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This webpage reproduces part of the
Loeb Classical Library edition of the
De Agricultura

Cato the Elder


The text is in the public domain.

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On Agriculture


Life and Works of Cato​1

Marcus Porcius Cato (234‑149 B.C.), known also as the Orator, the Censor, Cato Major, or the Elder, to distinguish him from his great-grandson Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis, was born of an old plebeian family at Tusculum, an ancient town of Latium, within ten miles of Rome. His youth was spent on his father's farm near Reate, in the Sabine country. Here he acquired early in life those qualities of simplicity, frugality, strict honesty, austerity, and patriotism for which he was regarded by later generations as the embodiment of the old Roman virtues. His native ability and shrewdness, says Plutarch, gave him the surname Cato ("the shrewd") replacing the earlier name of Priscus. Love of the soil, implanted in him in his youth, remained throughout his life; though not content with the agricultural limitations of a Sabine farmer he became in later years the owner of great plantations worked by slave labour.

Entering upon a military career at the age of seventeen, Cato served with distinction in the Second Punic War, and devoted the following twenty-six years of his life to military affairs. He accompanied Tiberius Sempronius as his lieutenant in his expedition into Thrace. He went with Manius Achiliusº Glabrio into Greece against Antiochus the Great in 191, in the capacity of tribune. As commander of the Roman army in Hither Spain during his consulship he won many victories and was a successful ruler, but noted for his cruelty to his defeated enemies. Always active in the affairs of the state, he showed himself an obstinate and vigorous opponent of the nobility, of luxurious living, and of the invasion into Italy of Greek culture; though it is said that he himself was taught Greek late in life by the poet Ennius.​2 Political offices came to him in due succession, a quaestorship in Sicily and Africa in 204, an aedileship in 199, a praetorship in Sardinia in 198, the consulship in 195 with Hither Spain as his province, and the censorship in 184. His innumerable speeches, political and judicial, delivered before the senate or popular assembly, were marked by eloquence, earnestness, and pungent wit, not without vainglory and narrowness of view. Always the champion of the common people, he stood out as the relentless foe of aristocratic factions. The vigour and severity with which he applied himself to the duties of the censorship, with his strict revision of the senatorial lists, gained for him the surname Censorius. Sent into Carthage on an official mission in 175, he conceived such hatred for the Carthaginians, upon noting their obvious recovery from the effects of the Punic wars, that from that time on he closed every speech in the senate with the words delenda est Carthago, regardless of the occasion. The words of Cato became the policy of the senate and in 149, the year of Cato's death, the Third Punic War began.

Quintilian speaks​3 of the great versatility of Cato as general, philosopher, orator, historian, and outstanding expert in jurisprudence and agriculture. Cicero bears witness​4 to the breadth of his learning and the variety of his writings. He is praised by Pliny​5 as "the master of all good arts"; and is said by Columella​6 to have been the first to teach Rome to speak Latin.​a In the field of literary composition, for which he affected contempt, Cato was prolific. He was the first Roman to write out and publish on a large scale his own speeches, of which Cicero professed​7 to have known and read more than one hundred and fifty. He was the first Roman to leave to us prose writings of any consequence, and is regarded as the father of Latin prose​8 as Ennius is the father of Latin poetry. He rebelled against the prevailing annalistic treatment of history as written to flatter the vanity of the nobles, and omitted the names of all such from his account of the Second Punic War, preferring rather to sing the praises of a certain Surus, bravest elephant of the Carthaginian army.​9 He paved the way in the field of encyclopaedic learning so dear to the Romans, and was the first of a group of Roman writers on husbandry. Yet of the great bulk of his writings comparatively little has been preserved to us in anything like completeness.​10 The speeches were familiar to Servius as late as the fourth century of our era,​11 but are known to us only through scattered references and occasional quotations. The same fate has overtaken the seven books of Origines, a work begun in his old age,​12 dealing with the ethnology, antiquities, and history of Italy from the founding of Rome down to the year 149, and deriving its title from its attempt to trace the origins of various Italian tribes. His greatest didactic work, an encyclopaedic handbook for his son, containing precepts on morals, sanitation, oratory, military science, agriculture, and other subjects, has perished, as has also a collection of aphorisms and witty sayings of others; what now passes under the name of Catonis Disticha is a collection of moral maxims in verse, perhaps spurious imitations of Cato, which circulated in the latter period of the Empire. The only work now surviving to represent Cato in its complete form is a miscellaneous collection of agricultural precepts which appear in the manuscripts under the name De Agri Cultura, and in the earlier printed editions as De Re Rustica.

The De Agri Cultura constitutes our earliest extant specimen of connected, if often loosely connected, Latin prose. The work, with its notable lack of systematic arrangement, can hardly pass as literature. It resembles rather a farmer's notebook in which the author had jotted down in random fashion​13 all sorts of directions for the care of the farm, for his own private use or for the benefit of his friends and neighbours. Based on the writer's own first-hand experience and probably intended as a practical manual on the subject of husbandry, it contains all sorts of authoritative directions for the farm overseer. The work in its present form has lost in great measure its archaic diction, but the spirit of the stern old Roman remains. In its haphazard arrangement and abrupt Catonian style, a style best characterized by Aulus Gellius​14 as perhaps open to improvement in matters of clearness and fullness of expression, yet forceful and vigorous, it falls far short of the more finished work of Varro and the fluent, methodical treatise of Columella. So, too, it proved inadequate for the husbandmen of later generations; but Cato blazed the trail for his more eloquent successors in the field, and is often quoted by them as an authority. The work, despite its confused text, its difficulty of interpretation, and its problems still unresolved, is readable. Its greatest charm to‑day lies in its severe simplicity, and its chief value in the picture which may be drawn from it of old Roman life in the best days of the Republic.

The Editor's Notes:

1 Ancient accounts of the life and character of Cato are found in Cicero's Cato Maior and in the "Lives" of Cornelius Nepos, Plutarch, and Aurelius Victor. See also Mommsen, History of Rome, Vol. III, Chaps. 11 and 14; Duff, A Literary History of Rome (to the close of the Golden Age), 250‑52, 255‑59, 262‑64; Teuffel and Schwabe, History of Roman Literature, §§ 118‑22.

2 Cf. Aurelius Victor, de Viris Illustribus, 47.

3 Quint., Inst. Orat., XII, 11, 23.

4 Cic., de Orat., III, 135; Brut.61, 69, 294.

5 Plin. N. H. XXV, 4.

6 Colum., de Re Rust., I, 1, 12.

7 Cic., Brut., 67.

8 Id., 16, 61.

9 Plin. N. H. VIII, 11.

10 The fragments in general are found in H. Jordan, M. Catonis praeter librum de re rustica quae extant, Leipzig, 1860.

11 See Serv. ad Aen., VII, 259, XI, 301.

12 Nepos, Cato, 3, 3. Fragments of the Origines are included in H. Peter, Historicorum Romanorum Fragmenta, 1883.

13 Hörle (in his Catos Hausbücher, Paderborn, 1929) contends that the arrangement is not to be charged to Cato himself, but to some compiler of agricultural precepts contained in Cato's various works.

14 Aul. Gell., N. A. VI, 3, 17 f., 52 f.

Thayer's Note:

a Cato taught Rome to speak Latin: No; a nonsensical misunderstanding of the text of Columella (q.v.), which is correctly rendered in English by the Loeb translator.

Page updated: 12 Dec 17