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A New Lease on Life? : Intra-elite Tenancy and the Social Impact of Land Redistribution in Roman Greece

Erika Jeck

University of Chicago

Discussions of Greek land leases often maintain a distinction between public and private properties, rarely bringing the two into dialogue with one another. Yet, the leasing of orphan estates and corporately-owned property had much more in common with that of public land than of individually-owned private property: while the latter is typified by social disparity between lessee and lessor, the former are intra-elite phenomena. These particular types of private leases may therefore be interpreted more profitably alongside leases of public and sacred land, as one broad category of contracts that perpetuate elite social bonds. Appreciating the social obligations that underpin what I call ‘intra-elite tenancy’ is critical for understanding the social impact of land redistribution wrought by the Romans: I argue that, due to a considerable decrease in public and other ‘intra-elite’ property, the ties that bound local elites to each other and their native poleis were somewhat loosened, contributing to the increased mobility of the elite and the growth of metropoleis in Achaia.

This paper first presents the epigraphic evidence for intra-elite tenancy in late Classical and Hellenistic mainland Greece, highlighting the social aspects of these documents. Lease contracts for public, sacred, and corporately-owned property are all characterized by 1) the elite status of both lessor and lessee, 2) a duration of ten years or longer, 3) relatively low rent rates, and 4) relaxed demands or limitations on agricultural activity. These generous contracts could only operate within a system of reciprocity; and indeed, as fellow members of the elite, the administrative officials who managed these leases could look forward to similar treatment whenever they might also rent land from the state or local sanctuary. Inscribed contracts from Thespiai, for instance, demonstrate such role reversals with the same names appearing as both lessee and lessor (I. Thesp. 44-47; 49-52; 53; 54; 55; 56; 57; 62). Thus, as a collective, the group benefits from mutual investment in each other and the polis. The importance of these relationships can be found in the explicit praise of tenants (e.g. SEG XXIV 151) and concern for their families (e.g. IG II2 1165). Moreover, the extended duration of these leases—occasionally given “for all time” (τὸν ἅπαντα χρόνον, e.g. IG II2 2497; SEG XXI 644)—means that lessees formed long-term bonds with the association, civic official, or administrative council responsible for leasing the property. Since the majority of wealthy Greeks participated in this system (Osborne 1988), intra-elite tenancy effected a rooted elite in-group at the local level.

The second half of the paper outlines the disruptions in Greek landholdings caused by land confiscations, colonization, centuriation, and the introduction of ager publicus and imperial estates (Alcock 1993 et al): effectively, a process of expanding privatization. Despite such widespread instability, the scholarly consensus on tenancy in Roman Greece maintains that the traditional Greek system outlined above persisted without significant change, since it was not Roman policy to tinker with the minutiae of local governance. But the removal and reallocation of so much public and sacred land undercut local intra-elite tenancy, as well as the class interdependence that it fostered, evidenced, in part, by the changes in landholding and euergetic behaviors of the upper class. For instance, it is at this time that the elite increasingly accumulated swathes of land outside hometown civic limits (Rousset 2008; Rizakis 2013). I contend that these factors engendered greater independence amongst elite families, visible in their heightened mobility—a florescence of inter-city patronage lasting from the late Hellenistic through the Roman period (e.g. Balzat and Millis 2013). If Greek elites were less bound to each other and their native poleis, it appears that they were ingratiating themselves more with those poleis and coloniae that would become the reigning metropoleis of the Roman period.

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