A Roman Farm Manager (Cato 4)


A 1st Century relief of a herdsman and oxen, from the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, US.

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

The duties of the manager

These are the duties of the manager. He should maintain discipline. He should observe the feast days. He should respect the rights of others and firmly uphold his own. He should settle all quarrels among the farm hands, and if anyone is at fault he should administer a punishment. He should take care that no one on the farm is lacking anything, or has a shortage of food or drink; in this respect he can afford to be generous, because that way he will more easily stop them from helping themselves and stealing.

Unless the manager is of evil mind, he will himself do no wrong, but if he permits wrongdoing by others then the master should not put up with it. He should show appreciation of courtesy, to encourage others to also be courteous. He should not be prone to gallivanting around or getting drunk, but should be always sober. He should keep the farm hands busy, and should make sure they do what the master has ordered. He should not think that he knows more than his master. The friends of the master should be his friends. If the master recommends a friend to give the manager advice, he should listen to him. He should confine his religious practices to the altar on festival days, or to his own house.*

He should never lend money unless his master tells him to do so, but money the master has lent he should collect. He should never lend any seed reserved for sowing, feed, corn, wine, or oil, but he should maintain a relationship with two or three other farms, so he can exchange things with them in an emergency.

He should give a financial report to his master regularly.  He should not keep any hired men or day hands longer than is necessary. He should not sell anything without the knowledge of the master, nor should he conceal anything from him. He should not have any hangers-on, nor should he consult any soothsayers, diviners, fortune tellers, or astrologers.

He should not try to be economical with seeds when sowing, because that is bad economy.  He should strive to be an expert in all kinds of farm work, and often lend a hand, without exhausting himself.  By doing so, he will better understand the point of view of his farm hands, and they will work more contentedly; also, he will have less inclination to gad about, his health will be better, and he will sleep soundly.

He should be first up in the morning and last to bed at night, and before he does he should make sure the farm gates are closed, each of the farmlands is in his own bed and that the livestock have been fed.

He should make sure the best of care is taken of the oxen, and should pay the highest compliments to the herdsmen who keep their cattle in the best condition. He should see to it that the ploughs and ploughshares are kept in good repair.

Be careful not to plough land which is dry after only a light rain, or drive a cart over it, or have cattle on it. If you are not careful about this you will lose three years of crops from land you could have used. Feed the cattle and flocks carefully and make sure their hooves are kept clean. Guard against the scab in flocks and herds. This is normally caused by under-feeding and exposure to wet weather.

Plan all the work in good time, because with farm work if one thing is done late, everything will be late.

If you run short of bedding, gather oak leaves and use them for bedding down sheep and cattle. Make sure you have a large dunghill. Store the manure carefully, and before you use it clean it of foreign matter and break it up. Autumn is the time to haul it out. Also during the autumn dig trenches around the olive trees and put manure in them. Cut poplar, elm, and oak leaves early. Store them before they are completely dry, to use as fodder for sheep. Second crop hay and after-growth should also be stored dry. Sow turnips, forage crops, and lupins after the autumn rains.

* Just as a point of interest, in his 1913 translation Fairfax Harrison has this as “he should confine his religious practices to church on Sunday”, which is a good example of translations getting twisted by the culture or beliefs on the translator. The original text says nothing of the sort.

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 junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Books, History, Latin, Nature and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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