Prayers and Rituals from Cato's 'De Agricultura'

Translated into English by Quinta Claudia Lucentia Aprica

  • Chapters 75-76: Recipes for libum and placenta (cakes for use in offerings).

  • Chapter 83: An offering to Mars Silvanus for the health of cattle.

  • Chapter 132: An offering to Jupiter Dapalis (Jupiter of the feast) before ploughing.

  • Chapter 134: An offering to Ceres, Janus, Jupiter and Juno before the harvest.

  • Chapters 139-130: A ritual to be performed before clearing a grove or digging land.

  • Chapter 141: A ritual for purifying land.
  • Translator's notes: 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.

    It is thus an extremely useful source for all kinds of reconstruction and re-enactment, including the religious reconstruction of Roman prayers and rituals. 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.

    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 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.

    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.

    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 worshipper might wish to substitute words such as 'house' or 'business.'

    As long as it is kept to a necessary minimum, I believe that such 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 worshippers. 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 worshipper, thus representing an expenditure of time and effort for the sake of the deity.

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