Roman agriculture

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While Roman civilization has a reputation for its many great accomplishments, Roman society itself had an economy based on agriculture and trade, with a significant manufacturing sector.

In contrast with other civilizations of the time, in ancient Rome land was private property and there was a market for land in the empire. This helped to make Roman agriculture the most advanced form of agriculture in the ancient world, since the most efficient farms generated the largest profit and the inneficient farms were forced out of the market.

In the ancient world agriculture was much more important than in the modern industrial nations, the most important fuel for the ancient economy was grain, it powered the muscles of the labourers and of the animals, the engines of the Roman economy.

Some estimates of the distribuition of labor in the various rural activities, these calculations were made using the ancient manuals and the reported prices of the times for agricultural products:

15% Cereals, the largest sector of the roman economy

6% Wine

6% Olive Oil

13% Other rural activities

Total: 35% of the labor force employed in agriculture plus 5% in husbandry. From a total estimated population of 65 million by the time of Tiberius and a labor force of some 25 million, some 10 million were farmers.

Modern estimates about the agricultural surplus of ancient agriculture states that between 30% to 50% of the total agricultural production was surplus to feed the urban population.

Ancient Roman manuals about agriculture state that a standard farm of 200 iugera (51 hectares) could be worked by 6 laborers and 2 assistants, and Italy had in the first century AD a total estimated cultivated area of 20 million iugera, with 600,000 farm laborers plus another 150,000 laborers working in assistant tasks. Italy at that time had a total labor force estimated to be 3 million (from 7 million population), of which roughly 750,000 were farmers making up 25% of the total labor force.

A well managed grain farm of 200 iugera could produce about 50 modii of grain per iugerum per year in an average harvest. The total produce of the farm would be 10,000 modii. Of this 1,200 would be used as seed. Ancient farms had a much lower productivity compared to modern ones which can produce over 200 seeds from only 1 compared to 8 to 1 in ancient Roman farms. About 400 modii would be consumed by the 8 laborers that worked on the farm. Some 8,000 modii were sold, which could feed about 200 people engaged in non agricultural tasks and 400 were stored. The total population of the Roman Empire engaged directly in grain production would be 4% of the population, about 2.5-3 million workers or 15% of the adult male labor force.

This represents a level of agricultural productivity, which would not be reached again until the 18th century.

There was a massive amount of commerce between the provinces of the empire, all the regions of the empire became interdependent with one another, some provinces specialized in the production of grain, others in wine and others in olive oil, depending on the soil type.

Roman vineyards were smaller and were more labor intensive than grain fields, but a single iugerum of land could produce an average of 30 amphora of wine per year. Wine was one of Italy's main exports.

Agriculture received at least lip service in Roman culture. Of the many commentators who praised simple rural life and endowed it with the aura of ancient Roman virtues, Virgil in his Georgics stands pre-eminent.

The Italian heartland of the Roman empire did not provide especially fertile soils for cereals. Hence in the growth of Roman hegemony particular importance attaches to bread-basket romana

Roman agriculture

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