Sunday, 3 July 2011

Latifundia perdidere Italiam

Pliny the Elder famously intones, "To tell the truth, the latifundia destroyed Italy, and now they are destroying the provinces as well". The latifundum 'symbolises the decline of the idyllic family farm, and its replacement by soulless industrial agriculture. I'd taken this at face value, until I read Mary Beagon's argument: that Pliny's objection was not to the size or efficiency of these superfarms (how could he object to that? Wasn't the Roman Empire similarly vast, and efficiently run? Don't, in fact, latifundia metonymise the Empire itself?) so much as the belief that excess in any sort of wealth leads to decadence (a kind of residual Senecan stoicism). 'It is likely that Pliny’s remark is occasioned by the neglect of large tracts of land. Ranchland in the south of Apulia, where depopulation was also a problem, has been suggested. This, moreover, is exactly the type of land Columella describes in the De Re Rustica: men of enormous wealth possess lands of which they cannot even make the rounds, and either leave them to be trampled by cattle of wasted by wild beasts, or keep them occupied by debtors or ergastula.' Me, I like the implicit paradox in Pliny's apothegm. The more wide, fertile land we have, the more pinched and barren we become.

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