Front Page Titles (by Subject) 12.: THE LAND QUESTION — ( P. 265 ) - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 8
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12.: THE LAND QUESTION — ( P. 265 ) - Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 8 
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J.B. Bury with an Introduction by W.E.H. Lecky (New York: Fred de Fau and Co., 1906), in 12 vols. Vol. 8.
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THE LAND QUESTION — (P. 265)
In order to comprehend the land question, which comes prominently before us in the 10th century, it is necessary to understand the various ways in which land was held and the legal status of those who cultivated it. The subject has been elucidated by Zachariä von Lingenthal; but the scantiness of our sources leaves much still to be explained.
We have, in the first place, the simple distinction of the peasant proprietors who cultivated their own land, and the peasants who worked on lands which did not belong to them.
(1) The peasant proprietors (χωρɩ̂ται) lived in village communities. The community, as a whole, was taxed, each member paying his proportion, but the community, and not the individual, being responsible to the state. To use technical expressions, the lands of such communities are ὀμόκηνσα, and the proprietors are consortes. If one peasant failed to pay his quota, the deficiency was made up by an ἐπιβολή or additional imposition upon each of the other proprietors. This system, invented for the convenience of the fisc, was never done away with; but its injurious effects in overburdening the land were observed, and it probably was not always strictly enforced. When a piece of land went out of cultivation owing to the incompetence or ill-luck of its proprietor, it bore very hard on his neighbours that their more successful economy should be burdened with an extra charge. We consequently find the Emperor Nicephorus censured for insisting upon this principle of “solidarity” — the ἀλληλέγγυον as it was called. It seems, although we have not very clear evidence on this point, that the principle was now extended so as to impose the additional tax on neighbouring farms, which did not belong to the ὁμόκηνσα. Basil II. certainly imposed the extra charge on the domains of large neighbouring proprietors, whose lands were quite independent of the village community; but this unpopular measure — part of that Emperor’s warfare against large estates — was repealed by Romanus III.
Under this system of solidarity, each member of the community was directly interested in the honesty and capacity of his neighbours, and could fairly claim some right to interfere for the purpose of hindering any farm from passing into the hands of a person incapable of making it yield enough to pay his quota of taxation. This claim was recognised by Constantine the Great, and afterwards distinctly affirmed in laws of the 5th century which forbade the sale or alienation of a farm to any one except a farmer of the same village (vicanus). When in later times the fiscal responsibility was laid not upon the vicus, but upon the neighbours of the defaulting farm, the neighbours obtained a right of pre-emption; and in the 10th century the rights of pre-emption were strictly defined by a Novel1 of Romanus I.
(2) Opposed to these groups of small farms and the peasant proprietors who cultivated them, were the large estates (ἰδιόστατα) of rich owners and the dependent coloni who tilled them. Many of these estates belonged to churches and abbeys; others were crown estates (part of the res privata, or the patrimonium, or the divina domus); others were owned by private persons. The peasants who worked on these estates were of two kinds: —
(a) Free tenants (μισθωτοί, liberi coloni), who cultivated their holdings at their own expense, paying a rent (whether in gold or kind) to the proprietor. At the end of thirty years of such tenure, the tenant (and his posterity) became bound to the land in perpetuity; he could not give up his farm, and on the other hand the proprietor could not eject him. But except for this restriction he had no disabilities, and could enter into ordinary legal relations with the proprietor, who had no claims upon his private property.
(b) The labourers (ἐναπόγραϕοι, adscriptitii) were freemen like the tenants, and (like the tenants of over thirty years) were “fixed to the clod.” But their indigence distinguished them from the tenants; they were taken in by a proprietor to labour on his estate, and became his serfs, receiving from him a dwelling and board for their services. Their freedom gave these labourers one or two not very valuable privileges which seemed to raise them above the rural slaves; but we sympathise with Justinian when he found it hard to see the difference between servi and adscriptitii.2 For good or bad, they were in their master’s power, and the only hold they had on him was the right of not being turned off from his estate. The difference between the rural slave and the serf, which secmed to Justinian microscopic, was gradually obliterated by the elevation of the former class to the dignity of the latter.
As to the origin of the adscriptitii, it seems to have been due to the financial policy of the Constantinian period, which aimed at allowing no man to abandon the state of life to which he or his father before him had been called.
Such were the agricultural classes in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries — peasant proprietors on one hand, and on the other the cultivators of great estates, whether tenants bound to the soil or serf-labourers. And these classes continued to exist till the latest age of the Empire. If the Iconoclastic reformers had had their way, perhaps the history of the agricultural classes would have been widely different. The abolition of the principle which the first Christian Emperor had adopted, of nailing men to the clod, was part of the programme which was carried out by the Iconoclast Emperors and reversed by their successors.
The storms of the 7th century, the invasions of Slavs and Saracens, had made considerable changes in the condition of the provincial lands. The Illyric peninsula had been in many parts occupied by Slavonic settlers; in many cases the dispossessed provincials had fled to other parts of the Empire; and Emperors had transferred whole populations from one place to another, to replenish deserted districts. These changes rendered a revision of the land laws imperative; and, when an able sovereign at length came to the throne, he set himself the task of regulating the conditions of agriculture. The Agricultural Code (νόμος γεωργικός) was issued either by Leo III. or by his son, who worked in the same spirit as the father; it consists chiefly of police provisions in regard to rural crimes and misdemeanours, but it presumes a state of things completely different from that which existed in the 6th century and existed again in the 10th. In this Code no man is nailed to the clod, and we hear nothing of serf-labourers (adscriptitii) or of services owed by freemen to landlords. We cannot ascribe this radical change, the abolition of what we may call serfdom, to any other sovereign than the reformer Leo III.
The Agricultural Code shows us peasant proprietors in their village communities as before; but it shows us, too, — and here we get a glimpse of the new settlements of the barbarians — communities which own the land in common, no member possessing a particular portion as his own.
As for tenants — now fully free, no longer bound to the soil, — of these there are two classes, according to the agreement made with the landlord. There are the tithe-rent tenants, μορτɩ̂ται, and the métayer tenants, ἡμισειασταί. The μορτίτης paid a tenth of the produce to the landlord, as rent for the land. The ἡμισειαστής worked his farm at the landlord’s expense, and the produce was divided equally between landlord and tenant. (Thus the ground rent = of the yearly yield; the interest on capital = ; and the labour = .) The μορτίτης, then, corresponds to the μισθωτός or “free colon” of the Justinianean code, and the ἡμισειαστής corresponds to the ἐναπόγραϕος, in respect of the condition of tenancy; with the important difference that neither μορτίτης nor ἡμισειαστής is bound to the soil.
The abolition of serfdom and service of the Iconoclastic reformers was by no means agreeable to the great landlords, secular or ecclesiastical. Rich lords and abbots made common cause against the new system; and when the reaction came in the second half of the 9th century Basil’s legislation restored the old order of things. The tenants3 were once more nailed to the soil. Among other things the landlords were not satisfied with the ground rent of , fixed in the Agricultural Code; it was insufficient, they said, to make the estate pay, when the taxation was allowed for.
The failure of the land reforms of Leo and Constantine, and the reversion to the old system, close the history of the tenants; but there still remains an important chapter in the history of the peasant proprietors. In the 10th century we find the large estates growing still larger at the expense of the small proprietors whose lands they absorb, and these small proprietors passing by degrees into the condition of tenants. This evil has been briefly touched upon in connection with Romanus I. and Tzimisces; see above, p. 265, n. 46, and p. 273, n. 57. The decline of the class of small farmers was due to two causes: the influence of the ascetic ideal and the defective economical conditions of the time.
The attraction of monastic life induced many proprietors to enter cloisters, and bestow their property on the communities which admitted them, or, if they were rich enough, to found new monastical or ecclesiastical institutions. The cultivation of the lands which thus passed to the church was thereby transferred from peasant proprietors to tenants.
The want of a sound credit system, due to the ignorance of political economy, and the consequent depression of trade, rendered land the only safe investment for capital; and the consequence of this was that landowners who possessed capital were always seeking to get more land into their hands. Hence they took every occasion that presented itself to induce their poor neighbours, who lived from hand to mouth and had no savings, to pledge or sell their land in a moment of need. The farmer who thus sold out would often become the tenant of the holding which had been his own property.
The increase of large estates was regarded by the government with suspicion and disapprobation.4 The campaign against the great landlords was begun by Romanus I. in 922, when, in the law (already mentioned) which fixed the order of pre-emption, he forbade the magnates (οὶ δυνατοί) to buy or receive any land from smaller folk, except in the case of relationship. It was also enacted that only after a possession of ten years could a property acquired in this way become permanently the property of the magnate. But a few years later the magnates had an unusually favourable opportunity and could not resist the temptation of using it. There was a long succession of bad harvests and cold winters ( 927-932), which produced great distress throughout the country. The small farmers, brought to penury, standing on the brink of starvation, had no resource but to purchase bread for themselves and their families by making over their little farms to rich neighbours. For this was the only condition on which the magnates would give them credit. The distress of these years in the reign of Romanus formed an epoch in the history of peasant proprietorship. It was clear that the farmers who had pledged their land would have no chance of recovering themselves before the ten years, after which their land would be irreclaimable, had expired. The prospect was that the small farmer would wholly disappear, and Romanus attempted to forestall the catastrophe by direct legislation. His Novel of 934 (see above, p. 265) ordained that the unfair dealings with the peasants in the past years should be righted, and that for the future no such dealings should take place.
The succeeding Emperors followed up the policy of Romanus. They endeavoured to prevent the extinction of small farmers by prohibiting the rich from acquiring villages and farms from the poor, and even by prohibiting ecclesiastical institutions from receiving gifts of landed property. A series of seven laws5 on this subject shows what stubborn resistance was offered to the Imperial policy by the rich landlords whose interests were endangered. Though this legislation was never repealed, except so far as the Church was interested,6 and though it continued to be the law of the Empire, that the rich landlords should not acquire the lands of peasants, there is little doubt that the law was evaded, and that in the last ages of the Empire peasant farms were rare indeed. In the 11th century Asia Minor consisted chiefly of large domains.
It must be remembered that, though the formation of these large estates gave their proprietors wealth and power which rendered them dangerous subjects, they were formed not with the motive of acquiring political influence, but from the natural tendency of capital to seek the best mode of investment.
In studying the Imperial land legislation and the relations of landlord and tenant in South-eastern Europe and Asia Minor, it is of essential importance for a modern student to bear in mind two facts which powerfully affected that development in a manner which is almost inconceivable to those who are familiar with the land questions in modern states. These facts — both of which were due to the economical inexperience of ancient and mediaeval Europe — are: (1) the legislation was entirely based on fiscal considerations; the laws were directly aimed at filling the treasury with as little inconvenience and trouble as possible on the part of the state: the short-sighted policy of making the treasury full instead of making the Empire rich; (2) the lamentably defective credit-system of the Roman law, discouraging the investment of capital and rendering land almost the only safe speculation, reacted, as we have seen, in a peculiar way on the land question. Something more is said of this economical weakness in the later Empire in the following note.
[1 ]Nov. 2, p. 234 sqq., in Zachariä, Jus Græco-Romanum. 922.
[2 ]Cod. Just. 11, 48, 21.
[3 ]In the 9th century πάροικοι comes into use as the general word for the tenants on a landlord’s estate.
[4 ]It was a law of Justinian that high officials should not acquire landed property. Leo VI. however had repealed this law.
[5 ](a) 947, Nov. 6 of Constantine VII.; (b) 959-63, Nov. 15 of Romanus II.; (c, d, e) 964, 967, Nov. 19, 20, 21 of Nicephorus Phocas, (f) 988, Nov. 26 of Basil II.; (g) 996, Nov. 29 of Basil II.; all ap. Zachariä, Jus Graeco-Romanum, iii.
[6 ]Basil II. repealed the law of Nicephorus that Churches, &c. should not acquire real property.