Reconstruction by Way of the Soil

by G.T. Wrench

Chapter 2


Rome and its civilization constitute the progenitors of the civilized Western world; consequently, without a knowledge of Rome's relation to the soil, it would not be possible for us to extract from history the principles of reconstruction from the soil.

We have to study history, because in no other way can we tell what the Roman land was like and how it looked. History reveals that if, by some magic, we could transport ourselves back to the days of the early Latin farmers, we should see a picture of a well-populated countryside with the land divided up into a number of small farms, often not exceeding five acres in extent. As each small farm had to support a family, the farming, we should see, was intensive; in other words, each particle of soil would be in use, so that the fields appeared quite crowded with a variety of crops. The whole food of the family would come from the farm, and not only the food of the family, but that of some of its domestic animals. By day we should see the various members of the family hard at work upon the farm, the males -- and sometimes females -- busy upon the land itself, and the womenfolk in the home and dairy. We should see also a large number of villages with a pleasant light of prosperity shining upon them. Other things would also be there of great importance, soon to be described, some of which could be seen, and some found under the earth.

Then let us be allowed to look at the same land some five centuries later. The picture is now quite different. We should see but few villages and few small farms, and upon the farms we should see what farmers call foul fields and even land that was derelict. In place of the small farms we should see mainly orchards, vineyards and dairy farms. It would, indeed, be quite clear to us that the main object of this different form of farming was to supply fruit, grapes, olives, milk and cheese to people who did not work upon the farms or in the villages at all, but who lived in the proud, neighbouring city that had now become the chief city of all Italy and was soon to become the capital of the Mediterranean world. We should also see that these estates were no longer worked by Latin farmers, but by quite a different sort of men, clearly not Italians, and men lacking the buoyancy and freedom of the older farmers. We should, indeed, have reason to rub our eyes, for some of these men, incredible though it might seem to us, would be shackled with iron and some even chained to each other while they worked. These were the slaves, some of whom were strong, fierce men and some weak and depressed. These two pictures we should see; the first would be that of family farming, the second that of capitalistic farming.

Transporting ourselves to a yet later date, we should see a third picture. The land is now swampy and derelict, and its most significant product swarms of mosquitoes, which caused the fevers that permitted only a few wretched men and cattle to scrape together some sort of livelihood and that visited, with lethal effect, the inhabitants of the great but waning city itself. This would be the picture of debased soil fertility.

Now let us see how history explains these three pictures.

Of the farming of their ancestors in Latium the later Romans had no history. Nevertheless, a strong tradition existed, and that tradition placed both farming and farmers very high. In the words of the elder Cato, to call a man a good farmer was in the past the best commendation, the highest praise.

Now this praise in the pages of De Agricultura must have been read a host of times without more than a general significance or regretful sentiment being attached to it. But modern discovery has shown that it had a very sound, practical significance. The high esteem of the men of ancient Latium for good farming and the facts concomitant with it were not sentimental; they have been summed up under these words: 'It is impossible, after surveying such elaborate undertakings, to avoid the conclusion that Latium in the sixth century (B.C.) was cultivated with an intensity that has seldom been equalled anywhere.' This is the statement of a modern authority. In short, the tradition of the later Romans about the wonderful farming of their ancestors was not founded upon sentiment, but upon fact. By the time of Cato and later writers, a good deal of sentiment had entered and a good deal of fact had slipped away. These later Romans knew that their ancestors had been great farmers, but they do not seem to have known the greatest part of their work. That has been revealed by modern investigators and particularly by the excavations of Monsieur M. R. L. la Blanchère, published in 1893 in Mémoires présentes par divers savants à l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres. Professor Tenny Frank, the above-quoted authority in An Economic History of Rome, 1927, summarizes this remarkable paper, which can be itself read in the library of the British Museum. The excavations reveal that Latium was the home of a farming which it might well be said, has seldom been equalled anywhere. It was a farming related to the great farming of ancient Peru, the farming of Asia Minor in its prolific days, the farming in which Professor Vavilov researches, the farming of the Hunza, the farming indeed of many or even all great countries of the world in a time when farming reached a height from which almost all of them later fell so steeply as to have become oblivious to it.

Professor Tenny Frank begins his book on the economic story of Rome where it should begin, namely, in the soil of Latium. On the one hand, that soil was singularly rich, rich as the loess soil of the Chinese and the alluvial soil of the Egyptians were rich. It had not their depth, but it had the exceptional contribution of the ash of some fifty craters, which are within twenty miles of Rome. On the other hand, it was placed in a perilous situation if men were to neglect it. It was a wide band or plain, the Campagna, situated between the sea and the steep Alban and Apennine mountains. Upon these mountains rain at certain seasons fell heavily. When there were trees on the slopes, then the rain in its fall was broken by leaf, twig and branch into a spray before reaching the soil. Where the trees were cut down freely or where the slopes were too steep for them to grow, the storm-rain reached the earth to beat upon it and send muddy freshets sweeping down to the plain. The short rivers between the mountains and the sea became torrents loaded with silt. Sometimes their mouths and the direct discharge of the water to the sea were blocked and swamps took the place of well-drained land.

Farming in this country, therefore, depended above all on one great feature of farming, proper drainage. Against heavy rain falling upon precipitous hills, men had to protect the soil if they were to be great farmers of it. The men of the Latium were great farmers and they accomplished astonishing things.

Monsieur la Blanchère, excavator in Latium, revealed in part what the farmers did. He found an extensive engineering system of water-control and drainage, numerous relics of drains, tunnels and dams. 'By diverting the rain waters from the eroding mountain gullies into underground channels', writes Professor Frank, 'the farmers not only checked a large part of the ordinary erosion of the hillside farms, but also saved the space usually sacrificed to the torrent-bed. It would be difficult to find another place where labour had been so lavishly expended to preserve the arable soil from erosion.' Noting the finely trimmed polygonal masonry of the dams, largely made of blocks weighing half a ton each, the professor adds: 'It, is impossible, after surveying such elaborate undertakings, to avoid the conclusion that Latium in the sixth century B.C. was cultivated with an intensity that has seldom been equalled anywhere.'

The men of Latium, later to be known after their capital city as Romans, began their unequalled story with a tremendous, vital force, that of an exceptional and well-treasured soil. One can immediately realize the vigorous and profound respect for farmers and farming which characterized the Roman poets, prose writers and statesmen of much later ages, and their looking backward to their ancestors as men of exceptional fibre and character derived from their farming. They looked back to something exceptional in seeking for the origin of the firm strength of Rome.

These great farmers, who protected their land from the torrential invasions of the climate, had also to protect it against the invasions of human beings, not neighbours merely, but those who had come over the Alps and Apennines in search of land. The farmers then proved themselves great warriors. Farmer and warrior contended within them, but as successes in war grew, so the warrior factor transcended that of the farmer, and the type of farming changed. The number of small farmers, able to keep themselves and their families well on less than five acres of intensive farming, decreased. From the point of view of the soil, indeed, the story of Latium, Rome and its empire, was largely a race between warriors gaining land by conquest and exploitation, and farmers losing it by enforced, inferior ways of farming and by erosion. But amongst the splendour of Rome's achievements, this basic quality of her story has hardly been perceived. The rebelling soil was there all the time, and, in the end, it was the rebellious soil that broke the strength of the warrior.

It is very understandable that, if farmers were liable to be called up for national service as warriors, intensive, personal farming suffered. The farms could not be kept in good condition when many of the men, who worked upon them, were away at the wars.

This drain began with the wars the Romans fought in or about Latium, but it only became critical at the time of the terrific struggle of Rome against Carthage and particularly as the result of the fifteen years of Hannibal's warfare within Italy itself. That led to an immense destruction, not only of the farmer-warriors themselves, but of water-channels, drainage, farm buildings, roads, bridges, trees and other props of intensive farming.

When the war was over, the government of the victorious but exhausted Romans was faced with the question of the reconstruction of the land.

Now at the same time that this question became paramount in Roman Italy, it also became paramount in China. The Chinese Empire of that time was situated in the middle part of the Huang Ho (known to us as the Yellow River) basin and the great territories on either side of it. To protect his empire against the warriors of the Tartars, the famous Chinese Emperor, Chin Chi Huangti, resolved to build a huge, fortified wall. To build it, he had to procure vast numbers of labourers and these he had to take from the land. So he abolished the Tsing Tien system and the inalienability of the land, which was the essential part of it, turned the peasants from their holdings and sold the land to all able and willing to buy. In both the Roman dominion and that of Chin Chi Huangti the land was the chief source of wealth. The rich men, therefore, readily bought the land of the dispossessed peasant families. So, after the second Punic War in Italy and the building of the Great Wall in China, the rulers of Italy and the rulers of China were faced with the same question, a question the most momentous perhaps of all questions in the final story of mankind upon the earth: Shall the common form of farming be by owners of small holdings or shall it be that of large estates owned by a small class of wealthy men?

The Chinese chose the former method. The great Chin Chi Huangti lived out his day, but immediately after his strong hand had been removed by death, revolt broke out, his son was slain and the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220) brought with it the long struggle between the imperial ministers, who aimed at the restoration of the Tsing Tien system of small family holders, and the new aristocracy of large landowners of Chin Chi Huangti. The struggle was long and bitter, but in the end, save for some large estates which the land itself dictated as needful, the Tsing Tien system was restored.

This restored also the Wisdom of the East, for the direct relation of the great majority of Chinese subjects to the creative soil was the ultimate basis of the Wisdom of the East.

In Italy the same struggle occurred. It was also prolonged and bitter, but always, if slowly, success turned away from small family ownership.

In the peace that followed the conflict with Hannibal, the Roman statesmen strove to turn the current back to the traditional ways of their forefathers, but Rome's conquests and the great influx of foreign slaves to work the land in the place of the dispossessed peasants, in addition to the injury to the soil wrought by the war, weighed heavily in favour of the wealthy classes. To all the land was the chief source of wealth. There were, at that time, no large manufacturing towns, and little commerce, for, in the words of Professor Tenny Frank, 'the ancient world has no record of any state of importance so unconcerned about its commerce as was the Roman Republic'. On the other hand, in favour of the small landowners, was the firmly rooted belief that those who worked upon the land were also the finest warriors and the chief strength of Rome's military power.

The great Roman writers were fully aware of this. Cato the Censor (234-149 B.C.) staunchly maintained that it was the farmers and tillers of the soil who made the best citizens and bravest soldiers. Varro (116-27 B.C.) voiced the same conviction that country life in its form of peasant-farming was the chief strength of the State. Cicero eulogized the farmer-citizens, who left the plough to save the State, and used his unequalled art to protect working farmers, whose extinction was threatened by the growth of wealthy proprietors. Virgil used the persuasion of poetry to exalt the culture of the land by the hands which possessed it. Horace, like the greater poet, proclaimed the older type of farming as the best. Columella, at the time of the Emperors Claudius and Nero (A.D. 41-68), declaimed against the poverty of the land, which resulted from handing its cultivation over 'to the unreasoning management of ignorant and unskilful slaves'. Pliny, the Elder, who wrote about the same time as Columella, championed those who worked their own land against the owners of the latifundia or great estates, who abandoned the work upon the land to slaves and for their own part only lived in their country houses when they could entertain house parties of their friends. How was it, he asked, there was so great a fertility of the soil in the past that seven jugera (a little over four acres) were held to be sufficient for a farmer and his family? His answer was that in those days the lands were tilled by the hands of generals and soldiers. 'Whether', he questioned, 'it was that they tended the seed with the same care that they had displayed in the conduct of wars and manifested the same diligent attention to their fields that they had done in the arrangement of their camp, or whether it is that under the hand of honest men everything prospers the better by being attended to with scrupulous exactness?' The conception lasted up to the time of Vegetius, in the fourth century, who bitterly regretted the abandonment of the ancestral ways, when he saw the poor quality of the military recruits.

The great Roman writers of the latter part of the Republic and the early part of the Empire, then, had a passion and a hope for the reconstruction of the family ownership of the land not only because the farmers were the healthiest, most honest, and most diligent members of the State, as well as its best farmers, but because in times of danger they made the best soldiers.

The military leaders of the late republic were equally convinced of the value in character and physique of the farming class. When the supply of farmer-warriors failed, there seemed to be only one alternative and that was to start with warriors and, as a reward for their services, to give them land to farm. Marius was the first to give the twist from farmer-warriors to warrior-farmers. He overthrew the tradition that only the propertied classes were worthy to fight for their country, enlisted the proletariat, especially those who were living on the land, and rewarded their services with a gift of land. Slaves were never enlisted. Their grievances were too great and their numbers too many for any Roman to dare or even dream of such a dangerous experiment.

When the change to empire brought its long years of peace, its good government, its roads, its reliable civil servants, its self-governing city states served by an unequalled zeal on the part of public-minded citizens, its greater humanity towards slaves, and such prosperity that, of the best part of these first two centuries (from the death of Domitian in A.D. 96 to the ascension of Commodus in A.D. 180), Gibbon could write, 'If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he could without hesitation name' that between these two dates, even then, the emperors, almost without exception, strove to revive the small family holdings. Augustus and his successors planted colonists on the land; Nerva spent millions in purchasing land for small farmers; generous laws dealt with the food of the agricultural classes; veterans were given free allotments; and Pertinax allowed squatters to occupy uncultivated fields even upon imperial estates, and to possess full ownership if they brought them into cultivation.

Nevertheless, in spite of these desperate endeavours to reconstruct personal farming, the power of money prevailed. The small farming class continuously and literally lost ground and the wealthy class as continuously gained it. In the place of the generous laws of the first two centuries of the empire, there came the restrictive laws of the last two centuries. Agricultural slaves were bound to the land. Heavy impositions and innumerable duties or liturgies were loaded upon the large class of curiales, or members of the senates of the city-states and large villages. This class of curiales included the landowners. As the demands of revenue became more exacting, membership of the curiae was made hereditary. The curiales, harassed by innumerable officials, duties that could not be fulfilled, poverty which withheld money from the land and forced them more and more to exploit their deteriorating soils, sought by every means to escape from their ruinous property and its duties. 'Many of them', wrote Abbott and Johnson in Municipal Administration in the Roman Empire, 1926, 'abandoned their property and fled. Others sought to enter some vocation which would give them exemption from municipal charges. The emperors strove to check this movement by binding the curiales to their place of origin, and by forbidding them to enter any of the privileged professions.'

These measures failing, laws were then passed under which all the property of the curiae, whose members managed to escape, was made liable for the accustomed dues, the burden then falling on the less fortunate owners. Failure in payment led to the confiscation of property and its transference to the imperial estates which rapidly increased in all parts of the empire, and the tenants of which were exempted from municipal liabilities. Some also fell to the owners of the great latifundia, who were strong enough to resist the demands of the tax-gatherer or to hand on the burden of taxation to their tenants, who had originally sought their patronage as the only way of escape. The coloni or voluntary tenants were also bound to the soil and in the fourth century were reduced almost 'to the level of agricultural slaves'. 'The only class in the municipalities not affected by imperial legislation was the proletariat. The practice of Rome in maintaining this parasitic element by private charity was unfortunately widely copied, and imposed a serious charge on the civic budget. Not only that but the glamour of ancient urban life attracted labour from the farms and other industries where a bare living was gained by arduous toil. In the city one could be fed at the expense of the State, and when the capitatio plebeia' (a tax imposed by Diocletian on the working power of a man in good health) 'was removed from the residents of the towns, we cannot wonder that the urban movement went on apace' (Abbott and Johnson).

All this downward career was both accompanied and caused by the continuous depletion of soil-fertility. To this Italy, the imperial mother-country, was the most exposed, and upon her soil the story of its effect was most mournfully unfolded. In the early days of Rome seven jugera (4-1/4 acres) were found sufficient for a family, and this was the original assignment given to the coloni as tenants of the state. Gracchus found it advisable to increase the assignments to thirty jugera. The fall in fertility due to the war against Hannibal forced upon much Italian land the necessity of large ranches devoted to the raising and feeding of domestic animals or to orchards, and this necessity justified economically the brutality of the 'Enclosures' of that time, under which land that had previously grown good crops of grain was taken from evicted small farmers by the wealthy classes and cultivated as ranches. This, in its turn, confirmed the dependence of the masses upon imported corn. Caesar, as an evidence of the soil's further depletion, raised the assignments to sixty jugera, and Columella, writing about A.D. 60, asserted that a fourfold return of grain was unknown on Italian farms. Finally, in the third and fourth centuries the debasement of the soil completed itself. Much of Latium, once the parent of the sturdy strength of the Latin fathers, became a pestilential swamp. Provinces, which had once been the native land of formidable legions, were almost bereft of the human species. Flourishing towns dwindled to villages and disappeared. The proletariat of Rome ceased to exist.

The capitalists of the western capital did not await the complete degradation of Italy. They transferred their capital at the call of Constantine the Great (A.D. 288-337) to a new capital city on the shores of the Bosphorus, a city situated midway between the rich wheat lands that ringed the Black Sea and the inexhaustible fertility brought annually in the Nile flood. Abandoned Italy fell to Odoacer in A.D. 476.

Now this story will be found to be fraught with meaning to those conversant with or, by a perusal of these pages, about to become conversant with the past story of agriculture in England and the present state of agriculture throughout the British Empire and other countries of Western civilization. Amongst other things, they will also see the perilous significance of the attempt of the Nazis to conquer the world and bind subject peoples to slavery upon the land. This subjection of the land, against which so many of the great Romans vainly strove, advanced steadily and irresistibly as an inevitability of a civilization which valued the soil as a commodity producing money, not as the very creator of the life and health of man.

Next chapter

Table of Contents
1. Introductory
2. Rome
3. The Roman Foods
4. The Roman Family
5. Roman Soil Erosion
6. Farmers and Nomads
I. The Land
II. The Nomads
III. The Farmers
IV. Nomadic Migrations and Farmers
7. Contrasting Pictures
8. Banks for the Soil
9. Economics of the Soil
10. The English Peasant and Agricultural Labourer
11. Primitive Farmers
12. Nyasa
13. Tanganyika
14. 'Earth Thou Art'
15. Sind and Egypt
16. Fragmentation
17. East and West Indies
18. German Colonies: The Mandates
19. Russia, South Africa, Australia
South Africa
20. The United States of America
21. A Kingdom of Agricultural Art in Europe
22. An Historical Reconstruction
The Initiation
The Institution
The Achievement
23. Recapitulation
24. Action

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