Laying the groundwork : soil in the Roman agricultural imaginary
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In this dissertation, I examine how soil functions as an integral part of the Roman agricultural imaginary (a shared conceptualization of farming and farmland that informs agricultural practices as well as intellectual approaches and cultural stances towards farming). Farming was integral to the Roman presentation and understanding of Roman culture. Grounded in the stories Romans told about themselves and their history, Roman ideas about agriculture can reveal how reveal how they conceived of Roman values, identities, and imperial expansion. Using the centrality of farming to the Roman worldview as a point of departure, I argue that Roman attitudes towards farmland, particularly soil, evince the agricultural foundations of an imperial habitus. To do so, in the first chapter, I introduce three modes of considering soil that are present in the Roman agricultural imaginary. By looking at soil as a raw material, as an object, and as a place, I argue, Roman sources use soil as a lens or prism for understanding and conveying how interactions between humans and nature reflect the relationship between Rome as an imperialist power and conquered peoples, cultures, landscapes, and natural resources. In Chapter II, I introduce the French concept of terroir as a tool for understanding the differentiation of regional soil types in central Italy. Most often used in the context of oenology, terroir outlines how, in addition to local agro-climatic factors, notions of regional identity and tradition affect the agricultural practices and output of a region, which in turn structure conceptualizations of the same regions. I apply the framework of terroir to the characterization of regional soils in three case studies, focusing on Pupinia (an area near Rome with infamously poor soil), the Sabine Hills (one of the first regions conquered by Rome, which becomes synonymous with Rome’s Italian heritage), and the ager Falernus (a wine-growing region in northern Campania, which produces a famous wine and represents the dangers posed to Roman culture by excess and indulgence). I conclude that the ideas about regional soil qualities grew in response to forces which we now categorize as urbanization and globalization, which brought distant regions into more contact with each other. In Chapter III, I apply this framework to Italy as a whole. I show how an emphasis on Italian agricultural superiority – grounded in the soils of the Italian countryside – emerged over the course of the physical expansion of the empire. As Rome came to terms with increasing reliance on imported agricultural goods, the concurrent systematic commitment to the agricultural promise of Italian farmland connects the success of the imperial project with the cultivation of Italian soil. I conclude that soil acts as a site for negotiating changing Roman identities in the face of imperial expansion. By outlining the ways in which Romans used ideas about soil to shape local, regional, and imperial identities, I show how, to a Roman audience, the exploitation of the soil symbolizes and mirrors other Roman conquests.