Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.42

Max Weber, Roman Agrarian History. (Translation by Richard I. Frank of 1891 doctoral dissertation).   Claremont:  Regina Books, 2008.  Pp. xiv, 244.  ISBN 193005355x.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Gareth C. Sampson,
Word count: 1757 words

This work is an English translation of Max Weber's thesis on Roman agrarian history awarded at the University of Berlin in 1891; its original title being 'Die Römische Agrargeschichte in ihrer Bedeutung für das Staats-und Privatrecht' or 'Roman Agrarian History in its relation to Roman Public and Civil Law'. The work was compiled under the supervision of Theodor Mommsen and submitted in order to gain the qualification necessary to teach at university level (Habilitation). Given the importance of Weber's later works to a number of disciplines, having both a modern version of this work, and an English translation, makes this book an important volume for anybody working in the field of Roman agrarian history or political theory.

The work is a straight translation of the 1891 German text rather than a commentary and begins with short introduction outlining the background both to the work and Weber himself. The translation has been undertaken by Richard Frank, who was responsible for translating Weber's later work on 'The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations' published in 1976. This enables Frank to be familiar with Weber's style and language, as this work clearly shows in what is an excellent translation of the text into English. An aspect of the translation process that works especially well is the retention of the various technical German phrases used by Weber, provided in brackets alongside the English translation, as well as any Latin terms used. The overall effect allows the reader to capture the nuances of Weber's original argument.

Weber's work is composed of four chapters and ranges over a variety of topics related to Roman agrarian history, across both the Republic and Empire. The work is prefaced by Weber's short introduction (nine pages in the translation), in which he sets out the purposes of this work; an analysis of the connections between Roman land and Roman law, rather than a specific work on agrarian history.

The first chapter focuses on the process of Roman land surveying and the various types of land in use. As Weber himself stated in the introduction, he argued that there was a correlation between the methods used to survey a particular type of land and the status of both the land itself and its owner in Roman law. This is a short introductory chapter, less than 28 pages in translation, and is broken down into a number of subsections. The first subsection deals with methods of land surveying of both ager scamnatus and ager centuriatus, before moving onto methods of land distribution used in the colonies founded by Rome, with Weber arguing for the distribution of land to veterans by lot. He then moves onto discussing the significance of and reasons behind the differing systems of land distribution. The work is copiously referenced to both ancient authors and the surviving inscriptions, though the chronology of his sources does tend to create a disjointed feel to the evidence. He then moves his argument onto the category of ager quaestorius and issues of taxation. On the whole this first chapter is an introductory one setting out the mechanics behind the issues of land distribution before moving on to the more substantial questions surrounding the topic.

Chapter Two, which runs to 44 pages of the translation, focuses on the issue of the financial and legal implications of the various types of land in Italy under a chapter heading of the 'Significance of Tax-Free Lands', though the chapter discuses more than the title suggests. The initial discussion focuses on the colonization process in Italy, and is composed a number of small sections on various aspects of this process such as allotments and territorium, land not allotted and a lengthier discussion of the legal organisation of colonies. Again the overall effect of switching between these short sections does leave the reader jolted, though we must remember that this is essentially a postgraduate thesis.

The chapter then moves on to discuss land surveyors once more, the sale of farms and lots and the Roman common land, again all done in brief sections. Weber then moves on to a lengthier discussion on the 'Significance of Property Rights', centred on the role of possessio, though the date range does jump between the early Republic and the time of Constantine in just a few short paragraphs. The next sections shift focus once again, on to the real estate business in Rome and ager privatus, before finishing with a section on the 'Agrarian Revolution at Rome', though again this amounts to little over four pages of the translation. Overall this chapter is a busy one, jumping from topic to topic and changing time periods throughout each section. Thus this chapter acts as more of an introduction to a large number of different topics, some of which are highly technical and others very broad in their outlook, without finding a central theme to link them together.

Chapter Three is the most substantial of the work, over 60 pages in translation, and focuses on the key issues surrounding public and private lands, which will be the focus of most readers' attention. Once again this chapter is broken down into a large number of subsections, some 46 in total, each focussing briefly on a different topic. Once again the chronology of events under discussion ranges from the early Republic to the late Empire, but the focus shifts from being focussed solely on Italy to covering Africa, Asia and Sicily. As is to be expected, the chapter begins with a discussion on the various legal differences between the two categories of land and includes a discussion on the origins of the differentiation and the differences between the communal and clan basis for land organisation. The discussion then moves on to the nature of agrarian capitalism as practised in Republican Rome. Here we find Weber, on what now seems familiar territory, referring to the degeneration of the proletariat into an urban rabble who became estranged from the land, allowing the landowning class to expand at their expense. Weber them moves on to analysing the agrarian law of 111 BC, which he argues signalled the end of ager publicus in Italy. He then moves onto a wide ranging discussion on various aspects relating to the leasing of land in Rome, both legal and financial.

As the chapter progresses Weber widens his focus to briefly consider tithed lands in Sicily and Asia and tribute-bearing lands in Africa. After widening his geographic scope the next few sections widen the chronological setting, with sections discussing late development in the Roman Empire, focussing on Ulpian and Diocletian's land tax reforms. The sections that follow then discuss various issues surrounding taxation and land, advancing the evidence to the reigns of Theodosius and Justinian, with which he brings the chapter to an end. Once again this chapter covers a broad range of topics, some in great technical detail, albeit in a brief and somewhat breathless manner. As with the second chapter the title is somewhat of a misnomer with the discussion ranging far wider than the reader might assume.

Chapter Four is a shorter chapter, just 34 pages, and is given the title of 'Large Estates under the Empire, though as in the first three chapters, the material discussed is far greater than the title suggests. The first section focuses on a general discussion on the nature of a typical large estate, as found in sources, such as Cato, Varro and Columella, with sections on the kind of crop produced on such estates, such as the replacement of grain with cash crops of olive oil and wine. The focus soon shifts back onto familiar Weberian territory with a discussion on the legal position of tenants and the possible nature of the lease. The focus shifts again in the next few section to a brief discussion of the position of the agricultural labourers and the economic position of the peasantry under the Empire, which he argues improved when the political disenfranchisement of the aristocracy under the Empire meant that large estates were run on more economic grounds. Once again however, before these areas are developed Weber moves onto once again discussing the nature of leaseholders in this period and the legal status of possessiones.

This procession of sections changing from practical, political to legal discussions continues when Weber once more reverts to a discussion on the organisation of large estates, followed by the fate of rural workers and finally a discussion of the use and morality of slaves in ancient agriculture. This is followed by a short few paragraphs of conclusion where Weber links the changes in agricultural holding to the growth of world citizenship and thoughts on the utopian ideal of the unity of mankind, though again all too briefly.

The conclusion is followed by a short appendix on an inscription found at Arausio (CIL XII.1244), including some of Weber's own sketches of it, and then the footnotes to the work, which feature a number of discussion of ancient sources as well as the modern commentators (of the time).

Overall it is hard to categorise the nature of this work. We must begin by congratulating Richard Frank for an excellent translation of Weber's thesis, which captures the nuances and flavour of the man's thoughts. In this respect alone, the work is an important one, allowing us to have an accessible copy of Weber's work on Roman agrarian history, and providing us with an insight into the developmental stages of his political thinking. Having said, this we come to the work itself, which is notable for both the breadth of its scope, the degree of the scholarship and the frustration the reader has with the constant failure to develop points in any depth and the endless jumping back and fourth between topics. In many ways this is indeed an authentic postgraduate thesis which encompasses a huge jumble of ideas and thoughts but with little structure. This can most easily be seen by the misleading chapter titles, which do not give the reader the scope of the subjects and concepts within. Fundamentally, this work is a postgraduate thesis that was never meant to be published in this form. Nevertheless, despite these structural weaknesses it is a highly enjoyable and informative read, if being somewhat frustrating and breathless at the same time. This work is one which will be of fundamental interest to anyone working in the field of Roman agrarian history or interested in the works of Weber, but is also highly recommended to anyone with a passing interest in Roman political or social theory.

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