Agriculture History Through Roman Period


With the close of the Neolithic period and the introduction of metals, the age of innovation in agriculture was largely over. The historical period—known through written and pictured materials, including the Bible; Middle Eastern records and monuments; and Chinese, Greek, and Roman writings—was highlighted by agricultural improvements. A few high points must serve to outline the development of worldwide agriculture in this era, roughly defined as 2500 BC to AD 500. For a similar period of development in Central and South America, somewhat later in date Some plants became newly prominent. Grapes and wine were mentioned in Egyptian records about 2900 BC, and trade in olive oil and wine was widespread in the Mediterranean area by the 1st millennium BC. Rye and oats were cultivated in northern Europe about 1000 BC.

Many vegetables and fruits, including onions, melons, and cucumbers, were grown by the 3rd millennium BC in Ur (now Iraq). Dates and figs were an important source of sugar in the Middle East, and apples, pomegranates, peaches, and mulberries were grown in the Mediterranean area. Cotton was grown and spun in India about 2000 BC, and linen and silk were used extensively in 2nd-millennium BC China. Felt was made from the wool of sheep in Central Asia and the Russian steppes. The horse, introduced to Egypt about 1600 BC, was already domesticated in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.

The ox-drawn four-wheeled cart for farm work and two-wheeled chariots drawn by horses were familiar in northern India in the 2nd millennium BC. Improvements in tools and implements were particularly important. Tools of bronze and iron were longer lasting and more efficient, and cultivation was greatly improved by such aids as the ox-drawn plow fitted with an iron-tipped point, noted in the 10th century BC in Palestine. In Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC a funnel-like device was attached to the plow to aid in seeding, and other early forms of seed drills were used in China. Farmers in China further improved efficiency with the invention of a cast-iron moldbar plow.

Threshing was also done with animal power in Palestine and Mesopotamia, although reaping, binding, and winnowing were still done by hand. Egypt retained hand seeding through this period on individual farm plots and large estates alike. Storage methods for oil and grain were improved. Granaries—jars, dry cisterns, silos, and bins containing stored grain—provided food for city populations. Without adequate food supplies and trade in both food and nonfood items, the high civilizations of Mesopotamia, northern India, Egypt, Greece, and Rome would not have been possible. Irrigation systems in China, Egypt, and the Middle East were refined and expanded, putting more land into cultivation. The forced labor of peasants and the growth of bureaucracies to plan and supervise work on irrigation systems were probably basic in the development of the city-states of Sumer (now Iraq and Kuwait).

Windmills and water mills, developed toward the end of the Roman period, increased control over the many uncertainties of weather. The introduction of fertilizer, mostly animal manures, and the rotation of fallow and crop land increased crop production. Mixed farming and stock raising, which were flourishing in the British Isles and on the continent of Europe as far north as Scandinavia at the beginning of the historical period, already displayed a pattern that persisted throughout the next 3,000 years. In many regions, fishing and hunting supplemented the food grown by farmers.About AD 100 Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus described the Germans as a tribal society of free peasant warriors who cultivated their own lands or left them to fight. About 500 years later, a characteristic European village had a cluster of houses in the middle, surrounded by rudely cultivated fields comprising individually owned farmlands; and meadows, woods, and wasteland were used by the entire community. Oxen and plow were passed from one field to another, and harvesting was a cooperative effort.

The Roman Empire appears to have started as a rural agricultural society of independent farmers. In the 1st millennium BC, after the city of Rome was established, however, agriculture started a development that reached a peak in the Christian era. Large estates (sector of society with some political power} that supplied grain to the cities of the empire were owned by absentee landowners and cultivated by slave labor under the supervision of hired overseers. As slaves, usually war captives, decreased in number, tenants replaced them. The late Roman villa of the Christian era approached the medieval ( old fashion or middle age in Europe) manor (noble house and land) in organization; slaves and dependent tenants were forced to work on a fixed schedule, and tenants paid a predetermined share to the estate owner. By the 4th century AD, serfdom was well established, and the former tenant was attached to the land.

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