Landowners and Traders

To be a landowner is eminently respectable; to engage in trade is not. Generally speaking, that antithesis underpins the mindset of those who have attempted to describe the social organization of production and supply in the Roman world. Here I wish to draw other distinctions that can have the effect of defining procedures and roles somewhat differently.


Antiquity defined traders solely as men who bought and sold. Selling what one produces is not trade, at least not in the case of landowners. This has often been pointed out,[1] though some have had difficulty in grasping this ‘simple and strict’ distinction, as described by Andrea Giardina, who has traced its origin back to Plato.[2] Matters of social propriety and of the respectability or lack of it of engaging in trade are irrelevant if one is selling what is produced by one’s own estate.

These words must be taken in their broadest connotation. The most explicit statement comes from Varro’s De re rustica. At the beginning of the treatise, Varro engages in a long discussion of whether animal husbandry is relevant or not to a book on agriculture. His own view is that it is not. He eventually resorts to comparisons: if the breeding of livestock is included, then why not include also the exploitation of clay-pits, which was held by the Sasernae to be part of agriculture, or the quarrying of sand or stone, or even mining? Obviously, these activities should be engaged in and profit made from them; but he cannot see them as having anything to do with agriculture, any more than inns have to do with it, though tabernae deversoriae should be built by anyone who has the good fortune to live by a busy road.[3] A little earlier in his text, Agrius had referred to the workshops of weavers. To us, it appears obvious that none of this has to do with agriculture; but the Roman writer on husbandry was aiming at the enlightenment of landowners who were exploiting all their best resources; and he makes the point that he is contributing to a single aspect of their operations. The concept of ‘products of an estate’ covers the whole range of economic activities carried out there. To the modern mind, the honourable landed proprietor who sets up inns is getting into the demeaning business of being a tabernarius, an innkeeper. In fact, though, that is irrelevant; the question did not arise, and no one would call him a tabernarius, especially since, through the inn, he could sell his wine and probably his wheat and vegetables too.[4]

In working clay pits we have the best-documented example of the broad meaning of ‘products from an estate’. A famous text from the Digest mentions landowners whose estates contain such pits and describes what they make from the clay: amphorae, tiles, and pots intended for sale.[5] In the late first century AD and during the second, stamped bricks from Rome give the names of dozens of very great families, who produced them on their estates bordering the Tiber or the Nera, where there is an abundance of clay.

However, the other activities mentioned in passing by Varro also have the ring of plausibility. Two and a half centuries later, the jurist Ulpian discussed the returning of inheritances improperly acquired: income deriving from the praedia urbana must be returned, even if the buildings have been used as brothels, for (so says Ulpian) ‘on many estates of respectable people, brothels are in operation’ (trans. S. P. Scott).[6] [7] This represents a source of profits from an estate additional to those spoken of by Varro. It must have been exploited well before the time of Ulpian. Prostitution was a subsidiary activity of the tabernae deversoriae; and it was very probable that it was practised in those recommended by Varro.

In any case, this evidence from Ulpian gives grounds for supposing that all non-agricultural activities carried out on an estate were deemed legitimate. Any profits accruing from the area owned, whether from its land or from its resources such as buildings, tools, livestock, men, and women, were derived from the fact of ownership. They did not amount to commercial profit; and they were referred to as fructus rather than as quaestus.7 Choices about how best to use the land took into account not only the various types of crops, but also the riches to be derived from below the surface. Ulpian’s view is that a usufructuary has the right to uproot olive trees or vines in order to break up the earth, as long as this increases the yield from the estate and improves the holding.[8] In Ulpian, income from clay pits or other quarrying work is lumped together with that from agriculture proper: whatever its origin, it is honourable. Here I differ from Paul Veyne, one of whose books led me to the text about the brothels; and I do not include brothel-keeping in his category of ‘occasional’ or ‘inessential’ income of the aristocracy.[9] Running a brothel was part and parcel of the optimal, not to say rational, husbanding of the diverse resources of an estate.

  • [1] With particular clarity by Whittaker (1985: 57-8).
  • [2] Giardina (2002a: 333 (Giardina and Gurevic 1994: 29)); Plato, Sph. 223d.
  • [3] Rust. I. 2, 22-3. See also Vitruvius, VI. 5, 2.
  • [4] Morel (2009: 69-75) has given a diametrically opposite reading of the same pages in Varro.
  • [5] Dig. XXXIII. 7, 25. Also VII. I, 13, 5; VIII. 3, 6; XVIII. 1, 77; XXVII. 9, 3, 6. These lastreferences include mines, lime kilns, stone quarries, and sand and gravel pits, matching exactlywhat Varro says.
  • [6] Dig. V. 3, 27, 1: in multorum honestorum virorum praediis lupanaria exercentur.
  • [7] Which is why Varro always uses the word fructus, never quaestus (this note corrects anearlier interpretation of mine, still to be seen on p. 169, n. 80). On the terms fructus, quaestus,and reditus, see Minaud (2005: 265-75); Andreau (2007a).
  • [8] Dig. VII. 1, 13, 5.
  • [9] Veyne (2001: 151-2 (1979a: 273-4)). Nor do I include in that category the brothelestablished by Caligula on the Palatine, which was deemed scandalous because he made matronsand young free-born boys work there.
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