P. Erdkamp, K. Verboven & A. Zuiderhoek (eds.) 2015, Ownership and Exploitation of Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World (Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy, Oxford, Oxford University Press

(click here to go to the OUP Catalogue)


1.1 General content

The first volume resulting from the project on Factors of Production in the Roman World run by the Roman Society Research Center is devoted to the theme of Land and Natural Resources. If economic history is the study of the structure and performance of economies through time, then in recent Roman economic history the emphasis has been squarely on performance. 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 analyzing what are often complex and multifaceted archaeological data sets.

The emphasis on performance 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 ground breaking work has recently appeared on exactly these aspect of the Roman economy. We believe, therefore, that this is a fundamental omission, which 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 Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World and several other recent studies adopt a NIE approach, but pay little attention to issues concerning the ownership and exploitation of land and natural resources. This is curious and unfortunate because both were fundamental to pre-industrial economies in general and ground breaking work has recently appeared on them. As editors, we have therefore asked our contributors to take into (critical) consideration the perspectives of NIE while writing their chapters. We have done so not in order 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.

1.2 Structure of the book

In the introductory chapter, Arjan Zuiderhoek presents a brief outline of earlier approaches to land and natural resources in ancient economic history and discusses their relative merits and drawbacks.

In the second chapter of the volume’s preliminary section, as a prelude to the more detailed studies in the chapters that followed, Paul Erdkamp offers a wide-ranging and comparative-historical discussion of the ways in which the production factors land and labour might have interacted to produce per capita economic growth even under the conditions of slow yet sustained population increase that are usually postulated for the late Republic and early and high Empire. Erdkamp dismisses current pessimistic Malthusian scenarios that rule out per capita growth under conditions of rising population.

Part I Ownership and Control

This first part of the volume focusses on who enjoyed ‘rights of exploitation’ of natural resources and what these rights were based upon. A central issue here is whether, and how, legal security could be obtained by those exploiting natural resources, which would guarantee their continued ‘right of exploitation’ and the enjoyment of the fruits thereof. Property rights – one of the key institutions of NIE – are an obvious focus in this part, but also political control of public land and the right to farm it in exchange for substantial or nominal fees.

Thus in his chapter, Kyle Harper targets the rarely questioned view that the size of aristocratic property grew since the late Republic until everywhere in Late Antiquity the best agricultural lands were monopolized by only a few hundred families. This ‘accumulation thesis’ was propagated since the early nineteenth century, but relies on just ‘a few dramatic literary sources’. It was developed before modern archaeology, epigraphy and papyrology showed that small and moderate sized landholding continued to thrive until Late Antiquity.

Elio Lo Cascio focusses on the possessions of the one property-owner whose landed wealth did in fact by far outstrip that of any other economic actor in the Roman world, and increasingly so –the emperor. Yet he shares with Harper the conviction that we should analyze the distribution and exploitation of (in this case, imperial) landed property first and foremost in market-economic terms. The emperor, Lo Cascio argues, did in fact behave like any other owner of landed property in the Empire.

Tacoma studies the imperial ousiai – large estates in Egypt owned by the Julio-Claudian emperors or their close relatives and intimates. In contrast to Lo Cascio, he developes a primarily socio-political explanation of the role and function of these imperial properties. Under the Flavians, the ousiai were transformed into regular imperial property, attached not to the person of the emperor but to his office. The case of the Egyptian ousiai shows that transfers of large landed properties were a frequent occurrence.

Dennis Kehoe points out that the growing levels of urbanization in the Roman economy imply that for a number of centuries, the Romans were able to increase agricultural surplus production. At the same time, they managed to stave off a Malthusian subsistence crisis. Kehoe argued that the legal framework contributed to making this possible because it allowed an efficient use of rural labour. Kehoe’s arguments suggest that a thorough consideration of Roman legal notions of private property is crucial if we truly want to understand the rationale and socio-economic implications of Roman land and natural resource management. Modern conceptions of legal ownership as an absolute, exclusive and unlimited individual right were inspired by classical and Justinian Roman law. Éva Jakab, however, shows that this development of 19th century legal thought was rooted in Enlightenment philosophy. Although inspired by Roman law, the modern legal concept of ownership was not a basic feature of Roman law. The Gracchan land laws and the lex agraria of 111 BCE are turning points because they ‘privatized’ these different forms of land usage, making full ownership rights applicable and enforceable by Roman law. These laws ‘created a new legal environment for agrarian activities’ and stimulated economic growth by establishing clear legal conditions. Rather than treating Roman ownership as an abstract unchanging concept, Jakab argued, we should see it as ‘a dynamic category with changing legal contents according to changing social, political and economic environments.’

The issue of servitudes is taken up by Christer Bruun, in the first of two chapters on the ownership and control of water resources. Bruun shows how servitudes on water, whereby the owner of a landed property had the legal right to conduct water from, or across, land owned by another, differed fundamentally from communal water sharing arrangements sanctioned by tradition.

Yuri A. Marano stresses that water-supply and drainage systems are crucial to the flourishing of urban centres. The demographic decline along with the decline of urban authorities in Late Antiquity caused serious problems for the water-supply and management system created centuries before. It required intervention from higher authorities. The Ostrogothic kings took this task to heart and were generally successful in restoring and ensuring public water-supply after a long period of disruption and neglect.

Part II Organisation and modes of exploitation

The chapters in this part of the volume dealt with the organization of natural resource-exploitation. Several chapters focused on the pivotal role of landed estates as units for the exploitation of natural resources, not just of land, which could be cultivated employing (combinations of) various different labour regimes, but also of e.g. sulphur deposits, clay-beds, and maritime resources. Another chapter focused on the exploitation of land and water resources in the decidedly un-Mediterranean environment of the Palmyrene oasis city, while the final chapter of this part is devoted to another crucial area of natural resource exploitation, animal husbandry.

Against the once prevalent view that the rise of the villa was based on the crisis of the Italian peasantry, Alessandro Launaro sees the emergence of market oriented landed estates as concomitant with a growing population. Considerations of lowering management costs and a preference for stable rather than high profits favoured tenancy as a management system of elite rural properties. Hence, villas prospered against a background of a large free population.

Annalisa Marzano investigates the variegated relationships between the non-agricultural and the more strictly agricultural activities on Roman estates. She emphasized that contemporary views on what constituted ‘agriculture’ were much broader than ours. The utilisation of uncultivable land often complemented that of cultivated land, as in the use of reeds in viticulture. Archaeological evidence for the scale of such enterprises regularly indicates a market-oriented strategy rather than fulfilment of the estate’s needs.

Stressing market incentives as well, Matthew S. Hobson explains the timing of the economic boom in Roman Africa by linking it to the social and political integration of the region in the Roman Empire. Roman North Africa saw an increase in exports in the second century CE, with levels remaining high in the Later Roman Empire. Increased integration of regional economies into the mainstream of Roman economy and society, as reflected in processes of resource exploitation, is also the focus of the chapter on Palmyra by Julia Hoffmann-Salz. In ecological terms, the surroundings of the imperial oasis city of Palmyra differed greatly from the Mediterranean heartlands of the Roman empire, but the institutions that governed the exploitation of land and water resources in this environment resembled those of Greece and Rome.  Nevertheless, as Hoffmann-Salz showed, these institutions developed from a highly different background.

In his chapter on animal husbandry, Michael MacKinnon shows how both market opportunities and the seductive pull of ‘Roman identity’ governed the behaviour of producers and consumers in this crucial area of resource exploitation. The use of zooarchaeological evidence provides a much more detailed understanding of the changes in animal husbandry in Roman times than the literary sources by themselves can offer. On the basis of the zooarchaeological characteristics of the three main species of livestock – pigs, cattle, and sheep – MacKinnon investigates the modifications within these breeds and the changes in exploitation that these modifications indicate. Demographic factors, cultural preferences, and economic institutions explain the growth of productivity in animal farming – in terms of meat, secondary products, or both –in Roman times, as well as their decline in Late Antiquity.

Part III Exploitation and processing of natural resources

Natural resources are rarely ‘ready at hand’ or ‘ready to use’. Their exploitation requires an amount of know-how. Various degrees of processing are required before they are suitable as raw materials or consumption goods. Ores have to be located and delved, their minerals extracted. Clay has to be filtered and prepared. Grapes need to be turned into wine, olives into olive oil, fish into garum, wood into charcoal, and so on. All this, of course, in turn requires a stable and sufficiently complex and sophisticated institutional and organisational context, without which the processing of natural resources cannot take place at all. The chapters in this third part of the volume focus on several natural resources crucial to the operation of the Roman economy, the processing of which was complex and costly and required the intervention of powerful economic and political actors.

Isabella Tsigarida discusses the role of the Roman government in the exploitation of salt in the province of Asia during the Late Republic. Salt was an essential nutrient, preservative, medicine and auxiliary agent in various industrial processes. Because of its importance, the access and management of salt works inevitably called for state intervention and regulation.

In his chapter on quarries, Alfred M. Hirt addresses the same theme of indirect exploitation of natural resources involving private entrepreneurs vs. direct state exploitation. Hirt shows how continuous production at the quarries required a change from indirect exploitation by private contractors (entrepreneurs) to direct state run production.

Continuing the theme of state intervention in the exploitation of natural resources, Fernando López Sánchez offers an intriguing long-term view of the fundamental relation between political institutions and gold mining operations. He argues that gold mining always required the presence of a strong state authority to provide protection and logistical expertise. In Late Antiquity and in the Early Middle Ages the Byzantine empire was the only significant producer of gold in the Mediterranean region because it was the only political power capable of maintaining the logistics and protection required.

1.3 Editors

Paul Erdkamp (Free University of Brussels). He is author of Hunger and the Sword. Warfare and food supply in Roman Republican wars (264-30 BC) (1998); The Grain Market in the Roman Empire (2005). He is the editor of The Roman Army and the Economy (2002); A Companion to the Roman Army (2007) and The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome (2013).

Koen Verboven (Ghent University). He is author of The Economy of Friends. Economic Aspects of Amicitia and Patronage in the Late Republic (2002). He is editor of Pistoi dia tèn technèn. Bankers, Loans and Archives in the Ancient World, with Katelijn Vandorpe and Véronique Chankowski (2008).

Arjan Zuiderhoek (Ghent University). He is author of The politics of munificence in the Roman Empire. Citizens, elites and benefactors in Asia Minor (2009).