Classics The Roman Agricultural Writers
Jesper Carlsen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0394


The works of four Roman agricultural writers from between the middle of the second century BCE to the fifth century CE have been preserved: Cato the Elder, Varro, Columella, and Palladius. All four have been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and other languages. Other agricultural writers are mentioned in the preserved literary sources, but most of them are only names to us, with very few fragments handed down. Pliny the Elder also treats agriculture in Books 16–19 of his Natural History, but he and Virgil’s Georgics and Eclogues are not normally included among the Roman agronomists. Cato was the first Latin agricultural writer, but handbooks on farming are known in Greek literature, and the work of Punic Mago was first translated into Greek, and after the destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE, also into Latin after a decision in the Roman senate. The Roman agricultural writers vary much in length, scope, and style. Cato’s handbook comprises one book, while Varro has three books, Columella encompasses twelve books and Palladius ten, but they all contain detailed instructions on both cultivation and management. Their treatises intended for other members of the elite are based on personal experience as absentee landowners and earlier agronomists, but the value as sources to Roman agriculture and economic history is problematic, because it is difficult to distinguish between their normative and descriptive elements. There are differences in the importance that the different agricultural writers attach to various aspects of production and organization with some areas treated cursorily, while others are subjected to more lengthy treatment with criticism of opinions voiced by other agronomists.

General Overviews

There is not a long or strong tradition of critical analyses of the Roman agricultural writers. Gummerus 1906 is the first monograph which systematically used Cato, Varro, and Columella as sources to Roman agriculture and economic history. Dohr 1965, Martin 1971, Martin 1974, and Kaltenstadler 1978 are most recent examples of this scholarly tradition, while Oehme 1988 combines it with a historiographical analysis of two important German historians. White 1973 provides a convenient survey of the Republican agronomists, including the lost authors. It is only in recent decades that modern scholarship has realized that the Latin agronomists are not only technical handbooks. They also contain literary and philosophical aspects as analyzed in Diederich 2007. Christmann 2003 provides a discussion of the audience of the agronomists.

  • Christmann, Eckhard. 2003. Bemerkungen zu Autoren und ihrem Publikum in der römischen Landwirtschaftslehre. In Antike Fachschriftstelle. Literarischer Diskurs und sozialer Kontext. Edited by Maretta Horster and Christine Reitz, 121–152 Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

    Analysis of the readership of Cato, Varro, and Columella.

  • Diederich, Silke. 2007. Römische Agrarhandbücher zwischen Fachwissenschaft, Literatur und Ideologie. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110893359

    The book analyzes all four Latin agronomists both as handbooks, but also as literature and puts them into a wider ideological framework of Roman society, especially mos maiorum or ancestral customs.

  • Dohr, Heinz. 1965. Die italischen Gutshöfe nach den Schriften Catos und Varros. PhD diss., Univ. of. Cologne.

    An early, but still valuable book using only the works of Cato and Varro to discuss themes such as the size of the farm, its production, and labor force.

  • Gummerus, Herman. 1906. Der römische Gutsbetrieb als wirtschaftlicher Organismus nach den Werken des Cato, Varro und Columella. Klio Beiheft 5. Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsuchhandlung.

    The first analysis of the first three agronomists as sources to Roman agricultural and social history. On Cato pp. 15–49, on Varro pp. 50–72, and on Columella pp. 73–93.

  • Kaltenstadler, Wilhelm. 1978. Arbeitsorganisation und Führungssystem bei den römischen Agrarschriftstellern (Cato, Varro, Columella). Stuttgart: Gustav Fischer Verlag.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110509304

    The analysis of the three agricultural writers concentrates on the division of labor on slave-run estates and the functions of the bailiff and other managerial slaves together with different styles of management.

  • Martin, René. 1971. Recherches sur les agronomes latins et leurs conceptions économiques et sociales. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

    One of the first, but still useful and most comprehensive, analyses of Roman agricultural literature until Columella and Pliny the Elder. It also includes the lost agronomists Sasernae (pp. 81–85) and Scrofa (pp. 216–219), together with Virgil’s two poems “Georgics” and the “Eclogues” (pp. 107–210).

  • Martin, René. 1974. Familia rustica: les esclaves chez les agronomes latins. In Actes du Colloque 1972 sur l’esclavage. 267–297. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

    The article gives an overview of the hierarchy with Latin job titles and the division of work on slave-run estates in Roman Italy based on Cato, Varro, and Columella. It includes the female slaves and ends with a discussion of the profitability of slave works in Roman agriculture.

  • Oehme, Marlis. 1988. Die römische Villenwirtschaft. Untersuchungen zu den Agrarschriften Catos und Columellas und ihrer Darstellung bei Neibuhr und Mommsen. Bonn, Germany: Dr. Rudolf Habelt.

    The dissertation is divided into two parts. Part 1 analyzes the labor force and agricultural production on the estates described by Cato and Columella. Part 2 deals with the interpretations of the two Latin agronomists by the famous German historians, Barthold Georg Niebuhr and Theodor Mommsen, in the nineteenth century, which reflect the agrarian problems of their own times.

  • White, K. D. 1973. Roman agricultural writers I: Varro and his predecessors. Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 1.4: 439–497.

    The article discusses Cato’s and Varro’s handbooks together with the lost works of the Sasernas and Scrofa. Substantial bibliography up to 1970.

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