THE ROMAN AUTHORS ON AGRICULTURA


People generally think of Latin as a language devoted to the higher reaches of literary endeavor, but it should be remembered that agriculture was one of the basic industries in the ancient world, and it should be no surprise to find agricultural manuals preserved among the writings of the ancient Romans. These writings are usually ignored (with one notable exception, Vergil's poetic Georgics), but as we become interested in Roman society as such, and widen our interest to include trade-oriented and technical thinking, it becomes much more important to look into the authors who contribute to the Roman 'res rustica'.

Marcus Porcius Cato, usually styled Cato the Censor,(born in 234 B.C. and living until 149 B.C.), was the son of a farmer, an orientation which he retained all his life. First questor, then censor, he opposed all forms of the luxury and wealth which were then invading Italy, constantly admonishing Romans to return to the simple, rural mode of life which had characterized the great days of the Republic. His constant warnings against Carthage, epitomized in the famous phrase "Karthago delenda est".. may have been spurred by his professional knowledge of some of the advanced techniques in agriculture which that city was promoting. Throughout his life he opposed the introduction of the Greek language to Rome, fearing that it would debilitate their moral fiber, but in his old age he undertook the study of Greek (like conservative American professors studying Marx in the l960's), ostensibly in order to refute it. His sole surviving book, which is the earliest example of Latin prose, is simply titled De Re Rustica.

The book, quickly passed over in most reviews of Latin writing, is most curious. It is written in about eighty pages of a tough, straight style of antique Latin prose, describing everything that would be of importance to a person owning or managing a farm in Italy in the 2 nd c. B.C. The location of the farm, its meadows, woodlots and water supply, the selection of a foreman who would manage it and the workers, both slave and free, who would do the manual chores, are described in exact detail. Furthermore the farm machinery, the wagons, draft animals and even the olive presses (which are apparently mass-produced and shipped in knocked-down form, with a list of reputable fabricators) are itemized. Since the main aim of running a farm is to produce a profit, suggestions are given about selling off slaves who are old or weak, as well as the practice of hiring free men for particularly hard jobs, since they are known to work harder than slaves. Nothing escapes the mean eye of Cato, a Roman Scrooge with no intention of repenting, and a strong predilection for effective minor-league Capitalism, whatever the human cost. These factors have no doubt endeared him to members of the current hard-nosed American group known as the Cato School of economists.

Whatever we think of Cato as a human being, we are indebted to him for a vivid and detailed account of the farming technology in his time. Reading his book brings us again to the study of Social History, which at last we have begun to understand as the neglected history of individual men and women though the ages. Interested in farming or not, one cannot avoid thinking about the human condition when reading Cato's harsh but effective manual for the profitable operation of a Roman farm.

Stylistically Cato is excellent reading for intermediate students, his word order is simple and direct, his vocabulary brings the student back to the realization that the Romans lived in a real world with crops and animals and farm machinery. It is easy to think of the Romans as an elite living in clouds of figures of speech, but Cato and the technical authors have the healthy function of returning us to reality.

Quintilian said that the "most learned of the Romans" was Marcus Terentius Varro (117-27 B.C.), historical, satirist, grammarian, writer on scientific subjects, and official librarian of the 'bibliotheca' which Caesar planned. We have information about over five hundred titles issuing from his prolific pen, most of which have been lost. (Recall that a Roman 'liber' ranged in size somewhere between an essay and a novella.) We have his study De Lingua Latina in five books (out of the more than two dozen), a systematic treatise on the forms of the Latin language, as well as the farming manual De Re Rustica, which pursues the topics which Cato had discussed, but in a much more literary Latin suitable to the tastes of his century. A comparative study of the stylistics of Cato and Varro on farming tells us much about what Romans thought of the art of writing prose. Varro is learned and informed about everything he writes, he gives many details relating to farm management and farm life, but he seems more academic in his approach than Cato, who is nearer to the land and to what he is writing about. Still Varro offers many interesting chapters, and serves as a check and control over the views which Cato expresses.

In such company it is surprising to find the Georgics of Vergil, four books in verse on farming written between 38 and 30 B.C. apparently at the suggestion of his patron Maecenas. This project would seem to stem from a government commission, since the civil strife of the century probably had discouraged many producers of food supplies, in the face of a growing population. Whatever the instigation, Vergil rose to the charge, and systematically treated the agricultural world with intelligence, poetic vision and sympathy. Recall that Vergil was brought up in a farming ambiance in the north near Verona, where his father was probably a forester. The land and landscape were never far from his eyes. In the four books, he treats of crops, the olive and vine, animals, and beekeeping, respectively.

The sheer poetry with which Vergil writes about the world of the farming has endeared the Georgics to Roman readers, and to the literary world since the Renaissance. Were there no other reason to read the prose accounts of farming by Cato, Varro and Columella, studying them just as background for Vergil's Georgics would be justification enough. But the prose writers and Vergil taken together, provide a synoptic view of an aspect of the Roman world to which few of us have natural admittance.

Further mention of "Vergil on farming" is superfluous. Since the translations are inartistic in their prose or ridiculous in their verse dress, one must go to the Latin text directly, or leave the Georgics on the shelf of books one had always intended to look into.

Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, writing a little after the middle of the 1 st c. A.D., put together twelve books De Re Rustica which have survived entire. Columella writes in a fine, pure Classical Latin, he is informed and concerned with his subject, a sincere admirer of Vergil's Georgics, and in the spirit of Georg. IV 147, he comes forth as a successor in the writing of agricultural works. His tenth book on the Roman 'horti' is even in hexameters, in respect to the Master. Virtually unread by Classicists, his work is well worth perusing as an example of decent, clean prose written on a subject which has never receded from the attention of civilized men and women.

Food and its supply is still one of the great matters of concern to the world today. The shortage of agricultural products is still the weak link in most of the world, not excluding the majority of the Soviet Socialist Republics. And it is so easy to forget, in America where war machinery, electronic gadgetry, the new computer technology, and locomotion are considered our passport to civilization, that the food producing areas of Florida, California and the great farming mid-West still provide us, and by export supply much of the world, with products having the greatest dollar value of any economic venture. Anything that can tell us more about the agricultural economics of an ancient society may tell us a great deal about our own agricultural arts, and nothing which pertains to the great chain of the food supply should be ignored as unworthy of serious attention.

It is also worth mentioning in this connection that after the last Ice Age and up to around 6000 B.C., it was agriculture which provided the basis for what we call Civilization, by slowly selecting hybrid strains of grain- bearing grasses, which in turn made possible increased populations with specialized functions, the division of labor and large, stored food supplies. In this direction lies the origin of wealth, leisure and the keeping of records, which distinguish the recent history of mankind from earlier hunter-gatherer societies. Having control over plant and animal food-supplies, Man enters a new phase of social development, in which he can even begin to forget the premises of the developments in which he is involved.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris