Arranging a Roman farm (Cato 3)

vineyardThe following quote continues my modern translation of Cato’s De Agri Cultura.  Please see below for further explanation.

Arranging the farm

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.

You should have good presses, so the work can be done thoroughly. Have the olives pressed immediately, to prevent the oil from spoiling. Remember that high winds come every year and will blow the olives off the trees. If you gather them promptly and the presses are ready, there will be no loss due to storms, and the oil will be greener and better.

If the olives remain too long on the ground they will spoil, and the oil will be rancid. Any variety of olive will produce a better and greener oil if it is pressed early. For an olive grove of 70 acres there should be two presses, if the trees are strong, thickly planted, and well cultivated. The mills should be sturdy and different sizes, so that if the stones become worn you can change over. Each should have its own leather ropes, six sets of hand bars, six double sets of pins, and leather belts. Greek block run on double ropes of Spanish broom. You can work more rapidly with eight pulleys above, and six below. If you wish to use wheels it will work more slowly but with less effort.

Make sure you have good stalls, strong pens, and latticed feed-racks. The rack bars should be a foot apart. If you make them in this way the cattle will not scatter their feed.

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.

Be a good neighbour. Do not give unnecessary offence to the locals. If the neighbourhood regards you kindly, you will find a more willing market for what you have to sell, you will get the work done more easily, either by your own people or contracted out. If you build, your neighbours will help you with their services, their cattle and their materials.  If any misfortune should befall you (God forbid!) they will protect you with their kindness.

A couple of notes: Cato uses as his example an olive grove of 120 jugera. A jugerum is roughly two-thirds of an acre, so I have translated this as “70 acres”.

“God forbid!” is probably the best way to translate the original “bona salute”, but it doesn’t entirely capture the meaning, because it doesn’t refer to a deity as such.  It is just something to say to avoid misfortune, having mentioned it.  An alternative, but also inaccurate, would be to translate it as “touch wood!”  Sometimes there is no perfect translation!

Next time we will look at Cato’s opinion about the duties of the farm manager.

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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2 Responses to Arranging a Roman farm (Cato 3)

  1. Reading your great posts makes me wonder how farmers (like myself) could have ever survived-LOL I boil it down to a least it is for me. Thank you for wonderful reads!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment! It’s great to get some positive feedback because even the small quote in this instalment took about two hours to get the modern translation right, so it’s encouraging that people are getting some enjoyment from the work. As for how farmers could have survived in those days, I suppose having slaves helped! And I think you’re quite right, farming is a passion. We have some great friends who manage a small farm and the amount of work involved is astonishing, from dawn to dusk, for probably very little financial gain. But it’s a way of life and they get to bring up their daughter in beautiful countryside.

      Liked by 1 person

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