Dr. Jeremia Pelgrom

By Arent Visser

The Autarchic Ideal: Roman Colonial Land Division Strategies in a Comparative Perspective

Dr. Pelgrom sets out to scrutinize the autarchic colonialist ideal: the view that Roman and Greek colonial foundations were landscapes of self-sufficient farmers. He attempts to prove its invalidity by pointing at allotment sizes in Roman and Greek colonies, posing the question of what these figures reveal about the socio-economic circumstances of the colonists who received these allotments, arguing that economic independence equals social independence. However, Pelgrom asks the question, whether these allotment sizes were above subsistence levels, and therefore provided economic independence as to guarantee social independence? Although information is fragmented, for example because Livy’s books on the 3rd century are lost to time, Pelgrom concludes that these allotment sizes are generally not above subsistence levels, which would be about 3-5 ha. per family. These allotments - in both the Greek and Roman cases - were generally smaller, except for the Coloniae Latinae. Seeing as colonists were most probably unable to farm the ager publicus, they have to have had other means of providing. Pelgrom then argues that the allotment sizes, being distributed by the state, were kept small with the purpose of subjugating the colonists, as to keep them dependent, serving in a variety of state services in trade for payment or food, upholding the client-patron relationship as known in the Roman state. 

Colonial arrangements were thus not based on egalitarian and autarchic principles. As for the ideal image of a colony (see figure 1), Pelgrom disputes this as well, stating that - certainly in the Greek case - the centuriation and neatly organized land division was a product of time and gradual development, rather than overnight and strict imposition from above. Colonies being as a rule autarchic thus remains a fragile proposition. They would have existed, yet are hard to connect to actual colonial practices. Colonial systems seem to have been more adaptive than traditional paradigms imply. Therefore, in the end, a general acceptance of the autarchic model needs to be nuanced considerably.

The strength of this lecture and argument is the logic and methodology, which in turn lead to a convincing conclusion. The data, proving that the allotment sizes were generally below subsistence levels, combined with the fact that colonists generally were not entitled to farm the ager publicus, certainly do not seem to point at a landscape of independent farmer-colonists. Therefore, Pelgrom’s argument that these colonists were likely dependent on the performance of state services for sustenance and that therefore the autarchic paradigm of colonies needs to be nuanced considerably is convincing. 

Nonetheless, this all depends on the data being correct and widely representative. Some of the data consulted in this research is incomplete, given that for example, as mentioned before, most of the data for the third century is missing. However, it should be acknowledged that ancient history is a practice in which educated guesswork should be allowed for, as otherwise no meaningful contribution to illustrating ancient circumstances can be made.