The following quote continues my modern translation of Cato’s De Agri Cultura. Please see below for further explanation. There is a small amount of agricultural terminology in this quote, so please also see below for some information about that.
Arranging the farm
If you ask me the best way to lay out your estate, I would say that it should be planted as follows, assuming you have bought a farm of 60 acres in total, and well-situated with all kinds of soil:
A vineyard, if it promises a good yield
An irrigated garden
An osier bed
An olive grove
A corn field
An area for cutting wood
A grove for mast
In his youth, the farmer should diligently plant his land, but he should think carefully before he builds anything. Planting does not require thought, but demands action. There is time enough to build when you have reached your thirty-sixth year, if you have farmed your land well in the meantime.
When you do build, have buildings in proportion to your estate. The farm buildings should be well constructed, you should have enough oil cellars and wine vats, and a good supply of casks, so that you can wait for high prices. This will build your honour, your profit and your self-respect.
Build your house according to your means. If you build well in a good location and on a good estate, and furnish the house suitably for country life, you will go there more often and more willingly. The farm will then be better, fewer mistakes will be made, and you will get larger crops. The boss showing his face will be good for the farm.
Plant elm trees along the roads and fence rows, so you will have leaves to feed the sheep and cattle, and the timber will be available if you need it. If there are any banks of streams or wetlands, plant reeds there. Surround them with willows so the osiers can be used to tie the vines.
It is most convenient to arrange the land nearest the house as an orchard, from where fire wood and bundles of sticks may be sold and obtained for the use of the master. In this enclosure should be planted everything suitable for the land, and vines should be trained onto the trees.
Near the house, also lay out a garden with garland flowers and vegetables of all kinds, and surround it with myrtle hedges, both white and black, as well as Delphic and Cyprian laurel.
Stocking the farm
An olive farm of 150 acres ought to be stocked as follows: a manager, a house keeper, five labourers, three ox drivers, one swineherd, one ass driver, one shepherd (in total thirteen hands), three pair of oxen, three asses with pack saddles to haul out the manure, one other ass to turn the mill, and one hundred sheep.
A few notes: Cato uses as his example an average size farm at the time, of 100 jugera and in the “stocking the farm” section 240 jugera. A jugerum is roughly two-thirds of an acre. An osier bed is where willows were planted to produce tough, flexible branches used for various purposes such as making baskets. A mast grove would be an area of trees used to produce seeds or acorns, probably to be eaten by animals.
Like Fairfax Harrison in his 1913 translation, I have used the word “orchard” for the sake of simplicity, but there is no single word to really describe the original Latin arbustum. Harrison has a beautifully poetic note about it in his book, so I will quote that here as he describes an arbustum far better than I ever could:
The English word “orchard” scarcely translates arbustum, but every one who has been in Italy will recall the endless procession of small fields of maize and rye and alfalfa through which serried ranks of mulberry or feathery elm trees, linked with the charming drop and garland of the vines, seem to dance toward one in the brilliant sunlight, like so many Greek maidens on a frieze. These are arbusta.
Next time we will look at Cato’s opinion of the duties of each member of staff.
An explanation of this project:
The first Roman prose writer of any importance was Cato the Elder (234-149BC). Like many early writers in Latin, little of his work survives, and only one complete book: Agriculture (De Agri Cultura). The book gives advice about how to run a farm, and is a fascinating insight into rural life at the time.
I realise that Roman writing can have a reputation for being a rather dry subject for those who never had their enthusiasm sparked by Latin, and I would lay the fault with that firmly at the door of the translations. Rome was a vibrant, exciting society and that was reflected in their writing, but I remember when studying Latin finding the obsession in academia with accurately translating everything word for word frustrating. I can see the necessity for that approach from an academic point of view, but if the end result is a piece of hackneyed, stuffy prose, then you have actually produced something that is a million miles away from the original, despite including all the right words. For the general reader, I think Latin needs to be translated a little more loosely: get the meaning across without copying every aspect of the sentence structure. So I am attempting more modern translations, working with the original Latin text and with reference where necessary to a standard translation from 1913 by Fairfax Harrison.
Starting with Cato, let’s look at what he wrote, but with the translation tidied up into a much more natural form of English. Let’s render the work back to a natural prose, the manner in which it would originally have been enjoyed. I’m not going to take any huge liberties with the original material, just give it a bit of a spruce up. Let’s see what Cato really had to say.
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