Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.33 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.33

David B. Hollander, Farmers and Agriculture in the Roman Economy.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2018.  Pp. vii, 131.  ISBN 9781138099883.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by Maëlys Blandenet, ENS de Lyon (


In continuation of his work on the Roman economy of the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, in particular Money in the Late Roman Republic 1, David Hollander pursues his study of monetization in Roman society, focusing this time on the rural world. His latest book deals with the economic behaviour and mentalities of Roman peasants in Italy between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD. The book aims to analyse the relationship between Roman peasants and the economy, by studying the interactions between rural people and the market, exchanges of goods or services, situations of economic cooperation or competition, the question of the monetization of the Roman countryside and economic mentalities. According to David Hollander, peasants, even of modest social status, were far from being excluded from the monetarized economy. The author thus questions the concept of self-sufficiency, often used by scholars to describe the economic situation of Roman peasants, even though, as he rightly points out, self-sufficiency in textual sources is above all an ideal and a guideline rather than a description of a factual situation.

David Hollander's study is based primarily on textual sources, and in particular the Latin agronomists, but also takes into account some of the recent archaeological literature. The question of sources is addressed in the first chapter, which serves as an introduction to the book as a whole ("Problems and sources").

The second chapter ("Parameters of Roman agriculture") reviews the main characteristics of Italian agriculture, such as climate and types of production, underlining the importance of regional diversity. The thorny issue of the demography of the rural population is also addressed briefly: without revisiting the case or discussing the rural labour force question in detail, Hollander prefers to insist on the importance of population movements between town and country. The conclusion of the chapter, and more particularly that of the section on the variety of crops and livestock, underlines the importance of farmers' purchases, in order to refute the concept of self-sufficiency.

This argument is further developed in Chapter Three ("Buyers and borrowers: The rural demand for goods, services, and money"), where the author discusses the equipment and materials needed for farming. He notes an interesting and usually under-appreciated feature, namely that farmers' purchases were not always guided by the criterion of necessity and utility (which he demonstrates, in particular, on the basis of Varro, I.22.2, p. 40). From the same perspective, the last section of this chapter deals with non-agricultural expenses that likely led to an increased rural demand for money, in particular expenses related to health, religious rites and funerals.

The next chapter logically focuses on how Roman farmers obtained the necessary money ("Vendors and lenders: The rural supply of goods and services"). Hollander successively examines what he identifies as the four ways of acquiring money: the sale of products, the sale of other assets, working for others, moneylending. The chapter focuses most on the question of the profitability of different agricultural productions, to show in particular that most of the income was generated by livestock, and that cereal growing was proportionally very unprofitable.

Chapter 5 ("Farmers' markets, farmers' networks") then deals with the modalities of economic exchanges by distinguishing three types of transactions: financial transactions in the context of sales ("markets"), exchanges of goods and services ("reciprocity"), and government action ("redistribution"), in particular through frumentationes and land confiscations.

The last short chapter ("Farmers in Roman economic history") serves as a conclusion by taking up the question of self-sufficiency. Hollander proposes to replace this last concept with that of "degrees of market dependency" depending on the economic situation of the farmer, from the elite farmer to the landless farmer. The reconstruction of these degrees of dependence remains highly speculative, but Hollander's objective here is to point out that, although the idea of being economically independent has always been attractive, in terms of economic behaviour the farmers who could afford it did not particularly seek to be independent of the market. Briefly retracing the economic history of agriculture between the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, Hollander considers that the main changes affecting the situation of Italian agriculture took place later, from the end of the 2nd century AD.

The index is preceded by a bibliography that includes all the major works of economic history relating to the Italian peninsula, as well as some archaeological studies devoted more narrowly to a specific Italian product or region.2 It may be noted, however, that this bibliography leaves aside the most recent work on the monetization of the countryside in other regions such as Gaul.3 Similarly, literary and ideological studies of the Latin agronomic corpus are almost absent, even though some of them address the question of the economic mentality of the authors who wrote these agricultural treaties.4

Overall, David Hollander's book deals with a question of economic history in a synthetic form by focusing on all the material aspects of the Roman peasant's life, a subject that is both exciting and disappointing by its very nature. Indeed, thinking about the modalities of the economic and social relations of Roman peasants, even though they are rarely discussed in our sources, is a stimulating topic for researchers. The downside is that scholars have to rely on very limited sources, reducing the analysis to general assumptions, which is often the case here. Hollander’s study is limited by the lack of analysis of specific cases, comparisons with other geographical areas, lexical studies (such as on the vocabulary for work and labour) or engagement with anthropological material (on the issue of interpersonal relations and peasant solidarity, for instance). On the other hand, the book is synthetic and easy to read. It has almost no typos (one can be found in the quotation in French from Paul Veyne on p. 3, where for "practiquée" one should read "pratiquée"). Finally, the merit of this book is to propose a global vision, over a large period of time, of the economic behaviour of these almost "mute" people that the Roman peasants are for us today.


1.   David B. Hollander, Money in the Late Roman Republic. Columbia Studies in the Classical Tradition 29. Leiden: Brill, 2007. Reviewed by Fleur Kemmers (BMCR 2008.01.04
2.   Certainly the studies carried out by Catherine Virlouvet or Federico De Romanis, particularly concerning the supply of Rome, could also be useful here. E.g. B. Marin, C. Virlouvet (ed.), Nourrir les cités de Méditerranée. Antiquité-Temps modernes, Maisonneuve & Larose, Maison méditerranéenne des sciences de l'homme, Paris, 2004.
3.   Much of this work was carried out as part of the European Rurland project, led by Michel Reddé: See for example Stéphane Martin (ed.), Monnaies et monétarisation dans les campagnes de la Gaule du Nord et de l’Est, de l’âge du Fer à l’Antiquité tardive, Bordeaux, Ausonius éditions, 2016.
4.   E.g. E. Noè, Il progetto di Columella : profilo sociale, economico, culturale, Como, New Press, 2002 ; S. Diederich, Römische Agrarhandbücher zwischen Fachwissenschaft, Literatur und Ideologie, Berlin; New York, Walter de Gruyter, 2007.

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