Princeton University Press (2021) h/b 272pp £12.99 (ISBN 9780691211749)

As U. is not only a Professor of Classics, but also a farmer in Vermont, it is most appropriate that he should have compiled this volume in the Princeton series ‘Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers’.  It comprises a wide range of extracts from both Greek and Latin authors and presents them in the manner of a Loeb with text and translation on facing pages, thus encouraging those once versed in the languages to rediscover their skill.

In his Introduction, U. explains that his focus is ‘on Greek and Roman attitudes, dispositions, and reflections on what it means to live, work, and think in a landscape.’  He sees this as more interesting and useful to modern readers than the practical farming advice prevalent in ancient sources, which he describes as outmoded, irrelevant or inaccurate. He points out that the topic of country living is now very relevant as people are more concerned for the environment and are being encouraged to return to the land. He also refers to the involvement of women in agriculture and current debates about the role of slavery in the ancient world.

The extracts themselves span a wide range of centuries and authors, including Hesiod, Homer, Plato, Varro, Pliny the Elder, Horace, Vergil, Cato, Lucretius, Columella, Longus and Musonius Rufus.  Topics range from the more general discourse on how to live virtuously and observations about the cycle of nature to detailed accounts of bread-making, the virtues of a dog, asses and a ram.  Passages are arranged loosely by topic and those by the same author grouped together, although there is no discernible chronology.  U. has endeavoured to make his translations accessible and lively.

He includes, for example, the joyful musings of Horace (Satires 2, 6): ‘This is the place I was praying for—a piece of land not too large, where there’d be a garden and a source of fresh water near the house and above these a stretch of woodland.  Bigger and better have the gods done for me. Life is good!’  In contrast, U.’s selection from Columella, De Re Rustica, 7,3,3, is much more specific: ‘The features most prized in a ram are height and breadth; a paunch that bulges and is woolly; a very long tail; thick fleece; a broad face; big testicles; and spiralling horns.  Not that a ram with horns is more useful (for a ram is better if polled), but because horns do less harm if they’re in-curving than if they’re straight and spreading.’

U. also echoes the modern concerns with the dominance of large industrialised agricultural estates rather than smaller family-run farms by including excepts from Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 18: ‘The fields were tilled in earlier times by the hands of generals themselves … When a messenger arrived to proclaim Cincinnatus Dictator, he found him plowing his four iugera … But nowadays, farming is performed by men with fettered ankles and by the hands of criminals with branded faces … The ancients thought that to observe moderation in the size of a farm was of first importance inasmuch as they determined that it was more satisfactory to sow less land and to plow it better… Indeed, to tell the truth, large estates (latifundia) have ruined Italy, and are now ruining the provinces.’

This is a book to be dipped into at leisure, choosing sections which appeal, rather than reading it from start to finish.  It is equally as well suited to those who may have little or no Latin or Ancient Greek as to those whose command of the classical languages is more complete.  It certainly serves to illustrate the timelessness of concerns for what humans may be doing to our planet and the need both to respect and enjoy what nature has to offer.


Marion Gibbs