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agricultural implements, Roman

Roman agricultural implements comprised slaves (see slavery), animals, and tools (Varro, Rust. 1. 17. 1). Only the third category is reviewed here. The essential similarity between the inventories in M. Porcius Cato (1) (Agr. 10, 11) and Palladius (1. 42) some 600 years later indicates technological stability or stagnation, depending on one's point of view. (This very stability has enabled researchers working in Mediterranean areas little affected by mechanized agriculture to interpret with some security the growing archaeological evidence, the ancient representations in art, and the Roman agricultural writers.) Yet while innovations such as the Gallic reaping machine (Pliny, HN 18. 296; Palladius, 7. 2. 2–4) were rare, improvements in design were common. Examples include: in arable cultivation, the plough (e.g. Pliny, HN 18. 171–2) and threshing sledge (Varro, Rust. 1. 52. 2); and, in arboriculture, the vine-dresser's knife, trench-measuring devices (Columella, Rust. 4. 2. 5, 3. 13. 11), and wine- and oil-presses (Pliny, HN 18. 317). Different varieties of basic tools existed (e.g. twelve types of falx) due to regional custom (cf. Varro, Rust. 1. 50. 1–3), agricultural conservatism despite the introduction of new designs, and the needs of diverse soils and crops. While a villa estate might keep different varieties of each basic implement for specialized uses (e.g. Varro, Rust. 1. 22. 5), the subsistence cultivator would fully exploit one multi-purpose implement. Such was the rastrum, thought to characterize peasant agriculture (Virgil Aen. 9. 607–8), which was used for clearing rough land, for turnip cultivation, and for breaking up clods of earth left after ploughing (Columella, Rust. 3. 11. 3, 2. 10. 23; Pliny, HN 18. 180). While some improved designs resulted from the desire for elevated production, implements like the reaping machine, the long-handled scythe, and, perhaps, the harrow, developed as a result of labour shortage (Pliny HN 18. 296, 261, 180). Wooden equipment might be home-made, but metal and stone implements were purchased, thus stimulating the local economy (Cato, Agr. 22. 3–4, 135; Varro, Rust. 1. 22). See agriculture, roman; mills; ploughing; technology.


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