Roman Farms - Villas
The most common type of farm was known as a villa.
This traditional farm was located in a rural area and consisted of a house, stables, and workshops with a central courtyard. The author Varro describes villas in some detail in his writing.
Villas were usually maintained by slaves for an urban owner, but small farms owned by their residents were also common and were built according to the same structure.
Life on a farm was fairly simple, with none of the glamour that went with living in Rome. A farmer and his wife who
owned their own small farm had jobs to keep them busy from morning until night. They had to till fields, sow crops, weed, fetch water, and occasionally guard their plants from thieves.
At harvest time they had to gather all the crops and process them, threshing the grain and drying or preserving any vegetables they could not eat fresh. Farm wives would spin their own thread and weave their own cloth to make clothing. During lengthy military campaigns the wives of soldiers would be forced to run the farms themselves for months or years while their husbands fought in distant wars.
During the early Roman Republic farmers began to specialize in particular crops and to run their farms as businesses. Agriculture became even more widespread and productive during the late republic and early empire. Large estates called latifundia began to appear in the early second century b.c.e. as wealthy Romans took over the ager publicus.
Large villas, with their wealthy landlords and body of slave laborers, quickly became more prosperous than the smallholdings owned by local residents. Wealthy owners had the money to experiment with new crops and breeds of animals, and they had the economic weight to dictate prices. As a consequence, large numbers of small farmers lost their farms.
The slaves who worked the latifundia were prisoners taken in war. Conditions for these slaves were notoriously bad because slaves were cheap and plentiful, so landowners had no reason to treat them well.
The latifundia system was prominent until about 100 c.e., when slave labor became more expensive and landowners moved toward a system that used tenant farmers, a precursor of the medieval system of serfs tied to the land.
Large farms ceased to be profitable. Gradually the landowners broke them down into smaller plots of land tilled by tenant farmers, peasants who were bound to the land. During the heyday of large estates, small farmers had made little technological progress and continued to use ancient cultivation techniques, but now landowners ensured that their tenants improved their techniques to keep the farms productive.
German and Asian prisoners of war who worked Roman farms learned Roman techniques and tooke them back to their home countries. Agricultural practices of the late empire laid the foundation for the medieval system of tenant farming.