The Ancients on Farming

How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land is the latest addition to the Princeton classics library. It gathers writings by different authors. Editor and translator M.D. Usher writes, “A unifying element is provided for in the choice of selections, which focus on Greek and Roman attitudes, dispositions, and reflections on what it means to live, work, and think in a landscape.” He has focused on general arguments and discussions of the benefits of country life, as opposed to any technical information, which is to be found in instruction manuals written by the ancients. As more and more people notice the deracinating effects of urban life – crime, alienation, stress, lack of privacy, absence of trust – so the interest in rural life burgeons.

The authors selected are Hesiod, Plato, Lucretius, Varro, Horace, Longus, Columella, Pliny the Elder and others, including anonymous authors. Verse is mostly rendered as prose, though the original text is presented in metre. Short introductions and notes help to explain oblique references or backstories to these excerpts.

Hesiod writes of nature not waiting for man and that the imperatives of weather, season and growing cycle act as foe to sloth. He notes that competitive spirit pits farmer to match or exceed his neighbour, quoting the proverb, “Potter vies with potter, carpenters with their kin;/beggar rivals beggar, and bard begrudges bard.” Although he does counsel amity between neighbours. On frittering away one’s energy on distractions, Hesiod enjoins his brother:

Take these matters to heart. Do not let the Strife that delights in evil keep your heart from work while you attend hearings and gawk at disputes at assembly. If a man does not have a good year’s livelihood stored indoors, harvested in due season – Demeter’s grain, what the Earth brings forth – he has little concern for disputes and assemblies. Once you’ve sated yourself on that, go right ahead and advance your disputes and conflicts in your quest to acquire another man’s goods.

Elsewhere, Hesiod tells of eternal truths, that are just.

For such [righteous] people, the Earth produces life aplenty: in the mountains, the oak produces acorns on its branches, and bees in its trunk; their woolly sheep are weighed down, heavy with fleeces; their wives birth children that resemble their parents, and they thrive with good things all of their days. They do not embark upon ships: rather, the grain-giving land produces their crops.

Note Hesiod’s implicit criticism of itinerant merchants seeking foreign goods (the travelling traders) and his suggestion about the unfaithfulness of individuals living outside of nature’s allotted roles, which are implicitly good because they work. A man in harmony with nature prospers; his wife bears his children; he has no need to travel or trade abroad. It is the city life and foreign travel that lead to strife and imbalance between men, between husband and wife and between man and nature.   

Plato suggests (in his The Republic) how a city is organised by specialists in each field serving the community as a whole, working more efficiently and co-operatively. Virgil’s Georgics are the greatest surviving idyllic (or bucolic) odes of the Romans. His presentation of the farmer’s lot is partial. “Meanwhile, his sweet children hang upon his neck for kisses. His household is wholesome and guards its integrity. His cows come into milk with udders full, and the goat-kids grapple with one another, horns opposed, on the cheerful lea. The farmer himself observes a holiday, sprawled on the grass.” Later, Virgil has his Bacchanalian farmers throwing javelins and wrestling each other.

Horace locates the content farmer as his own man, far from controlling external influences. “Happy is he who, far away from financial affairs, works his ancestral lands, using oxen he owns, as did people of old, wholly debt-free.” He avoids war, the sea and the wiles of politicians. For the ancients, the farmer is a natural aristocrat. (Musonius Rufus declared farming was a pursuit conducive to philosophical reflection.) The farmer is detached from the mob; he is steward of the land. He must distain the vagaries of man to work at the pace of nature. He labours and his family and slaves labour beside him. He protects and feeds others in return for their loyalty and diligence. He is not elected and is deposed only when he fails in his duties as steward and provider, according to natural law. He raises his sons to follow the wisdom he learned from his father. The sons inherit because they are trained to inherit and to farm, forming a sacred chain of tradition.

Columella execrates the rise of the gentleman farmer, who owns a large farm that depends upon slave labour. The absent landlord loses touch with the reality of plants, animals and tasks entrusted to employees. He notes that the industrious wife of previous eras, who shared in the farmer’s wealth and contributed to the standing of the farmstead and the family, had fallen into indolence and luxury when the farmer becomes wealthy. “These days, however, most women are awash in luxury and idleness to such an extent that they don’t deem even the supervision of wool-making a worthy endeavor and find home-spun garments loathsome. Perversely, the clothes that please them most are those that cost a fortune, amounting almost to the value of a whole estate.”

Once again, we encounter an academic fretting over gender bias and slavery in ancient sources. One would have thought that as historians, selectors would welcome and preserve the differences of the ages recorded in ancients’ words, rather than offering propitiatory apologias. One suspects that selectors are more worried about the grumbling of progressive professors than any outcry by general readers, the latter of whom do not expect the past to mirror the concerns of today’s elites. M.D. Usher has nothing to apologise for and the ancients need no apologies proffered on their behalf. The ancients had – astonishingly – different biases to those of modern academics. Selectors and translators, let the authors speak frankly and credit readers with the judgment to evaluate their own responses to the ancients.    

Princeton University Press does us all a good service by publishing these selections and keeping the classics alive for us. How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land is a highly enjoyable selection and will be avidly read by idealistic communalists and traditional conservatives leaving for the countryside – and by all of us who wish they could do the same.  

Various, M.D. Usher (trans., intro.), How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardback, cloth spine, 272pp, Greek/Latin/English text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 0 691 21174 9

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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