One of the most striking items in this morning’s newspaper was the fact that the only non-anonymous funder of the aggressive grouse-shooting lobby organisation You Forgot The Birds, hedge fund manager Crispin Odey, houses his chickens in a stone edifice modelled on a Greek temple (I missed this story when the plans were first identified via his local council’s planning department website).
Partly because I recently finished revising an article on the idea of frugalitas in the Roman agronomists, this immediately called to mind Varro’s discussion of bird houses alongside other forms of pastio villatica. The theme of a contrast between ancient frugality and modern luxury is put centre-stage from the beginning, as Varro’s characters set out the different divisions of the subject:
Each of these three classes has two stages: the earlier, which the frugality of the ancients observed, and the later, which modern luxury has now added. For instance, first came the ancient stage of our ancestors, in which there were simply two aviaries: the barn-yard on the ground in which the hens fed — and their returns were eggs and chickens — and the other above ground, in which were the pigeons, either in cotes or on the roof of the villa. On the other hand, in these days, the aviaries have changed their name and have become ornithones; and those which the dainty palate of the owner has constructed have larger buildings for the sheltering of fieldfares and peafowl than whole villas used to have in those days. (3.3.6-7)
This is accentuated in Varro’s description of his own aviary at Casinum:
Between these lies the site of the aviary, shaped in the form of a writing-tablet with a top-piece, the quadrangular part being 48 feet in width and 72 feet in length, while at the rounded top-piece it is 27 feet. Facing this, as it were a space marked off on the lower margin of the tablet, is an uncovered walk with a plumula extending from the aviary, in the middle of which are cages; and here is the entrance to the courtyard. At the entrance, on the right side and the left, are colonnades, arranged with stone columns in the outside rows and, instead of columns in the middle, with dwarf trees; while from the top of the wall to the archway the colonnade is covered with a net of hemp, which also continues from the archway to the base. These colonnades are filled with all manner of birds, to which food is supplied through the netting, while water flows to them in a tiny rivulet. Along the inner side of the base of the columns, on the right side and on the left, and extending from the middle to the upper end of the open quadrangle, are two oblong fish-basins, not very wide, facing the colonnades. Between these basins is merely a path giving access to the tholos, which is a round domed building outside the quadrangle, faced with columns, such as is seen in the hall of Catulus, if you put columns instead of walls. Outside these columns is a wood planted by hand with large trees, so that the light enters only at the lower part, and the whole is enclosed with high walls. Between the outer columns of the rotunda, which are of stone, and the equal number of slender inner columns, which are of fir, is a space five feet wide. Between the exterior columns, instead of a wall there is a netting of gut, so that there is a view into the wood and the objects in it, while not a bird can get out into it. In the spaces between the interior columns the aviary is enclosed with a net instead of a wall. Between these and the exterior columns there is built up step by step a sort of little bird-theatre, with brackets fastened at frequent intervals to all the columns as bird-seats. (3.5.10-13)
Odey’s chicken coop seems to fit firmly within this tradition of ridiculously extravagant farm buildings, costing far more than the birds they contain can ever be worth; a perversion of the good old Roman tradition of parsimony (even if, as scholars like Ingo Gildenhard have argued, the idea of frugalitas as the cardinal virtue is largely if not entirely an invention of Cicero, there is certainly an obsessive concern with cost management in Cato’s work on agriculture, carried on in a more complex and satirical form by Varro).
Where Odey goes beyond even the most decadent of Roman aristocrats is in dedicating such expense not to peafowl or nightingales but to the humble chicken. Even in Varro, full of detail about the luxurious behaviour of modern Romans, the discussion of chickens is thoroughly pragmatic and practical; this is part of the villa enterprise focused on returns, rather than the more elusive goal of combining fructus and voluptas in a single activity.
It is not unproductive in the straightforward way that a game park or an aviary is, a form of consumption available only to the fabulously wealthy; it takes the additional step of parodying the sort of humble activity practised by countless ordinary farmers in their back yards. “Oh yes, I keep a few chickens…” It reminds me of the Elder Pliny’s complaint that, whereas once vegetables were “the poor man’s meat”, they had now become luxury items far beyond the reach of the mass of the population. If they were ever conceived of as an economic enterprise rather than just an opportunity to show off, how much would the eggs of Odey’s chickens cost..?