Land "Ownership"

In the Territories of Rome


(Primary References: Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Part III, Caesar and Christ, A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from their beginnings to A.D. 325, Simon and Schuster, NY c1944; John Cook, Law and Life of Rome, Cornell University Press, c1967.)

The early Roman Empire was comprised of Rome and an assemblage of self-governed Italian or Latin city-states or "municipiae" ("municipalities.") Most municipalities had a senate (curia) that formulated ordinances and an assembly (comita, ekklesia) that chose the magistrates. This system was also implanted into the government of the non-Italian provinces. The municipalities were established on the basis of charters that spelled out the powers of the community, but always allowed for appeal to Rome. Normally, the freemen of each community were content to exercise a purely local franchise (right to vote.) Those non-Romans who won Roman citizenship rarely went to Rome to vote. Augustus conferred Roman citizenship or the limited franchise of "Latin rights" upon all Italian communities that had borne a share of the war against Egypt and developed a way for local councilors to "vote by mail" in the assembly elections in Rome.

The non-Italian provinces were classified as conquered territory, whose inhabitants were primarily Roman subjects with status as "dediticii" = capitulants (no legal rights.) There were very few Roman citizens. Augustus divided the provinces into two classes: those that required active defense and those that did not. The Senate ruled the latter vesting imperium in governors; the rest - the "imperial provinces," were governed by the Emperors own legates, procurators or prefects. The army was generally quartered in the imperial provinces. (England was occupied in such a manner from approximately 43 A.D. - 400 A.D.)

The land of the conquered non-Italian provinces was considered the property of the Roman state or "ager publicus" and was held by the possessors under charter or revocable grant and not in dominium. The relationship of the non-Roman citizen to the Emperor in the imperial provinces was that of non-citizen familia to the pater familias - both in respect to property and imperium.

Considerable revenue came from "leasing" of these lands and from contracting with "Publicans," who operated state forests and public works, as well as and the state monopoly on mines, fisheries and salt. The provinces paid a tributum soli (land tax) and a tributum capitis (head poll tax based on personal property.) Funds went into the national Treasury (aerarium) for lands controlled by the Senate; and to the imperial Treasury (fiscus), for those lands classified as imperial. (In effect, legal land ownership of the Imperial "ager publicus" was in the Emperor.)

Rome was based on the idea of the citizen-farmer, who was expected to serve in the military. The first mention in Roman history of estates larger than could be farmed by a pater familias, with his household of sons and slaves, occurs in the holdings of the Roman patricians or censors. Continual Roman warfare kept many Roman farmers in the army for years. Often their farms were ruined and taxes consumed the little profit made. Irrigation and drainage canals fell into disrepair. Marshes spread. Small farms became absorbed by larger agricultural estates ("latifundia,") owned by absentee patrician owners and worked by the slaves that the victorious Roman legions sent home Trajan first set up a scheme to promote agriculture in Italy by requiring senators to invest a third of their capital in Italian land. This encouraged the "latifundia". Slave labor and imports from Sicily, Africa and Egypt cheapened the grain so that free farmers could not compete. Many peasant proprietors and free rural workers abandoned farms for the cities, leaving Italian agriculture to the latifundia and slaves. 

Eventually, the latifundia were ruined by the Pax Romana and cessation of influx of slaves through conquest. There became a shortage of supply and costs for slaves rose. Compelled to lure free labor back to the land, large landlords divided their holdings into units that they leased to "coloni" (cultivators.) The landowners required a small money-rent or one tenth of the produce and a period of unpaid labor in the owner's villa. (By the third century, these villas had become fortified castles that enclosed the villiges of the coloni.)

Aurelius began to settle captive Germans on imperial estates in 172 and granted them hereditary possession of the lands on condition of an annual tax, military service at call and an agreement not to leave the allotment without permission of the state. Similar conditions were made for Roman veterans receiving frontier lands, especially in the "agri-decumates" or tithe-paying-fields along the Danube and Rhine. In 196, because of an insufficiency of precious metals and requirements to pay them, Septimus Severus allowed frontier soldiers to live on farms with their families. He divided the lands that he had appropriated into parcels tilled by tenants paying taxes in money or "in kind" (product.)

Gradually, freemen soldiers in occupation domiciled in larger cities or "coloniae," (colony,) were allowed Roman citizenship. Certain municipalities were even declared "free cities" exempt from tribute, not subject to a provincial governor and self-managing of their domestic affairs. Some old kingdoms were allowed to keep their kings, but these became "clients" of Rome - dependant upon Roman protection and policy, and required to aid the Empire with men and materials. As additional insurance, the kings of client states were persuaded to send their sons to Rome for education, leaving them as hostages until their accession. In the provinces, the governor (proconsul or propraetor) combined the power to legislate, administer and judge. His power was limited only by the free cities, the Roman citizen's right of appeal to the emperor and the financial supervision exercised by the provincial quaestor or procurator.

Faced with increasing problems of feeding the urban poor in Rome, Gaius Gracchus instituted a policy of promoting colonization in the provinces by offering land. Caesar reduced list of those on the public dole from 320,000 to 150,000, by sending the poor to overseas colonies.

As the Empire spread, matured and decayed, attempts to gain control over it propagated bureaucracy. The pinnacle of Roman micro-management in Imperial provincial economic affairs occurred under Diocletian and Maximian. The Empire became divided into ninety-six provinces grouped into seventy-two dioceses and four prefectures, with civil and military rulers appointed for each division. The regulatory control over almost every aspect of property ownership and economic exchanged eventually strangled the Empire under its own weight.