Imperial properties were extended throughout the empire and included residences, cultivated land, pastureland, woods, mines, quarries, luxury items and slaves. This immense richness was a key element for the maintenance of the position of supreme power, since the emperor could use it carry out all sort of public expenditure and to confer benefactions to individuals and communities. Moreover, large imperial possessions (vast landed estates, quarries) had relevant local economic repercussions. Since their owner was both the head of the empire and a global economic player, we can trace a tendency to trans-regional uniformity in the patterns of exploitation and a positive effect on the economic and, in a certain way, cultural integration of peripheral areas.

No systematic survey of all the available documentation has been produced since the beginning of the 20th century and many questions about the acquisition and use of the properties remain unanswered. The study of ancient economies has flourished in the last twenty years, offering new theoretical frameworks to interpret the Roman World. PATRIMONIVM will participate to this renewal, bringing new instruments and questions to the discussion. However, we will prioritize a more empirical, bottom-up approach that starts from the philological and historical interpretation of the documents and from their systematic collection in order to draw more general and theoretical conclusions.

Key objectives

The research programme aims at providing historians with better tools to study this major and yet relatively neglected topic of Roman imperial history and at exploring new ways to approach the economic, political and social role of the patrimonium Caesaris. This translates in the setting of four main objectives:

  • Collecting in a single online database all the relevant documentation for the entire Roman world; this includes the attestations linked not only to villas, landed estates, mines, quarries, but also to both imperial slaves and freedmen.
  • Renewing our approach to single key documents or group of documents through a series of dedicated workshops
  • Opening up this field of study thanks to the organization of international conferences
  • Providing the first attempt at a comprehensive history of the imperial properties in the Roman World since the beginning of the 20th century

Key research axes

The documentation collected in the Atlas patrimonii will be the starting point for our analysis, that will revolve around five main axes:

The geographical distribution of the properties. The variations in size and importance of the patrimonium Caesaris need to be firstly assessed in a region by region survey, in order to place the data in their local context and avoid dangerous generalizations. Only in this way can an overall picture of the historical geography of the properties be drawn. This will allow for a detailed overview that will immediately render the differences between the various regions and give a hint of the reasons laying behind it (difference in the quantity and quality of the documentation, difference in the imperial policy of acquisition between regions etc.)

The determination of the patterns of growth of the properties. The Roman emperors could increase their patrimony in many ways, but mainly passively, that is by voluntary decisions of third parties (inheritances, donations) or forced alienations under the terms of law (confiscations). Surprisingly enough, the direct purchase of landed estates is not attested nor is contemplated by Roman legal texts. From what he received, the emperor could choose what to keep and what to sell, but apparently he could not or would not buy landed estates from private persons or communities. This means that knowing the local distribution and characters of private propertiy is crucial to determine the patterns of growth of the patrimonium Caesaris. This research will give us a much clearer picture for each province and will enable us to highlight or rule out certain factors of acquisition (from condemned senators, from relatives, from former rulers, from the invalid testaments of the growing number of Roman citizens, from freedmen etc.).

The economic value of the properties. Newly confiscated or inherited estates were often immediately auctioned, but they could be kept if they could bring profit to the imperial treasure (the fiscus). The reasons for keeping a newly acquired estate could therefore be economic, but they may also have been political or merely personal. Only a contextualized analysis region by region will allow to understand the most likely motivation. Since very few land registers have been preserved for antiquity, an assessment of the economic value of the patrimonium in a certain region will be attempted putting our evidence in relation with other factors, like the size of nearby available resource-consuming centres (cities, legionary camps, mining and quarrying districts), the accessibility of these markets via roads and/or rivers, the occurrence of traditional indicators of commercial relationships, like the presence of transportation amphorae and their shape. We will thus get an overview of the role of the emperor as economic player at micro- (single regions) and macro-regional level (single provinces, group of provinces or the entire empire) and this will help us determining to what extent the Roman rulers made a conscious use of their wealth and invested in regions that they considered economically strategic.

The administration of the patrimonium Caesaris. This is the topic that attracted most of the attention among scholars. Nevertheless, thanks to the results of the other axes of the research it will be possible to attempt a more practical approach to the administration of the patrimonium, thus understanding the regional and subregional subdivisions in relation not only to the size of the properties, but to their relevance for the most important local markets. The better understanding of the different practical contexts of administration will enable us to see how noticeable may have been the consequences of the double role of the emperor as economic player and as ruler.

The properties as mean of interaction between centre and periphery. Integration is a multi-faceted concept and can occur at a social, economic, political and cultural level. The presence of a significant concentration of imperial estates implied a more frequent interaction with Roman administration and law and a more intense exposition to Latin terminology. Integration could be fostered by the frequent economic transactions that took place in and around large imperial productive districts, like mining and quarrying areas. The presence of patrimonial interests throughout the empire promoted not only a turnover of the administrators, but also a mobility of skilled workers and entrepreneurs doing business with the patrimonium.

Working hypotheses

Across the five axes of research, PATRIMONIVM intends to work on specific issues that up to now did not attract particular attention.

The patrimonium Caesaris and credit. A part of the assets of any senator was used for money lending activities and the emperor also followed this practice. This must have been true for Octavian/Augustus, but probably also for Tiberius and many other rulers. Following the remarks of W. Harris about the limited place given to credit and paper transactions in modern studies about Roman money, PATRIMOMIVM will test the hypothesis that a part of the imperial asset consisted in credit and was actually managed by the procurators throughout the empire.

The patrimonium and Roman practices for transferring money at distance. The project will also address the problem of the transfer at distance of patrimonial resources (non in kind). The hypothesis of the creation of a network of financial intermediaries will be tested with a particular consideration for the Augustan Principate, when the imperial properties did not have a large extension and therefore the transfer of money to provinces with little or no imperial patrimonial presence could not happen through internal channels.

Unwritten rules. The public destination of the patrimonium was a custom established by Augusus. Another one could be the fact that apparently the emperor could or would not purchase landed properties on the free market. This behaviour, whose motivations have not been addressed so far, could have been determined by social conventions or by the example of Augustus himself. PATRIMONIVM will try to reconstruct all the social and political conventions the imperial property was subject to concerning its use and will try to determinet how and when these unwritten rules came into being. In this way, we would discern more clearly how social rules set apart the imperial patrimonium from the other private properties.

A far greater role for imperial freedmen. Freedmen remain difficult to grasp as a social category for our modern views. They were not true free men and they often continued to be economically dependent on their former master After Maiuro demonstrated the role of the patrimony of freedmen for the extension of the imperial property, we need to tackle more directly the question of their economic activities beside and outside of the official service to the emperor and particularly the issue of the participation of the patrimonium to these activities.

The “industrial district” as comparative interpretative approach. Large mines/quarries or concentrations of landed properties had an important economic and social impact on their regions, as modern industrial districts do. With the due differences, the model of “industrial district” can be a useful interpretative approach for highlighting constant tendencies and differences in the impact of large imperial-owned productive sites, with consequent effects on the integration of the surrounding area in the wider economic context of the empire.

Research team

Any empire-wide research, such as that undertaken by PATRIONIVM, is necessarily a collaborative effort. The Principal Investigator will coordinate a team of nine postdoctoral fellows, specialized in the documentation of the various provincial context of the Roman Empire.