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COLUMELLA I, I.
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 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
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
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, 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.