During the late colonial & early federal period, Roman works on farming were recorded in several 18th century colonial libraries including:
~Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 b.c.) De Agricultura,
~Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus Palladius (4th century a.d.) Secondus' Naturalis Historiae Libri, the letters of Pliny the Younger "translated by Melmoth,"
~Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 b.c.), Rerum Rusicarum Libri Tres, and many volumes of
~Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (approx. 4 b.c. – 65 a.d.), including Of Husbandry and "his book concerning trees translated from the Latin"
Agriculture in ancient Rome was not only a necessity, but it was idealized among the social elite as the most honorable way of life. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC-43 BC), usually called Cicero, considered farming the best of all Roman occupations. In his treatise On Duties, he declared that "of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a free man." Cicero defended country life as "the teacher of economy, of industry, and of justice."
Of course, much Roman advice from the elite about farming was theoretical. Land ownership was a dominant factor in distinguishing the aristocracy from the common person, and the more country land a Roman gentleman owned, the more important he would be in the city. The ideal Roman farm would depend on slave labor overseen by freemen, a system familiar in the American south. The Romans had 4 systems of farm management: direct work by owner & his family; sharecropping in which the owner & a tenant divide up a farm's produce; forced labor by slaves on land owned by aristocrats & supervised by slave managers; & farms leased to tenants. One way to acquire land was as a reward for going to war. High ranking soldiers returning from war would often be given small pieces of public land or land in provinces as a way of paying them for their services. After the American Revolution, the newly formed government instituted a similar plan for those who had fought for their country.
In 18th-century America, most of the personal & public repositories containing these works in the original language also housed either Littleton's Latin Dictionary, Ainsworth's Latin, or Floru's Latin and English to assist in translation.*
Marylander Charles Carroll of Carrollton referred to "Addison's Cato" when writing to a friend in London in 1775. Cato's writings are a miscellaneous collection of notes rather than an an organized text, giving directions for the care of a farm seemingly based on Cato’s own experience. But one might question Cato's first-hand experience, as he claimed such a farm should have "a foreman, a foreman's wife, ten laborers, one ox driver, one donkey driver, one man in charge of the willow grove, one swineherd, in all sixteen persons; two oxen, two asses for wagon work, one ass for the mill work." Cato wrote "when they would praise a worthy man their praise took this form: 'Good husband good farmer'; it is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come."
Cato writes on diverse farm topics from growing asparagus to curing hams. His general advice on transplanting trees & shrubs would be familiar to 18th-century American planters, “In transplanting olives, elms, figs, fruit trees, vines, pines, and cypresses, dig them up carefully, roots and all, with as much of their own soil as possible … When you place them in the trench, bed them in top soil, spread dirt over them to the ends of the roots, trample it thoroughly and pack with rammers and bars as firmly as possible."
Varro was renowned for the depth of his knowledge in diverse disciplines. He was said to be a prolific writer, but only 6 incomplete books on the Latin language & 3 books on agriculture seem to have survived. He began his work on agriculture late in life writing it in the form of instructions addressed to his wife, Fundania, for their recently purchased a farm. Varro says that his remarks are "derived from three sources: what I have myself observed by practice on my own land, what I have read, and what I have heard from experts." He divides the planting year into 8 periods, enumerating tasks for each period. For example, during the 7th period, autumn, he recommends "Planting of lilies and crocus." He also gives directions for propagating roses: "A rose which has already formed a root is cut from the root up into twigs a palm breadth long and planted; later on the same twig is transplanted when it has made a living root."
Columella, born in Spain, spent much in his youth with his uncle who was a farmer. He warns that reading about agriculture can be instructive, but that to become a farmer it is necessary to put theory into actual practice. His 12 books on agriculture, Rei rusticae, plus one on trees, De arboribus, constitute the most comprehensive & ordered of all the Roman farm & garden texts. De Rei Rustica begins with a
list of his predecessors & makes a point of the importance of agriculture, he
speaks of general husbandry & farm management in Book 1. Book 2 is on the cultivation of the land. Books 3, 4 and the 1st part of Book 5 are
on viticulture. The last half of Book 5 is dedicated to arboriculture. Book 6 is on cattle.
Book 7 is devoted to smaller animals, sheep, goats, et al. Book 8 tells of fowl & fish. Book 9 is devoted to game & bees.
Later on, Columella added 2 more books. Book 11 gives information on the tasks of the farm manager & more on horticulture. Book 12 continues to define the jobs of the villa. Columella defined the 3 main elements of the villa. These include the pars urbana, where the owner lived together with his familia; the pars rustica, where laborers, animals & farm tools were located; & the pars fructuaria, which held the equipment for processing & preserving the harvest. Columella uses the term circa villam to describe the surrounding area, thus emphasising that the villa was associated with agricultural lands. A villa rustica may be thought of as a simple farm, & a villa urbana as a manor – the master's residence.
Columella also writes one book specifically on gardening. Book 10, De cultu hortorum, probably intented to be the last one, has horticulture as its subject. In it Columella becomes a poet treating his garden in verse, following Vergilius. Columella explains that this book is meant to supplement Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC-19 BC), usually called Virgil, Georgica, 4 books on agriculture in which Virgil describes life & work of the countryman. Agriculture, viticulture,
lifestock, & apiculture are all examined by Virgil.
Virgil's Georgics (Book IV) cites the life of bees as a model for human society + the story of Aristaeus and the bees. 1502
In Book 10, Columella gives advice on tilling, manuring, watering & weeding gardens. At the first sign of spring the gardener,
Should with rich mould or asses’ solid dung
Or other ordure glut the starving earth …
Now let him with the hoe’s well-sharpened edge
Again attack the earth’s surface packed with rain
And hard with frost; then with the tooth of rake
Or broken mattock mix the living turf
With clods of earth and all the crumbling wealth
Of the ripe field set free …
Despite the practical advice in Columella’s work, he also repeats local customs & superstitions. One could ward off pests by having a barefoot girl experiencing her first menstruation walk 3 times around a field, & then a shower of smooth skinned apples or of bark-thatched acorns rains down when the tree is shaken, so writhing caterpillars are tumbled to earth. Columella also warns that "grain offers little profit compared to wine." Perhaps it was a matter of personal preference of wine over bread.
Palladius' manual is entirely arranged in calendar form, giving agricultural hints for each month of the year, beginning with January. The 1st printed work on agriculture is the 1471 Ruralia commoda by Pietro de Crescenzi (c 1230–c 1320) issued just a year before the editio princeps of the 4 classical era agricultural texts. Crescenzi’s is a much more practical approach to agriculture, actually based on hands-on experience on his own country estate near Bologna. It incorporated advice from classical authorities such as Palladius & Columella, supplemented with detailed information on general plant & animal husbandry, with some ornamental gardening as well. Originally written in Latin, it was quickly translated into Italian, French, & German.
The 4 Roman writers on agriculture were frequently found published together in a single volume, under the general title Scriptores rei rusticate. The 1735 edition of the 4 Roman texts by Johann Matthias Gesner (1691–1761), a German language & literature scholar, is considered to be one of the best, including commentaries & even notes.
In 1742, Eliza Lucas Pinckney in South Carolina, wrote a letter to her friend Miss Bartlett, "I have got no further than the first volume of Virgil but was most agreeable disappointed to find myself instructed in agriculture as well as entertained by his charming pen, for I am persuaded tho' he wrote in and for Italy, it will in many instances suit Carolina...the calm and diction of pastoral and gardening agreeably presented themselves, not unsuitably to this charming season of the year, with which I am so much delighted." Eliza was writing the letter on a glorious Carolina spring day.
Growing interest in classical farming techniques & theories spurred Adam Dickson to write Husbandry of the Ancients published in Edinburgh in 1788. Virginian George Wythe (1726 –1806), law professor, classics scholar, & judge, owned a copy of the essays of Cato, Varro, & Collubella in Adam Dickson's Husbandry of the Ancients. Although he was not a farmer or a gardener, he thought this collection was so important, that he left it to Thomas Jefferson in 1806.
Boy holding a platter of fruits & what may be a bucket of crabs, in a kitchen with fish & squid, on the June panel from a mosaic depicting the months (3rd century)
~Linguae latinae liber dictionarius quadripartitus: Dr. Adam Littleton's (1627-1694) Latin dictionary, in four parts. An English-Latin. A Latin-classical. An Latin-proper. A Latin-barbarous D. Brown, 1715
~Thesavrvs Lingvae Latinae Compendiarivs Or, A Compendious Dictionary of the Latin Tongue: Designed Chiefly for the Use of the British Nations. Robert Ainsworth (1660-1743) W. Mount and T. Page, 1751
~John Clarke's Florus, Latin and English. 1774
For more information on Roman agriculture, see
~Bakels, Corrie & Stefanie Jacomet, “Access to Luxury Foods in Central Europe during the Roman Period: The Archaeobotanical Evidence.” In World Archaeology, Vol. 34, No. 3, Luxury Foods (February, 2003), 542-557.
~Dalby, Andrew (2003), Food in the ancient world from A to Z, London, New York: Routledge,
~Erdkamp, Paul .The Grain Market in the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005
~Garnsey, Peter. Food and Society in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
~Garnsey, Peter and Richard P. Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture. Berkley: University of California Press, 1987.
~Garnsey P. Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World. Cambridge University Press. 1988
~Giacosa I.G. 1992. A Taste of Ancient Rome. University of Chicago Press.
~Grant, Michael. History of Rome. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978.
~Haywood, Richard Mansfield. Ancient Rome. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1867.
~Killgrove K. Migration and mobility in Imperial Rome. 2010 PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
~Spurr, M. S. Arable Cultivation in Roman Italy – c.200 B.C.-C.A.D. 100. London: The Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 1986.
~Vogt, Joseph. The Decline of Rome: The Metamorphosis of Ancient Civilisation. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965.
~White, Kenneth D. “The Efficiency of Roman Farming under the Empire.” In Agricultural History, Vol. 30, No. 2 (April, 1956), 85-89.