The seminar text for my Roman History course over the last fortnight has been the opening of the third book of Varro’s Rerum Rusticarum, the convoluted argument about the nature of the ‘true’ villa and the disputed legitimacy of pastio villatica. It’s a great passage for opening up questions about the nature of the work – the unexpected use of dialogue in a supposedly practical handbook of agriculture, as a means of raising problematic ethical and political questions (ancient sock puppets!) without necessarily trying to resolve them – and about how Roman aristocrats thought about the world at the end of the first century BCE; in particular, how one negotiates tensions between inherited values (the ‘farmers are the best citizens and soldiers’ ideology offered by e.g. Cato, harking back to exemplary early Romans like Cincinnatus) and the realities of a globalised economy in which money pervades every area of society and politics. Pastio villatica – the raising of bees, birds, snails, dormice, game etc. in the vicinity of the villa – is good insofar as it’s productive (rather than the purely consumptive villas where the wealthy relax and show off their wealth), but it’s bad insofar as it’s intimately bound to the development of luxurious tastes in the city, founded on the corrupting influx of wealth from the acquisition of empire – and hence involves precisely the sort of risky pursuit of profit that Cato had condemned in merchants and money-lenders.
This fascinating debate (assuming that farming is inherently virtuous, how far can we push the definition of farming?) rests on another ideological shift, which had clearly already taken place by the time of Cato: the way in which the virtues associated with agriculture were transferred to the person who owns the land being cultivated, even if they don’t do any of the actual work but leave it all to the slaves. Farming is good – but this comes to be understood in terms of ‘how one orders the estate to be managed’ rather than anything to do with labour. The thinking may be that the results of production accrue to the owner, therefore the moral associations should do as well – since slaves cannot legally own anything (their product belongs to their owner) and are sub-human therefore incapable of virtue. The point is that Cato and Varro take this entirely for granted, while expending considerable effort on the question of farming versus other forms of activity and on the scope of ‘proper farming’.
This was emphasised in an interesting way this week by a post from Brad DeLong on Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the United States as an agrarian republic, founded on the same Cincinnatan ideals that first-century Roman sources ascribed to their ancestors. Jefferson’s ideas were deeply rooted in the Roman discourse around the corrupting effects of empire, luxury and urbanism. It’s not clear to me how far Jefferson was aware of contemporary critiques of the whole luxury-as-corruption debate, discussed by scholars like Berry and Winch*, or how conscious he was of the mythical nature of these Roman accounts of their virtuous ancestors (of which, certainly if you follow the argument of someone like Leah Kronenberg on Varro, the Romans themselves were very well aware) – but clearly that doesn’t matter, given the power of the narrative of ‘farming means freedom’ versus ‘trade means corruption means despotism’.
As DeLong’s summary makes clear, Jefferson not only followed the Roman discourse, he also seems to have absorbed its assumptions about the transfer of virtue from the labourer to the one who directs that the labour should be performed:
Jefferson did not set his hand to the plough. And his family’s plantations were arenas of vice and domination to a degree that far surpass the corrupt London of George III Hanover. Jefferson did, however, free those of his slaves who were descended from himself.
This works, we may surmise, because of the existence of other possibilities. In a hypothetical pure agrarian society, the question of whether the man who has his slaves cultivate the land is as virtuous as the man who cultivates the land himself might be a pressing issue. But by the time any Roman bothers to worry about such things (or at least to write about them), there exist the real and disturbing alternatives of trade or money-lending (or worse) as sources of revenue for the elite; compared with them, different aspects of agriculture are quietly conflated, and disputes focus on policing the boundaries of what is and isn’t proper farming (Varro Book 1: is it farming if your land has a clay pit, or if you set up a tavern on it?). Likewise, Jefferson’s vision depends on the contrast with urban commercialism and imperialism, so that all land-related activities are considered virtuous, and these virtues accrue to those who ultimately benefit from those activities.
*And also in a small way me, in article on ‘Political economy and classical antiquity’, Journal of the History of Ideas 59.1 (1998).