The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(Late Latin, from Latin colonus, “farmer”), a special form of production relationship between a large land-owner and the immediate producer, the colonus; the system was widely employed in the Roman Empire.

Under the colonatus system, landed property was divided into a multitude of parcels given out for rent to coloni, who were either free or dependent on the landowner. The spread of the system was furthered by the limited production possibilities of the slaveholding system. The colonatus system presupposed a certain economic independence of the immediate producer, the colonus: he ran his own farm and therefore had an interest in the growth of the productivity of labor and in the careful and rational use of tools and the means of production.

Two periods may be traced in the history of the colonatus. Initially, from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D., the colonus was an immediate producer who was juridically free and economically independent of the landowner and could use not only the labor of members of his own family in working his rented parcel but also the labor of slaves belonging to him. Thus, he was a kind of petty slaveholder. Because he was compelled to pay his rent in money, he was at the same time directly tied to the market. The low productivity of slave labor and the curtailment of the sources of additional slaves ruined a great many petty and middle slaveholding farmers.

In the second period, which began in the second century A.D., the relations between the landowner and the colonus profoundly changed: the colonus was no longer a petty farmer and slaveholder but a direct producer lacking economic independence; the landowner became his patron and protector. The colonus was virtually bound to the estate, losing his direct links with the market. Rent was now defined as a share of the harvest (from one-fourth to one-third). The colonus also performed several nonmonetary obligations, including several days of plowing, weeding, and harvesting.

During the fourth and fifth centuries, colonatus relations began to be regulated by Roman legislation, and their introduction in the empire became compulsory. Coloni were juridically bound to the land. According to the law of Emperor Anastasius (ruled 491–518), every farmer who worked on an estate for 30 years became a colonus regardless of his social or economic status. The colonus lost a number of the rights of a freeman: his rights to marry, to inherit, and to move freely were restricted, and he fell under the administrative jurisdiction of the landowner. Groups of the dependent rural population differing by origin, juridical status, and social position were merged in the fourth and fifth centuries into one estate having common rights and obligations; this estate occupied a position between slaves and freemen and anticipated the medieval serfs. The establishment of colonatus relations occurred not in the form of a rural idyll, as the French historian Fustel de Coulanges supposes, but in the circumstances of the bitter class struggle that engendered the social movements of the third to fifth centuries.


Sergeev, V. S. “Razlozhenie rabovladel’cheskoi sistemy i nachalo kolonata v Rimskoi imperil.” Vestnik drevnei istorii, 1938, no. 3 (4).
Ranovich, A. “Kolonat v rimskom zakonodatel’stve II-V vv.” Ibid., 1951, no. 1.
“Problema padeniia rabovladel’cheskogo stroia.” Ibid., 1956, no. 1.
Shtaerman, E. M. Krizis rabovladercheskogo stroia v zapadnykh provintsiiakh Rimskoi imperii. Moscow, 1957.
Rodbertus. Issledovaniia v oblasti natsional’noi ekonomii klassicheskoi drevnosti, parts 1–4. Yaroslavl, 1880–87. (Translated from German.)
Belorussov, M. Kolonat. Warsaw, 1903.
Fustel de Coulanges. Rimskii kolonat. St. Petersburg, 1908. (Translated from French.)
Rostowzew, M. Studien zur Geschichte des römischen Kolonates. Leipzig-Berlin, 1910.
Clausing, R. Roman Coloríate: The Theories of Its Origin. [New York] 1925.
Kolendo, J. Kolonat w Afryce rzymskiej w I-II wieku i jego geneza. Warsaw, 1962.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
(2007): "Contextualizing Colonatus: The origo of the Late Roman Empire", JRS, 97, pp.