（Agrarian Laws). Laws dealing with the distribution of the Roman
public land (ager publicus
), and in general to be described as laws
providing for the allotment to the poorer citizens of land belonging to the state, or
regulating the tenure on which these lands should be held. Such assignments of land are said
to have been made as early as Romulus (Varro, R. R.
i. 10, 2), but the first
agrarian law was that proposed by Cassius Sp.in B.C. 486. The public lands were the result of
conquest in war. It was not till towards the end of the Republic that we hear of the state's
acquiring territory by the gift of a foreign prince. War in the ancient world made the bodies
and belongings of the vanquished the absolute property of the victors. No doubt either policy
or pity generally interfered to prevent the full exercise of the power. In Italy especially,
the persons were not usually made slaves; but though the conquered community was allowed to
exist, it was deprived of part, often of a third part, of its lands. These confiscated lands
had sometimes been utterly wasted in war, sometimes were still unhurt and in a state of
cultivation, sometimes consisted of moorland and wood. Each kind requires separate treatment.
1. The cultivated lands were dealt with in one, or it may be in all, of four ways.
) Part was sold by the quaestors, and hence called agri quaestorii.
According to the Gromatici, the land for this purpose was measured
and divided by balks (limites
) into square plots (laterculi
), measuring ten actus
each side, and containing fifty
, i.e. thirty-one acres, each. As containing one hundred square
, it was sometimes called centuria.
earliest instance recorded of a sale was in the case of Pometia, where, although the city was
surrendered when about to be stormed, some of the chiefs were slain, some of the husbandmen
were sold as slaves, the town was destroyed, and the land sold (Liv.ii.
). The sale under the spear (sub hasta
) gave full rights of
ownership (Gai. iv. 16). Conquest had extinguished all previous title or claims to the land,
and the state would of course give legal effect to its own acts of transfer.
) Part was given and assigned in full ownership to Roman citizens.
This land was duly surveyed, measured, divided by balks into centuries, each containing two
(one hundred and twenty-five acres), and assigned by lot
to Roman citizens. Such land was called agri dati adsignati.
assignments were two iugera
to each man; this formed an hereditament
), i.e. he had not the mere use or life interest of the plot,
but it passed to his heirs after him. The lots of one hundred men thus formed one century (cent-uir-ia
). Later on, seven iugera
were regarded as
the normal size of a lot (Plin. H. N. xviii.
); but, in fact, there was great variety, the amount naturally depending upon the
extent of land open to distribution and the number of citizens to share in it. The survey and
distribution were effected by a special commission of three, five, or ten men (Cic. Agr. ii. 7
), called IIIviri A. D.
, i.e. agris dandis adsignandis.
) Part of the confiscated lands were given back to their former
owners, and no rent was imposed on these plots.
) Part was neither sold nor assigned nor restored to the former
owners, but let for a rent (vectigal
), often for long periods to state
), who sublet to the nearest occupiers. Hyginus
mentions as long a lease as one hundred years.
2. Besides the cultivated lands still in condition to be sold or let, there were the
mountain pastures and woods. The mountain pastures and woods were often
) to the old proprietors, or to the municipality, or to
the new Roman colony, or reserved to the state; and other tracts of land were often useful as
pastures where there were not sufficient farmers to require them as arable land. Sometimes a
small rent was required, and then they came under the head of agri
pp. 203, 205). Sometimes strips of wood on the mountain
were annexed by the original assignment to the different estates (fundi
of private persons. Pastures, in like manner, were sometimes appropriated to individuals, but
held pro indiviso;
or sometimes made common to the whole of the community
p. 48). Appian (Bell. Civ.
i. 7) says that taxes were
laid for the use of the common pastures, both for larger and smaller animals, i. e. horned
cattle and sheep. The last was collected by the publicans.
3. Appian says that “the larger part of the lands taken from the conquered had
been wasted by war, and uncultivated. As the Romans had no time to distribute it, they gave
notice that any one who liked might temporarily work it, paying a tax of a yearly tenth of the
seed crops, and a fifth of the plantations” (i. e. fruits; for instance, olives and
grapes). There is no other authority for this definite historical statement of a notice and a
tax. The Gromatici speak frequently of agri occupatorii
, i. e. lands
belonging to squatters, and explain that it was conquered land occupied by individuals. The
word most frequently used to denote this occupation is possidere;
occupiers are possessores;
the lands, possessiones
—terms which do not, however, imply anything as to the legality
of the title by which it is held. But that this sort of occupation was recognized by law is
clear from the fact that interference with it by the state was the subject, not of judicial
proceedings, but of legislative enactment.
It does not seem probable that any definite arrangement was made in early times for the
occupation of public land which was not assigned, or sold, or leased; and the legal claim of
the state to deal with it was as incontestable in theory as it was difficult to enforce
without the destruction of those reasonable expectations, arising from long use, which are the
foundation of the statesman's view of property. It is disputed whether the patricians alone
(to the exclusion of the plebeians) had, before the Licinian laws, the right to hold the
public land: as a fact, it was probably the case. They were originally, and continued for long
to be, the holders of the government, and they were, as a rule, the richest. Now the
occupation of tracts of land wasted in war was not a poor Roman's business; it was at a
distance; it required capital; and it was insecure, partly from the enemy on the border, and
partly from the state's not having assigned it as private property. Neither the peasant nor
the small capitalist would find the occupation of such land at a distance from Rome
attractive; moreover, he was liable to be called off to serve in war. The rich man could risk
something, could employ slave labour, could judge of the political prospects, and have a
potential voice in the actions of the state. Such possessions had a natural tendency to
accumulate in the hands of the few. The holders added field to field (continuare agros
), partly by purchase from their poorer neighbours, partly by
violence, partly by taking in any vacant land adjoining. Thus were formed the large
estates (latifundia, lati fundi
) which, worked by slaves, drove out, or
gave no opening for, free peasants, and, portending the ruin of Italy, roused the Gracchi to
their famous legislation.
For some account of the specific agrarian laws, see the articles Rogationes Liciniae;
Semproniae Leges; Thoria Lex; Gracchus