Tenant Farmers and the Imperial Cult in Roman Africa

David L. Stone

Florida State University

A number of private and imperial estates in the countryside of North Africa contained inscribed stone plaques with records of dedications that tenant farmers made to the emperor. As studies of Roman religion have attested, dedications such as these to the imperial cult are conventional in the cities of Roman Africa, and also in other provinces, where they formed common bonds between provincial residents. But here these offerings record the endeavors of lower class rural residents, tenant farmers who pooled their resources to build, among other things, altars and shrines.

Previous investigations have studied the inscriptions as evidence for the organization, resources, and legal status of tenant farmers (Février 1966; Johne, Köhn, and Weber 1983; Kehoe 1988). In this paper I look at this information from a different perspective, that of the relationships between the farmers and their social superiors (procurators, governors, and emperors) mentioned in the inscriptions. I evaluate how the tenant farmers sought to influence higher officials, using as a case study ten inscriptions from seven imperial estates in the countryside south of the town of Sitifis in Algeria. This group of dedicatory inscriptions dates between 170 and 239 CE. The similarity in the message of these inscriptions and their closeness in time suggest competition between the residents of these estates for the favor of officials who made important decisions concerning, for example, boundaries and taxes. I argue that through the promotion of the imperial cult tenant farmers managed to gain official support for their needs, and that this strategy became widespread on estates in Roman Africa.


Février, P.-A. 1966. "Inscriptions inédites relatives aux domaines de la région de Sétif," in R. Chevallier. (ed.) Melanges d'archéologie et d'histoire offerts à André Piganiol, Vol. 1 (Paris) 217-228.

Johne, K.-P., J. Köhn, and V. Weber. 1983. Die Kolonen in Italien und in den westlichen Provinzen des römischen Reiches (Berlin).

Kehoe, D. P. 1988. The economics of management on Roman imperial estates in North Africa. Hypomnemata 89 (Göttingen).


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