Peasants, Commerce and Patronage in the Late Roman Empire: A Q&A with an Expert
In the late Roman Empire, peasants constituted the majority of the population. They were predominantly tenants of landlords and were divided into coloni who owned land and those who did not. The population was widely scattered with isolated farms and estate-centres of major landowners. The West had wider gaps between the powerful and the poor, leading to more tensions. The patterns of commerce and artisan production varied, with some regions being major exporters and others having low availability of goods. The empire was characterized by diversity of language and societies adapting to local ecology. Patronage was the norm, but when it failed, trouble arose.
Table of Contents
- Peasant Societies in the Late Roman Empire
- Commerce and Artisan Production
- Diversity of Language and Local Societies
- Borders: “Others” in the Roman Empire
- The Importance of Patronage
Q: Who constituted the majority of the population in the late Roman Empire?
A: Peasants were the majority of the population in the late Roman Empire. They were families of cultivators that lived off the food they produced and gave surpluses to landlords and the state.
Q: Were peasants farmers that owned their land?
A: Peasants were overwhelmingly tenants of landlords. While there were some peasant owners, laws on tax-paying distinguished between coloni who owned land and those who did not.
Q: Was there a difference between Eastern and Western peasants?
A: Peasants in the East lived in villages more often, while in the West, villages were rarer and the countryside was scattered with isolated farms and estate-centres owned by major landowners. The gap between the powerful and the poor was wider in much of the West, leading to more tensions.
Q: What were the patterns of commerce and artisan production like in the late Roman Empire?
A: The patterns of commerce and artisan production varied greatly throughout the empire, with some areas being major exporters while others, like northern Gaul and Britain, had low availability of goods. The tax network made commerce easier and contributed to the commercial prominence of certain regions.
Q: What was the diversity of language and local societies like in the Roman Empire?
A: The late Roman world was local and imperial, with many different languages and local societies adapting to local ecology. The awareness of a wider community was linked to patronage, in which seeking help from a patron was normal.
Q: Who were the “others” in the Roman Empire?
A: The Roman Empire had several borders with various groups, including Persians, nomadic tribes in the Sahara, Berbers, Picts, Irish, and several Germanic tribes. These groups were not united ethnic groups, and they were unstable and changeable. They were generally mixed-farming peasant societies, living in villages with elites living among cultivators.
Q: Did the Romans rule over all the groups at their borders?
A: The Romans employed some of these groups as paid soldiers. As hierarchies developed beyond the frontiers, society on each side of the frontier slowly became more similar. However, the major political difference between each side of the frontier was that on one side, the Romans ruled, and on the other side, they did not.
Q: What was the importance of patronage in the Roman Empire?
A: The patronage system involved everybody in the late Roman Empire. When it failed, trouble arose. Seeking help from a patron was normal and was a way to be part of a wider community. Patronage was essential to life and to maintaining personal relationships. It was expected that a patron would help clients in time of need in exchange for loyalty.
Q: Were there any examples of how patronage could go wrong?
A: One such example comes from Augustine’s Africa, where peasants in the village of Fussala were terrorized by a bishop who extorted money and materials from them, causing fear and bitterness towards the authorities. Augustine feared that the peasants would turn to Donatism instead of Catholic Christianity.
Peasant life was a dominant theme in the late Roman Empire. Commerce was vital, leading to the prominence of certain regions. The empire was diverse with various groups living in the borders. Patronage played a crucial role in society, and clients often depended on it. Society was local and imperial, adapting to local ecology. The late Roman Empire was a complex and vibrant world with diversity that was both challenging and inspiring.