Running a Roman farm (Cato 2)

The following quote continues my modern translation of Cato’s De Agri Cultura.  We’ll dive straight into the text, but please see below for further explanation.

The duties of the owner

When you have arrived at your country house and greeted your household, you should do your rounds of the farm the same day if possible; failing that, definitely the next day.  When you have observed how the field work has progressed, what has been done and what remains to be done, you should summon your farm manager the next day.  Ask what has been done in good time, and why it has not been possible to complete everything else, and what wine, corn and other crops have been gathered.  When you have been briefed on these points you should make your own calculations of the time necessary for the work, if it doesn’t seem to you that enough has been done.

The manager will tell you that he has worked diligently himself, but some slaves have been sick and others truant, the weather has been bad, and that it has been necessary to work on the public roads.  When he has given these excuses and many others, you should remind him about the program of work which you set out for him on your last visit and compare it with the results achieved.

If the weather has been bad, count how many stormy days there have been, and point out what work could have been done despite the rain, such as washing the wine vats and lining them with pitch, cleaning out the barns, sorting the grain, hauling out and composting the manure, cleaning seeds, fixing old equipment, mending the smocks and hoods.

On feast days the old ditches should be mended, work should be carried out on public roads, briers cut down, the garden dug, the meadow tidied, the hedges trimmed and the clippings collected and burned, the fish pond cleaned out. Also, on these days the slaves’ rations should be cut down in comparison to what they are allowed when they are working in the fields in fine weather.

When this routine has been discussed quietly and with good humour and is thoroughly understood by the manager, you should give orders for the completion of any work which has been neglected.

The accounts of money, supplies and provisions should then be considered. The manager should report what wine and oil has been sold, what price he got, what supplies remain, and what is still to be sold. Security should be taken for such accounts that need to be secured.  All other unsettled matters should be agreed upon.

If anything is needed for the coming year, it should be bought; everything which is not needed should be sold. Whatever there is for lease should be leased. Orders should be given (and make sure they are in writing) for all the work you want done next on the farm or contracted out. You should go over the cattle and determine what is to be sold. You should sell the oil, if you can get the price you want, the surplus wine and corn, the old cattle, the worn out oxen, and the cull sheep*, the wool and the hides, the old and sick slaves, and any thing else that is surplus to requirements.

A good farmer has an appetite for selling, not buying.

* Cull sheep are ewes that have reached the end of their breeding life, usually sold for meat.

A View of the Roman Campagna, a Villa and Aqueduct in the Distance, by Edward Lear, 1841. Nothing to do with the article, but a beautiful painting!

Next time we will look at Cato’s advice for organising and stocking a farm.

Link to part one of this series: Buying a farm (Cato 1)

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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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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