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Translator's Introduction

Cato On Farming is the first surviving work of Latin prose, the oldest visible star in a great galaxy. It is first-hand evidence of farming, rural life and slavery in Italy 2,200 years ago, when Rome dominated the peninsula and was almost ready to rule the Mediterranean. It allows us to penetrate the mind of a remarkable and original man, one whose long-term influence on his city, its empire and its literature was profound. 

 

Cato’s Life

Marcus Porcius Cato was born in 234 bc in Tusculum, a self-governing town of Latium (Lazio) fifteen miles south of Rome. Its citizens, including Cato’s father, were Roman citizens. 

But his father’s living was as a farmer in the mountainous Sabine country, well to the southeast. ‘I spent all my boyhood in frugality, privation and hard work, reclaiming the Sabine rocks, digging and planting those flinty fields’ (Cato, Speeches 128). 

Porcius was his nomen, his wider family name. The cognomen Cato went back in the family at least to his great-grandfather Cato, who was ‘more than once rewarded for bravery, and was reimbursed from public funds, five times successively, when war-horses of his were killed in battle’ (Plutarch, Cato 1.1). 

‘I first enlisted at seventeen, when Hannibal was having his run of luck, setting Italy on fire’ (Cato, Speeches 187-8). The friendship and patronage of L. Valerius Flaccus, roughly Cato’s age and the son of a consul, helped him to the rank of military tribune under Q. Fabius Maximus in 214. 

After some years of fighting, Cato was elected quaestor in 204, again under Flaccus’ patronage. The work before him was still military, but this was now the first rung on the ladder of Roman electoral politics. ‘The Romans had a special term, New Men, for people who rose in politics without any family precedent. This was what they called Cato. He liked to say that in terms of office and power he was New, but in terms of his family’s bravery and prowess he was extremely Old’ (Plutarch, Cato 1.2). As quaestor he served under P. Cornelius Scipio ‘Africanus’, then gathering forces in Sicily for the invasion of Africa that would end the war. Scipio enjoyed the Greek culture and fine living of Syracuse. Cato did not, and thought them bad for Roman soldiers. 

As a politician, Cato could now wield patronage himself. His powers as a speaker were employed on behalf of people in nearby villages and towns who wished to use him as an advocate, and he will have begun to prosper. His next elected office was as one of the two aediles, with responsibilities in Rome itself, in 199: he and his colleague found excuses to organise more Games than usual, not an unpopular move. 

In 195 he and his friend Flaccus were elected consuls, the climax of many Roman political careers. Cato’s task as consul was to command the Roman army in the northeastern half of the vast new territory of Spain, captured from the Carthaginians a few years before but almost continually in revolt. Within the limit of the single campaigning season, from a ‘very difficult and unfavourable starting point’ (Speeches 19) he ran an effective campaign, training, disciplining and stretching his troops, ending rebellions, even rescuing his junior colleague, the praetor P. Manlius, from threatened disaster in the southwest beyond his own province. He seemed so successful that he was voted the honour of celebrating a Triumph on his return to Rome; the booty he had won made up a bonus of a pound of silver to every legionary; and the Senate decided to disband his army. Whereupon revolts broke out once more — but these were a problem for his successor in Spain, Scipio Africanus. 

In the course of his career Cato served the expanding Roman state in Sicily and north Africa in 214, in Sardinia in 198, in Spain in 195, in Greece in 191 and 189. But his real fame came — and still comes — from what he did and said in Rome. From the outset of his political career, he was the conviction politician of the day. He knew Roman behaviour, Roman morality, the Roman way. From this standpoint he attacked, and generally discredited, for embezzlement and other illegal acts while abroad, a succession of victims: M’. Acilius Glabrio, his commander in 191, another New Man; the great Scipio Africanus, Cato’s commander in Sicily and Africa, and his brother L. Cornelius Scipio; Q. Minucius Thermus, one of those who followed Cato in Spain. By 184 he had a well-deserved reputation for stubborn righteousness and fiery oratory. 

Every five years Rome elected two censors. These held office for a year and their task was to review the lists of the Senate, the Equites ‘knights’ and the citizen body, expelling those unworthy of the rank or too poor to meet their obligations. The censorship was sometimes looked on as an honourable sinecure, but in 184 a climate had been created, with Cato’s help, in which Romans wanted better behaviour from their aristocrats. In 184 there was fierce competition for the censorship: all other candidates, except Flaccus, directed their campaigns against Cato personally. Cato and Flaccus were elected. Their famous censorship of 184/3 aroused rivalries that ‘occupied Cato for the rest of his life’ (Livy 39.44.9). They demoted several senators and knights, for reasons including personal morals. Victims included M. Fulvius Nobilior, whom Cato served in 189; L. Quinctius Flamininus, brother of one of Rome’s greatest generals. Cato concerned himself freely with issues of morality and private expenditure, speaking out On Clothes and Vehicles and On Statues and Pictures. The censors imposed penalties for encroachment on public land and misuse of the public water supply. They extended Rome’s sewer network to serve the Aventine hill, at great cost. 

Cato, it is reliably said, disapproved of humour when censorial business was in hand. L. Nasica was asked formally at registration, ‘Answer to your mind. Have you a wife?’ replied, ‘Yes, but not to my mind!’ and was immediately demoted. 

Cato held no more elected offices, but his involvement in Roman politics was uninterrupted. As senator, advocate, prosecutor, he continued to target misbehaviour by generals on campaign and by governors in overseas provinces. His oratorical skills were used in long-running disputes with old adversaries and their relatives as well as in defending, or rewriting, his own past acts. 

As Rome’s involvement in the eastern Mediterranean grew, Cato found himself the patron or advocate of Greek delegations who had come to press a case in Rome. As a self-proclaimed traditional Roman, a self-proclaimed distruster of Greeks, he might have found this position uncomfortable, but it did not leave him at a loss for words. Asked in 150 to help get a thousand state hostages released and sent home to Greece, Cato rose in the Senate and said, ‘As if we had nothing to do, we sit all day deciding whether some old Greeks should be buried by our undertakers or by Achaean ones.’ The intervention was well-judged: the vote was for release. Among these ‘old Greeks’, who had had a seventeen years’ enforced holiday in Rome, was the future historian Polybius. 

Cato’s last major contribution to Roman public affairs was to urge war against Carthage, the ‘Third Punic War’ as it is now known — a war that was eventually declared in his lifetime and ended, after his death, with the complete destruction of Rome’s great rival. As Cato had so insistently repeated, Carthago delenda est, ‘Carthage must be razed.’ Its destroyer would be P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, brother of Cato’s daughter-in-law Tertia. ‘He alone has a mind,’ said the aged Cato about Aemilianus; ‘the rest are darting shadows’ (Polybius 36 fragment 8.7). 

Cato had married Licinia, ‘noble but not rich’, about the time of his consulship. He was said to have joked ‘that his wife never put her arms round him except when there was a thunderstorm: he was a happy man when Jove thundered’ (Plutarch, Cato 17.7). He was also said to be a good husband and a thoughtful and painstaking father. 

His first son, Marcus Cato later called ‘Licinianus’, was born around 192. Cato took personal charge of his son’s education, and himself wrote out a history of Rome ‘in big letters’ to teach Marcus to read. Marcus fought honourably in Greece in 168 under the eminent L. Aemilius Paullus. He married Tertia, his commander’s daughter, in the 160s and died just after being elected praetor in the late 150s. 

Licinia, too, died relatively young. At the age of about 80, still vigorous, Cato married a much younger woman, Salonia, the daughter of one of his secretaries — so probably not of Roman descent. He had a son by Salonia, also called Marcus and known to later historians as ‘Cato Salonius’ or ‘Salonianus’. Cato died in 149. 

 

His Writings and Opinions

On Farming is the only work by Cato that survives to modern times, but later Romans were able to read numerous other writings by him. Their quotations of Cato make up a collection of fragments from which we can learn something of his lost work. The fragments are full of personal opinions forcefully stated. Classicists like their classical authors to be logical and consistent, and the fragments have been much mulled over in order to demonstrate logic and consistency in Cato. 

About a hundred and fifty of Cato’s speeches were known to Cicero, a century after his time. We no longer know even the titles of all of these. It seems clear that Cato began as early as 202 to write out and retain versions of the speeches that he had actually delivered ‘In the Senate’ or ‘To the People’: the first that we can date was On the Improper Election of the Aediles, delivered in 202. Several speeches from the year in which he was Consul, a self-justificatory retrospect On his Consulship, and numerous speeches as Censor, are among the ones from which fragments are known. It is not clear whether he himself allowed others to read and copy the texts (i.e. whether he ‘published’ them), or whether this first happened after his death. 

We might conclude, from Cato’s political biography and from reading what we can of his speeches, that Rome was the centre of his life and thoughts. Yet On Farming is written from the point of view of a landowner on the borders of Campania and Samnium, whose farm management must fit in with local practice and local market forces whether his town house happens to be in Rome, Tusculum or elsewhere. Is the book an aberration? 

It is not: we can tell this from the surviving fragments of a highly original work by Cato, called in Latin Origines. This was a history; the first history in Latin prose. Its sole focus might have been the growth and triumph of Rome, the city which by Cato’s time dominated Italy unchallenged and the city to which he had devoted his own political career. Cato saw things differently. ‘In his old age he determined to write a history. There are seven books of it. Book I is the history of the early kings of Rome; books II and III the beginnings of each Italian city. This seems to be why the whole work is called Origines’ (Nepos, Cato 3) and these city histories were apparently treated on an individual basis, drawing on their local traditions. The remaining four books did indeed deal with Rome’s later wars and with the growth in the city’s power; they ‘outweighed’ the rest (so Festus, On the Meaning of Words p. 198 M) but they did not tempt Cato to change his title. 

Why did Cato set out to show that Rome was, in its origin, one city among many? We know something of the existing Roman writings on which he must have drawn. These were two long poems in Latin, the Punic War by Naevius and the Annals by Cato’s own client Ennius; and two prose histories written in Greek by Romans, Q. Fabius Pictor and L. Cincius Alimentus. All four were Rome-centred from beginning to end, while the two poems wove Roman history inextricably into the adventures and plans of the Graeco-Roman gods, as Latin epics always would thereafter. It is imaginable, at least, that Cato was dissatisfied with these perspectives, as he certainly was with that of the official records of the Pontifex Maximus. His own experience reminded him that Rome was not everything, either to the peoples of Italy or to the gods they worshipped. 

Cato’s own contribution to Rome surfaced in the Origines: he was ‘not the man to minimise his own achievements’ (Livy 34.15.9). Several of his own speeches were included verbatim in the book, and although he made it a rule not to name military commanders, certain campaigns in which a certain Tusculan had participated were highlighted. 

We have not yet finished listing the published writings of this remarkable author. His manual On Soldiery (De Re Militari) was probably a practical notebook, like On Farming, based on his own experience. His book on the law relating to priests and augurs can be seen in the same light, and might follow naturally from the religious prescriptions already included in On Farming. To His Son was a book of advice. Carmen De Moribus ‘Poem on morals’ might have drawn on some of the same material, and was apparently in prose, in spite of its title. Finally he compiled a book of Sayings, some of them translated from Greek, and indeed this sub-literary genre had fairly recently become popular in Greek. 

Why did he write? It is easy to begin an answer. He was a man confident of his opinion, proud of his experience, and keen that others should benefit from both. And he was in the habit of keeping written records for his own use. Yet these things might not have been enough to bring about the creation of a prose literature in a new language, which is what Cato did. It seems quite possible that the decisive point was the need, in the 180s, to teach young Marcus Licinianus. Cato distrusted Greek slave professionals, and there were no other teachers. So he became his son’s teacher, and taught him not in Greek but in his native Latin. The history ‘in big letters’ was followed by other texts addressed to Marcus, one of which later circulated as To His Son. So much is known. There were surely friends and clients who would say that these writings of Cato’s should be copied and would be welcomed by others. From such a beginning, their author might well have found it satisfying to continue to expound, on history, agriculture, warfare and other matters, to a less limited audience. 

 

Cato and ‘On Farming’

    Let us recall Marcus Cato the Censor, who first taught Agriculture to speak Latin.  Columella, On Farming 1.1.12.

There had been Greek writings on farming. There was a massive Carthaginian farming manual, soon to be translated into Latin at state expense. Cato probably knew none of these, and the later, more solid and systematic Latin textbooks on farming were far in the future (see below). In this, as in every one of his writings, Cato was a pioneer. 

It is sometimes argued that Cato wrote On Farming as propaganda — because, for some political reason, he wanted more rich Romans to buy land and produce oil or wine. These arguments underestimate the book. We can begin to see from the reports of his speeches, and in any case we would know from other sources, that Cato was a master of persuasion: no one in Rome in his time could be confident of winning an argument against him. If On Farming is a political argument, it is surely an argument so full of irrelevances and inconsequentialities as to persuade nobody. 

Cato’s real motivation is perhaps simpler. He knew farming and was confident in his knowledge. Some Romans had become rich; many peasants had died or had been ruined in the years of war. With Rome’s recent conquests slaves were suddenly plentiful. Land and labour were relatively cheap, and slave-run farms were likely to prove a profitable investment. Advice was needed by people who had no family experience of exploiting the land: Cato would provide it. 

He put down what he knew, as it came to his mind: the choice of a farm, the staffing and equipping of it, the use of the land, the work that must be planned for through the year, the essential religious rites, the terms of trade for building work and for various tasks that were subcontracted — and a good deal more. 

On Farming must, in his time, have been a useful, memorable, often irritating handbook. To us now it is an astonishingly rich source of information on Italy in the second century bc, and many still find it an irritating handbook. Here some themes that emerge from study of On Farming will be outlined, and it may become evident why one or two of the features of On Farming attract irritation. 

There is an unresolved conflict, throughout, between the farm as a way of life and the farm as a mere investment. The reason is obvious — it is the difference between Cato’s own rural upbringing and his later prosperity as a city politician, a difference which there is no reason to suppose he had ever thought out fully. In spite of this, most of Cato’s information will have been really useful to an owner, a manager or both. They could not learn to do everything necessary from this book, but, like a Baedeker, it would help to render them independent of unreliable guides. 

A second point which, we may say, Cato had not thought through fully was how best to adapt his personal and local experience into general advice. Anyone who picks up the book will learn a great deal more about farming in the mountainous country where Latium, Campania and Samnium meet than about any other parts of Italy — even to a list of the market towns of choice (chapter 135). The focal point is the Venafrum country. We have to guess that this was where Cato farmed. Possibly it was the farm that he inherited from his father, in which case we must also guess that he personally turned it over largely to olives, building a press room and buying a costly crushing mill, trapetum, from somewhere near neighbouring Suessa after making an estimate of the comparative cost of purchase at Pompeii (chapter 22). 

Cato pays great attention to cost and savings. This is a point of real interest to economic historians, but Cato’s approach attracts disdain from modern economists. His advice, throughout On Farming, tends towards making the farm as self-sufficient as possible. Modern investors prefer to maximise income from whatever is the principal produce and to spend a proportion of this income on supplies. Economics has gained many converts in the last quarter of a millennium, but some small-scale farmers in southern Europe are still closer to Cato than to Adam Smith in their views on this point. It must be said that extremely high transport costs in republican Italy would have helped to make self-sufficiency an attractive aim. 

This detail notwithstanding, Cato’s focus overall is on the investment potential of a farm. His approach to the use of capital is therefore under the spotlight, and we note that he distinguishes in his Preface (see also footnote there) among land, trade and ‘money-lending’ as potential uses of money, regarding trade as unsafe and money-lending as utterly immoral. It is odd, then, that Cato himself was said to have lent money on maritime trade through an intermediary (so Plutarch, Cato 21.6). Was he so totally inconsistent? Or, by participating in something of the nature of a trading company, was he in his own eyes reducing the riskiness of ‘trade’ and avoiding the immorality of ‘money-lending’? 

On Farming sheds a bleak light on Roman treatment of slave labour. This is one of the topics that make the work so useful to the social historian. In exploring it, one notices on one side the cool calculations of food, clothing and sickness; on the other side, reliance on the assiduity and intelligence of the ‘manager’ and ‘manageress’, themselves almost certainly slaves. Away from the purely economic calculations of On Farming, Cato’s treatment of his own slaves is recorded in some detail and was relatively humane (see particularly Plutarch, Cato). Rome’s treatment of labour could also be far more brutal than is suggested in this book. In the last two centuries bc, successive slave and shepherd revolts in southern Italy and Sicily ended in the execution and crucifixion of thousands. 

The level of detail in On Farming varies dizzyingly. Practically nothing is said of the wine harvest (presumably Cato assumes it will be subcontracted: see chapter 23). There is almost nothing on kitchen gardening (see note at 70; compare Columella books 11-12). By contrast, the assembly of the olive press and mill is among the topics that are dealt with in fearsome depth. 

Two subject areas which seem tangential to most readers of On Farming are firmly emphasised by Cato. There is a section of recipes for bread and cakes, in a Greek tradition and perhaps drawing on a Greek cookbook. Why? Possibly so that the owner and his guests can be entertained when visiting; possibly so that profitable sales can be made at a neighbouring market. And there are several prescriptions, herbal or magical, for medicines to treat humans and oxen. In this case we are lucky enough to know exactly why Cato included the information that he did, thanks to a verbatim quotation (perhaps from To His Son): 

    ‘In due course, my son Marcus, I shall explain what I found out in Athens about these Greeks, and demonstrate what advantage there may be in looking into their writings (while not taking them too seriously). They are a worthless and unruly tribe. Take this as a prophecy: when those folk give us their writings they will corrupt everything. All the more if they send their doctors here. They have sworn to kill all barbarians with medicine — and they charge a fee for doing it, in order to be trusted and to work more easily. They call us barbarians, too, of course, and opici, a dirtier name than the rest. I have forbidden you to deal with doctors.  Cato quoted by Pliny 29.13-14.

After giving his own summary of this passage, his biographer Plutarch observes drily (Cato, 24.1) that Cato’s own medicines proved better for Cato himself than for his wife and son, both of whom died young. We can at least be sure, from this tirade, that Cato aimed to make his readers as independent of Greek doctors as of any other expensive and unreliable advisers. 

 

Cato and his readers

I first looked at Cato On Farming when I wanted some real Latin for beginning students of Latin to translate. I gave them the pithy instruction at the beginning of chapter 61: Quid est agrum bene colere? bene arare. quid secundum? arare. tertio? stercorare. They knew the word forms; they knew the words, except stercorare ‘spread dung’, which was not difficult to explain. Yet they found these six sentences very difficult to translate. They were not used to getting so much sense out of so few words. 

Much of On Farming is like this, though not always quite as brief as this. Cato was never a man to waste words, but On Farming is even more concise than the passages we can still read from his political speeches. The speeches were meant to be heard only once: their published form might have been adjusted after the occasion, but their style still reflects the need to get every thought across to his hearers — even to unsympathetic hearers — at first hearing without mistake. Extreme brevity would have been incompatible with that purpose: it is a feature of natural human language that some ‘noise’, some ‘padding’ is required to assist the transmission of a message. 

On Farming differed from Cato’s speeches in three ways. First, it would be read by individuals to themselves, or by individuals to one or two other hearers: circumstances that allow slow reading, pausing for thought or discussion, going back and reading again till all is clear. Second, its readers and hearers had either chosen to read it, or were not allowed the choice: in either case, their full attention was guaranteed. Third — the most difficult point for us to grasp now — it belonged to a linguistic culture in which speech and memory were paramount. If one read alone, one read aloud to oneself: silent reading had not been thought of. Books were few; serious literature was in Greek, and, for those few who studied literature, memorisation was the rule. Whatever the language, whatever the medium, one imbibed another’s thoughts by listening and memorising. 

Language in itself was not a problem: some Romans and many Campanians must have been bilingual, like other southern Italians. But to read and study a text in Latin will have been an unfamiliar activity for most of them. Cato himself helped to change this. With his own Origines and other writings, alongside the plays and poetry that were meanwhile multiplying, a literature in Latin had begun to grow. 

This did not change the way in which written texts were studied and used. We know this most clearly from the way that Cato On Farming, itself, was used by later Latin writers. When Varro, Columella and Pliny — and others — wrote on agriculture or household management, Cato came immediately to their minds. They quoted him often, from memory, with dreadful inaccuracy. On Farming was built into their thoughts, its pithy proverbs adjusted to a later rhythm (see note on 3, ‘Build so that the buildings will not be in want of a farm’), its unspoken assumptions filled in in words (see note on 1, the ‘meadow’). They had read and rethought Cato: they had him by heart. 

The modern reader who remembers the difference between the way texts are read now, and the way they were read in Cato’s time, will find Cato readable. He has to be surveyed: not all of the book is aimed at every reader. After that, selected pages have to be sounded and listened to and considered, as if in discussion between an owner and a manager. The ‘noise’, the ‘padding’ is not provided by the writer: it is added by his audience. 

The footnotes in this translation are intended to help with this way of reading and studying On Farming. Many of them consist of quotations from slightly later Roman authors — the ones who had certainly read Cato themselves. These quotations may or may not be close to what was in his mind as he was writing; at any rate these are the facts and views that were filed, alongside Cato, in the minds of some of his Roman readers. 

The headings and sub-headings in this translation (of which some come from the manuscript tradition, but most are newly invented) are no more than a shadow of Cato’s real train of thought, which is as coherent, and as inconsequential, as a conversation or a series of conversations. The sequence of topics is partly random (as if ‘We haven’t yet said anything about …’), partly suggested by incidental and superficial connections of word or thought (as if ‘Mentioning amurca reminds me of other uses …’), partly a matter of rethinking and recapping (as if ‘When talking about manure I ought to have added …’ and even ‘I don’t remember whether I told you …’). 

The result is utterly different from any structure that teachers would have approved, had there as yet been any teachers of Latin. That did not matter to Cato, whose audience would get to know his opinions by reading or listening to the book and would then make any logical connections that they wished. 

 

This Translation

 
I returned to Cato On Farming because I wanted to understand him and his way of using language. I decided I could do this, and help others to do it, by putting his words into English. The translation by Hooper and Ash does not make him appear a coherent thinker. Brehaut’s translation is fairer (and his commentary is still important) but his style is now very old-fashioned. I am grateful to Tom Jaine, of Prospect Books, for encouraging me to make this new translation. 

Study of Cato and On Farming can begin from the modern works listed in the Bibliography, and from the other ancient writers ‘On Farming’ also listed there. Many of these can be read in English. Beyond that, serious work cannot be done without reading Cato’s Latin text, conveniently available in Goujard’s edition with a parallel French translation and an important commentary. Brehaut’s commentary, accompanying his English translation, remains useful. 

All punctuation in this translation, including the occasional ‘…’, is my responsibility as translator, added to assist the modern reader to come to terms with the ancient text. On Farming will have been written down originally without word division or punctuation, without paragraphing or chapter divisions, and probably (though this is not certain) without any consistent series of section headings. Gradually, in the course of manuscript copying and in the sequence of printed editions, all these things have been added. The reader of a Greek or Latin classic in translation needs to remember that this has happened; different views about punctuation and paragraphing can, in places, lead to completely different translations. 

Words in square brackets [ ] are not in the Latin text. In some cases I felt them necessary to complete the sense (as I understood it) in English; in other cases they represent conjectures by various scholars which change the meaning of the Latin text of the manuscripts. The translation retains, from the printed editions of Cato’s text, its traditional chapter numbers, 1 to 162. They are now indispensable: all scholarly references to specific passages of On Farming cite these chapter numbers. They are used in the footnotes of this translation for cross-references.

 

 

Three notes
Weights and measures
 
  Latin terms used by Cato (italic)  

English approximations used in this translation (roman)
Metric equivalent Imperial equivalent
Linear measure 1 foot (pes) = 4 palms (palmae) = 12 inches (pollices) = 16 fingers (digiti) pes: 24 centimetres 11.5 inches
Area 1 iugerum [= 240 x 120 pedes] iugerum: 0.25 hectare 0.6 acre
Dry volume 1 peck (modius) = 2 gallons (semodii

= 16 pints (sextarii)
modius: 8.75 litres 2 UK gallons 

2.4 US gallons
Liquid volume 1 culleus = 20 amphorae or quadrantalia = 40 urnae = 160 congii 

= 960 pints (sextarii)
culleus: 525 litres (5.25 hectolitres) 115 UK gallons 

139 US gallons
Volume: smaller units 1 pint (sextarius) = 2 heminae or cotulae = 3 tertiarii = 4 quartarii = 8 acetabula = 12 cyathi sextarius: 0.55 litre 1 UK pint 

1.2 US pints
Weight 1 lb. or libra = 12 ounces (unciae) libra: 0.325 kilogram 13 ounces
Apothecaries’ weight  1 pound (mina) = 100 drams (drachmae) mina: 0.44 kilogram 15.4 ounces
 
 

Money

Nummus, or its equivalent in Italic dialects and Greek, was the name for the standard bronze coin and the standard silver coin in much of central southern Italy in the 3rd century. Many cities of the region issued their own coins, on various weight and value standards; among the market towns mentioned by Cato (135) Venafrum, Cales, Suessa and Nola, as well as the much more important Capua, had — before his time — issued such coins themselves. It seems probable that in 14-15, where Cato gives prices for building work in nummi, he means the bronze money that was once local to Campania and Samnium. In practice it now mostly emanated from Rome. In Rome in his day, three nummi (three asses, to use the official name; two Greek oboloi) could be regarded as a daily wage (Crawford, Coinage and money p. 147 citing Polybius 6.39.12 and Plautus, Mostellaria 357). 

The victoriatus was a silver coin struck at Rome from about 211 bc onwards. It did not form part of the standard Roman coinage system and, according to hoard evidence, it circulated not at Rome but in the Hellenised parts of Campania and southern Italy. In weight the victoriatus equalled * denarius but, more important, it was intended to equate to the drachma (6 oboloi) of many of the Greek cities of Italy. Besides being the name of a Roman coin, victoriatus may, in some texts, have served as the Latin translation of drachma. The Roman victoriatus was minted in debased silver, and in the 2nd century it gradually lost credit, eventually circulating at * denarius. At the same time its area of circulation shifted northwards, to the central Apennines and to Celtic regions. Cato only mentions the victoriatus once — as the benefit or bonus, ‘pot-money’, paid to an oil-making contractor (145). 

Elsewhere in On Farming, prices are reckoned in sestertii: the abbreviation hs is used at 21-2, ss at 144-6. This is odd. Sestertii (* denarii) had been minted at Rome in Cato’s youth, and would become the regular Roman money of account in 140 bc after his death, and would eventually be minted again from around 90 bc — but at the time when he was writing On Farming, sestertii were not an important constituent of Rome’s currency system. I quote Michael Crawford’s proposed answer to this problem: ‘There is some evidence for the circulation in the Greek areas of Italy of the sestertius as the equivalent of the diobol [2 oboloi] … and I am inclined to suggest that the diobol survived as a unit of reckoning in Campania in the second century and was in due course called a sestertius, since this was in terms of silver its Roman equivalent’ (Coinage and money p. 346). It is worth adding that the sestertius = diobolos was the highest unit common to the Roman and the local Greek currency systems. 

There is a great deal of speculation in this note. If it is all accepted, the rough equivalences in Cato’s mental arithmetic and in the markets near Venafrum are: 1 victoriatus = 3 sestertii = 9 nummi

Coinage was not the only payment medium: the price for an olive crushing mill that Cato (or someone) bought in Suessa country included 50 lb. oil. However, he carefully adds a money value for the oil to make the estimates comparable (22). Contractors of all types were paid partly in kind; jobbers who did harvest work (136-7) could be paid entirely in kind.

 

Sex

In translating from a language which has grammatical gender to one which has almost lost it, it is paradoxically difficult to deal correctly with sex-specificity in terminology. 

Cato uses two terms for the owner of a farm. One is pater familias, ‘father of the family or household’. This is a sex-specific concept: in other words, Cato is assuming a male owner, so I translate ‘master’. More often Cato uses the term dominus: this often is translated ‘master’ or ‘lord’ but in this text I have preferred ‘owner’ as a translation of dominus because the Latin term can logically subsume either male or female, and it would be wrong to assume that the dominus, property-owner and slave-owner, would always be a man. As it happens, Varro’s later book On Farming is addressed to his wife Fundania, who had just bought a farm of her own. Several women landowners have a place in Roman history. 

The only two explicitly sex-specific occupations in Cato’s book are those of the vilicus ‘manager’ and vilica ‘manageress’ (chapters 5, 142-3) — and notice the solitary mention of the ‘mistress’ at 143. One of the religious rituals that he describes is explicitly for men only (83). 

It is well worth reading the frank discussion by Varro (On Farming 2.10) on men and women as shepherds, from which a short extract is quoted in a note at 10. 

 

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