Heritage > The Romans

Roman Farms

In the south-east of Britain, as well as in Gaul, the population had already begun to settle into an agricultural way of life before the Romans arrived. This, in turn, would encourage towns and cities to develop, as they could not while the people still depended on hunting and raiding. Iron Age Britain consisted mainly of individual farms, fortresses and villages, and there were only a few larger settlements, which Roman authors such as Caesar and Suetonius called ‘oppida’. It seems that the Romans did not know what else to call these primitive settlements; for them, civilized life was urban life. In Italy, the rich owned huge estates with large areas of farmland, which provided them with their wealth, even though their lives were centred in the towns. They built villas on their estates to retire to in the summer, when the towns were too hot for comfort. In Kent, there are villas which may have been established by merchants from Gaul, perhaps because they had business interests in London or the ports. One hall-villa in Eccles was built in about the year 65, in a style that was already known in Gaul.

A Roman Sickle used on the farmWhile Virgil had a taste for country life, Pliny disapproved. According to Varro and Columella, a landowner should be aware of what was happening on his farms, but need not actually live there. But there is no denying that most of the population lived and worked in the countryside, and even town-dwellers worked on the land outside the towns. Even within the towns, there are many large areas of land without buildings, which must have been used for agriculture. The country around Silchester seems to have had no villas, but some houses inside the town have large yards and outbuildings. Also found in the town were farm implements and a corn-drying oven, which suggests that the land was farmed from within the town.

The great cities depended on the work of the men, women and children who toiled on the farms, growing crops, tending livestock, managing olive groves and woodlands to produce food, materials, and fuel. An important crop was emmer wheat, which contains twice as much protein as the wheats we use to make bread today. They also grew many other varieties of wheat. In Rougier Street in York, archaeologists have collected samples from what appears to have been a granary, and it seems that spelt was the most common cereal there. There were opium poppy, coriander, dill, mulberry and possibly walnut, all of which were probably cultivated as opposed to growing wild. Other important crops were olives and grapes, to make olive oil and wine. Olives are rarely found in Britain, and could not have been grown here, but must have been imported. The olives were harvested in December, using a long stick to beat them from the branches.

The sunny climate of the Mediterranean was an ideal place to grow grapes, but evidence of vine-growing has been found at a villa in Boxmoor, and there may have been a failed attempt in North Thoresby. In Silchester and Doncaster, archaeologists have found grape pips, which are either from imported raisins or evidence of winemaking. In Doncaster, the seeds of about 150-300 apples might have been left from making a fermented apple drink. Romans drank a great deal of wine - tea and coffee were unknown to them, but the technique of fermenting grapes to make wine was an ancient art. They watered it down, because they considered it vulgar to drink it neat. They drank many varieties, which they described as black, red, white, or yellow. These wines would keep for only three or four years. They were stored in pottery jars called amphorae.

Also in York, there is evidence that beef, mutton, pork and chicken were important in the people’s diet; obviously these animals were farmed there. At Caistor-by-Norwich, archaeologists found a large iron wool-comb; it is possible that there was a large sheep-grazing area nearby, and that wool was an important industry there. In any case, there is no doubt that livestock, including goats, was important to Roman farming for dairy produce, meat, and leather; there were huge cattle ranches in Italy, run by slaves.

A bronze model survives which depicts a British ploughman preparing the ground for sowing grain. He is accompanied by his team of cattle, and he is very snugly dressed against the cold. Less realistic is a silver figurine depicting a shepherd boy; whoever owned it obviously had a romantic view of country life. Farm-workers used short-handled sickles to cut grain: they would have had to bend low to use them, so the work must have been backbreaking. Iron shears survive, which must have been used to shear sheep and manufacture cloth.

Some say that the Romans improved British agriculture only indirectly, by improving roads, markets and administration, and that agriculture itself did not advance much at all. The Roman plough was not much better designed than the Celtic plough - but it seems that many more farmers were using a plough, as opposed to a spade or a hoe, making more efficient use of existing tools. In order to feed the army alone, there must have been a huge increase in the number of acres cultivated just for cereal crops in the first century AD. The army brought horses with them, and the growing markets in the towns and villages also had to be supplied, and the producer had to make a profit out of all this. Therefore, just by increasing demand, the amount of land in use increased too, and would have had to be used more efficiently. Tools and methods may not have improved much, but after all, farming stayed basically the same right up until comparatively recently, when the internal combustion engine was introduced.

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