• Gigantic Estates

In Rubies of the Viper , the Varro family’s closest-to-home source of wealth is their large agricultural estate, or plantation (latifundium; pl: latifundia). This was a relatively recent development in the first century A.D. and an important one. It’s worth understanding how the latifundia developed and how they changed Roman society forever.

The traditional Italian lifestyle was based on the family farm.

For hundreds of years—from the original tribal settlements (starting about 1,000-900 B.C.) through the Roman kings (752 B.C.-509 B.C.) and the first centuries of the Roman Republic (509 B.C.-27 B.C.)—family-owned and -operated farms were the backbone of the economy. Small-scale, privately owned parcels could be worked productively by a free man and his wife, sons, and daughters, plus a handful of born-on-the-farm slaves (collectively called the familia rustica).

The great latifundia came about as the result of war and other interrelated social changes.

1. During the Punic Wars (against Carthage, 3rd to 2nd century B.C.), many Italian farmers were compelled to serve in the Roman army and sometimes spent years at a time away from home. In their absence, wives and children—hard pressed to maintain the agricultural activities that had sustained their families—often were forced to sell their land and slaves to wealthier individuals, simply to survive.

2. In the second century B.C., the ager publicus—large tracts of publicly owned lands in newly conquered parts of Italy and beyond—began to be leased to generals, to heroes of military campaigns, and to wealthy individuals. At first, these estates were modeled on the traditional single-family farm, each with its villa (similar to Theodosia’s Villa Varroniana), near-by pastures, and crop land.

3. As time went on, slaves from conquered lands began to be imported into Italy. Most had done agricultural work at home, so it made sense to put them to work on Italian estates. As the conquests mounted, so did the number of slaves brought in.

4. It didn’t take long before this vast pool of cheap labor began to put the family farmers out of business. Few small, family-owned and -worked farms could compete with the gigantic, slave-worked latifundia. One after another, farmers sold their land and slaves to wealthier people, many of them absentee landlords, who gradually solidified their control over the agricultural landscape. (Obviously, this situation was much like that of modern corporate agribusinesses, which outcompete and often buy up the small family farms in a given area.)

5. Former land owners were forced to seek other ways of making a living. Most either became tenant farmers on land they had previously owned, or joined the army, or migrated to Rome, where they added to the burgeoning population of urban poor living in a vast slum called Subura.

In one Rubies of the Viper scene, set in A.D. 53, the fast-fading, traditional farming lifestyle is reflected in the following exchange between Theodosia Varro and two legionaries:

“Do you build bonfires, Vespillo, when you’re home for Saturnalia?”

Sure. We’ve only got three slaves to work the fields with my father, but tonight they’ll be the kings of the harvest. Father and my sisters should be serving ‘em dinner about now.” He sighed. “I ain’t been home for Saturnalia in years.”

“Where’s home?”

“Arretium. Just this side of the Apennines.”

“So you’re an Umbrian! And you, sir?”

“From Tarentum, in the south,” Silvanus said. “Too poor to have land or slaves. Me and my oldest son are both in the army. My wife and younger children live off our wages. Ain’t much of a life.”

And this description accurately captures the history of the land that now belongs to Theodosia:

Rolling pinewoods stretched for miles on both sides of the Via Aurelia, broken only by occasional patches of once-cultivated land. A century earlier—before the rise of rich landowners like the Varros—those had been small farms. Now they fed no one. Few farm families could compete with the big, slave-worked plantations.

Theodosia felt a quick flash of guilt. Still, there was no denying that those overgrown fields were beautiful. Gray-green leaves of gnarled olive trees rustled in the breeze. Strips of wildflowers carpeted the spaces between them and spread out along the roadway, mixed with wild fennel and rosemary. The scent was incomparable.

She led the way across a stone bridge toward a hill that promised a fine view of the sea. Guiding the filly off the paving stones, she threaded her way up the slope through pines and plane trees. At the top, she reined in again to savor the panorama of her property. To the north and east lay forests and hills. Somewhere inland was the farm. To the southwest, beside the sea, sat her villa its red-tile roof seemingly afire in the afternoon sun.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—