age of bronze in Italy), and in the early iron age (1600–800 B.C.) most of Tuscany and Latium was similarly settled. The progress of these people can readily be traced by their compact cemeteries of cinerary urns, for they practiced the custom of burning their dead, not till then known in Italy. Other tribes closely related to these, who had however not adopted the custom of cremation, entered Italy somewhat later and settled in the less desirable Apennine region, all the way from Bologna to Lucania. These were later known as the Sabellic tribes. Their language and religion prove that they were probably cousins of the cremating group who had parted company from them not long before the first invasion. In the eighth century the Sabellic folk came down into the Tuscan and Latin plains and mingled freely with the cremating folk. At Rome, in fact, on the Alban hills, and even on the coast of Antium inhumation is found to be more customary than cremation for a brief period during the seventh and sixth centuries.3 By the eighth century, when these inva- sions had reached their culmination, almost the whole of Italy had been settled by Indo- European farm folk.

Just what value such details may have in an economic history we cannot estimate until we can determine what racial inheritance meant in the days when the compact Indo-European tribes were slowly shaping well-defined and distinct languages and cultural types in central Europe. That the invaders came from the interior with the arts of agriculture well developed proved to be a long enduring factor in their economic his- tory; that all were related in language and in civil and religious custom must have made Rome’s task of unifying Italy relatively easy; and it may prove a reliable conjecture that a noticeable capacity for self-government, a distrust of impulsive action, and a prefer- ence for social co-operation were traits which could be counted upon so long as these peoples predominated in the peninsula.

The Latin plain in its present conformation is very recent, so recent that the last masses of volcanic ash probably post-date the pyramids of Egypt. The process of for- mation continued from long before the glacial periods and all through them.4 More than fifty craters, from which the ash and lava poured, can still be found within twenty-five miles of the imperial city. Long periods of tranquillity intervened when jungles grew up over the temporary surface, only to be buried under a new mass of ashes. The deep cuttings of the railways that run out of the eastern gates of Rome expose repeated layers of black and yellow soil lying between thick strata of tufa and ash; they mark the jun- gles of former intervals of rest. The present surface is not old. The mouth of the Tiber has apparently silted in as much alluvium since Ostia lay upon the seashore in Sulla’s day as the river carried down between the last great eruption and Ostia’s foundation. Though the Sabine hills immediately behind this plain show numerous sites of habitation several millennia old some being the homes of savages of the palaeolithic age and though there are traces throughout the peninsula of the earliest peoples of the Terramara civilization, the oldest graves of the Forum, the Palatine, and of Grottaferrata cannot with certainty be placed earlier than the iron age, perhaps not more than a thou- sand years before Cicero.

The Latin plain is then of very recent date, and human cultivation of it of still more recent. It is well known that the volcanic ash that falls from Vesuvius is rich in phosphates and potash and that a moderate admixture of it in the soil acts as an excellent fertilizer. In fact, the Campanian farmer living in the shadow of Vesuvius is not averse to an occasional eruption if only the volcano behaves with moderation. The later ash-strata of the Alban volcanoes had an abundance of these same ingredients, though a large percentage of the original elements has leached out with time. However, the ash alone did not lend itself to cultivation at once, since grain needs an abundance of nitrogenous matter, and a solider soil than the ash at first provided. Before men could inhabit the Latin plain we must posit a period of wild growth and the invasion of jungle plants and forests which could create a sufficiently thick humus for agricultural purposes. Such forests did invade the plain. Not only do all the authors preserve the tradi- tions of forests and sacred groves that are mentioned in the tales of early kings, but Theo-phrastus5 still knew of Latium as a source of timber as late as the third century: “The land of the Latins is well watered, and the plains bear the laurel and myrtle and remarkable beech trees. Trunks are found that singly suffice for the keel beams of the great Tyrrhenian ships. Fir and pine grow upon the hills. The Circaean promontory is thickly overgrown with oaks, laurels, and myrtle.” It is interesting to find that the beech then grew in the Latin plains, for now that the Campagna is parched and treeless it has withdrawn to the hills.

With this growth of timber from a subsoil which had many excellent qualities, a very rich soil was being formed for farming when once the Alban volcanoes should cease pouring out the flames that kept the hill-peoples back in fear. There can be little doubt that the region was far from being semi-arid then as it is now. To day the grass parches brown in June, not to revive again till near October, and the wheat is hurried to a premature harvest in the middle of June. But Varro sets July down as the month of harvest in his day, and summer rains are frequently mentioned in the classical authors. It would be hazardous to assume a theory of “climatic pulses” by way of explanation of this difference, and it is doubtful whether a mere two thousand years in the long recession of the glacial area could cause a perceptible change in temperature. The explanation of the change is perhaps to be found in the almost complete deforestation of Latium and the mountains behind. There can be little doubt that when the Sabine ridge from Praeneste to Monte Gennaro and the whole Volscian range were a thick forest instead of the parched white rocks that now stand out, they retained the rain-water and afforded a lasting subsoil supply and an abundance of nightly dewfalls which do not now exist when the last rains of spring leap off the bare rocks and flow away at once in torrents.

When, therefore, the early settlers pushed down into the Campagna and burned but “clearings” for farming (indeed the Terramara folk had then practiced systematic agriculture in the Po valley for many centuries), they found a soil remarkably fertile, though not yet very deep, and a warmth and humidity that make the harvest rich. As was to be expected from such conditions, the population in time grew dense. There is nothing improbable in the tradition of the fifty villages that Pliny has preserved. The treasures now being gathered into the museum of the Villa Giulia from the ruins of sixth century Ardea, Satricum, Lanuvium, Gabii, Praeneste, Nemi, Velitrae, Norba, and Signia, speak of an era of prosperity that no one dared imagine a few decades ago. The ancient lords of these cities, which became malarial wastes before Cicero’s day, decked themselves and their homes in the gold and precious stones of all the lands from the Baltic Sea to the Mesopotamian valley. Yet the wealth which made possible all this display did not spring from Latin industry or from commerce directed by Latins, if we may trust the archaeological evidence available. It was the produce of a rich soil cultivated with unusual intensity which paid for it, and kept alive a thick population such as would probably compare with the swarming tenantry of the Po valley of to day.

There are numerous relics from that remarkable agricultural period still to be found in Latium, traces of drains, tunnels, and dams that are all too little known. The modern Italian farmer who hardly finds his land worth the merest labor of planting and harvest- ing fails to see how in a former day the owners could have secured returns for such enormous expenditure of labor. A convenient place to study the intricate draining sys- tem of that time is the district below Velitrae. Here as De La Blanchère6 discovered more than forty years ago the ground is honeycombed with an elaborate system of tunnels running down the slopes of the hills toward the Pontine marshes, cuniculi as he calls them, about 3 by 11⁄2 feet, cut in the tufa a few feet below the surface and usually along the sides of the numerous ravines. De La Blanchère was unfortunately misled by the then prevailing “miasmatic” theory of malaria into believing that these tunnels were cut to drain the soil of pest waters. But they occur only on the slopes where the land drains all too readily without aid; they do not touch the stagnant Pontine marshes be- low. However, he also suggested as a possible theory what seems indeed to be the true explanation. They were apparently cut at a time of such overpopulation that every foot of arable ground must be saved for cultivation. By diverting the rain waters from the eroding mountain gullies into underground channels the farmers not only checked a large part of the ordinary erosion of the hillside farms but also saved the space usually sacrificed to the torrent-bed. It would be difficult to find another place where labor has been so lavishly expended to preserve the arable soil from erosion. The ground must have been very valuable, and the population in great need to justify such heroic meas- ures for the insurance of the annual harvest. Similar systems are found in the valleys north of Veii and were probably built under similar conditions. Indeed, the remarkable cutting seventy-five yards long at Ponte Sodo7 near the citadel rock of Veii through which the Fosso di Formello has ever since flowed seems to have been undertaken to save a few acres of the circling river bed for cultivation. Similarly the emissarium of the Alban lake, 1,300 yards long and 7 to 10 feet high, was cut through solid rock to save a few hundred acres of arable soil on the sloping edge within the crater. Even with the tools of modern engineers, that task would not now be considered a paying investment. Finally let the student of intensive tillage take a morning walk from Marcellina up Monte Gennaro through the steep ravine of Scarpellata. It is usually dry, but after a heavy rain the water pours down in torrents, carrying off what little soil may tend to accumulate. To save alluvial patches in the course of this ravine the ancient farmers built elaborate dams of finely trimmed polygonal masonry that still withstand the tor- rents. The masonry is largely made of huge blocks weighing half a ton each and is in no wise inferior to the magnificent polygonal masonry of Segni’s town walls. And yet one of these dams could hardly save more than an acre of arable soil.

It is impossible after surveying such elaborate undertakings to avoid the conclusion that Latium in the sixth century was cultivated with an intensity that has seldom been equalled anywhere. When, furthermore, we consider that the tools of that period were the spade and the mattock, we may be sure that each man’s allotment was very small, doubtless no more than the two jugera that Varro assures us sufficed for the support of the ancient Latin family. It follows that Latium supported a very densely settled population. With these facts in view the historian can understand whence came the armies that overran the limits of Latium and overwhelmed all obstruction when once they were set in motion, why Veii fell, why the burning of Rome was so quickly repaired, and why Campania called all the way to Rome for aid when threatened by the Samnites. It is very probable that when the soil began to show signs of over-cropping under this severe strain and an incapacity to feed the population which is proved by the desperate methods mentioned above, the growing generations found it necessary to seek more room, and that the expansion of the Latin tribe dates from this condition.

Of the social organization of these early Latins of the sixth century we have of course no contemporaneous description; the inconsistent conjectures of Roman writers who lived many centuries later, based as they generally were upon institutions that had come into being through the intervening revolutions, provide but uncertain material for history. The safest course is to rely as far as possible upon archaeology, upon the frag- ments of the twelve tables that were written down in the middle of the fifth century, and upon whatever inferences can be drawn from the earliest political institutions and so- cial practices that are vouched for by trustworthy writers.

Some deductions for instance may be made from the presence of the extensive agricultural undertakings already mentioned. These could not have been organized and carried through by small land holders, for the tunnels ran beneath hundreds of indi- vidual plots; nor could the primitive democratic communities which we sometimes posit for Latium have provided the initiative and sustained efforts that they imply. It is highly probable that these drainage tunnels and dams were undertaken by landlords who owned extensive tracts and who could command and direct the labor of numerous tenants. In brief they suggest that a villa system not unlike the manorial system of England of the twelfth century pervaded Latium at the time. And this inference accords with the evidence available from other sources.

Such a system would explain the Roman institution of clientship as a survival of the personal relationship which in time established itself between the lord and his ten- ant or serf. The client of those early days had some duties that remind us strikingly of services imposed upon the medieval villein. He was, for instance, bound to make con- tributions for the dowry of his lord’s daughter8 and toward the ransom of his lord if the latter was captured in war, and also to go to battle with his lord. It would also explain the miserable political and social condition of the plebeians at the beginning of historical times. To be sure the earliest republican laws and the twelve tables represent the plebeian as a citizen capable of owning property. But he had little else and occupied the civil position of one who had but recently emerged from a lower status. He had, for instance, no right to hold a magistracy in the state, he had lost the privilege of consult- ing the gods officially, a plebeian could not marry anyone of patrician blood for fear that children of such a union might inherit patrician rights, and since the patrician group in the Senate had the power of veto, his vote had less than full value.

The villa furthermore was recognized in the earliest law, which indeed calls it the hortus, or the enclosure, while a manorial system with very small freeholds for the peasants seems to be recognized when the garden plot of two jugera (one and one-half acres) is called an inheritance, heredium.9 Perhaps also we may find a survival of the open field system in the “strips,”10 in which the land was assigned in Rome’s two earli- est citizen colonies, Ostia and Antium.

Whether the peasant of the Latin village of the sixth century had actually fallen into real bondage11 as had the helots of Sparta, Thessaly, and Crete we cannot now deter- mine, but it seems clear at least that his condition was in no way superior to that of the villein of the better class of manors before the time of the Black Death. The numerous villages of such peasants clustering about the lord’s villas and the community temple must in many respects have resembled in form and in social organization the medieval manorial villas. An idea of the social contrast between the classes may be gathered by comparing the elaborate jewelry of the princely tombs at Satricum with the meager furniture of the peasant dugout found near by.12

It would be useless to raise once more the old questions regarding a possible anterior “community ownership” and the beginnings of property rights at Rome; nor is there any reason to expect conclusive evidence on these points. The supposed traces of communism13 at Rome are few. The community pastures and wastes near the Latin cities may or may not be survivals of more extended communism: a study of medieval institutions has revealed that township-meadows have frequently been acquired in a late day. Mommsen indeed found it significant that according to the oldest code a man’s property reverted to his fellow clansmen if he died intestate and without heirs,14 but this again may be a relatively late invention of the lawmakers. However that may be, the laws of private property had developed long and far before the fifth century when the twelve tables15 were drawn up. Since the Terremare16 settlements of the Po valley reveal that the ancestors of the Romans were orderly agriculturists more than a millennium before these laws were written, it is highly probable that the Latin people respected property rights before they settled the plains about Rome.


1.Von Duhn, Italische Gräberkunde; Randall-MacIver, The Villanovans. 2. The highly inflected Italic dialects would probably have suffered as Latin did in 6th century France, Spain and Italy, if there had been a similar race-mixture in prehistoric times. North America provides a good example of how hunting tribes give way before landseeking farmers. The South American Indians, who were cultivators of the soil, remained to defend it and were consequently submerged.

3.Antonielli, Bull. Palet. Hol., 1924, 154; Bryan, Hut Urns; L. A. Holland, The Faliscans. The Ligurians who held the northern Apennines and the Alps west of Turin seem to have been an earlier group of invading Indo-Europeans, see Conway, in Cambridge Anc. Hist. IV, p. 383 ff.

4. A. Verri, Origine e Trasformazione della Campagna, 1911. 5. Theophrastus, Hist. Plant. V, 8; cf. Pais, Storia Critica di Roma, I, 627. 6. De La Blanchère, in Mél. d’archeol. et d’hist. 1882, also art. Cuniculus, in Daremberg-Saglio. He has probably over emphasized the use of these canals in draining marshes and subsoil moisture, and seems also to have included in his discussions some tunnels that are apparently house drains, service tunnels and horizontal cisterns. The cuniculi of the city are sometimes erroneously brought into the discussion of drains. Many of these were doubtless secret passage-ways dug to afford avenues of escape or retreat during the proscriptions of the civil wars and during slave uprisings. Cuniculi have been found as far north as Bieda, see Röm. Mitt. 1915, 185.

7. Since Roman Veii stood near this Ponte Sodo (Solidum), it is probably this tunnel that later tradition assigned to the sappers and miners of Camillus’ army. The stories of mining operations at the siege of Veii may account for the strange tales that connected the emissarium of Lake Albanus with the Veian siege (Livy, V, 15). The Romans do not mention the tunnel that drains Lake Nemi, though it is twice as long as the Alban one. It apparently was cut before the temple of Diana became very important. The Valle Ariccianaand thecrater lake on thevia Praenestina were also draine data nearly date.

8. Dion. Halic. Antiq. II, 10, 1. 9. Leges XII Tabularum, VII, 3 (Bruns, Fontes); Varro, 1, 10, 2. This is supported by the fact that the surveyors in plotting out the land for colonies conserved a two-acre measure in the “centuriation,” and that early colonies granted freeholds of very small plots. At Tarracina (327 B.C.) only two jugera were given; later colonists were given somewhat larger allotments (21⁄2, 3, 4 jugera) and finally in the Gracchan days thirty jugera.

10. Lacineis adsignatus, Liber colon. (Ed. Rud.) 229, 18, for Antium; 236, 7, for Ostia. 11. This is the view of Neumann, Bauernbefreiung; cf. E. Meyer, art. Plebs, Conrads Handwörterbuch; Botsford, Roman Assemblies, pp. 16–65. 12. See Monumenti Antichi, XV, p. 83, and Delia Seta, Museo di Villa Giulia, I., p. 235. 13. Mommsen, Röm. Staatsr. III, p. 23; Pöhlmann, Gesch. des antik. Kommunismus, II, 443; Vinogradoff,Growth of the Manor.

14. Leges XII Tab. V, 3. 15. Ibid. V, 3, Uti legassit super pecunia tutelave suae rei, ita jus esto. 16. Peet, The Stone and Bronze Ages in Italy.


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