Related teams & projects

Land and Natural Resources in the Roman World, 200 BCE-600 CE (2009-2011)

Given that the level of agrarian productivity and the availability of natural resources ultimately determine the degree of prosperity in any economy, but most starkly so in pre-industrial ones, any attempt to answer vital questions as outlined above should start at the base of the economy, with the management and exploitation of land and natural resources. We therefore propose to devote the first part of our program to  ‘land and natural resources’.

Starting from the agricultural and natural resource base of the economy moreover does not only make sense from the perspective of performance, but also from that of structure: as in most pre-modern economies, the majority of the empire’s population was engaged in agriculture, while the material achievement of Roman infrastructure and urbanisation was the product of the exploitation of natural resources on a scale not seen before or, for a long time, after.

Recent work in Roman economic history has placed particular stress on the analysis of economic performance, most notably the Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World. Yet it is noticeable 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 (Kehoe 2007 ; Erdkamp 2005 ; Banaji 2002).

We believe 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 part ultimately the story of the rise, decline and diversity of its agrarian productive potential?

‘Exploitation of land and natural resources’ should be understood in a broad sense. That is, we aim 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 and waste disposal, and so on.One useful concept is offered by Horden & Purcell. Their ‘connectivity’ concept is not only related to the connectivity of geographical regions, but also to the integration of various non-urban activities, many of which were organized within the context of large landholdings and estates (villas). This means that, on the one hand, we should focus on agriculture and animal husbandry as such (i.e. the ecological aspect), but, on the other hand, we should investigate the wider context of agriculture in economic activities occurring in the countryside (the social and economic aspect).  The discussion of agriculture in relation to economic and demographic growth points 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.

However, investigation of the wider context should also include investigation of changes in agricultural structure (concentration of land, management of holdings, attitudes of landowners etc.), and development of non-agricultural activities, such as the exploitation of clay beds, fishing and fish processing  (garum installations), charcoal production, and so forth.

Finally, we should stress the importance of changes in the market (supply, demand, nature of trading channels) of agricultural goods and natural resources, in particular from the point of view of the integration of the trade in agricultural and non-agricultural goods. To give one example: iron ore (rather than finished goods) was used as ballast in those ships sailing towards Africa, while these ships transported olive oil to outside consumers. In other words, iron ore and olive oil were part of an integrated trading system.

In short, we should not study the exploitation, processing and distribution of various natural resources (agricultural and non-agricultural) in isolation from each other, but in their interaction with each other.

In addition, we wish to focus on the actions of both private and public actors, that is, individuals, organisations, local and regional polities and the state. This means that we also intend to study the 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, imperial estates under the Empire, Church property in Late Antiquity ? What effect did the creation of a new imperial ‘bureaucratic’ elite in Late Antiquity have on the (re)distribution land and natural resources ? How did the annona affect the production, processing and distribution of agricultural products ?

(1) Certe quidem ipse orbis in promptu est cultior de die et instructior pristino. Omnia iam peruia, omnia nota, omnia negotiosa, solitudines famosas retro fundi amoenissimi oblitterauenint, siluas arua domuerunt, feras pecora fugauerunt, harenae seruntur, saxa panguntur, paludes eliquantur, tantae urbes quantae non casae quondam. Iam nec insulae horrent nec scopuli terrent; ubique domus, ubique populus, ubique respublica, ubique uita.