Agrarian law

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Agrarian laws (from the Latin ager, meaning "land") were laws among the Romans regulating the division of the public lands, or ager publicus.


There existed three types of land in ancient Rome: private land, common pasture, and public land. By the 2nd century BC, wealthy landowners had begun to dominate the agrarian areas of the empire by "renting" large tracts of public land and treating it as if it were private. This began to force out smaller, private farmers with competition; the farmers were forced to move to the cities for this and a number of other factors including battles making living in rural areas dangerous. Roman cities were not good places to attempt to get jobs; they were also dangerous, overcrowded and messy.

Proposed land distribution in 486 BC

Probably the earliest attempt at an agrarian law was in 486 BC.[1] A peace treaty was entered into with the Hernici whereby they agreed to cede two-thirds of their land. Spurius Cassius Viscellinus, Roman consul for the third time, proposed to distribute that land, together with other public Roman land, amongst the Latin allies and the plebs. Cassius proposed a law to give effect to his proposal.[2] Niebuhr suggests that the law sought to restore the law of Servius Tullius, the sixth King of Rome, strictly defining the portion of the patricians in the public land, dividing the remainder amongst the plebeians, and requiring that the tithe be levied from the lands possessed by the patricians.[3]

The proposed law was opposed by the senators (some of whom it seemed were squatting on the public Roman land) and by the other consul Proculus Verginius Tricostus Rutilus. Their opposition to the law was also based on their concerns that Cassius was seeking to gain too much popularity.[4]

Verginius spoke publicly against the law, and the plebs became concerned that land was being given to the Latin allies, and also that Cassius might be seeking to pave the way to regal power. Verginius even suggested he would support the law if it was in favour only of Romans and not Rome's allies. To counter him, Cassius promised that the money raised from the Sicilian corn distribution be donated to the plebs, but they rejected this as a political bribe, and suspicion that Cassius was seeking regal power increased.[5]

In 485 BC once Cassius had left office he was condemned and executed. Livy says that the method of his trial is uncertain. Livy's preferred version is that a public trial on the charge of high treason was held on the orders of the quaestores parricidii Kaeso Fabius and Lucius Valerius, at which Cassius was condemned by the people, and subsequently by public decree his house was demolished (being near the temple of Tellus). The alternative version is that Cassius' own father conducted a private trial (presumably exercising authority as pater familias, although Niebuhr argues that it was impossible that a man who had been thrice consul and twice triumphed should still be in his father's power.[6]) and put his son to death, and subsequently dedicated his son's assets to the goddess Ceres, including by dedicating a statue to her with the inscription ""given from the Cassian family".[7] Dionysius states that he was hurled from the Tarpeian Rock.[8]

Some seem to have called for the execution of Cassius' sons also, but according to Dionysius, they were spared by the senate.[9][10]

Cassius Dio expressed his belief in the consul's innocence.[11]

In 159 BC the statue of Cassius erected on the spot of his house was melted down by the censors.[12][13]

Popular agitation for agrarian reform continued during 484 BC.[14] And again in 481 BC, when the tribune Spurius Licinius exhorted the plebs to refuse enrolment for military service as a means of encouraging agrarian reform, but the consuls and the other tribunes convinced the plebs otherwise.[15]

Gracchan reforms in late 2nd century BC

In 133 BC, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the tribune of the plebs, passed a series of laws attempting to reform the agrarian land laws; the laws limited the amount of public land one person could control, reclaimed public lands held in excess of this, and attempted to redistribute the land, for a small rent, to farmers now living in the cities.

Further reforms in 122 BC were attempted by Tiberius's brother, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, including the expansion of the laws' area of influence to all of the colonies in Italy. These reforms, however, were not as successful due to massive unpopularity in the Italian provinces.

By 118 BC the sales limits and redistibution efforts had been abolished, and by 111 BC the laws were standardised, confirming the positions of many owners in Italy about their large tracts of land.

See also

External links


  1. Livy, Ab urbe condita, 2.41
  2. Livy, Ab urbe condita, 2.41
  3. Barthold Georg Niebuhr, History of Rome, vol. ii, p. 166 ff, Lectures on the History of Rome, p. 89 ff, ed. Schmitz (1848).
  4. Livy, Ab urbe condita, 2.41
  5. Livy, Ab urbe condita, 2.41
  6. Barthold Georg Niebuhr, History of Rome, vol. ii, p. 166 ff, Lectures on the History of Rome, p. 89 ff, ed. Schmitz (1848)
  7. Livy, Ab urbe condita, 2.41
  8. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romaike Archaiologia, viii. 68-80.
  9. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romaike Archaiologia, viii. 80.
  10. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, William Smith, Editor.
  11. Lucius Cassius Dio Cocceianus, Exc. de. Sentent., 19, p. 150.
  12. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romaike Archaiologia, viii. 80.
  13. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, William Smith, Editor.
  14. Livy, Ab urbe condita, 2.42
  15. Livy, Ab urbe condita, 2.43