This article first appeared in The Celator, Vol. 11, No. 12, December 1997, p. 40.
When it comes to the study of Ancient History the Roman plough
never appears to get much attention. It often is easier and more romantic to
focus on the battles won and lost by the great general or the infamous
emperor; rather than the plough and the poor fellow who walked behind it.
There is nothing seductive about walking behind large farm animals while
choking on dust, and occasionally stepping in dung; yet the Roman plough
and ploughman need to be given a measure of respect for the place they
hold in history. The Roman legion may have conquered the entire
Mediterranean world, but it was the plough that helped to civilize it.
Much like today the Romans themselves never viewed the plough as
a glamorous item. During the reign of Augustus however, when Rome
was embarking upon large colonial ventures the image of the plough
actually made it on to the coinage of the time. Many of Rome's colonies and
provinces had developed economically to such an extent that they were
given license to mint their own local bronze coinage. It is on this coinage that
we encounter what the Romans were up to once the successful legions
had moved on. On the reverse of the local coinage from the colony
of Caesaraugusta in Spain to Parium in Mysia which is now modern day
Turkey; we encounter the image of a priest or colonist walking behind a
plough pulled by two oxen. It is here that we catch a glimpse of how the world
was to be civilized.
The image of the ploughing colonist refers to the founding of a
Roman colony, but perhaps even more significantly it represents Rome's ability
to drive back the wilderness and domesticate the land in that particular region.
However, the image also presents the modern observer with something
else which is much less obvious. The image is that of the man operating
the plough; for he is doing much more than breaking sod. This
ploughman in the typical methodical Roman fashion is in fact measuring the world.
From a treatise left behind by Vitruvius; a Roman engineer
who lived during the time of Augustus, we can get a real idea as to what
the ploughman was doing. According to Vitruvius all Roman measures
were derived from the human body. The smallest was the digit, then the
palm; and then came that old familiar measurement known as the foot.
There were 16 digits or four palms in a Roman foot. The Roman foot itself
was about 296 mm., or 11 5/8 of an inch. A Roman mile was 5,000 Roman feet.
Roman marching feet, and Roman farmland was measured by the feet
of their ploughing oxen.
Much like modern surveying concepts the Roman mind liked to
envision land in square blocks. Once the land was parcelled into blocks
the Roman farmer then could make a reasonable estimate of the size of
the crops he could grow; and most importantly he could get a fair idea of
the potential yield for a piece of land. Given the type of soil he had to
work with, and of course dealing with intangibles such as weather. An
ancient Roman farmer probably had a lot in common with the farmer of today.
Most, if not all, of the coin
reverses depicting ploughing scenes refer to the turning of new sod. In which case
the ploughman probably had the notion in his mind that he was creating
an iugerum. An iugerum was begun by the precise ploughing of a furrow
120 feet in a straight line. Then another 120 foot furrow was ploughed at
a right angle. This 120 by 120 foot section created an actus. Two square
acti, or 120 feet by 240 feet created the unit of land measurement known to
the Roman as the iugerum. It was based on a line of 120 feet because that
is how far the oxen could plough before they needed a rest.
This form of measurement was considered so practical that when
the Romans founded a new city they simply incorporated the same standard
on which the ploughing of land was based. A Roman surveyor would
mark off the boundaries of a city using a groma and a rod. A groma was a
staff with a cross that was notched in the center so it would revolve when
placed on top. From the four corners of the cross, small plummets were hung
with cords. It was the straight line created by two opposing cords that the
surveyor used to measure a straight line. Once the line was sited an
assistant laid out a ten foot rod. The end of the rod was marked, and then the
groma was moved forward. Twelve markings of the ten foot rod gave the
surveyor the first leg of an actus of 120 feet. Therefore every new city
constructed during the time of Augustus was laid out according to the distance
travelled by two oxen, one farmer, and a Roman plough.
The image of the Roman ploughman on the reverse of
provincial coinage may not be glamourous, but it would appear to be timeless.
Every corner of Europe that the Roman plough touched had retained
and passed on at least some of the civilizing knowledge held by the man walking behind the two oxen. That knowledge has even spread to
worlds then unknown to the ploughman. North America measures their land
in square units regardless of the type of measurements used. The
United States still measures their world in feet; something the Roman
ploughman would easily understand. So when one studies the reverse of a Roman
provincial coin making use of the ploughing theme; one should remember
that man and his plough have had a profound effect upon world history.
Butcher, Kevin, Roman
Provincial Coins: An Introduction to the Greek
B.A. Seaby Ltd., London, 1988.
de Camp, L. Sprague, The
Ballantine Books, New York, 1974.
Durant, Mill, Caesar and
Simon & Schuster, New York 1944.
Quennell, Marjorie & C.H.B.,
Everyday Life In Roman And Anglo-Saxon Times,
B.T. Batsford Ltd., London 1961.
Sear, David R., Greek Imperial
Coins and Their Values,
Seaby Publications Ltd., London, 1991.