2000 Years of Latin Prose | History and Literature

Chapter 2 – Cato Maior: The Art Of Growing Asparagus

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Two thou­sand years of Latin Prose is a dig­i­tal anthol­o­gy of Latin Prose. Here you will be able to find texts from two mil­len­nia of gems in Latin. In this sec­ond chap­ter, we will learn about, and read from, Cato Maior’s work De Agri­cul­tura.

If you want to learn more about the anthol­o­gy, you will find the pref­ace here.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this chap­ter: 2000 Years of Latin Prose: Chap­ter 2. Cato Maior.

Life and Works of Cato the Elder

In this sec­tion you will learn about the author’s life and works.

(234–149 B.C.)

Cato Maior has gone down in his­to­ry as the man who end­ed all of his speech­es, no mat­ter the sub­ject, with: 

“Ceterum/Praeterea censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.”

— Cato Maior

More­over, I advise that Carthage must be destroyed. (More about this quote fur­ther down.)

But Cato Maior was so much more. 

Life of Cato the Elder

Engraving of Marcus Porcius Cato.
Mar­cus Por­cius Cato.

He was born Mar­cus Por­cius Cato in Tus­cu­lum, Italy but became known as Cato Cen­so­rius, Cato Sapi­ens and Cato Priscus. 

Accord­ing to the Greek biog­ra­ph­er Plutar­chos’ (46–120 A.D.) work Cato, Cato was not born Mar­cus Por­cius Cato, but Mar­cus Por­cius Priscus. Cato instead was a name sprung from, accord­ing to Plutar­chos, the word catus, which was what the Romans called a man who was wise, clear-sight­ed and pru­dent. Cato was being called Cato because he pos­sessed these abil­i­ties. (Cato, 1)

Lat­er he became known as Cato Maior or Cato the Elder to sep­a­rate him from his great-grand­son, Cato Minor or Cato the Younger, famous for oppos­ing Julius Caesar.

Cato the Elder grew up on his father’s farm in Sabine ter­ri­to­ry, i.e. north­east of the city of Rome, a prop­er­ty he also inher­it­ed. His fam­i­ly had of old been not­ed for their mil­i­tary ser­vice, and Cato was too. How­ev­er, when not serv­ing, the fam­i­ly – includ­ing Cato – were devot­ed to agri­cul­ture. This love of the coun­try was so strong that Cato in between mil­i­tary cam­paigns returned to his farm, dressed sim­ply and worked the land as any oth­er farmer. 

Hannibal on the back of an elephant as he is crossing the alps. Painting by Nicolas Poussin.
“Han­ni­bal tra­ver­sant les Alpes à dos d’éléphant”, by Nico­las Poussin.

He had quite the career, both mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal, and fought his first war against none oth­er than the ele­phant mas­ter Hannibal. 

Close to his farm lay the lands of a cer­tain Lucius Valerius Flac­cus. Flac­cus was a man from one of the noble fam­i­lies of Rome, and he was impressed with Cato’s dili­gence, mil­i­tary tal­ent, his work as a legal advi­sor to Sabine cit­i­zens as well as his con­ser­vatism and prompt­ly encour­aged Cato to take up a polit­i­cal career. 

Cato took the advice and fol­lowed Flac­cus to Rome. Things went well. 

In short: he was a mil­i­tary tri­bune, became a quaestor, an aedile, prae­tor, a con­sul and a censor. 

Cato, who accord­ing to Plutar­chos (Cato, 1) had red­dish hair and grey eyes, was known for his harsh dis­ci­pline – against him­self and oth­ers – and for his conservatism. 

He is almost infa­mous for his oppo­si­tion to the spread of Greek cul­ture, art and lan­guage, a trait that seems a lit­tle odd see­ing that he was the one who brought Ennius to Rome after hav­ing met him in 204 B.C. 

Ennius, as we learnt in the first chap­ter of 2000 years of Latin Prose, was a man who embraced his Roman Greek­ness, made a liv­ing out of Greek tragedies and teach­ing Greek in Rome as well as intro­duc­ing the Greek habit of using hexa­m­e­ter to Latin poet­ry, chang­ing the Roman epic genre forever. 

We do get a taste of Cato’s dis­taste of the Greek in a quote from the manual/treatise he wrote for his son Mar­cus, as found in Plin­ius Secun­dus’ (23–79 A.D.) Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, in which he warns him about Greek doctors:

“[…] quan­doque ista gens suas lit­teras dabit, omnia con­rum­pet, tum eti­am magis, si medicos suos huc mit­tet. Iurarunt inter se bar­baros necare omnis med­i­c­i­na, sed hoc ipsum mer­cede facient, ut fides iis sit et facile dis­per­dant. Nos quoque dic­ti­tant bar­baros et spur­cius nos quam alios Opi­con appel­la­tione foedant. Inter­dixi tibi de medicis.”

— Lib­ri ad Mar­cum fil­i­um, ap. Plin­ius Nat.Hist. XXIX 7

When that race [i.e. the Greek] gives us its lit­er­a­ture it will cor­rupt all things, and even all the more if it sends hith­er its physi­cians. They have con­spired togeth­er to mur­der all for­eign­ers with their physic, but this very thing they do for a fee, to gain cred­it and to destroy us eas­i­ly. They are also always dub­bing us for­eign­ers, and to fling more filth on us than on oth­ers they give us the foul nick­name of Opi­ci [i.e. and ancient Ital­ian peo­ple]. I have for­bid­den you to have deal­ings with physi­cians. (Transl. W. H. S. Jones.)

In his lat­er years, Cato became known for yet anoth­er thing – his urg­ing for war against Carthage. As men­tioned in the begin­ning, he sup­pos­ed­ly end­ed every speech in the Sen­ate – no mat­ter what they were about – with the wish for Carthage’s destruc­tion (see more below).

Cato got his wish and Carthage was indeed destroyed in 146 B.C., how­ev­er, he did not get to see it, as he died three years ear­li­er, in 149 B.C. 

Works of Cato the Elder

Cato Maior was famous in his time for both his mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal career, but he was also a not­ed writer. 

Cato, fresco by Pietro Perugino, 1497-1500, at Collegio del Cambio, Perugia.
Cato, fres­co by Pietro Perug­i­no, 1497–1500, at Col­le­gio del Cam­bio, Perugia.

He wrote the first Roman his­to­ry work in Latin prose, and thus one of the first impor­tant prose texts in Latin. Before him, Ennius and Nae­vius had writ­ten his­to­ries in Latin verse, and Fabius Pic­tor and Ali­men­tus had writ­ten in Greek prose. 

This work, Orig­ines, that orig­i­nal­ly held 7 books, began with the found­ing of Rome and her kings and end­ed in Cato’s own day. Only frag­ments remain today. 

Cato also wrote poems, a book about sol­diery, a col­lec­tion of say­ings, a book for his son, as men­tioned above, and of course; speeches. 

There were 150 speech­es in Cato’s day, now only frag­ments from some of them remain. We don’t even know the name or sub­ject of many of the lost ones.

As men­tioned, and as well known, Cato Maior sup­pos­ed­ly end­ed a lot of his speech­es with the quote: “Ceterum/Praeterea censeo Carthaginem esse delen­dam”. Truth be told: we do not have this quote from Cato him­self, nor from any of his con­tem­po­raries. What we have are four authors who wrote about Cato’s habit of say­ing some­thing of the like:

Roman author Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.)wrote“[Cato] cla­maret omni sen­atu Carthaginem delen­dam.” in his Nat­ur­al His­to­ry (Nat.Hist. xv.20), while Plutar­chos, (46–120 A.D.) the Greek biog­ra­ph­er wrote: “δοκεῖ δέ μοι καὶ Καρχηδόνα μὴ εἶναι,” i.e. “In my opin­ion, Carthage must be destroyed.”(Cato, 27). His­to­ri­an Florus (74–130 A.D.) penned down: “Cato inex­pi­a­bili odio delen­dam esse Carthaginem… pro­nun­cia­bat.” (Epit­o­me of Roman His­to­ry, I.31), and his­to­ri­an Aure­lius Vic­tor (320–390 A.D.) wrote“Carthaginem delen­dam cen­suit.” (De viris illus­tribus Romae, 47.8).

The quote that we have become so famil­iar with has rather been a con­coc­tion of these authors made by schol­ars at the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry and begin­ning of the 19th century.

In this episode of 2000 years of Latin Prose, we will how­ev­er not turn to any frag­ments of speech­es and won­der if this or that speech would have been end­ed with a desire to destroy Carthage. Instead, we will turn to Cato’s orig­i­nal pas­sion: Agriculture.

About 160 B.C. Cato wrote a work called De Agri­cul­tura. De Agri­cul­tura, or On Agri­cul­ture as it is also known, is a hand­book on farm­ing, a prac­ti­cal man­u­al, and gives us valu­able insight to Roman rur­al life as it talks not only about grow­ing crops but includes super­sti­tious prac­tices, work­ing slaves, how to cre­ate a vine­yard as well as a few recipes.

This is the only one of Cato’s works that sur­vives his­to­ry in completion. 

Today we shall turn to pas­sage 161 and learn all there is to know about grow­ing aspara­gus, Roman style.

Writ­ten by Amelie Rosengren

Further reading

If you want to know more about Cato Maior and his style and learn more about his works and the frag­ments we have left, Michael von Albrecht’s A His­to­ry of Roman Lit­er­a­ture: From Livius Andron­i­cus to Boethiusis an excel­lent book.

If you’re inter­est­ed in the Punic Wars and the time in which Cato lived, there are thou­sands of books. How­ev­er, I can rec­om­mend Kei­th C. Sid­well and Peter V. Jones’ book The world of Rome: an intro­duc­tion to Roman cul­ture. This book gives an intro­duc­tion to all of Rome, not only the time of Cato, but it is a very good place to start.

In 1860 a Ger­man archae­ol­o­gist and philol­o­gist called Hen­ri Jor­dan put togeth­er a book with texts from Cato Maior, in which you can find oth­er­wise hard-to-find frag­ments gath­ered togeth­er: M. Cato­nis Praeter librum de re rus­ti­ca quae extant.

Audio & video in Latin

Click below to read and lis­ten to this pas­sage from Cato’s De Agricultura.



Lis­ten to the Latin text here or in your pod­cast app.

Latin Text

Below you will find the orig­i­nal text of the pas­sage in Latin.

De Agricultura, 161

Aspara­gus quō modō sērā­tur. Locum subigere oportet bene, quī habeat ūmōrem—aut locum cras­sum. Ubi erit sub­āc­tus, āreās fac­itō, ut pos­sīs dex­trā sin­istrāque sārīre, runcāre, nē cal­cē­tur. Cum āreās dēfōr­mābis, inter­vāl­lum fac­itō inter āreās sēmi­pe­dem lātum in omnēs partēs. Deinde ser­itō ad līneam, pālō grā­na bīna aut ter­na dēmit­titō et eōdem pālō cavum ter­rā operītō. Deinde suprā āreās ster­cus spar­gitō bene. Ser­itō secun­dum aequinoc­tium vernum.

Ubi erit nātum, her­bās crēbrō pūrgātō cavētōque nē aspara­gus ūnā cum her­bā vel­lā­tur. Quō annō sēveris, sat­um strā­men­tīs per hiemem operītō, nē praeūrā­tur. Deinde prīmō vēre aperītō, sārītō, runcātōque. Post annum ter­tium, quam sēveris, incen­ditō vēre prīmō. Deinde nē ante sārueris, quam aspara­gus nātus erit, nē in sāriendō rādīcēs laedās. Ter­tiō aut quārtō annō asparagum vel­litō ab rādīce. 

Nam sī dēfringēs, stir­pēs fīent et inter­mori­en­tur. Usque licēbit vēl­lās, dōnicum in sēmen vīderis īre. Sēmen mātūrum fit ad autum­num. Ita, cum sūmpseris sēmen, incen­ditō, et cum coeper­it aspara­gus nāscī, sārītō et ster­corātō. Post annōs octo aut novem, cum iam est vetus, dīger­itō et in quō locō postūrus eris, ter­ram bene subig­itō et ster­corātō. Deinde fos­sulās fac­itō, quō rādīcēs asparagī dēmittās. 

Inter­vāl­lum sit nē minus pedēs sin­gulōs inter rādīcēs asparagī. Ēvel­litō, sīc cir­cum­foditō, ut facile vellere pos­sīs; cavētō nē frangā­tur. Ster­cus ovil­lum quam plūri­mum fac ingerās; id est opti­mum ad eam rem; ali­ut ster­cus her­bās creat.

Keywords & Commentary

These fol­low­ing words are key to under­stand­ing the text, if you already know them — great! — if not, make a men­tal note of them.

ad lin­eam: in a line

ali­ut: old form of ali­ud

bina aut ter­na: “two or three each”. These are so-called dis­trib­u­tive num­bers, des­ig­nat­ing a dis­trib­uted quan­ti­ty (“each”). Here two or three grains to be placed in each hole.

don­icum: old form of donec (“as long as, while, until”).

Fac ingeras: fac with the present sub­jun­cive is often used as an imper­a­tive to give a command.

fac­i­to: the so-called future imper­a­tive, com­mon in orders refer­ing to the future, as well as pre­cepts, laws.

Intervallum sit ne: This is a ius­sive sub­junc­tive, which is used to give com­mands. The neg­a­tive com­mands are con­struct­ed with ne.

nascor: “grow, be pro­duced”. Cresco (“grow”), on the oth­er hand, denotes only the increase of size, e.g. Arbores hic nascun­tur et celerit­er cres­cunt. (“Trees grow here and they grow fast”).

pos­tu­rus: con­tract­ed form of the future par­tici­ple of pono, posi­tu­rus.

quo demit­tas: quo denotes motion towards or into.

secun­dum: here after

semi­pe­dem latum: adjec­tives des­ig­nat­ing mea­sures, e.g. latus, longus, altus are con­struct­ed with the accusative of measure.

Ubi: the adverb ubi, mean­ing “where” can also have a tem­po­ral mean­ing “when”. This is the case here.

English Translation

Below you will find an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the text.

De Agricultura, 161

Method of plant­i­ng aspara­gus: Break up thor­ough­ly ground that is moist, or is heavy soil. When it has been bro­ken, lay off beds, so that you may hoe and weed them in both direc­tions with­out tram­pling the beds. In lay­ing off the beds, leave a path a half-foot wide between the beds on each side. Then plant along a line, drop­ping two or three seeds togeth­er in a hole made with a stick, and cov­er with the same stick. After plant­i­ng, cov­er the beds thick­ly with manure; plant after the ver­nal equinox. 

When the shoots push up, weed often, being care­ful not to uproot the aspara­gus with the weed. The year it is plant­ed, cov­er the bed with straw through the win­ter, so that it will not be frost­bit­ten. Then in the ear­ly spring uncov­er, hoe, and weed. The third year after plant­i­ng burn it over in the ear­ly spring; after this do not work it before the shoots appear, so as not to injure the roots by hoe­ing. In the third or fourth year you may pull aspara­gus from the roots; for if you break it off, sprouts will start and die off. You may con­tin­ue pulling until you see it going to seed. The seed ripens in autumn; when you have gath­ered it, burn over the bed, and when the aspara­gus begins to grow, hoe and manure. After eight or nine years, when it is now old, dig it up, after hav­ing thor­ough­ly worked and manured the ground to which you are to trans­plant it, and made small ditch­es to receive the roots.

The inter­val between the roots of the aspara­gus should be not less than a foot. In dig­ging, loosen the earth around the roots so that you can dig them eas­i­ly, and be care­ful not to break them. Cov­er them very deep with sheep dung; this is the best for this pur­pose, as oth­er manure pro­duces weeds.

Trans­lat­ed by W. D. Hoop­er and H. B. Ash (1934).

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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