As a general rule, there was no end of ploughing and re-ploughing: a field was reckoned imperfectly tilled, in which the furrows were not drawn so close that harrowing could be dispensed with; but the management was more earnest than intelligent, and no improvement took place in the defective plough or in the imperfect processes of reaping and of threshing. This result is probably attributable rather to the scanty development of rational mechanics than to the obstinate clinging of the farmers to use and wont; for mere kindly attachment to the system of tillage transmitted with the patrimonial soil was far from influencing the practical Italian, and obvious improvements in agriculture, such as the cultivation of fodder-plants and the irrigation of meadows, may have been early adopted from neighbouring peoples or independently developed--Roman literature itself in fact began with the discussion of the theory of agriculture. Welcome rest followed diligent and judicious labour; and here too religion asserted her right to soothe the toils of life even to the humble by pauses for recreation and for freer human movement and intercourse. Every eighth day (-nonae-), and therefore on an average four times a month, the farmer went to town to buy and sell and transact his other business. But rest from labour, in the strict sense, took place only on the several festival days, and especially in the holiday-month after the completion of the winter sowing (-feriae sementivae-): during these set times the plough rested by command of the gods, and not the farmer only, but also his slave and his ox, reposed in holiday idleness.

Such, probably, was the way in which the ordinary Roman farm was cultivated in the earliest times. The next heirs had no protection against bad management except the right of having the spendthrift who squandered his inherited estate placed under wardship as if he were a lunatic.(12) Women moreover were in substance divested of their personal right of disposal, and, if they married, a member of the same clan was ordinarily assigned as husband, in order to retain the estate within the clan. The law sought to check the overburdening of landed property with debt partly by ordaining, in the case of a debt secured over the land, the provisional transference of the ownership of the object pledged from the debtor to the creditor, partly, in the case of a simple loan, by the rigour of the proceedings in execution which speedily led to actual bankruptcy; the latter means however, as the sequel will show, attained its object but very imperfectly. No restriction was imposed by law on the free divisibility of property. Desirable as it might be that co-heirs should remain in the undivided possession of their heritage, even the oldest law was careful to keep the power of dissolving such a partnership open at any time to any partner; it was good that brethren should dwell together in peace, but to compel them to do so was foreign to the liberal spirit of Roman law. The Servian constitution moreover shows that even in the regal period of Rome there were not wanting cottagers and garden-proprietors, with whom the mattock took the place of the plough. It was left to custom and the sound sense of the population to prevent excessive subdivision of the soil; and that their confidence in this respect was not misplaced and the landed estates ordinarily remained entire, is proved by the universal Roman custom of designating them by permanent individual names. The community exercised only an indirect influence in the matter by the sending forth of colonies, which regularly led to the establishment of a number of new full hides, and frequently doubtless also to the suppression of a number of cottage holdings, the small landholders being sent forth as colonists.

Landed Proprietors

It is far more difficult to perceive how matters stood with landed property on a larger scale. The fact that such larger properties existed to no inconsiderable extent, cannot be doubted from the early development of the -equites-, and may be easily explained partly by the distribution of the clan-lands, which of itself could not but call into existence a class of larger landowners in consequence of the necessary inequality in the numbers of the persons belonging to the several clans and participating in the distribution, and partly by the abundant influx of mercantile capital to Rome. But farming on a large scale in the proper sense, implying a considerable establishment of slaves, such as we afterwards meet with at Rome, cannot be supposed to have existed during this period. On the contrary, to this period we must refer the ancient definition, which represents the senators as called fathers from the fields which they parcelled out among the common people as a father among his children; and originally the landowner must have distributed that portion of his land which he was unable to farm in person, or even his whole estate, into little parcels among his dependents to be cultivated by them, as is the general practice in Italy at the present day. The recipient might be the house-child or slave of the granter; if he was a free man, his position was that which subsequently went by the name of "occupancy on sufferance" (-precarium-). The recipient retained his occupancy during the pleasure of the granter, and had no legal means of protecting himself in possession against him; on the contrary, the granter could eject him at any time when he pleased. The relation did not necessarily involve any payment on the part of the person who had the usufruct of the soil to its proprietor; but such a payment beyond doubt frequently took place and may, as a rule, have consisted in the delivery of a portion of the produce. The relation in this case approximated to the lease of subsequent times, but remained always distinguished from it partly by the absence of a fixed term for its expiry, partly by its non-actionable character on either side and the legal protection of the claim for rent depending entirely on the lessor's right of ejection.

Italian Books
Theodor Mommsen
Classic Literature Library

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