Peasants are like postholes: it is much easier to see where they ought to have been in the classical world than where they actually were. By ‘peasants’ most scholars have meant, small-scale, low-status cultivators, whether free, tenant, or otherwise dependent, farming at subsistence level. Such people left little impact on the historical or archaeological record except perhaps in Egypt. Finds of modest farmsteads in archaeological survey or excavation (see archaeology, classical) can rarely be placed on the socio-economic scale with any certainty. Our suppositions are based largely on indirect evidence.
Much of the literary evidence is anecdotal, depicting the peasant as a ‘type’, e.g. Dicaeopolis (Ar. Ach.). Characters sometimes identified as ‘peasants’ (e.g. Hesiod) are difficult to place in socio-economic terms, but are highly unlikely to be peasants. The peasant eventually becomes an ‘ideal type’ in classical literature, redolent of wholesome, simple, ‘old-time’ ideals (e.g. Verg.G. 4). The peasant ethos of self-sufficiency appealed to élite classical writers as a moral ideal, surfacing frequently in treatises on farming (e.g. Xen.Oec. 5. 1–17, Cato, Agr. praef. 2. 7; Varro, Rust. 2. 1–3). Peasants and similar types were romanticized, notably in the pastoral poetry of the Hellenistic period, though this tradition continued into Roman times, e.g. Dio Cocceianus' Euboean idyll (Dio Chrys. Or. 7; see euboea).
In Athens it is generally assumed that peasants composed the bulk of the citizen population, and were thus the majority in the ekklēsia (assembly). It is not certain to what extent this applied to other states. Even in Athens, though many owned small amounts of land, the bulk of the acreage was held by the rich. To what extent the peasantry co-operated or could be mobilized as a political force is much debated. Their geographical distribution is also problematic.
Our view of the peasantry of republican and imperial Rome is equally blurred. Though ancient writers bemoaned the demise of small-scale cultivators in the countryside, recent studies have treated these complaints more as a rhetorical position than reality. The status of Roman ‘peasants’ is unclear and probably varied regionally. Many may have been tenants of or similarly dependent on the wealthy élite. The place of veterans' allotments and small-town market-centres in the social demography of the Italian countryside has also been much debated. Only in Egypt where there are surviving tax-collection documents from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods are very small-scale cultivators, often tenants, recorded. Though ‘peasant values’ were an important ideal in Roman thought, we can only guess at the political impact of ‘real’ peasants.
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