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The Archaic Origins of Roman Land Allotment: Beyond Integration and Stability

Tim Sorg

Cornell University

This paper argues for a systemic and comparative approach to Roman imperialism during the transition from regional city-state to territorial empire in the late fourth century BCE. Like the Athenians and Syracusans, the Romans were fairly unique in the pre-modern world in how they established the territoriality of their empire. Living in a profoundly agrarian world, members of ancient Mediterranean citizen-city-states often divided up by lot, or “allotted,” confiscated land as a way to share the fruits of conquest. Put another way, land allotment was the shared history of Mediterranean empires. But because the Romans achieved a form of durable imperial stability, modern historians tend to impose a sort of retroactive coherence on the Romans’ territorial empire that presupposes its ultimate success in central Italy—that land allotment was a tool of imperial control in service of an expanding, central state. In this paper, I argue that Roman land allotment in the mid-Republic created a form of intensive imperialism only because Roman state-formation had all but failed.

In recent years, Terrenato (2001), Bispham (2006), De Haas (2011), Robinson (2013), Pelgrom and Stek (2014), and Bellini et al. (2014) have all shown the local variations to colonial landscapes as a way to challenge the extent of a centralized, dirigiste model of Roman colonization (Salmon 1969). None of the studies, however, have developed what land allotment meant in Roman society if it was not, in fact, a mechanism to create propugnacula imperii. Furthermore, renewed interest in processes of social integration in imperial communities (Jehne and Pfeilschifter 2006; Roselaar 2012) reinforces a triumphalist reading of Roman imperialism in Italy. Instead, this paper explores the Archaic origins of Roman ideas about land and wealth to show how land allotment was a formative institution of the Roman state—a state that nevertheless did not have the kinds of vertical bonds and social commitments that created “insular” empires from Athens and Syracuse. To do so, I demonstrate the importance of a comparative perspective to the study of imperial territoriality.

My study develops through three sections. First, I use the case of Fregellae, a Latin colony in the Liri valley, after 314 BCE to illustrate broader trends in Roman land allotment. Literary (Livy 9.28; Diod. 19.101) and archaeological survey (Crawford et al. 1986; Chouquer et al. 1987; Hayes and Martini 1994; Coarelli 1998) evidence for the countryside of Fregellae suggest that the new landholders formed a rural farming community, less of a center of imperial stability. I also show that the new landowners were likely plugging into local forms of rural economic life (Hoyer 2012; Fracchia 2004), a signal that local, centrifugal economic forces were more formative than the centripetal pull of Rome.

Second, I look to structural trends in central Italy that developed during the sixth and fifth centuries to explain the Romans’ approach to imperial territoriality. In this pre-history to Rome’s transition to empire, I look to literary and material evidence to emphasize three processes that helped shape how the Romans thought about land allotment in the mid-Republic: the concentration of wealth (Pallottino 1984; Motta and Terrenato 2006), a political culture of privatization (Rathbone 2003), and horizontal social mobility among Latin communities (Smith 1995; Cornell 2000). Because a market economy with social capital was slow to develop at Rome, the trajectory of Roman state-formation created a distinctive approach to land allotment that transferred human capital from the metropole to new frontier communities.

Finally, I turn to Rome’s broader Mediterranean context to briefly compare Roman land allotment to similar processes among the Athenians on Euboea and the Syracusans at Leontinoi in the mid-fifth century BCE. By emphasizing the particularities of each imperial repertoire, I distinguish between what was peculiar about land allotment in Roman society. A comparative approach accounts for why the Romans, relative to their Mediterranean counterparts, tended to privilege mobility from the center to the frontier at the expense of human capital at the metropole.

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Money, Markets, Land, and Contracts

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