Published by City Farmer, Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture

Excerpt from "The Economy of Roman Palestine" by Zeev Safrai

Excerpts on: "Agriculture in the City"

By Zeev Safrai 1994
Published by Routledge, London, New York

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The following excerpts from "The Economy of Roman Palestine" will interest urban agriculture scholars and they are encouraged to read more of this fascinating book.


1 Introduction


Agriculture was the main sphere of production in the ancient world in general as well as in the Roman Empire. Most ancient manpower worked in the various aspects of this field and most of the ancient gross national product was derived from agriculture in one form or another. We shall discuss below the relationship of agriculture in Judaea to the economy in general. In this chapter we shall discuss the various spheres of agriculture. We shall not delve into technical farming matters, but rather concentrate on the economic structure of agriculture in ancient Judaea.

Talmudic literature mentions over 500 types of produce. Of these, about 150 types of cultivated crops, 8 types of grain, 20 types of legumes, 24 types of vegetables, 30 types of fruit and about 20 types of spice plants have been identified. Numerous non-fruit-bearing trees have also been identified (Feliks 1982, pp. 424-7). The three major crops - wheat, olives and grapes - are mentioned in all types of Talmudic literature far more than any other. R. Johanan (third century CE) explains the verse "Blessed are you in the field" in the following manner: "That your possessions should be divided into three parts - one -third in grain, one-third in olives and one-third in grapes" (BT Bava Mezia 107a).

VI.2 Agriculture in the city (Page 371)


Little attention has been paid to the question of the economy of the cities of the Land of Israel. It is clear that on one hand the trade, labor and service networks in the city were quite developed. On the other hand, there was also agriculture in the cities. Thus, for example, Talmudic tradition knows of a certain kind of ethrog grown in Caesarea, or at least in the surrounding fields (PT Demai III, 23c; Levine 1975, pp. 51-2) as well as of a particular kind of wine produced there (PT Megillah I, 72d). Ascalon was famous for its onions (Pliny, HN 19. 101; Strabo 16. 2. 29) and the capparis plant used as a herb (HN 12. 109). 12. 109. There are also many traditions about Sepphoris which was well known for its irrigated fields which were at the disposal of its residents (the "skyy" - of Sepphoris; see discussion below). All of these facts are very important, but they do not offer a complete quantitative picture of urban agriculture. A number of other cities, however, provide better data.


VI.2.2 Gaba

Dozens of agricultural installations, such as olive presses, wine presses and especially installations to soak flax, have been excavated in the vicinity of Gaba Hippeum. All of these testify to the great deal of agriculture around the city (Z. Safrai and Linn 1988, Figure 83).

Vl.2.3 Schechem (Neapolis)

Z. Safrai (1986b, pp. 92 ff; and see Figure 4 above) found an area surrounding Schechem which was apparently divided into agricultural plots for the residents of that city. This surrounding area includes a region of some 35 square kms surrounding the city and, therefore, it is likely that this was the agricultural periphery of that city. Based on his computations regarding the size of the average plot, Safrai came to the conclusion that there were approximately 2,600-3,100 plots surrounding the city. The size of the city was approximately 300 dunams and based on the accepted population density of 30-40 people per dunam, there were no more than 3,000 families in the city, assuming that every family received a plot. It is, of course also possible that some families had more than one plot which they gave to tenant farmers and that some families engaged in commerce and trade and not directly in agriculture. It is also necessary to take into account that within the agricultural region surrounding Schechem there were five towns and 15 villages (Figure 4 above). It is true, though, that the size of all of these settlements was no more than 120 dunams.

It is impossible to determine whether the residents of these settlements within the agricultural periphery of Schechem were tenant farmers or independent farmers living in quasi village suburbs of the polis (Chapter 1.11.3 above). In any case, all of this would seem to lead to the conclusion that there were no more than 4,000 residents in the entire region and only 3,000 plots. This would also imply that no more than 25 per cent of the residents of the city did not engage in agriculture and that most of the residents of the city did possess agricultural plots in one form or another. It is, of course, possible, that some of those owning plots and even working them also engaged in some other form of labor or craft like the average village farmer (Chapter 4.IV. I above). After all of this, however, it should be remembered that these numbers are not absolute and the same may be said, therefore, for the conclusions derived from them. In the final analysis, though, it seems that the majority of the inhabitants of Schechem (50-75 per cent) were either independent farmers or tenant farmers with small plots.

The following cities are also described in more detail:

Vl.2.4 Sepphoris (Diocaesarea)

Sepphoris appears in many literary traditions as an agricultural city. ....

Vl. 2. S Caesarea

... This would seem to indicate that almost all agricultural staples were imported to the city and that the residents of Caesarea produced none of them themselves.

Vl.2.6 Beth Shean (Scythopolis)

... It can be assumed with a fair degree of certainty that agriculture provided for upwards of 80 per cent of the gross income of the city.


It is possible, therefore, to sum up and state that despite the fact that there is no exact data on the matter, it would seem that there were two or three different types of cities in the Land of Israel. In cities like Jerusalem (at least until the end of the Second Temple period, see pp. 377-9 below) or Caesarea, agriculture was relatively unimportant in the city economy. In Jerusalem, for instance, the agricultural sector of the city probably accounted for no more than 25 per cent of the inhabitants. In the second type of city, agriculture was extremely important, accounting for 50-60 per cent of the residents of these cities. It is also possible that there were cities which were markedly agricultural in nature, and in this case agriculture would provide for 80-85 per cent of the city's income.

All of the above goes to show that there was not all that much difference between the polis and the surrounding rural towns regarding occupations. In both types of settlements, the norm was a livelihood based on a combination of agriculture and labor or agriculture and trade. Except for a few unusual cases, agriculture represented the major source of production even in the cities, while there was also a degree of labor and industry in the villages. What is clear, though, is that in the village, the non-agricultural component was smaller than it was in the city. This was the case regarding most rural towns, although as we have seen in the course of our discussion, there were also towns which were exceptions to the rule, such as some located on the coastal plain, in which many, if not all, of the inhabitants there engaged in quarrying (Chapter 2.11.2, Figure 47).

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Revised Sunday, November 6, 2005

Published by City Farmer
Canada's Office of Urban Agriculture