Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
649 of 1105

LAWS, Agrarian


LAWS, Agrarian, (agrariœ leges). Those enactments were called agrarian laws by the Romans which related to the public lands (ager publicus). The objects of these agrarian laws were various. A law (lex) for the establishment of a colony and the assignment of tracts of land to the colonists, was an agrarian law. The laws which regulated the use and enjoyment of the public lands, and gave the ownership of portions of them to the commonalty (plebes), were also agrarian laws. Those agrarian laws indeed which assigned small allotments to the plebeians, varying in amount from two jugera to seven jugera (a jugerum is about three-fourths of an English acte), were among the most important; but the agrarian laws, or those clauses of agrarian laws which limited the amount of public land which a man could use and enjoy, are usually meant when the term agrarian laws is now used—The origin of the Roman public land, or of the greater part of it, was this: Rome had originally a small territory, but by a series of conquests carried on for many centuries she finally obtained the dominion of the whole Italian peninsula. When the Romans conquered an Italian state, they seized a part of the lands of the conquered people; for it was a Roman principle that the conquered people lost everything with the loss of their political independence; and what they enjoyed after the conquest was a gift from the generosity of the conqueror. A state which submitted got better terms than one which made an obstinate resistance. Sometimes a third of their land was taken from the conquered state, and sometimes two-thirds. It is not said how this arrangement was effected; whether each landholder lost a third, or whether an entire third was taken in the lump, and the conquered people were left to equalize the loss among themselves. But there were probably in all parts of Italy large tracts of uncultivated ground which were under pasture, and these tracts would form a part of the Roman share, for we find that pasture land was a considerable portion of the Roman public land. The ravages of war also often left many of the conquered tracts in a desolate condition, and these tracts formed part of the conqueror's share. The lands thus acquired could not always be carefully measured at the time of the conquest, and they were not always immediately sold or assigned to the citizens. The Roman state retained the ownership of such public lands as were not sold or given in allotments, but allowed them to be occupied and enjoyed by any Roman citizen, or, according to some, by the patricians only at first, and in some cases certainly by the citizens of allied and friendly states, on the payment of a certain rent, which was one-tenth of the produce of arable land, and one-fifth of the produce of land planted with the vine, the fig, the olive, and of other trees the produce of which was valuable, as the pine. It does not appear that this occupation was originally regulated by any rules: it is stated that public notice was given that the lands might be occupied on such terms as above mentioned. Nor was the occupation probably limited to one class, either the patricians or the plebeians; either of these two portions of the Roman community might occupy the lands. The enjoyment of the public land by the plebes is at least mentioned after the date of the Licinian laws. Such an arrangement would certainly be favorable to agriculture. The state would have found it difficult to get purchasers for all its acquisitions; and it would not have been politic to have made a free gift of all those conquered lands which, under proper management, would furnish a revenue to the state. Those who had capital, great or small, could get the use of land without buying it, on the condition of paying a moderate rent, which depended on the produce. The rent may not always have been paid in kind, but still the amount of the rent would be equivalent to a portion of the produce. The state, as already observed, was the owner of the land; the occupier, who was legally entitled the possessor, had only the use (usus). This is the account of Appian ("Civil Wars," i., 7, etc.). The account of Plutarch ("Tiberius Gracchus," 8,) is in some respects different. Whatever land the Romans took from their neighbors in war, they sold part and the rest they made public and gave to the poor to cultivate, on the payment of a small rent to the treasury (ararium); but as the rich began to offer a higher rent, and ejected the poor, a law was passed which forbade any person to hold more than 500 jugera of (public) land. The law to which he alludes was one of the Licinian laws. ("Camillus," 39 )


—This mode of occupying the land continued for a long period. It is not stated by any authority that there was originally any limit to the amount which an individual might occupy. In course of time these possessions (possessiones), as they were called, though they could not be considered by the possessors as their own, were dealt with as if they were. They made permanent improvements on them, they erected houses and other buildings, they bought and sold possessions like other property, gave them as portions with their daughters, and transmitted them to their children. There is no doubt that a possessor had a good title to his possession against all claimants, and there must have been legal remedies in cases of trespass, intrusion, and other disturbances of possession. In course of time very large tracts had come into the possession of wealthy individuals, and the small occupiers had sold their possessions, and in some cases, it is said, had been ejected, though it is not said how, by a powerful neighbor. This, it is further said, arose in a great degree from the constant demands of the state for the services of her citizens in war. The possessors were often called from their fields to serve in the armies, and if they were too poor to employ laborers in their absence, or if they had no slaves, their farms must have been neglected. The rich stocked their estates with slaves, and refused to employ free laborers, because free men were liable to military service and slaves were not. The free population of many parts of Italy thus gradually decreased, the possessions of the rich were extended, and most of the laborers were slaves. The Italian allies of Rome, who served in her armies and won her victories, were ground down by poverty, taxes and military service. They had not even the resources of living by their labor, for the rich would only employ slaves; and though slave labor under ordinary circumstances is not so profitable as free labor, it would be more profitable in a state of society in which the free laborers were liable at all times to be called out to military service. Besides this, the Roman agricultural slave was hard worked, and an unfeeling master might contrive to make a good profit out of him by a few years of bondage; and if he died, his place would readily be supplied by a new purchase. Such a system of cultivation might be profitable to a few wealthy capitalists, and would insure a large amount of surplus produce for the market; but the political consequences would be injurious—The first proposition of an agrarian law, according to Livy, was that of the consul Spurius Cassius, B. C. 484, a measure, as Livy observes, which was never proposed up to his time (the period of Augustus) without exciting the greatest commotion. The object of this law was to give to the Latins half of the lands which had been taken from the Hernici, and the other half to the plebes. He also proposed to divide among the plebes a portion of the public land, which was possessed by the patricians. The measure of Cassius does not appear to have been carried, and after the expiration of his office, he was tried, condemned, and put to death, on some charge of treasonable designs, and of aspiring to the kingly power. The circumstances of his trial and death were variously reported by various authorities. (Livy. ii., 41 ) Dionysius ("Antiq. Rom.," viii., 76) says that the senate stopped the agitation of Cassius by a measure of their own. A consultum was passed to the effect that ten men of consular rank should be appointed to ascertain the boundaries of the public land, and to determine how much should be let and how much distributed among the plebes; it was further provided that if the Ispolite and allied states should henceforth aid the Romans in making any further acquisitions of land, they should have a portion of it. The senatus consultum being proposed to the popular assembly (), whatever that body may here mean, stopped the agitation of Cassius. This statement is precise enough and consistent with all that we know of the history of the agrarian laws; nor does its historical value seem to be much impaired by the remarks of Niebuhr upon it. ("Licinian Rogations," vol. iii., note 12.)


—At length in the year B. C. 375, the tribunes C. Licinius Stolo and L. Sextius brought forward, among other measures, an agrarian law, which, after much opposition, was carried in the year B. C. 365. The measures of Licinius and his colleague are generally spoken of under the name of the "Licinian Rogations." The provisions of this law are not very exactly known, but the principal part of them may be collected from Livy (vi., 35), Plutarch ("Tib. Gracchus," 8), and Appian ("Civil Wars," i., 8). No person was henceforth to occupy more than 500 jugera of public land for cultivation or planting; and every citizen was qualified to hold to that amount, at least, of public land acquired subsequently to the passing of the law. It was also enacted that every citizen might feed 100 head of large cattle and 500 head of small cattle on the public pastures. Any person who exceeded the limits prescribed by the law was liable to be fined by the plebeian ædiles, and to be ejected from the land which he occupied illegally. The rent payable to the state on arable land was a tenth of the produce, and that on lands planted with fruit or other trees was a fifth. This is not mentioned by Appian as a provision of that law which limited the possessions to 500 jugera, but as an old rule; but if the law of Licinius contained nothing against it, this provision would of course remain in force. A fixed sum was also paid, according to the old rule, for each head of small and large cattle that was kept on the public pastures.


—The rent was farmed or sold for a lustrum, that is, five years, to the highest bidder. There was another provision mentioned by Appian as part of the law which limited possession to 500 jugera, which is very singular. To render it more intelligible, the whole passage should be taken together, which is this: "It was enacted that no man should have more of this land (public land) than 500 jugera, nor feed more than 100 large and 500 small cattle, and for these purposes the law required them to have a number of free men, who were to watch what was going on and to inform."*45 Niebuhr simply expresses the last enactment thus: "The possessors of the public land are obliged to employ free men as field laborers in a certain proportion to the extent of their possessions." Nothing is said as to any assignment of lands to the plebeians by the law of Stolo, though Niebuhr adds the following as one of the clauses of the law: "Whatever portions of the public land persons may at present possess above 500 jugera, either in fields or plantations, shall be assigned to all the plebeians in lots of seven jugera as absolute property." He observes in a note: "No historian, it is true, speaks of this assignment, but it must have been made"; and then follow some reasons why it must have been made, part of which are good to show that it was not made. But though Livy does not speak of assignments of land as being made to the plebes, such assignment is mentioned as one of the objects of his laws in the speech of Licinius (Livy, vi., 39) and of his opponent Appius Claudius (vi., 41).


—About two hundred and thirty years after the passing of the Licinian law, the tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, who was of a plebeian but noble family, brought forward his agrarian law, B. C. 133. The same complaints were still made as in the time of Licinius: there was general poverty, diminished population, and a great number of servile laborers. Accordingly, he proposed that the Licinian law as to the 300 jugera should be renewed or confirmed, which implies, not perhaps that the law had been repealed, but at least that it had fallen into disuse, but he proposed to allow a man to hold 250 jugera, in addition to the 500, for each son that he had; though this must have been limited to two sons, as Niebuhr observes, inas much as 1,000 jugera was the limit which a man was allowed to hold. The land that remained after this settlement was to be distributed by commissioners among the poor. His proposed law also contained a clause that the poor should not alienate their allotments. This agrarian law only applied to the Roman public lands in A pulia. Samnium, and other parts of Italy, which were in large masses: it did not affect the public lands which had already been assigned to individuals in ownerships, or sold. Nor did it comprise the land of Capua, which had been made public in the war against Hannibal, nor the Stellatis Ager: these fertile tracts were reserved as a valuable public property, and were not touched by any agrarian law before that of C. Julius Cæsar.


—The complaints of the possessors were loud against this proposed law; and to the effect which has already been stated. They alleged that it was unjust to disturb them in the possessions which they had so long enjoyed, and on which they had made great improvements. The policy of Gracchus was to encourage population by giving to the poor small allotments, which was indeed the object of such grants as far back as the time of the capture of Veii (Livy, v., 30): he wished to establish a body of small independent landholders. He urged on the possessors the equity of his proposed measure, and the policy of having the country filled with free laborers instead of slaves; and he showed them that they would be indemnified for what they should lose, by receiving, as compensation for their improvements, the ownership of 500 jugera, and the half of that amount for those who had children. It seems doubtful if the law as finally carried gave any compensation to the persons who were turned out of their possessions, for such part of their possessions as they lost, or for the improvements on it. (Plutarch, "Tib. Gracchus," x.) Three persons (triumviri) were appointed to ascertain what was public land, and to divide it according to the law: Tiberius had himself, his brother Caius, and his father-in-law Appius Claudius, appointed to be commissioners, with full power to settle all suits which might arise out of this law. Tiberius Gracchus was murdered in a tumult excited by his opponents at the election when he was a second time a candidate for the tribuneship (B. C. 133). The law, however, was carried into effect after his death, for the party of the nobility prudently yielded to what they saw could not be resisted. But the difficulties of fully executing the law were great. The possessors of public land neglected to make a return of the lands which they occupied, upon which Fulvius Flaccus, Papirius Carbo, and Caius Gracchus, who were now the commissioners for carrying the law into effect, gave notice that they were ready to receive the statements of any informer; and numerous suits arose. All the private land which was near the boundary of the public land was subjected to a strict investigation as to its original sale and boundaries, though many of the owners could not produce their titles after such a lapse of time. The result of the admeasurement was often to dislodge a man from his well-stocked lands and remove him to a bare spot, from lands in cultivation to land in the rough, to a marsh or to a swamp; for the boundary of the public land after the several acquisitions by conquest had not been accurately ascertained, and the mode of permissive occupation had led to great confusion in boundaries. "The wrong done by the rich," says Appian, "though great, was difficult exactly to estimate; and this measure of Gracchus put everything into confusion, the possessors being moved and transferred from the grounds which they were occupying to others" ("Civil Wars," i., 18.) Such a general dislodgement of the possessors was a violent revolution. Tiberius Gracchus had also proposed that so much of the inheritance of Attalus III., king of Pergamus, who had bequeathed his property to the Roman state, as consisted of money, should be distributed among those who received allotments of land, in order to supply them with the necessary capital for cultivating it. (Plutarch, "Tiberius Gracchus." 14.) It is not stated by Plutarch that the measure was carried, though it probably was—Caius Gracchus, who was tribune B. C. 123, renewed the agrarian law of his brother, which it appears had at least not been fully carried into effect; and he carried measures for the establishment of several colonies, which were to be composed of those citizens who were to receive grants of land. A variety of other measures, some of undoubted value, were passed in his tribunate; but they do not immediately concern the present inquiry. Caius got himself appointed to execute the measures which he carried. But the party of the nobility beat Caius at his own weapons; they offered the plebes more than he did. They procured the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus to propose measures which went far beyond those of Caius Gracchus. Livius accordingly proposed the establishment of twelve colonies, whereas Gracchus had only proposed two (Plutarch, "Caius Gracchus," 9.) The law of Gracchus also had required the poor to whom land was assigned to pay a rent to the treasury, which payment was either in the nature of a tax or an acknowledgment that the land still belonged to the state: Drusus relieved them from this payment. Drusus also was prudent enough not to give himself or his kinsmen any appointment under the law for founding the colonies. Such appointments were places of honor at least, and probably of profit too. The downfall of Caius was thus prepared, and, like his brother, he was murdered by the party of the nobility. B. C. 121, when he was a third time a candidate for the tribunate.


—Soon after the death of Caius Gracchus, an enactment was passed which repealed that part of the law of the elder Gracchus which forbade those who received assignments of lands from selling them. (Appian, "Civil Wars," i., 27.) The historian adds, which one might have conjectured without being told, that the rich immediately bought their lands of the poor; "or forced the poor out of their lands on the pretext that they had bought them"; which is not quite intelligible.*46 Another law, which Appian attributes to Spurius Borius, enacted that there should be no future grants of lands, that those who had lands should keep them, but pay a rent or tax to the ærarium, and that this money should be distributed among the poor. This measure then contained a poor-law, as we call it, or imposed a tax for their maintenance. This measure, observes Appian, was some relief to the poor by reason of the distribution of money, but it contributed nothing to the increase of population. The main object of Tiberius Gracchus, as already stated, was to encourage procreation by giving small allotments of land, a measure well calculated to effect that object. Appian adds: "When the law of Gracchus had been in effect repealed by these devices, and it was a very good and excellent law, if it could have been carried into effect, another tribune not long after carried a law which repealed that relating to the payment of the tax or rent; and thus the plebes lost everything at once. In consequence of all this, there was still greater lack than before of citizens, soldiers, income from the (public) land, and distributions."


—Various agrarian laws were passed between the time of the Gracchi and the outbreak of the Marsic war, B. C. 90, of which the law of Spurius Thorius (lex Thoria) is assigned by Rudorff to the year of the city 643, or B. C. 111; and this appears to be the third of the laws to which Appian alludes as passed shortly after the death of Caius Gracchus. Cicero also ("Brutus," 36) alludes to the law of Thorius as a bad measure, which relieved the public land of the tax (vectigal). The subject of this lex was the public land in Italy south of the rivers Rubico and Macra, or all Italy except Cisalpine Gaul; the public land in the Roman province of Africa, from which country the Romans derived a large supply of grain; the public land in the territory of Corinth; and probably other public land also, for the bronze tablet on which this law is preserved is merely a fragment, and the agrarian laws of the seventh century of the city appear to have related to all the provinces of the Roman state. One tract, however, was excepted from the Thoria lex, the ager Campanus, or fertile territory of Capua, which had been declared public land during the war with Hannibal, and which neither the Gracchi nor any other politician, not even Lucius Sulla, ventured to touch: this land was reserved for a bolder hand. The provisions of the Thoria lex are examined by Rudorff in an elaborate essay.


—In the year B. C. 91 the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus the younger, the son of the Drusus who had opposed Caius Gracchus, endeavored to gain the favor of the plebes by the proposal of laws to the same purport as those of the Gracchi, and the favor of the Socii, or Italian allies, by proposing to give them the full rights of Roman citizens. "His own words," says Florus (iii., 17), "are extant, in which he declared that he had left nothing for any one else to give, unless a man should choose to divide the mud or the skies." Drusus agitated at the instigation of the nobles, who wished to depress the equestrian body, which had become powerful; but his agrarian profusion, which was intended to gain the favor of the plebes, affected the interests of the Socii, who occupied public land in various parts of Italy, and accordingly they were to be bought over by the grant of the Roman citizenship. Drusus lost his life in the troubles that followed the passing of his agrarian law, and the Socii, whose hopes of the citizenship were balked, broke out in that dangerous insurrection called the Marsic or Social war, which threatened Rome with destruction, and the danger of which was only averted by conceding, by a lex Julia, what the allies demanded (B. C. 90). The laws of Drusus were declared void, after his death, for some informality.


—The proposed agrarian law of the tribune P. Servilius Rullus, B. C. 63, the year of Cicero's consulship, was the most sweeping agrarian law ever proposed at Rome. Rullus proposed to appoint ten persons with power to sell everything that belonged to the state, both in Italy and out of Italy, the domains of the kings of Macedonia and Pergamus, lands in Asia, Egypt, the province of Africa, in a word, everything; even the territory of Capua was included. The territory of Capua was at that time occupied and cultivated by Roman plebeians (colitur et possidetur), an industrious class of good husbandmen and good soldiers: the proposed measure of Rullus would have turned them all out. There was not here, says Cicero (ii., 30), the pretext that the public lands were lying waste and unproductive; they were in fact occupied profitably by the possessors, and profitably to the state, which derived a revenue from the rents. The ten persons (decemviri) were to have full power for five years to sell all that belonged to the state, and to decide without appeal on all cases in which the title of private land should be called in question. With the money thus raised it was proposed to buy lands in Italy on which the poor were to be settled, and the decemviri were to be empowered to found colonies where they pleased. This extravagant proposal was defeated by Cicero, to whose three orations against Rullus we owe our information about this measure.


—In the year B. C. 60 the tribune Flavius brought forward an agrarian law, at the instigation of Pompey, who had just returned from Asia, and wished to distribute lands among his soldiers. Cicero, in a letter to Atticus (i., 19), speaks at some length of this measure, to which he was not entirely opposed, but he proposed to limit it in such a way as to prevent many persons from being disturbed in their property, who, without such precaution, would have been exposed to vexatious inquiries and loss. He says, "One part of the law I made no opposition to, which was this, that land should be bought with the money to arise for the next five years from the new sources of revenue (acquired by Pompey's conquest of Asia). The senate opposed the whole of this agrarian measure from suspicion that the object was to give Pompey some additional power, for he had shown a great eagerness for the passing of the law. I proposed to confirm all private persons in their possessions; and this I did without offending those who were to be benefited by the law; and I satisfied the people and Pompey, for I wished to do that too, by supporting the measure for buying lands. This measure, if properly carried into effect, seemed to me well adapted to clear the city of the dregs of the populace, and to people the wastes of Italy." A disturbance in Gallia Cisalpina stopped this measure; but it was reproduced, as amended by Cicero, by C. Julius Cæsar, who was consul in the following year, B. C. 59. The measure was opposed by the senate, on which Cæsar went further than he at first intended, and included the Stellatis ager and Campanian land in his law. This fertile tract was distributed among 20,000 citizens who had the qualification which the law required, of three children or more. Cicero observes ("Ad Attic.," ii, 16), "That after the distribution of the Campanian lands and the abolition of the customs duties (portoria), there was no revenue left that the state could raise in Italy, except the twentieth which came from the sale and manumission of slaves." After the death of Julius Cæsar, his great nephew Octavianus, at his own cost and without any authority, raised an army from these settlers at Capua and the neighboring colonies of Casilinum and Calatia, which enabled him to exact from the senate a confirmation of this illegal proceeding, and a commission to prosecute the war against Marcus Antonius. Those who had received lands by the law of the uncle supported the nephew in his ambitious designs, and thus the settlement of the Campanian territory prepared the way for the final abolition of the republic. (Compare Dion, Cassius, xxxviii., 1-7, and xiv., 12.)


—The character of the Roman agrarian laws may be collected from this sketch. They had two objects: one was to limit the amount of public land which an individual could enjoy; the other was to distribute public land from time to time among the plebes and veteran soldiers. A recent writer, the author of a useful work (Dureau de la Malle, Economie Politique des Romains), affirms that the Licinian laws limited private property to 500 jugera, and he affirms that the law of Tiberius Gracchus was a restoration of the Licinian law in this respect (ii., 280, 282). On this mistake he builds a theory, that the law of Licinius and of Tiberius Gracchus had for their "object to maintain equality of fortunes and to create the legal right of all to attain to office, which is the fundamental basis of democratic government." His examination of this part of the subject is too superficial to require a formal confutation, which would be out of place here. But another writer already quoted (Rudorff, Zcitschrift fur Geschichtliche Rechtsuissenschaft, x , 28) seems to think also that the Licinian maximum of 500 jugera applied to private land, and that this maximum of 500 jugera was applied by Tiberius Gracchus to the public land. Livy (vi., 35), in speaking of the law of Licinius Stolo, says merely, "Nequis plus quingenta jugera agri possideret," but, as Niebuhr observes, the word "possideret" shows the nature of the land without the addition of the word public. And if any one doubts the meaning of Livy, he may satisfy himself what it is by a comparison of the following passages (ii., 41; vi., 4, 5, 14, 16, 36, 37, 39, 41). The evidence derived from other sources confirms this interpretation of Livy's meaning. That the law of Gracchus merely limited the amount of public land which a man might occupy, is, so far as we know, now admitted by everybody except Dureau de la Malle; but a passage in Cicero ("Against Rullus," ii., 5), which he has referred to himself in giving an account of the proposed law of Rullus, is decisive of Cicero's opinion on the matter; not that Cicero's opinion is necessary to show that the laws of Gracchus only affected public land, but his authority has great weight with some people.


—It is however true, as Dureau de la Malle asserts, that the Licinian laws about land were classed among the sumptuary laws by the Romans. The law of Licinius, though not directly, did, in effect, limit the amount of capital which an individual could apply to agriculture and the feeding of cattle, and jealousy of the rich was one motive for this enactment. It also imposed on the occupier of public land a number of free men: if they were free laborers, as Niebuhr supposes, we presume that the law fixed their wages. But their business was to act as spies and informers in case of any violation of the law. This is clear from the passage of Appian above referred to, the literal meaning of which is what has here been stated, and there is no authority for giving any other interpretation to it*47 The law of Tiberius Gracchus forbade the poor who received assignments of land from selling them; a measure evidently framed in accordance with the general character of the enactments of Licinius and Gracchus. The subsequent repeal of this measure is considered by most writers as a device of the nobility to extend their property; but it was a measure as much for the benefit of the owner of an allotment. To give a man a piece of land and forbid him to sell it, would often be a worthless present. The laws of Licinius and Gracchus, then, though they did not forbid the acquisition of private property, prevented any man from employing capital on the public land beyond a certain limit; and as this land formed a large part of land available for cultivation, its direct tendency must have been to discourage agriculture and accumulation of capital. The law of Licinius is generally viewed by modern writers on Roman history as a wise measure; but it will not be so viewed by any man who has sound views of public economy; nor will such a person seek, with Niebuhr, to palliate by certain unintelligible assumptions and statements the iniquity of another of his laws, which deprived the creditor of so much of his principal money as he had already received in the shape of interest. The law by which he gave the plebeians admission to the consulate was in itself a wise measure. Livy's view of all these measures may not be true, but it is at least in accordance with all the facts, and a much better comment on them than any of Livy's modern critics have made. The rich plebeians wished to have the consulate opened to them: the poor cared nothing about the consulate, but they wished to be relieved from debt, they wished to humble the rich, and they wished to have a share of the booty which would arise from the law as to the 500 jugera. They would have consented to the law about the land and the debt, without the law about the consulate; but the tribunes told them that they were not to have all the profit of these measures; they must allow the proposers of them to have something, and that was the consulate: they must take all or none. And accordingly they took all.


—The other main object of the agrarian laws of Rome was the distribution of public land among the poor in allotments, probably seldom exceeding seven jugera, about five English acres, and often less. Sometimes allotments of twelve jugera are spoken of. ("Cicero against Rullus," ii., 31.) The object of Tiberius Gracchus in this part of his legislation is clearly expressed; it was to encourage men to marry and to procreate children, and to supply the state with soldiers. To a Roman of that age, the regular supply of the army with good soldiers would seem a sound measure of policy; and the furnishing the poorer citizens with inducement enough to procreate children was therefore the duty of a wise legislator. There is no evidence to show what was the effect on agriculture of these allotments; but the ordinary results would be, if the lands were well cultivated, that there might be enough raised for the consumption of a small family; but there would be little surplus for sale or the general supply. These allotments might, however, completely fulfill the purpose of the legislators. War, not peace, was the condition of the Roman state, and the regular demand for soldiers which the war would create, would act precisely like the regular emigration of the young men in some of the New England states; the wars would give employment to the young males, and the constant drain thus caused would be a constant stimulus to procreation. Thus a country from which there is a steady emigration of males never fails to keep up and even to increase its numbers. What would be done with the young females who would be called into existence under this system, it is not easy to conjecture; and in the absence of all evidence we must be content to remain in ignorance. It is not stated how these settlers obtained the necessary capital for stocking their farms; but we read in Livy, in a passage already quoted, that on one occasion the plebes were indifferent about the grants of lands, because they had not the means of stocking them; and in another instance we read that the treasure of the last Attalus of Pergamus was to be divided among the poor who had received grants of lands. A gift of a piece of land to a man who has nothing except his labor, would in many cases be a poor present; and to a man not accustomed to agricultural labor—to the dregs of Rome, of whom Cicero speaks, it would be utterly worthless. There is no possible way of explaining this matter about capital, except by supposing that money was borrowed on the security of the lands assigned, and this will furnish one solution of the difficulties as to the origin of the plebeian debt. It is impossible that citizens who had spent most of their time in Rome, or that broken-down soldiers should ever become good agriculturists. What would be the effect even in the United States, if the general government should parcel out large tracts of the public lands, in allotments varying from two to five acres, among the population of New York and Philadelphia, and invite at the same time all the old soldiers in Europe to participate in the gift? The readiness with which the settlers in Campania followed the standard of young Octavianus shows that they were not very strongly attached to their new settlements.


—The full examination of this subject, which ought to be examined in connection with the Roman law of debtor and creditor, and the various enactments for the distribution of grain among the people of Rome, would require an ample volume. The subject is full of interest, for it forms an important part of the history of the republic from the time of the legislation of Licinius; and it adds one to the many lessons on record of useless and mischievous legislation. It is true that we must make some distinction between the laws of Licinius and the Gracchi, and such as those proposed by Rullus and Flavius: but all these legislative measures had the vice either of interfering with things that a state should not interfere with, or the folly of trying to remedy by partial measures those evils which grew out of the organization of the state and the nature of the social system.


—The nature of the agrarian laws, particularly those of Licinius and the Gracchi, has often been misunderstood in modern times; but it is a mistake to suppose that all scholars were equally in error as to this subject. The statement of Freinsheim, in his "Supplement to Livy," of the nature of the legislation of the Gracchi, is clear and exact. But Heyne ("Opuscula," iv., 351) had the merit of putting the matter in a clear light at a time, during the violence of the French revolution, when the nature of the agrarian laws of Rome was generally misunderstood. Niebuhr, in his "Roman History," gave the subject a more complete examination, though he has not escaped error, and his economical views are sometimes absurd. Savigny (Das Recht des Besitzes, p. 172, 5th ed.) also has greatly contributed to elucidate the nature of possession of the public land, though the main object of his admirable treatise is the Roman law of possession as relates to private property.


Notes for this chapter

This passage of Appian is very obscure, but it has certainly been misunderstood by Niebuhr. The Latin version is "Decretum praeterea est, nt ad curanda opera rustics cerium numerum liberorum aleret quiaque, qui ea quae agerentur inspicerent dominoque renunciarent." The word "domino" is an invention of the translator. The words may mean all "the produce," as in Thucydides (vi., 54); and this is a more probable interpretation than that given above.
is probably corrupt.
The precise meaning of this passage of Appian is uncertain. If the words refer to the produce, their duty was to make a proper return for the purpose of taxation, that is, of the tenths and fifths. But this passage requires further consideration. All that can be safely said at present is, that Niebuhr's explanation is not warranted by the words of Appian.

Footnotes for LAWS

End of Notes

649 of 1105

Return to top