Recently I have been providing modern translations of some selected passages from Cato’s De Agri Cultura. In this final quote we finally reach Cato’s chosen specialist subject: cabbages. Please see below for further information about this series of quotes.
The medicinal value of cabbage:
Cabbage is the best of all the vegetables. It can be eaten either cooked or raw. If you eat it raw, dip it in vinegar. It promotes digestion marvellously, it is an excellent laxative, and the urine of a cabbage-eater is wholesome for all kinds of purposes. If you wish to drink deep at a banquet and to enjoy your dinner, eat as much raw cabbage as you want, seasoned with vinegar, before dinner, and likewise after dinner eat half a dozen leaves. It will make you feel as if you have not had dinner, and you will be able to drink as much as you want.
Cato goes on to explain how to cure just about every known illness using cabbage, and then explains about different varieties of cabbage and their properties:
The several varieties of cabbage:
The first is the so-called smooth cabbage. It is large, with broad leaves and thick stem. It is hardy and has great potency.
The second is the curly variety, called parsley cabbage. It has a good nature and appearance, and has stronger medicinal properties than the smooth variety.
So also has the third, the mild cabbage, with a small stalk, tender, and the most pungent of all. Its juice, although there is not much of it, has the most powerful effect. No other variety of cabbage comes close to it in medicinal value.
Cato then seems to forget he is in the middle of a list, and goes off on another huge tangent about all the many illnesses that can be cured by cabbage. He seems to be a writer that got sidetracked a lot, or perhaps he was overwhelmed with his enthusiasm for the subject of cabbages. And as for the man who eats cabbage every day, well there is of course a valuable by-product:
If a person who is debilitated eats cabbage prepared as I have described, he will be cured. If you save the urine of a person who eats cabbage regularly, heat it, and bathe the patient in it, he will be healed quickly. This remedy has been tested.
Sounds tempting, but I think I’ll pass.
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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