As mentioned in the first project, prior to the Roman invasion, the British mainly worked on the land. Many people supported themselves by working on the land, either as a farm worker or by owning their own land. However, the farms were not the big commercial enterprises we see today with crops, livestock and produce sold to make a profit. The farms in Roman Britain primarily supported the farmer and the workers and if there was any surplus that was sold at market.
The farmer and his family lived in circular houses that consisted of just one room. In this one room they would cook, eat and sleep and even keep animals. If they had slaves that worked on the farm, the slaves had a smaller version of the circular house and these houses were spread out around the farm.
The farmer would have grown crops similar to ones we find today, like barley, oats and wheat. Farms would also have kept animals that would have included cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs and horses. There would have also been hens and geese. Not only were these animals used for food they would have also provided materials for clothes – wool and leather. The horses would have been there only means of transport.
After the Romans invaded Britain, British farmers began to learn Roman ways and a very significant change was the farmhouse. Instead of the dark, smelly one room house, the British farmer now built himself a farmhouse based on the Roman model, more like Roman villas. These also included many out houses for storing the farm produce and providing shelter for the slaves. Only the wealthy farmers could afford to build themselves such grand houses and many of the poorer farmers were forced off the land and moved into the city. Bignor Roman Villa is an excellent example of a rich man’s farm.
The Roman Villa
Before the Roman Invasion, the British farmer lived in small round houses, which consisted of one room. They were made out of basket wood and clay that is usually known as ‘wattle and daub’. The roofs were usually thatched. With no windows it was very dark inside and the only source of light was a fire in the centre of the room. As there were no windows there was a large hole in the middle of the roof to let the smoke escape. The fire was kept constantly alight as not only did it provide light but also, of course, heat. The fire was the only method of cooking all the families’ food.
The houses were circular to minimise the amount of heat loss and the roof was shaped to allow rain and snow to run off easily. A very important factor when you consider the British climate. However, the Romans completely changed British farming.
Not only did the Romans introduce new farming tools which made the British farmer more efficient, they also introduced the British farmer to a much higher standard of living by showing him how they built their houses and the higher standards of living accommodation they expected. Instead of a simple, cold wooden hut, the Roman villas were built of stone so were much warmer and stronger. They included central heating or the hypocaust system and sometimes running water. The walls were painted, the floors covered in intricate mosaics and the villas had glazed windows. These grand houses also needed furniture and decorations, which other than basics, were previously missing from the British farmhouse. Prior to the Romans, the British sat on the ground to eat and slept on the floor on animal skins. Under Roman occupation, potteries, furniture manufacturers, schools of trade and artists were established to provide the necessary extras for the Roman villa in Britain.
The Economy of the Farm
All the farms grew crops and kept animals, unlike today where they tend to specialise. The crops that were grown were very similar to what we grow today and included barley, oats and particularly wheat. We know this because archaeologists have found seeds of all these crops. The animals kept were also similar to those found on a farm today like cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, geese and hens. As well and providing food and clothing the animal bones were used to make tools and the animals would have also provided fertiliser. Fruits and vegetables were also grown and some, like peas and cherries, we know were introduced to Britain by the Romans.
The farms did not produce everything the farmer and his family, including slaves, needed so some goods that would be needed by city dwellers, including leather, meat or timer could be traded for wine, salt and pottery.
The Farm Slaves
A farm slave had a much harder life in Roman Britain that a household slave. Most of the slaves working on the farms were British slaves whereas a lot of household slaves were imported from Rome. Other than a healthy, strong body, farm slaves did not require any particular skills or vast knowledge. Household slaves were often used in a household because of their skills, ie teaching, so had a much more important and personal role to play.
The farms were large and had large number of slaves. The slaves would be working outside all day and would have very little contact with their master and would not develop any kind of relationship with them. This was quite different to the household slave who was often providing an essential and personal service, their masters often came to rely on them and would know their name. In fact, one Roman landowner described farm slaves as ‘farming equipment with voices’.
Master were known to mistreat their farm slaves and even though farm slaves did have some protection and a farmer could be charged with murder if he killed a slave, this was often ignore. A sick, or injured farm slave was useless to a farmer and became an unnecessary expense so they were often killed.
However, by the first century AD, slaves were becoming increasingly scarce and therefore expensive to buy, so farmers did start treating them better.