Agro-Business in the Roman World

Agro-Business in the Roman World

Have you ever considered that business may not have been that different 2000 years ago? Oh well, they did not have computers, internet and the digital economy but they still had a buoyant property market, they were trading across the seas and the land, and they were pretty good at financial administration. After all, empires were not built on air but on solid armies, bureaucracies and land expansion exercises (imperialism).

In the Roman World, the wealthiest citizens were focusing on the development of farming businesses. Several handbooks were written during the Republic and the Empire. These Agronomists followed the rich tradition of writers coming from the Greek times, such as Hesiod, Xenophon, Democritus of Abdera, even Aristotle. Even though the Roman writers followed the Greeks, they still managed to become better known and more widely revered than they predecessors. Their instructions became the ‘go to’ manual for Landowners across Europe for centuries to come. The most important works that survived until today are those of Cato, Columella, Varro, Virgil, Pliny and Palladius.

Today we will focus on Cato the Elder’s farming manual, De Agricultura. This is – not surprisingly –  the eldest work of latin prose. It’s scope and importance emphasises on what actually mattered for the elite at the time and the manuscript dates from the second century BC, long before the Roman Empire reached the height of its power. In fact, long before Roman Emperors were ‘a thing’!

Let us take a look on what Cato believed of Farming as business. Obviously he preferred it over Commerce and Banking, both of which may have brought profits.  However, the first was risky and the second was considered akin to usury and had the potential to confer upon the banker the title of ‘criminal’. As a result, the only moral and sensible option for the Roman Rich were to become farmers.

So, how did they go about it? First and foremost they needed to buy vast expanses of land. Or, alternatively, acquire them through wars. The Romans spent several centuries expanding their lands through military advances. So, there was a lot to be had. Secondly, they needed to learn how to manage these vast expansions of land. And this is where the Agronomists entered the picture. Cato was willing to present his contemporaries with a wealth of advice on how to set up and run a farming business. I will include a few of these comments just to give you an idea of what was expected of a Roman farmer.

As a rule, you should not be an Absentee Landowner. As the Master of the Household you should visit your farm often and upon arrival greet Lar (the Guardian/God/Ancestor of the Hearth). Always partner up with a God, just to be on the safe side. Once you pay your dues to Lar, it would be the right time to go around your property ON THE SAME DAY. Cato insists on this piece of advice and I suspect that the master would have liked to see how the farm is run on an average day and not after anticipating his visit. The element of surprise seems to be essential.

Once the initial checks have been completed, the next day can be dedicated to analysing the statistics “how much of the work is finished, how much remains, whether what is done was done in time and there will be time to do the rest, and how it is with the wine, the grain and everything else singly.” It should not astonish us that analytics were used regularly in antiquity in order to run a business. The owner needed to know how far they are in the production cycle and when the crops would be ready for sale.

The financial aspect would have taken even more time, because of its essential nature. After all, how else would they have known whether the business was profitable or even viable?And how would they have funded their elaborate lifestyles? Cato says on the matter: “You must check the figures for money and grain, check what is set aside for fodder, check the wine and oil figures — what is already sold, and the income from this, what is still to be produced, and what it will fetch — agree the difference and take charge of the agreed sum.” This is the end point (scope) of any business. Obviously, they did not have any double entry books (this was a much later invention) and they were lacking in cash flow projections. But they had an excellent understanding of basic finances and how numbers should be used for their advantage.

As with every other business, delegation is a big part of running large organisations, including farms. The landowner probably had several farms that needed his attention. For each farm, he would have hired a manager to oversee the work on a daily basis. Even though the manager should have been a trusted employee (rarely a slave), this does not mean that he could waive his carte blanche and do whatever he wanted. Cato seemed to be very suspicious of the managers and insists on holding them accountable.

He eloquently writes on the subject: “ When you have this straight, you can get down to calculating people and days’ work. If the work seems wanting the manager will say that he has done his best, slaves were sick, the weather was bad, slaves ran away or were requisitioned for public works: when he has put these and all his other arguments, bring him back to the calculation of workers and their work! If there was rainy weather, what work could have been done while it rained? — washing and pitching vats, cleaning farm buildings, shifting grain, shovelling dung, making a dung-heap, threshing grain, mending ropes and making new ones; the slaves could have been patching their own cloaks and hoods. On holidays they should have cleaned out blocked ditches, mended the public road, cut back hedges, dug the vegetable garden, cleared the meadow, cut sticks, pulled out brambles, husked the emmer, tidied up. While slaves were ill they ought not to have been given as much food.” It is astonishing the amount of detail he goes into. Just because the masters were wealthy, it did not mean they should not have intimate knowledge of shovelling dung, making heaps  of them, ordering the planting of the vegetable garden, or cutting sticks. Quite the opposite! Even the food portions for the slaves were important, if profit was to be had!


Once the details were understood, then it was important to put forward the right orders for buying equipment, for selling the products (vegetables, animals or slaves), and for contracting the workers. The orders should have been delivered both verbally as well as in writing, so that there was a clear chronological record of the decision making process. Back then, papyri would have been the means of accounts. Today its a laptop with elaborate software. In both cases the outcome would have been similar.

The distillation of Catos’s wisdom (and probably his best advice) can be summarised in the following sentence “The master has to be a selling man, not a buying man.” This is the traditional advice of frugality and simplicity, where loans remained an anathema. In Cato’s advice to the manager (not the owner this time) he insists that: “He must lend to no one but ensure that the owner’s loans are repaid. He must have no loans out to anyone, of seed for sowing, food, wheat, wine or oil: there should be two or three households from whom he can ask necessities and to whom he can give, but no others. He must regularly make up accounts with the owner.” Although he does not moralise on the ‘evil’ of loans, he would not willingly accept such an agreement inflicted upon him, unless, of course, it is the owner that provides the loan :)

All in all, the Romans did not put together elaborate business models based on debt and governmental grants. The clarity and minimalism of the economic and financial models at the time cannot be denied. Without trying to moralise on the topic, I would like to emphasise on the effectiveness of such an attitude. Today we are used to building large organisations based on loans, shares, use of derivatives. They grow fast and exponentially, they employ thousands of people and they go bust at the blink of an eye. We may enjoy the boosts as well as the busts of capitalism but I still appreciate the wisdom coming from the pre-industrial, pre-capitalist societies. Just for today, I intend to busk at the words of Cato and apply a bit more simplicity in my life!

The texts come for Cato, De Agricultura, 2 and 5. (

Economic historian and numismatic consultant

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