Oeconomicus, by Xenophon


Soc. (continuing). But may I ask, is the planting of trees378 a department in the art of husbandry?

Isch. Certainly it is.

Soc. How is it, then, that I can know about the processes of sowing and at the same time have no knowledge about planting?

Isch. Is it so certain that you have no knowledge?

Soc. How can you ask me? when I neither know the sort of soil in which to plant, nor yet the depth of hole379 the plant requires, nor the breadth, or length of ground in which it needs to be embedded;380 nor lastly, how to lay the plant in earth, with any hope of fostering its growth.381

Isch. Come, then, to lessons, pupil, and be taught whatever you do not know already! You have seen, I know, the sort of trenches which are dug for plants?

Soc. Hundreds of times.

Isch. Did you ever see one more than three feet deep?

Soc. No, I do not think I ever saw one more than two and a half feet deep.

Isch. Well, as to the breadth now. Did you ever see a trench more than three feet broad?382

Soc. No, upon my word, not even more than two feet broad.

Isch. Good! now answer me this question: Did you ever see a trench less than one foot deep?

Soc. No, indeed! nor even less than one foot and a half. Why, the plants would be no sooner buried than dug out again, if planted so extremely near the surface.

Isch. Here, then, is one matter, Socrates, which you know as well as any one.383 The trench is not to be sunk deeper than two feet and a half, or shallower than one foot and a half.

Soc. Obviously, a thing so plain appeals to the eye at once.

Isch. Can you by eyesight recognise the difference between a dry soil and a moist?

Soc. I should certainly select as dry the soil round Lycabettus,384 and any that resembles it; and as moist, the soil in the marsh meadows of Phalerum,385 or the like.

Isch. In planting, would you dig (what I may call) deep trenches in a dry soil or a moist?

Soc. In a dry soil certainly; at any rate, if you set about to dig deep trenches in the moist you will come to water, and there and then an end to further planting.

Isch. You could not put it better. We will suppose, then, the trenches have been dug. Does your eyesight take you further?386 Have you noticed at what season in either case387 the plants must be embedded?

Soc. Certainly.388

Isch. Supposing, then, you wish the plants to grow as fast as possible: how will the cutting strike and sprout, do you suppose, most readily? — after you have laid a layer of soil already worked beneath it, and it merely has to penetrate soft mould? or when it has to force its way through unbroken soil into the solid ground?

Soc. Clearly it will shoot through soil which has been worked more quickly than through unworked soil.

Isch. Well then, a bed of earth must be laid beneath the plant?

Soc. I quite agree; so let it be.

Isch. And how do you expect your cutting to root best? — if set straight up from end to end, pointing to the sky?389 or if you set it slantwise under its earthy covering, so as to lie like an inverted gamma?390

Soc. Like an inverted gamma, to be sure, for so the plant must needs have more eyes under ground. Now it is from these same eyes of theirs, if I may trust my own,391 that plants put forth their shoots above ground. I imagine, therefore, the eyes still underground will do the same precisely, and with so many buds all springing under earth, the plant itself, I argue, as a whole will sprout and shoot and push its way with speed and vigour.

Isch. I may tell you that on these points, too, your judgment tallies with my own. But now, should you content yourself with merely heaping up the earth, or will you press it firmly round your plant?

Soc. I should certainly press down the earth; for if the earth is not pressed down, I know full well that at one time under the influence of rain the unpressed soil will turn to clay or mud; at another, under the influence of the sun, it will turn to sand or dust to the very bottom: so that the poor plant runs a risk of being first rotted with moisture by the rain, and next of being shrivelled up with drought through overheating of the roots.392

Isch. So far as the planting of vines is concerned, it appears, Socrates, that you and I again hold views precisely similar.

And does this method of planting apply also to the fig-tree? (I inquired).

Isch. Surely, and not to the fig-tree alone, but to all the rest of fruit-trees.393 What reason indeed would there be for rejecting in the case of other plant-growths394 what is found to answer so well with the vine?

Soc. How shall we plant the olive, pray, Ischomachus?

Isch. I see your purpose. You ask that question with a view to put me to the test,395 when you know the answer yourself as well as possible. You can see with your own eyes396 that the olive has a deeper trench dug, planted as it is so commonly by the side of roads. You can see that all the young plants in the nursery adhere to stumps.397 And lastly, you can see that a lump of clay is placed on the head of every plant,398 and the portion of the plant above the soil is protected by a wrapping.399

Soc. Yes, all these things I see.

Isch. Granted, you see: what is there in the matter that you do not understand? Perhaps you are ignorant how you are to lay the potsherd on the clay at top?

Soc. No, in very sooth, not ignorant of that Ischomachus, or anything you mentioned. That is just the puzzle, and again I beat my brains to discover why, when you put to me that question a while back: “Had I, in brief, the knowledge how to plant?” I answered, “No.” Till then it never would have struck me that I could say at all how planting must be done. But no sooner do you begin to question me on each particular point than I can answer you; and what is more, my answers are, you tell me, accordant with the views of an authority400 at once so skilful and so celebrated as yourself. Really, Ischomachus, I am disposed to ask: “Does teaching consist in putting questions?”401 Indeed, the secret of your system has just this instant dawned upon me. I seem to see the principle in which you put your questions. You lead me through the field of my own knowledge,402 and then by pointing out analogies403 to what I know, persuade me that I really know some things which hitherto, as I believed, I had no knowledge of.

Isch. Do you suppose if I began to question you concerning money and its quality,404 I could possibly persuade you that you know the method to distinguish good from false coin? Or could I, by a string of questions about flute-players, painters, and the like, induce you to believe that you yourself know how to play the flute, or paint, and so forth?

Soc. Perhaps you might; for have you not persuaded me I am possessed of perfect knowledge of this art of husbandry,405 albeit I know that no one ever taught this art to me?

Isch. Ah! that is not the explanation, Socrates. The truth is what I told you long ago and kept on telling you. Husbandry is an art so gentle, so humane, that mistress-like she makes all those who look on her or listen to her voice intelligent406 of herself at once. Many a lesson does she herself impart how best to try conclusions with her.407 See, for instance, how the vine, making a ladder of the nearest tree whereon to climb, informs us that it needs support.408 Anon it spreads its leaves when, as it seems to say, “My grapes are young, my clusters tender,” and so teaches us, during that season, to screen and shade the parts exposed to the sun’s rays; but when the appointed moment comes, when now it is time for the swelling clusters to be sweetened by the sun, behold, it drops a leaf and then a leaf, so teaching us to strip it bare itself and let the vintage ripen. With plenty teeming, see the fertile mother shows her mellow clusters, and the while is nursing a new brood in primal crudeness.409 So the vine plant teaches us how best to gather in the vintage, even as men gather figs, the juiciest first.410

The mellow plum doth fall, the green sticks fast, Or being early pluck’d is sour to taste (“V. and A.” 527).

378 i.e. of fruit trees, the vine, olive, fig, etc.

379 Reading to phuto, “nor yet how deep or broad to sink (the hole) for the plant.” Holden (ed. 1886) supplies bothunon. Al. bothron.

380 See Loudon, “Encycl. of Agric.” S. 407, ap. Holden: “In France plantations of the vine are made by dibbling in cuttings of two feet of length; pressing the earth firmly to their lower end, an essential part of the operation, noticed even by Xenophon.”

381 Lit. “how, laid in the soil, the plant will best shoot forth or grow.”

382 Or, “width,” “wide.” The commentators cf. Plin. “H. N.” xvii. 11, 16, 22; Columell. v. 5. 2; ib. iii. 15. 2; Virg. “Georg.” ii. 288.

383 Lit. “quite adequately.”

384 See Leake, “Topog. of Athens,” i. 209.

385 Or, “the Phaleric marsh-land.” See Leake, ib. 231, 427; ii. 9.

386 Lit. “As soon as the trenches have been dug then, have you further noticed . . .”

387 (1) The vulg. reading openika . . . ekatera = “at what precise time . . . either (i.e. ‘the two different’ kinds of) plant,” i.e. “vine and olive” or “vine and fig,” I suppose; (2) Breit. emend. opotera . . . en ekatera = “which kind of plant . . . in either soil . . .”; (3) Schenkl. etc., openika . . . en ekatera = “at what season . . . in each of the two sorts of soil . . .”

388 There is an obvious lacuna either before or after this remark, or at both places.

389 Lit. “if you set the whole cutting straight up, facing heavenwards.”

390 i.e. Anglice, “like the letter G upon its back” an inverted “upper-case” gamma looks like an L. See Lord Bacon, “Nat. Hist.” Cent. v. 426: “When you would have many new roots of fruit-trees, take a low tree and bow it and lay all his branches aflat upon the ground and cast earth upon them; and every twig will take root. And this is a very profitable experiment for costly trees (for the boughs will make stock without charge), such as are apricots, peaches, almonds, cornelians, mulberries, figs, etc. The like is continually practised with vines, roses, musk roses, etc.”

391 Lit. “it is from their eyes, I see, that plants . . .”

392 Through “there being too much bottom heat.” Holden (ed. 1886).

393 akrodrua = “edible fruits” in Xenophon’s time. See Plat. “Criti.” 115 B; Dem. “c. Nicostr.” 1251; Aristot. “Hist. An.” viii. 28. 8, out akrodrua out opora khronios; Theophr. “H. Pl.” iv. 4. 11. (At a later period, see “Geopon.” x. 74, = “fruits having a hard rind or shell,” e.g. nuts, acorns, as opposed to pears, apples, grapes, etc., opora.) See further the interesting regulations in Plat. “Laws,” 844 D, 845 C.

394 Lit. “planting in general.”

395 Plat. “Prot.” 311 B, 349 C; “Theaet.” 157 C: “I cannot make out whether you are giving your own opinion, or only wanting to draw me out” (Jowett).

396 For the advantage, see “Geopon.” iii. 11. 2.

397 Holden cf. Virg. “Georg.” ii. 30 —

quin et caudicibus sectis, mirabile dictu, truditur e sicco radix oleagina ligno.

The stock in slices cut, and forth shall shoot,
O passing strange! from each dry slice a root (Holden).

See John Martyn ad loc.: “La Cerda says, that what the Poet here speaks of was practised in Spain in his time. They take the trunk of an olive, says he, deprive it of its root and branches, and cut it into several pieces, which they put into the ground, whence a root and, soon afterwards, a tree is formed.” This mode of propagating by dry pieces of the trunk (with bark on) is not to be confounded with that of “truncheons” mentioned in “Georg.” ii. 63.

398 See Theophr. “H. Pl.” ii. 2, 4; “de Caus.” iii. 5. 1; “Geopon.” ix. 11. 4, ap. Hold.; Col. v. 9. 1; xi. 2. 42.

399 Or, “covered up for protection.”

400 Or, “whose skill in farming is proverbial.”

401 Lit. “Is questioning after all a kind of teaching?” See Plat. “Meno”; “Mem.” IV. vi. 15.

402 It appears, then, that the Xenophontean Socrates has episteme of a sort.

403 Or, “a series of resemblances,” “close parallels,” reading epideiknus: or if with Breit. apodeiknus, transl. “by proving such or such a thing is like some other thing known to me already.”

404 Lit. “whether it is good or not.”

405 Or, “since you actually succeeded in persuading me I was scientifically versed in,” etc. See Plat. “Statesm.” 301 B; “Theaet.” 208 E; Aristot. “An. Post.” i. 6. 4; “Categ.” 8. 41.

406 Or, “gives them at once a perfect knowledge of herself.”

407 Lit. “best to deal with her,” “make use of her.”

408 Lit. “teaches us to prop it.”

409 Lit. “yet immature.”

410 Or, “first one and then another as it swells.” Cf. Shakespeare:


Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 14:12