Prospect Books

Cato, Andrew Dalby (ed.)

Cato on Farming

De agri cultura

ISBN-10 0-907325-80-7
ISBN-13 978-0-907325-80-2

Published Aug 1998

248 pages; 220×130 mm; paperback; b&w illustrations

Price £12.50

Cato wrote the earliest surviving complete work of Latin prose literature. It was this treatise: a book of instruction about the cultivation of vines, olives and fruit, the management of slaves and contract labour, the rituals consequent on ownership and even cookery for humans and the pharmacy. Because of its date, the 2nd century BC, it is a particularly important resource for students of Latin and of early Roman society as well as, of course, enthusiasts of cookery, for these are the first recipes to have survived in the Latin language.

   Andrew Dalby has provided an intelligent, accurate, modern translation of the Latin, which is here printed as a parallel text. The English is fully annotated to enable better understanding of the terms and references in Cato’s writing. Many comparisons are drawn with later Roman authors to elucidate this difficult, yet important text.

   The introduction places the man and his work in context and discusses specific problems of textural arrangement and organization and agricultural practice. There are several drawings to aid appreciation of Cato’s descriptions of buildings and equipment.

   Andrew Dalby is a classical scholar whose interests are food and lexicography. His Siren Feasts: a history of food and gastronomy in Greece has been acclaimed, and he has also written, with Sally Grainger, The Classical Cookbook.

The Editor's Introduction to his Translation (PDF)

Review in Bryn Mawr Classical Review (07/99)

Review by John Wilkins in The Agricultural History Review (99)

Review in Bryn Mawr Classical Review (Jul 1999)

Dalby’s introduction (pp. 7-29) asserts the importance of Cato’s handbook and the need for a new translation, and provides what the author regards as the necessary background information. A few selected points about the background need to be emphasized.

The first section, “Cato’s Italy” (pp. 7-8), surveys the political and economic situation of Italy in the 2nd century BCE, and sets Cato in context.

“Cato’s Life” (pp. 8-13) touches on Cato’s biography and character. Here Dalby’s overview leaves out some important points and is hampered by received notions, some of which have already been shown the door, and others which I hope will be soon. Dalby accepts too readily (p. 9) the traditional portrait of division between Cato and Scipio, the future Africanus Maior, when Cato served as his quaestor in 204 (see, e.g., Ruebel 163-4); he omits what seems to me a crucial detail of Cato’s praetorship in Sardinia, when he capped interest rates and deported money-lenders. Dalby steps into an error – perhaps following Plutarch (Cat. Mai. 11) – by remarking that Cato, who spent much of his consulship of 195 BCE campaigning in Spain, was succeeded in that province by Scipio Africanus; in fact Cato was succeeded by P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica, Africanus’ cousin (see Astin 51-2). Some may choose to believe, as Dalby apparently does (p. 10), that Cato in 189 BCE “attacked” his former commander, M.’ Acilius Glabrio; Livy (37.57.13-14) says only that Cato testified against him; Glabrio is made by Livy (37.57.15) to complain that he was brought down by a hypocritical, partisan Cato, but these are, in context, predictable sour grapes (his complaint is refuted by Livy’s narrative at 37.57.12). Still, the general impression Dalby gives (pp. 10-11) of Cato as a relentless opponent of all those who transgressed against his view of Roman political morality is accurate enough, if perhaps a bit overstated (e.g., “he had a well-deserved reputation for stubborn righteousness and fiery oratory”).

But Cato’s fabled “moralism,” which seems to have been contaminated by the echoes of Puritanism, did not so much have to do with “issues of morality and private expenditure” (p. 11) as with habits detrimental to the stability of the Roman state, which depended on the financial stability of the ruling class at least as much as it did on funding for the treasury; his luxury conflict, throughout the book, between the farm as a way of life and the farm as a mere investment." I see no conflict, but Dalby explains (ibid.) that Cato was raised on a farm (“way of life”), but as an adult he managed from afar (“mere investment”). Third, Cato’s advice was not broadened much beyond the geographical area where he apparently learned from experience. This hardly seems controversial, unless we assume that Cato did more than compile what he had accumulated for his own use; there is certainly no perceptible sign of such extended research. It was for Varro and Columella to take Cato’s limited example and turn out manuals for more general audiences. Finally, Dalby indicates (p. 23) that modern economists criticize Cato’s insistence on the farm’s self-sufficiency, since modern investors “maximize income from … the principal produce and spend a proportion of this income on supplies.” I am no economist, but it seems to me there is a balance to be struck between those things more profitably done in-house and those things more efficiently farmed out or purchased from outside. Dalby (p. 24) rightly emphasizes that bringing anything from any distance was much more expensive then than it is now.

“Cato and his Readers” (pp. 25-6) makes clear that the text was intended to be consulted, not read, and that modern readers will profit by reading with this in mind. “How the Text Survived” (pp. 27-8) makes no surprising claims but that (p. 27) Agr. 157 (the praise of the cabbage) is spurious (his remarks do not justify, to my mind, his decision to translate it separately as an appendix). “This Translation and Beyond” (pp. 28-9) justifies the new translation and outlines its methodology.

There follow “Three Notes” (pp. 30-32) helping readers deal with Roman weights and measures, money, and gender issues brought up by the translation. “Illustrations” (pp. 33-49) consist of eleven figures, including a map of the area with which Cato’s text is most concerned and illustrations, diagrams, and plans of various representations, structures, and devices.

Then come the Latin text (on the left) and the English translation (on the right) on facing pages. From the start it is clear the translation will be rather free, which may suit some more than it does me. But before I offer criticisms, I want to point out that Dalby has, at times, improved upon Brehaut, and that his translation is often elegant and usually more than satisfactory. In the sentence (Agr. 112.3, p. 175) “pick from their stems the berries of miscella grapes into this vat till it is full,” Dalby dispenses with Brehaut’s (105) unnecessary supplement between “grapes” and “into” of the phrase “[and place them]”. Similarly, Dalby’s “… gather miscellae grapes for early-harvest wine for the workers to drink” (Agr. 23.2, p. 109) is preferable to Brehaut’s “… gather the miscella grapes [and make] the early wine for the workers to drink” (Brehaut 47). When at his best, Dalby leaves the English as elliptical as the Latin. Typical of Dalby's translation is the following (Agr. 25.1, p. 111): “When grapes are ripe and are harvested, first be sure enough is kept by for the household and the owner’s people. And be sure that they are harvested fully ripe and dry, or your wine will lose its reputation.” It is a bit too free for my taste, but I can't fault its general accuracy.

A free translation, however, sometimes flirts with inaccuracy. Dalby translates the first sentence of the prologue (Agr. pr. l, p. 53): “Trading can sometimes bring success, but it is insecure; so can money-lending, but that is not respectable.” Two important points are neglected: 1) the comparison inherent in Cato's word praestare; and 2) the conditionality of nisi and sit. The effect is to portray Cato as having believed that neither trade nor money-lending ever had anything on farming. I would have translated, “it can sometimes be better to profit from trade, if it is not so risky, and by the same token to lend money, if it is so honorable.” The Latin makes clear that trade is generally more risky, and money-lending generally less honorable, than farming, but leaves some wriggle-room. Cato himself engaged in trade and a form of money-lending, but in such a way as to minimize the financial risks to both sides in the investment (Plus. Cat. Mai 21.6-7; cf. de Ste. Croix).

I also have a preference for consistency, which Dalby’s translation sometimes fails to satisfy. He translates per cribrum cernas (Agr. 107.1) with the simple imperative “sieve” (p. 173), but renders conca … tollas (Agr. 66.1) by the phrase “dip … with a dipper” (p. 149), introducing redundancy. I would have preserved the nuance in each case: “sift through a sieve” and “take up … with a dipper” (cf. Brehaut 85; Hooper-Ash 31).

The jussive subjunctive is rendered variously by “should,” “must,” or the simple imperative; oportet is rendered “can,” “must,” “should,” or by the simple imperative. Latin imperatives are sometimes reduced to sentence fragments in English (perhaps to imitate modern instruction manuals?): for example, serito is rendered (p. 79 bis) “to be planted.“

Beyond these quibbles over taste, some errors bear mentioning. I will begin with some that are merely probable (and will pass over textual quagmires and tortuously difficult Latin in deferent silence). I think ubi solstitium fuerit ad brumam (Agr. 17.1) means “when the solstice comes in winter” (cf. Brehaut 35) and not “between the summer solstice and the shortest day” (p. 97, following Goujard 26); Dalby renders sculponias (Agr. 59, 135.1 [sculponeas ]) simply as “boots” (pp. 143, 189), when it apparently meant “carved shoes” (> sculpo ), and therefore “clogs” or “wooden shoes” (Brehaut 80, 114; Hooper-Ash 77, but “shoes” 117) or, in French, “sabots” (Goujard 54) or “galoches” (Goujard 86).

Dalby’s translation of Agr. pr. 1 seems a subtle misconstruction (53, emphasis added): “So our forefathers thought; and so they enacted that a thief should pay any penalty twice over, a money-lender four times over, which allows us to infer how much worse a citizen they thought a money-lender was than a thief.” Sic and ita (translations in italics) are made to refer to what came before; it seems to me (as it did to Brehaut; contra Hooper-Ash 3) that they both look forward to the opinion that Cato intends to impute to the maiores: “Our forefathers were of the opinion, and they set it into law, that a thief be condemned at twice, and the usurer at four times the amount in question…” Other errors are more obvious: For in umbra (Agr. 125) Dalby writes “in the sun” (p. 183). He failed to recognize ergo (pp. 197, 199) in the prayers of Agr. 139 and 141 as the preposition (more properly post position) with the genitive (cf. OLD s.v. ergol). For the sentence (Agr. 157.10): “item pueros pusillos si raves eo lotio, numquam debiles fient,” Dalby writes (p. 231): “If you wash feeble children in this urine they will be weak no longer.” But the sentence speaks of small (pusillos), not “feeble” children, and through this treatment they will never become weak (numquam debiles fient). A Roman numeral VIII (Agr. 161.3) is entered as “7” in the translated text (p. 225). The words ulmeos (Agr. 31.1), bene odoratam (Agr. 107) and recte (Agr. 133.1) went untranslated (pp. 115, 173, 187 respectively). Such errors may not entirely vitiate the translation, but they are more serious and more numerous than I would have hoped.

Dalby’s notes are presented as footnotes to the English. Brehaut’s fuller treatment will sometimes be missed. For example, when Cato declares (Agr. 37.1) that chickpea is bad for crops because it is pulled up (vellitur), and "salty” (salsum), Dalby (p. 121, n. 133) notes only that cicer is the Latin word for chickpea. Brehaut (61, n. 2) tries to give some explanation of Cato’s reasoning. One needs Brehaut (102-3 n. 3) for the evidence identifying Cato’s serta campanica (Agr. 107.1) with Dalby’s rendering, "melilot” (p. 173). Still, Dalby’s notes are helpful as far as they go.

The Latin text is Goujard’s, promising notice of departures. I found one error: Goujard (27) prints a numeral LIIII (Agr. 18.3), which should have been printed in Dalby’s text LII[II] (see below); Dalby printed “LIIII,” but translated “52” (p. 99).

To my mind, the Latin text suffers from Dalby’s choice (or perhaps it was forced upon him by an editor) to depart from usual practice by using []’s to indicate editorial insertions into the text, rather than deletions. (But on p. 218, “[item]” (Agr. 156.3) represents Goujard’s deletion of that word in his text.) Students new to the field may not find this immediately troubling, but if they go farther in the field, they may be confused.

I found a few typographical errors in the Latin: singtzlas (p. 94 for singulas); atrescat (p. 134 for arescat); cuni (p. 176 for cum). The book was otherwise quite well corrected.

This translation does sometimes improve upon the others, but is occasionally markedly inferior to them. The notes will not replace Brehaut’s, but are helpful on many points. In any event, for keeping attention focused on a difficult and important document, this translation will earn a considerable share of praise for its author.

Review by John Wilkins in The Agricultural History Review (1999)

This is a splendid edition of an agricultural text by the earliest surviving Roman prose author. Andrew Dalby, the editor, has published widely on ancient texts concerned with food and eating and brings a fresh eye to this valuable work: not every book on Cato has a contents page with ‘a note on money’ and ‘a note on sex’, the two aspects of culture which, if not held in check, Cato considered among the most threatening to his own ideology. Dalby writes elegantly and with exemplary clarity in his introduction, translation and explanatory footnotes. The Latin text used is the Bude edition of 1975, with small changes.

The introduction covers the development of Italy in the third and second centuries BC, in particular the relationship between Rome and the Italic and Greek communities of the southern part of the peninsula. Cato (who was born in Latium or Lazio) became the severe Roman Censor of Republican political mythology and wrote damningly of Hellenic influence. Yet there are traces of Greek influence in De agricultura, including adaptations of medical treatises which ignore such vital considerations as season and individual constitution and may have been a hazard to health. Dalby notes a conflict in the work between ‘the farm as a way of life and the farm as a mere investment’. Attention is given to the religious year and to magical practices but the main thrust of the work is advice on agricultural investment to a speculator. Dalby is at pains to point out (p. 23) that the focus is on cost and savings rather than maximizing income. But this is no subsistence farm. Olives, wine, vegetables, lambs and pigs and perhaps even cakes are produced for sale and attention is given to contractual detail.

The imagined farm appears to be located in the inland region of Campania or Latium close to the town of Venafrum which was an olive-growing region. It would have been helpful had Dalby given some idea of the typical farm of 60 acres in the area at this period (early-second century BC) or later. He comments on the problem of Cato’s order of priorities, which was discussed in antiquity: ‘first the vineyard (or an abundance of wine), second an irrigated kitchen garden, third a willow wood, fourth an olive field, fifth a meadow, sixth a grain-field, seventh a plantation of trees, eighth an orchard, ninth an acorn wood’. According to Dalby these are ‘added-value features whose presence – independently of whatever is the main produce – helps to promote self-sufficiency, to reduce marginal expenditure and to provide added sources of profit’. But we still need to know why Cato puts cereals sixth: why is the ‘main produce’ not the main concern? Later authors identified viticulture in particular as dangerous and speculative farming (see N. Purcell, Journal of Roman Studies 1986).

Dalby’s notes are particularly helpful in directing readers to other agricultural authors such as Varro and Columella, and to the secondary works of Joan Frayn on subsistence farming and the late K.D. White who wrote extensively on practical aspects of Roman farming.

Readers of this journal know better than I the influence of Cato on agricultural authors after the classical period, whether in the UK or in Mediterranean countries. Dalby does not address the matter of reception. The text has many fascinating features ranging from the construction of presses and a lime kiln, to grafting, pitching containers, force-feeding geese and cutting wood when the moon is not full. Veterinary details are remarkable, as is the section on cakes and the manufacture of Greek-style wine. These appear to be luxury items against which we might have expected a diatribe from the Censor. Similarly, the presence of a fishpond is notable, given its censure in later Roman authors. The only named fish to appear are in a rambling recipe for a laxative. Dalby draws the line at section 157 with its ‘cabbage eater’s urine’ and its use of cabbage to cure breast cancer: this is the work of an inferior author.

For the modern reader, this treatise is a source of endless fascination, in its details of husbandry, in its moral and ideological setting, in its prose form (in a culture where poets were quite happy to describe the construction of a plough), in its treatment of topics of scientific and medical interest and much more. The reader can also speculate on the apparent contradictions of its totemic author. Andrew Dalby is to be warmly praised for bringing the work to the modern reader in an edition that is helpful and attractive, with maps and diagrams to illustrate the area under review and ancient constructions of buildings, presses and kilns.