Libarna as an Agricultural Stronghold

written by Zoe Yamada Stave (Boise State University)

While Libarna has been somewhat under-researched (aside from periodic excavations throughout the last two centuries and some research by the Soprintendenza in the late 20th), the environmental history of this specific site is almost non-existent. The relationship between humans and their environment is often not a relationship that we would go to to understand the past; but, agricultural practices can provide a plethora of answers to questions we may never have even asked. Through the lens of environmental history, the relationship between the Ligurian peoples (the people who occupied and resided in the Ligurian region where Libarna rests) and their surrounding environment of Libarna, will be examined in order to construct a better contextual understanding of the agricultural, pastoral, and cultivation practices of this ancient civilization.

Introduction: A Brief Introduction to the History of Libarna

Ligurians inhabited the area prior to the foundation of the Roman colony of Libarna, residing along a thriving trade route in Northwest Italy, having been developed and established between the sixth and fifth centuries BCE and its transformation into the official Roman road, the via Postumia.1 Although research suggests that the colony had been occupied by the Ligurians, it seems to have disappeared before the Roman conquest of Liguria; leading to the re-settlement of the area during the construction of the via Postumia.1

Via Postumia

Libarna is most known for its location along the via Postumia, but what is it? This trade route provided travelers with various goods and supplies for their travels and as well as customers for the many traders. Travelers included the Roman military, as most of the empire’s roads were constructed to move and supply the army.2 This trade route has been not only proved by its lithic remnants, but also through various evidence-based inferences through archaeological artifacts, historical orations, and maps. One such example is the Tabula Peutingeriana, a thirteenth century remake of a Roman map of the road system of the empire, that included the via Postumia (and Libarna, marking the latter as a significant locale). Other evidence of the existence of this trade route is supported by the discovery of materials not naturally found in the region of Liguria or engraved/decorated by outside cultural influences. The presence of prestige goods, such as ceramic vases and pots characteristic of inland colonies, suggests that tradesmen and travelers were present for the intention of growing commercial interests through an expanding trade network through the exploitation of the via Postumia.2

Tabula Peutingeriana [map]. Scale not given. In: Finocchi, S. (ed.) 1996. Libarna. Castelnuovo Scrivia: MAXMI Editore.

Agriculture in the Surrounding Region

Not only was the via Postumia important for Libarna’s status as an economically prosperous colony, but agriculture also played a key role in its development as a Roman settlement. Over the course of multiple centuries, the land that was formally an urban center, has been since cleared and reutilized for agricultural cultivation, leading to incredible changes to the landscape.3 Liguria and Piemonte, the modern regions which encompass northern Italy and the borders of which Libarna now straddles, underwent extreme land transformation, synchronous with changes in climate and human occupation. 4

Based on archaeobotanical studies done at sites scattered throughout the regions of Liguria and Piemonte, climate change and human influences (such as land exploitation, farming, and deforestation) are the most influential factors that affected vegetation changes.4 Between 3250-2350 BCE, the few cultivated plants present and accounted for were oats, barley, and hemp.4 The presence of these hardy plants and cereals suggests that the people living here were not aware of the gradual climate change, but rather adapted to the minute changes over time.4

“Agricultural field near Libarna,” Libarna, Italy (2018).

Another site called Vado Sabatia (modern Vado Ligure) has proved to be incredibly beneficial to environmental history research for the region, following the recent discovery of an ancient Roman well containing animal, ceramic, and lithic remains; suggesting that this well was used as a dump by its residents.5 The well provided even stronger evidence for the presence of hemp, oats, and barley; additionally affirming theories of other cultivated crops such as cucumber, fava beans, flax, beets, cabbage, olives, and grapes.5 The presence of grapes in the first century BCE, as well as wine-making equipment, gives researchers the opportunity to create a timeline for the history of wine.5

Agriculture in Libarna: An Applied Case Study

Since the site-specific environmental research for Libarna is virtually nonexistent, I have had to apply the research done at other relevant sites until we are able to carry out the core-sampling and digging for the environmental sampling that we require.

Through artefacts and primary historical resources (such as historical documents and inscriptions), not only are the cultivation practices of Liguria highlighted, but pastoral and land surveying applications can be identified as well.

Several authors who lived at the time of Libarna (not exactly representative to Libarna’s conception, nor decline) wrote about the Ligurian peoples, oftentimes insinuating various agricultural applications and practices they utilized and relied upon. One such writer, the Greek author Strabo, described the region in his monumental work, Geographica (1st century CE): ‘This country is occupied by the Ligures, who live on sheep, for the most part, and milk, and a drink made of barley; they pasture their flocks in the districts next to the sea, but mainly in the mountains. They have there in very great quantities timber that is suitable for ship-building, with large trees. These, accordingly, the people brought down to the emporium of Genoa, as well as flocks, hides, and honey, and received therefore a return-cargo of olive oil and Italian wine.’6

Strabo’s account of Liguria is particularly intriguing as it highlights the lack of olive and grape cultivation, the large quantities of timber that act as their primary mode of exchange, the region’s reliance on trade, and the very important presence of pastoralism and animal husbandry. The data collected at the various core sites throughout the Ligurian region and northern Italy (although thousands of years before Strabo’s geophysical and geocultural account of the Ligurian region), in conjunction with Strabo’s account, indicates that the presence of barley cultivation and sheep pastoralism relied upon the fields and, indirectly, the cultural adaptation to the aridification of the region.4

Landscape of Libarna and Liguria

Other notable accounts of woodlands in Liguria rest in stories and orated histories of the Roman conquest efforts of Liguria and other regions of Northern Italy. The spread of Roman influence, between 201 and 148 BCE, relied heavily on the occupation of the Po Valley and subsequent surrounding areas, but the peoples of the Cisalpine Gaul remained ‘incredibly hostile’ according to Diodorus Siculus (1st cent. BCE), who wrote a particularly harsh account of the landscape and peoples of Liguria.7 Diodorus focused rather obsessively on the harshness and barbaric tendencies of the people in the eyes of ‘distinguished’ Roman cultural perspectives, citing that the mountainous, stony region that they occupied was particularly brutal and perceived that the lives they lived were ‘grievous and unfortunate.’7 But these ‘barbaric’ tendencies of the Ligurian peoples were most notably cited in the second Punic War; the hesitations of the Romans to traverse through the heavily wooded areas had been exploited by Hannibal in order to encourage, or rather force, the fighting to ensue on his terms.6 With historical accounts of these densely wooded areas, Strabo’s account of timber and lumber trading being a vital part of the region’s economy can be taken as reality for the peoples of the time.

The control of Rome brought changes to the region that had a drastic effect on the landscape. The inhabitants of Liguria prior to Roman conquest had a deeply rooted history in exploiting the natural resources and landscape around them, with very little effort in ensuring its capability to maintain their lifestyle. But with the conquest of the Ligurian region, the Romans began to use careful land management techniques to shift the focus of coastal exploitation to more balanced land use between coastal regions and mountainous areas.6 the progressive cultiavtion of plants such as hemp (fibrous qualities for wicks and baskets as discussed previously), barely and cereals, and the progressive and growing practice of pastoralism in the region, indicate Roman efforts to balance land usage.6

“Road network and lithic remains of buildings; decumanus maximus leading to amphitheater at Libarna archaeological site”. Libarna, Italy (2018).

Today, Liguria and Piemonte’s landscape, riddled with short valleys, plotted lands and wooded mountains, gives a perfect insight into the ancient land management practices in the region. These ‘short valleys’ are ideal for moving flocks from the pastures in the winters to the mountains in the summers, with many of the routes that pastoralists have utilized for centuries (including the via postumia) still being utilized today; albeit, purposes fluctuating under the cultural pressures of economic needs.6 These short valleys were subject to other land management applications, such as surveying and plotting. One tool, found in a previous study at the site of Libarna, was identified as being used for land survey (characteristic of Roman survey tools). The tool, groma, was used for land centuriation by the Romans in order to plot for distribution to settlers and citizens for field-cultivation use and inventory to determine taxation rates.8 This tool having been found in the area of Libarna proves the existence of land management and survey techniques, showing that Libarnians relied upon their plotted fields for economic and personal prosperity; suggesting further that Libarna had a plethora of agricultural fields (also present in today’s landscape through generational succession of agricultural practices).3

The clearing of woodlands for the purpose of cultivation and agriculture in the late Roman period has been discussed, but how it was accomplished has yet to be acknowledged. Evidence of controlled burning has been found in pollen samples (where an increase in wild grasses and cultivated cereals are present), as well as historical accounts which discuss the potential legal consequences of allowing travelers to exploit unharvested fields for their horses.6 Written sources also suggest that controlled burning had legal consequences as well, if not practiced correctly: ‘he who makes a fire beside the road should extinguish it before he goes away and not leave it negligently.’6 With grazing pastures being utilized for both pastoral and agricultural purposes being highlighted by way of controlled falling of trees and slash/burn techniques, the knowledge of these practices being present in Liguria suggest that their application to Libarna specifically could be appropriate.

Concluding Statement: The Case of Under-Researched Libarna

The cross-application of plant macro remains from the Vada Sabatia well, historical accounts of the landscape of Liguria (including evidence of land management practices), and historical accounts of pastoralism in the region suggest that Libarna was an essential component of the region’s agricultural and economic development. Today, Libarna’s modern agricultural economy relies heavily on the cultivation of hardy crops (such as alfalfa and barely, both of which were present in the well, during the time of Libarna’s existence), which receive no irrigation (characteristic of many crops in Northern Italy).3

Pastoral practices that were essential for the trade industry of Libarna (primarily because of its location on the via Postumia), as well as the cultivation of cereals, vegetables and fruits (or absence thereof), were present throughout the region of Ligura and formed a rather tumultuous and conflictual relationship with its environment. This relationship between Libarnians and Romans with their environment relied heavily on what the environment had to offer (especially given the issue of historical over-exploitation of land and resources) after deforestation and aridification, and the eventual introduction of efficient land management practices (that is, balancing the exploitation of the coastal region to its mountainous one) led to a healthier relationship between them. While there is significantly absent site-specific research on the environmental history and agricultural practices of Libarna throughout its existence in pre-Roman conquest times, application of the knowledge base from the various core samples utilized in this research, are appropriate for the time-being. Until specific core samples are obtained from Libarna itself, the inferences made of Libarna’s agricultural and pastoral history will have to rely on these case studies.

Final Thoughts, Acknowledgement & Thanks

I would like to thank the many supporters I have had throughout my research process including many of my professors (namely Dr. Lisa Brady of BSU who made my research possible), as well as the support from the LULP itself and my peers. And a major thanks to Dr. Huntley for allowing me access to sources that I would not have otherwise been able to utilize, as well as her continued support in my educational passions and career.

I would also like to acknowledge the incredible data collection and analytical efforts by the sources that I utilized for this research, those of which all proved to be invaluable to the project’s ability to construct an environmentally historical context of Libarna.

While this was merely a shortened version of my research, if you would like to read/access the full draft, please let me know personally. And, finally, if there are any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me directly.


Sources Cited:

1:

Katherine V Huntley, Hannah Friedman, and Penelope Allison, “Recovering the Fragments of the Roman Colony of Libarna: Libarna Archaeological Project (LAP) Field Report, Season 1,” The Journal of Fasti Online Associazione Internazionale di Archeologia Classica. (2016), 1.

2:

Finocchi, S. (ed.) 1996. Libarna. Castelnuovo Scrivia: MAXMI Editore, 47-48. (translated)

3:

Katherine Huntley et al., “Ancient Peoples, Historical Crops, Modern Drone: Climate Change and Mapping the Local Landscape of Libarna,” Research Gate, January 10, 2021, 8.

4:

Anna Maria Mercuri et al., “A Marine/Terrestrial Integration for Mid-Late Holocene Vegetation History and the Development of the Cultural Landscape in the Po Valley as a Result of Human Impact and Climate Change,” Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21, no. 4-5 (2012): pp. 354.

5:

Daniele Arobba et al., “Roman Landscape and Agriculture on the Ligurian Coast through Macro and Microremains from a Vada Sabatia well (Vado Ligure, Italy),” Environmental Archaeology 18, no. 2 (2013): pp. 114.

6:

Ross Balzaretti, Dark Age Liguria: Regional Identity and Local Power, c. 400-1050 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 13.

7:

Clifford Ando, “The Changing Face of Cisalpine Identity,” A Companion to Roman Italy, August 2016, pp. 269-287, https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118993125.ch14, 15.

8:

“Centuriation,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.), accessed April 11, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/centuriation.

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