Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

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The study of the Roman treatises on farm management is profitable to the modern farmer however practical and scientific he may be. He will not find in them any thing about bacteria and the "nodular hypothesis" in respect of legumes, nor any thing about plant metabolism, nor even any thing about the effects of creatinine on growth and absorption; but, important and fascinating as are the illuminations of modern science upon practical agriculture, the intelligent farmer with imagination (every successful farmer has imagination, whether or not he is intelligent) will find some thing quite as important to his welfare in the body of Roman husbandry which has come down to us, namely: a background for his daily routine, an appreciation that two thousand years ago men were studying the same problems and solving them by intelligent reasoning. Columella well says that in reading the ancient writers we may find in them more to approve than to disapprove, however much our new science may lead us to differ from them in practice. The characteristics of the Roman methods of farm management, viewed in the light of the present state of the art in America, were thoroughness and patience. The Romans had learned many things which we are now learning again, such as green manuring with legumes, soiling, seed selection, the testing of soil for sourness, intensive cultivation of a fallow as well as of a crop, conservative rotation, the importance of live stock in a system of general farming, the preservation of the chemical content of manure and the composting of the rubbish of a farm, but they brought to their farming operations some thing more which we have not altogether learned--the character which made them a people of enduring achievement. Varro quotes one of their proverbs "Romanus sedendo vincit," which illustrates my present point. The Romans achieved their results by thoroughness and patience. It was thus that they defeated Hannibal and it was thus that they built their farm houses and fences, cultivated their fields, their vineyards and their oliveyards, and bred and fed their live stock. They seem to have realized that there are no short cuts in the processes of nature, and that the law of compensations is invariable. The foundation of their agriculture was the fallow[1] and one finds them constantly using it as a simile--in the advice not to breed a mare every year, as in that not to exact too much tribute from a bee hive. Ovid even warns a lover to allow fallow seasons to intervene in his courtship.

While one can find instruction in their practice even today, one can benefit even more from their agricultural philosophy, for the characteristic of the American farmer is that he is in too much of a hurry.

The ancient literature of farm management was voluminous. Varro cites fifty Greek authors on the subject whose works he knew, beginning with Hesiod and Xenophon. Mago of Carthage wrote a treatise in the Punic tongue which was so highly esteemed that the Roman Senate ordered it translated into Latin, but, like most of the Greeks,[2] it is now lost to us except in the literary tradition.

Columella says that it was Cato who taught Agriculture to speak Latin. Cato's book, written in the middle of the second century B. C, was the first on the subject in Latin; indeed, it was one of the very first books written in that vernacular at all. Of the other Latin writers whose bucolic works have survived, Varro and Virgil wrote at the beginning of the Augustan Age and were followed by the Spanish Columella under Tiberius, and by Pliny (with his Natural History) under Titus. After them (and "a long way after," as Mr. Punch says) came in the fourth century the worthy but dull Palladius, who supplied the hornbook used by the agricultural monks throughout the Dark Ages.

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