BMCR 2010.01.31

Gardens and Neighbors: Private Water Rights in Roman Italy

, Gardens and Neighbors: Private Water Rights in Roman Italy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. x, 310. ISBN9780472033539 $85.00.

In Gardens and Neighbors: Private Water Rights in Roman Italy, Cynthia Bannon investigates the development and operation of private water rights in late Republican and early Imperial Italy. “This is a book about law and how it worked for the Romans—in particular how law accommodated social, economic, and environmental constraints” (1). Two questions are posed: “how did rural landowners use legal institutions to secure an adequate supply of water, and how did economic, social, and environmental interests shape development of water rights?” (1). With this study Bannon proposes to offer a “more realistic view” of the Roman countryside. She does that and more; this thoroughly researched study of water rights is an excellent addition to our understanding of Roman rural life, and will have a deep impact on discussions of law, economics, agriculture, environmental studies, and landscape archaeology.

The book begins with an analysis of legal cases concerning water rights and then follows the evidence outside of the courtroom, to the countryside, where landowners negotiated and used their water rights. As Bannon demonstrates, Roman law considered streams, springs, and wells located on private land sole property of the landowner. If other landowners wanted to share these resources they would need to make a legal arrangement called a “servitude.” Under Roman law there were two types of servitudes that governed water rights, one to draw water from a neighboring property haustus, another to channel it across aquae ductus a neighboring property. Bannon makes a compelling case that analyzing servitudes allows one to understand how Roman farmers both allocated and conserved resources. Servitudes preserved the ways in which, and often the reasons for which neighbors shared water. As a result, studying servitudes exposes Roman economic behavior and strategies. In the end, Bannon suggests that as agriculture became more economically significant, access to water in a dry climate, where water resources were unevenly distributed, became increasingly more important. Neighbors found themselves competing for water resources with neighbors and servitudes served to regulate and regularize these relationships, as well as resolve disputes.

Building on the work of Dennis Kehoe, Bannon uses “commons theory” and “bounded and procedural rationality” to provide a theoretical framework for systematic analysis of how and why Roman landowners adapted the legal institution of servitudes.1 She argues that Romans approached water rights in a rational manner, in order to make the most of available resources, while at the same time maintaining good relations with their neighbors and making their land productive, even profitable. Landowners attempted to wring as much surplus, especially in close-to-market areas such as the suburbium of Rome, as natural resources would allow. The “legal, literary, and archaeological evidence show that rural land was cultivated by Romans who knew the law and had a vested interest in sustaining traditional ways of life as they exploited natural resources in the pursuit of their economic and social aims” (43). Bannon’s observations on the Roman economy are in line with other recent treatments. Indeed, Bannon comes to the same basic conclusions as Peter Bang, in his important study of the Roman marketplace, that the “modernist” vs “primitivist” debate over the Roman economy confuses the issue more that it illuminates it. Like Bang, Bannon seeks to bridge the gap between profit- and status-oriented studies and offer a more complete picture of Roman market behavior.2

The book is organized around a methodological introduction, four roughly equal chapters, and a conclusion. Chapter 1, “Rationality and Rationing a Common Resource” uses the lens of commons theory to evaluate the scheduling strategies Romans adopted to maintain private water supplies. Here, Bannon explores the ways in which Romans balanced the potentially conflicting needs of conserving a valuable resource and securing a personal supply of water. In the end, Bannon argues that landowners sought to limit waste while at the same time ensuring fairness and community stability. Informal sharing of water could make the water supply less predictable and so servitudes were created to regulate and regularize use. Bannon finds that conservation regularly underlay many of the legal decisions about servitudes. What most surprised this reviewer is that the data Bannon analyses clearly show a sophisticated environmental policy at work among rural Italian landowners in the late republican and imperial periods. Chapter 2, “Law and Neighborly Practice” ponders the social contexts that created and maintained servitudes. Securing the water supply fostered both competitiveness and cooperation among neighbors, and in this chapter Bannon considers the ways in which “traditional attitudes of neighborliness” were integrated into legal rules. Through a careful integration of both literary and archaeological sources Bannon illustrates that land in the suburbium of Rome was devoted to water-intensive gardens and fishponds. Thus, water access was highly important and seems to have been fairly well distributed across the population. Apparently, the law tended to balance an individual landowner’s economic interests with wider social relationships, so that equity in access to water supplies was achieved. Chapter 3, “Utility, Productivity, and Planning,” tackles utilitas, or “the principle that a servitude must serve some need related to cultivation of the land” (44). By comparing servitude with usufruct, Bannon demonstrates that self-sufficiency and market-oriented surplus production can (and did) coexist. Chapter 4, “Servitudes and the Sale of Land” considers the role of servitudes for water use in land sales. Bannon argues that water supply, and whether a property had a dominant or subservient role in access or water, could be deciding factors in property values and sales. She suggests that “at least some landowners took a systematic approach to farming, calculating their need for water and using the law to secure access to this valuable resource” (45). Over time, a system of declaring servitudes was created to protect not just buyers and sellers but the entire community. In short, law evolved to protect both the resource and the property owners, so that all members of the community, including those outsiders who might be “buying in,” could plan for future agricultural projects.

Bannon’s rich analysis illuminates Italian agricultural strategies, market-oriented and autarkic systems of production, rural community planning and sharing of resources, water-channeling techniques, rural community relations and systems of governance, and the development of rural systems of law. Perhaps the book’s greatest contribution is a thorough explanation of the infrastructure, both physical and legal, of water conservation and production in Roman Empire, especially for the suburbium of Rome. Bannon does an admirable job contextualizing and explicating the diverse sources she uses. Texts are quoted extensively, with the original language given alongside the author’s translation, which is very helpful for those wishing to understand the nuances of complex legal decisions by the jurists, implications of boundary or ownership inscriptions, and rhetorical techniques of lesser-studied authors such as Frontinus. The book also contains, in addition to a subject index, a complete index of sources and two appendices, Appendix A: “Sources for uses of water and hydraulic facilities on the farm”; and Appendix B: “Fishponds and freshwater supply.” And yet the book is not without its flaws. The overuse of first person throughout the 46-page introduction, coupled with repetition of method statements and objectives mars an otherwise scholarly project. This repeated emphasis on how the study is constructed detracts from its real and meaningful impact and could be a disincentive for the reader to read further. Yet this stylistic quibble should not overshadow the many positive and thought-provoking contributions of Bannon’s analysis. Gardens and Neighbors: Private Water Rights in Roman Italy, is an appropriate addition to Michigan’s Law and Society in the Ancient World series is sure to inspire discussion among those working on economic, agricultural, and legal topics.


1. D. P. Kehoe, Law and the Rural economy in the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2007). For commons theory see D. F. Feeney, F. Berkes, B. J. McCay and J. M. Acheson, “The Tragedy of the Commons: Twenty-Two Years Later,” in Managing the Commons (2nd Ed), ed. J. A Baden and D. S. Noonan, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1998) 76-94. For a discussion of bounded rationality see H. Simon, An Empirically Based Microeconomics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997), who argues that “bounded rationality … assumes that the decision maker must search for alternatives, has egregiously incomplete and inaccurate knowledge about the consequences of actions, and chooses actions that are expected to be satisfactory (attain targets while satisfying constraints)” (17).

2. P. Bang, The Roman Bazaar: A Comparative Study of Trade and Markets in a Tributary Empire (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008).