A colonus was a tenant farmer from the late Roman Empire and Early Middle Ages. Known plurally as coloni or colonate, these farmers were sharecroppers, who paid back landowners with a portion of their crops, in exchange for use of their farmlands. The coloni’s tenant- landlord relationship eventually degraded into one of debt and dependence. As a result, the colonus became a new type of land tenancy, in which the occupants were placed in a state between freedom and slavery.
The Decline of the Colonus
In Italy, much of the agricultural land was leased to tenants. There was a unique concept in place that allowed the tenants to have tenure on the land, even though they were not the owners. Tax liabilities went with the sales of a land plot, but most of the taxed public land in Italy was leased rather than owned. Therefore, many of the taxes were imposed upon the tenants rather than the land owners. These tenants could also sell and buy leases, which indicates a somewhat flexible and fair property system. According to the Roman courts, agricultural tenants also had rights against landowners who tried to unjustly infringe upon their contracts. This time period indicated a degree of fairness and justice toward the coloni. Originally, a colonus was a mutual relationship in which a landowner allowed a tenant use of their land, in return for a portion of the farmed crops. However, under the rule of Emperor Diocletian, there was a reform in the taxation system, to which many historians attribute as the cause of the shift in the tenant- landowner relationship. During his time in power, during the fourth century, there were several constitutional laws created for the purpose of tying coloni to the land in order to increase land and poll taxes. Diocletian had created tax system based on persons and land, as well as a regular census of the people to monitor the empire’s population and wealth.
The status of these farm workers gradually declined until they reached an all-time low during the Justinian period in the 5th century. Emperor Justinian I sought to eliminate corruption in tax collecting, as well as make it more efficient. He simplified administrative infrastructure so that more power was given to the head of the provinces. According to Brown (1971), “the increased professionalization of tax collection did much to destroy the traditional structures of provincial life, as it weakened the autonomy of the town councils in the Greek towns”. Justinian was also known for his complete revision of all Roman law, in which the collection of legislature is now known as Corpus juris civilis. Under book 11 of these codes, which concerns public law, Justinian modified law based upon taxation, distribution of land, and types of coloni. When describing the agricolae censiti, or coloni whom had been given the census, Justinian explicitly mentions a type of coloni, known as coloni adscripticii, which are considered unfree and are comparable to slaves.
An estate owner could claim a laborer as a colonus adscripticius with the intention that this person would provide him services. The landowner would also need to show proof through two documents, such as a conductio instrumentum (a labor contract), or a copy of the publici census adscription ( a receipt of his enrollment into the public tax register). These documents would prevent people from being unknowingly drawn into the adscripticii, as such contracts were often not able to be annulled. By signing into a contract, a man would sign his family, children, and self into the adscripticii. The birth status, or origo, of this family and descendants would thus be adscripticii. According to the rules of international private law, one’s origo determined their hometown, public and private law system, and the public tasks they must perform ( punera and honores). In the cases of the colonus adscripticius, their hometown was substituted or replaced with the estate of the landowner. Therefore, the land owner could summon one of his colonus farmers to perform duties, such as the way a town could summon its citizen to perform public duties. The landowner of the estate could sell his property, and the coloni adscripticii tied to the estate would be forced to work for the new owner. Thus, they were comparable to slaves, as they were forced to do the bidding of the landowner, attached to a specific plot of land, and bound to the contract for indefinitely. The only difference between the coloni and slaves, was that the coloni were attached to a specific piece of land and could not be sold or separated from it.
The adscripticii had many obligations to the estate. They had to perform tasks on the estate, till and farm the land, perform the work that a colonus would perform, and remain on the estate. They were also unable to create any litigation or house complaints against their estate owner. Adscripticii that tried to leave the estate without permission were punished, with the methods ranging from being forced to wear chains to corporal punishment. The free coloni, although subjected to the estate owner with whom they had a contract, were able leave the estate. Most importantly were the differences in the coloni discerning possessions, or peliculium. Coloni adscripticii were forced to subject their possessions to the estate owner and were forbidden from removing them from the house without permission. Free coloni were able to move their possessions as they wished and were not subjected to orders of the estate owners.
Free coloni were responsible for the taxes of the leased land on which they farmed crops and lived. They had two options of paying this: either by paying the tax directly to the emperor, or they could turn over a lump sum to the landowner. If the colonus decided to give the owner the lump sum, or tota sota, the estate owner turned over the appropriate amount to the tax collector, and kept the remaining balance as income. When a colonus adscripticius signed a contract to work for the landowner indefinitely, the landowner was then forced to take responsibility for the taxes that the farmer would have paid if he was just a tenant leasing the land. The person who housed the adscripticius had the use of his labor, so they were liable for his taxes.
During the fourth and fifth centuries, the leasing contracts were very professional and had strict requirements. Tenancy agreements had to be formally registered in the municipal tax rolls, and had to include the tenant’s name, a particular plot of land, and the landowner’s name. The tenant was then added to the tax roll for that specific field and could therefore be identified as part of the chain of responsibility for that area of land. Being registered in the imperial or municipal tax rolls also provided additional benefits. Tenants that were registered taxpayers were lawfully protected against eviction and the raising of their rents.
Latifundia and Estates: The rise of the estate
Latifundia were large parcels of land, which specialized in agriculture for export, such as grain, olive oil, and cattle. Latifundia relied on slave labor to farm the large quantities of crops. Estates were the successors of the latifundia. In some cases, estate villages were formed, in which many parcels of land owned by the same landlord were leased to villagers who owned their own homes but had no land. Large estates expanded by consolidating the neighboring, smaller farms, which had to sell their land to the estate, as they could not compete in terms of productivity. As the small farms were bought up by the wealthy land owners and folded into their expansion, the now landless peasants were forced to become coloni adscripticius or homelessly wander the streets of Rome.
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