Geoponici (the Latinized form of a nonexistent Γεωπονικοί, used for convenience), or Scriptores rei rusticae, is a collective term for the Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome writers on husbandry and agriculture. In classical times it was regarded as a branch of economics. On the whole the Greeks paid less attention than the Romans to the scientific study of these subjects.
From the writing of the Roman Varro, it is known that there were more than fifty ancient Greeks authors on the subject of agriculture. Among them were Hesiod, Xenophon, Democritus, Aristotle and his pupil Theophrastus. Most of the works Varro enumerated have been lost.
What we know of the agriculture of Greece is chiefly derived from the poem of Hesiod, entitled Works and Days. All that remain of Democritus are only a few extracts preserved in the Geoponica, an agricultural treatise published at Constantinople by the Greeks of the 10th century. The Oeconomicus by Xenophon is a Socratic dialogue principally about household management and agriculture, contains a eulogy of agriculture and its beneficial ethical effects.
About the same time as Xenophon, the philosopher Democritus of Abdera wrote a treatise Περὶ Γεωργίας ("On Agriculture"), frequently quoted and much used by the later compilers of the Geoponica. Some incidental remarks on the subject may be found in the writings of Herodotus, Theophrastus, and others. Xenophon, Aristotle, Homer, and others, touch on our subject but very slightly.
Greater attention was given to the subject in the Alexandrian period; a long list of names is given by Varro and Columella, amongst them Hiero II and Attalus III Philometor. Later, Cassius Dionysius of Utica translated and abridged the great work of the Carthaginian Mago, which was still further condensed by Diophanes of Nicaea in Bithynia for the use of King Deiotarus. From these and similar works, Cassianus Bassus compiled his Geoponica, a source of the later Byzantine Geoponica. Mention may also be made of a little work Περι Γεωργικων by Michael Psellus.
The Roman authors on agriculture, whose works have reached the present age, are Cato, Mago the Carthaginian, Varro, Virgil, Columella, Pliny, and Palladius; there were many more, whose writings are lost. The Romans, aware of the necessity of maintaining a numerous and thriving order of agriculturists, from very early times endeavoured to instill into their countrymen both a theoretical and a practical knowledge of the subject. The occupation of the farmer was considered next in importance to that of the soldier, and distinguished Romans did not disdain to practice it.
In furtherance of this object:
- The great work of Mago was translated into Latin by Decimus Junius Silanus at the order of the Roman Senate;
- The elder Cato had meanwhile written his De Agri Cultura, a simple record in homely language of the rules observed by the old Roman landed proprietors rather than a theoretical treatise.
- Cato was followed by the two Sasernae (father and son), and Gnaeus Tremellius Scrofa, whose works are lost.
- The learned Marcus Terentius Varro of Reate, when eighty years of age, composed his Rerum rusticarum libri tres, dealing with agriculture, the rearing of cattle, and the breeding of fishes. He was the first to systematize what had been written on the subject, and supplemented the labours of others by practical experience gained during his travels.
In the Augustan age:
- Julius Hyginus wrote on farming and beekeeping,
- Sabinus Tiro on horticulture, and during the early Empire,
- Julius Graecinus and Julius Atticus on the culture of vines, and
- Cornelius Celsus (best known for his De Medicina) on farming.
About the middle of the 2nd century, the two Quinctilii, natives of Troja, wrote on the subject in Greek. It is remarkable that Columella's work exercised less influence in Rome and Italy than in southern Gaul and Spain, where agriculture became one of the principal subjects of instruction in the superior educational establishments that were springing up in those countries. One result of this was the preparation of manuals of a popular kind for use in the schools. In the 3rd century, Gargilius Martialis of Mauretania compiled a Geoponica in which medical botany and the veterinary art were included.
The Opus Agriculturae of Palladius (4th century), in fourteen books, which is largely derived from Columella, is rearranged into a farmer's calendar, in which the different rural occupations are arranged in order of months. The fourteenth book (on forestry) is written in elegiacs (eighty-five couplets). The whole of Palladius and considerable fragments of Gargilius Martialis are extant.
The study of the Roman treatises on farm management, according to Fairfax Harrison (1928), is profitable to the modern farmer however practical and scientific he may be. He will not find in them anything about bacteria and the "nodular hypothesis" In respect of legumes, nor any thing about plant metabolism, nor even any thing about the effects of creatinine on growth and absorption; but, important and fascinating as are the Illuminations of modern science upon practical agriculture, the Intelligent farmer with Imagination (every successful farmer has imagination, whether or not he is Intelligent) will find something quite as Important to his welfare In the body of Roman husbandry which has come down to us, namely: a background for his daily routine, an appreciation that two thousand years ago men were studying the same problems and solving them by intelligent reasoning. Columella well says that In reading the ancient writers we may find in them more to approve than to disapprove, however much our new science may lead us to differ from them in practice. The characteristics of the Roman methods of farm management, viewed in the light of the present state of the art in America, were thoroughness and patience.
The Romans had learned many things which we are now learning again, such as green manuring with legumes, soiling, seed selection, the testing of soil for sourness, intensive cultivation of a fallow as well as of a crop, conservative rotation, the importance of livestock In a system of general farming, the preservation of the chemical content of manure and the composting of the rubbish of a farm, but they brought to their farming operations some thing more which we have not altogether learned — the character which made them a people of enduring achievement. Varro quotes one of their proverbs "Romanus sedendo vincit," which illustrates my present point. The Romans achieved their results by thoroughness and patience. It was thus that they defeated Hannibal and it was thus that they built their farm houses and fences, cultivated their fields, their vineyards and their olive yards, and bred and fed their live stock. hey seem to have realized that there are no short cuts in the processes of nature, and that the law of compensations is invariable. The foundation of their agriculture was the fallow and one finds them constantly using it as a simile — in the advice not to breed a mare every year, as in that not to exact too much tribute from a bee hive. Ovid even warns a lover to allow fallow seasons to intervene in his courtship.
The manner in which the ancients dealt with crop rotation is certainly most worthy of our attention: their care in ploughing, according to the situation of the land, and nature of the climate, and their manner of adapting the kind of ploughing to answer the purposes intended by the operation, are also most worthy of our imitation. Their exactness in these things exceeds any thing of the kind found amongst the moderns, and is even beyond what any practical writer on agriculture has proposed. This is an evidence that tillage is not even in this age brought to that perfection of which it is capable: and that, notwithstanding all the improvements lately introduced, we may yet receive some instruction from a proper attention to the precepts and practices of the ancients. I am desirous to add that this attention may be useful by preventing improvers from running into every specious scheme of agriculture produced by a lively imagination and engaging them to study the great variety of soils and even climates in this island, and to be careful in adapting to these their several operations.
- Agriculture in ancient Greece
- Roman agriculture
- History of agriculture
- History of agricultural science
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Geoponici". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. ; and other public domain material from books and/or websites, see article history.
- H. Beckh, "De Geoponicorum codicibus manuscriptis" in Acta seminarii philologici Erlangensis vol. 4 (1886) pp. 268–70.
- E. Fehrle, Richtlinien zur Textgestaltung der griechischen Geoponica. Heidelberg 1920.
- John A. C. Greppin, "The Armenians and the Greek Geoponica" in Byzantion vol. 57 (1987) pp. 46–55.
- Harrison, Fairfax (1918). "Note Upon the Roman Agronomists". Roman Farm Management. New York: The Macmillan Company. pp. 1–14 .
- A. Paul de Lagarde, Geoponicon in sermonem syriacum versorum quae supersunt. Leipzig: Teubner, 1860.
- E. Oder, "Beiträge zur Geschichte der Landwirthschaft bei den Griechen" in Rheinisches Museum vol. 45 (1890) pp. 58–98, 202-22, vol. 48 (1893) pp. 1–40.