The Martin Pollins Blog

History, economics, business, politics…and Sussex

A Short  Introduction to Land Ownership in Ancient Times


Land ownership systems differed across different regions and periods. In this paper, I will provide a general overview of land ownership practices in ancient times, but please keep in mind that there may be variations and exceptions to these general patterns.

Caption: Agricultural scenes of threshing, a grain store, harvesting with sickles, digging, tree-cutting and ploughing from Ancient Egypt. Tomb of Nakht, 15th century BC.
Attribution: Norman de Garis Davies, Nina Davies (2-dimensional 1 to 1 Copy of an 15th century BC Picture), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL:

The Start of Property Ownership
Did property ownership start in 334 BC when Alexander the Great acquired land by defeating the Persians?

Probably not – property ownership, in various forms, predates the conquests of Alexander the Great. Concepts of land ownership or tenure can be traced back to ancient civilisations long before Alexander’s era:

  • Ancient Mesopotamia: In ancient Sumer (modern-day southern Iraq), one of the earliest known civilisations dating back to around 4000 BC, there were concepts of private property. Many economic activities were recorded on cuneiform tablets, including transactions concerning land.
  • Ancient Egypt: In ancient Egypt, dating back to around 3000 BC, lands were generally owned by the state or by temples, but there were also instances of private land ownership.
  • Ancient India: The concept of land ownership can also be traced back to the ancient texts of India. The Manusmriti, a Hindu legal text written around 200 BC to 200 AD, details various laws, including those related to property and inheritance.
  • Ancient China: China also had early forms of land distribution systems dating back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC).

Caption: Fittings in the form of tigers, Baoji, Shaanxi province, Middle Western Zhou dynasty, c. 900 BC, bronze.
Attribution: Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL:,_Baoji,_Shaanxi_province,_Middle_Western_Zhou_dynasty,_c._900_BC,_bronze_-_Freer_Gallery_of_Art_-_DSC05756.JPG

This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

When Alexander the Great defeated the Persians, although he acquired vast tracts of land, this can be seen as a transfer of sovereignty or control rather than the origin point of the concept of property ownership. Concepts of property, including ownership and the rights and responsibilities that come with it, have diverse origins and have evolved in different ways across various cultures and civilisations.

In Detail: Property Ownership in the Ancient World

In ancient Mesopotamia, land ownership was mainly held by the state or the temple. The king or ruler controlled vast tracts of land, which were then distributed among nobles, military officials, and priests as grants or rewards. These individuals became the primary landowners and oversaw the cultivation of the land by tenants or dependent labourers. Private ownership of land by wealthy individuals did exist, but it was relatively less common. The rarity of private land ownership can be attributed to various factors, including the centralized role of the state in land distribution and regulation, the socio-economic structure of the society, and the emphasis on maintaining agricultural productivity for economic and taxation purposes.

The state played a significant role in land distribution and regulation, and agricultural productivity was crucial for the economy and taxation.

In Mesopotamian society, there is no native term that directly corresponds to our modern understanding of ‘property.‘ Documented records typically express ownership by linking possessions such as fields, orchards, livestock, houses, furniture, and even slaves to individuals. Phrases like “Gimillu’s field, the divination priest” or “Enlil-bani’s ox, the metal smith” are commonplace. There has been no discovery of a written discourse on the abstract concept of property, whether private, communal, or state-owned, in the available historical documentation from Mesopotamia.

Considering the apparent Mesopotamian reluctance to formalise abstract ideas in writing, the likelihood of unearthing such material remains low. Nonetheless, most Mesopotamian legal records appear to be primarily focused on the management and transfer of what, in modern terms, we would refer to as property. This is evidenced by the existence of thousands of cuneiform tablets inscribed with such details.[2]

Ancient Egypt:
In ancient Egypt, land ownership was predominantly centralised in the hands of the pharaoh and the royal family. However, there were periods, such as the New Kingdom (16th to 11th century BC), where private land ownership was more prevalent.

The king had ultimate control over the land and allocated it to various officials, temples, and nobles. The land was cultivated by peasants, who worked the fields and paid a portion of their produce as rent or taxes to the landowner. Additionally, some land could be privately owned by individuals, although the state maintained control over the overall land distribution.

Private ownership was more prevalent during certain periods, such as the New Kingdom. The New Kingdom, also referred to as the Egyptian Empire, is the period in ancient Egyptian history between the sixteenth century BC and the 11th century BC, covering the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth dynasties of Egypt. Radiocarbon dating places the beginning of the New Kingdom between 1570 BC and 1544 BC.[3] The New Kingdom followed the Second Intermediate Period and was succeeded by the Third Intermediate Period. It was Egypt‘s most prosperous time and marked the peak of its power.[4]

The theoretical notion was that the land belonged to the gods.  As the living manifestation of Horus[5], the primary right to the land was vested in Pharaoh, the omnipotent Earthly authority of the gods and land administration in Ancient Egypt. Only usufructuary rights, not ownership, were granted. Usufruct is the legal right of enjoying the land, the title to which is vested in another. It comprises the rights to possess and occupy, to exclude others, the entitlement to all the profits, use and benefit of the land.[6]

Ancient Greece:
In ancient Greece, land ownership systems varied across city-states. Generally, the land was owned by aristocratic elites who maintained large estates known as “oikoi.” These landowners, known as “gentry” or “proprietors,” would lease out their land to tenant farmers, who worked the land in exchange for a share of the produce or payment. Some land could also be owned by small-scale farmers, artisans, or merchants.

The city-state governments played a role in land distribution and regulation, with laws and policies varying between different city-states.

The ancient city-state of Sparta[7], located in Greece, had a unique system of land ownership and distribution. After the Spartan conquest of Messenia in the 8th century BC, the land (known as the “klaros”) was divided into equal allotments and distributed among Spartan citizens, who were called “Spartiates.” However, it’s not entirely accurate to say that the land was the state’s property. The Spartan citizens were given the rights to the produce of the land, but they did not own the land itself. The actual labour on these lands was performed by the Helots, a subjugated population group in Sparta. Over time, due to inheritance and the declining number of Spartiates, land ownership became less equal.

Ancient Rome:
In ancient Rome, land ownership evolved over time. During the early Roman Republic, land was primarily owned by patrician families, who held vast estates worked by slaves or tenant farmers known as “clientes.” As the Roman Republic transitioned to the Empire, land ownership became more concentrated in the hands of a small elite, including wealthy senators and aristocrats. To address the growing wealth inequality and excessive land accumulation, the Lex Sempronia Agraria[8] was proposed in 133 BC by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a Roman politician and tribune. This series of laws aimed to redistribute the land and limit the amount of public land an individual could hold. The laws faced controversy and ultimately led to political conflict and violence, but they marked a significant attempt to address the issue of land ownership and wealth inequality in the Roman Republic.

The latifundia, large agricultural estates, were worked by slaves, and tenant farming decreased. However, some small-scale farming by free peasants also continued.

At the time, there was significant economic and social inequality in Rome. Many wealthy patricians and senators had acquired large amounts of land (latifundia), often through dubious means, while many poorer Romans, especially soldiers returning from war, found themselves landless. This concentration of land and wealth contributed to a deep social divide and an unstable political situation in the Republic.

The Lex Sempronia Agraria proposed to redistribute the land by enforcing an earlier law known as the Licinian-Sextian law (or the Licinio-Sextian law) of 367 BCE, which limited the amount of public land (ager publicus) an individual could hold to 500 iugera (about 310 acres). The excess land was divided into plots and given to landless Roman citizens.

The laws were incredibly controversial. Tiberius Gracchus bypassed the senate by taking his proposal directly to the Plebeian Council, a move that was seen as a severe breach of protocol. The resulting political conflict ultimately led to Gracchus’ murder during a riot, marking the beginning of a violent period in Roman politics.

Despite the controversies and violence associated with them, the laws marked a significant attempt to address wealth inequality and land distribution in the Roman Republic.

Caption: Chart showing the checks and balances of the Constitution of the Roman Republic.
Page URL:

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Ancient China:
Ancient China had a unique land ownership system that emphasised the importance of the state, with the ruler, typically the Emperor, being considered the ultimate owner of all the land. Land was allocated to individuals or families as a temporary right of use, known as “grants,” based on their contributions to the state or their social status. However, the state retained ownership, and land could be reclaimed if the recipient failed to fulfil their obligations. Peasants were the primary cultivators and paid taxes to the state or local authorities.

The land ownership system in ancient China was characterised by a state-centric approach, with the ruler—usually the emperor—viewed as the ultimate owner of all land. This system was primarily manifested through two significant systems: the Well-Field System and the Equal-Field System:

  • The Well-Field System (Jingtian System): This was an ancient Chinese system of land distribution and ownership that was implemented during the early Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC). The system’s name originates from the Chinese character for “well” (井), as it describes the pattern of land division: a square area of land was divided into nine identically-sized sections; the eight outer sections were privately cultivated by serfs or peasants, and the crops grown in the central section were owned by the landowning aristocrat. The system was designed to maintain social and economic order and ensure that landowners and peasants had a mutual interest in the land’s productivity.
  • The Equal-Field System (Quntian System): Initiated during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–534 AD) and solidified during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), the Equal-Field System was designed to address the issues of land accumulation by powerful families that plagued the Well-Field system. In this system, land was allocated to individuals and their families according to a set formula based on their sex, age, and ability to work. While families could use the land, they did not own it outright. Instead, ownership was vested in the state, which had the power to reallocate the land. Over time, this system also fell into decline as powerful families again found ways to accumulate land, leading to increased social inequality.

It’s worth noting that although these systems were designed to ensure equitable land distribution and prevent large-scale land ownership by powerful families, they were not always successful in practice. The tension between state control and private ownership, the resistance from the elites, and the changing social and economic conditions often led to deviations from the systems and resulted in social inequality. Furthermore, these systems were adapted and changed throughout different dynasties in response to the unique challenges each era faced.

Ancient India:
Ancient records show that land has been cultivated in India for over 5,000 years. At the start, tribes exercised control (especially delimitation and defence) over the areas they had taken possession of. This right of the conqueror was the initial form of land right. The tribes allotted to the individual families land for their use, usually through shifting cultivation. The jungle, which covered unlimited land, was economically worthless but led to another form of land right: whoever cleared a plot in the jungle also had the right to use this land. However, this individual right of use was only valid as long as the land was actually cultivated. As soon as it was abandoned, the power of disposition over it reverted to the tribe.[9]

In ancient India, land ownership was shaped by the caste system and the prevalent agricultural practices. The Brahmins (priests) were traditionally regarded as the legal owners of the land, but they often leased it to cultivators, such as the Kshatriyas (warriors) or Vaishyas (merchants and farmers). The land was typically cultivated by a combination of peasant farmers and tenants, who paid rent or a share of the produce to the landowners.

Land ownership and administration were also influenced by the ruling powers of different kingdoms and empires that emerged in different regions of ancient India, such as the Maurya and Gupta dynasties. Land grants to religious institutions, such as temples and monasteries, were also common, and these institutions played a significant role in land ownership and agricultural practices. Land rights and regulations were often determined by customary laws and local governance structures, which varied across regions and kingdoms in ancient India.

Kashmiri[10] society in ancient India had a distinct social and economic structure influenced by Buddhism. The traditional varna system, which comprised Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, became less relevant, and occupational distinctions gained prominence. Among the various occupations, agriculture was considered the most important[11], and the Damara feudal landlords held significant power as landholders and agriculturalists in ancient Kashmir. Their influence often led to conflicts with the kings of the Lohara dynasty, contributing to periods of corruption and instability. These disputes eventually facilitated the region’s transition to Muslim rule[12]. As landholders and agriculturalists, the Damaras were the most important occupational classes, and their power could be considerable.[13]

The Indian historian, Mohibul Hassan, described that “the Dãmaras or feudal chiefs grew powerful, defied royal authority, and by their constant revolts plunged the country into confusion. Life and property were unsafe, agriculture declined, and there were periods when trade came to a standstill. Socially and morally, the court and the country had sunk to the depths of degradations.”[14]

The Present-day Kashmiri Lone tribe is said to be the descendant of the surviving Damaras.[15]

Ancient Europe:
Land ownership systems in ancient Europe varied across different regions and time periods. Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the early Middle Ages witnessed the rise of feudalism, with feudal lords, such as kings, nobles, and bishops, holding large estates and granting portions of their land to vassals in exchange for military service and loyalty. In areas with strong Germanic influences, land ownership was often characterized by free peasant farmers known as “freemen,” who held their land independently and were subject to customary laws. Additionally, in some regions like the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, land could also be owned by local communities or collective entities like monastic communities.

In addition to feudalism, other land ownership systems existed in different parts of Europe. For example, in areas with strong Germanic influences, the land was owned by free peasant farmers known as “freemen,” who held their land independently and were subject to customary laws. In some regions, such as the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, land could also be owned by local communities or collective entities like monastic communities.

Caption: Manco Capac, detail of Genealogy of the Incas
Attribution: Archivo El Comercio, 1999, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Page URL:

Ancient South America:
In ancient South America, land ownership systems varied among different civilisations. For example, in the Inca Empire, the state owned all the land, and the ruler, known as the Sapa Inca, allocated land to individuals and communities based on their needs and contributions to the empire. The land was worked collectively, with communities practising communal agriculture.

In other civilisations, such as the Moche, Nazca, or Chimu, land ownership was primarily held by the nobility, temples, and ruling elites. They distributed the land among their subjects for cultivation. Slavery was also practised in some regions, with slaves working on the land and having limited rights or ownership.

Ancient Scandinavia:
In ancient Scandinavia, land ownership was primarily organized under a system known as “Udal law” or “allodial ownership.” Under this system, the land was owned outright by individuals or families, providing them with hereditary rights to the land. These landowners, known as “odalsmen[16],” had the freedom to transfer or sell their land as they saw fit. This system was distinct from feudalism, which was more prevalent in other parts of medieval Europe.

Caption: ANCIENT VIKING WARRIOR” by artofthemystic is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Land in ancient Scandinavia was often divided into small family-owned farms or homesteads called “býr” or “tún.” These farms were self-sufficient units, typically passed down through generations within the family. Each farm included arable land for cultivation, pastures for livestock, and forests for timber and hunting.

In addition to individual ownership, there were also communal land-use practices. Common lands, known as “allmänningar” or “fjall,” were areas collectively used for grazing animals, gathering resources like firewood or wild game, and other communal purposes. These lands were typically shared among the local community and governed by customary laws.

Medieval Scandinavian law, also called North Germanic law, was a subset of Germanic law practised by North Germanic peoples. It was originally memorised by lawspeakers, but after the end of the Viking Age, they were committed to writing, mostly by Christian monks after the Christianisation of Scandinavia. Initially, they were geographically limited to minor jurisdictions (lögsögur), and the Bjarkey laws concerned various merchant towns, but later there were laws that applied to entire Scandinavian kingdoms. Each jurisdiction was governed by an assembly of free men called a þing. The best sources for information about the Viking legal system are found in Iceland, where it was the most highly documented.

It’s important to note that the specifics of land ownership and land-use practices could vary across different regions of Scandinavia, as well as over time, as societal structures and legal systems evolved. Additionally, as Scandinavia went through historical periods of contact and influence from neighbouring cultures, such as during the Viking Age or the later medieval period, some feudal elements were introduced in certain areas, albeit to a lesser extent than in other parts of Europe. Overall, allodial ownership and the existence of individual farms were prominent features of land ownership in ancient Scandinavia, distinguishing it from feudal systems found elsewhere in Europe.

It is interesting to note that, before the establishment of Scandinavian states in the ninth century AD, the numerous regions were independent in property-owning, administration and legal matters[17]. Initially, the legal system had no written laws; it consisted of customary law developed and reformed by the citizens themselves at meetings known as “things“. Customary laws were recorded in writing between the 11th and 13th centuries. These include Gulathing’s law (11th century, Norwegian); the law of Jutland (1241, Danish); and the laws of Uppland (1296, Swedish) and Götaland (13th century, Swedish).[18] The early laws were not formatted as they are in modern-day legal systems but used codes.

Review and Concluding Words
The examples I have given provide a glimpse into land ownership practices in ancient times, but it’s essential to note that land tenure systems varied significantly based on geographical location, social structures, political systems, and cultural factors. Throughout ancient history, land ownership systems varied greatly across different civilisations and regions.

Mesopotamia saw land ownership mainly held by the state or the temple, with limited private ownership. Ancient Egypt showcased the centralisation of land ownership in the hands of the pharaoh and the royal family, while periods like the New Kingdom experienced more prevalent private ownership. Ancient Rome witnessed the concentration of land in the hands of a small elite, with attempts at land reform to address wealth inequality.

Ancient China adopted a state-centric approach to land ownership, manifested through systems like the Well-Field and Equal-Field Systems, aiming to balance equitable land distribution and prevent excessive accumulation. Ancient India’s land ownership was shaped by the caste system, with Brahmins traditionally regarded as the legal owners but often leasing to cultivators. The complexities of land ownership in ancient Europe ranged from feudal systems with lords and vassals to regions with free peasant farmers or communal land ownership.

In South America, land ownership systems varied among civilizations, with the state or ruling elites owning land in some and communal practices in others. Ancient Scandinavia stood out with its allodial ownership system, where individuals or families had hereditary rights to land alongside communal land-use practices.

These diverse land ownership systems highlight the complex interactions between power structures, societal norms, economic factors, and cultural influences. Understanding the historical context and nuances of land ownership in ancient civilizations contributes to our broader understanding of social, economic, and political dynamics in those times.

Sources and Further Reading


Books and Scholarly Papers:

CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.

End Notes and Explanations
  1. Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: [chat] and
  2. Source:
  3. Source: Ramsey, Christopher Bronk; Dee, Michael W.; Rowland, Joanne M.; Higham, Thomas F. G.; Harris, Stephen A.; Brock, Fiona; Quiles, Anita; Wild, Eva M.; Marcus, Ezra S.; Shortland, Andrew J. (2010). “Radiocarbon-Based Chronology for Dynastic Egypt”. Science. 328 (5985): 1554–1557. Cited at:
  4. Source: Shaw, Ian, ed. (2000). The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press. p. 481ISBN 978-0-19-815034-3. Cited at:
  5. Explanation: Horus is one of the most significant deities in ancient Egyptian religion. He is often depicted as a falcon or as a man with a falcon’s head, symbolising the sky, the sun, and kingship. The Eye of Horus, which is also known as the “wedjat,” is a symbol of protection, royal power, and good health in Egyptian culture and is often used as an amulet. There are many different aspects of Horus due to the complex nature of ancient Egyptian mythology and its development over time. In one of the earliest and most recognised forms, Horus is considered the son of Isis and Osiris. In this narrative, Osiris, the original king of Egypt, was murdered by his brother Seth. Isis, Osiris’ wife, then conceived Horus with the deceased Osiris and raised Horus to avenge his father’s death and to regain control of Egypt from Seth. This revenge tale is one of the most famous stories in Egyptian mythology. In another context, known as the Heliopolitan tradition, Horus was viewed as the brother of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys, and was a god of the sky. In this tradition, the pharaoh was considered “the living Horus,” a human embodiment of the deity on Earth. Despite the complexity and variation of his character, Horus consistently held a position of significant importance in ancient Egyptian religion and was widely worshipped throughout the civilisation’s long history. Source:
  6. Source and acknowledgement: and also:
  7. Explanation: Sparta was located in the region of Laconia in the southeastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece. The city-state of Sparta was one of the most powerful in ancient Greece, known for its military might and austere lifestyle. Today, modern Sparta, also known as Sparti, is a small city in the same region, but it is not located exactly at the site of ancient Sparta. The ruins of ancient Sparta can be visited nearby. Source:
  8. Source: See also:
  9. Source:
  10. Explanation: Kashmir is a region located in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. It is predominantly situated in the Himalayan mountains and spans the countries of India, Pakistan, and China. The Indian-administered territories include the state of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Jammu and Kashmir have been further divided into two separate union territories since 2019. The Pakistan-administered territories consist of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Aksai Chin is a territory administered by China, which is also claimed by India. The exact borders of Kashmir are a subject of ongoing dispute between India, Pakistan, and China, leading to several conflicts over the years.
  11. Source:  Bamzai, Prithivi Nath Kaul (1994). Culture and political history of Kashmir, Volume 1. M.D. Publications Pvt. Ltd. pp. 191–192. ISBN 978-81-85880-31-0, and [2] Kaw, M. K. (2004). Kashmir and its people: studies in the evolution of Kashmiri society. Volume 4 of KECSS research series: Culture and heritage of Kashmir. APH Publishing. pp. 90–91. ISBN 978-81-7648-537-1. Cited at:
  12. Source: Hasan, Mohibbul (2005) [1959]. Kashmir Under the Sultans (Reprinted ed.). Delhi: Aakar Books. pp. 32–35. ISBN 978-81-87879-49-7. Cited at:
  13. Source: Kaw, M. K. (2004). Kashmir and its people: studies in the evolution of Kashmiri society. Volume 4 of KECSS research series: Culture and heritage of Kashmir. APH Publishing. pp. 90–91. ISBN 978-81-7648-537-1. Cited at:
  14. Source: Hasan, Mohibbul (2005) [1959]. Kashmir Under the Sultans (Reprinted ed.). Delhi: Aakar Books. p. 32. ISBN 978-81-87879-49-7. Cited at:
  15. Source: Kalhana (1989). Kalhana’s Rajatarangini: A Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir: Vol 1 & 2. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. ISBN 978-81-208-0370-1. Cited at:
  16. Explanation: “Odalsmen” refers to individuals who held land rights under the system of odal or udal law, which was prevalent in Scandinavian countries, particularly Norway, and also in places settled by the Norse, such as Scotland’s Shetland and Orkney islands. Odal (or udal) law is an ancient system of land rights, which dictated that property (usually land) was held allodially, or entirely and directly, by its owner, without any obligations to a superior feudal lord. In this system, land was typically passed down through generations of the same family. Thus, odalsmen were essentially free landowners who had the right to pass their property on to their descendants, and they were not subjected to the requirements of fealty or service that characterized feudal tenure systems. Source:
  17. Source:
  18. Source: Hiorthoy, F. (2016). Scandinavian law. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: Cited at:

Leave a Reply

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: