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A latifundium (Latin: latus, "spacious", and fundus, "farm", "estate")[1] was originally the term used by ancient Romans for great landed estates specialising in agriculture destined for sale: grain, olive oil, or wine. They were characteristic of Magna Graecia and Sicily, Egypt, Northwest Africa and Hispania Baetica. The latifundia were the closest approximation to industrialised agriculture in Antiquity, and their economics depended upon slavery.

In the modern colonial period, the word was borrowed in Portuguese latifúndios and Spanish latifundios or simply fundos for similar extensive land grants, known as fazendas (in Portuguese) or haciendas (in Spanish), in their empires.[citation needed] The forced recruitment of local labourers allowed by colonial law made these land grants particularly lucrative for their owners.

Ancient Rome[edit]

The basis of the latifundia notably in Magna Graecia (the south of Italy including Sicilia) and Hispania was the ager publicus (state-owned land) that accumulated from the spoils of war, confiscated from conquered peoples beginning in the 3rd century BC.[2] As much as a third of the arable land of a new province was taken for agri publici and then divided up with at least the fiction of a competitive auction for leased estates rather than outright ownership.[citation needed] Later the practice of establishing agricultural coloniae, especially from the early 1st century BC, as a way to reward Roman army veterans created smaller landholdings, which would then be acquired by large landowners in times of economic distress. Such consolidation into fewer hands, mainly patricians was not universally approved of, but efforts to reverse the trend by agrarian laws were generally unsuccessful. Later in the Empire, as leases were inherited, ownership of the former common lands became established by tradition, and the leases became taxable. Ownership of land, organised in the latifundia, defined the Roman Senatorial class as it was their only acceptable source of wealth.[citation needed], though they would set up their freedmen as merchant traders and participate as silent partners in businesses from which senators were disqualified.

Latifundia included a villa rustica, including an often luxurious owner's residence, and operation of the farm relied on a large number of slaves,[3] sometimes kept in an ergastulum. They produced agricultural products for sale and profit such as livestock (sheep and cattle) or olive oil, grain, garum and wine. Nevertheless Rome had to import grain (in the Republican period, from Sicily and North Africa; in the Imperial era, from Egypt).[4]

The latifundia quickly started economic consolidation as larger estates achieved greater economies of scale and productivity, and senator owners did not pay land taxes. Owners re-invested their profits by purchasing smaller neighbouring farms, since smaller farms had lower productivity and could not compete, in an ancient precursor of agribusiness.

Latifundia also expanded with conquest, to the Roman provinces of Mauretania (modern Maghreb) and in Hispania Baetica (modern Andalusia).[citation needed]

The latifundia distressed Pliny the Elder (died AD 79) as he travelled, seeing only slaves working the land, not the sturdy Roman farmers who had been the backbone of the Republic's army.[5][6] His writings can be seen as a part of the 'conservative' reaction to the profit-oriented new attitudes of the upper classes of the Early Empire. He argued that the latifundia had ruined Italy and would ruin the Roman provinces as well. He reported that at one point just six owners possessed half of the province of Africa,[7] which may be a piece of rhetorical exaggeration as the North African cities were filled with flourishing landowners who filled the town councils.

As small farms were bought up by the wealthy with their vast supply of slaves, the newly landless peasantry moved to the city of Rome, where they became dependent on state subsidies. Free peasants did not completely disappear; many became tenants on estates that were worked in two ways: partly directly controlled by the owner and worked by slaves and partly leased to tenants.

The production system of the latifundia went into crisis between the 1st and 2nd century as the supply of slaves dwindled due to lack of new conquests.[8] Nevertheless by the 2nd century AD, latifundia had replaced many small and medium-sized farms in some areas of the Roman Empire.


In the 6th century, Cassiodorus was able to apply his own latifundia to support his short-lived Vivarium in the heel of Italy.

In Sicily, latifundia dominated the island from medieval times. They were only abolished by sweeping land reform mandating smaller farms in 1950–1962, funded from the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, the Italian government's development fund for southern Italy (1950–1984).[9]


In the Iberian Peninsula, the Castilian Reconquista of Muslim territories provided the Christian kingdom with sudden extensions of land, which the kings ceded as rewards to nobility, mercenaries and military orders to exploit as latifundia, which had been first established as the commercial olive oil and grain latifundia of Roman Hispania Baetica. The gifts finished the traditional small private ownership of land, eliminating a social class that had also been typical of the al-Andalus period.[citation needed]

In the Iberian peninsula, the possessions of the Church did not pass to private ownership until the ecclesiastical confiscations of Mendizábal (Spanish: desamortización), the "secularization" of church-owned latifundia, which proceeded in pulses through the 19th century.[citation needed]

Big areas of Andalusia are still populated by an underclass of jornaleros, landless peasants who are hired by the latifundists as "day workers" for specific seasonal campaigns. The jornalero class has been fertile ground for socialism and anarchism. Still today, among the main Andalusian trade unions is the Rural Workers Union (Sindicato Obrero del Campo), a far-left group famous for their squatting campaigns in the town of Marinaleda, Province of Seville.[citation needed]

Examples of latifundia[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The singular latifundium occurs but once (in Pliny's Natural History 13.92, with the meaning "estate", suggesting to Anton J.L. van Hooff an undefined, colloquial deprecating term, rather than a description of a particular type of farm. To the linguistic evidence presented by K.D. White, (Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 14 [1967:62-79]), who found only seven instances of the rare word latifundia in Roman texts, Van Hooff added five more instances in "Some More Latifundia" Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 31,1 (1st Quarter 1982:126-128), and found that two were "in a neutral, almost technical way" (p. 128).
  2. ^ Marina, De Franceschini (2005). Ville dell'Agro romano. L'Erma di Bretschneider. pp. 333–336. OCLC 62487134.
  3. ^ Pierre Grimal, La Vie à Rome dans l'Antiquité, in Que sais-je ?, n° 596, 10ª ed., Presses universitaires de France, 1994. ISBN 2-13-043218-2, OCLC 34308399.
  4. ^ A. Carandini, Il latifondo in epoca romana, fra Italia e province, in Du Latifundium au latifondo, Un héritage de Rome, une creation médiévale ou modèrne, Actes de la table ronde (Bordeaux 1992), Paris, 31–36.
  5. ^ Martin 1971.[page needed]
  6. ^ Pliny's six occurrences of latifundia are in his Natural History, 13.92, 17.192, 18.17, 18.35, 18.261 and 18.296.
  7. ^ Pliny Natural History 18.7.35.
  8. ^ Laura Tedeschi. Ville romane tardoantiche della regione Marche, Master's thesis submitted to obtain the degree of Master in Archeology 2013–2014.
  9. ^ John Paul Russo, "The Sicilian Latifundia", Italian Americana, March 1999, Vol. 17 Issue 1, pp. 40–57.


  • Stephen L. Dyson, The Roman Countryside (Duckworth Debates in Archaeology).
  • René Martin: Recherches sur les agronomes latins et leurs conceptions économiques et sociales, Paris, 1971.
  • John Paul Russo, "The Sicilian Latifundia", Italian Americana, March 1999, Vol. 17 Issue 1, pp. 40–57.

External links[edit]