Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.) is one of those legendary figures in early Roman history. Known for his stern, uncompromising vision with regard to personal morality, rules, and social obligations, his treatise On Agriculture (De agri cultura) constitutes the earliest complete Latin text that has survived.
He was no stodgy country bumpkin, however. Plutarch called him “shrewd” and considered him the embodiment of the old Roman virtues. After a long political and military career he decided to devote himself to the arts of the soil and country living, and thought it would be useful to collect some of his best advice on rustic matters in one digestible volume. The book is an odd mixture of farming advice, food recipes, prayers, and life wisdom written in a terse and archaic style. We even detect, here and there, intimations of a sly sense of humor hiding behind the furrowed Catonian brow.
At the outset of his book he gives us his opinions on how land should be purchased. Even after all this time, Cato’s suggestions are sound and practical. Consider the following.
Buying. Do not be too eager to buy. There will always be time needed to examine the property in detail. A good parcel of land, he tells us, will satisfy us more and more with each examination (Quotiens ibis, totiens magis placebit quod bonum erit).
Neighbors. Be mindful of what the neighbors’ properties look like. If the other people around you look bad, you should take note of this. Slovenliness has a way of spreading like an infection.
Climate. The climate of region should be generally good, and the soil free of problems. If possible, one should try to find a farm that lies at the foot of a hill or elevation and that faces south. Things that should be nearby are a water source or town. Being near the sea is also good whenever possible, as well as near well-used roads.
Location. It is better to be near other farms that have been in the area for a long time. Properties that change owners very frequently should be looked upon with suspicion.
Learn From Others. On the other hand, it is wise to show respect to how others solve problems: one should always try to learn from observing others (Caveto alienam disciplinam temere contemnas, or “beware of refusing to learn from others”). All other things being equal, it is better to buy a farm from someone who is good at what he does and is a good builder.
Luxuries. What is especially important is to avoid luxury and extravagance in buying land. Such frivolities can eat up a man’s savings very quickly. Here is imparts a very sage piece of advice in his terse style:
Know also that a farm is like a man; even if his resources be extensive, there is not much left over if he is lavish (Scito idem agrum quod hominem, quamvis quaestuosus siet, si sumptuosus erit, relinqui non multum).
The Master’s Duties. The master of a farm must show good management (De agri cultura V.2). He should tend to his own business well, and keep his nose out of others’ business. If he has workmen or hired hands, he should settle disputes among them quickly and with the most rigorous principles of justice. Punishments should be meted out in proportion to the offense, and no more. The servants should know their place, and should not consider the master’s friends to be their friends. Servants and hands are more easily controlled and kept out of trouble if they are kept busy; how old is this timeless principle of management!
His advice on finding a housekeeper clearly puts him in his era. The farmer’s housekeeper should perform all her duties in an efficient manner (De agri. CXLIII). She should be free of a taste for luxury and should hold the master of the house in high regard, even to the point of fear (Ea te metuat facito). She should not waste time going about as a social-butterfly or as a gossiper, but should be focused on the responsibilities of the household, which take precedence over all else.
There is nothing more subtle and sophisticated as homespun wisdom honestly learned.
Read more about ethics and perseverance in my ground-breaking, original translation of Cicero’s “On Duties”: