Conceptualising the Roman State through Agrarian Virtue in the Dialogues of Cicero and Varro

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Conceptualising the Roman State through Agrarian Virtue in the Dialogues of Cicero and Varro

Nom de Plume: Robert King


The national self-perception in Republican Rome relied primarily on the acceptance of the paramount superiority of agriculture as a model for society. This conception of the rustic Roman state founded agriculture’s primacy on its direct connection to Roman pre-history and the mos maiorum, and to its importance in sustaining the state: both these factors subsequently contributed to the adoption of a moral rhetoric in literary treatments of farming. This essay addresses the application of such a paradigm in accounts of the foundation of the Roman res publica, and the state’s underlying ratio. In particular, both M. Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) and M. Terentius Varro (116–27 BCE), in their respective dialogues on the topic, develop upon the traditional Roman approach to agriculture in answering these political questions. On the one hand, Cicero’s De Re Publica situates Rome’s beginnings – both historical and mythological – and the city’s continued success directly within the agricultural paradigm, using the axiomatic status of agriculture’s moral content to strengthen his account of excellent Roman leaders. Varro’s De Re Rustica, however, does much more to problematize the commonplace position. While he ostensibly also supports agriculture’s importance to the Roman state, his adoption of a satirical mode, and implicit development of a counter-theory of rural utilitas and fructus, undermines both this conception of agrarian virtue, and the very practice of moralistic theorising itself.

I The Agrarian Model of Roman Virtue

Within classical studies, Roman adulation of its rustic past and present is considered so pervasive, that it is regularly posited without further qualification or proof. As a single example, in his monograph on Varro, Skydsgaard simply notes: “To the Roman, the very subject of agriculture is closely connected with a genuine love of his native land and soil”.1 True though this is on the whole, it is worthwhile outlining exactly what this praise and self-conception comprised. Thus, I posit that this sense of national identity was fundamentally connected with how Rome constructed its past, and the moral implications of this construction.

Dodds’ seminal analysis demonstrated that Romans were largely unconcerned with innovation-driven improvement of their society; rather, national improvement connoted recapturing the past’s Zeitgeist.2 Indeed, the term ‘novae res’ served as shorthand for any negative political innovation, and more specifically, revolution.3 As such, the mos maiorum, 4 almost by definition, was the highest moral standard to which one could appeal in Rome, as seen in Ennius’ summary:5 moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque [‘The Roman state stands firm on its ancient customs and on its men of honour’].6 Further, these mores were also fundamental to national self-perception, as they defined what made Rome unique: in distinguishing themselves from the Greeks – another advanced, and notably older, civilisation – Roman authors routinely appealed to Rome’s bedrock of native customs and morals.7 Indeed, a common rhetorical concession was that Greece’s success came from its learning (doctrina/παιδεία), which was, vitally, formal, and not inherent or natural in the manner of Roman mores.8

Therefore, the identity of the maiores and an understanding of what their mores entailed – in the full sense of term, encompassing morality, behaviour and general way of life –9 are vital to understanding Roman self-perception. To this end, the Romans identified their ancestral past as fundamentally agrarian: from the pre-history to Romulus, and into early Roman history ab urbe condita, the society was defined by its devotion to cultivation.10 This image was, per Nelsestuan, “performative, didactic, and normative”:11 it was an important feature enshrined in Roman religious rites, affecting almost all cultural practices.12

The moral application of this identity is seen clearly in exempla. The analogical approach itself speaks to Roman traditionalism in historical construction: Habinek writes of a lexical cluster of existimare/existimatio/exemplum, noting, by reference to the simplex form aestimare/aestimatio, that their use sets an almost monetary standard for determining the value of later moral behaviour.13 In this case, the standard is set by the ‘great men’ in early Rome, whose importance to the state politically was matched by their equal agrarian dedication. Three key figures were:

  1. Manius Curius Dentatus (consul in 290, 283 (?), 275 and 274 BCE; censor in 272 BCE), who worked his land between consulships;14

  2. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (suffect consul in 460 BCE; dictator in 458 and 439 BCE), called from the plough to serve the state;15 and

  3. Gaius Atilius Regulus Serranus (consul in 257 BCE), also called from the plough.16

These men served as exempla of proper behaviour throughout the Roman period, not only for their civic spirit, but for the relationship between that spirit and the farm. This rhetoric was adopted even in the absence of the exempla themselves: for example, Cato the Elder opened a speech with the following auto-biographical note:17

ego iam a principio in parsimonia atque in duritia atque industria omnem adulescentiam meam abstinui agro colendo, saxis Sabinis, silicibus repastinandis atque conserendis.

‘From the very beginning, I spent my whole youth in frugality, hardship and industry, tending the land, digging up flint-stones and the Sabine rocks, and sowing seeds.’

That Cato came to political life having first pursued farming is sufficient per se to demonstrate his moral uprightness, an imitation of the established tradition of farmer-statesmen.18

But in what sense was agriculture a moral practice? In the preface to his De Agri Cultura, the same Cato accounts for farmers’ status:19

et [maiores] virum bonum quom laudabant, ita laudabant: bonum agricolam bonumque colonum; amplissime laudari existimabatur qui ita laudabatur….at ex agricolis et viri fortissimi et milites strenuissimi gignuntur, maximeque pius quaestus stabilissimusque consequitur minimeque invidiosus, minimeque male cogitantes sunt qui in eo studio occupati sunt.

‘And when our ancestors used to praise a good man, they praised him as a good cultivator, a good husbandman, and someone praised in this way was considered to have been given the highest praise… Indeed, it is from the farmers that both the bravest men and the toughest soldiers come. Their trade is the most respectable, the most durable, and the least hated, and those engaged in this endeavour are the least ill-willed.’

There are two points of interest in this passage. First, as above, Cato does not make use of named exempla; rather, he uses this anonymity to generalise the category forward into his present: the role of farmer-statesman, or farmer-soldier, is open to all.20 Second, applying the concept of existimatio, this account advances its claim through nested confirmation: not only does Cato appeal to the moral superiority of a pre-historic genus of agricola, but this very appraisal is sourced in the maiores themselves: laudabant…existimabatur…laudabatur.21

This description celebrates three key elements of the farmer: first, their capacity for bravery and endurance, particularly in battle; second, the virtue of the practice itself (pius quaestus stabilissimusque…minimeque invidiosus); and finally, their aversion to discontentment.22 While the first and third connote the moral and physical qualities of the farmer, the second relates to perceptions of the lifestyle itself: stabilissimus contrasts farming’s sustainability with the income of the merchant, just as pius contrasts the direct production of wealth with the usury of the moneylender.23 Using land to create produce which sustained the state underpinned the moral characterisation of the farmer, and so the trade’s morality is contingent on its material benefits. This relates back to the first quality, insofar as farmers’ capacity to become soldiers represented another means by which they could aid the state.24 Indeed, this prefatory description of income as virtuous allows Cato’s focus to drift towards simple profiteering later in the dialogue: per Martin, Cato’s work is focussed on “comment un propriétaire foncier pouvait rapidement atteindre la richesse”.25 Another statement of morality based on state-serving cultivation, and of the celebration of the agricolae maiores more generally, is found in Cicero’s oratory:26

at hercule maiores nostri longe aliter et de illo [Atilio] et de ceteris talibus viris existimabant itaque ex minima tenuissimaque re publica maximam et florentissimam nobis reliquerunt. suos enim agros studiose colebant, non alienos cupide appetebant; quibus rebus et agris et urbibus et nationibus rem publicam atque hoc imperium et populi Romani nomen auxerunt. 

‘But indeed, our ancestors judged this man [Atilius] and others like him very differently, and so, starting from a very small and meagre state, left us one of great might and prosperity; for they carefully cultivated their fields, and did not greedily strive for the fields of others. In this way, they acquired fields, cities, and peoples, and so augmented the state, this dominion, and the name of the Roman people.’

By this account, the maiores are political, moral and legal exempla, as they care for land which advances the Roman state, without seeking further property. This characterisation of iustitia and aequitas is comparable to honestas as found elsewhere in Cicero, characterised as one relying on the “rendering of each his own”.27 Overall, the conception of the virtuous farmer was reliant not just on a vague conception of the mos maiorum, but also on material fructus produced by the farms, and the way this aided the national effort.

Before moving onto Cicero and Varro’s dialogues, it is important to note the disjunct between this perception of agrarian virtue and the reality in Rome: the increasingly urban lifestyle of the Roman aristocracy belied the authenticity of a rustic national character, at least as it applied to the elite. In particular, most farms owned by wealthy Romans were not managed by their absentee owners, but by the vilicus, a slave granted the authority to run the property.28 Indeed, Cato’s agricultural treatise specifically envisages such an arrangement.29 Habinek describes this as an “identity crisis”, disrupting the unbroken traditional link between the aristocracy and the mos maiorum, and separating the elite from the practices and disciplina that governed it.30 The urban gentry’s adoption of agricultural moralising shifted authority over cultural creation, from the local to the universal: what was previously the domain of local cult and community became a nationalised expression, redefined by figures separate from, and external to, the practices they described.31 This resulted in an artificial divide between city and country found throughout Republican literature, such as in the following comment in Cicero:32

in urbe luxuries creatur, ex luxuria exsistat avaritia necesse est, ex avaritia erumpat audacia, inde omnia scelera ac maleficia gignuntur; vita autem haec rustica quam tu agrestem vocas parsimoniae, diligentiae, iustitiae magistra est.

‘In the city, extravagance arises, and extravagance necessarily leads to avarice. From avarice springs audacity, and from there all crimes and evil deeds ensue. However, this country life – which you call unrefined – is the teacher of frugality, of industry, and of justice.’

Here, the virtues of farming life are established only by contradistinction with urban vice, and this divide drives the moral content of the comment. However, the factual interdependence and interrelations of the city and country were inherent to the survival and nature of each, and this factual context has consequences for literary approaches that rely on the separation.33 It is important, therefore, to note the discrepancies between reality and constructed narrative throughout the following discussion.

II Agrarian Virtue in Cicero’s De Re Publica

As seen from the examples quoted above, praise of the rustic lifestyle and the use of agrarian exempla are not rare in Cicero’s extant oeuvre: this trope is routinely adopted throughout his philosophical and oratorical work. None is perhaps so clear in its sentiment than this comment in his De Officiis:34

omnium autem rerum, ex quibus aliquid adquiritur, nihil est agri cultura melius, nihil uberius, nihil dulcius, nihil homine libero dignius.

‘But out of all the endeavours by which something is gained, none is better that agriculture, none more fruitful, none more pleasing, and none more proper for a free man.’  

However, this aspect of Cicero’s work was tempered by a less idealised, more socially conditioned attitude he held towards country-folk, considering them unrefined. In a letter to Atticus, Cicero notes of those in the country:35 nihil prorsus aliud curant nisi agros, nisi villulas, nisi nummulos suos [‘They care for absolutely nothing except their fields, their tiny country-houses and their pittance’]. It is in this spirit that he refers to Romulus’ plan to kidnap the Sabine women as a subagreste consilium [‘a boorish scheme’] in De Re Publica,36 and notes that it was despite the rural character of the early Romans that they chose for themselves an elective monarchy:37

nostri illi etiam tum agrestes viderunt virtutem et sapientiam regalem, non progeniem quaeri oportere.

‘Our ancestors, even though they were rustics at the time, saw that one must look to the virtue and wisdom of a king, rather than to descent.’

These lapses indicate the purely theoretical nature of Cicero’s approach to the rural lifestyle: as Wood notes, apart from a predilection for spending time in the country, Cicero did not enjoy rural pastimes, nor did he show a particular sensitivity for nature’s beauty.38 His praise is therefore generally nationalistic, infused with idealism.

However, where present, Cicero’s admiration was premised on a specific assumption: that agriculture is the foundation of civilisation.39 Representing the peak of mankind’s innovation in its natural capabilities, agriculture allowed humans to be self-sufficient and harness the entire force of nature to their benefit. As Cicero notes in his De Natura Deorum:40

terrenorum item commodorum omnis est in homine dominatus: nos campis, nos montibus fruimur, nostri sunt amnes, nostri lacus, nos fruges serimus, nos arbores; nos aquarum inductionibus terris fecunditatem damus…

‘Likewise, mankind has complete sovereignty over the earth’s resources: we make use of the fields and the mountains; we possess the rivers and the lakes; we plant produce and trees; we grant fertility to the earth through irrigation…’

Turning to De Re Publica, it is this approach that naturally underlies Cicero’s dialogue on the state, and is reflected throughout the text. At a basic level, Cicero repeatedly uses the language of farming in describing the founding of the state: the act of founding itself is described as rem publicam serere,41 and utilitas, central to judging the success of a farm, is a central element of the definition of the res publica.42 This imagery is developed further at points into broader comments on the rural lifestyle, advancing Cicero’s conception of what defines a state’s excellence.

Cicero’s depiction of the natural abilities of the earliest kings of Rome relies heavily on this agrarian rhetoric. Cicero moderates his celebration of the city’s founders by accepting the Roman state’s gradual evolution, following Polybius’ account of the mixed constitution:43

οὐ μὴν διὰ λόγου, διὰ δὲ πολλῶν ἀγώνων καὶ πραγμάτων, ἐξ αὐτῆς ἀεὶτῆς ἐν ταῖς περιπετείαις ἐπιγνώσεως αἱρούμενοι τὸ βέλτιον, οὕτως [sc. οἱ Ῥωμαῖοι] ἦλθον ἐπὶ ταὐτὸ μὲν Λυκούργῳ τέλος, κάλλιστον δὲ σύστημα τῶν καθ᾽ ἡμᾶς πολιτειῶν.

‘It was not through reasoning, but through many complications and struggles, and by continually recognising flaws during calamities and so choosing the better path, that the Romans thus came upon the same constitution as Lycurgus, the best of any system of governance existing in our time.’

However, Cicero develops upon this account of basic ἐπίγνωσις, arguing rather for the exceptional foresight of the early kings in optimising policy for the state’s future development. He notes:44

id enim est caput civilis prudentiae, in qua omnis haec nostra versatur oratio, videre itinera flexusque rerum publicarum, ut cum sciatis quo quaeque res inclinet, retinere aut ante possitis occurrere.

‘For the chief principle of public policy – the topic of this whole discussion – is to see the progression of, and changes in, constitutions, so that, by perceiving which way any affair inclines, you can either hold it back or meet it head-on.’

Moreover, he follows Cato in allowing that a single intellect is insufficient to foresee all things, and so describes a chain of gifted individuals in his account of the city’s founding.45 Thus, Cicero focusses in his narrative of Rome’s founding on the gifted nature of the individuals involved, and their role in the state’s gradual development, rather than on any particular foundational moment.46 In this sense, the state’s excellence and the excellence of its founders are closely linked.

Therefore, the way in which Cicero describes these leaders is highly significant. Of Romulus’ childhood, for example, he notes:47

quo in loco cum esset silvestris beluae sustentatus uberibus, pastoresque eum sustulissent et in agresti cultu laboreque aluissent, perhibetur ut adoleverit et corporis viribus et animi ferocitate tantum ceteris praestitisse, ut omnes qui tum eos agros ubi hodie est haec urbs incolebant, aequo animo illi libenterque parerent.

‘In this place, having been sustained by the teats of a wild best, Romulus was taken in by the shepherds and brought up in the cultivation and labour of the fields. It is said that, once he was fully grown, he outstripped the others in his physical strength and mental fortitude, so much so that all those who inhabited those fields where the city now stands obeyed him willingly and patiently.’

The agricultural setting is unmistakeable. Not only is Romulus explicitly raised by shepherds in agresti cultu laboreque, but Cicero adopts the familiar rhetoric of farming life training the body for use in serving the state. This extract implicitly situates the source of Romulus’ excellence, both physically and behaviourally, within the agrarian context, and it is this excellence that Cicero proceeds to prove in its realisation.48 This narrative fits Cicero’s broader pattern of foregrounding elements in the history to advance an overall argument.49 Thus, Cicero minimises or skips the tale’s more fabulous elements: he accepts that Romulus’ divine parentage is fama hominum,50 and omits Remus’ rescue and other traditional details.51 What remains, therefore, are the mythical elements deemed sufficiently important to warrant inclusion in an otherwise ‘factual’ account: it is striking, therefore, that the twins’ agricultural upbringing is featured so centrally.

Following the interregnum (2.23-4), Cicero turns to Numa, outlining the evidence for his foresight. Numa’s primary achievement is the restoration of the Romans’ peaceful attitude through the institution of agricultural practices:52

ac primum agros quos bello Romulus ceperat divisit viritim civibus, docuitque sine depopulatione atque praeda posse eos colendis agris abundare commodis omnibus, amoremque eis otii et pacis iniecit, quibus facillime iustitia et fides convalescit, et quorum patrocinio maxime cultus agrorum perceptioque frugum defenditur.

‘At first, Romulus divided the fields which he had acquired in wartime equally between the citizens, and taught them that, by cultivating these fields, they could have all necessities in abundance without marauding and pillaging. He inspired in them a love of tranquillity and peace, the circumstances in which justice and good faith most easily flourish, and which offer the greatest protection to agriculture and the harvest of crops.’

The expression of political foresight that occasioned the establishment of iustitia and fides in the Roman state is simply the distribution of land and education in agriculture; moreover, it occasions the peacefulness of Numa’s reign (amorem…otii et pacis).53 Interestingly, Cicero is also selective in presenting this historical record: Dionysus of Halicarnassus describes Numa establishing agriculture as a solution for social discontent, a motivation given also by Plutarch.54 Thus, Cicero maintains the positive causality, advancing agriculture as an expression of Numa’s excellent foresight, as well as of great benefit to the state more generally.

With regard to characterisation, and by way of comparison, Livy’s assessment of Numa focusses on his character’s agrarian, or at least, natively Italian nature:55

suopte igitur ingenio temperatum animum virtutibus fuisse opinor magis instructumque non tam peregrinis artibus quam disciplina tetrica ac tristi veterum Sabinorum, quo genere nullum quondam incorruptius fuit. 

‘Therefore, I suppose that his mind was moderated by noble qualities through his own natural disposition, and trained less by foreign studies than it was through the grim and austere discipline of the ancient Sabines, a race once more upstanding than any other.’

The rejection of foreign influences on Numa makes way for an appraisal predicated on the indigenous, ancient character of the Sabines. This is similar to the exercise Cicero undertakes in disproving the meeting between Numa and Pythagoras, as it leads to the same conclusion, and the same celebration of native Roman virtue:56

[Manlius:] ac tamen facile patior non esse nos transmarinis nec inportatis artibus eruditos, sed genuinis domesticisque virtutibus.

[Scipio:] …intellegesque non fortuito populum Romanum sed consilio et disciplina confirmatum esse, nec tamen adversante fortuna.

‘[Manlius:] However, I can easily accept that we were not trained in learnings imported from abroad, but in innate, native virtues.

[Scipio:] … You will understand that the Roman people did not gain its strength by chance, but through its wisdom and training, although fortune was indeed on our side.’

Cicero permits his scholarly mode paramountcy over his desire to construct a narrative; nonetheless, he still manages to reconcile an impulse to appeal to historical fact with his patriotic mission, defending the Roman state’s native basis.57 This relates to the concept outlined in Part I above, of a natural predilection for an indigenous source for Rome’s mores, without foreign influence or Greek παιδεία. This is captured elsewhere within De Re Publica: the location of Rome inland on the Tiber prevents its corruption by the outside world, and subsequent degeneration.58 Further, Hathaway notes that the introduction of Greek knowledge into Rome heralds the beginning of the shift towards the ‘bad kings’, Servius Tullius and Tarquinius Superbus.59 In differentiating Greece and Rome, the emphasis falls on early Rome’s untouched nature, such that the indigenous, and importantly, agrarian Roman excellence of the maiores was primarily responsible for the state’s success.60 The conflict between this position, and the implication at 2.17-19 that Rome was not only ‘civilised’ by the time of Romulus, but civilised by contact with Greece, is resolved by reference to the Romans’ capacity to innovate, a further innate quality:61

quin hoc ipso sapientiam maiorum statues esse laudandam, quod multa intelleges etiam aliunde sumpta meliora apud nos multo esse facta, quam ibi fuissent unde huc translata essent atque ubi primum extitissent…

‘For in this you will concur that our ancestors’ wisdom ought to be praised, because you will also understand that we have rendered those things taken from abroad much better here than they were there, wherever they originally were before being brought here, as well as where they first arose…’

Overall, Cicero, particularly in Book 2 of De Re Publica, refers to the native, peculiarly agrarian, virtue of Rome to ground his claims regarding its leaders’ roles in founding the city. Both Romulus and Numa are characterised by reference to their primitive, inherently Roman virtues, which are equated with the agricultural mos maiorum. Indeed, Numa’s expression of this foresight is even realised in terms of agricultural reform.

It is worth briefly noting the use of rural living as a benchmark for excellence elsewhere in De Re Publica. In each of Books 3 and 5 – both highly fragmentary – there are intriguing references to this model, each, as before, using the agrarian mos maiorum to define the perfect statesman. Zetzel recently noted that Book 3 seems to focus on the choice between a βίος πρακτικός and a βίος θεωρητικός for a great leader; in advancing this rationale, Cicero notes that:62 pluris vero haec tulit una civitas…summa laude dignos, quoniam sapientium praecepta et inventa coluerunt [‘But this one city has brought forth many men… worthy of the highest praise, since they cultivated the teachings and discoveries of the wise’]. This appeal to the mos maiorum is regular for Cicero, and draws on the aforementioned rhetoric to foreground the importance of the ancient precepts.

Book 5 features a perhaps more irregular use of the imagery:63

ergo, ut vilicus naturam agri novit, dispensator litteras scit, uterque autem se a scientiae delectatione ad efficiendi utilitatem refert, sic noster hic rector studuerit sane iuri et legibus cognoscendis… sed se responsitando et lectitando et scriptitando ne impediat, ut quasi dispensare rem publicam et in ea quodam modo vilicare possit…

‘Hence, just as the estate bailiff understands the nature of the field, or a steward knows his records, yet each turns away from delighting in the knowledge to the utility of practice, so too will our ruler here certainly apply himself to learning of rights and the law… but let him not be hampered by his consultations and constant reading and writing, so he can be like a steward, and something of a bailiff, to the state…’

The comparison here between the rector rei publicae and the vilicus is rather odd: the use of quasi and quoddammodo, as so often, marks an irregular comparison.64 Rather than making the more common comparison between rector and agricola, Cicero here has chosen to replace the latter with the enslaved estate bailiff.65 However, far from problematizing the comparison, Cicero’s innovation entails a more accurate analogy: due to the developments in land management in the Republican period, described in Part 1 above, the vilicus, rather than the land-owning agricola, tended to work the fields. Therefore, the simile here focusses on the actual practice of agriculture, rather than the nominal role of the agricola: the comparison casts the rector as public servant, such that the actual work done in service of the farm – the microcosm of the state – is the relevant feature.66 Thus, the good statesman’s conduct is directly equated with agricultural practice: even though Cicero updates the traditional imagery of the farmer-statesman to account for the new role of vilicus, the same virtues are imputed to the rector. Once again, Cicero adopts the agrarian model of excellence to define his optimal statesman, developing on the common Roman paradigm.

III Varro’s De Re Rustica: Subverting the Agricultural Paradigm

Varro’s De Re Rustica is not, on the face of it, a political work. However, although the Roman scholar apparently did not take the advice in Cicero’s letter to write a πολιτεία, he certainly did write to serve the state and investigate morals.67 His agricultural dialogue, between more technical passages, situates the craft within a model of the Roman state, and in so doing, uses the agrarian paradigm to make political comment.

As in Cicero, the presentation of the farmer in Varro is highly moralistic: the prefaces to both Books 2 and 3 idealise agrarian life, per the Roman model. Varro opens Book 3 with effusive praise:68

neque solum antiquior cultura agri, sed etiam melior. Itaque non sine causa maiores nostri ex urbe in agros redigebant suos cives, quod et in pace a rusticis Romanis alebantur et in bello ab his allevabantur…qui eam [terram] colerent, piam et utilem agere vitam credebant atque eos solos reliquos esse ex stirpe Saturni regis.

‘Cultivating the fields is not only more ancient, but also more noble. Therefore, it was not without reason that our ancestors tried to bring their citizens out of the city and back to the fields, for in peacetime they were fed by the Romans in the country, and in wartime, aided by them… they also believed that those who tended the land led a respectable and profitable life, and that they were the only men left of the descendants of King Saturn.’

This passage encapsulates much of the above discussion regarding the Roman perspective on agriculture. The practice’s age, and its consequential proximity to the maiores, connotes ‘goodness’ and here provides the context for the founding of Rome by Romulus.69 The produce of cultivation is vital for the state’s subsistence in peacetime, while the farmers’ bodies, well-trained by the disciplina of the fields, are vital in times of war. Moreover, Varro even ascribes them divine status, drawing the rustics’ descent back to Saturn via a folk etymology with sero.70

Where Varro moves beyond Cicero’s rhetoric is in the opening of his Book 2, comparing farmers and city-goers:71

viri magni nostri maiores non sine causa praeponebant rusticos Romanos urbanis. ut ruri enim qui in villa vivunt ignaviores, quam qui in agro uersantur in aliquo opere faciendo, sic qui in oppido sederent, quam qui rura colerent, desidiosiores putabant… Igitur quod nunc intra murum fere patres familiae correpserunt relictis falce et aratro…

‘It was not without reason that our ancestors – those great men – preferred Romans from the country to those in the city; for, just as in the country, where those who live in the villa are considered more lazy than those occupied with work in the fields, so too did they think that those who settled in the town were more idle that those who tended the countryside… But now, almost all the family patriarchs have sneaked within the walls, and abandoned the sickle and plough…’

In comparison to the vilicus-rector simile in Book 5 of Cicero’s dialogue, Varro is far more belligerent: rather than adapting to the changing relationship between land-owner and farm-work, Varro attacks such behaviour as lazy, and thus, unvirtuous, as the virtue agricultural work conveys is obtained in its performance.72 Indeed, as before in Cato – who presents a similar hierarchy in his own preface, quoted above – this opinion is conveyed by a double existimatio: Varro’s rebuke and defence of the mos maiorum comes from the mouths of the maiores themselves (praeponebant…putabant). Like Cicero, however, Varro identifies foreign influence as the cause of this corruption:73

nec putant se habere villam, si non multis vocabulis retineat Graecis, quom vocent particulatim loca, procoetona, palaestram, apodyterion, peristylon, ornithona, peripteron, oporothecen.

‘They do not think that they have a villa, unless it features many Greek labels, as they give each place a different name, from the procoetion (ante-room) to the palaestra (the gym), the apodyterion (dressing-room) to the peristylon (colonnade), the ornithon (aviary) to the peripteros (pergola) and the oporotheca (fruit-room).’

The Hellenization of the villas represents the mollification of the urban elite by Greek culture, and thus a disruption of indigenous Roman agrarianism. The oporotheca in particular is emblematic of the ostentatious display of wealth through De Re Rustica: it represents the farm’s shift from a place of agricultural production, to one of false display, subversively creating spectacle out of produce; indeed, in Book 1, Stolo applies the term spectaculum to both the pinacotheca and opotheca.74 Thus, Varro’s comment on the nature and role of agriculture in the Roman state is ostensibly within this topic’s regular rhetoric, though more vociferous in its moralising.

This heightened moralistic tone, however, should give the reader pause. Recent scholarship has identified a satirical mode in Varro, causing a re-evaluation of an author previously considered to produce purely technical treatises.75 This interpretation has great explanatory power: for example, the quarrel between analogists and anomalists in Books 8 and 9 of Varro’s De Lingua Latina, presenting highly exaggerated variations of the respective positions, is best read as a satire of the dialogue form, and of the academic debate itself.76 In the De Re Rustica, various elements indicate such a satirical mode. Nelsestuen identifies punning names as indicative of the genre, and Varro appropriately depicts a Vaccius discussing cattle (2.5.2), Scrofa swine (2.4.1), and Pinnius birds (3).77 Likewise, Varro’s pun on the very word satura in Book 2’s preface foregrounds the mode,78 and mimics the similar technique Horace adopts in his Satirae.79

Kronenberg is far more direct in discovering what she terms “ironic moralizing” in the text, and her approach supports the presence of subversive argument in Varro’s dialogue.80 She argues that internal contradiction is a sign of irony, rather than of authorial error. For example, despite the accounts of the oporotheca quoted above, Varro praises the fruit-house in Book 1, in contrast to the pinacotheca of Lucullus, and compares it to the top of the Via Sacra:81 huiusce, inquam, pomarii summa Sacra Via, ubi poma veneunt contra aurum, imago [‘I say, the top of the Via Sacra, where fruit is sold like gold, is the mirror image of his orchard’]. This would seem to undermine the moralising approach of Book 2, and endorse the Hellenising influence.82 Similarly, Book 3 focusses on the luxury of country villas, despite opening with a paean to the modest farm.83 Indeed, Axius’ retort to Appius Claudius’ praise of frugal villas deflates the moral programme early in the book:84 scilicet tua, inquit Axius, haec [villa] in campo Martio extremo utilis et non deliciis sumptuosior quam omnis omnium universae Reatinae? [‘Is it really true – said Axius – that this villa of yours on the edge of the Campus Martius is profitable, and no more luxurious in its charms than all those owned by everyone in the whole of Reate?’] Appius becomes the focus of this irony in Book 3: despite his being both a censor and an augur, Cicero’s letters provide external evidence of his greed and penchant for expensive artwork,85 and the account of his supposed poverty later in Book 3 is littered with purposeful contradictions, such as his drinking costly honey-wine alone at home.86 Thus, Varro undermines any exposition of the moral goodness of agriculture by introducing this ironic moralising, throwing the seriousness of the prefaces into question.

This irony heralds a shift in Varro’s argument away from agrarian morality, and towards an account of utilitas as a new benchmark for agricultural success. This proposition is advanced by Scrofa in Book 1:87

hinc profecti agricolae ad duas metas dirigere debent, ad utilitatem et voluptatem. utilitas quaerit fructum, voluptas delectationem; priores partes agit quod utile est, quam quod delectat.

‘From here, farmers should have two aims: utility and pleasure. Utility leads to profit, pleasure to enjoyment. That which is expedient is more important than that which delights.’

Notably, it is the very fact that utilitas leads to fructus that serves as the primary basis for preferring it over voluptas.88 Varro’s conception thus differs from Cicero’s: as noted earlier, utilitas is an integral part of the latter’s conception of the state.89 However, elsewhere in his writings, Cicero unifies this concept with honestas, noting:90

in quo verbo [sc. ‘utile’] lapsa consuetudo deflexit de via sensimque eo deducta est, ut honestatem ab utilitate secernens constitueret esse honestum aliquid, quod utile non esset, et utile, quod non honestum, qua nulla pernicies maior hominum vitae potuit afferri.

‘Regarding this word “expedient”, common usage has slipped and left the path, gradually coming to the point that one may separate respectability [honestas] from utility [utilitas], and deem something inexpedient respectable, and something disreputable expedient. No greater mischief than this could ever be introduced into human life.’

In other words, the definition of utilitas in Cicero permits of agrarian virtue: pursuing the former entails the latter. This is seen in an agricultural context in the vilicus-rector simile from Book 5 of De Re Publica: the vilicus has knowledge of utilitas efficiendi, which – following the simile’s logic – is vital to understanding the res publica, Cicero’s highest moral mission.91

Varro rejects this paradigm, and in so doing, the very notion of agrarian virtue. Scrofa’s similar attempt to reconcile utilitas with honestas instead leads to a definition of the latter based on the capacity for a farm’s appearance to increase profit:92

nec non ea, quae faciunt cultura honestiorem agrum, pleraque non solum fructuosiorem eadem faciunt, ut cum in ordinem sunt consita arbusta atque oliveta, sed etiam vendibiliorem atque adiciunt ad fundi pretium.

‘Yet for the most part, those same things which make a field more respectable [honestus] in its cultivation, not only make it more profitable (as when the fruit and olive trees are planted in rows), but also more saleable, and increase the estate’s valuation.’

Thus, Varro develops on the shift evident in Cato’s earlier work, which prefaced otherwise profit-based technical writing with an account of agrarian virtue.93 Varro goes further, allowing the technical accounts of profiteering to form a subversive counter-narrative to the primacy of utilitas and fructus over the pure morality of agriculture: not only is the latter concept critiqued, but the very method of its defence is subverted by the ironic voice.94 Moore noted of Plautus:95 “it is moralizing rather than morality that Plautus mocks.” However, Kronenberg notes, “Varro…makes both a target”.96 Neither moralisers nor the agrarian moral itself is secure in Varro’s text: the author allows contrary positions to the moral mission to co-exist on the discursive surface.


In conclusion, both Cicero and Varro describe the application of the agricultural mode to the formation and moral ratio of a state, drawing on the long Roman tradition of the mos maiorum and its agrarian corollaries. Cicero adopts it epexegetically: agrarianism generally explains the Roman state’s development and provides a benchmark for excellent behaviour, just as the agricultural backgrounds of Romulus and Numa ground their exemplary foresight. Varro, however, is not so transparent: his otherwise similar account of an indigenous, rustic Roman genius is problematized by its mode of presentation, and by the presence of a satirical mode throughout. Rather, what comes to the fore is a far more cynical perspective: that agriculture is characterised by utilitas, and so lacks a moral character. This account opposes not only Cicero’s conclusions, but his very method: to ascribe morality to farming – now the domain of the absentee villa-owning paterfamilias – is to apply an improper measure to a strictly profit-based enterprise, which, for the urban writer, connotes hypocrisy.


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1 Skydsgaard (1968) 10.

2 Dodds (1973) 1-25; Miles (1980) 3.

3 As commonly in Cicero and Sallust: see, e.g. Cic. Cat. 1.1.3, Agr. 2.33.91; Sall. Cat. 28.4, 37.1, Jug. 19.1.

4 ‘Inherited custom, tradition’ (see OLD mōs māiōrum def. 2b, 1137), but literally ‘the custom of the ancestors’ (see OLD māiōrēs def. 3b, 1065).

5 Enn. Ann. fr. 500; quoted at Cic. Rep. 5.1. See further on the moral connotations of mos maiorum, see Wallace-Hadrill (1997) 13.

6 All translations are by the author. Only in-text quotations from the primary sources are translated, intended for the reader’s convenience: while the meanings provided reflect as far as possible the author’s understanding of the text, the arguments made rely on the Latin, not the English translation.

7 See, in particular, Cic. Tusc. Disp.; Harder (1952); Miles (1980) 10.

8 E.g. Cic. Ad Her. 4.43: armis Italia non potest vinci nec Graecia disciplinis; see Wallace-Hadrill (1997) 8.

9 See OLD mōs defs. 1, 2 and 4, 1136-7.

10 See, e.g., Livy 3 and 4 passim.

11 Nelsestuen (2014) 152.

12 Beard, North and Price (1998, i) 45-46, 194; (1998, ii) 32, 116-18; Wiseman (2008) passim.

13 Habinek (1998) 46.

14 Cic. Sen. 56; Plut. Cat. Ma. 2.1-2.

15 D. H. 10.17.3, 10.23.5, 10. 24.2; Liv. 3.26.7-10; Cic. Sen. 56; while the episode of the senatorial envoy finding Cincinnatus in the field is common to all sources, it is unclear for which of his three offices the envoy was sent.

16 E.g. Cic. Sest. 72: ille Serranus ab aratro; Valerius Corvinus is a further, less attested exemplum.

17 Malcovati (1976) assigns fragments from three transmitted speeches to one speech (De suis virtutibus Thermum post censuram); this fragment is at Malcovati (1976) 51.

18 Reay (2005) 333; this self-presentation, and Cato’s resultant reputation, was such that Cicero adopted it in his own presentation of the statesmen in his De Senectute, and the treatment of agrarian virtue therein (Sen. 51-60).

19 Cato Agr. Pref. 2-4.

20 Reay (2005) 354-5.

21 Habinek (1998) 34-68.

22 See Courtney (1999) 43, 50-2.

23 Nelsestuen (2014) 156.

24 See Var. R. 3.1.4.

25 Martin (1971) 85.

26 Cic. S. Rosc. 50; see Nelsestuen (2014) 155-6.

27 Cic. Off. 1.15: tribuendo suum cuique; Wood (1988) 111-2.

28 See especially Carlsen (1995); Nelsestuen (2014) 146.

29 Reay (2005) 340, commenting on Cato Agr. 2.6: [paterfamilias] quae opera fieri velit et quae locari velit, uti imperet et ea scripta relinquat.

30 Habinek (1998) 35; see also Nelsesteuen (2014) 158.

31 See Wallace-Hadrill (1997) 20-2, following Geertz (1983) 12, arguing for culture’s local basis granting “to locals locally a local turn of mind.”

32 Cic. S. Rosc. 75.

33 See Skoie (2006) 299ff., noting, e.g., that “[the countryside] never seems very far from the city” in Virgil’s Eclogues.

34 Cic. Off. 1.151; see also Cic. S. Rosc. 39, and on the mos maiorum, Cic. Orat. 1.193 (see Rawson (1972) 34).

35 Cic. Att. 8.13; see Phil. X, 22; see further Kronenberg (2009) 97.

36 Cic. Rep. 2.12; see Brut. 259: subrusticum.

37 Cic. Rep. 2.24, following the translation at Warmington (1928) 133; contra Miles (1980) 10, where the author considers the attributive adjective agrestes as explaining the verb (‘as they were even then rustics…’) rather than concessive (‘rustics though they were even then…’).

38 Wood (1998) 116.

39 Ibid 117; see Cic. Off. 2.12-15; N. D. 2.150-2.

40 Cic. N. D. 2.152.

41 Cic. Rep. 2.5. Note OLD serō1 def. 1, 1744: “To plant (seeds or seedlings the ground, sow”; def. 4, 1744: “(fig.) To sow the seeds of, foment.”

42 Ibid 1.39: coetus multitudinis iuris consensu et utilitatis communione sociatus; Maggiulli (1994) notes that the concept dates at least to Xenophon; see further infra Part 3.

43 See Plb. 6.10.14.

44 Cic. Rep. 2.45; see Asmis (2014) 27-8.

45 Cic. Rep. 2.2.

46 Fox (2007) 98; see Cic. Rep. 2.33: neque enim serpit sed volat in optimum statum instituto tuo sermone res publica.

47 Cic. Rep. 2.4.

48 See Plb. 6.5.7: ‘ἀνάγκη τὸν τῇ σωματικῇ ῥώμῃ καὶ τῇ ψυχικῇ τόλμῃ διαφέροντα, τοῦτον ἡγεῖσθαι καὶ κρατεῖν…’

49 Asmis (2014) 29, 35. Fox (2007) 100.

50 Cic. Rep. 2.4.

51 See Liv. 1.5-6, D. H. 1.79-83, Plu. Rom. 7-8; see further Zetzel (1995) 162; Rawson (1972) 42.

52 Cic. Rep. 2.26.

53 Kronenberg (2009) 109.

54 D. H. 2.62.3-4; Plu. Numa 16.3; see Gabba (1991) 175-7.

55 Liv. 1.18.

56 Cic. Rep. 2.29-30.

57 Rawson (1972) 36.

58 Cic. Rep. 2.7: corruptela ac mutatio morum; see generally Cic. Rep. 2.5-9; Wood (1998) 117.

59 Hathaway (1968) 8-10.

60 Miles (1980) 10.

61 Cic. Rep. 2.30.

62 The text is that labelled B by Zetzel (2017) (Q28.1 per the folia); see also Zetzel (2017) 484.

63 Cic. Rep. 5.4.

64 See Zetzel (1995) 114.

65 See note 28 supra.

66 Nelsestuen (2014) 162; Asmis (2001) 109-28; compare the definition of the res publica as res populi at Cic. Rep. 1.39.

67 Cic. Fam. 9.2.5: modo nobis stet illud…navare rem publicam et de moribus…quaerere; see Kronenberg (2009) 89.

68 Var. R. 3.1.4-5.

69 See ibid 3.1.1-4.

70 Hooper (1934) 424 n 2; see note 41 supra on the definition of serō; cf. OLD Sāturnus def . 1: “perh. of Etr. origin”, 1695.

71 Var. R. 2.1.1, 3.

72 Nelsestuen (2016) 24.

73 Var. R. 2.3.

74 Ibid 1.59.2.

75 Notwithstanding Heisterhagen’s 1952 dissertation, the first rigorous approach to the literary, and so satirical, elements of Varro’s De Re Rustica was Green (1997), followed by Kronenberg (2009).

76 Fehling (1956-7) 267; Kronenberg (2009) 85.

77 Nelsestuen (2013) 25; Heisterhagen (1952) 63-70; see also the names of minor interlocutors in Book 1 derived from fundus or ager: Fundania, Fundanius, Fundilius, Agrius, Agrasius.

78 Var. R. 2.3.1: frumentum locamus qui nobis advehat, qui saturi fiamus ex Africa et Sardinia. The word ‘saturi’ is either genitive of characteristic from satura (‘objects of satire’) or nominative plural of satur (‘sated’): ‘We hire someone to bring us grain from Africa and Sardinia, so we might be sated/satirised.’ Of course, to quote White (1941): “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process”.

79 See Hor. Sat. 1.1.120, 1.5.13;

80 Kronenberg (2009) 101, and generally 7-20.

81 Var. R. 1.2.10.

82 The oporotheca itself seems to be a Varronian coinage, securing its status as an egregious Hellenization (see OLD opōrothēcē, 1254).

83 See Martin (1971) 215, where the author is surprised at Varro’s focus on things “qui n'avaient rien à voir avec l'économie rurale traditionnelle, mais servaient à l’enrichssement d’une minorité de très riches propriétaries.”

84 Var. R. 3.2.5.; see Tatum (1992) 198 n 43.

85 Cic. Fam. 8.12.1, 8.14.4.

86 Var. R. 3.16.2; see generally Tatum (1992); Kronenberg (2009) 103-7.

87 Var. R. 1.4.1.

88 Nelsestuen (2013) 61, 189-96.

89 Cic. Rep. 1.39.

90 Cic. Off. 2.9; see also 3.11.

91 Cic. Rep. 5.4; Nelsestuen (2014) 131, 140.

92 Var. R. 1.4.2.

93 Kronenberg (2009) 95; see note 25 supra.

94 Note Nelsestuen (2013) 24, contra Kronenberg’s position on satire: the prologue to Book 2 “both wryly subverts his hackneyed rhetoric of decline and its attendant veneration of the past and prepares the reader for his renovation of traditional agrarian ideology.”

95 Moore (1998) 90.

96 Kronenberg (2009) 106.

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