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Agrariae Leges

(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 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.

a) 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 iugera, i.e. thirty-one acres, each. As containing one hundred square actus, it was sometimes called centuria. The 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. 17). 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.

b) 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 hundred iugera (one hundred and twenty-five acres), and assigned by lot to Roman citizens. Such land was called agri dati adsignati. The oldest assignments were two iugera to each man; this formed an hereditament (heredium), 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. 18); 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. A., i.e. agris dandis adsignandis.

c) Part of the confiscated lands were given back to their former owners, and no rent was imposed on these plots.

d) Part was neither sold nor assigned nor restored to the former owners, but let for a rent (vectigal), often for long periods to state contractors (mancipes), 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 granted (concessa) 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 vectigales (Grom. 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 (Grom. 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; the 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.

hide References (3 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (3):
    • Cicero, On the Agrarian Law, 2.7
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 18.18
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 2, 17
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