De Agricultura

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The De Agricultura of M. Porcius Cato the Elder is a farming manual, written in around 160 BC. The work gives advice on a whole range of topics connected with the business of farm management, such as where to buy the best farming equipment, how to plant various types of crop, how to make garum (fish-sauce), and what the terms of a contract should be. Cato includes a number of rituals along with his other advice, making it clear that these were a normal part of the good day-to-day management of a farm, and allowing us to see the sorts of formulas which would be followed in this kind of private religious activity. It is thus an extremely useful source for all kinds of reconstruction and re-enactment, including the religious reconstruction of Roman prayers and rituals.

The information in Cato's manual is presented in a very haphazard order, like the jottings of an ordinary farmer, and his prose is usually abrupt and archaic. This is partly the product of the age in which it was written, when Latin prose was very much in its infancy. However, we must bear in mind when reading it that Cato was not just a simple farmer, but was also an extremely well-educated general and orator, capable of producing eloquent and persuasive legal speeches.

Although Cato himself claimed to hold literary composition in contempt, we must remember that his education meant that the rustic appearance of the language in the De Agricultura is to an extent a literary artifice in itself. It is an expression on Cato's behalf of the belief that true virtue and morality came with simple rustic living. We must not be seduced into thinking that Cato was really the country bumpkin he presents himself as.

Cato's descriptions of farming rituals are usually very simple, but his prayers are often written in a more elevated style. In particular, the prayer for the purification of land found at chapter 141 is almost poetic in its use of metre, alliteration and word-order. Both rituals and prayers tend to include a limited range of vocabulary, and a number of repeated stock phrases. These are not signs of any lack of imagination of Cato's part, but an indication of the oral culture from which they are drawn. When recited by heart, these devices would make the formulas and the prayers easier to remember.

Although the prayers which Cato preserves are intended for use on a farm, they deal with universal concerns, such as the success of enterprises, the protection of the family and the proper harmony between men and gods, and can thus be readily adapted for a number of modern uses. The wording of Cato's prayers is usually very general, and could easily fit almost any situation, but in some cases, modern adaptation might require slight changes in vocabulary — for instance, where Cato refers to a farm, the modern worshiper might wish to substitute words such as "house" or "business".

As long as it is kept to a necessary minimum, substitution can be carried out quite happily without changing the essentially Roman character of the prayers. In fact, we can catch Cato himself at it in chapter 140 of his work, where he advises that the same ritual may be used before digging the land as is used before clearing a grove by replacing the words "for the pruning of this sacred place" in the first ritual with the words "for the cause of carrying out the work" in the second.

On the issue of offerings to accompany the prayers, Cato is always very specific as to the correct offerings to make, even giving exact quantities in one case (chapter 83). In many cases, offerings such as wine, incense or offering-cakes are used, but in a few rituals, animal sacrifice is recommended. Given that most of us in the modern world would probably prefer not to slaughter animals ourselves, and that many of us are vegetarians, this is an issue which may cause problems for modern worshipers. However, a number of options are available for getting round the problem without significantly altering the nature of the rituals. Pieces of meat bought in an ordinary butcher's or supermarket and offered in sacrifice still preserve the essential act of giving something valuable up to the deity. Meanwhile, for those who prefer not to offer meat, I would suggest that figurines of the appropriate animals may be symbolically substituted for them. This type of offering could be made especially potent if the figurines are hand-made by the worshiper, thus representing an expenditure of time and effort for the sake of the deity.

I have tried as far as possible to preserve the original character of Cato's Latin in my translations, whilst also translating very literally. My intention is to give my fellow Nova Romans access to both Cato's prose and the fine details of the religious practices he describes, without the intervention of editors who may be unsympathetic to the religious aspects of the text.

De Agricultura 75 - 76

Cato's recipes for libum and placenta are particularly important historical sources, since both of these cakes were recommended for use in religious rituals. If you are hoping to make either of them, please note that I have not tried these recipes out myself, but simply translated them as clearly and as literally as I can. I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has tried the recipes, however.

The Roman pounds which Cato uses were equivalent to 327.45g, and thus significantly less than our modern pounds, which are equivalent to 453.6g. Nevertheless, Cato was clearly planning cake-making on an industrial scale — a modius was a measure of volume slightly less than two gallons (9.092 litres), so his half-modius placenta cake must have been pretty substantial. Whether either recipe could be considered edible by mortals, even with the addition of honey, is of course a matter of taste.


Latin English
Libum hoc modo facito. Make libum by this method.
Casei P. II bene disterat in mortario. Break up two pounds of cheese well in a mortar.
Ubi bene distriverit, farinae siligineae libram aut, si voles tenerius esse, selibram similaginis eodem indito permiscetoque cum caseo bene. When they will have been well broken up, put in a pound of wheat flour or, if you wish it to be more delicate, half a pound of fine flour and mix it well together with the cheese.
Ovum unum addito et una permisceto bene. Add one egg and mix together well.
Inde panem facito, folia subdito, in foco caldo sub testu coquito leniter. Then make into bread, places leaves beneath, and cook slowly on a hot hearth under an earthen pot.


From Cato's, De Agricultura, 76

Latin English
Placentum sic facito. Farinae siligineae L. II, unde solum facias, in tracta farinae L. IIII et alicae primae L. II. Alicam in aquam infundito. Make placenta in this way. Two pounds of wheat flour, from which you make the base, four pounds of flour and two pounds of best spelt for the tracta [note — these appear to be drawn-out strips of pastry]. Soak the spelt in water.
Ubi bene mollis erit, in mortarium purum indito siccatoque bene. Deinde manibus depsito. Ubi bene subactum erit, farinae L. IIII paulatim addito. It utrumque tracta facito. In qualo, ubi arescant, conponito. When it is well-softened, place in a clean mortar and drain well. Then knead with your hands. When it will have been well kneaded, add four pounds of flour gradually. Make both into tracta. Arrange them in a wicker basket, where they may dry.
Ubi arebunt, conponito pariter. Cum facies singula tracta, ubi depsueris, panno oleo uncto tangito et circum tergeto unguitoque. Ubi tracta erunt, focum, ubi cocas, calfacito bene et testum. Postea farinae L. II conspargito condepsitoque. When they will dry, arrange them equally. With each side, touch the tracta with a cloth anointed with oil, when they will have been kneaded, and wipe them all over and anoint them with oil. When the tracta will have been made, warm well the hearth where you will cook, and the earthen pot. Afterwards, moisten the two pounds of wheat flour and knead together.
Inde facito solum tenue. Casei ovilli P. XIIII ne acidum et bene recens in aquam indito. Ibi macerato, aquam ter mutato. Inde eximito siccatoque bene paulatim manibus, siccum bene in mortarium inponito. Ubi omne caseum bene siccaveris, in mortarium purum manibus condepsito conminuitoque quam maxime. Deinde cribrum farinarium purum sumito caseumque per cribrum facito transeat in mortarium. From this make a thin base. Soak fourteen pounds of sheep's cheese, not sour and very fresh, in water. Then soften it, and change the water three times. From this, take it out and dry it very gradually with the hands; place it, well dried, in a mortar. When all the cheese will have been well-dried, knead it together with your hands in a clean mortar, and break it down as much as possible. Then take a clean flour sieve and make the cheese pass through the sieve into the mortar.
Postea indito mellis boni P. IIII S. Id una bene conmisceto cum caseo. Postea in tabula pura, quae pateat P. I, ibi balteum ponito, folia laurea uncta supponito, placentam fingito. Afterwards, put in four and a half pounds of good honey. Mix this together well with the cheese. Afterwards place the balteus [literally a girdle - Cato's directions are a little unclear here, but this seems to refer to the base made previously from wheat flour, which is then wrapped around the whole cake before it bakes] on a clean board, which extends for one foot, add oiled laurel leaves, and form the placenta.
Tracta singula in totum solum primum ponito, deinde de mortario tract linito, tracta addito singulatim, item linito usque adeo, donec omne caseum cum melle abusus eris. In summum tracta singula indito, postea solum contrahito ornatoque focum deverrito temperatoque, tunc placentam inponito, testo caldo operito, pruna insuper et circum operito. First place single tracta over the whole base, then smear the tracta with the mixture from the mortar, add the tracta one by one; in the same way smear continuously for as long as until all the cheese with the honey will have been used up. On the top place single tracta, afterwards wrap over the base and prepare, sweep out and control the hearth, then put in the placenta, cover with a hot crock, cover over at the top and sides with hot coal.
Videto ut bene et otiose percoquas. Aperito, dum inspicias, bis aut ter. Ubi cocta erit, eximito et melle unguito. Haec erit placenta semodialis. See that it cooks through well and at leisure. Uncover while you inspect it two or three times. When it will have been cooked, take it out and spread it with honey. This will be a half-modius cake.

De Agricultura 83

An offering to Mars Silvanus for the health of cattle

This description of a ritual to be performed for the health of cattle does not include an suggestions for appropriate words to be spoken, but simply describes the offering itself. However, since Cato states in his last sentence that his reader may vow or pray (vovere) the vow or prayer every year, some kind of spoken dedication does seem to be assumed.

Following the format of Cato's other prayers, it is likely that he would consider a fairly simple prayer to be appropriate, in which the god is called upon, the offering is verbally dedicated to the god, and the worshiper makes a humble request for the health of his cattle.

The ceremony can of course be adapted to a number of modern uses, such as a prayer for the health of employees, for the smooth running of machinery or for domestic pets.

As for Cato's statement that a woman may not see or take part in the ceremony, it is of course a matter for individual worshipers as to whether they interpret this as a religious rule, or simply a recommendation which reflects the beliefs of Cato's time, and can therefore be altered without causing offense to the gods (I personally fall into the latter camp).

Latin English
Votum pro bubus, uti valeant, sic facito. Make the vow for the cattle, that they may be well, in this way.
Marti Silvani in silva interdius in capita singula boum votum facito. Make the vow to Mars Silvanus by day in the woods for each head of cattle.
Farris L. III et lardi P. IIII S et pulpae P. IIII S, vini S. III, id in unum vas liceto coicere, et vinum item in unum vas liceto coicere. Three pounds of spelt and four and a half pounds of bacon fat and four and a half pounds of meat, three sextarii [each about one pint, or 0.568 litres] of wine; it must be placed together in one vessel, and in the same way the wine must be placed together in one vessel.
Eam rem divinam vel servus vel liber licebit faciat. It will be allowed that either a slave or a freedman may perform this offering to the gods.
Ubi res divina facta erit, statim ibidem consumito. When the offering to the gods will have been made, consume it straight away in that very place.
Mulier ad eam rem divinam ne adsit neve videat quo modo fiat. Hoc votum in annos singulos, is voles, licebit vovere. A woman may not be present at this offering to the gods, and nor may she see in what way it is done. It will be allowed to vow this vow each year, if you wish.

De Agricultura 132

An offering to Iupiter Dapalis before ploughing

This ritual is recommended by Cato for farmers as a yearly offering for their oxen, to be made when the pear-trees bloom (i.e. in spring) before ploughing begins. The aim is to bring a divine blessing on the oxen as they undertake the ploughing of the fields, in order to ensure a healthy crop and a good yield. However, this ritual could equally be used on the occasion of any important enterprise or undertaking, e.g. opening a new business, buying a house, starting a new job, finalising an important deal, etc.

Latin English
Dapem hoc modo fieri oportet. Iovi dapali culignam vini quantum vis polluceto. Eo die feriae bubus et bubulcis et qui dapem facient. It is proper for the sacrificial feast to be made in this way. Offer to Jupiter Dapalis a cup of wine as great as you wish. It is a festival that day for the oxen and the ox-men and those who will carry out the sacrifice.
Cum pollucere oportebit, sic facies: When it will be proper to make the offering, speak thus:
"Iuppiter dapalis, quod tibi fieri oportet in domo familia mea culignam vini dapi, eius rei ergo macte hac illace dape pollucenda esto." "Iupiter Dapalis, because it is proper for a cup of wine to be given to you in the house of my family for the sacred feast, for the sake of this thing may you be honoured by this, the feast offering."
Manus interluito, postea vinum sumito: Wash the hands, afterwards take the wine:
"Iuppiter dapalis, macte istace dape pollucenda esto, macte vino inferio esto." "Iupiter Dapalis, may you be honoured by this feast offering, may you be honoured by the wine sacrificed."
Vestae, si voles, dato. Daps Iovi assaria pecuina urna vini. Iovi caste profanato sua contagione. Give to Vesta, if you wish. The sacred feast for Iupiter is roasted meat and an urn of wine. To Iuppiter you shall piously profane his [offerings] with [your] touch.

De Agricultura 134

An offering to Ceres, Ianus, Iupiter and Iuno before the harvest

This ritual is intended to be performed before the year's harvest is gathered, marking the beginning of the harvest season, and showing the appropriate gratitude to the gods for the crops about to be gathered. It appears somewhat convoluted in Cato's description, but the ritual centres around the offering of a sow, known as the porca praecidanea to Ceres, with offerings of cakes and wine to Ianus and Iupiter being made both before and after the main sacrifice. Cato suggests prayers only to accompany the offerings to Ianus and Iupiter, leaving his readers to supply their own wording for the offering to Ceres. Meanwhile, although Iuno is named by Cato, she does not seem to feature in the ritual at all; her role is probably mainly that of consort to Iupiter.

The cakes which Cato refers to for the offerings to Ianus and Iupiter are cakes made specifically for the purposes of religious offerings. To Ianus, he advises offering a strues, which means a pile of small offering-cakes, while to Iupiter, he uses a fertum, a particular type of cake. Unfortunately, a recipe for fertum does not survive, but Cato does provide us with recipes for two other cakes used for religious offerings; libum and placenta.

Although the focal point of this ritual is the sacrifice of a pig to Ceres, appropriate substitutions can be made for modern usage. At harvest time, we may choose to offer some other item of food to Ceres, in order to show our gratitude for her gifts. Something large, such as a pumpkin, could suitably fill the place of the pig, and also has the added bonus that it can be cut open and its seeds offered up to Ceres, where Cato asks us to offer the entrails of the pig.

Latin English
Priusquam messim facies, porcam praecidaneam hoc modo fieri oportet. Before you will gather in the harvest, it is proper for the porca praecidanea to be offered in this way.
Cereri porca praecidanea porco femina, priusquam hasce fruges condas, far, triticum, hordeum, fabam, semen rapicium. Offer to Ceres using a female pig as porca praecidanea, before you store away these crops; spelt, wheat, barley, beans, rape seed.
Ture vino Iano Iovi Iunoni praefato, priusquam porcum feminam inmolabis. With Janus, Jupiter and Juno having been invoked, make an offering with incense and wine before you sacrifice the sow.
Iano struem ommoveto sic: "Iane pater, te hac strue ommovenda bonas preces precor, uti sies volens propitius mihi liberisque meis domo familiaeque meae." To Janus offer a heap of cakes thus: "Father Janus, in offering to you this heap of cakes, I pray virtuous prayers, in order that you may be favourable and gracious to me and my children, to my house and to my household."
Fertum Iovi ommoveto et mactato sic: "Iuppiter, te hoc ferto obmovendo bonas preces precor, uti sies volens propitius mihi liberisque meis domo familiaeque meae mactus hoc ferto." Offer fertum to Jupiter and honour him thus: "Jupiter, in offering to you this fertum I pray virtuous prayers, in order that, honoured by this fertum, you may be favourable and gracious to me and my children, to my house and to my household."
Postea Iano vinum dato sic: "Iane pater, uti te strue ommovenda bonas preces bene precatus sum, eiusdem rei ergo macte vino inferio esto." Afterwards give wine to Janus thus: "Father Janus, as in offering to you the heap of cakes virtuous prayers were well prayed, for the sake of the same things be honoured by the humbler wine."
Postea Iovi sic: "Iuppiter macte isto ferto esto, macte vino inferio esto."

Afterwards to Jupiter thus: "Jupiter, be honoured by that fertum, be honoured by the humbler wine."

Postea porcam praecidaneam inmolato. Afterwards, sacrifice the porca praecidanea.
Ubi exta prosecta erunt, Iano struem ommoveto mactatoque item, uti prius obmoveris. When the entrails have been cut out, offer to Janus a heap of cakes and honour him in the same way, as you will have offered to him previously.
Iovi fertum obmoveto mactatoque item, uti prius feceris. Offer to Jupiter fertum and honour him in the same way, as you will have done previously.
Item Iano vinum dato et Iovi vinum dato, item uti prius datum ob struem obmovendam et fertum libandum. Postea Cereri exta et vinum dato.

In the same way, give wine to Janus and give wine to Jupiter, in the same way as described previously, for the purpose of offering the heap of cakes and libating the wine. Afterwards, give to Ceres the entrails and wine.

De Agricultura 139 - 140

A ritual before clearing a grove or tilling land

Since the Romans believed that every piece of land had its own deities, or genii, and that each tree had its own guardian spirit which dwelt within it, it was not considered proper either to disturb land or to cut down trees without sacrificing first to the gods who lived within them.

Cato gives two versions of this ritual; one to be performed when pruning a grove, and one when digging land. The two rituals are exactly the same, except that Cato suggests adding the words "for the cause of carrying out the work" when digging the land. These words seem grammatically designed to replace the words "for the pruning of this sacred place" in the original prayer, and Cato probably intended a substitution of one phrase for the other, according to which was most suitable, rather than a simple addition of extra words onto the end of the prayer. This ritual could be used in a modern garden, before carrying out jobs such as pruning, mowing or planting.

Latin English
Lucum conlucare Romano more sic oportet. It is proper to open out a grove in this way, according to the Roman manner.
Porco piaculo facito, sic verba concipito: "Si deus, si dea es, quoium illud sacrum est, uti tibi ius est porco piaculo facere illiusce sacri coercendi ergo harumque rerum ergo, sive ego sive quis issu meo fecerit, uti id recte factum siet, eius rei ergo te hoc porco piaculo inmolando bonas preces precor, uti sies volens propitius mihi domo familaeque meae liberisque meis; harumce rerum ergo macte hoc porco piaculo inmolando esto." Offer for atonement a pig, recite words thus: "Be you god or be you goddess, to whom this place is sacred, as it is right to offer for atonement to you a pig for the pruning of this sacred place, on account of these and on account of these things, whether I or whether one ordered by me offered it, in order that it may have been done rightly, for the sake of this thing I pray good prayers to you for the sacrificing of this pig for atonement, that you may be favourable and gracious to me, to my family and house, to my children; for the sake of these things be honoured by the sacrificing of the pig for atonement."
Si fodere voles, altero piaculo eodem modo facito, hoc amplius dicito: "operis faciundi causa." If you wish to dig, offer in the same manner for another atonement, say this in addition: "for the cause of carrying out the work."
Dum opus, cotidie per partes facito. During the work, offer every day over some area.
Si intermiseris aut feriae publicae aut familiares intercesserint, altero piaculo facito. If you will break off, or public or family festivals will interfere, offer for another atonement.

De Agricultura 141

A ritual for purifying land

Cato unfortunately gives no indication as to when, how often or under what circumstances this ritual would be performed. However, the wording of the prayer suggests a very general application to all aspects of a farm, and refers in particular to the hope that the land will yield good crops.

  • The word suovitaurilia which Cato uses is made up of sus (pig) + ovis (sheep) + taurus (bull). It is used frequently in Latin to describe a group consisting of one of each of these animals.
  • The name Manius appears to be a generic name.
  • The word fertum refers to a type of cake used for religious offerings. No recipe for it survives, but recipes given by Cato for two other types of offering-cakes may be found here.

Latin English
Agrum lustrare sic oportet. It is proper to purify land in this way.
Impera suovitaurilia circumagi: "Cum divis volentibus quodque bene eveniat, mando tibi, Mani, uti illace suovitaurilia fundum agrum terramque meam quota ex parte sive circumagi sive circumferenda censeas, uti cures lustrare." Order the suovitaurilia to be led around: "Since with the gods being favourable, each thing may turn out well, I entrust to you, Manius, that you may decide whether to lead or to carry this suovitaurilia around the estate, the field and my land, outside as large an area as you may care to purify."
Ianum Iovemque vino praefamino, sic dicito: "Mars pater, te precor quaesoque uti sies volens propitius mihi domo familiaeque nostrae, quoius rei ergo agrum terram fundumque meum suovitaurilia circumagi iussi, uti tu morbos visos invisosque, viduertatem vastitudinemque, calamitates intemperiasque prohibessis defendas averruncesque; utique tu fruges, frumenta, vineta virgultaque grandire beneque evenire siris, pastores pecuaque salva servassis duisque bonam salutem valetudinemque mihi domo familiaeque nostrae; harumce rerum ergo, fundi terrae agrique mei lustrandi lustrique faciendi ergo, sicuti dixi, macte hisce suovitaurilibus lactentibus inmolandis esto; Mars pater, eiusdem rei ergo macte hisce suovitaurilibus lactientibus esto." Speak before Janus and Jupiter with wine, say this: "Father Mars, I pray to you and ask of you, that you may be favourable and gracious to me, to me, to the house and to our household, for the sake of which I have ordered the suovitaurilia to be led around the field, the land and my estate, in order that you may prevent, repel and divert seen and unseen diseases, deprivation and desolation, misfortunes and extremes; and in order that you may allow the fruits, the grain, the vineyards and the orchards to grow and to turn out well, that you may keep well the shepherds and cattle, and give good health and well-being to me, to the house and to our household; for the sake of these things, for the sake of the purifiying of the estate, the land and my field and the making pure, as I have said, may you be honoured by the sacrificing of this suckling suovitaurilia; Father Mars, for the sake of the same thing may you be honoured by this suckling suovitaurilia."
Item cultro facito struem et fertum uti adsiet, inde obmoveto. In the same way make with a knife the heap of cakes and the fertum in order that it is ready, then sacrifice.
Ubi porcum inmolabis, agnum vitulumque, sic oportet: "Eiusque rei ergo macte suovitaurilibus inmolandis esto." When you will have offered the pig, the lamb and the calf, this is the correct form: "And for the sake of this thing, may you be honoured by the sacrificing of the suovitaurilia."
Nominare vetat Martem neque porcum agnum vitulumque. Si minus in omnis litabit, sic verba concipito: "Mars pater, siquid tibi in illisce suovitaurilibus lactentibus neque satisfactum est, te hisce suovitaurilibus piaculo." It is forbidden to name Mars and also the pig, lamb and calf. If less than all will be sacrificed successfully, recite words in this way: "Father Mars, if something in this suckling suovitaurilia was not pleasing to you, this suovetaurilia to you as atonement."
Si in uno duobusve dubitabit, sic verba concipito: "Mars pater, quod tibi illoc porco neque satisfactum est, te hoc porco piaculo." If there will be doubt about one or two, recite these words: "Father Mars, because this pig was not pleasing to you, this pig to you as atonement."
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