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This webpage reproduces part of the
De Re Rustica


published in Vol. I
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1941

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book I

(Vol. I) Columella
De Re Rustica

 p3  Book I

1 Again and again I hear leading men of our state condemning now the unfruitfulness of the soil, now the inclemency of the climate for some seasons past, as harmful to crops; and some I hear reconciling the aforesaid complaints, as if on well-founded reasoning, on the ground that, in their opinion, the soil was worn out and exhausted by the over-production of earlier days and can no longer furnish sustenance to mortals with its old-time benevolence.​1 2 Such reasons, Publius Silvinus,​2 I am convinced are far from the truth; for it is a sin to suppose that Nature, endowed with perennial fertility by the creator of the universe, is affected with barrenness as though with some disease; and it is unbecoming to a man of good judgment to believe that Earth, to whose lot was assigned a divine and everlasting youth, and who is called the common mother  p5 of all things — because she has always brought forth all things and is destined to bring them forth continuously — has grown old in mortal fashion.​3 3 And, furthermore, I do not believe that such misfortunes come upon us as a result of the fury of the elements, but rather because of our own fault; for the matter of husbandry, which all the best of our ancestors had treated with the best of care, we have delivered over to all the worst of our slaves, as if to a hangman for punishment.4

As for me, I cannot cease to wonder why those who wish to become speakers are so careful in the choosing of an orator whose eloquence they may imitate; those who investigate the science of surveying and mathematics emulate a master of the art of their choice; those who devote themselves to the study of dancing and music are most scrupulous in their search for one to teach modulation of the speaking and singing voice, and no less for an instructor in graceful movement of the body; 4 even those who wish to build call in joiners and master-builders; those who entrust ships to the sea send for skilful pilots; those who make preparations for war call for men practised in arms and in campaigning; and, not to go through the list one by one, for any study which one wishes to pursue he employs the most expert director; in short, everyone summons from the company of the wise a man to mould his intellect and instruct him in the precepts of virtue; but agriculture alone, which is without doubt most closely related and, as it were, own sister to wisdom, is as destitute of learners as of teachers. 5 For that there are to this day schools for rhetoricians and, as I have said, for mathematicians and musicians,  p7 or, what is more to be wondered at, training-schools for the most contemptible vices — the seasoning of food to promote gluttony and the more extravagant serving of courses, and dressers of the head and hair — I have not only heard but have even seen with my own eyes; but of agriculture I know neither self-professed teachers nor pupils. 6 For even if the state were destitute of professors of the aforementioned arts, still the commonwealth could prosper just as in the times of the ancients — for without the theatrical profession and even without case-pleaders​5 cities were once happy enough, and will again be so; yet without tillers of the soil it is obvious that mankind can neither subsist nor be fed.

7 For this reason, what has come to pass is the more amazing — that the art of the highest importance to our physical welfare and the needs of life should have made, even up to our own time, the least progress; and that this method of enlarging and passing on an inheritance, entirely free from guilt, should be looked upon with scorn. For other methods, diverse and in conflict as it were, are at odds with justice; unless we think it more equitable to have acquired spoils by the soldier's method, which profits us nothing without bloodshed and disaster to others. 8 Or, to those who detest war, can the hazard of the sea and of trade be more desirable, that man, a terrestrial being, violating the law of nature and exposing himself to the wrath of wind and sea, should hang on the waves and always  p9 wander over an unknown world in the manner of birds, a stranger on a distant shore? Or is usury more commendable, a thing detested even by those whom it appears to aid? 9 But certainly no more admirable is the "canine pursuit,"​6 as the ancients called it, of barking at every man of outstanding wealth, and the practice of legal banditry against the innocent and in defence of the guilty — a fraud despised by our ancestors, but even allowed by us within the city and in the very forum. Or should I regard as more honourable the hypocritical fawning of the man who frequents the levees, for a price, and hovers about the thresholds of the mighty,​7 divining the sleeping hours of his lord by hearsay? For the servants do not deign to reply to his questions as to what is going on indoors. 10 Or am I to think it a greater gift of fortune for a man, rebuffed by a door-keeper in chains, to loiter about those ungrateful doors, often until late at night, and by the most demeaning servility to purchase at the price of dishonour the honour and power of the fasces,8 though with the dissipation of his own inheritance? For it is not with voluntary servitude, but with bribes, that preferments are bought.

If good men are to shun these pursuits and their kind, there remains, as I have said, one method of increasing one's substance that befits a man who is a gentleman and free-born, and this is found in agriculture. 11 If the precepts of this science were put in practice in the old-fashioned way, even in imprudent fashion by those without previous instruction (provided, however, that they were owners of the land), the business of husbandry would sustain smaller loss; for the diligence that goes with proprietor­ship  p11 would compensate in large measure the losses occasioned by lack of knowledge; and men whose interests were at stake would not wish to appear forever ignorant of their own affairs, and for that reason more zealous to learn, they would gain a thorough knowledge of husbandry. 12 As it is, we think it beneath us to till our lands with our own hands, and we consider it of no importance to appoint as an overseer a man of very great experience or at least, if he is inexperienced, one who is wide-awake and active, that he may learn more quickly what he does not know. But if a rich man purchases a farm, out of his throng of footmen and litter-bearers he sends off to the fields the one most bankrupt in years and strength, whereas such work requires, not only knowledge, but the age of vigour and physical strength as well, to endure its hardships; or, if the owner is of moderate means, out of the number of his hands for hire he orders someone who now refuses him the daily tribute money, since the man cannot be a source of income, to be made a foreman, though he may know nothing of the work which he is to superintend.

13 When I observe these things, reviewing in my mind and reflecting upon the shameful unanimity with which rural discipline has been abandoned and passed out of use, I am fearful lest it may be disgraceful and, in a sense, degrading or dishonourable to men of free birth. But when I am reminded by the records of many writers that it was a matter of pride with our forefathers to give their attention  p13 to farming, from which pursuit came Quinctius Cincinnatus,​9 summoned from the plough to the dictator­ship to be the deliverer of a beleaguered consul and his army, and then, again laying down the power which he relinquished after victory more hastily than he had assumed it for command, to return to the same bullocks and his small ancestral inheritance of four iugera;​10 14 from which pursuit came also Gaius Fabricius​11 and Curius Dentatus,​12 the one after his rout of Pyrrhus from the confines of Italy, the other after his conquest of the Sabines, tilling the captured land which they had received in the distribution of seven iugera to a man, with an energy not inferior to the bravery in arms with which they had gained it; and, not unseasonably to run through individual cases at this time, when I observe that so many other renowned captains of Roman stock were invariably distinguished in this twofold pursuit of either defending or tilling their ancestral or acquired estates, I understand that yesterday's morals and strenuous manner of living are out of tune with our present extravagance and devotion to pleasure. 15 For, even as Marcus Varro​13 complained in the days of our grandfathers, all of us who are heads of families have quit the sickle and the plough and have crept within the city-walls; and we ply our hands​14 in the circuses and theatres rather than in the grainfields and vineyards; and we gaze in astonished admiration at the posturings of effeminate males, because they counterfeit by  p15 their womanish motions a sex which nature has denied to men, and deceive the eyes of the spectators. 16 And presently, then, that we may come to our gluttonous feasts in proper fettle, we steam out our daily indigestion in sweat-baths,​15 and by drying out the moisture of our bodies we arouse a thirst; we spend our nights in licentiousness and drunkenness, our days in gaming or sleeping, and account ourselves blessed by fortune in that "we behold neither the rising of the sun nor its setting."​16 17 The consequence is that ill health attends so slothful a manner of living; for the bodies of our young men are so flabby and enervated that death seems likely to make no change in them.

But, by heaven, that true stock of Romulus, practised in constant hunting and no less in toiling in the fields, was distinguished by the greatest physical strength and, hardened by the labours of peace, easily endured the hardships of war when occasion demanded, and always esteemed the common people of the country more highly than those of the city. For as those who kept within the confines of the country houses​17 were accounted more slothful than those who tilled the ground outside, so those who spent their time idly within the walls, in the shelter of the city, were looked upon as more sluggish than those who tilled the fields or supervised the labours of the tillers. 18 It is evident, too, that their  p17 market-day​18 gatherings were employed for this purpose — that city affairs might be transacted on every ninth day and country affairs on the other days. For in those times, as we have previously remarked, the leading men of the state used to pass their time in the fields and were summoned from their farms to the senate when advice on matters of state was wanted; as a result of which those who summoned them were called viatores19 or "road-men." 19 And so long as this custom was preserved, with a most persevering enthusiasm for tilling their lands, those old Sabine Quirites and our Roman forefathers, even though exposed to fire and sword, and despite the devastation of their crops by hostile forays, still laid by a greater store of crops than do we, who, with the sufferance of long-continued peace, might have extended the practice of agriculture.

20 So, then, in "this Latium and Saturnian land,"​20 where the gods had taught their offspring of the fruits of the fields, we let contracts at auction​21 for the importation of grain from our provinces beyond the sea, that we may not suffer hunger; and we lay up our stores of wine from the Cyclades Islands and from the districts of Baetica​22 and Gaul. Nor is it to be wondered at, seeing that the common notion is now generally entertained and established that farming is a mean employment and a business which has no need of direction or of precept. 21 But for my part, when I review the magnitude of the  p19 entire subject, like the immensity of some great body, or the minuteness of its several parts, as so many separate members, I am afraid that my last day may overtake me before I can comprehend the entire subject of rural discipline.

22 For one who would profess to be a master of this science must have a shrewd insight into the works of nature; he must not be ignorant of the variations of latitude, that he may have ascertained what is suitable to every region and what is incompatible. He should tell over in his mind the rising and setting of the stars, that he may not begin his operations when rains and winds are threatening, and so bring his toils to naught. 23 He must observe the behaviour of the current weather and season, for they do not always wear the same habit as if according to a fixed rule; summer and winter do not come every year with the same countenance; the spring is not always rainy or the autumn moist. These matters I cannot believe that any man can know beforehand without the light of intelligence and without the most accurate instruction. Indeed, it is granted to few to discern what the very diversity of land and the nature of each soil may deny us, or what they may promise us. 24 Of how many, in fact, is it the lot to survey all parts of this science, so as thoroughly to understand the practice of cropping and ploughing and to have an accurate knowledge of the varied and very unlike types of soil (of which some deceive us by their colour, some by their texture; in some lands the black soil which they call pulla, as in Campania, is commended; in others a fat, glutinous soil answers  p21 better; in some countries, as in Africa and Numidia, a crumbling, sandy soil surpasses in fertility even the strongest land; while in Asia and Mysia​23 a stiff and viscous soil is especially productive)? 25 Of how many is it the lot to have an understanding in the matter of these soils, as to what crop a hillside will refuse to yield, what a level situation, what a cultivated land, what a wooded land, what a land that is moist and grassy or dry and blasted; to discern also the method of planting and tending trees and vineyards, of which there are endless varieties; and of acquiring and keeping cattle, since we have admitted this as a part of agriculture, though the herdsman's art is distinct from husbandry? 26 And yet even this is not of one pattern; for a stud of horses requires one kind of management; a herd of cattle another; a flock of sheep still another, and of these the Tarentine breed​24 demands a different method from the coarse-wooled; a still different treatment is required by the goat kind, and of these the hornless and thin-haired are cared for in one way, the horned and shaggy-haired, as in Cilicia,​25 in another way. Moreover, the business of the swine-breeder and swineherd is different, their method of feeding is different; nor do light-coated and heavy-coated swine require the same climate, rearing, and care. 27 And, to take my leave of cattle, as a part of which the care of farmyard poultry and bees is reckoned, who has extended his studies so far as to be acquainted, in addition to the points which I have enumerated, with the many methods of grafting and pruning? to put in practice the cultivation of the many fruits and vegetables? to devote his attention to the many  p23 varieties of figs as well as to rose-gardens, when even greater things are neglected by most people even though they have now begun to be, for many farmers, not the least part of their revenue? 28 For meadows and willow-thickets, broom-plants and reeds, though they require little attention, still require some.

After this announcement of subjects so many and so varied, it does not escape me that, if I demand, of those who are concerned with farm-work, the farmer whom we seek and shall describe, the enthusiasm of the learners will be cooled; for, being disheartened by the hopelessness of mastering so varied and so vast a science, they will not wish to try what they distrust their ability to attain. 29 Nevertheless, as Marcus Tullius has very properly said in his Orator,​26 it is right that those who have an earnest desire to investigate subjects of the greatest utility for the human race, and to transmit to posterity their carefully weighed findings, should try everything. And if the force of an outstanding genius or the equipment of celebrated arts is wanting, we should not immediately relapse into idleness and sloth, but rather that which we have wisely hoped for we should steadfastly pursue. For if only we aim at the topmost peak, it will be honour enough for us to be seen even on the second summit. 30 Have not the Muses of Latium admitted to their sanctuaries, not Accius​27 and Vergil alone, but also assigned seats  p25 of honour to those next to them and to those far from second rank? The far-famed fulminations of Cicero​28 did not deter from the pursuit of eloquence Brutus or Caelius, Pollio or Messala or Calvus;​29 for Cicero himself had not yielded in fright to the thunderings of Demosthenes and Plato, and the father of eloquence, that divine Maeonian,​30 with the mighty floods of his rhetoric had not quenched the zeal of those who came after him. 31 And we observe that even artists of lesser fame, who through these many generations have been admirers of Protogenes and Apelles and Parrhasius,​31 have not ceased from their own labours; and, though stunned by the beauty of Phidias' Olympian Jove and of his Minerva,​32 men of the succeeding age, Bryaxis, Lysippus, Praxiteles, and Polyclitus,​33 were not reluctant to try what they could do or how far they could advance. But in every branch of knowledge the highest have attained to admiration and reverence, and those of lesser worth have received their meed of praise. 32 Added to this is that in the case of the man whom we wish to be a finished husbandman, even though he be not a man of consummate skill, though he may not have attained to the sagacity of a Democritus or a Pythagoras​34 in the nature of the universe, and the foreknowledge of Meton or Eudoxus​35 in the movements of the stars and the winds, the learning of Chiron​36 and Melampus37  p27 in the care of cattle and the prudent wisdom of Triptolemus​38 or Aristaeus​39 in the tilling of the fields and the soil, still he will have made great progress if he has equalled in practice our own Tremelliuses and Sasernas and Stolos.​40 33 For agriculture can be conducted without the greatest mental acuteness, but not on the other hand, "by the fat-witted,"​41 to use a frequent expression. For far from the truth is the belief, held by many, that the business of husbandry is extremely easy and requires no mental keenness. There is no occasion for further discussion of the subject as a whole at this point, inasmuch as its several divisions are to be set forth in the several Books assigned to them, which I shall carry through, each in its own order, but only after I have said by way of preface what I judge to be especially pertinent to the science in general.

The Editor's Notes:

1 An Epicurean theory; cf., e.g., Lucretius, II.1150‑1174. Columella holds to the Aristotelian theory.

2 See Introduction p. xiii.

3 Cf. Lucretius, V.826‑827, sed quia finem aliquam pariendi debet habere, destitit ut mulier spatio defessa vetusto.

4 So Pliny (N. H. XVIII.19‑21), who attributes the former plenty to cultivation of the soil by the hands of generals, consuls, tribunes, and senators.

5 In a contemptuous sense, as commonly in the use of causidicus (e.g. Quintilian, XII.1.25).

6 The expression is attributed by Sallust (Hist. Fr. 2.37 Dietsch) to Appius Claudius, censor in 312 B.C., and refers, of course, to the profession of the snarling causidici; cf. also Quint. XII.9.9. Lactantius (Div. Inst. VI.18.26) accuses even Cicero of canina eloquentia.

7 I.e. at the salutatio or early morning call.

8 The bundles of rods carried by attendants of high officials as symbols of authority.

Thayer's Note: For comprehensive details and sources, plus illustrations, see the article Fasces in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

9 According to tradition, Cincinnatus was called from the plough to the dictator­ship in 458 B.C., to save the Roman army besieged by the Aequians on Mt. Algidus. He delivered the consul Minucius and his army, resigned the dictator­ship, and returned to his little farm after holding the office only sixteen days. Cf. Livy, III.26‑29.

10 One iugerumabout three-fifths of an acre.

Thayer's Note: For comprehensive details and sources, see the article Jugerum in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

11 Consul in 282 and 278 B.C., his noble conduct toward Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, led to the evacuation of Italy by that king.

12 Consul in 290 and 275 B.C. Famous for his frugality and his conquests over the Samnites, Sabines, Lucanians, and Pyrrhus, he retired to his farm, refusing all share in the booty.

13 Varro, R. R. IIPraef. 3.

14 That is, in applauding the performers.

15 The Laconicum, or sweat-chamber, was so called because thought to have been first used by the Laconians; though (p15)Herodotus (IV.75) speaks of it as well known throughout Greece, and not peculiar to the Spartans. For a description of this chamber, see Vitruvius, De Arch. V.10.5, VII.10.2.

16 Cato ap. Sen. Epist. 122.3.º

17 I.e. those members of the familia rustica whose duties kept them indoors or close to the farm buildings.

18 The nundinae (ninth day, according to the Roman method of reckoning) at the end of the eight-day week, was a day of rest from agricultural labour, set aside for buying and selling and attention to public and religious affairs in the city; cf. Varro, R. R. IIPraef. 1; Paul. ex Fest. 176L; Macrob. Sat. I.16.34.

19 Cf. Cicero, De Sen. 16.56.

20 The author­ship of this phrase is attributed to Ennius; cf. V. Lundström, "Nya Enniusfragment," Eranos, XV.1‑3, and Warmington, Remains of Old Latin, II. frag. 26 (L. C. L.).

21 Lit. "at the spear." A spear was stuck in the ground at the place where an auction was held, originally as a sign of the sale of plunder taken in battle.

Thayer's Note: For fuller details and sources, see the article Hasta in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

22 A district of southern Spain, modern Andalusia. Here Columella was born, in the town of Gades (Cadiz).

23 In Asia Minor, south of the Propontis (Sea of Marmara); now a part of Turkey.

24 On the sheep of Tarentum (in southern Italy) see VII.4, and Palladius, XII (November) 13.5. Sheep of this breed were covered with skins to protect their fine wool; cf. Varro, R. R. II.2.18, and Horace, Od. II.6.10.

25 In the south-eastern part of Asia Minor.

26 Columella expresses the sense, though not the exact wording, of Cicero, Orat. 1‑2.

27 A tragic poet of the second century B.C., highly rated by Quintilian (X.1.97). His works survive only in fragments. See Warmington, Remains of Old Latin, II, L. C. L.

28 Cf. Cicero, Ad Fam. IX.21.1.

29 Five famous Roman orators, younger contemporaries of Cicero.

30 Homer.

31 Three celebrated Greek painters of the fourth century B.C.

32 I.e. the chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia and of Athena in the Parthenon.

33 Bryaxis, Lysippus and Praxiteles (all of the fourth cent. B.C.) and Polyclitus (fifth cent. B.C.) were, like Phidias who overtopped them, distinguished Greek statuaries.

34 Democritus (fifth cent. B.C.) and Pythagoras (sixth cent. B.C.), early Greek philosophers.

35 Two Greek astronomers of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.

36 According to Greek mythology Chiron was a Centaur, half-man and half-horse, learned in many arts and the tutor of many mythological heroes.

37 A famous seer and physician of Greek mythology.

38 A mythical character, said to have been the founder of agriculture and the inventor of the plough (Servius on Vergil, Georg. I.163).

39 Son of Apollo and the nymph Cyrenê, said to have taught mankind the management of bees and cattle and the cultivation of the olive.

40 Writers on husbandry, often cited by Varro and Columella: i.e. Cn. Tremelius Scrofa (cf. Varro, R. R. I.2.9‑10, II.4); the (p27)two Sasernas, father and son (I.1.12; Varro I.2.22); and C. Licinius Stolo (I.3.11; Varro I.2.9).

41 Lit. "fat Minerva." Cf. Cicero, De Amic. 5.19, pingui Minerva; Horace, Serm. II.2.3, rusticus . . . crassaque Minerva.

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