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 have been running Windows into History for just over three years now, and in that time have posted nearly 350 times, but on very few occasions have looked as far back into history as Roman times. That is an omission I would like to correct over the next few months, as Latin has always been a favourite subject of mine.
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 more loosely: get the meaning across without copying every aspect of the sentence structure. So I’m going to try something and see how it’s received here.
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. Here’s the opening to the utterly fascinating…
Introduction: farming with dignity.
The pursuits of commerce would be as admirable as they are profitable if they were not subject to such great risks. The same would apply to banking, if it was always conducted with honesty.
Our ancestors considered, according to their laws, that a thief should pay back double what he stole, but a usurer should make four times the restitution. From this we can judge how much less desirable a citizen they esteemed the banker than the thief. When they wanted to praise an honest man, they called him a good “husbandman”, a good farmer. This was their highest form of praise.
Personally, I think highly of a man actively and diligently engaged in commerce, who seeks to make his fortune in that way but, as I said, his career is full of risks and pitfalls. It is from the tillers of the soil that spring the best citizens, the most steadfast soldiers. And theirs are the lasting rewards which are most appreciated and least envied. Those who devote themselves to that pursuit are the least inclined to dishonesty.
To get to the point, these observations are a preface to what I have promised to discuss:
Buying a farm
When you have decided to purchase a farm, be careful not to buy on impulse. Make plenty of visits and don’t be content with a single tour of inspection.
The more you go, the more you will fall in love with the place, if it’s worth your attention. Take note of the appearance of the neighbourhood. A flourishing country should show its prosperity.
“When you go in, look about so that, when needs be, you can find your way out.”
Make sure you choose somewhere with a good climate, not subject to destructive storms, and a soil that is naturally strong. If possible, your farm should be at the foot of a mountain, looking to the south, in a healthy location, where labour and cattle can be sourced, well watered, near a good-sized town, and either on the sea or a navigable river, or else on a good, busy road. Choose a place which has not often changed ownership, one which is sold reluctantly by the owner, and has buildings in good repair.
Be careful not to dismiss the experience of others. It is better to buy from a man who has farmed successfully and built well.
When you inspect the farm, look to see how many wine presses and storage vats there are. Where there are none of these you can judge what the harvest is like. On the other hand, it is not the number of farming implements, but what is done with them, that matters. Where you don’t find many tools, it is not an expensive farm to operate. Be aware that with a farm, as with a man, however productive it may be, if it spends money like water there won’t be much left over.
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
Next time we will look at what Cato has to say about a farmer’s first day as the new owner of his farm.
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