|The beginning of De Re Rustica by Varro. Text from http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Varro/de_Re_Rustica/1*.html
By John Koster
Marcus Terentius Varro wrote some 620 books, but only the nearest and dearest to his heart – Rerum Rusticarum Libri Tres, Three Books on Farming – survived in complete form. That's probably because enough people had one copied out to increase the odds of its survival into the age of the printing press.
"If man is a bubble, all the more so is an old man," Varro admitted as he dedicated the farming books to his wife, Fundania, who told him he was no spring chicken and that he should summarize his knowledge of agriculture. "My eightieth year warns me to pack my bags before I set forth on my journey out of life," he wrote.
In fact, Varro and Fundania had 10 more years together; he lived to be 90, possibly by taking his own good advice – live on wholesome, simple food and avoid swamps, which he said bred "certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, but which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and cause serious diseases." (Malaria comes from the Latin words for "bad air." Malaria transmission by mosquitoes was not understood in Roman times but, like tribal Africans, the Romans knew well enough never to sleep near standing water in countries where the waters never freeze.) Sell that kind of land if you inherit it, or abandon it, Varro advised his father-in-law Fundarius in his treatise.
Varro was born on a farm, probably a member of the equestrian class – boys from equestrian families, sometimes called "Roman knights" by later English authors, were expected to provide a war horse when they served in the Roman Republic's conscript army, as Varro himself did at considerable risk. Later, Caesar appointed Varro to oversee the public library at Rome – the perfect job for a man of Varro's temperament. Varro took no part in Caesar's subsequent assassination, but Marc Antony, Caesar's vengeful cousin and best friend, proscribed Varro for old times' sake. While Varro escaped with his life, his own estate was looted, his personal library destroyed, and his private fortune confiscated. Octavian – Augustus Caesar – pardoned Varro, who regained his old farm in modern Rieto, Italy, and began to build a new library.
Varro's books poked fun at the earlier Greek writers, but he modeled his three books on farming, to some extent, on the Greek classics in which group of friends discuss a topic in a way that is edifying without being stultifying.
The first book begins with Varro himself going to the temple of Tellus and meeting his father-in-law Fundarius and other old friends, all gentleman-farmers with some experience in government. Italy to the north of Rome, they agree, is the best country in the world for farming. The North – to judge by the Alps – is so cold that the vapors themselves are poisonous to crops.
After a few good-natured jokes about aging and some jocular discussion of questionable folk remedies, the friends agree to divide the treatise into three books: agriculture itself, domestic animals, and wild animals that either interfere with farming or can be used as food. They ask Varro's fellow Commissioner of 20, Gnaeus Tremellius Scrofa, "our superior in age, in position, and in knowledge,” to begin the discussion about agriculture.
"In the first place, it is not only an art but an old and noble art ...” Scrofa says. "It is, as well, a science which teaches which crops are to be planted in what kind of soil, and what kind of operations are to be carried on, in order that the land may regularly produce the largest crops.
"Its elements are the same as those which (Flavius) Ennius says compose the universe – water, earth, air, and fire. You should have some knowledge of these before you cast your seed, which is the first step in all production. Equipped with this knowledge, the farmer should aim at two goals, profit and pleasure; the object of the first is material return, and of the second enjoyment ... Any man would rather pay more for a piece of land which is attractive than for one of the same value which, though profitable, is unsightly."
Scrofa explains that a sensible adoption of crops to the land can, if the rules are understood, make the farm both profitable in crops and profitable at resale time.
"As far as it concerns the natural situation ... it seems to me that (Marcus) Cato was quite right when he said that the best farm was one that was situated at the foot of a mountain, facing south ...”
The house, he adds, should be atop a hill in full sunlight, especially if a river is nearby, to destroy the dread effluvia.
"Trees which are planted in a row are warmed by the sun and the moon equally on all sides, with the result that more grapes and olives form, and that they ripen earlier ... The intelligent farmer plants spelt rather than wheat on wet land, and on the other hand barley rather than spelt on dry land, while he plants either on the intermediate.
"There should be two manure pits, or one pit divided into two parts; into one part should be cast the fresh manure, and from the other the rotted manure should be hauled into the field; for manure is not so good when it is put in fresh as when it is well rotten ... the sun ought not to dry out the essence which the land needs.
"... if there are no enclosures, the boundaries of the estate are made more secure by the planting of trees, which prevent the servants from quarreling with the neighbors, and make it unnecessary to fix the boundaries by lawsuits. Some plant pines around the edges, as my wife has done on her Sabine farms. Others plant cypresses ... and still others plant elms ... when this is possible ... as on a plain, there is no better tree for planting. It is extremely profitable, as it often supports and gathers many a basket of grapes, yields a most agreeable foliage for sheep and cattle, and it furnishes rails for fencing, and wood for hearth and furnace."
Farms, Scrofa says, should be purchased with consideration for transporting and selling produce to townsmen or to farmers who do not produce similar crops.
Varro has Scrofa point out that farmers would do well to keep slaves for the regular work but to hire freedmen for labor-intensive periods such as haying.
"Dogs ... must be kept as a matter of course, for no farm is safe without them ...You should keep a few active ones rather than a pack, and train them to keep watch at night and sleep indoors during the day."
Kindness and common decency, he says should extend to oxen as well as to slaves and to dogs.
"You should purchase (oxen) unbroken, not less than three years old and not more than four. They should be powerful and equally matched, so that the stronger will not exhaust the weaker when they work together ... Oxen that have reached maturity on level ground should not be bought for rough and mountainous terrain ...
“When you have bought young steers, if you will fasten forked sticks loosely around their necks and give them food, within a few days they will grow gentle and fit for breaking to the plow. This breaking should consist in letting them grow accustomed to the work gradually, in yoking the raw ox to a broken one (for the training by imitation is easier) and in driving them first on level ground without a plow, then with a light one, and at first in sandy or rather light soil. Draught cattle can be trained in a similar way, first drawing an empty cart, and if possible through a village or a town. The constant noise and the variety of objects, by frequent repetition, accustom them to their work."
Some farmers prefer donkeys to cows for light draft animals, he notes; "a donkey requires less feed than a cow, but the latter is more profitable."
Varro – speaking through Scrofa – says that the best profits and the most beauty can be obtained by considering soil qualities when choosing which crops to plant.
"It is not good to plant every kind of crop on rich soil, nor to plant nothing on poor soil; for it is better to plant on thinner soil those crops which do not need much nutriment, such as clover and the legumes, except the chick pea, which is also a legume, as are all those crops which are pulled from the soil and are not mowed ...
“In rich soil it is better to plant those requiring more food, such as cabbage, wheat, winter wheat, and flax ...Wheat and beans like dry ground ... it is proper to plow under lupines as they begin to pod – and sometimes field beans before the pods have formed so far that it is profitable to harvest the beans – in place of dung if the field is rather thin … a suitable place is to be chosen for planting a willow bed … so that you will have withes for such purposes as weaving wicker wagon bodies, winnowing baskets and hampers …”
The first book ends with descriptions of grafting. The friends discuss how long various crops can be stored and in what sorts of containers. Abruptly "the sacristan's freedman runs up to us with tears in his eyes ... he tells us that his master had been stabbed with a knife by someone, and had fallen to the ground; that in the crowd he could not tell who it was, but had only heard a voice saying a mistake had been made ... though he had not been able to keep him from breathing his last a few moments later, he thought he had acted rightly. We had no fault to find with him, and walking down from the temple, we went our several ways, rather blaming the mischances of life than being surprised that such a thing had occurred at Rome."
Presumably after the funeral, the friends reconvene, and Varro points out the message of the senseless murder in case anybody missed it: "Those great men, our ancestors, put the Romans who lived in the country ahead of those who lived in the city … those who settled in the town were more indolent than those who dwelled in the country." And lived longer, as did both Varro and his books on the subject.
Varro's treatises on farming showed that the Romans understood the need for animal and green manure, crop selection, and humane treatment for their human and animal labor force. When the base motive of profits drove grain and grape production out of Italy and into Gaul and Egypt, the rural poor migrated to the city and contributed to the nation's political turmoil. Toward the end of the Empire, the average emperor reigned about three years and was generally murdered. Varro, however, was hale and hearty to his 90th year. He was not an author on the level of Virgil or Tacitus, but he understood that country living was the best way to live.
John Koster is the author of Operation Snow: How A Soviet Mole In FDR's White House Triggered Pearl Harbor and Custer Survivor.