Playing the Farmer: Representations of Rural Life in Vergil's Georgics

Playing the Farmer: Representations of Rural Life in Vergil's Georgics

by Philip Thibodeau

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ISBN-13: 9780520950252
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/05/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Philip Thibodeau is Associate Professor of Classics at Brooklyn College.

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Playing the Farmer

Representations of Rural Life in Vergil's Georgics

By Philip Thibodeau


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95025-2



What does a farmer do? I am asking you, you who are farmers: what does a farmer do?

Augustine, Sermones 87

What kind of person counted as a farmer—an agricola—for the Romans? We might be tempted to apply the term to anyone who worked the soil with their hands. But the slaves on whose labor Roman farmsteads depended did not bear that designation. Clearly then, working the soil was not enough; cultivators had to be freeborn in order to qualify. One group of the freeborn who did merit the term were the class of self-sufficient peasants and yeoman farmers. But now what about their social superiors, the aristocratic owners of large slave-run plantations who were notoriously loath to dirty their hands: did they or did they not count as agricolae? In some cases, they did—a fact that can be taken to suggest that the performance of manual labor was not always mandatory. What then were the essential and defining elements? Were farmers expected to possess some measure of agricultural skill or technical know-how? Did they need to demonstrate some minimal commitment of time and energy to their lands? What form did their activities as farmers take? What, in short, did a farmer do? There is no simple answer to these questions, since the Latin word agricola in fact stood for a broad and complex ideal that might be applied to a variety of free persons. It is one purpose of this chapter to explore the ambiguous usage and social reality connected to the word.

This investigation bears on Vergil's Georgics in two significant ways. First, defining our terms will enable us to adjudicate competing claims that have been made about the nature of the poem's audience, since farmers are often cited as the class of persons for whom it either was or was not written. Vergil himself mentions farmers several times, as in this passage where he is addressing his notional audience (2.35–36):

quare agite o proprios generatim discite cultus, agricolae, fructusque feros mollite colendo ...

Wherefore go and learn the care appropriate to each variety, o farmers, and tame the fruits of the wild by cultivation.

By contrast, Seneca, after noting certain errors in the poet's planting calendar, spoke of "our friend Vergil, who aimed at what could be said with the highest degree of decorum rather than the highest degree of truth, and who meant to enchant readers, not teach farmers" (Vergilius noster, qui non quid verissime, sed quid decentissime diceretur aspexit, nec agricolas docere voluit sed legentes delectare, Ep. 86.15). In the eighteenth century it was generally believed that Vergil wrote the Georgics in order to promote the spread of useful knowledge—among men who farmed, presumably. But most modern scholars, taking Seneca's side, prefer to see Vergil and his ancient readers as having been, for all practical purposes, members of a class distinct from the average Italian cultivator. Brooks Otis expresses what is the modern consensus: "The Georgics is not a metrical treatise at all, but a poem, a work of art. We can hardly suppose that Vergil really wrote it for actual farmers." I will argue that a simple answer like this does not do full justice to the reality. The Romans who read the poem were by and large prominent landowners, who could, if they chose, identify themselves as farmers; although few did so in fact, nearly all fit the criteria for the term established by usage. My position may be summarized by saying that the persons for whom Vergil was writing were almost farmers—and that the interest lies in the almost.

Sorting out the usage of the term agricola will also provide insights into the world of the poem itself. It has been debated whether the farm Vergil depicts in the Georgics is a large plantation, a small farm, or something in between. As we will see, this is equivalent to asking whether the farmer whom Vergil addresses is a land baron, a poor peasant, or a figure in the middle range. The short answer is that he is all of these, at various times; the putative addressee of the work does not occupy a fixed social position, but alters, sometimes with astonishing speed, between patrician and peasant. Recognition of this fact will prepare the ground for the chapters that follow, where the ongoing metamorphosis of the addressee in Vergil's rustic fantasy will be the subject of study.

To gain a purchase on Roman discourse about agricolae the present chapter begins by addressing a series of topics, all of them economic in the ancient sense of the term. First, how were the duties of labor and management divided up among various persons on a Roman estate. Second, how in terms of operation did the estates owned by the rich and powerful differ from those of the poor. Third, how did the farmers familiar to Vergil's readers from ordinary life differ from the idealized concept of the agricola. We will conclude by examining some passages from the poem and considering the status of the poet and his audience; but the first goal is to answer St. Augustine's question: quid facit agricola?


The ager in agricola denotes a single patch of land, large or small. As a rule, most Roman men were interested in acquiring as many of those patches as possible, for the sake of the income, security, and prestige that they bestowed. Possession could come about through inheritance (from one's family of birth, marriage, or adoption), cash purchase (windfall profits often went straight into land), or donation from a "friend." There were less amicable routes to possession as well. The rich were wont to encroach on their poorer neighbors' farms by such devices as sabotaging their crops and driving them to foreclose. Under the Republic, grandees were notorious for taking over public land, and commissioners charged with the distribution of ager publicus enlarged their own holdings through embezzlement. Finally, for those who were intrepid and shameless enough, a proscription list was a prime opportunity to swallow up the estates of the proscribed. Tam multae scelerum facies.

However the land was acquired, the main question that faced the owner of an estate was what to do with it. For all except subsistence farmers, one common and perfectly respectable answer to this question was "absolutely nothing." Nearly every estate, whether large or small, had a vilicus, or bailiff, who was responsible for the duties of daily management, such as setting the schedule, assigning tasks to the staff, hiring extra laborers, distributing rations, and buying necessary items and selling marketable ones. The vilicus was a slave, but was favored by his master and often literate, possessing a broad degree of independence made broader still by the master's absences. He was commonly presented with or allowed to take a wife, who as vilica had responsibility for the domestic operation of the farmhouse. For those owners who specialized in raising of sheep and cattle rather than crops, a manager called a magister pecoris occupied a position analogous to that of the vilicus. Below the vilicus stood the rest of the familia, the permanent slave staff who performed most of the day-to-day physical labor on a Roman farm. On small or medium-sized estates this was a skeleton crew of animal handlers and drudges who took care of general upkeep. Larger establishments had larger staffs and a complement of specialists, including weaving women, doctors, carpenters, and blacksmiths. This population remained fairly constant in size until times such as harvest, when the demand for workers increased; to meet the need the vilicus would then hire day-laborers, drawn either from the local peasantry or itinerant work crews. Those who worked on estates were for the most part either slaves or hired freemen; only the poor relied on family members for labor.

As an alternative to hiring laborers, a landowner could dispose of his crop by putting it up for bid, selling it in advance to a contractor whose crew of workers would perform all the tasks required to move it from harvest to market. The practice of contracting was a time-honored one: Cato's agricultural manual contains a large number of sample contracts for everything from olives to the increase of the flock, and a letter of the younger Pliny offers an edifying account of how he offered his contractors refunds when the harvest from the vineyards turned out worse than expected. Letting out work meant that the landowner forfeited any chance at windfall profits, but it offered him the prospect of advance income and insurance against acts of god, and, by giving him one less thing to worry about, facilitated his neglegentia of the farm. The practice of leasing farmland to tenants can be regarded as just another way for the owner to outsource labor and insulate himself from the vicissitudes of fortune. Tenants were responsible for working their land, and sold its produce for the cash they needed to pay the rent. The typical lease ran for five years, but renewals were common, and over time tenancies tended to devolve into cliencies; a consul from the reign of Tiberius said that the best kind of tenants were those who had lived on the property since they were babies (Col. 1.7.3).

This system of farm management had two important consequences for the lifestyle of the Italian landowner. First, it made it unnecessary for the dominus of an estate to perform any of the work needed to keep it running; between the vilicus, the permanent staff, day-laborers, contractors, and tenants, all of the essential tasks were taken care of, whether labor- or management-related. Second, it reduced or even eliminated the need for the presence of the dominus himself; so long as he possessed a competent bailiff, the farm would, from his point of view, run itself. His removal from what we are apt to call farm work thus had a double aspect: it was both social, in that his subordinates stood between him and his land, and spatial, since it was feasible for him to remain away from his property.

This system of management seems already to have been common by the mid-Republic, and it flourished throughout the following era. What sustained it was not just convenience on the part of the landowner, but necessity, given the number of different farms that he might have in his portfolio. Take, for instance, the holdings of the senator and scholar Varro of Reate. His attested estates included ones at Reate, Tusculum, Casinum, Cumae, Baiae, Arpinum, and Rome, and others in Lucania, Epirus, and Sardinia. Even dividing his time equally among all ten he would have been able to spend no more than thirty-six days a year at each. In practice, of course, he will have preferred some places to others and spent a good deal of time in the city and elsewhere; some of his more inconveniently located estates, such as the overseas establishments, may have seen their owner only at long intervals, if at all. Absentee ownership accounts for the fact that estates were often regarded as places to visit, not inhabit; even as stern and intrepid an agronomist as Cato recommends making the farmhouse more comfortable, "in order that you will be inclined to visit more often" (4). In lieu of visits, owners were sometimes content to receive reports from the on-site manager, as Trimalchio does in a famous scene from the Cena. Others dispatched agents (procuratores) to manage their farms, who might be men of relative prominence; the Iccius of Horace Epistle 1.12 was evidently serving as procurator for Agrippa's Sicilian estates.

That absentee management was possible does not, of course, mean that every owner made full use of it. It hardly needs to be said that elite Romans spent much time at their villas, lured there by various attractions. The prospect of rest and recreation was an important draw; the agriculturally productive suburbana outside of Rome and the villa estates around Tibur and Tusculum were frequently used for such vacations. Political circumstances might make a retreat to the country advisable: Cicero's letters and dialogues sketch how an owner might bide his time on his estates. During the proscriptions, villas became for some the only safe place to hide. A number of owners simply preferred the countryside, and, like Horace and the retired general Lucullus, turned their estates there into more-or-less permanent residences. We shall look more closely at this cult of rustic leisure in chapter 3.

Yet perpetual rustication no more made one a farmer than did possession of land; agricolae were distinguished from other inhabitants of the countryside. But how?


As noted above, there is not a single or a simple answer to this question. To understand what defined an agricola we can look first for clues in ordinary usage. The title, significantly, was not restricted to persons of a particular rank or class: bearers include not just smallholders, but a Spanish rancher, the son of a prominent municipalis, a retired military tribune, a knight, a senator, a dictator, a king, and even gods. In this regard it differed sharply from other profession-names, like "auctioneer" or "rope-maker," which denoted occupations held by members of the lower class, but which functioned as insults when applied by members of the elite to their peers. According to Cato, it was a mark of distinction in the early Republic to be called a bonus agricola, and the term agricola continued to bear an honorific sense.

A farmer did have to be a landowner. The term agricola is used by Columella interchangeably with dominus, and in various authors it is found paired with or used as a synonym for paterfamilias. In the Greek-speaking world tenants and laborers "farm" (georgein), but I have not found an instance of the term agricola clearly denoting a slave or tenant in literary Latin. Ovid compares the bond between an agricola and a rusticus to that between a general and his soldiers or a captain and his sailors (Pont. 2.5.61), which implies that the former was seen as superior in status and authority to an ordinary denizen of the countryside. It is consistent with this picture that whenever the terms rusticus or rusticanus are used of a landowner, they often have a somewhat patronizing tone.

The language of praise reveals two further characteristics. To speak well of a farmer a Roman might call him diligens, that is, someone who took pains and devoted himself to his work. It was also common to laud his know-how, using epithets like prudens, sollers, doctus, or some variant thereof. The two qualities are often found together, as in Cicero's speech on behalf of Sextus Roscius, a young man who was responsible for managing the thirteen estates his family owned along the banks of the Tiber. Cicero calls Sextus an agricola (143), and praises him for both his devotion to farming and his understanding of it (studium, intelligentia, 49). Diligence and knowledge are found joined with a third quality, possession of resources, in a formula of the Roman agronomist Tremellius Scrofa, who wrote that the person who will do the best job cultivating his land, that is, the ideal agricola, will be one "who knows how to cultivate and is able to do so and is willing to do so; for knowledge and willingness are not enough if the resources needed for a job fall short, nor will a willingness to act and the capacity to spend money do any good without expertise." To be regarded as a farmer, then, a Roman needed to display two things in addition to owning his land: an active engagement with farming, and knowledge of how to do what needed to be done, cura and scientia.

So far, so good. But care and knowledge are intangible; let us see if we can get a better handle on the farmer by asking what tasks he performed. To this question there are two very different answers, the division reflecting an irreconcilable split between reality and ideal, and between upper and lower class, in the Roman conception of the farmer.

One stereotype of the farmer's works emerges from numerous generic references to agricolae found in literary authors. In their accounts, an agricola typically does the following: he plows and harrows, sows, weeds, threshes, sorts seed, digs, prunes and props up vines, cuts down trees, gathers wood, and forecasts the weather. A distinctive feature of this portrait is the farmer's auturgy; that is, he is always present on his land, exhibiting his diligence and know-how by working it himself. In cases where it is relevant, he is performing manual labor; Seneca says that sailors have bodies made hard by their struggles with the sea, runners have nimble legs, and farmers have "worn hands" (Prov. 4.13). The stereotype thus seems to reflect the life of actual peasants. But there is also an element of idealization to this picture: although even the poorest cultivators at Rome generally had a slave or two, in the casual descriptions a familia is nowhere in evidence; there is no vilicus, no tenants, and no hired men or slaves, only a faithful wife, tending to the domestic side of life. The dictator Cincinnatus is clearly represented as a farmer of this sort, working on his own estate without the help of slaves, and can stand as the archetype for this figure. Cincinnatus was often portrayed with a touch of idealization, and so was the generic farmer.


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Table of Contents


One. Agricolae Two. Playing the Farmer Three. Nobility in Rustication Four. A Protreptic to Agronomy Five. To Enchant Readers Six. The Reception of the Georgics in Early Imperial Rome

Appendix One. Vergil's Economic Status Appendix Two. Early Readership of the Georgics

Notes Bibliography Index

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"Well-written and thought-provoking, Thibodeau's book is a pleasure to read."—Bryn Mawr Classical Review (Bmcr)

"Lucidly written."—Choice

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