Ancient Civilization Agriculture

The agricultural innovations carried out during the Neolithic period practically ended with the introduction of metals. From then on, a historical period began where the new agricultural civilizations tended to improve already known techniques, especially the tools, and to establish cooperative efforts. In this period, Rome stood out for its important literature on agricultural issues, but no less important was the agriculture of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India.

Agriculture in ancient civilizations
Agriculture in ancient civilizations

History of Agriculture

Agriculture in Rome

Rome was an important reference not only for their form of government, social, and economic structure, and the application of law, but also for their understanding of the agricultural issues and their application of architecture to those activities. It is estimated that the Roman Empire began exactly with a rural society of farmers as a base without any cooperative relationships. This reached its maximum development during the Christian era in order to convert from a rural society to a fundamentally urban society. Roman norms and law, very precise as far as rural estates, boundaries, water communities, etc., were applicable to all citizens and would reach many peoples who constituted an empire spread throughout the West.

Roman agriculture also had its religious referent. There were a number of protective deities who took care that the lands were fertile and the crops plentiful. Some small gods had specific missions, such as caring for planting, seed, spike, etc.

Social organization

The social organization of Rome was based on economic power and divided into classes. The first great division comprised two groups: the slaves and the free men.

Agriculture in Ancient Rome
Agriculture in Ancient Rome

The slaves were people without rights in Rome. They were used for the most painful work, such as agricultural work or work in mines and quarries. They could be sold, ceded, or bequeathed in inheritance, and could only acquire freedom with permission of their owners. With Christianity, this situation was alleviated by laws prohibiting barbaric acts, such as being thrown to wild beasts without solving a judge.


The freemen were the citizens, who were themselves divided into two classes, the patricians, and the plebeians. The patricians were the first to enjoy all the rights and hold public office; To this class belonged the noble and wealthy landowners, who reserved the most important positions of the army and the administration; And the knights or equites, who were merchants of fortune or financiers, also held positions in the administration or the army but those with less responsibility.

For their part, the plebeians were aristocrats who, from the earliest times, confronted the patricians for legal and political equality. This was not achieved in its entirety but with some significant triumphs, such as the right to marry between both classes or hold public office, and that later would give place to a form of cooperation between the patricians and the richer plebeians for the distribution of the power.

Other poor commoners, the proletarians, had as their only wealth their children (hence the offspring). Between the 2nd and 1st century BC, these proletarians constituted an important population, motivated by the growth of large estates and the impoverishment of the farmers who did not own land as property; they survived by selling the vote they were entitled to and free food allowances.

The economy of Rome was based on the exploitation of the natural resources and the work of the slaves, which was centered in the agriculture and the cattle ranch.

The Romans were innovative in the development of techniques applied to agriculture, such as irrigation, drainage of land, fertilizer, fallow, crop rotation, etc. The main crops were grains such as wheat, olive trees, and one of the most prized, the vine.

The arable land, forests, and pastures, which belonged to the state, were at first exploited by slaves, prisoners of war, and supervised by foremen. Subsequently, as the captive labor was scarce, the lands were leased to private farmers, who paid the owners with a part of the production. This feudal system was already firmly established in the Roman villa by 400 AD. The economic model was centralized in Rome, and from there it was imposed on the whole empire.

The practice of renting land established large estates and the impoverishment of small proprietary farmers (not slaves). Most of the lands were owned by senators; Around 218 BC. Lex Claudia forbade them to engage in any activity other than the exploitation of their lands.

The revenues of the State had several sources: taxes of the provinces that the tax collectors received; Sale or lease to individuals of lands annexed during the conquests (ager publicus); And private leasing of mining operations with certain resources, such as salt. The whole estate was managed by the Senate, which made a budget, and whose income and distribution controlled the censors and quaestors.


Roman architecture and agriculture
Roman architecture and agriculture

The Romans also distinguished themselves by their public works; Causeways, bridges, amphitheaters, thermal baths, aqueducts, etc., proliferated throughout Rome and in general by all the cities of the empire.

It should be noted that some bridges and causeways are still standing today and can even be used safely. As far as agriculture was concerned, they made robust architectural works; One of the most significant examples is the aqueduct of Segovia, Spain, which now suffers from the abrasion of pollution, and paradoxically has stoically endured all kinds of inclemencies throughout the centuries.

Agricultural literature

Aulus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC)

After retiring from public life, Caesar sent for him with the commission to reform public libraries. He devoted the rest of his days to literature. Seventy-four works of art are preserved, constituting a veritable encyclopedia of the knowledge of his time, among which is the work De re rustica, dedicated to agricultural subjects.

The most illustrious of the Latin poets.

Virgil is the author of the Bucolic (where imitating Theocritus develops various aspects of pastoral life), and the Georgicas (composed of four books dealing with agricultural issues). Virgil believed in an agricultural Italy and loved the peasant life.

Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella

Latin writer born in Cadiz. His most important work is the Treaty of agriculture, which deals with the cultivation of orchards, harvesting of fruits and their conservation. He also wrote a treatise on trees.

Rome’s importance in terms of agricultural knowledge has been remarkable, and the important literature on agricultural issues has been borne out by various authors; Among them are:

Marcus Portius Cato (234-149 BC)

Politician and Roman orator, called the Old or the Censor. He wrote, among other subjects, the Treatise Of Agriculture, a collection of advice directed to the farmers.

Agriculture in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, which meant to the Greeks “country between rivers,” was a region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The river lands of the valley, surrounded by mountains and deserts, enjoyed a fertility and characteristics unbeatable for the development of a rich agriculture. This was precisely the basis of the Mesopotamian economy, favored by the construction of permanent irrigation channels originating mainly in the Euphrates river, with an ingenious disposition that also allowed the avoidance of flooding.

Mesopotamian agriculture
Mesopotamian agriculture

Social organization

Mesopotamia was composed of civilizations organized into city-states, some of them authentic empires that fought for the hegemony over the others, where invasions, conquests, destructions or decadences were manifested, and later, the founding of new empires.

In Upper Mesopotamia or Assyria (to the north), the Assyrians lived, a people of warriors that founded cities like Nineveh and Assur. In Lower Mesopotamia or Caldea (to the south, in what is now Iraq), the Akkadians and Sumerians lived; These were peaceful groups of farmers who founded towns like Ur, Lagash, Larsa, Uruk, Eridú and Babylon, approximately between 5,000 and 2,000 BC.

Some of these cities were splendorous centers of Sumer culture. The Sumerians developed irrigation and agriculture, as well as other cultural manifestations such as sculpture, metal arts, and the invention of cuneiform writing; It should be noted that the Sumerian written language is the oldest of all known.


The main Mesopotamian crops were cereals, mainly wheat and barley, a wide variety of fruits and vegetables (beans and lentils), and also the palm and olive trees.

To prepare the land, at first the wood plow was used by the farmers themselves, but around the year 3000 BC. (Also in Egypt) animal traction was introduced by oxen, allowing the conditioning and cultivation of great extensions of land. By this same time, metal sickles also began to be used. They replaced the rough clay sickles.

Many domestic animals became part of the Mesopotamian farms, especially in the upper region; A variety of species were raised: sheep (their fur was used to make clothes), goats, pigs, ducks, and especially cattle, which became the domestic fauna most valued for their use in agricultural tasks and as well as their use as a food source.

A key point in the booming Mesopotamian trade was agricultural surpluses such as cereals and oil, fruit of the richness of their farmland that produced more than what was needed for basic food.

Urban markets were always well supplied, and surplus harvests could be exchanged with other peoples, for goods or materials that were scarce or that they could not produce by themselves, like metals. They all benefited from the communication routes of Caravans from the east and the west that united other towns like the Indus or Egypt; The sea and river routes with sailing ships and barges were also complementary forms for trade.

Agriculture in Egypt

Egypt was a great empire from the year 3,100 BC, when Pharaoh Menes unified the territory of the two great kingdoms of Lower and Upper Egypt, establishing the capital in Tinis and founding the dynasty of the pharaohs (up to thirty dynasties), passing by the period of decadence that began with the disappearance of King Ramses III in 1616 BC, until finally it was conquered by the king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great, in 332 BC. He was a brilliant strategist and politician who won the greatest empire of antiquity.

Agriculture in ancient Egypt
Agriculture in ancient Egypt

Egypt was a valley that ran from north to south bounded by the desert to the east and west, and where every year the flood of the river Nile irrigated and turned into rich and fertile lands. They were conveniently saved from excessive flooding by means of important dams and channels. King Menes lead their construction during its dynastic period.


Egypt had valuable natural resources, such as quarries and mines of gold, copper, and precious stones, but because of the difficulty of extracting them, the main tangible wealth laid with their agriculture. The preferred crops were wheat and barley, but olive, vine, and flax were also common.

The land belonged to Pharaoh, and the peasants, who, like the craftsmen, were considered their servants (not slaves), worked the land and gave their king most of the crops; A small part remained in their power as a salary. The peasants had their own homes but they belonged to the land, that meant that if the land changed ownership, so did they.

The taxes that the farmers (like the craftsmen) had to satisfy the pharaoh, the priests or officials with high economic power, were very severe, and they even had to work for them without compensation for certain days a year.

It is curious that during a great part of the dynasties (until the XVII dynasty) Egypt did not have an army formed as such, since the great part of the population was dedicated to the agriculture; When it was necessary, a recruitment could only be done after the harvest. From the XVIII dynasty formed a permanent but integrated army that included Asians and blondes.

Egypt’s prosperity, as with Mesopotamia, was due to a flourishing agriculture-based economy, which allowed agricultural surpluses to trade with other peoples, such as cereals, oil, wine, fruits, etc. The pharaohs had created a powerful economic structure to supply the entire country. Trade with the other peoples of the Mediterranean was very active, both by land and by sea.

The articles most imported to Egypt were mainly those necessary for the construction of ships, like certain hardwoods, and also everything related to the cult (silver, ivory, incense …). The slave market was also very important, but with little economic value, since the captives belonged to the pharaoh and were rarely owned by individuals; They were supplied by Nubia, between the Red Sea and the desert of Libya.

Agriculture in India

As was the case with Mesopotamia, in Egypt and other regions of the Middle East, in the year 3,000 BC. A civilization was created around the valley of the Indus, with the appearance and development of large cities, very heterogeneous, as they distinguished varied cultures, climates, and geographical forms.

Agriculture in ancient times
Agriculture in ancient times

Castes or classes

One characteristic of this civilization, whose major religions were Buddhism and Brahmanism, consisted of the strong division of the population into castes or classes imposed by the Brahmins, which still stand today. The main ones are:


Brahmins are the possessors of Brahman or sacred knowledge. It is the first of the castes in which the population of India is divided. They are the priests and doctors, who according to the sacred books or Vedas came from the mouth of Brahma. The ruling classes belonged to this caste and to the Shatrias.


Shatrias are noble warriors. According to the Vedas they came from the arms of Brahma. The ruling classes belonged to this caste and to that of the Brahmins.


The Vaisias are free peasants, merchants and artisans. According to the Vedas they came from the thighs of Brahma.


The sudras are peasants, workers, hunters or fishermen in semi-slavery, and constitute the inferior caste. According to the Vedas they came from the feet of Brahma.


Pariahs did not constitute a caste as such, but formed a group of beings considered impure, “out of caste” or “untouchable”, since it was forbidden to approach them and of course touch an unclean, because it would be contaminated. The abhicastras or curses were distinguished; Vratyas or excommunicated; And imprisoned or small class, rejected for having been the result of illicit or criminal unions.

All pariahs were excluded from society, and their way of life was limited to the exercise of trades considered to be ignoble.
Historical periods

At the death of the emperor Asoka (Maurya dynasty) in 236 BC, which unified India, several periods took place:

Culture of the Indus

Between 3,000 and 1,400 BC: several agricultural tribes from Persia (Iran) settled in the Indus Valley, which created an urban culture (the Dravidians) by mixing with the inhabitants of the Upper Indus Valley and the Ganges. The most important cities were Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.

Vedic age

Agriculture in Ancient India
Agriculture in Ancient India

Between 1400 and 500 BC, with demonstrations of invasions of the region of the Indus and Ganges by Indo-Aryan tribes (Arya or Aryans), which implanted the division of caste that still survives today. The Aryans introduced bronze agricultural implements and horse-drawn carriages.
The Vedic period is named after the Vedas, religious hymns that the Brahmin priests wrote in Sanskrit. The importance of plant worship in this period is significant, the Vedas writings are full of references to rituals and divinities related to them.

Time of Buddha

Between 500 and 185 AD.: in this period Buddhism extended like religion, and numerous kingdoms were formed that fought by the hegemony on the Ganges; The commerce was very flourishing, especially with the Persians, until the year 237 AD, in which the invasion of Alexander the Great ended this stage of splendor briefly, it was to resume in 321 AD. With the unification by prince Chandragupta, founder of the Maurya dynasty.


Indian agriculture was in the hands of the peasants themselves, who owned the land, yet some land, like pastures, was owned by the whole community. In state farms, as well as in mines, slaves were mostly employed. The most prominent crops were wheat, rice, barley, vegetables, coconuts, sugarcane, and spices. Horses were important, introduced by the Aryans, and elephants as well, they were used like animals of shot and load. In general, the cattle ranch was in the service of agriculture.
India’s agriculture and trade were important, but its export (which was greater than import) was not based on agricultural products, but on manufactured materials such as silk and cotton fabrics, perfumes and jewelry; They also exported elephants. The importance of trade was evidenced by the rigid legislation that was imposed in the time of Asoka, with the creation of an economic ministry and the establishment of customs duties, which were important revenues for the State.

The members of the royal family, the Brahmins, and the noble warriors or shatrias, were exempt from paying taxes, which consisted of the sixteenth part of the harvests, earned, or a percentage of their sales. The sudras (peasants, hunters, or semi-clan fishermen) and the (impure) pariahs did not pay them for lack of goods, and then the entire tax burden on the Vaisias (free peasants, merchants and craftsmen) fell.

Agriculture in China

The civilizations developed in China were, from the beginning, little influenced from the outside, given the geographic isolation by means of powerful natural accidents that hindered the communication. The few contacts kept with the outside came from India, from where they received Buddhism.

They were repeatedly invaded by the Mongols from the north, for that reason the Great Wall was built. The first societies emerged around the Yellow River (Hoang-ho) and Blue (Yangtze), whose fertile plains favored a prosperous agriculture.

Agriculture in China
Agriculture in China

Historical periods

In the history of China, from its beginnings to the beginning of our era, several dynasties have come to pass. The first known, the Hsia, dates from 2,200 BC. Apparently, Prince Yu was its founder and had a special prominence in the defense of the country against a serious flood thanks to their understanding of hydraulics.

During the Shang Dynasty (1700-1050 BCE), the capital of the kingdom, Anyang, rested on a very fertile plain with rich agriculture, producing vegetables, fruits, and plants for the manufacture of textiles, such as hemp. By then the silkworm was already being bred.

During the Cheu dynasty (1050-221 BC) an extension of the kingdom was manifested with King Wu. In this period a feudal system very similar to the one existing in Europe during the Average Age was created; Many states or dominions were governed by princes who were exclusive proprietors of those territories, and that maintained a pact of vassalage with the king in military, political and tributary matter.

This is the time of great thinkers and philosophers, such as Confucius and Lao Tzu, and also significant advances such as the introduction of iron replacing bronze and agricultural and irrigation.

With the Ts’in dynasty (231 BC) after the period of fighting that ended the Cheu dynasty, the true Chinese empire was born; The name of “China” was born in this dynasty. The construction of the Great Wall continues, an impressive construction that reaches 2,500 km. in length; Weights, measures, and currency are regulated, writing is simplified, and trade and political expansion routes are sought to the south and west.

At this time, the despot Shi Huang-ti, the first emperor of China, unified the whole territory, but brutally combated all manifestation contrary to his absolutist philosophy, persecuting the philosophers and especially the followers of Confucius. He ordered all books to be burned except for those dealing with agriculture, medicine, and astrology.

Huang-ti improved the design of the Great Wall, which was built before his reign, and extended its construction along the northern border in order to protect themselves from the so-called “barbarian peoples.”

Finally, China prospered and modernized from the year 206 with the Han dynasty, becoming a great state; Values such as education, writing and art were given importance; they began to establish very important foreign relations, and the trade of silks and other articles of great value.


Former Chinese societies were basically rural, largely dependent on agriculture. The majority of the population was made up of peasants. Fertilizers and crop diversification were used in 500 BC. The lands already had channels to irrigate and to avoid the floods. All these techniques allowed them to obtain agricultural yields very important for the feeding, complemented by the fluvial and marine fishing, and by the cattle ranch, in which already included sheep and horses.

The success of agriculture was not enough throughout the first millennium BC. To cover the rapid increase in population, forcing the search for and exploiting other resources, such as copper, iron and salt mines.

It is curious that one of the first coins used by the Chinese in their commercial transactions after the caurí shells were agricultural tools of bronze or copper; Later these pieces were reduced and coined with inscriptions, and in the year 500 AD. Had already been converted into coinage of general use.

The Chinese were the authors of numerous inventions, among which the paper and the weaving and spinning of the silk; This, like that of porcelain, was a secret jealously.

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