Roman beehives in Malta

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Evidence of farm life before 200 B.C. is chiefly traditional. The early farms were very small. We read of holdings of two iugera (about an acre and a half). These seem too small for the support of a family unless they were accompanied with rights in community land. Holdings of seven iugera (a little over five acres) are frequently mentioned, and were assigned when allotments were made of the public land in 393 B.C. Such a farm could be worked by the owner with a hired man or a slave or two. The houses were grouped together in villages, and the men went out to their work each day. Thus there was not the loneliness of farm life so often complained of in this country. With hand labor and simple tools the Romans did intensive farming indeed, or rather, gardening. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Various conditions led to the decrease in the number of small farms and the increase of the large estates (latifundia). The devastation of Italy by Hannibal led to the ruin of many farmers and the abandonment of much land. The loss of life in that war brought a great decrease in free labor. The richer citizens bought large tracts of land or leased them from the government and worked them with slaves. The small farmer naturally found competition increasingly difficult. And when the importation of grain made wheat-growing in Italy no longer profitable, or when the exhaustion of the surface soil in Latium forced the small farmer to give up the struggle, the wealthy landowner could afford to plant his lands with vines or olives, or to turn large tracts into pasture, and wait for his investment to become profitable. |+|

“However, in parts of Italy, particularly in the remote or hilly sections, small farms were worked at all periods. The latifundia were regularly worked by slaves under a vilicus. Tenant farmers (coloni) are rarely referred to during the Republic but become increasingly common later. Horace had five tenants on part of his Sabine farm; he worked the rest himself, through his vilicus. Free labor on the farms did not entirely disappear, for we read that extra hands were hired at times. |+|

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; Lacus Curtius; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; British Museum; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History

Farming in the Roman Era

milling scene

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Traditional knowledge of astronomy was important to the farmer, as a basis for the calendar of operations. The beginning and ending of the seasons was fixed by the positions of stars or constellations, and the heliacal rising and setting of certain stars indicated the seasons even to the day. This was the more important because of the confusion of the calendar before it was regulated by Caesar. |+|

“The land was drained with care. Open ditches were used in heavy soils, covered ones in light. The covered drains were filled halfway with stones, gravel or brush, and then filled to the top with soil. Open furrows were left across the fields to drain into the ditches. Careful drainage produced thriving farms in sections that are now marshes where people cannot live or work on account of the malaria. On the other hand, most careful conservation of water and the building of aqueducts, dams, and cisterns made land productive in Africa where we now find ruins of Roman cities in wastes of sand. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Four kinds of fencing are described: hedges, fences of pickets interlaced with brush or of posts pierced with holes for the connecting rails, the “military fence” of ditch and bank, and walls of stone, burned or sun-dried brick, or concrete. Trees were often planted along roads, property lines, and fence rows, sometimes, of course, for windbreaks. |+|

Farm Tools and Fertilizer in the Roman Era

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “On the great estates skilled craftsmen of all sorts were kept. The smaller farmer might arrange to hire them, when needed, of his neighbor. Implements included different sorts of hoes and rakes, spades and forks. There were pruning knives, sickles, scythes, and similar implements. The plow has been mentioned already , and there were primitive forms of the harrow. Where grapes or olives were grown, presses and storage jars were part of the permanent equipment.” On many farms the main pieces of farm machinery were olive oil presses. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Cato said that the first and second rules of good farming were to plow well, and the third to manure well. Farmyard manure was stored in piles, old and new separately. Ancient writers advised that, where stock was not kept, the farmer should make such a compost heap as one does now for gardening, piling together leaves, weeds straw, and the like, with the ashes from burning hedge clippings and other rubbish that does not decay readily. The Romans understood green manuring, and though they had no knowledge of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, they did understand planting legumes and plowing them under, green. Without litmus paper they knew how to test soil for sourness. |+|

“Plows (aratra) were small and light. Some were of iron, some of wood. A wooden plow is still in use in Italy where the surface soil is thin and light and the ground stony. Some plows were straight, some curved. Heavy plowing was done with the straight plow. The field was plowed twice; the first time the plow was held straight, the second, sloping. The modern plow does the same work with one operation. Oxen were used for plowing, and 120 Roman feet, the length that the oxen were supposed to plow without resting, was a traditional land measure. The plowing was done in close furrows, and the ground was stirred until it was as fine as dust. The mark of good plowing was to leave no sign of the plow. The ancient Romans thought that harrowing after sowing was an evidence of bad plowing. Pliny the Younger tells of land that had to be plowed nine times. |+|

ancient Roman farming tools

Palladius’s Tips on Farming (c. A.D. 350)

Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus Palladius was a Roman writer from an élite family in Gaul who lived sometime between the late fourth and early fifth century of the common era. He is best known for his text on agriculture, De Re Rustica (Opus agriculturae).

Palladius wrote in “On Husbandry (c. A.D. 350): Book I, C.5. Lands fat or lean, thick or rare, dry or moist, and not without defects, are good for divers seeds; but my advice is to choose the fat and moist. Its work is least and its fruit is best. And next the thick and rank is best; but eschew the thick and dry and let it alone. C.24. Till all the field or all the field is lost; wheat sown thrice in too fat land will, wonderful to say, change into other grain.... C.27. To till a field one must have diligence and leave no part unsown; but plough it up altogether. A little well tilled will repay expenses well, so undertake as much as you can easily do. [Source: : Palladius, On Husbandrie, translated by Barton Lodge, Early English Text Society, Vol. XXIV, No. 52, (London: N. Trubner, 1873-1879), reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 38-41]

“C.33. But after it is burnt do not go near it for five years; and after that you will see that it, as richer land, will grow and thrive. C 40. I am unwilling to make him who is a favorite foreman over the field; and why? For he will deem his work is well howsoever it may be. C.65. And it is good for pipes to lead from it (the cistern) each to carry drinking water, the liquor of grace above, a thing celestial.

“C.114. One plants thorns; another sows seeds; but (for fences and garden walls) seeds of bramble and hound's thorn do well; and gather that as ripe as necessary. C.165. Make ready now each needed instrument; look to the little plough and the large one also; sharpen the edges and plough up where the land is moist; still more tools should be prepared as the mattock, axe, pickaxe, saws long and short, also crooked knives for vine and bough, and scythes and hooked sickles. C.266. And crooked sharp-backed scythes; and bring forth also the little crooked knives to take away a branch in young plants, the hooks that cut the ferns, bills to dig up briars, rakes, crooks, adzes, pitchforks, and double-bitted axes for the thorns.

“Book VII. C.5. One ox's work with a little help from man will take up all the harvest in this wise: they make a square cart on two wheels and board it up in a certain way widening it toward the top so that toward the top it is broad. Its jaw in front which gathers up the wheat should not be high but even. C.6. That instrument should be bent upwards and toothed so close that the spikes of grain will not pass them. And at the back fix two shafts as a dray has in front, and yoke to it a meek ox that will draw and stand and turn and make it go forward. And all the grain will fall into this cart. C.7. These teeth will force in the ears that are in front; the drover notices how low and high the grain is which is going in and leaves the chaff behind. Thus shall an ox in a few days gather up the whole harvest; this cart is to be used in plain field lands where chaff is of no use.

“Book XII. C.3. For Columella affirms that a field which has been fallow has proved more profitable for wheat than the fields where the yield has been beans: sow six strikes to the acre of rich land; less is sufficient in poor land; but in firm land the bean will grow and it hates weak and lean soil.

Palladius’s Tips on Planting (c. A.D. 350)

Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus Palladius was a Roman writer from an élite family in Gaul who lived sometime between the late fourth and early fifth century of the common era. He is best known for his text on agriculture, De Re Rustica (Opus agriculturae).

“Book IV. C.25. Now sow hollyhocks and armorace or arborace which is wild radish; and now plant origan in its place; now (sow) leeks, beets, lettuce, capers, savory, colocasia, and cresses; let all now sow marigolds or radishes; and bless them; trust in God that all shall grow. C.32. Asparagus is sown about the first of April in wet and fat land in small ridges made by a line, so that seeds which fall a half or three feet are left; and spread on it a sheet of dung and weed it well, and cast straw on it till spring; then it may be taken off. C.98. Now graft pears, sweet or sour apples, service trees, quince, plum, and mulberry trees. On March 24th this should be done. Pistachio is now grafted to grow in cold lands; and pine seed is sown. [Source: : Palladius, On Husbandrie, translated by Barton Lodge, Early English Text Society, Vol. XXIV, No. 52, (London: N. Trubner, 1873-1879), reprinted in Roy C. Cave & Herbert H. Coulson, A Source Book for Medieval Economic History, (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co., 1936; reprint ed., New York: Biblo & Tannen, 1965), pp. 38-41]

“Book V. C.1. Medicago should be sown in April in prepared beds; it is taught that, once sown, it will grow for ten years and be cut annually four or six times. It dungs lean lands and fattens up lean beasts and cures the sick ones. An acre a year will suffice for three horses. Book VIII. C.3. Small onions should now be sown in cold and wet places; also radishes and orage if you can water them, and basilicon; lettuce, mallows, beets, leeks should be watered now. Now sow turnip and rape in wet lands; they rarely thrive in rotten lands but in wet lands and fields.

“Book X. C.23. Gith (cockle) is lastly also to be sown in this moon; cresses and dill in temperate lands or radishes in dry lands will grow quickly; parsnips and caerefolium may also be set out; at the first of October sow by hand lettuce, beets, and also coriander seeds; rape and turnip it is now indeed good to sow. Book XI. C.38. The apple is planted in hot and dry land. At the first of November quince and service-berry are set in seed beds to multiply. And they do the same with the almond tree. Pine is to be sown now, and fruits to be kept for preserves, as has already been taught of each.

“Book XII. C.45. This moon in dry places and cold regions the wild pear should be planted to be grafted; citron, olive, pomegranate, service, medlar, carob, mulberry, cherry, fig, almond, and walnut, as the craft has been taught before, are to be renewed in seed plots.”

Roman Planting and Harvesting Rituals

On the early Roman planting ritual, Cato the Elder wrote (c. 160 B.C.): “Make the offering for the oxen when the pear trees bloom; then begin the spring ploughing. Plough first the spots which are dry and sandy. Then, the heavier and wetter the spots are, the later they should be ploughed. The offering is to be made in this way: Offer to Jupiter Dapalis a cup of wine of whatever size you wish. Observe the day as a holiday for the oxen, their drivers, and those who make the offering. When you make the offering, say as follows: "Jupiter Dapalis, since it is due and proper that a cup of wine be offered you, in my home among my family, for your sacred feast; for that reason, be honored by this feast that is offered you." Wash your hands, and then take the wine and say: "Jupiter Dapalis, be honored by this feast that is offered to you and be honored by the wine that is placed before you." If you wish, make an offering to Vesta. The feast of Jupiter consists of roasted meat and an urn of wine. Present it to Jupiter religiously, in the proper form. After the offering is made, plant millet, panic grass, garlic, and lentils. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II, pp. 9-15; 289]

On the early Roman harvesting ritual, Cato the Elder wrote (c. 160 B.C.): “Before the harvest the sacrifice of the pig must be offered in this manner: Offer a sow as porca praecidanea to Ceres before you harvest spelt, wheat, barley, beans, and rape seed. Offer a prayer, with incense and wine, to Janus, Jupiter and Juno, before offering the sow. Offer a pile of cakes to Janus, saying, "Father Janus, in offering these cakes to you, I humbly pray that you will be propitious and merciful to me and my children, my house and my household." Then make an offering of cake to Jupiter with these words: "In offering you this cake, O Jupiter, I humbly pray that you, pleased with this offering, will be propitious and merciful to me and my children, my house and my household." Then present the wine to Janus, saying: "Father Janus, as I have prayed humbly in offering you the cakes, so may you in the same way be honored by this wine now placed before you." Then pray to Jupiter thus: "Jupiter, may you be honored in accepting this cake; may you be honored in accepting the wine placed before you." Then sacrifice the porca praecidanea. When the entrails have been removed, make an offering of cakes to Janus, and pray in the same way as you have prayed before. Offer a cake to Jupiter, praying just as before. In the same way offer wine to Janus and offer wine to Jupiter, in the same way as before in offering the pile of cakes, and in the consecration of the cake. Afterward offer the entrails and wine to Ceres.

“To layer fruit and other trees: Press back into the ground the scions which spring up from the ground, but raise their tips out, so that they will take root; dig up at the proper time and transplant vertically. In this way you should propagate from the crown and transplant fig, olive, pomegranate, quince, wild quince, and all other fruits, Cyprian and Delphic laurel, plum, conjuglan myrtle, as well as white and black myrtle, Abellan and Praenestine nuts, and plane trees. Those which you wish to have planted more carefully should be planted in pots. To make them take root while on the tree, take a pot perforated at the bottom or a basket, run the shoot through it, fill the basket with earth, pack it, and leave it on the tree. When it is two years old cut off the tender branch below and plant along with the basket. By this method you can make any variety of tree take root firmly. Vines may also be layered by thrusting them through a basket, packing firmly with earth, cutting a year later, and planting along with the basket.”

Certificate of Having Sacrificed to the Gods (A.D. 250): “To the Commissioners of Sacrifice of the Village of Alexander's Island [Province of Egypt]: From Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Satabus, of the Village of Alexander's Island, aged 72 years: — scar on his right eyebrow. I have always sacrificed regularly to the gods, and now, in your presence, in accordance with the edict, I have done sacrifice, and poured the drink offering, and tasted of the sacrifices, and I request you to certify the same. Farewell. — Handed in by me, Aurelius Diogenes. — I certify that I saw him sacrificing [signature obliterated]. Done in the first year of the Emperor, Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, second of the month Epith. [June 26, 250 A.D.]

beehives in Malta

Rural Life in the Roman Era

It is believed that rural people in Roman era tended to wake up at dawn and go to the fields and do whatever work or chores they had to do first thing in the morning. Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Little is known of the life of the small farmer. Ancient as well as modern poets have written charmingly idyllic pictures of the farm and the life upon it, where people still lived and worked as in the brave days of old. The farmer probably worked hard for seven days and went to town on the market days (nundinae) to sell his produce, see his friends, and hear the news. His wife looked after the house and the family, supervising the slaves who did the actual work. The rural festivals added color to the farmer’s life, for the old religion kept its force longest in the country, even as it began there. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Literature tells us more of the landlord of the large estate. Cato lists the duties of the owner on arrival at the farm. After saluting his household gods, he is to go over the farm himself before calling for the vilicus to make his report. After discussing this and giving further orders, he should go over the accounts and make plans for selling produce on hand and any superfluous stock. Pliny the Younger laments the amount of time that has to be given to accounts and the affairs of his tenants, to the hindrance of his literary work. |+|

“Though the busy city man fled to the country to escape the social duties of the city as well as to rest from his work there, there was no lack of social life among the villas, and the interruptions from this source were sometimes an annoyance too. Exercise, bath, and dinner formed part of the day’s routine, as in town. In addition to the exercise of the palaestra one might walk, ride, or drive over the estate. There were hunting and fishing, too, for the sporting landlord and his guests. The guests were numerous, because the lack of good inns made hospitality a constant duty.” |+|

Farmhouses in the Roman Era

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “The ordinary farmhouse (villa rustica) was built for use. It was not merely a house, but included the farm buildings gathered around a court (cohors) or courts, and was more or less regular in plan. Remains of a number have been discovered near Pompeii, and of others in various parts of the Roman world. They varied, of course, with the size and needs of the farm, its locality, and the taste and needs of the owner. Where the working farmer tilled his own land they must have been small and simple. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

pigeon house

“On the large estates the villa included quarters for the master’s use when he came for inspection or rest. These might be in the second story. Cato recommends that the master’s quarters be comfortable, that he may spend the more time on the farm, and Columella adds that they should please the mistress. The room for the vilicus must be near the gate, so that he could keep watch of comings and goings. There were quarters for the slaves (cellae familiae), and an ergastulum, partly underground and heavily barred, if there were any slaves worked in chains. The kitchen was large and the slaves got their breakfast there in the morning and might gather there after work in the evening, if there were not the servants’ hall that Varro advises. |+|

“Vitruvius says that the bath should be near the kitchen; we find it so in some of the villas near Pompeii. The press-rooms and storage-rooms for the wine were supposed to face north, the rooms for the oil south. There were tool-rooms and wagon-sheds, and Varro’s remarks show that there were farmers then who had to be urged to keep their implements under cover. There were stables and a granary, and whatever else was needed for each particular farm. In the court there might be a pool, and if there were no spring or well there were cisterns. If the villa were suitably located on a main-traveled road, part of it was sometimes used for a wineshop or tavern. |+|

“Cato discusses carefully the purchase of an estate (fundus). He thought that an ideal farm would lie at the foot of a hill facing south. It was important to choose a healthful locality and make sure of the water supply. The soil should be good, rich, not too heavy. The land should not be too nearly level, for that made drainage difficult. The farm should be in a prosperous neighborhood near a good market town, and on a good road if not near a river or the sea. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“Cato advised buying a farm in good condition and with good buildings. There should be a local supply of labor to be hired for the harvest or other times of extra work. He recommends a farm of 240 iugera, about 160 acres, suitable for diversified farming. Pliny the Younger, when discussing land which joined his, says “The farms are productive, the soil rich, the water supply good; they include pastures, vineyards, and timberland that gives a small but regular return.” He speaks of the saving in equipment, supervision, and skilled service gained by the concentration of holdings—a good concrete instance of the rise of the great states (latifundia) as small-scale farming became less profitable. On the other hand, he says, to own much land in one neighborhood is to be exposed too much to the same climatic risks. |+|

Noble Farmers

an equite

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Agriculture. The farm life that Cicero has described so eloquently and praised so enthusiastically in his Cato Maior would have scarcely been recognized by Cato himself and, long before Cicero wrote, had become a memory or a dream. The farmer no longer tilled his fields, even with the help of his slaves. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“The yeoman class had largely disappeared from Italy. Many small holdings had been absorbed in the vast estates of the wealthy landowners, and the aims and methods of farming had wholly changed. This is discussed elsewhere, and it will be sufficient here to recall the fact that in Italy grain was no longer raised for the market, simply because the market could be supplied more cheaply from overseas. |+|

“The grape and the olive had become the chief sources of wealth, and Sallust and Horace complained that for them less and less space was being left by the parks and pleasure grounds. Still, the making of wine and oil under the direction of a careful steward must have been very profitable in Italy, and many of the nobles had plantations in the provinces as well, the revenues of which helped to maintain their state at Rome. Further, certain industries that naturally arose from the soil were considered proper enough for a senator, such as the development and management of stone quarries, brickyards, tile works, and potteries.” |+|

Country Houses in the Roman Era

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “Country estates might be of two classes, countryseats for pleasure and farms for profit. In the first case the location of the house (villa urbana, or pseudourbana), the arrangement of the rooms and the courts, their number and decoration, would depend entirely upon the taste and means of the master. Remains of such houses in most varied styles and plans have been found in various parts of the Roman world, and accounts of others in more or less detail have come down to us in literature, particularly the descriptions of two of his villas given by Pliny the Younger. [Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

model of a country house

“Some villas were set in the hills for coolness, and some near the water. In the latter case rooms might be built overhanging the water, and at Baiae, the fashionable seaside resort, villas were actually built on piles so as to extend from the shore out over the sea. Cicero, who did not consider himself a rich man, had at least six villas in different localities. The number is less surprising when one remembers that there were nowhere the seaside or mountain hotels so common now, so that it was necessary to stay in a private house, one’s own or another’s, when one sought to escape from the city for change or rest. |+|

“Vitruvius says that in the country house the peristyle usually came next the front door. Next was the atrium, surrounded by colonnades opening on the palaestra and walks. Such houses were equipped with rooms of all sorts for all occasions and seasons, with baths, libraries, covered walks, gardens, everything that could make for convenience or pleasure. Rooms and colonnades for use in hot weather faced the north; those for winter were planned to catch the sun. Attractive views were taken into account in arranging the rooms and their windows. |+|

Gardens in the Roman Era

Harold Whetstone Johnston wrote in “The Private Life of the Romans”: “ Gardens were an important part of these estates. They were architectural in character, that is, they were carefully laid out in straight lines or regular curves. The xystus was a parterre of trim flowerbeds in geometrical designs, edged with clipped box or rosemary. The favorite flowers were the rose (rosa)—the cabbage rose, the damask, and a few others—lilies (lilia) and violets (violae), though violae seems to have included stocks, wallflowers, and perhaps sweet rocket as well. |[Source: “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|]

“There were the hippodromus for driving or riding, and the gestationes for walking or for an airing in the lectica. The plane was a favorite shade tree. Colonnades or clipped hedges provided shelter from sun or wind. Garden houses commanded favorite views and might include triclinia . If the water supply permitted there were pools, fountains, and canals, and the terraced hillside gardens gave opportunity for effective use of water as it fell from level to level. Vines were trained on trellises or arbors (pergulae). Ivy was trained on trellises, walls, or trees by the topiarius, who had to be an expert in clipping the hedges of box, myrtle, or cypress and in trimming box into the symmetrical or fantastic shapes that we still call topiary work. |+|

“If these gardens afforded less color in summer, or less variety of flower and shrub in their season than ours do now, they were much more effective the year round from their careful design and use of evergreen foliage, water, statuary, and permanent architectural features. During the Renaissance the Roman garden was revived. It may be studied now, much as the Romans themselves once knew it, in the gardens of the famous Italian villas which landscape gardeners and architects try to reproduce for us today. |+|

Unusual Roman Irrigation Found in Britain

replica of a Roman-era waterwheel in Aldergate

In 2014, Chris Evans of Cambridge University’s archaeological unit announced that planting beds and pit wells unearthed at the North West Cambridge site near Huntingdon Road. Were dated to the Roman era between A.D. 70 and 120. It was an “unparalleled discovery” and “effectively the first irrigation system we’ve seen”, he told the BBC. [Source: BBC, March 18, 2014 |::|]

The BBC reported: “Excavations have so far uncovered evidence of settlements and habitation on the site from as early as the later Neolithic period, about 2800 B.C. to 2200 B.C., to the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman period as well as more modern finds including World War II practice trenches. The team has been investigating how people through the ages adapted to living in an inland area away from main river valleys.|::|

Evans said: “Our findings have unearthed zebra-like stripes of Roman planting beds that are encircled on their higher northern side by more deep pit wells. The gully-defined planting beds were closely set and were probably grapevines or possibly asparagus.During dry spells water would have been poured from the wells into the ditches to irrigate crops. I’m not aware of an irrigation system of this kind before. There has been evidence of gardens and wells, but the extent to which there are planting beds arranged in parallel and along a slope, connecting directly to a water source, is new territory. It points to the sophisticated knowledge of hydrology and the introduction of horticulture the Romans had.” |::|

Industrial-Scale, Emperor-Owned, Imperial Roman State Vineyard

In 2016, researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology investigating the vast Imperial estate of Vagnari in Italy, announced they had discovered evidence of wine production on an industrial scale carried about some of Rome’s greatest leaders. According to the University of Sheffield: “The excavation team discovered the corner of a cella vinaria, a wine fermentation and storage room, in which wine vessels, known as dolia defossa, were fixed into the ground. The heavy and cumbersome wine vessels have the capacity of more than 1,000 litres and were buried up to their necks in the ground to keep the temperature of the wine constant and cool – a necessary measure in hot climates. [Source: University of Sheffield, April 11, 2016 ]

“The scale of the wine production provides clear evidence for industrial activities and provides a glimpse into the range of specialist crafts and industries practised by residents - painting a better and more complete picture of life on the Imperial estate and the wealth it provided for its owner. Maureen Carroll, Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, said: “Before we began our work only a small part of the vicus, which is at the heart of the estate and its administrative core, had been explored though the general size and outline of the village had been indicated by geophysics and test-trenching. “The discovery that lead was being processed here at Vagnari is also particularly revealing about the environment in which the inhabitants of the village lived and potential health risks to which they were exposed.

“Vagnari is situated in a valley of the Basentello river, just east of the Apennine mountains in Puglia (ancient Apulia) in south-east Italy. After the Roman conquest of the region in the 3rd century B.C., Vagnari was linked to Rome by one of Italy’s main Roman roads, the Via Appia. Excavation and survey by British, Canadian and Italian universities since 2000 have furnished evidence for a large territory that was acquired by the Roman emperor and transformed into imperial landholdings at some point in the early 1st century A.D. Professor Carroll added: “Few Imperial estates in Italy have been investigated archeologically, so it is particularly gratifying that our investigations at Vagnari will make a significant contribution to the understanding of Roman elite involvement in the exploitation of the environment and control over free and slave labour from the early 1st century AD.”

Carroll wrote: “Each basin held a pitch-lined ceramic container (dolium defossum) with a rim diameter of over half a metre and a body diameter larger than a metre. Dolia were heavy and cumbersome, with a capacity of 1000 litres and more. They were buried up to their necks in the ground to keep the temperature of the wine constant and cool, a necessary measure in hot climate zones, as Pliny the Elder said (Natural History 14.27). Dolia could be used for many years, although they needed to be cleaned regularly, and even fumigated, to avoid contamination of the new wine with which they were filled. The Roman agrarian writer Columella (On Agriculture 12.18.5-7) recommended that dolia should be re-lined with pitch forty days prior to the grape harvest, and the tenth-century Geoponica (6.4), which drew on earlier Roman books on agricultural pursuits, advised the renewal of the pitch lining every year in July. [Source:, Ancientfoods, January 25, 2016 ||||]

“Such wine ‘cellars’, with anywhere between a dozen and forty or more dolia, are known on private farms elsewhere in Roman Italy and the Mediterranean, but at Vagnari the wine came from vineyards belonging to the empire’s greatest landowner. It is currently unknown how extensive the emperor’s vineyards were, and whether they were in the immediate vicinity of the vicus or on outlying tenant farms. Viticulture required not only considerable capital; it was also labour intensive, especially if it involved preparing new ground for vines, and it took several years before the first harvest could take place. According to Columella (On Agriculture 3.3.8), the standard size for a vineyard was 7 jugera (1.75 hectares), which is what a single slave vine-dresser could cope with. Cato (On Agriculture 11.1) recommended a slave staff of 16 for a vineyard of 100 jugera (25.2 hectares). We do not know how many labourers and specialists were involved in the tending of vineyards and the making of wine at Vagnari, but a workforce of adequate size, along with additional staff recruited A.D. hoc for the peak season of the harvest, certainly will have been maintained. We have yet to determine whether the wine at Vagnari was for the emperor’s consumption, or for sale or export to raise money for the imperial coffers, but the latter is more likely, given that a profitable return will have been expected on an estate whose primary function was to generate income for the emperor. ||||

Roman-era agricultural estate

“We have only explored a corner of the cella vinaria, and revealed three dolia thus far, and there is clearly more of the wine ‘cellar’ to uncover. We expect to find more dolia, probably arranged in regular rows, as in other wine storage areas of Roman date. Excavations in 2016 will clarify the extent of the storage room, the total number of dolia of the emperor’s wine, and the volumetric storage capacity of the structure. We also expect to find other facilities in the complex, such as a wine press and a tank for the pressed grape juice or must. In addition to the costs involved in the preparation of the land, the vines and their maintenance, and the relevant personnel, the buildings, the dolia, and the necessary presses also will have represented a considerable outlay of capital. ||||

“It remains to be determined how the rooms adjacent to the cella vinaria were used. Excavated fragments of white and grey marble slabs with traces of mortar on the underside suggests that this stone had been used for cladding of some kind, perhaps as a dado at the base of walls, and a concentration of glass panes at the foot of a wall implies that there were paned windows in the building. Both the marble cladding and the glass windows demonstrate that these rooms were well appointed, possibly because they were used also for domestic occupation, as a large deposit of household waste, including pottery, bone implements, and animal bones as the remains of meals, in a room east of the winery suggests.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) |+|; BBC Ancient Rome ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, BBC and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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