Friday, February 18, 2022

De Re Rustica

 You are reminded (yet again) that you have married the right girl when, for Valentine's Day, she gets you what you really want:

These are the first two books in the Loeb Classical Library of the three set volume of Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella's works, De Re Rustica (On Agricultural Affairs).  Along with Marcus Porcius Cato The Elder's book De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture) and Marcus Terrentius Varro's book Rerum Rusiticum Libri III (Agricultural Topics in three books), it forms the bulk of what we know about Roman agricultural practices in the late Roman Republic and Early Imperial Periods.  

Of Columella himself, we know very little and it is all from his writings.  We know he was from Baetica Hispania (Modern Spain) and probably born in Gades (modern Cadiz).  We have evidence he was a tribune in the Roman army from a monument in Tarentum (modern Taranto, Italy), possibly having served in Syria.  We can guess, based on other references, that he was born sometimes in the latter reign of Augustus Caesar (~ 4 B.C.) and probably died sometime in the latter part of Nero's reign or in the Year of Four Emperors (~ 68 to 70 A.D.). He had an uncle, Marcus Columella, whom he praises as a good farmer and who, it is a likely guess, he spent some amount time with.  We know he owned farms in Caresoli, Ardea, Albunum, and Caere.  

And we know from his works he was a keen student of agriculture.

His work is divided into 12 books:  Preface, Selection of land and management of farm staff, Soil enrichment/ploughing/crops, Cultivation/pruning/grafting of vines, Cultivation/pruning/grafting of fruit trees and olives, Animal husbandry and care (cattle/horses/mules), Animal husbandry and care (sheep, goats, swine, dogs), Poultry and fish ponds, Apiculture, Gardening, Duties of the farm overseer, and Duties of the farm overseer's wife (including recipes for pickling, preserving, and making wine) - in other words, everything one should know to run a successful farm in the 1st Century A.D.

The work is one of those sorts of historical miracles: known and quoted by Pliny the Elder, Cassiodorus, and Isidore of Seville, it somehow got lost in history only as fragments until copies were found in monastery libraries in the early 15th Century (proving again, by the by, why the idea of creating small communities to preserve knowledge really matters and things like The Benedict Option really matter in the modern world).

I know what you are thinking:  Why such interest?  This is written for a system and way of life that disappeared (literally) centuries ago.  What could it possibly teach us, other than some obscure Latin phrases and give Latin practice.

The first reason, of course, is I simply love a good book, and from what I have read so far (I have completed Volume 1 and am in Volume 2, Book V), Columella is a careful writer.  He knows exactly what he is writing about in great detail and although, for example, I only understand a bit from his chapters of viticulture, I am willing to bet that an actual practitioner would recognize many of the techniques mentioned from his description 2,000 years later.

The second reason is simply that I am interested in low input agriculture.  While the Romans had some technology (including concrete we still cannot replicate), they also were working with very basic conditions:  they were largely dependent on weather as it occurred;  Inputs to the fields were only those they could grow or gather themselves:  green manure, animal manure, even human manure and urine.  There were some exotic plants, but at the same time no farmer was going to "bet the farm" (literally) on an unproven technology or crop.

The third reason is that to me, it reads like a travel log.  Columella writes of grapes that we know nothing of, other than potentially the region they were originally from:  Massic, Surrentine, Alban, Caecuban, Bituric, Aminean, Basilic.  These names, their descriptions, what they imply - to me, they excite me as much as the name of foreign civilizations long dead, that we only know through their architecture and writing.  It becomes an agricultural journey in the Ancient World.

Not all the information is useful, of course.  All authors - Columella, Cato, and Verres - presume the use of slaves to complete the work instead of small independent yeoman farmers (which would eventually become the large Latifundia farms of Italy), so there is also a less savory side to the writings - but quite reflective, given the times.  And it makes some of their advice not applicable at all in current times, as most people (like myself) that are reading such things and even trying to do such things would not have such a labor force available.

Does that make this work (or these works) less useful?  I do not think so.  In modern times, we keep trying to find ways to farm more productively and less destructively.  It turns out - be in in Rome or China or Japan - people had actually been doing this for thousands of years, where maintaining the fertility of the land was a paramount need as one needed the land to produce.  

We need only look back to look ahead.


  1. Okay, you hooked my interest with "low input agriculture." Then you say, "It becomes an agricultural journey in the Ancient World." I find these kinds of books absolutely fascinating. Having accurate historical perspective somehow makes me feel grounded to the human race. And what better sources than writings from those who lived it.

    1. Leigh, I have to confess that not every ancient work that has been preserved is a good read. I plodded through Quintillian's books on Oration; he was considered "the" source by the post Augustuan Empire, but he was very hard to read in parts. Columella is not so: not only was he apparently a good agriculturalist, but he is a good writer (the books by Varro and Cato are the same - and they are a single volume; you might start there if you have interest). I find him - and them - fascinating, especially some of the techniques they had to employ given a world with no modern conveniences.

    2. I'm guessing a good translator is important too.

    3. Leigh, it is - both the actual translator and when it was translated - perhaps not surprisingly, modern translators allow their 21st Century biases to come through in their commentary (new Penguin editions of the classics are especially bad in this matter, which is why I switched to Loeb). Many of the Loeb translations are from the 1920s to the 1950s.

  2. Can't beat an actual book in the hand as opposed to even an e-reader which requires power to use it. Let's hope that an actual need for a reference like Columella doesn't happen.

    1. Nylon12, I am just a physical book guy. Part of it is ownership of something that cannot be "deleted"; some of it is that I look at a computer screen 40-50 hours a week. The last thing I want to do is read something else on it.

      Indeed, let us hope any practices I learn are used because I want to, not because I have to.

  3. It is strange when we read of slaves and indentured servitude. That was so common that it wasn't even a second thought up until the mid 1800's here. One can still buy slaves in Africa, and other parts of the world. They were human implements back then, just as they are now. Much like our betters view the flood of folks from the southern border, "they do work other people don't want to". As I understand it, that mindset shows a caste system of thinking. Much like the PTB look upon the normies right now. So,very little to no change in 2000 years, eh?

    The concept of low input ag is intriguing. I may have to source those books.

    1. STxAR, I forget which author, Verres or Cato - but I think it was Cato, he had a very unfortunate views (to modern minds) on enslaved humans - that referred to slaves as "living tools". What a jarring thought, that a person would be reduced in practice to the same as a shovel or mattock, except they could talk.

      The fact that slavery still exists in the modern world - which it is documented as existing - should be the outcry of every church, if nothing else. Sadly, this will largely go un-noticed.

      They are interesting. As usual, Caveat emptor: all these authors assume a Mediterranean climate like Italy, where they farmed. Your mileage may vary.

  4. That is great, TB. Yet another hint that she is ready for the change to Old Home?
    Glad you are enjoying them.

    You all be safe and a blessed weekend to you.

    1. I sure hope so Linda. It could also be that they have been on my Christmas list for the last five years and in an act of love, she got them.

      Columella is a very good author. Many of the ancient authors are, which I think would surprise a good many people who consider those times primitive.


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