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Set 077

Roman Peasantry

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All figures are supplied unpainted    (Numbers of each pose in brackets)
Stats
Date Released 2014
Contents 40 figures, 5 animals
Poses 14 poses, 5 animal poses
Material Plastic (Medium Consistency)
Colours Grey
Average Height 24 mm (= 1.73 m)

Review

Like any pre-modern society, the Roman World was overwhelmingly made up of peasants engaged in subsistence farming. Such people have not left their voice in history, so in large measure we are reliant on the writings of a few Roman scholars for details of how the peasants would have led their lives, although they were writing about the management of estates and other matters that were of interest to the educated classes. Nevertheless these writings, combined with some pictorial references and a little archaeological evidence, can give us an idea of how these people lived, mostly just getting on with their lives as kings, consuls and emperors shaped events that would fill most history books of the Roman era and be the subject of so many sets in this hobby.

Naturally these figures are all concerned with the day-to-day struggle to have enough to eat, which was the focus of most peasant lives. We have roughly ordered the figures to match the cycle of food production, but as they are all engaged in different activities we will consider each pose individually before making some general comments.

The first row begins with a man broadcasting or sowing seed, after which we must imagine the people tending to the crop but essentially just waiting for it to grow. The next few figures are concerned with the harvest, beginning with two men holding scythes (falx faenaria). The first is sharpening the blade – something that had to be done frequently – while the second looks ready to begin cutting. The poses are OK but the scythes are far from authentic, being entirely flat with the sharp edge of the blade facing the handle. You only need to imagine how such a tool might be used to cut stalks to see that the blade is completely wrong, and while the more sophisticated bar-handled types were only invented in the 12th century, those in this set reflect a common error when depicting scythes, generally designed by those with no idea of how they are used. Next we have a man with a fork (furca), which was used for many tasks involving moving grain etc. Such three-pronged forks were common enough, although we could not find reference to one with rounded prongs such as this, but that is not to say it is unlikely. As with the scythe men this man is holding his fork at 90 degrees to the correct angle so the mould can see it, which makes the pose look odd. Finally we have a woman using a sickle (falx messoria), and while the basic design of the sickle is fine, she is once again holding it the wrong way – vertical rather than horizontal – as she reaches to grab a clump of stalks.

The second row starts with a young man carrying a sheaf of harvested cereal, followed by someone with a flail threshing the grain to separate the grains from the husks. These are fine, but then we come to something that caused us to pause longer. The model is of two people using a rotary action mill for milling the grain, and we must imagine them endlessly walking round the machine, turning the upper millstone against the lower to produce the flour. Hand milling was done by an individual grinding one stone over another, often kneeling, while larger estates might use machines powered by donkeys, or more rarely horses that were at the end of their useful life, or by water wheel. The mill we find in this set is pretty small so certainly wouldn't require animal power, and using two men looks to be overkill too, but we could not find any corroborative evidence for this design. Pompeii has a number of extant mills that may have been powered by two men, but these were much bigger (and a completely different shape), so we are doubtful about this model. The last figure is not dressed for hard manual labour, so is presumably some sort of overseer – he holds something we cannot identify in his right hand, and a long stick in his left, the purpose of which is pretty evident.

So far everything seems to have been focused on the growing and harvesting of cereals, which is fine, but Roman food production was far broader than that, with the production of wine and olive oil being two important elements. The next two poses seem to recognise this, because we find two women presumably in the act of gathering either grapes or olives. The first carries a basket on her shoulder filled with something knobbly – could be fruit, or anything you wish – while the second looks to be picking a bunch of grapes for her basket. This was usually done with the aid of a tool, but there is no sign of one here.

Next up is the first of three donkeys which provide the ride for the figure in the fourth row. All the animals have pegs on top and to the sides as they appear in other sets as pack animals, but here you will need to trim these pegs off if you do not wish to see the eyes of the man water! The rider himself carries a stick – no doubt to encourage and guide his mount – and what looks like a really small amphora. Now an amphora was a standard size, which was a lot bigger than this, so this must be a cadus, which was another sort of container that may have been equivalent to about half the volume of an amphora. It was not used for commercial transportation but more likely for serving, or perhaps for carrying small amounts for some social occasion, for example.

Finally we come to the major piece of the set, the plough (aratrum). As with all technology in the ancient world, there was no standard design, and variations in plough design would occur simply based on local tradition as well as more important variables like the quality of the soil. The one in this set is a breaking plough, or ard, as it lacks any device to turn the soil, which would make it a mouldboard plough. Mouldboard ploughs work best in the heavy Northern European soils, so the ard here is better suited to the lighter, drier soils of the Mediterranean. The question is, however, how does it actually plough? As you can see, there is no share (mainshare), so nothing to disturb the earth! We can only assume that the manufacturer has failed to provide the key component of the plough because it would be partly obscured in the ground – what other reason could there be? Instead we have a rather odd design which again does not come close to any Roman design we could find. The triangular device part way along the beam is a mystery too, although that may be a coulter. Finally, with the driver having both hands full, we would expect there to be someone else controlling the pair of oxen that are correctly pulling this device.

The ubiquitous tunica was the dress of the rural worker just as it was of the simple town-dweller, and most of the figures in this set are dressed this way. It seems to have been common for the right shoulder to be let down to allow more ventilation and to free up the right arm, but no one here has done this. The ploughman seems to be wearing just some sort of kilt, although perhaps this is just a tunic taken off both shoulders and supported only by the belt. One of the men with the scythe wears just a loincloth, which is reasonable as we learn that sometimes labourers worked in the fields naked. So while there are serious doubts over the accuracy of some of the tools, all the costume looks fine.

The only putting together here is for the plough, which is a bit of a job as not the best of fits but it can be done. As we have said, the tools that should be horizontal, and so would need to be separate, are instead moulded with the figure in the wrong position. There is no call for detail really, but the sculpting is of the usual Strelets quality, which is fairly basic, although subjects such as this are more forgiving of such a style. We found almost no flash on our sample, but the mounted man is much too tight a fit on the donkeys, so will need a lot of persuading to sit properly.

While these are by no means soldiers, this set does offer some relief from the remorseless military flavour of most sets reviewed here, and after all far more effort was given to food production in the Roman world than all military campaigns. The quality of the sculpting is not great, and a lot of compromises have been made to avoid having separate tools, which is understandable given that quality, although it does make for some poorer poses. Simple errors like the design of the scythes could have been done better, and we are scratching our heads on the design of the mill and plough, but this does cover a good deal of the basic life of a peasant. There could always have been more of course, like people using hoes or spades, or pressing grapes or olives, but this set has tried to cover a lot, for which it deserves much credit.

Ratings

Historical Accuracy 7
Pose Quality 8
Pose Number 8
Sculpting 6
Mould 9

Further Reading
Books
"Agricultural Implements of the Roman World" - Cambridge University Press - K D White - 9780521147576
"Farm Equipment of the Roman World" - Cambridge University Press - K D White - 9780521134231
"Roman Clothing and Fashion" - Tempus - Alexandra Croom - 9780752425122

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