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 p29  Ager

Article by George Long, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College
on pp29‑31 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

AGER is the general term for a district or tract of country, which has some definite limits, and belongs to some political society. Ager Romanus is the old territory of the Romans. Agri, in the plural, often means lands in the country as opposed to town: "est in agris," means "he is in the country": "mittere in agros," a phrase that occurs in speaking of the agrarian laws, means to assign portions of the Ager Publicus to individuals (Liv. VI.17, X.21).

Terra is an indefinite term: it is a whole country without reference to political limits, as Terra Italia.

Ager Publicus was the property of the Roman state, part of the Publicum. Ager Privatus was the property of individuals. Some remarks on the general division of land into Publicus and Privatus, and on the nature of land that was Sacer and Religiosus, are contained in the article on the Agrarian Laws. Ager Occupatorius is land occupied by a victorious people when the conquered people had been driven out (Rei Agrariae Auctores, p45, ed. Goes.): the possessiones [Agrariae Leges] were included in the Ager Occupatorius. Such land as was restored to those who had lost it by conquest, was called Redditus. The Ager Occupatorius was also called Ager Arcifinius or Arcifinalis, so denominated "ab arcendis hostibus" (p38, ed. Goes.). But the terms Ager Arcifinius and Occupatorius do not appear to be exactly equivalent, though some of the writers on the Res Agraria make them so. Ager Arcifinius appears to express the whole of a territory, which had only some natural or arbitrary boundary, and was not defined by measurement (qui nulla mensura continetur; Frontinus.) Such were the scattered portions of the Roman Ager publicus. The Ager Occupatorius might signify so much of the public land included in the Arcifinius as was held by possessors (occupatus), or, as Niebuhr explains it, the term Occupatorius was confined to the public land, strictly so called, and designated the tenure under which it was held.

Frontinus divides lands into three heads (qualitates): Ager Divisus et Assignatus; Ager mensura comprehensus; Ager Arcifinius. He defines the Arcifinius, as above stated. The Ager mensura comprehensus appears to signify a tract, of which the limits were defined by measurement, which was given in the mass to some community (cujus modus universus civitati est assignatus), of which he mentions two examples.

Ager Divisus et Assignatus was public land that was assigned or granted to private persons. The verb divido, or some form of it, is used by Livy (IV.51, V.30) to express the distribution of the land. The word assigno indicates the fixing of the signa or boundaries. Ager Quaestorius was public land, which was sold by the quaestors (pp2, 14, ed. Goes.), in square patches, each side of which was the length of ten linear actus: the square consequently contained 100 quadrati actus or fifty jugera.

Ager Limitatus was public land marked out by limites for the purpose of assignment to coloni or others. The limites were drawn with reference to the heavens (p150, ed. Goes.); and this mode of dividing the land was founded on the old Etruscan doctrine, for the Etruscans divided the earth into parts, following the course of the sun by drawing a line from east to west, and another from south to north. This was the foundation of the limites of a templum, a term which means the celestial vault, and also so much of the earth's surface as the augur could comprehend in his view. This was the foundation of the Roman Limitatio of land. A line (limes) was drawn through a given point from east to west, which was called the Decumanus, originally Duocimanus* (according to Hyginus), because it divides the earth into two parts: another line was drawn from south to north, which was called Cardo, "a mundi cardine." The length of these two chief limites would be determined by the limits of the land which was to be divided. The points from which the two chief limites were drawn varied according to circumstances. Those which were parallel to the Cardo were Transversi, transverse. The limes was therefore a term applied to a boundary belonging to a tract of land, and the centuriae included in it, and is different from finis, which is the limit of any particular property. The Decumani, Cardines, and other limites of a district form an unchangeable kind of network in the midst of the changeable properties which have their several fines (Rudorff). The distance at which the limites were to be drawn, would depend on the magnitude of the squares or centuriae, as they were called, into which it was proposed to divide the tract. The whole tract might not be square: sometimes the Decumani Limites would be only half as long as the Cardines (p154, ed. Goes.). Every sixth limes, reckoning from the Decumanus and including it, was wider than the intermediate limites, and these wider limites served as roads, but they were not included under the term of Viae Publicae, though a limes and a via publica might sometimes coincide (Hyginus, ed. Goes. p163). The narrower limites were called Linearii in the provinces, but in Italy  p30 they were called Subruncivi. The limites parallel to the cardo were drawn in the same way.

The Roman measure of length used for land was the actus of 120 feet: the square actus was 14,400 square feet; and a juger or jugerum was two actus quadrati. The word centuria properly means a hundred of any thing. The reason of the term centuria being applied to these divisions may be, that the plebeian centuries contained 100 actus, which is 50 jugera, the amount contained in the portions put up to sale by the quaestors: but Siculus Flaccus (p15, ed. Goes.) gives a different account. The centuria sometimes contained 200 jugera, and in later periods 240 and 400. This division into centuriae only comprehended the cultivable land. When a colony was founded or a tract of land was divided, that part which did not consist of arable land was the common property of the colony or settlement; and was used as pasture. Such tracts appear to be the Compascuus Ager of the Lex Thoria (c4, &c.). The land that was thus limited, would often have an irregular boundary, and thus many centuries would be incomplete. Such pieces were called Subseciva, and were sometimes granted to the colony or community, and sometimes reserved to the state. That such portions existed in some quantity in Italy is shown by the fact of Vespasian and Titus making sales of them, and Domitian is said to have restored them to the possessors.

A plan of each tract of limited land was engraved on metal (aes), and deposited in the tabularium. This plan (forma) showed all the limites or centuriae, and was a permanent record of the original limitation. Descriptions also accompanied the plan, which mentioned the portions that belonged to different individuals, and other particulars (Siculus Flaccus, De Divis. et Assig. ed. Goes., p16; and the passages collected by Brissonius, Select. ex Jur. Civil. III. c5). Some of these records, which belong to an early period of Roman history, are mentioned by Siculus Flaccus, as existing when he wrote (p24, ed. Goes.). These registered plans were the best evidence of the original division of the lands, and if disputes could not be settled otherwise, it was necessary to refer to them.

As to the marks by which boundaries were distinguished, they were different in the case of Ager Arcifinius and Ager Limitatus. In the case of Ager Arcifinius, the boundaries were either natural or artificial, as mountain ridges, roads, water sheds, rocks, hills, ramparts of earth, walls of rubble, and so forth: rivers, brooks, ditches and water conduits were also used as boundaries. Marks were also made on rocks, and trees were planted for this purpose, or were left standing (arbores intactae, antemissae). Trees were often marked: those which were the common property of two land-owners were marked on both sides; and those which belonged to a single proprietor were marked on the side which was turned from the proprietor's land (arbores insignes, signatae, notatae). By cutting off a piece of the bark, a scar would be formed which would answer as a signum. In angles, such as a trifinium or quadrifinium, more special boundary marks were used, for instance, at a trifinium three trees would be planted. Taps, or pieces of wood, lead and iron, were also inserted in trees to point to some piece of water as the nearest boundary.

The Ager Limitatus was marked in a different way by boundary stones and posts, not by natural barriers. The boundaries of the territory were marked by termini, which received their names under the empire from the emperor who gave the commission for partitioning the land. Accordingly, we find the expressions Lapides Augustales, Tiberiani, and so forth, mentioned as the termini fixed by these emperors for the boundaries of the colonies which they founded. The Termini Territoriales marked the limits of the district, the Pleurici ran parallel to the Decumani and Cardines, the Actuarii Centuriales were at the angles of the centuriae, the Epipedonici in the centre of the centuriae, the Proportionales at the beginning and end of the jugera. The boundaries of a property were also marked by termini; and the owner of a property might place termini within it to mark the pieces into which he divided it for his children.

The termini were either posts of wood or stones. In the colonies of Augustus, the boundaries of the centuriae were marked by stones; those of the several allotments by oak posts (termini robusti, pali roborei). Sometimes pali actuarii are mentioned, from which it appears that the boundaries of the centuriae were sometimes determined by wooden posts. The stones used in a particular limitatio were of the same kind and colour in order to make them more useful as boundary stones. The stones were either polished (politi, dolati) or rough hewn (taxati a ferro), or in their entire rough state. The size varied from half a foot to two and a half feet, and the larger might sometimes be mistaken by ignorant people for milestones. The form of the stones also varied, as we see from the representations contained of them in the MSS. of the Agrimensores. The number of angles varied in those which were angular: some were cylindrical, some pointed, others of a pyramidal form. The head stones at the beginning and end of a boundary were more conspicuous than those which lay between them. Inscriptions and marks were also put on the termini.The termini on the boundaries of the limited land have often considerable inscriptions; the centurial and pleurite termini give the number of the century and the name of the limes. Various kinds of marks were also devised to facilitate the ascertaining of boundaries without the trouble of referring to the plan.

These precautions were not all. A stone might be removed and a boundary might thus become uncertain. It was accordingly the practice to bury something under the stone that was not perishable, as bones, embers and ashes from the offering made at the time when the stone was set up. Small coins were also put under it, and fragments of glass, pottery, and the like, which would serve to determine the place of the stone. The same practice is enjoined by the laws of Manu (VIII.249, 250, 251), a fact noticed by Dureau de la Malle. On the introduction of Christianity, the practice of making such offerings was discontinued, and this kind of evidence was lost. Under the old religion it was also the practice to traverse the boundaries at the terminalia, in the month of February. In the case of the territorial boundaries, this was done by the whole community; and pursuant to this old custom, the boundaries of the original territory of Rome, six miles from the city, were traversed at the terminalia. Private persons also examined their boundaries at the terminalia, and the usual offerings were made. The parish perambulations and other perambulations  p31 of modern times bear some resemblance to this Roman usage.

It has been observed that finis, a term which expresses the boundary of separate properties, many not be confounded with limes; nor must fundus be confounded with locus. A fundus has determinate boundaries (fines): a locus is indeterminate, and may be part of a fundus or comprise more than a fundus. A dispute about a fundus is a question of property; a dispute about a locus or finis is a dispute about boundaries.

Niebuhr conjectures "that a fundus assigned by the state was considered as one entire farm, as a whole, the limits of which could not be changed." But he adds, "This did not preclude the division of estates, nor even the sale of duodecimal parts of them;" and further, "The sale or transfer of them, when the whole was not alienated, was in parts according to the duodecimal scale." But to this it is replied by Dureau de la Malle, that when there were five, seven, or nine heredes, there must be a fractional division. fundus generally had a particular name which was not changed, and it is stated that both in Italy and France many of these properties still have Roman names. But the fact of a fundus generally having a name, and the fact of the name being often preserved, does not prove that all fundi retained their original limits according to Roman usage; nor does the fact, that there were sometimes two, sometimes three owners of one fundus (Dig. 10 tit. 1 s4), prove that a fundus never had its limits changed, while it disproves Niebuhr's assertion as to duodecimal parts, unless the halves and thirds were made up of duodecimal parts, which cannot be proved. It seems probable enough, that an original fundus would often retain its limits unchanged for centuries. But it is certain that the bounds (fines) of private properties often changed. Rudorff remarks: "The boundary of a property is changeable. It may by purchase, exchange, and other alienation, be pushed further, and be carried back." The localities of the great Cardines, Decumani, and other Limites, as the same writer has already been quoted to show, are unchangeable.

The difficulty of handling this subject is very great, owing to the corrupted text of the writers on the Res Agraria. The latest edition of these writers is by Goesius, Amsterdam, 1674. A new and corrected edition of these writers with a suitable commentary would be a valuable contribution to our knowledge of the Roman land system. (Rei Agrariae Auctores, ed. Goes.; Rudorff, Zeitschrift für Geschicht. Rechtsw. Ueber die Gränzscheidungsklage, vol. X; Niebuhr, vol. II appendix 1; Dureau de la Malle, Economie Politique des Romains, vol. II p166, &c.)

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