Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

Home | Prev | Next | Contents

XVIII, 75) counselled that one wean a colt only when the moon is on the wane, so it will be found that the moon is consulted before a colt is weaned on most American farms today: for that may be safely done, says the rural oracle, only when the moon's sign, as given in the almanack, corresponds with a part of the almanack's "moon's man" or "anatomic" at or below the knees, i.e., when the moon is in one or the other of the signs Pisces, Capricornus or Aquarius: but never at a time of day when the moon is in its "Southing."]

[Footnote 89: Modern agricultural chemistry has contradicted this judgment of Cassius, for the manure of sea birds, especially that brought from the South American islands in the Pacific, known commercially as Peruvian guano, is found on analysis to be high in the elements which are most beneficial to plant life.]

[Footnote 90: Seed selection, which is now preached so earnestly by the Agricultural Department of the United States as one of the things necessary to increase the yield of wheat and corn, has ever been good practice. Following Varro Virgil (Georgic I, 197) insists upon it: "I have seen those seeds on whose selection much time and labour had been spent, nevertheless degenerate if men did not every year rigorously separate by hand all the largest specimens."]

[Footnote 91: Cicero (de Div. II, 24) records a mot of Cato's that he wondered that an haruspex did not laugh when he saw another--"qui mirari se aiebat, quod non rideret aruspex, aruspicem quum vidisset."]

[Footnote 92: This process of propagation which Varro describes as "new" is still practised by curious orchardists under the name "inarching." The free end of a growing twig is introduced into a limb of its own tree, back of a specimen fruit, thus pushing its development by means of the supplemental feeding so provided. Cf. Cyc. Am. Hort. II, 664.]

[Footnote 93: Alfalfa is the Moorish name which the Spaniards brought to America with the forage plant Medicago Sativa, Linn., which all over Southern Europe is known by the French name lucerne. It is proper to honour the Moors by continuing in use their name for this interesting plant, because undoubtedly they preserved it for the use of the modern world, just as undoubtedly they bequeathed to us that fine sentiment known as personal honour.

Alfalfa was one of the standbys of ancient agriculture. According to Pliny, it was introduced into Italy from Greece, whence it had been brought from Asia during the Persian wars, and so derived its Greek and Roman name Medica. As Cato does not mention it with the other legumes he used, it is probable that the Romans had not yet adopted it in Cato's day, but by the time of Varro and Virgil it was well established in Italy. In Columella's day it was already a feature of the agriculture of Andalousia, and there the Moors, who loved plants, kept it alive, as it were a Vestal fire, while it died out of Italy during the Dark Ages: from Spain it spread again all over Southern Europe, and with America it was a fair exchange for tobacco. Alfalfa has always been the subject of high praise wherever it has been known. The Greek Amphilochus devoted a whole book to it, as have the English Walter Harte in the middle of the eighteenth century and the American Coburn at the beginning of the twentieth century, but none of them is more instructive on the subject of its culture than is Columella in a few paragraphs. Because of the difficulty of getting a stand of it in many soils, it is important to realize the pains which the Romans took with the seed bed, for it is on this point that most American farmers fail. Says Columella (II, 10):

"But of all the legumes, alfalfa is the best, because, when once it is sown, it lasts ten years: because it can be mowed four times, and even six times, a year: because it improves the soil: because all lean cattle grow fat by feeding upon it: because it is a remedy for sick beasts: because a jugerum (two-thirds of an acre) of it will feed three horses plentifully for a year. We will teach you the manner of cultivating it, as follows: The land which you wish to set in alfalfa the following spring should be broken up about the Kalends of October, so that it may mellow through the entire winter. About the Kalends of February harrow it thoroughly, remove all the stones and break up the clods. Later, about the month of March, harrow it for the third time. When you have so got the land in good order, lay it off after the manner of a garden, in beds ten feet wide and fifty feet long, so that it may be possible to let in water by the paths, and access on every side may be had by the weeders. Then cover the beds with well rotted manure. At last, about the end of April, sow plentifully so that a single measure (cyanthus) of seed will cover a space ten feet long and five wide. When you have done this brush in the seed with wooden rakes: this is most important for otherwise the sprouts will be withered by the sun. After the sowing no iron tool should touch the beds; but, as I have said, they should be cultivated with wooden rakes, and in the same manner they should be weeded so that no foreign grass can choke out the young alfalfa. The first cutting should be late, when the seed begins to fall: afterwards, when it is well rooted, you can cut it as young as you wish to feed to the stock. Feed it at first sparingly, until the stock becomes accustomed to it, for it causes bloat and excess of blood. After cutting, irrigate the beds frequently, and after a few days, when the roots begin to sprout, weed out all other kinds of grass. Cultivated in this way alfalfa can be mowed six times a year, and it will last for ten years."]

[Footnote 94: See the explanation of what the Romans meant by terra varia in the note on Cato V. ante, p. 40.]

[Footnote 95: It is interesting to note from the statements in the text that in Varro's time the Roman farmer in Italy both sowed and reaped substantially the same amount of wheat as does the American farmer today. Varro says that the Romans sowed five modii of wheat to the jugerum and reaped on the maximum fifteen for one. As the modius was nearly the equivalent of our peck, the Roman allowance for sowing corresponds to the present American practice of sowing seven pecks of wheat to the acre: and on this basis a yield of 26 bushels to the acre, which is not uncommon in the United States, is the equivalent of the Roman harvest of fifteen for one.

It is fair to the average Italian farmer of the present day who is held up by the economists to scorn because he does not produce more than eleven bushels of wheat to the acre, to record that in Columella's time, when agriculture had declined as compared with Varro's experience, the average yield of grain in many parts of Italy did not exceed four for one (Columella, III, 3), or say seven and a half bushels to the acre.

Varro's statement that at Byzacium in Africa wheat yielded 100 for one, which Pliny (II.N. XVIII, 23) increases to 150 for one, means from 175 to 260 bushels per acre, seems incredible to us, but is confirmed by the testimony of agricultural practice in Palestine. Isaac claimed to reap an hundred fold, and the parable of the Sower alludes to yields of 30, 60 and 100 fold.

Harte Essays on Husbandry, 91, says that the average yield in England in the middle of the eighteenth century was seven for one, though he records the case of an award by the Dublin Society in 1763 to an Irish gentleman who raised 50 bushels of wheat from a single peck of seed! Harte was a parson, but apparently he did not bring the same unction into his agriculture as did the Rev. Robert Herrick to the husbandry of his Devonshire glebe, a century earlier. In Herrick's Thanksgiving to God for his House he sings:

"Lord, 'tis thy plenty dropping hand That soils my land
And giv'st me for my bushel sown
Twice ten for one.
Thou makst my teeming hen to lay
Her egg each day:
Besides my healthful ewes to bear Me twins each year."]

[Footnote 96: As the Gallic header here described by Varro is the direct ancestor of our modern marvellous self-binding harvester, it is of interest to rehearse the other ancient references to it.

Pliny (H. N. XVIII, 72) says:

"In the vast domains of the provinces of Gaul a large hollow frame armed with teeth and supported on two wheels is driven through the standing corn, the beasts being yoked behind it, the result being that the ears are torn off and fall within the frame." Palladius (VII, 2) goes more into detail:

"The people of the more level regions of Gaul have devised a method of harvesting quickly and with a minimum of human labour, for thereby a single ox is made to bear the burden of the entire harvest. A cart is constructed on two low wheels and is furnished with a square body, of which the side boards are adjusted to slope upward and outward to make greater capacity. The front of the body is left open and there across the width of the cart are set a series of lance shaped teeth spaced to the distance between the grain stalks and curved upward. Behind the cart two short shafts are fashioned, like those of a litter, where the ox is yoked and harnessed with his head towards the cart: for this purpose it is well to use a well broken and sensible ox, which will not push ahead of his driver. When this machine is driven through the standing grain all the heads are stripped by the teeth and are thrown back and collected in the body of the cart, the straw being left standing. The machine is so contrived that the driver can adjust its height to that of the grain. Thus with little going and coming and in a few short hours the entire harvest is made. This method is available in level or prairie countries and to those who do not need to save the straw."

That ingenious Dutchman Conrad Heresbach refers, in his Husbandry, to Palladius' description of the Gallic header with small respect, which indicates that in the sixteenth century it was no longer in use. I quote from Barnaby Googe's translation of Heresbach (the book which served Izaak Walton as the model for his Compleat Angler): "This tricke might be used in levell and champion countries, but with us it would make but ill-favoured worke."

Dondlinger, in his excellent Book of Wheat (1908), which should be in the hands of every grain farmer, gives a picture reproducing the Gallic header and says:

"After being used during hundreds of years the Gallic header disappeared, and it seems to have been completely forgotten for several centuries. Only through literature did it escape the fate of permanent oblivion and become a heritage for the modern world. The published description of the machine by Pliny and Palladius furnished the impulse in which modern harvesting inventions originated. Its distinctive features are retained in several modern inventions of this class, machines which have a practical use and value under conditions similar to those which existed on the plains of Gaul. Toward the close of the eighteenth century, the social, economic and agricultural conditions in England, on account of increasing competition and the higher value of labour, were ripe for the movement of invention that was heralded by the printed account of the Gallic header. The first header was constructed by William Pitt in 1786. It was an attempted improvement on the ancient machine in that the stripping teeth were placed in a cylinder which was revolved by power transmitted from the wheels. This 'rippling cylinder' carried the heads of the wheat into the box of the machine, and gradually evolved into the present day reel."

It may be added that the William Pitt mentioned was not the statesman, but a contemporary agricultural writer of the same name.]

[Footnote 97: According to Sir Anthony Fitzherbert it was the custom in England to shear wheat and rye and to leave the straw standing after the third method described by Varro, the purpose being to preserve the straw to be cut later for thatching, as threshing it would necessarily destroy its value for thatching. It was the custom in England, however, to mow barley and oats.]

[Footnote 98: Pliny advises that the grain which collects on the circumference of a threshing floor of this description be saved for seed because it is evidently the heaviest.]

[Footnote 99: In the Apennines today the threshing floor, or aja, is anointed with cow dung smeared smooth with water, doubtless for the same reason that the Romans so used amurca.]

[Footnote 100: Between harvests the winnowing basket is quite generally used in Italy today for a cradle, as it was from the beginning of time, for there is an ancient gem representing the infant Bacchus asleep in a winnowing basket.]

[Footnote 101: What the French call, from the same practice, vin de rognure.]

[Footnote 102: Varro does not mention the season of the olive harvest, but Virgil tells us (G. II, 519) that in their day as now it was winter. Cato (XX-XXII) described the construction and operation of the trapetus in detail. 'It can still be seen in operation in Italy, turned by a patient donkey and flowing with the new oil of an intense blue-green colour. It is always flanked by an array of vast storage jars (Cato's dolii now called orci), which make one realize the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.]

[Footnote 103: The Roman waste of amurca, through ignorance of its value, was like the American waste of the cotton seed, which for many years was thrown out from the gin to rot upon the ground, even its fertilizing use being neglected. Now cotton seed has a market value equivalent to nearly 20 per cent of that of the staple. It is used for cattle feed and also is made into lard and "pure olive oil," being exported in bulk and imported again in bottles with Italian labels.]

[Footnote 104: Cf. Fowler, Social Life at Rome in the Age of Cicero. "Let us consider that in a large city today the person and property of all, rich or poor, are adequately protected by a sound system of police and by courts of first instance which are sitting every day. Assault and murder, theft and burglary are exceptional. It might be going too far to say that at Rome they were the rule: but it is the fact that in what we may call the slums of Rome there was no machinery for checking them.... It is the great merit of Augustus that he made Rome not only a city of marble but one in which the persons and property of all citizens were fairly secure."

There are several contemporary references to the crowded and dangerous condition of the streets of Rome at the end of the Republic. Cicero (Plancius, 7) tells how he was pushed against the arch of Fabius while struggling through the press of the Via Sacra, and exonerates from blame the man who was the immediate cause of his inconvenience, holding that the one next beyond was more responsible: in which judgment Cicero was of the opinion of Mr. Justice Blackstone in the famous leading case of Scott v. Shepherd (1 Smith's L.C., 480), where the question was who was liable for the damage eventually done by the burning squib which was passed about the market house by successive hands. The majority of the court held, however, against Blackstone and Cicero, and established the doctrine of proximate cause.]

[Footnote 105: The Roman week (nundinum, or more properly inter nundinum) was of eight days, the last being the market day on which the citizens rested from agricultural labour and came into town to sell and buy and talk politics. Cf. Pliny, XVIII, 3. This custom which Varro regrets had fallen into desuetude so far as Rome was concerned was in his day still practised in the provinces. Thus the five tenants on Horace's Sabine farm were wont to go every nundinum to the market town of Varia (the modern Vicovaro) to transact public business (Epist. I, 14, 2).]

[Footnote 106: Varro here refers to the great economic change which was coming over Italian husbandry in the last days of the Republic, the disappearance of the small farms, the "septem jugera" which nurtured the early Roman heroes like Cincinnatus and Dentatus, and even the larger, but still comparatively small, farms which Cato describes, and the development of the latifundia given over to grazing.]

[Footnote 107: The tradition is, says Pliny, that King Augeas was the first in Greece to use manure, and that Hercules introduced the practice into Italy. To the wise farmer the myth of the Augean stables is the genesis of good agriculture.]

[Footnote 108: This was the "crowded hour" in Varro's life, and, as M. Boissier has pointed out, he loved to dwell upon its episodes. It will be recalled that Pompey divided the Mediterranean into thirteen districts for the war with the Pirates and put a responsible lieutenant in command of each, thus enabling him by concurrent action in all the districts to clear the seas in three months. Appian gives the list of officers and the limits of their commands, saying: "The coasts of Sicily and the Ionian sea as far as Acarnania were entrusted to Plotius and Varro." It is difficult to understand Varro's own reference to Delos, but Appian makes clear how it happened that Varro was stationed on the coast of Epirus and so fell in with the company of "half Greek shepherds" who are the dramatis personae of the second book. As the scene of the first book was laid in a temple of Tellus, so this relating to live stock is cast in a temple of Pales, the goddess of shepherds, on the occasion of the festival of the Parilia, and the names of the characters have a punning reference to live stock.]

[Footnote 109: The codices here contain an interpolation of the words

Prev | Next | Contents

Links: - - - - -