A Roman Housekeeper (Cato 7)


A section of a mosaic in the Vatican Museum.

Recently I have been providing modern translations of some selected passages from Cato’s De Agri Cultura.  In this penultimate quote, we will see what Cato thought were the duties of the housekeeper, who would often be the wife of the farm manager.  Please see below for further explanation of this series of articles.

The manager should make sure the housekeeper performs all her duties. If the master has given her to you to be your wife, you should be faithful to her, and she should respect you.

Make sure she is not an extravagant person, and that she doesn’t gossip with the neighbours or with other women.  She should not receive visitors in the kitchen or in her own quarters.  She should not go out to parties, nor should she gallivant around.  She should not engage in religious practices, nor should she ask others to do so for her without the permission of the master or the mistress.  Remember that the master practises religion for the entire household.

She should be neat in appearance and should keep the house clean and tidy.  Every night before she goes to bed she should see that the hearth is swept and clean.  On the Kalends, the Ides, the Nones, and on all feast days, she should hang a garland over the hearth.  On those days also she should pray fervently to the household gods.  She should take care that she has food cooked for you and for the farmhands. She should keep plenty of chickens and lots of eggs.  She should keep a large store of dried pears, apples, figs, raisins, preserved pears, grapes and quinces.  She should also keep preserved grapes in grape-pulp, and in pots buried in the ground, as well as fresh nuts kept in the same way, quinces in jars, and other fruits that are usually preserved, as well as wild fruits.  She must store all these diligently every year.  She must also know how to make good flour and to grind spelt finely.

Next time we will conclude the series of quotes from Cato by looking at his very favourite subject.  Cato really, really loved cabbages…

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 translations from Fairfax Harrison (1913) and Hooper and Ash (1934).

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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