ancient land ownership -- 3/14/23

Today's selection -- from The Ancient Economy by M.I. Finley. In ancient times, most people owned little if any land. And for those who did, it was a mere one or two acres from which they made the most meager living. Inequality was high and increasing:
"[The portion of the population making its living from the land in ancient times cannot] be translated into quantitative terms. There were always substantial areas in which the proportion of the citizen body who were landowners or tenant farmers approached one hundred per cent (quite apart from the unique case of Sparta), even when they had urban centres and are called 'towns' or 'cities'. And there were a few swollen cities, notably in the early Roman Empire, such as Rome itself, Alexandria, Carthage, Antioch, with a population running well into six figures, many of whom had no connection with land or agriculture. But what of the vast areas between the extremes, spread over fifteen hundred years of history?

"We are told that a proposal was made in Athens in 403 B.C. to limit the political rights of any citizen who did not own some land, and that, had the measure been enacted, which it was not, 5000 citizens would have been the victims. That is some­thing, if the report is accurate (there are those who doubt it). But how much? We do not know the total number of citizens in 403; 'some land' could well mean no more than an urban garden plot on which a stonemason grew beans and perhaps some grapes. Or we are told (Josephus, Jewish War 2.385), probably on the basis of a census, that the population of Egypt in the first century of our era was 7,500,000 apart from Alexandria. That is more helpful in one respect because outside the city of Alexandria, where the population could not have been greater than half a million, if that, almost everyone was totally involved with agricul­ture, including the soldiers and the innumerable petty officials. On the other hand, Egypt was the densest and most poverty-stricken province in the empire, so that no generalization follows.

"We must therefore rest content with the vague but sure proposi­tion that most people in the ancient world lived off the land, in one fashion or another, and that they themselves recognized the land to be the fountainhead of all good, material and moral. When we then -- turn to the question of the scale of holdings, we find ourselves little better off. To begin with, the total number of individual figures in our possession over the whole time period and the whole region is ludicrously small: at a guess, since no one has assembled them all, I should doubt if they run to two thousand. Second, the available figures are not readily commensurable: there is a tendency among ancient writers to report either a monetary value, normally self-assessed and dubious for more than one reason, or a single year's gross income, rather than acreage; and to report on a particular estate rather than on a man's total holding. There have been attempts by modern historians to translate one type of figure into another for purposes of computa­tion, on the basis of a 6% or 8% 'normal return on investment in land'. I then find myself in the embarrassing position, given my insistence on the search for quantifiable regularities and patterns, of having to demur. A small number of texts do in fact produce such a rate in specific circumstances, but some turn out to be worthless,  there are too few figures altogether, and there are too many variables of soil and crop and land regime. Nor was it a frequent practice, familiar in England since the late Middle Ages, to express land values as so many years' purchase. Third, ancient writers frequently give a figure or describe a farm only because it is unusual or extreme, such as Varro's list of examples (De re rustica 3.2) of the high profitability derived from bees, flowers, hens, doves and peacocks on villas near the city of Rome. What little we have is therefore not a random sample.

"Nevertheless, I believe we can discover something meaningful about the range of landholdings and the trends. Let us begin with the extreme and untypical case of Egypt, untypical because its irrigation farming produced relatively stable, high yields (perhaps tenfold for grain), because there was little waste land (as little as five per cent in the Fayum), because the native peasantry was never a free population like the classical Graeco-Roman. In a typical Fayum village of the Ptolemaic period, such as Kerkeosiris with a population of perhaps 1500 farming some 3000 acres, many peasants lived at a bare subsistence minimum with holdings as small as one or two acres, some on one-year leases and all subject to dues and taxes. At the upper limit, two incomplete figures will suffice to suggest both scale and trend. The first is the estate in the Fayum of one Apollonius, for a time the highest official in the country early in the third century B.C., which ran to some 6500 acres. (Apollonius had at least one other large estate, at Memphis, and everything reverted to the crown when he fell out of favour.) The second figure relates to the Apion family, natives of Egypt who in the sixth century A.D. twice achieved the top post in the Byzantine Empire, that of praetorian prefect. This family was one of a number of extraordinarily wealthy landowners in Egypt. How wealthy is not known, but it has been calculated that one of their estates alone amounted to some 75,000 acres, from which they contributed possibly 7,500,000 litres to the annual grain levy for Constantinople.!

"So extreme a range was uncommon in the ancient world, but the gap between smallest and largest landowner was generally wide enough, and, I believe, steadily widening. We have already seen that Roman citizens were being settled in colonies in Italy in the second century B.C., on holdings as low as three acres, with six acres more or less the norm for men with larger families in Caesar's day. When a small Greek community was founded in the Adriatic island of Curzola in the third or second century B.C., the first settlers were each allotted an unspecified amount of arable and about three quarters of an acre of vineyard. That peasant holdings on this small scale were common cannot be doubted, though the documentation is inadequate. At least they were tax­free holdings in the classical world, unlike Egypt, and to that extent more viable. They were also unlikely to show any significant changes over the centuries, until the general debasement of the free peasantry set in under the Roman emperors."



M.I. Finley


The Ancient Economy


University California Press


Copyright M.I. Finley 1973, 1985


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment