Writers on Agriculture

Writers on Agriculture

Chief among the scriptores de re rustica, or writers on agriculture, were Cato, Varro, and Colu­mella. These writers produced semi-technical treatises on rural economy, dealing with the production of wine, oil, etc., the raising of different grain crops, and grazing. Then, in the in­troduction or some concluding book, general principles of private economy were added. They agree in decrying the latifundia, or large estates, absenteeism, and the spread of slavery, and in praising small-scale farming. Their pretty general condemna­tion of slavery on economic grounds is especially noteworthy.

Varro's statement is typical: "To this whole class of free men [who till fields] the statement is applicable that it pays to use hired help rather than slave labor at all times in disease-laden districts, and even in the healthful regions as well for the more difficult tasks of husbandry like the harvesting of the vintage and the crops."

Originally, the Romans were a stern and war-like folk, of simple tastes. As a people, they always dreaded the sea, and were slow to engage in foreign trade.2 It was only after military conquest had enriched them with booty, therefore, that they acquired luxuries and luxurious tastes which necessitated com­merce. At the same time the use of slaves increased to great proportions, while there was a concomitant destruction of the independent yeoman class. Land was cultivated in the form of great estates, latifundia, for absentee landlords, while an in­creasing mass of free but impoverished citizens was maintained in the cities at the public expense. This meant a growing sep­aration of classes. It is little wonder then that the writers of the degenerate period turned longing eyes upon the simple rural life of bygone days.

The similarity between Rome's later days and the condition of France in the eighteenth century has been noticed by some historians,3 and it is an interesting reflection that in both cases a declining state caused men to long for a simpler and more "natural" life.