Playing the Farmer reinvigorates our understanding of Vergil’s Georgics, a vibrant work written by Rome’s premier epic poet shortly before he began the Aeneid. Setting the Georgics in the social context of its day, Philip Thibodeau for the first time connects the poem’s idyllic, and idealized, portrait of rustic life and agriculture with changing attitudes toward the countryside in late Republican and early Imperial Rome. He argues that what has been seen as a straightforward poem about agriculture is in fact an enchanting work of fantasy that elevated, and sometimes whitewashed, the realities of country life. Drawing from a wide range of sources, Thibodeau shows how Vergil’s poem reshaped agrarian ideals in its own time, and how it influenced Roman poets, philosophers, agronomists, and orators. Playing the Farmer brings a fresh perspective to a work that was praised by Dryden as “the best poem by the best poet.”
Philip Thibodeau is Associate Professor of Classics at Brooklyn College.
“Thibodeau examines Virgil’s representations, often fanciful and fictitious, of farming and of rural life in general, of the labor and leisure that help define survival on the land. With commanding learning and with a gifted critic’s taste and judgment, he aligns the Georgics against ancient writing on agronomy to illustrate how Virgil brilliantly manipulates his sources, and how in turn his innovations affected the work of later writers influenced by his authority.”—Michael Putnam, author of Virgil’s Poem of the Earth
“By using the interesting concept of 'economic fantasy,' Thibodeau rightly avoids separating (as many had done) form and farm, culture and agriculture in his new discussion of Vergil's agrarian poem.”—Alessandro Barchiesi, editor of The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies
What does a farmer do? I am asking you, you who are farmers: what does a farmer do?
Augustine, Sermones 87
What kind of person counted as a farmer-an agricola-for the Romans? We might be tempted to apply the term to anyone who worked the soil with their hands. But the slaves on whose labor Roman farmsteads depended did not bear that designation. Clearly then, working the soil was not enough; cultivators had to be freeborn in order to qualify. One group of the freeborn who did merit the term were the class of self-sufficient peasants and yeoman farmers. But now what about their social superiors, the aristocratic owners of large slave-run plantations who were notoriously loath to dirty their hands: did they or did they not count as agricolae? In some cases, they did-a fact that can be taken to suggest that the performance of manual labor was not always mandatory. What then were the essential and defining elements? Were farmers expected to possess some measure of agricultural skill or technical know-how? Did they need to demonstrate some minimal commitment of time and energy to their lands? What form did their activities as farmers take? What, in short, did a farmer do? There is no simple answer to these questions, since the Latin word agricola in fact stood for a broad and complex ideal that might be applied to a variety of free persons. It is one purpose of this chapter to explore the ambiguous usage and social reality connected to the word.
This investigation bears on Vergil's Georgics in two significant ways. First, defining our terms will enable us to adjudicate competing claims that have been made about the nature of the poem's audience, since farmers are often cited as the class of persons for whom it either was or was not written. Vergil himself mentions farmers several times, as in this passage where he is addressing his notional audience (2.35-36):
quare agite o proprios generatim discite cultus,
agricolae, fructusque feros mollite colendo ...
Wherefore go and learn the care appropriate to each variety, o farmers, and tame the fruits of the wild by cultivation.
By contrast, Seneca, after noting certain errors in the poet's planting calendar, spoke of "our friend Vergil, who aimed at what could be said with the highest degree of decorum rather than the highest degree of truth, and who meant to enchant readers, not teach farmers" (Vergilius noster, qui non quid verissime, sed quid decentissime diceretur aspexit, nec agricolas docere voluit sed legentes delectare, Ep. 86.15). In the eighteenth century it was generally believed that Vergil wrote the Georgics in order to promote the spread of useful knowledge-among men who farmed, presumably. But most modern scholars, taking Seneca's side, prefer to see Vergil and his ancient readers as having been, for all practical purposes, members of a class distinct from the average Italian cultivator. Brooks Otis expresses what is the modern consensus: "The Georgics is not a metrical treatise at all, but a poem, a work of art. We can hardly suppose that Vergil really wrote it for actual farmers." I will argue that a simple answer like this does not do full justice to the reality. The Romans who read the poem were by and large prominent landowners, who could, if they chose, identify themselves as farmers; although few did so in fact, nearly all fit the criteria for the term established by usage. My position may be summarized by saying that the persons for whom Vergil was writing were almost farmers-and that the interest lies in the almost.
Sorting out the usage of the term agricola will also provide insights into the world of the poem itself. It has been debated whether the farm Vergil depicts in the Georgics is a large plantation, a small farm, or something in between. As we will see, this is equivalent to asking whether the farmer whom Vergil addresses is a land baron, a poor peasant, or a figure in the middle range. The short answer is that he is all of these, at various times; the putative addressee of the work does not occupy a fixed social position, but alters, sometimes with astonishing speed, between patrician and peasant. Recognition of this fact will prepare the ground for the chapters that follow, where the ongoing metamorphosis of the addressee in Vergil's rustic fantasy will be the subject of study.
To gain a purchase on Roman discourse about agricolae the present chapter begins by addressing a series of topics, all of them economic in the ancient sense of the term. First, how were the duties of labor and management divided up among various persons on a Roman estate. Second, how in terms of operation did the estates owned by the rich and powerful differ from those of the poor. Third, how did the farmers familiar to Vergil's readers from ordinary life differ from the idealized concept of the agricola. We will conclude by examining some passages from the poem and considering the status of the poet and his audience; but the first goal is to answer St. Augustine's question: quid facit agricola?
1. Forms of Farm Management
The ager in agricola denotes a single patch of land, large or small. As a rule, most Roman men were interested in acquiring as many of those patches as possible, for the sake of the income, security, and prestige that they bestowed. Possession could come about through inheritance (from one's family of birth, marriage, or adoption), cash purchase (windfall profits often went straight into land), or donation from a "friend." There were less amicable routes to possession as well. The rich were wont to encroach on their poorer neighbors' farms by such devices as sabotaging their crops and driving them to foreclose. Under the Republic, grandees were notorious for taking over public land, and commissioners charged with the distribution of ager publicus enlarged their own holdings through embezzlement. Finally, for those who were intrepid and shameless enough, a proscription list was a prime opportunity to swallow up the estates of the proscribed. Tam multae scelerum facies.
However the land was acquired, the main question that faced the owner of an estate was what to do with it. For all except subsistence farmers, one common and perfectly respectable answer to this question was "absolutely nothing." Nearly every estate, whether large or small, had a vilicus, or bailiff, who was responsible for the duties of daily management, such as setting the schedule, assigning tasks to the staff, hiring extra laborers, distributing rations, and buying necessary items and selling marketable ones. The vilicus was a slave, but was favored by his master and often literate, possessing a broad degree of independence made broader still by the master's absences. He was commonly presented with or allowed to take a wife, who as vilica had responsibility for the domestic operation of the farmhouse. For those owners who specialized in raising of sheep and cattle rather than crops, a manager called a magister pecoris occupied a position analogous to that of the vilicus. Below the vilicus stood the rest of the familia, the permanent slave staff who performed most of the day-to-day physical labor on a Roman farm. On small or medium-sized estates this was a skeleton crew of animal handlers and drudges who took care of general upkeep. Larger establishments had larger staffs and a complement of specialists, including weaving women, doctors, carpenters, and blacksmiths. This population remained fairly constant in size until times such as harvest, when the demand for workers increased; to meet the need the vilicus would then hire day-laborers, drawn either from the local peasantry or itinerant work crews. Those who worked on estates were for the most part either slaves or hired freemen; only the poor relied on family members for labor.
As an alternative to hiring laborers, a landowner could dispose of his crop by putting it up for bid, selling it in advance to a contractor whose crew of workers would perform all the tasks required to move it from harvest to market. The practice of contracting was a time-honored one: Cato's agricultural manual contains a large number of sample contracts for everything from olives to the increase of the flock, and a letter of the younger Pliny offers an edifying account of how he offered his contractors refunds when the harvest from the vineyards turned out worse than expected. Letting out work meant that the landowner forfeited any chance at windfall profits, but it offered him the prospect of advance income and insurance against acts of god, and, by giving him one less thing to worry about, facilitated his neglegentia of the farm. The practice of leasing farmland to tenants can be regarded as just another way for the owner to outsource labor and insulate himself from the vicissitudes of fortune. Tenants were responsible for working their land, and sold its produce for the cash they needed to pay the rent. The typical lease ran for five years, but renewals were common, and over time tenancies tended to devolve into cliencies; a consul from the reign of Tiberius said that the best kind of tenants were those who had lived on the property since they were babies (Col. 1.7.3).
This system of farm management had two important consequences for the lifestyle of the Italian landowner. First, it made it unnecessary for the dominus of an estate to perform any of the work needed to keep it running; between the vilicus, the permanent staff, day-laborers, contractors, and tenants, all of the essential tasks were taken care of, whether labor- or management-related. Second, it reduced or even eliminated the need for the presence of the dominus himself; so long as he possessed a competent bailiff, the farm would, from his point of view, run itself. His removal from what we are apt to call farm work thus had a double aspect: it was both social, in that his subordinates stood between him and his land, and spatial, since it was feasible for him to remain away from his property.
This system of management seems already to have been common by the mid-Republic, and it flourished throughout the following era. What sustained it was not just convenience on the part of the landowner, but necessity, given the number of different farms that he might have in his portfolio. Take, for instance, the holdings of the senator and scholar Varro of Reate. His attested estates included ones at Reate, Tusculum, Casinum, Cumae, Baiae, Arpinum, and Rome, and others in Lucania, Epirus, and Sardinia. Even dividing his time equally among all ten he would have been able to spend no more than thirty-six days a year at each. In practice, of course, he will have preferred some places to others and spent a good deal of time in the city and elsewhere; some of his more inconveniently located estates, such as the overseas establishments, may have seen their owner only at long intervals, if at all. Absentee ownership accounts for the fact that estates were often regarded as places to visit, not inhabit; even as stern and intrepid an agronomist as Cato recommends making the farmhouse more comfortable, "in order that you will be inclined to visit more often" (4). In lieu of visits, owners were sometimes content to receive reports from the on-site manager, as Trimalchio does in a famous scene from the Cena. Others dispatched agents (procuratores) to manage their farms, who might be men of relative prominence; the Iccius of Horace Epistle 1.12 was evidently serving as procurator for Agrippa's Sicilian estates.
That absentee management was possible does not, of course, mean that every owner made full use of it. It hardly needs to be said that elite Romans spent much time at their villas, lured there by various attractions. The prospect of rest and recreation was an important draw; the agriculturally productive suburbana outside of Rome and the villa estates around Tibur and Tusculum were frequently used for such vacations. Political circumstances might make a retreat to the country advisable: Cicero's letters and dialogues sketch how an owner might bide his time on his estates. During the proscriptions, villas became for some the only safe place to hide. A number of owners simply preferred the countryside, and, like Horace and the retired general Lucullus, turned their estates there into more-or-less permanent residences. We shall look more closely at this cult of rustic leisure in chapter 3.
Yet perpetual rustication no more made one a farmer than did possession of land; agricolae were distinguished from other inhabitants of the countryside. But how?
2. Two Conceptions of the Agricola
As noted above, there is not a single or a simple answer to this question. To understand what defined an agricola we can look first for clues in ordinary usage. The title, significantly, was not restricted to persons of a particular rank or class: bearers include not just smallholders, but a Spanish rancher, the son of a prominent municipalis, a retired military tribune, a knight, a senator, a dictator, a king, and even gods. In this regard it differed sharply from other profession-names, like "auctioneer" or "rope-maker," which denoted occupations held by members of the lower class, but which functioned as insults when applied by members of the elite to their peers. According to Cato, it was a mark of distinction in the early Republic to be called a bonus agricola, and the term agricola continued to bear an honorific sense.
A farmer did have to be a landowner. The term agricola is used by Columella interchangeably with dominus, and in various authors it is found paired with or used as a synonym for paterfamilias. In the Greek-speaking world tenants and laborers "farm" (georgein), but I have not found an instance of the term agricola clearly denoting a slave or tenant in literary Latin. Ovid compares the bond between an agricola and a rusticus to that between a general and his soldiers or a captain and his sailors (Pont. 2.5.61), which implies that the former was seen as superior in status and authority to an ordinary denizen of the countryside. It is consistent with this picture that whenever the terms rusticus or rusticanus are used of a landowner, they often have a somewhat patronizing tone.
The language of praise reveals two further characteristics. To speak well of a farmer a Roman might call him diligens, that is, someone who took pains and devoted himself to his work. It was also common to laud his know-how, using epithets like prudens, sollers, doctus, or some variant thereof. The two qualities are often found together, as in Cicero's speech on behalf of Sextus Roscius, a young man who was responsible for managing the thirteen estates his family owned along the banks of the Tiber. Cicero calls Sextus an agricola (143), and praises him for both his devotion to farming and his understanding of it (studium, intelligentia, 49). Diligence and knowledge are found joined with a third quality, possession of resources, in a formula of the Roman agronomist Tremellius Scrofa, who wrote that the person who will do the best job cultivating his land, that is, the ideal agricola, will be one "who knows how to cultivate and is able to do so and is willing to do so; for knowledge and willingness are not enough if the resources needed for a job fall short, nor will a willingness to act and the capacity to spend money do any good without expertise." To be regarded as a farmer, then, a Roman needed to display two things in addition to owning his land: an active engagement with farming, and knowledge of how to do what needed to be done, cura and scientia.
So far, so good. But care and knowledge are intangible; let us see if we can get a better handle on the farmer by asking what tasks he performed. To this question there are two very different answers, the division reflecting an irreconcilable split between reality and ideal, and between upper and lower class, in the Roman conception of the farmer.
One stereotype of the farmer's works emerges from numerous generic references to agricolae found in literary authors. In their accounts, an agricola typically does the following: he plows and harrows, sows, weeds, threshes, sorts seed, digs, prunes and props up vines, cuts down trees, gathers wood, and forecasts the weather. A distinctive feature of this portrait is the farmer's auturgy; that is, he is always present on his land, exhibiting his diligence and know-how by working it himself. In cases where it is relevant, he is performing manual labor; Seneca says that sailors have bodies made hard by their struggles with the sea, runners have nimble legs, and farmers have "worn hands" (Prov. 4.13). The stereotype thus seems to reflect the life of actual peasants. But there is also an element of idealization to this picture: although even the poorest cultivators at Rome generally had a slave or two, in the casual descriptions a familia is nowhere in evidence; there is no vilicus, no tenants, and no hired men or slaves, only a faithful wife, tending to the domestic side of life. The dictator Cincinnatus is clearly represented as a farmer of this sort, working on his own estate without the help of slaves, and can stand as the archetype for this figure. Cincinnatus was often portrayed with a touch of idealization, and so was the generic farmer.
Vergil repeatedly invokes this figure in the Georgics, depicting what appears to be a peasant smallholder on his land. In this passage the addressee of the poem, conceived of as a farmer, is told to attack weeds, drive off birds, clear brush, and pray to the gods, or else risk starvation (1.155-59):
quod nisi et adsiduis herbam insectabere rastris
et sonitu terrebis avis et ruris opaci
falce premes umbras votisque vocaveris imbrem,
heu magnum alterius frustra spectabis acervum
concussaque famem in silvis solabere quercu.
Wherefore: if you don't constantly chase down the weeds with a hoe and loudly frighten away the birds and keep down the shadows of the dark countryside with a machete and call for rain in your prayers, you will, alas, gaze in vain at another man's large pile and console your hunger in the woods by shaking an oak tree.
In a less anxious passage the farmer is indoors carving torches. Note the presence of his wife (1.291-94):
et quidam seros hiberni ad luminis ignis
pervigilat ferroque faces inspicat acuto.
interea longum cantu solata laborem
arguto coniunx percurrit pectine telas.
And a certain man stays up at night next to the fire of his winter lamp and with a sharp knife carves torches that look like heads of wheat. As he does so, his wife finds consolation for her long labor in keening song as she runs her shuttle through the threads.
Here farmers are watching the sky and moving oxen indoors (1.353-55):
ipse pater statuit quid menstrua luna moneret,
quo signo caderent Austri, quid saepe videntes
agricolae propius stabulis armenta tenerent.
The Father Himself established what warning the moon would give each month, what the sign would be for the falling of the south wind, and what it is that farmers often see when they keep their herds close to the stables.
Here the farmer is plowing and harrowing (1.493-97):
scilicet et tempus veniet, cum finibus illis
agricola incurvo terram molitus aratro
exesa inveniet scabra robigine pila,
aut grauibus rastris galeas pulsabit inanis
grandiaque effossis mirabitur ossa sepulcris.
Yes, surely there will come a time when a farmer in those lands, working the earth with his curved plow, will come upon javelins corroded by scabs of rust, or will knock empty helmets with his heavy hoe and gaze in wonder at the huge bones he has dug up from their tombs.
Here he is trimming vines (a rusticus, but note his thoughtful cura) (2.405-7):
iam tum acer curas venientem extendit in annum
rusticus, et curvo Saturni dente relictam
persequitur vitem attondens fingitque putando.
At that very moment the smart countryman is projecting his concerns into the year to come, and works at what remains of the vine with Saturn's curved bill-hook, clipping it and shaping it by trimming it.
And here is one who is getting his hands dirty (note cura, again) (4.112-14):
ipse thymum tinosque ferens de montibus altis
tecta serat late circum, cui talia curae;
ipse labore manum duro terat ...
He should be the one to bring thyme and laurestines down from the steep hills and sow them all around his house, if such things are his concern; he should be the one to wear his hands out with hard work ...
Such examples could easily be multiplied. Vergil offers numerous glimpses of the agricola as he was conceived of in the common ideal, working with his hands out on his land, and sometimes indoors as well.
Yet in the writings of the agronomists a picture of farm labor emerges that is altogether different from that of the stereotype just discussed. Although the agronomists claim to be writing for prospective farmers, on the estates they describe it is clear that neither they nor their readers were to perform any of the aforementioned tasks. Men called bubulci are charged with handling oxen and driving the plow. Fossores are the ones who dig. Those who trim and trellis vines are putatores and vinitores; those who chop wood are salutarii. The person charged with watching the sky regularly is the vilicus, for whose use the agricultural writers composed their calendars. All of these workers were either hired men or members of the familia, and most were slaves. Generic references to workers in countryside, so often idealized, on occasion let the ugly truth slip: "Let the victor love, let him sleep on a bed of roses," says a poet, defending the life of Maecenas; "let the prisoner of war plow, let him reap; and may fear order him about." Manual tasks were performed by itinerant workers and slaves.
The authors of the handbooks, like their addressees and other known associates, were for the most part either senators, equestrians, or otherwise prosperous landowners. The attitudes towards manual labor among this class are well known. To engage in sustained manual labor on a farm was considered wretched and not in keeping with the dignity of an aristocrat. Vergil's acquaintance, the philosopher Philodemus, is unambiguous on this point: "It is degrading to farm in such a way that one does the work oneself; but to farm through others while owning the land is appropriate for a decent man" (Oec. col. 23.7-11 Jensen). In Terence's Heauton Timoroumenos, the "Self-Tormentor" of the title is a father who is distraught over having been so hard on his son that he drove him to leave home. To punish and "torture" himself, he has sold off most of his property and taken to hoeing his fields while his slaves stand idly by. His neighbor thinks he is crazy, and pities him for demeaning himself so (Cicero refers approvingly to the neighbor's view of this illiberalis labor). Of all farm tasks, some of the lowest involved care for barnyard animals; rubbing down mules or picking up goats were the lowest types of sordid labor; digging ditches or spreading manure were hardly much better. This general rule can be illustrated by an exception: Musonius Rufus, a "radical" Stoic philosopher of the Neronian age, once made the suggestion that his students maintain themselves by farming; he recommended in particular that they try the life of a shepherd, which would leave them the most time for philosophical discussion. He knew how his pupils would respond: "to work the earth and use the body for toil like peasants would be catastrophic!" (11.22-24 Lutz). Their rank, their dignitas, precluded them from engaging in forms of labor that would lower them to the level of peasants or slaves.
Rather than perform farm work, what the dominus generally did on his estate was make inspections and give commands. Xenophon in his Oeconomicus, a work Cicero translated and that Vergil knew, vividly describes a day in the life of the perfect gentleman farmer: he gets up, walks out to his fields, looks over the work being done, suggests corrections, then departs, having never dirtied his hands (11.12-13). Xenophon makes a telling distinction between two groups of persons on the farm: "those who work with their hands," and those who farm "by being concerned"-the latter phrase referring to landowners who show epimeleia (the Greek equivalent of cura) in their inspections. Both groups benefit from farming, he says, the workers because they acquire physical strength, the displayers-of-concern because they are forced to wake up early and move around briskly, which makes them better men (5.4). No doubt!
In the Georgics Vergil depicts not just the farms of peasant smallholders, but also estates where work is delegated to subordinates and the owner gives commands. The low-level workers Vergil frequently names stand by synecdoche for a farmer's familia; though they may be shown in isolation from the rest of the household, Vergil's readers would have encountered them in ordinary life as members of an estate's staff, not as self-maintaining entrepreneurs. Here are weaving girls, a ditchdigger, and a vinedresser (1.390-92, 2.262-64, 416-17):
ne nocturna quidem carpentes pensa puellae
nescivere hiemem, testa cum ardente viderent
scintillare oleum et putris concrescere fungos.
Not even at night were the girls carding their tufts of wool ignorant of the storm, when they saw the oil on their burning lamp spark and the moldy soot-deposits build.
arva solo: id venti curant gelidaeque pruinae
et labefacta movens robustus iugera fossor.
The best arable is made of crumbly soil: this is cared for by the winds and the cold frosts and by the brawny ditchdigger who loosens the acres and sets them in motion.
iam vinctae vites, iam falcem arbusta reponunt,
iam canit effectos extremus vinitor antes.
And now vines are tied up, and now the vineyards put away the sickle, and now at last the dresser sings, "the rows are done."
True herdsmen (as opposed to the mythical pastores Aristaeus or Apollo) turn up several times in the Georgics, sometimes neutrally (e.g., 2.435), sometimes with a hint of scorn (2.303-5; cf. 3.454-56):
nam saepe incautis pastoribus excidit ignis,
qui furtim pingui primum sub cortice tectus
robora comprendit ...
For often when the herdsmen are careless a bit of fire escapes, which at first stealthily conceals itself under the rich bark and embraces the trunk ...
In one instance the farmer and a worker are depicted together, the farmer unmistakably in command (the metaphor in induco suggests a general leading in his army) (1.316-18):
saepe ego, cum flavis messorem induceret arvis
agricola et fragili iam stringeret hordea culmo,
omnia ventorum concurrere proelia vidi ...
Many a time a farmer leading his reaper into the yellow fields was just on the verge of stripping the barley from the frail haulm when I saw all the winds join ranks and rush to battle ...
The mere presence of spinning girls or a reaper does not imply that the farmer was a wealthy landowner, of course; all the same, there is a familia and a division of labor here, not just an establishment run by a lone heroic yeoman. We cannot say whether these workers were hired laborers or slaves, but from the perspective of the elite the difference was no great one.
The giving of commands can also serve to indicate the farmer's reliance on assistants. Verbs of command like iubeo entail the existence of persons who are being ordered, and the infinitives that complement them tell us what tasks are being done. Consider the following passage from Columella, in which he reminisces about his uncle (12.44.5):
Marcus Columella patruus meus ex ea creta, qua fiunt amphorae, lata vasa in modum patinarum fieri iubebat eaque intrinsecus et exterius crasse picari; quae cum praeparaverat, tum demum purpureas et bumastos et Numisianas et duracinas uvas legi praecipiebat pediculosque earum sine mora in ferventem picem demitti et in praedictis patinis separatim sui cuiusque generis ita componi, ne uvae inter se contingerent.
My uncle Marcus Columella used to order that broad vessels shaped like dishes should be made from the same chalky clay used to make amphoras, and that these should be heavily pitched inside and out; once he had them ready, he would give instructions that clusters of "purples" and "bumasti" and "Numisianae" and "duracinae" grapes should be selected and their stems quickly lowered into boiling pitch and arranged separately by type on the aforementioned dishes, so that the clusters did not touch.
The verbs italicized here tell us that the uncle did not perform any of these tasks himself, but instead had members of his familia forming pottery, boiling pitch, and sorting grapes. These workers are not explicitly named or identified, but if we do not assume their existence and ability to follow his commands, we mistake the meaning of the sentence. In the following passage from the Georgics the landowner is "you," and the assistants are a fossor or fossores being directed to dig a pit (2.227, 230-31):
rara sit an supra morem si densa requires ...
ante locum capies oculis, alteque iubebis
in solido puteum demitti.
If you want soil that is unusually light or dense ... you should first seize a spot with your eyes and order that a pit in the solid earth be taken far down.
Vergil uses this device a few more times in the Georgics. Here the narrator is giving orders to implied herdsmen (3.295-303):
Incipiens stabulis edico in mollibus herbam
carpere ovis, dum mox frondosa reducitur aestas,
et multa duram stipula filicumque maniplis
sternere subter humum, glacies ne frigida laedat
molle pecus scabiemque ferat turpisque podagras.
post hinc digressus iubeo frondentia capris
arbuta sufficere et fluvios praebere recentis,
et stabula a ventis hiberno opponere soli
ad medium conversa diem ...
Starting out in the soft stalls, I proclaim that the sheep should eat grass there while summer, its foliage soon to come, is still being led back; also, that they [sc. the herdsmen] cover the hard ground below with bales of stubble and bundles of fern, so that the cold ice will not harm the tender flock or cause scabies or ugly foot-rot. Next, as I make my way from this area, I order that they [sc. the herdsmen] supply the goats with arbutus greens and give them fresh water, and position the cotes out of the wind, facing the winter sun, turned in the direction of noon ...
Another figure of speech that assumes delegated labor is exemplified by sentences like "The Pharaoh built the pyramid," or "Caesar defeated the Gauls." These statements, while true in some sense, nevertheless eliminate the presence of the underlings, the slaves or soldiers, who contribute most of the physical toil needed to complete the task. I will call the verbs in such statements "delegated" verbs. This usage occur regularly in Roman discourse about farming: a common idiom would declare that a rich landowner "plows a thousand acres," meaning he owns that amount of arable land, with elision of the actual plowmen; or a wealthy planter might say that he "sows" beans and grain, when what he is referring to is the fact that others sow beans and grain on his property for him. Here is Varro speaking: "I see C. Licinius Stolo coming ... who confirmed his cognomen through his diligent cultivation; for, since he used to dig around his vines and root up from the ground those growths called stolones, no stolo could be found on his farm." Stolo was a senator, and no more performed this digging himself than Seneca, who once called himself a "diligent digger of vineyards," as a joke. Delegated verbs can also be used of animals: "For two months before mating I fatten my bulls on grass and straw and hay and keep them away from the females," says a wealthy rancher in Varro (2.5.12).
The delegated verb appears in the Georgics in passages like this (2.298-302):
Neve tibi ad solem vergant vineta cadentem,
neve inter vitis corylum sere, neve flagella
summa pete aut summa defringe ex arbore plantas
(tantus amor terrae), neu ferro laede retunso
semina, neve oleae silvestris insere truncos.
Don't let your vineyards slope towards the setting sun, don't sow hazels among the vines, don't reach for the top of a tendril or break a shoot from the top of a vine (so much love of earth!), don't harm their suckers with a blunt knife, and don't graft onto wild olive trunks.
The first command would apply only to a wealthy landowner deciding what side of a hill to plant a vineyard on. The second injunction can be addressed to a landowner, but implies delegation, since the planting of hazels in such a vineyard would be done by workers. The next three commands describe techniques for a person working with their hands. We may in fact interpret these in two different ways: either we say that these are delegated verbs, or we assume that the addressee has metamorphosed from a landowner into a vineyard worker.
From isolated yeomen working with their hands to farmers who own vineyards, we have climbed much higher up the ladder of prosperity. The peak lies somewhere in the first half of book 3, where the poet gives instructions for raising cattle and horses. There Vergil devotes considerable attention to racehorses and cavalry mounts, framing his advice as an account of what the magistri of horses do. The following passage is representative of much of that section (3.118-20):
aeque iuvenemque magistri
exquirunt calidumque animis et cursibus acrem,
quamvis saepe fuga versos ille egerit hostis.
The trainers still look for a young colt with a hot spirit and keen on racing, even if he has supposedly driven the enemy to turn and flee countless times.
Here we are unmistakably in the realm of wealthy landowners, as evidenced by the description of thoroughbred horses and expert trainers who took care of them. "To own elite horses is the mark of an aristocrat's pride."
3. The Reader as a Farmer
A few general observations and conclusions are now in order. In the introduction to this chapter it was noted that there has been a debate whether Vergil's first readers, and the poet himself, counted as agricolae. From the evidence it is clear that we cannot disqualify them simply on the grounds that they did not engage in manual labor: the farmers of literary ideal might work with their hands, but it was also generally believed that one could farm and be a farmer "by concern," providing management for one's estates rather than sweat-labor. A better set of criteria for identifying agricolae can be found in the trio of qualities noted earlier: possessio, scientia, and cura.
Of these three, possession of land is something the poet and most of his first readers could boast of. Vergil himself was a landowner, and no mean one: there is good reason to believe that by the time of his death the poet's holdings consisted of several square miles worth of productive farmland. Whether he gave it his full attention is unknown, but the land he possessed was ultimately his responsibility, and it was the income derived from its produce that enabled the poet to devote himself to literature. Of his ancient readers, most of those about whom we have any knowledge seem likewise to have been landowners, free to devote themselves to other business or leisure activities thanks in part to the yield that their estates provided.
As for agronomical know-how, we might expect Romans to be distributed everywhere on the spectrum between expert and naïve ignoramus. The question then becomes, how much know-how was considered sufficient? Some, like the agronomist Columella, set the bar fairly high, requiring of the true farmer a considerable breadth and depth of knowledge in all matters agricultural. Yet a countervailing tradition was initiated by Xenophon, who dedicated the agricultural sections of his treatise Oeconomicus to the proposition that every man was already sufficiently expert in the techniques of farming by virtue of having seen others plow, plant, and harvest. His character Ischomachus introduces the proposition thus (15.10-16.2, tr. Pomeroy):
"Well, Socrates," he replied, "I can assure you that it is not necessary, as it is in the case of other occupations, for people to wear themselves out studying before the student can earn his keep, for farming is not so troublesome to learn. By watching the workers perform some of the chores and by hearing about others, you can immediately know what to do so that you could teach someone else if you wanted to.... There is one aspect of farming that authors who give a very accurate theoretical account of it, but who lack practical experience, say is extremely complicated. I want to show you that it is not really difficult at all. For they assert that the man who is going to be a successful farmer must first understand the nature of the soil.... But you can learn simply by looking at the crops and the trees on another man's soil what it can produce and what it can't."
Xenophon was not alone in this view: the same outlook is cited as a commonplace or endorsed by authors such as Cicero, Philodemus, and Galen. It goes without saying that this belief was a convenient one for aristocrats to hold, since it allowed them to imagine that they controlled the subject despite some gaps in their understanding of technical minutiae. We will return to this issue of minimal agricultural knowledge on the part of landowners in the next chapter.
Let us now examine the evidence for the sort of expertise Vergil and his readers may have possessed, starting with the author. His poem about farming was the product of considerable research on the subject: for its sake the poet worked his way through a small library of agronomists, including the relevant works of Xenophon, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Nicander, Bolus of Mendes, Mago of Carthage, Dionysius Cassius of Utica, Diophanes of Nicaea, Cato the Elder, Tremellius Scrofa, and Varro of Reate-some sixty or so scrolls, all told. The Georgics may be highly selective in its treatment of topics and rife with distortions of fact, but it took a well-informed author to make that selection and tinker with the truth. And although such reading only indicates the extent of Vergil's book-learning, rather than his practical experience, the authors of the books he read no doubt considered the lore they recorded to be both essential and important; by their standards, then, his knowledge may be regarded as pertinent.
As for his readers, some were quite knowledgeable about farming, as we can see from an author like Columella, who wrote for a small coterie of upper-class friends who retained an interest in both the Georgics and Columella's own treatises on agronomy. Others, perhaps the majority, were rather ill-informed-yet enlightened enough to get through and appreciate one work on agriculture, namely the Georgics. As anyone encountering the work for the first time soon comes to recognize, familiarity with a rather daunting array of information about crops and animal husbandry is taken for granted. Some of the information that is presented is jejune, distorted, or simply incorrect; but some of it is also quite reliable, reflecting as it does Vergil's familiarity with the ancient agricultural authorities. Provided then that we set the bar low à la Xenophon and ask only for a basic acquaintance with the subject, we may say that Vergil and most his readers also possessed the requisite scientia.
The key ingredient, then, was cura: personal attention, concern, or care for the business of farming. For all we know, Vergil did possess this concern, rode out on his horse every day to inspect the works, talked to his bailiff, and monitored the condition of the crops and livestock; and so perhaps did many of his readers. Or perhaps Vergil and his readers never did this. Or perhaps they did so only at intervals, whenever they could tear themselves away from the city for a few days to devote their attention to their land. The crucial point is that, for most of the persons we are considering, becoming a farmer was not like joining some selective, full-time profession; it was instead a condition that a landowner could enter into or leave at will, almost on a whim. The requisite knowledge was not very great and the land was always out there, waiting. All that really mattered was one's dedication to the thing.
It would be interesting to know whether the Georgics inspired any of its readers to make that literal transformation from, say, politician to farmer. Unfortunately, there is no evidence from antiquity for such a book-inspired conversion having taken place. So what we are left to study is the general phenomena of Romans retiring to their estates, as well as the figurative metamorphosis that occurs in audience members as they find themselves absorbed into the world of the poem.
And that takes us back to the text. As we have seen, the Georgics' representations of farmers display enormous variation, including the generic, idealized, self-sufficient smallholder one bad harvest away from starvation; landowners who delegate work to members of their familia; and owners of truly grand estates who engage in hobbies like horse-breeding and possess hillsides covered in vineyards. Attempts to determine whether in the Georgics Vergil describes the farms and farm practices of smallholders or of wealthy magnates have generally come to naught, for the simple reason that the poet does both. The mixing of elite and idealized peasant farmers is somewhat confusing, but it merely mirrors the usage of the term agricola, which as noted above could apply to freeholders of any rank, provided that they exhibited some measure of expertise and diligence.
In the next chapter we will look more closely at the dynamics of this mixing and its poetic effects. But one last observation is in order now. It is not just the farmer depicted in the poem, but also the poem's addressee whose social position varies, ranging from a comfortable landowner to an impoverished peasant and back. This is clear from various of the passages quoted above that use second-person forms of address: in 1.155-59 the addressee is a poor peasant, in 2.298-302 he is the owner of a vineyard with a staff of workers, in 2.227-31, he seems to shift from the latter to the former. This list of passages in which it is possible to infer the social position of the addressee could be expanded ad libitum. A major part of the Georgics' charm consists of its ability to beckon the reader into a world in which he or she becomes a gentleman or a yeoman farmer or a shepherd or a stable boy or any one from a cast of authentic rustic figures. This transformation is something even readers who happen not to be land barons can appreciate; nevertheless, I would suggest that the transformation would be more piquant and meaningful to those Romans for whom the option of becoming an agricola was a real one. Precisely how the poem carries its readers into the domain of its agricultural fantasy and what happens to them while they are there is the subject of the next chapter.
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