Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.08

Arthur Keaveney, Louise Earnshaw-Brown (ed.), The Italians on the Land: Changing Perspectives on Republican Italy Then and Now.   Newcastle:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.  Pp. 155.  ISBN 9781443811293.  $52.99.  

Reviewed by Christopher J. Dart, The University of Melbourne (

Studies on the civic and political interactions of the peoples of Italy, and more broadly works on Italian land issues in general under the Republic have received resurgent interest from scholars in recent years. The volume under review is a collection of eight papers, seven of which were presented at a conference held at Darwin College at the University of Kent in October of 2008, including papers by both editors. The papers cover a diverse, and sometimes contentious, range of topics related to Italian land issues.

In the first paper Arthur Keaveney discusses what he identifies as "an Age of Reform" (p. 8) during the period between the Gracchi and Sulla. He asserts that within modern scholarship there is a "tendency to lay emphasis on the destructive aspects of most of the leading figures of the period even when these men were plainly striving to bring better order to the world they lived in" (p. 1). This argument has clear parallels with Keaveney's previous works, in particular Sulla: the Last Republican.1 Keaveney defines a "republican reformer" as someone who "perceived an ill afflicting the state, proposed a solution, attempted to carry it out or actually did so" (p. 2). Using this criterion he identifies eight reformers; Laelius, Fulvius Flaccus, the Gracchi brothers, Livius Drusus (the elder), Saturninus, Livius Drusus (the younger), P. Sulpicius, and lastly Sulla. Keaveney's assumptions about the motives of these men form the basis of the subsequent discussion. He asserts that, with the possible exception of Livius Drusus (the elder), these "reformers" were not opportunists and that their "efforts failed largely because of the resistance of their contemporaries" (p. 8). This paper is not so much a detailed discussion as it is a sequence of observations.

In the second paper, Saskia Roselaar discusses Demsetz's 'evolutionary theory of land rights' and applies this theory to the study of the ager publicus during the Republic.2 Roselaar argues that there was "a strong connection between growing competition for land and the privatization of public land" (p. 26). Roselaar argues that most aspects of the 'evolutionary theory of land rights' are applicable for the Roman Republic. This view asserts that in central Italy a land shortage developed in the late second century as a result of commercial agriculture and population growth, and that continuing pressure on the land led to the Gracchan land reforms. Roselaar concludes by arguing that there was a "strong connection" between growing competition for land and privatization of the ager publicus. The lex Agraria / Thoria issued in 111 BCE, did indeed secure private ownership rights on small holdings of land formerly defined as ager publicus (pp. 25-26). In general the paper proposes a number of interesting explanations for the reforms of the Gracchi.

Annaliza Marzano investigates first, the extent to which slave run estates existed in second century BCE Italy and second, evidence for the coexistence of large scale villas with small farms from the time of the Republic through to the mid-empire. In this respect Marzano challenges the ready acceptance (all too common in older scholarship) of suggestions in ancient literary sources that large scale slave-worked estates were already becoming predominant in the second century BCE. In the first section Marzano investigates the examples of two villas, those of Settefinestre near Cosa and that of the Volusii at Lucus Feroniae, and shows that the evidence from these scarcely supports the traditional reliance on ancient literary sources. In reference to the region around Caere she similarly argues that patterns of settlement undermine the view that second century Italy was already dominated by large slave-operated estates. The paper demonstrates the multifaceted nature of land use in Italy and the un-sustainability of simplistic arguments about depopulation as a driver of crises in Italy.

Luca Fezzi conducts a survey of corn and agrarian laws in the period between 64 and 44 BCE. The paper's stated aim is to establish a relationship between grain and land laws during this period. It approaches this problem by offering individual discussions of land and grain laws. Given the number of the programs discussed and the individual complexities of the examples, the paper only briefly discusses each and on the basis of such analyses can draw only very limited conclusions. The main conclusion of this survey is that "Caesar seems to have maintained a politically and economically consistent view in favour of land laws and against corn laws" (p. 60). This is an interesting point, but not consistently argued in the paper.

Daniel C. Hoyer also addresses the issues associated with equating archaeological evidence for second and first century agriculture with the assertions of literary sources (in particular Plutarch). As with Marzano's paper, the ager Cosanus is used as a case study. Hoyer for the most part argues for an interpretation which attempts to marry the literary and archaeological source material, suggesting that differences in function may help to explain the relative placement of differently sized agricultural operations. The paper does, however, concede in its concluding remarks that the "traditional paradigm of Republican agriculture... is no longer workable" (p. 79). This paper contrasts to the other contributions in its referencing system, since it has in-text references to modern scholarship rather than footnotes.

William Rees investigates participation in Roman politics by 'Italians'. The paper encompasses the substantial period between 133 and 44 BCE and asks"whether there was Italian participation in Roman politics and how far into Italian society political involvement extended" (pp. 85-86). This question is misleading, since the 'Italians' being discussed in the paper are, in fact, rural Roman citizens. This becomes apparent with statements such as "it has traditionally been held that only a small number of Italians visited Rome to vote" (p. 86). This confusion between Romans and Italians introduces a serious problem into his terminology that is comparable to that posed by the primary sources, in particular Appian. The terminology is discussed mid-way through (p. 89) where it is asserted "few Italians before 89 BCE possessed Roman citizenship," however, during the course of the argument the term "Italians" is used interchangeably to discuss both those with, and those without, the Roman franchise. In general, the paper argues for a view of political involvement that extended beyond the rural Roman elite (referred to as the 'Italian elite' and not clearly defined). The paper first investigates canvassing of rural voters. Second, it argues for a broader membership of the first property class of the comitia centuriata on the basis that on some estimates even small property holdings could be valued sufficiently to qualify. The paper does not, however, take into account the number of colonists who relied upon public land. Third, the paper investigates the significance of the nundinae for the casting of votes. The problems of terminology in this paper greatly confuse an otherwise well-reasoned argument.

Graham Anderson conducts a literary survey of writers on agriculture, beginning with Cato the Elder and concluding with Columella, and seeks to characterise the relationship of each author to the subject of agriculture. In essence a sequence of short case studies, this paper argues that identifiable themes run throughout each of these agricultural writers. Anderson, for instance, identifies in regard to Cato's de agri cultura what is termed a "social dimension." The other texts investigated are Varro's de re rustica, a comparison of passages in Cicero and Lucretius (pp. 113-114), Virgil's Georgics, Ovid's Ars and Remedia Amoris and finally Columella. Though Columella is the most detailed work on agriculture of these surviving sources, it is given the least attention. More broadly the paper concludes that these works on agriculture reflect "the moral dimension of farming" (p. 120). Possibly as a result of its broad scope this paper provides only very brief discussion of each writer.

In the final paper of the collection Louise Earnshaw-Brown investigates the use of Model Life Tables. The paper seeks to highlight the unreliability of these tables in providing data on ancient demographics. A point consistently argued in the paper is that the limitations and sporadic perseverance of demographic data from the ancient world makes the application of Model Life Tables unreliable. A corollary of this position, however, is that arguments against the results of these tables must also rely upon modern assumptions about mortality, life expectancy, and so on. In essence, the paper highlights one of the principle and well known problems with the application of any demographic model: such models are limited by the accuracy and distribution of the available evidence.

The volume delivers a diverse collection of papers rather than a comprehensive or cohesive discussion of land in Italy. The range of approaches and topics represents some of the work currently being conducted in this field. As a collection of conference papers it is understandable that a number only survey a topic or issue, however the brevity of many of the papers in comparison to the wide scope of their topics is a consistent and unfortunate feature of this volume. Given that the collection offers many interesting lines of argument and frequently raises important questions about our understanding of land issues in Italy, greater exposition and discussion of evidence would have been welcomed at a number of points. A very positive feature of the work is its inclusion of papers by authors who were graduate students at the time of publication.


1.   Keaveney, A. Sulla: the Last Republican. Second Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.
2.   Demsetz, H. "Toward a Theory of Property Rights" in American Economic Review 57 (1967), pp. 347-359.

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