ager publicus

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Public land, comprised lands acquired by Rome by conquest from her enemies or confiscation from rebellious allies. By tradition there was, as early as the 5th cent. bc, dispute between patricians and plebeians over whether such lands should be retained in public ownership but open to exploitation on lease by rich possessors (not owners) or distributed in private ownership amongst the poorer classes. In practice much of this land seems to have been assigned to the use of Roman and, after 338, Latin colonies (see ius latii). The Licinio‐Sextian laws of 367 bc purported to limit the amount of public land possessed by any one citizen to 500 iugera or 140 ha. (350 acres).

Public land continued to be acquired during subsequent centuries; the conquest of Cisalpine Gaul added large areas of land which were either distributed amongst colonies or offered to citizens as smallholdings on permanent lease. Elsewhere, esp. in southern Italy, large tracts remained in the hands of the state and were regularly leased out by the censors to rich citizens in return for large rents. There is evidence that in these distributions the legal limits were ignored and the collection of dues was lax.

The agrarian reforms associated with the Gracchi aimed at redistributing much of these large properties as smallholdings. In 133 bc (see Sempronius Gracchus 2, Tiberius) a commission was established to identify those lands possessed over the legal limits. Much land was regained by the state as a result and redistributed. A similar scheme was revived by Gaius Sempronius Gracchus in 123, but the new distribution eventually ceased, following his violent death in 122; the whole exercise threatened the economic position of rich landowners.

In 111 bc an agrarian law was passed which in effect privatized all the Gracchan smallholdings, abolishing the rent which had been previously imposed and turning the lessees into owners. There remained some public lands in Italy which continued to be leased by the censors, but subsequently acquired lands, for example those seized by Cornelius Sulla from the cities which opposed him, were usually distributed to veterans immediately. Caesar in 59 gave much of the surviving censorial lands to Pompey's soldiers. Thereafter the only significant public land in Italy, other than inalienable property such as parks in Rome and roads, comprised the property of individual municipalities and common open pasture.

The gradual disappearance of public lands in Italy was in contrast to the position in the provinces. All provincial land was, in legal theory, owned either by the people of Rome or the emperor. In practice nearly all was effectively in the hands of permanent possessors, and the theory affected only the remedies by which they might seek to protect their property. Truly publicly owned property was limited to lands seized from conquered communities and the like, but there was a tendency to redistribute these, for example to colonies, rather than retain them in public keeping, so that, as in Italy, such land as remained public was in the hands of municipalities (see municipium).


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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