Cato the Elder: On Agriculture

January 20, 2018

On Agriculture
Marcus Porcius Cato
[c.180 BC]

Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura is, I believe, the oldest complete surviving work of Latin prose, and on account of this distinction I have included it in my Latin history and literature reading project. Were it not for this accidental distinction, it is probable that I would not have read it, for it is not the sort of thing one — not this one, anyway — normally takes up for either business or pleasure. And yet I found, to my surprise, that I read it with some appreciation, both because it put me in contact with a great man in an unusual way, and because it provided a glimpse of a side of history that is not often seen by non-historians: the normal, daily life of ordinary people going about their ordinary affairs.

The great man is, of course, Cato himself; he was one of the leading Romans of his generation, serving terms as both consul (195) and censor (184) and maintaining for decades a place at the centre of Rome’s political affairs. Rome’s political leaders in this period were also her military leaders, and Cato won glory leading a successful campaign in Spain during his term as consul. But he was best known for his role in Rome’s domestic politics, in which he earned a reputation as a formidable moralist. He famously opposed the repeal of the Oppian Law, which forbade Roman women owning jewellery and fancy dress, and he likewise opposed permitting Roman women to inherit family wealth. He was the political counterweight to, and critic of, the great but unconventional Publius Scipio Africanus. These commitments, and others, have not universally endeared him to modern readers — in his Roman Women (London, 1962), J.P.V.D. Balsdon described him as “that self-confident and boorish embodiment of austere moral rectitude”, but the ancients were kinder; Livy called him “a man of acknowledged integrity and purity of conduct” (XXXII, 27), and then went on to praise him in a passage that is worth citing at length:

“So great powers of mind and energy of intellect were in this man, that no matter how lowly the position in which he was born, he appeared capable of attaining to the highest rank. No one qualification for the management of business, either public or private, was wanting to him. He was equally skilled in affairs relating to town and country. Some have been advanced to the highest honours by their knowledge of the law, others by their eloquence, some by military renown; but this man’s genius was so versatile, and so well adapted to all things, that in whatever way engaged, it might be said, that nature formed him for that alone. In war, he was most courageous, distinguishing himself highly in many remarkable battles; and, when he arrived at the highest posts, was likewise a most consummate commander. Then, in peace, if consulted on a point of law, he was the wisest counsellor; if a cause was to be pleaded, the most eloquent advocate. Nor was he one of those whose oratory was striking only during their own lives, without leaving after them any monument of it. On the contrary, his eloquence still lives, and will long live, consecrated to memory by writings of every kind. His orations are many, spoken for himself, for others, and against others; for he harassed his enemies, not only by supporting prosecutions against them, but by maintaining causes in opposition to them. Enmities in abundance gave him plenty of employment, and he never permitted them to lie dormant; nor was it easy to tell whether the nobility laboured harder to keep him down, or he to oppress the nobility. His temper, no doubt, was austere, his language bitter and unboundedly free, but his mind was never conquered by his passions, his integrity was inflexible, and he looked with contempt on popularity and riches. In spare diet, in enduring toil and danger, his body and mind were like iron; so that even old age, which brings all things to dissolution, did not break his vigour.” (XXXIX, 40)

It is extremely rare, and even singular, for Livy to grant such a lavish encomium, and it speaks to the strong impression which Cato made on his imagination nearly 200 years after his (Cato’s) death.

In the passage above, Livy praises Cato in particular for his skill in management of private affairs and his knowledge of country life, and this is pertinent to De Agricultura, which is a kind of manual for the successful management of a Roman farm.

It is a very practical guide, full of down to earth advice on procurement of farm equipment, good practices for working with cattle, advice on caring for olives and grape vines, methods for producing good wine, instructions for medicinal uses of farm crops, and recipes for a variety of things. We learn how to make a wine press, how to best fertilize the fields, and what kind of soil is best for various kinds of crops. Although we do receive counsel on buying and selling the goods the farm produces, one gets the strong impression that this farm is independent, producing and making what it needs to continue operating.

For a modern reader it is interesting to see how closely intertwined farming, and, by extension, ordinary daily life, was with religion. The practical guidance includes a good deal of instruction on the religious aspects of farming: “Make an offering of cakes to Janus, with these words,” we are told; we are reminded that the spring ploughing should be preceded by a sacred feast; the prayers and sacrificial rites to be observed prior to thinning a grove are prescribed; times when the workers should fast are noted. There seems to be no clear distinction in Cato’s mind between this kind of advice and the other kind; for him, religion is a practical matter.

Advice that sounds to us superstitious might have been, from his point of view, just “tried and true”. We are told, for instance, that “Figs, olives, apples, pears, and vines should be grafted in the dark of the moon, after noon, when the south wind is not blowing”, or that, in order to prevent chafing when travelling, we ought to “keep a small branch of Pontic wormwood under the anus” (which, on first blush, I’d have thought would have the opposite effect).

Perhaps the most endearing section of De Agricultura is that in which Cato lauds the virtues of cabbage. He notes that it promotes digestion, is an excellent laxative, can produce an effective purgative, cures colic, makes a good poultice for wounds, treats boils, dislocations, and contusions, heals headaches and eye-aches, restores health to the liver, the lungs, and the diaphragm, remedies arthritis, and cures insomnia, among many other wonders.

As I said at the top, this is not the sort of document I would normally be inclined to read in my personal time, but certainly my other readings in Roman history have been nothing at all like it, and in that sense the time has been well spent.

[Virtues of farmers]
It is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come, their calling is most highly respected, their livelihood is most assured and is looked on with the least hostility, and those who are engaged in that pursuit are least inclined to be disaffected.

[Waste not, want not]
Remember that a farm is like a man — however great the income, if there is extravagance but little is left.

8 Responses to “Cato the Elder: On Agriculture”

  1. dksgf Says:

    At a time when everything seems to be changing, it’s helpful to be reminded that something do not.

  2. Reg Says:

    Super interesting! Let me know if you try the travel advice. I read the link on cabbage — such an imagination for urine.

  3. Rob G Says:

    “For a modern reader it is interesting to see how closely intertwined farming, and, by extension, ordinary daily life, was with religion.”

    The understanding of this intertwining has survived in a lot of agrarian thought, right up through contemporary writers like Wendell Berry and Norman Wirzba, and also in the current crop of Catholic Distributists.

  4. cburrell Says:

    That’s an interesting point, Rob. I’m not familiar with those folks (except some of Berry’s fiction).

    • Rob G Says:

      A good example from a Catholic perspective is Fr. Luigi Ligutti’s ‘Rural Roads to Security,’ which was published in 1940 but recently reprinted.

      And Berry’s ‘Life is a Miracle’ is a good place to start with his nonfiction.

  5. Rob G Says:

    Another really excellent book on the subject is one that Patrick Deneen has recommended in writing several times: ‘In Good Hands: The Keeping of a Family Farm’ by Charles Fish.


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