agrarian laws, in ancient Rome, the laws regulating the disposition of public lands ( ager publicus ).
It was the practice of Rome to confiscate part of the land of conquered cities and states, and this was made public land. So long as it remained public land, it was occupied by tenants who paid rent, usually in produce, to the state. From the earliest times the patricians gained the largest part of the public lands, and the holding of public lands tended always in Italy to become the exclusive prerogative of the wealthy. There was also a tendency to consider land long occupied as real property of the occupier.
The agrarian laws resulted from the continued efforts of the poorer classes to gain some share in the public lands. Since these lands were occupied without lease, the strictly legal aspects were not difficult; but inasmuch as most agrarian legislation challenged the lucrative privilege of the powerful of retaining the lands they held, the agrarian laws were often flagrantly disobeyed or calmly ignored. In 486 B.C., Spurius Cassius Viscellinus tried to pass a law assigning some new lands in Gaul to the poor of Rome and Latium, but Roman jealousy prevented its passage. The most famous of early agrarian laws were the Licinian Rogations (367 B.C.) of Caius Licinius Calvus Stolo (see under Licinius), which limited strictly the amount of land any citizen could hold and the number of sheep and cattle he could pasture on public land. These laws fell into disuse. About 233 B.C., Caius Flaminius succeeded in assigning some public lands to poor citizens.
The next serious attempt to rectify an increasingly difficult situation was the Sempronian Law of 133 B.C. devised by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (see Gracchi). This reenacted the provisions of the Licinian Rogations and added to the maximum allowance an extra amount for each son. The occupants were to be reduced to the legal maximum and the surplus given to the poor. The occupants were to receive in compensation full title to the land they retained. A commission was set up to execute the law, but the senate by its obstructionist tactics weakened the commission, thus rendering the law ineffective. In 123 B.C., Caius Gracchus revived the Sempronian Law, but this time the senate ruined the reform by allowing the new tenants to sell their new land, which the wealthy bought up.
From time to time newly acquired lands would be assigned to the poor, but as a rule they simply passed into the hands of the wealthy landholders. In the 1st cent. B.C. there were several assignments of public lands to veterans in Italy as well as on the borders of the empire. The wholesale confiscation and reassignment of private lands by Sulla (82 B.C.) and Octavian and Antony (43 B.C.) were called agrarian laws. The first step in the final collapse of the democratic effort that had resulted in the agrarian laws was the edict of Domitian (c.A.D. 82) assigning the title of public lands in Italy to those who held them. The poorer classes were thus confirmed in a dependency on the powerful that foreshadowed the greater dependency of feudalism.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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