From Academic Kids

The latifundia [Latin lātifundium: lātus, "spacious" + fundus, "farm, estate"] of Roman history were great landed estates, specialising in agriculture destined for export: grain, olive oil or wine. They were characteristic of Magna Graecia and Sicily, of Egypt and the North African Maghreb and of Hispania Baetica in southern Spain. The latifundia were the closest approximation to industrialized agriculture in Antiquity, and their economics depended upon slave labor.

"Latifundia" is often extended to describe the haciendas of colonial and post-colonial Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina.

Contrast the villa system of Antiquity, the plantation systems, and modern monocultures in agribusiness.


Hellenistic Latifundia

The landscape of the Greek mainland does not lend itself to large estates. Trade in olive oil and wine were typically the produce of many small groves and vineyards, concentrated in fewer hands at the presses and shipping ports. The grasslands of Thessaly and Macedonia were pasturelands for grazing horses. Meat was not a staple in Mediterranean diets.

The Hellenistic latifundia were more typical of the export-oriented agriculture of coastal Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt.

Roman Latifundia

The basis of the latifundia in Italy and Sicily was the ager publicus that fell to the dispensation of the state through Rome's policy of war in the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD. As much as a third of the arable land of a new province was taken for agri publici and then divided up with at least the fiction of a competitive auction for leaseholdings rather than outright ownership. Later in the Empire, as leases were inherited, ownership of the former common lands became established by tradition, and the leases became taxes.

The first latifundia were accumulated from the spoils of war, confiscated from conquered peoples beginning in the early 2nd century BC. The prototypical latifundia were the Roman estates in Magna Graecia (the south of Italy) and in Sicily, which distressed Pliny (died AD 79) as he travelled, seeing only slaves working the land, not the sturdy Roman farmers who had been the backbone of the Republic's army. Latifundia expanded with conquest, to the Roman provinces of the maghreb and in Hispania Baetica, the south of Spain. Large villa holdings in the Campania around Rome, in the valley of the Po and in southern Gaul organized populations in a self-sufficient economy, more similar to the haciendas of Latin America. The practice of establishing agricultural coloniae as a way to compensate Roman soldiers formed smaller landholdings that would be accumulated by large landholders in times of want.

Latifundia could be devoted to livestock (sheep and cattle) or to cultivation of olive oil, wine and grain. Ownership of land, organized in the latifundia, defined the Roman Senatorial class. It was the only acceptable source of wealth, though Romans of the elite class would set up their freedmen as merchant traders, and participate as silent partners in profits to which senatores were disqualified.

The latifundia quickly started economic consolidation as larger estates achieved greater economies of scale. Labor was inexpensive (peasants) or nearly without cost (slave), making the estates highly profitable. Owners re-invested their profits by purchasing smaller neighboring farms, in an ancient precursor of agribusiness. By the 3rd century AD, latifundia had in fact displaced small farms as the agricultural foundation of the Roman Empire.

Such consolidation was not universally approved, as it consolidated more and more land into fewer and fewer hands, mainly Senators and the Roman emperor. Pliny the Elder argued that the latifundia had ruined Italy and would ruin the Roman provinces as well. He reported that at one point just six owners possessed half of the province of Africa.

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European Latifundia

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the latifundia became the politico-cultural centers of a fragmented Europe. These latifundia were of great importance economically, and some could argue they formed the basis of the European feudal system.

The Reconquista of Muslim territories in the Iberian Peninsula provided the Christian kingdoms with sudden extensions of land that they ceded to nobility and military orders to exploit as latifundia. The posessions of the Church passed to private ownership during the desamortización processes of the 19th century. Big areas of Southern Spain are still populated by a class of jornaleros, landless labourers who are hired by the latifundists for concrete campaigns. The jornalero class has been fertile ground for Anarchism and Socialism.

American "Latifundia"

That the large corporate farms of international agribusiness have similarities with the Roman latifundia in the extent of holdings, and efficiencies in mass production that drive out small competitors is a cliché of ideology with some truth in it. The parallels are more useful for ideological purposes, the differences inform authentic history. Modern South American latifundia are blamed for economic inequality and strife.

de:Latifundium pl:Latyfundium


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