Back to the roots. Agroforestry and the rediscovery of Roman viticulture



There is still a widespread view that Rome’s expanding economic influence over the Mediterranean in the Late Republic (ca. 200-50 BC) triggered a dramatic change in Italy’s wine industry. This bouleversement allegedly entailed a shift from 1) extensive mixed vine plantations to more profitable intensive vineyards, 2) subsistence farms to commercial ‘villa’ estates equipped with presses, 3) and free peasants to imported slaves in the agricultural workforce. The massive shipment of these wines to external markets could be traced through the widespread occurrence of Italian amphorae across the Mediterranean. When from Augustus onwards, Italy’s speculative vineyards lost their monopoly to the emancipating provinces, its "proto-capitalist" villa-and-slave viticulture gradually fell into decline in the course of the 1st-2nd century AD, thus propelling Italian agriculture into a deep crisis.

Over the years, many of the textual and archaeological data used in the construction of this metanarrative have proven to be discordant, or at least inconclusive, and this orthodox view has been criticized for its overly schematic and bi-sectorial approach (e.g. boom vs. bust, commerce vs. subsistence, slaves vs. tenancy), its one-sided focus on external markets, and its application of too unsophisticated ‘substitution’ or ‘entspezialisierung’ scenarios. In recent years, this has rightly inspired alternative explanatory trajectories based on more flexible, symbiotic land management (tenancy) and domestic market scenarios.

In spite of all this, no attempt has yet been made to develop a more balanced view of commercial vine-growing itself.  There is still a widespread view that intensive modern-style vineyards largely replaced traditional mixed vine plantations in the Late Republic. But most of the vine-growing systems described by the ancient agronomists have a marked mixed aspect, with vines distributed between other crops. This is unsurprising, as agriculture in the ancient Mediterranean was deeply polyculture in nature. By far the most discussed mixed vine-growing practice in Roman Italy was the arbustum, a plantation with vines trained on rows of host trees placed within crop fields. This type of silvoarable agroforestry is a long-standing tradition in Italy (with later variants playing a central role in commercial viticulture up until the mid-20th century), but scholarly discussion on the arbustum has largely revolved around its place within subsistence agriculture and small-scale viticulture. Yet, an attentive look at our textual sources suggests an important role in commercial farming as well. In fact, already in the 2nd century BC, Cato recommends the arbustum to farmers who grow vines for the urban market. About two centuries later, both Pliny the Elder and Columella consider the arbustum fully part of the Italian wine landscape. These texts – which need to be read in view of the updated readings and interpretations of the archaeological evidence – urge us to fully incorporate vine agroforestry into our biographies of wine in Late Republican and Early/High Imperial Italy.

The goal of this project is thus to improve our understanding of viticulture in Roman Italy. In particular, I aim to gain insight into the position and the economics of vine agroforestry in the agricultural landscape of central and northern Italy, and to explore its role in commercial vine-growing under evolving demographic and climatic conditions in the Late Republic and the Early/High Empire (200 BC - AD 200). To this purpose, I adopt a multidisciplinary approach that combines the ancient source material on the ‘arbustum’ (stored in a newly designed database) with comparative historical analysis of Early Modern vine agroforestry, ethnographic analogy of modern vine agroforestry in active vineyards, and GIS-based predictive models to create probabilistic suitability and yield maps; all performed in a well-considered selection of target areas. 

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