The Romans in Britain: Agriculture

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For the Celts and later during the Roman occupation, agriculture was essential. It provided them with one of the basic necessities of life – food. If they were fortunate, they might be able to sell or trade some surplus food in exchange for manufactured goods.

Pre-Roman Agriculture

Virtually all Celts, with the exception of the aristocracy, were involved in agriculture. The Celts generally practiced mixed agriculture so on their land they would have both livestock and crops. It was mostly subsistence farming1 but it is likely that some of their products would have to be given to tribal leaders, who may have traded it on the continent for manufactured goods. However, there were no Celtic 'towns' in the modern or Roman sense of the word and few imported goods have been found in the poor farmsteads. The climate made it difficult to store foo, which would have made trade troublesome and also meant that what trade existed was very localised.

The Celts used rectangular fields and may have used a field rotation system, whereby one of the farmer’s fields would be left fallow for a year and nothing would be planted there. Instead, the farmer’s livestock would graze it, keeping the weeds in check and fertilising the field with their excrement. The field that was left fallow would change every year to allow them to recover the vital nutrients lost by farming. The size of the fields was limited by the amount of land that a single man could plough in one day.

In his book Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar lists livestock which he says the Britons kept for pleasure and did not eat, but this is highly unlikely, especially as bones of pigs, goats, cattle and sheep have been found from this period. The Britons used an ard type of plough, probably drawn by oxen, which could only cut a shallow and narrow furrow. However, the Britons did make some advances in agriculture. They began the process of creating more land for food production and they also began digging drainage ditches to water their fields.

Roman Agriculture

The Romans were forced to adjust to the British climate. It was not generally suitable for growing crops such as olives2, which were such a staple of the Mediterranean diet. There is, however, evidence that vines (and hence, grapes) were grown in some areas in the South of England3.

The Romans were forced to try to increase food production in order to support the increased population brought by the conquest. They introduced a tax, the annona militaris, which was paid as a percentage of the farmer’s produce. They cleared forests and other land to make it suitable for agriculture, a process the Britons had already begun.

They also made alterations to tools. They introduced ironclad tools such as spades and iron machinery, which made it easier to plough heavy soils such as clay soils. They altered the plough, adding a device that enabled the loose soil to be turned to one side and also cut deeper furrows. (However, both some modern historians and contemporary commentators, including Pliny, believe that the Celtic plough was in fact far superior to the Roman type which replaced it). The Romans introduced two-handed scythes, making harvesting more efficient, a new type of sickle and rakes.

The Romans revolutionised storage by replacing storage pits (in which the climate sometimes caused the crops to rot) with granaries, which kept them off the ground and well ventilated. It is also possible that a machine called a vallus, was introduced to Britain. It was used for harvesting corn and was basically a wooden, wheeled box with sharp points at one end, for ripping the ears off corn.

The Romans introduced a new type of wheat called spelt, which grew well in Britain’s climate. It could be sown twice a year, increasing productivity. They introduced vegetables such as cabbages, peas, celery, onions, parsnips, leeks, turnips, cucumbers, radishes, carrots and asparagus to the province as well as fruit, including plums, pears, grapes, apples and cherries and nuts such as walnuts. Animals introduced by the Romans included peacocks, guinea fowl, pheasants, domestic cats and possibly fallow deer.

In addition, they brought over lilies, violets, pansies, poppies and the (somewhat less pleasant) stinging nettles! Along with existing foods such as rye and oats, the new root vegetables turnips, carrots and parsnips could be used to feed not only the farmer and his family but also their animals.

1 Only growing enough to feed themselves and their families.2To some people's dismay, it still isn’t.3Thanks to researcher Watermusic for this information.

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