Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.07.18

Andrew Dalby (trans.), Cato. On Farming. De Agricultura: A Modern Translation with Commentary.   Blackawton, Devon:  Prospect Books, 1998.  Pp. 243; 11 figs.  ISBN 0-907325-80-7 (pb).  

Reviewed by J. Bradford Churchill, University of Colorado, Boulder (
Word count: 2609 words

Dalby's introduction (pp. 7-29) asserts the importance of Cato's handbook and the need for a new translation, and provides what the author regards as the necessary background information. A few selected points about the background need to be emphasized.

The first section, "Cato's Italy" (pp. 7-8), surveys the political and economic situation of Italy in the 2nd century BCE, and sets Cato in context.

"Cato's Life" (pp. 8-13) touches on Cato's biography and character. Here Dalby's overview leaves out some important points and is hampered by received notions, some of which have already been shown the door, and others which I hope will be soon. Dalby accepts too readily (p. 9) the traditional portrait of division between Cato and Scipio, the future Africanus Maior, when Cato served as his quaestor in 204 (see, e.g., Ruebel 163-4); he omits what seems to me a crucial detail of Cato's praetorship in Sardinia, when he capped interest rates and deported money-lenders. Dalby steps into an error -- perhaps following Plutarch (Cat.Mai. 11) -- by remarking that Cato, who spent much of his consulship of 195 BCE campaigning in Spain, was succeeded in that province by Scipio Africanus; in fact Cato was succeeded by P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica, Africanus' cousin (see Astin 51-2). Some may choose to believe, as Dalby apparently does (p. 10), that Cato in 189 BCE "attacked" his former commander, M.' Acilius Glabrio; Livy (37.57.13-14) says only that Cato testified against him; Glabrio is made by Livy (37.57.15) to complain that he was brought down by a hypocritical, partisan Cato, but these are, in context, predictable sour grapes (his complaint is refuted by Livy's narrative at 37.57.12). Still, the general impression Dalby gives (pp. 10-11) of Cato as a relentless opponent of all those who transgressed against his view of Roman political morality is accurate enough, if perhaps a bit overstated (e.g., "he had a well-deserved reputation for stubborn righteousness and fiery oratory").

But Cato's fabled "moralism," which seems to have been contaminated by the echoes of Puritanism, did not so much have to do with "issues of morality and private expenditure" (p. 11) as with habits detrimental to the stability of the Roman state, which depended on the financial stability of the ruling class at least as much as it did on funding for the treasury; his luxury taxes intruded no more into private morality and expenditure than modern tax codes, and arguably with more practical justification. Cato made use of rhetorical outrage to endorse his policies, but he did not, as Dalby implies, gratuitously interfere in private lives. As Cato said elsewhere (orat. 174), "as far as I'm concerned, let everyone use and enjoy what is his" (for a contrary view more in accord with Dalby's attitude, see Scullard 222-4). The statement (p. 11) that Cato's "oratorical skills were used in long-running disputes with old adversaries and their relatives" tends to imply that Cato's attacks were ad hominem political maneuvers; by adding that his skills were also employed "in defending, or rewriting, his own past acts" Dalby again presumes a good deal more than the evidence shows, but certainly advances the traditional picture of Cato as a lying hypocrite (see, e.g., Carawan).

Dalby also perpetuates the false dichotomy often seen in Cato's attitude to the Greeks. "Cato found himself the patron or advocate of Greek delegations," but was also "a self-proclaimed distruster of Greeks" (p. 12). In fact, Cato found good and bad in Greek culture, and said so in the famous "diatribe" (Plin. Nat. 29.7.14) which has been cited as evidence for his irrational view of the Greeks. What few have realized (so far, only Gruen 78-80 has come to my attention) is that Cato's words were satirical (in the modern sense). Plutarch (Cat.Mai. 23) took them literally, and most modern scholars have followed in his footsteps (e.g., Astin 172-4).

Dalby neglects Cato's sense of humor (p. 12, one paragraph, and n. 6). His outline of Cato's family life (pp. 12-13), on the other hand, strikes me as balanced and accurate.

"His Writings and Opinions" (pp. 13-16) surveys Cato's literary career. Cato's recorded speeches (cf. orat. 173) win suitably prominent mention, as does (pp. 14-15) his less-than-completely-Romanocentric view, as exemplified by the outline of the Origines, which covered Italian beginnings, not merely Roman. Dalby puts the rest of Cato's repertory of practical and moral instruction (De re militari, Ad filium, Carmen de moribus) in proper perspective, although little is made of controversies about the nature and scope of these works, or of the Apophthegmata (which he calls in English Sayings), a body of quotations of and/or by Cato of which Plutarch made some use.

In "Cato and 'On Farming'" (pp. 16-18) Dalby acknowledges (p. 17 n. 19) controversy about the socio-economic state of Italian agriculture in the wake of the Second Punic War, but he reasonably supposes that deaths, displacements, and ready availability of slaves had somewhat changed the circumstances that had previously prevailed. Cato provided for prospective land-owners needed advice compiled from his own experience.

In "'On Farming': An Outline" (pp. 18-21), Dalby provides a lucid, if necessarily speculative, analysis of the thought behind the organization. The assumption is that Cato included everything in an order determined by some coherent pattern of thought; however, the possibility exists that Cato simply added or inserted some things as he came upon them, wherever convenient.

In "'On Farming': Themes and Controversies" (pp. 22-4), Dalby tries to account for several perceived conflicts within the work: First (p. 22), he makes Cato's repetitive and duplicative pattern akin to a teacher repeating a lesson to impress it on students. Second (p. 22) he finds "an unresolved conflict, throughout the book, between the farm as a way of life and the farm as a mere investment." I see no conflict, but Dalby explains (ibid.) that Cato was raised on a farm ("way of life"), but as an adult he managed from afar ("mere investment"). Third, Cato's advice was not broadened much beyond the geographical area where he apparently learned from experience. This hardly seems controversial, unless we assume that Cato did more than compile what he had accumulated for his own use; there is certainly no perceptible sign of such extended research. It was for Varro and Columella to take Cato's limited example and turn out manuals for more general audiences. Finally, Dalby indicates (p. 23) that modern economists criticize Cato's insistence on the farm's self-sufficiency, since modern investors "maximize income from ... the principal produce and spend a proportion of this income on supplies." I am no economist, but it seems to me there is a balance to be struck between those things more profitably done in-house and those things more efficiently farmed out or purchased from outside. Dalby (p. 24) rightly emphasizes that bringing anything from any distance was much more expensive then than it is now.

"Cato and his Readers" (pp. 25-6) makes clear that the text was intended to be consulted, not read, and that modern readers will profit by reading with this in mind. "How the Text Survived" (pp. 27-8) makes no surprising claims but that (p. 27) Agr. 157 (the praise of the cabbage) is spurious (his remarks do not justify, to my mind, his decision to translate it separately as an appendix). "This Translation and Beyond" (pp. 28-9) justifies the new translation and outlines its methodology.

There follow "Three Notes" (pp. 30-32) helping readers deal with Roman weights and measures, money, and gender issues brought up by the translation. "Illustrations" (pp. 33-49) consist of eleven figures, including a map of the area with which Cato's text is most concerned and illustrations, diagrams, and plans of various representations, structures, and devices.

Then come the Latin text (on the left) and the English translation (on the right) on facing pages. From the start it is clear the translation will be rather free, which may suit some more than it does me. But before I offer criticisms, I want to point out that Dalby has, at times, improved upon Brehaut, and that his translation is often elegant and usually more than satisfactory. In the sentence (Agr. 112.3, p. 175) "pick from their stems the berries of miscella grapes into this vat till it is full," Dalby dispenses with Brehaut's (105) unnecessary supplement between "grapes" and "into" of the phrase "[and place them]". Similarly, Dalby's "... gather miscellae grapes for early-harvest wine for the workers to drink" (Agr. 23.2, p. 109) is preferable to Brehaut's "... gather the miscella grapes [and make] the early wine for the workers to drink" (Brehaut 47). When at his best, Dalby leaves the English as elliptical as the Latin. Typical of Dalby's translation is the following (Agr. 25.1, p. 111): "When grapes are ripe and are harvested, first be sure enough is kept by for the household and the owner's people. And be sure that they are harvested fully ripe and dry, or your wine will lose its reputation." It is a bit too free for my taste, but I can't fault its general accuracy.

A free translation, however, sometimes flirts with inaccuracy. Dalby translates the first sentence of the prologue (Agr. pr.1, p. 53): "Trading can sometimes bring success, but it is insecure; so can money-lending, but that is not respectable." Two important points are neglected: 1) the comparison inherent in Cato's word praestare; and 2) the conditionality of nisi and si. The effect is to portray Cato as having believed that neither trade nor money-lending ever had anything on farming. I would have translated, "it can sometimes be better to profit from trade, if it is not so risky, and by the same token to lend money, if it is so honorable." The Latin makes clear that trade is generally more risky, and money-lending generally less honorable, than farming, but leaves some wriggle-room. Cato himself engaged in trade and a form of money-lending, but in such a way as to minimize the financial risks to both sides in the investment (Plut. Cat.Mai. 21.6-7; cf. de Ste. Croix).

I also have a preference for consistency, which Dalby's translation sometimes fails to satisfy. He translates per cribrum cernas (Agr. 107.1) with the simple imperative "sieve" (p. 173), but renders conca ... tollas (Agr. 66.1) by the phrase "dip ... with a dipper" (p. 149), introducing redundancy. I would have preserved the nuance in each case: "sift through a sieve" and "take up ... with a dipper" (cf. Brehaut 85; Hooper-Ash 31).

The jussive subjunctive is rendered variously by "should," "must," or the simple imperative; oportet is rendered "can," "must," "should," or by the simple imperative. Latin imperatives are sometimes reduced to sentence fragments in English (perhaps to imitate modern instruction manuals?): for example, serito is rendered (p. 79 bis) "to be planted."

Beyond these quibbles over taste, some errors bear mentioning. I will begin with some that are merely probable (and will pass over textual quagmires and tortuously difficult Latin in deferent silence). I think ubi solstitium fuerit ad brumam (Agr. 17.1) means "when the solstice comes in winter" (cf. Brehaut 35) and not "between the summer solstice and the shortest day" (p. 97, following Goujard 26); Dalby renders sculponias (Agr. 59, 135.1 [sculponeas]) simply as "boots" (pp. 143, 189), when it apparently meant "carved shoes" (> sculpo), and therefore "clogs" or "wooden shoes" (Brehaut 80, 114; Hooper-Ash 77, but "shoes" 117) or, in French, "sabots" (Goujard 54) or "galoches" (Goujard 86).

Dalby's translation of Agr. pr.1 seems a subtle misconstruction (53, emphasis added): "So our forefathers thought; and so they enacted that a thief should pay any penalty twice over, a money-lender four times over, which allows us to infer how much worse a citizen they thought a money-lender was than a thief." Sic and ita (translations in italics) are made to refer to what came before; it seems to me (as it did to Brehaut; contra Hooper-Ash 3) that they both look forward to the opinion that Cato intends to impute to the maiores: "Our forefathers were of the opinion, and they set it into law, that a thief be condemned at twice, and the usurer at four times the amount in question..."

Other errors are more obvious: For in umbra (Agr. 125) Dalby writes "in the sun" (p. 183). He failed to recognize ergo (pp. 197, 199) in the prayers of Agr. 139 and 141 as the preposition (more properly postposition) with the genitive (cf. OLD s.v. ergo1). For the sentence (Agr. 157.10): "item pueros pusillos si laves eo lotio, numquam debiles fient," Dalby writes (p. 231): "If you wash feeble children in this urine they will be weak no longer." But the sentence speaks of small (pusillos), not "feeble" children, and through this treatment they will never become weak (numquam debiles fient). A Roman numeral VIII (Agr. 161.3) is entered as "7" in the translated text (p. 225). The words ulmeos (Agr. 31.1), bene odoratam (Agr. 107) and recte (Agr. 133.1) went untranslated (pp. 115, 173, 187 respectively). Such errors may not entirely vitiate the translation, but they are more serious and more numerous than I would have hoped.

Dalby's notes are presented as footnotes to the English. Brehaut's fuller treatment will sometimes be missed. For example, when Cato declares (Agr. 37.1) that chickpea is bad for crops because it is pulled up (vellitur) and "salty" (salsum), Dalby (p. 121, n. 133) notes only that cicer is the Latin word for chickpea. Brehaut (61, n. 2) tries to give some explanation of Cato's reasoning. One needs Brehaut (102-3 n. 3) for the evidence identifying Cato's serta campanica (Agr. 107.1) with Dalby's rendering, "melilot" (p. 173). Still, Dalby's notes are helpful as far as they go.

The Latin text is Goujard's, promising notice of departures. I found one error: Goujard (27) prints a numeral LIIII (Agr. 18.3), which should have been printed in Dalby's text LII[II] (see below); Dalby printed "LIIII," but translated "52" (p. 99).

To my mind, the Latin text suffers from Dalby's choice (or perhaps it was forced upon him by an editor) to depart from usual practice by using []'s to indicate editorial insertions into the text, rather than deletions. (But on p. 218, "[item]" (Agr. 156.3) represents Goujard's deletion of that word in his text.) Students new to the field may not find this immediately troubling, but if they go farther in the field, they may be confused.

I found a few typographical errors in the Latin: singtilas (p. 94 for singulas); atrescat (p.134 for arescat); cuni (p. 176 for cum). The book was otherwise quite well corrected.

This translation does sometimes improve upon the others, but is occasionally markedly inferior to them. The notes will not replace Brehaut's, but are helpful on many points. In any event, for keeping attention focused on a difficult and important document, this translation will earn a considerable share of praise for its author.


Astin, A. E. 1978. Cato the Censor. Oxford.

Brehaut, Ernest, trans. 1966. On Farming by Cato the Censor. New York.

Carawan, E. M. 1990. "Cato's Speech against L. Flamininus: Liv. 39.42-3." CJ 85:316-29.

Goujard, Raoul, ed. and trans. 1975. Cato: de l'agriculture. Paris.

Gruen, E. S. 1992. Culture and National Identity in Republican Rome. Ithaca, New York.

Hooper, W. D., trans. 1935. Marcus Porcius Cato. On Agriculture. Marcus Terentius Varro. On Agriculture. Revised by H. B. Ash. Cambridge, MA.

Ruebel, J. S. 1977. "Cato and Scipio Africanus." CW 71:161-73.

Ste. Croix, G. E. M. de. 1974. "Ancient Greek and Roman Maritime Loans." Debits, Credits, Finances, and Profits. H. Edey and B. S. Yamey, Eds. London. 41-59.

Scullard, H. H. 1973. Roman Politics 220-150 B.C.2 Oxford.

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