A latifundium is a large piece of contiguous land that belongs to a single individual or family. It is a form of property as well as a mode of production that for centuries has determined the socioeconomic structures in many parts of the world, even through to the present day. Historically, latifundia were owned by members of the aristocracy, conferring upon them considerable social and political power and providing them with the income needed to support a lavish lifestyle.
To become the owner of a latifundium did not require much capital. Through ways more or less legal, latifundisti appropriated lands from the public domain and took over the holdings of poor peasants. The size of latifundia varied: from 600 acres in ancient Rome, which guaranteed the owner a senatorial seat, to the estates of Polish magnates extending over 250,000 acres, to those of hacendados in Mexico of over half a million. From the beginning, latifundia were commercial enterprises dedicated primarily to growing produce and livestock for profit, both for distant and nearby urban markets. In On Agriculture, Cato the Elder (234–149 bce) emphasized the importance of latifundia being located near good roads and waterways so as to get the crops to their markets. All later forms of latifundia—haciendas, plantations, and Balkan chifliks —followed the same model and reproduced the same form of class domination: a paternalistic landlord ruling over a mass of laborers—slaves, landless peasants, manorial serfs, or peons. Latifundisti maintained political control in the provinces as well, despite being absentee landlords who resided in urban centers and left management of their estates to villici, or hired administrators.
The term latifundium is synonymous with other terms commonly used for large estate systems: Russia’s pomiestny, Prussia’s Junkerdom, Poland’s magnate estate, and Latin America’s hacienda (fazenda in Brazil, estancia in Argentina, fundo in Chile, finca in Bolivia and Peru). The term itself carries with it a wide range of negative connotations that comprise what may be called a “black legend.” Ancestors of slave plantations, the ancient Roman latifundia have been described as the model for imperialism, colonialism, and modern slavery. A latifundista was a landlord who monopolized huge tracts of land, much of which he left fallow “by virtue of indolence.” The system has been blamed for hindering modernization, preventing social mobility and the rise of the middle classes, making a few people very rich and bringing dire misery to the many, and finally for destroying the peasantry and unraveling rural society. The black legend was famously summed up by Pliny the Elder (23–79 ce) as latifundia perdidere Italiam, causing the ruin of Rome, together with its provinces—Egypt, North Africa, Gaul, Spain, and Sicily.
Latifundia were originally a Roman phenomenon. There were no large landholding fortunes before then, neither in ancient Greece nor in the early Roman republic, where laws systematically restricted the size of a family’s property (the average farm was four acres). Extensive holdings first appeared in the fourth century BCE when Rome converted part of its newly conquered territory in Italy into state domain and then rented it out to wealthy people. These first latifundia, some 1,000 acres in size, became common in Etruria and southern Italy. Wars with Carthage further enriched a Roman patriciate who—excluded from trade and commerce—invested their war booty into large latifundia so as to make profits along capitalistic lines.
Prolonged warfare and centuries of conquest eventually concentrated the land in the hands of a few and pushed small peasants off the land. Before long, the city of Rome was overrun with dispossessed paupers.
By 23 BCE the newly formed Roman Empire was one hundred times larger than the republic had been at the time of the Punic Wars, and latifundisti were cultivating the soil of their immense estates with armies of slaves. In Nero’s time (37–68 CE), Pliny tells us, half the land of the North African province was divided up among six patricians and organized in huge latifundia farmed by slaves and native peasants. “Life on the great estate,” splendidly illustrated in mid-second-century mosaics in Tunisia, became a popular art genre. But it was an ultimately oppressive system that gave rise to slave revolts, like the one famously led by Spartacus in 73 to 71 BCE.
In the final years of the Roman Empire, these slave workers were replaced by coloni, small tenant farmers who became permanently attached to the estates (glebae adscripti ) and evolved eventually into feudal serfs. Latifundia persisted in Italy, Gaul, Spain, southern Britain, along the Rhine, and in the eastern Byzantine Empire for centuries after the fall of Rome; in Sicily they survived until the 1950s. Even if, after the German invasions, a new class of landowners began to emerge as different groups adapted the Roman agrarian system to their particular needs, there still existed considerable continuity over the centuries, from the Roman latifundium and its slaves to the manor and its serfs.
The conquest of the Americas and the expansion of the world economy in the sixteenth century created ideal conditions for exporting the European manorial system. While vast commercial estates emerged in the New World, agrarian capitalism also began to flourish throughout much of Europe.
Beyond the Elbe River, for example, and in the eastern part of the Austrian Empire, feudal lords transformed their large properties into Gutsherrschaften. In Poland, especially in the Ukraine and Lithuania, immense lands and power became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the magnates. In Spain, the south was turned into large latifundia, established on formerly Moorish land (they had virtually abolished the manor system). All these market- and profit-oriented latifundia were farmed by peasant-serfs through a system of compulsory labor.
There were no market economies or commercial estates in the New World before the Europeans arrived and only the merest hint of a landed aristocracy in the Aztec and Incan empires. The profit-oriented latifundia system came with the colonists, and it carefully reproduced the European model. With few exceptions, the haciendas traced their origins to the sixteenth century, when viceroys divided up the Indians and the land (encomiendas ) among the conquerors. In time, with a minimum outlay of capital, encomenderos became latifundisti (hacendados ), the Indians became their peons, and the latifundium (hacienda) the most highly visible social and economic institution of the countryside.
The traditional monolithic model of the Latin American latifundium emphasized its continuity with late-medieval Spain. The landowner had aristocratic pretensions and displayed ostentatious patterns of consumption. He tied the laborers to the estate through debt peonage, built his great house to resemble a fortress, made the estate self-sufficient, and paid lip service to a kind of unproductive mentality. This “feudal” representation of the latifundium was challenged by dependency theorist André Gunder Frank (1929–2005), among others, who saw the latifundia as actively engaged in capitalist modes of production and the world market. Similarly, the North American plantation system, based on African slave labor, must be seen as a capitalist enterprise.
Similar patterns existed in Asia as well. In the Philippines, for example, Spanish latifundia were established on the land of Dominican friars and were farmed by Tagalog and Chinese laborers who were relieved of their “public corvées” to sustain the priests’ cash-crop-export enterprise. In Vietnam, latifundia arrived with the French, who wanted to turn the colony into a major exporter of agricultural products. In India, it was the British who established an abusive and irresponsible absentee landowner system. Only in China had the system existed independently for centuries, until the 1600s, when it gave way to tenancy.
By the eighteenth century, latifundia dominated the life of the world’s rural peripheries. Associated with serfdom and debt-peonage, the institution came under harsh criticism from scholars and bureaucrats who espoused physiocratic doctrines, while estates were the target of violent peasant attacks.
Despite calls for change, nearly all agricultural production for the world market was still controlled by latifundia in the nineteenth century, and the concentration of land had significantly increased. In Bohemia, Hungary, the Balkans, Poland, Germany, Ireland, Chile, and Mexico, more than half of the land belonged to large estates, some of which achieved truly princely dimensions. The secularization and subsequent sale of ecclesiastic property gave rise to new latifundia in southern Italy and Spain, as well as in Latin America. Many economists saw small-scale farming as economically wasteful, and even some social democrats like Karl Kautsky (1854–1938) argued in favor of the modern latifundium.
The nineteenth-century latifundia system survived the abolition of slavery and serfdom, replacing them with various contractual arrangements and modes of labor control. Junker land was now being cultivated by day laborers and seasonal Slavic workers. While the Balkan chifliks were regulated by the bailiff system, the system of rent-racking (landlords raising rents exorbitantly upon expiration of leases) in Ireland did not change at all.
The development of industrial capitalism in Europe created new market conditions and new possibilities for agrarian systems in Latin America—a development that political independence from the Old World only served to promote. Coffee, cereal, and sugar plantations expanded, these often owned by Creoles and mestizos. Latifundia also expanded exponentially following the confiscation and sale of the vast holdings of the Catholic Church. And finally, as the nonrural sectors declined during the Latin American wars of independence, latifundisti gained an unprecedented degree of political power, often running their own private regional states. Not only did they control the conservative parties and the military, but they often had the support of the liberals as well.
As new market opportunities opened up in the nineteenth century, latifundisti moved effortlessly with the times, acquiring credit from banks to purchase more land and expand the number of laborers. Their ways of operating were neither “traditional” nor “modern,” neither feudal nor capitalist, as can be seen by the example of the Barracco latifundium system in southern Italy.
This new commercial growth was accompanied by the emergence of an impoverished and embattled landless proletariat. Their plight placed latifundia, once again, at the center of the so-called agrarian question. Circa 1900, latifundisti still owned and cultivated one-fourth of the total agricultural land of Germany and half of the arable land of Romania and Hungary, employing a full one-third of the population (six million workers) in this latter country. It was then that peasant movements and progressive parties joined forces to declare war on the latifundia, calling for the expropriation of vast tracts of land. Following World War I (1914–1918), the old order seemed doomed (at least in Europe and Mexico), and national agrarian reforms began expropriating land belonging to absentee owners and corporations.
The last vestiges of latifundism definitively vanished from Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, while still maintaining a toehold as late as the 1950s in Italy and the 1970s in Spain. In Latin America, however, the latifundium remains a dominant and even expanding form of productive organization that has profitably adjusted itself to the modern, dynamic, and export-oriented economy of late capitalism. With the exception of Mexico, Latin American agriculture is twice as large a sector as manufacturing, and three times as large as commerce. The greater part of the national wealth of many of these countries depends upon the production of coffee, sugar, bananas, cotton, and beef. The beef-producing latifundia, in particular, are expanding, benefiting from the international “hamburger connection.”
As Stanley Stein cautioned in 1961, we should not underestimate the political resilience of Latin America’s socioeconomic elites and their ability to adapt the latifundia system to late capitalism, using their influence to persuade sympathetic governments to provide infrastructure and protection. Although profitable, this system exacerbates the old latifundia/minifundia dichotomy, for Latin America’s agrarian structure is the most unequal in the world: ten of the fourteen countries with the highest concentration of land in the hands of single individuals are to be found there. This inequitable distribution lies at the root of the region’s persistent poverty. It was also the fundamental cause of civil wars and social uprisings in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua during the 1980s and 1990s and more recently in Brazil and in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
SEE ALSO Landlords; Plantation
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Florescano, Enrique, ed. 1975. Haciendas, latifundios, y plantaciones en América Latina. Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores.
Stein, Stanley J. 1961. Tasks Ahead for Latin American Historians. Hispanic American Historical Review 41 (3): 424–433.
Table Ronde International du CNRS. 1995. Du latifundium au latifondo: Un héritage de Rome, une création médiévale ou moderne? Actes de la Table Ronde International du CNRS (1992). Paris: Diffusion de Boccard.
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