Oeconomicus, by Xenophon


Isch. First then, Socrates, I wish to demonstrate to you that what is called325 “the intricate variety in husbandry”326 presents no difficulty. I use a phrase of those who, whatever the nicety with which they treat the art in theory,327 have but the faintest practical experience of tillage. What they assert is, that “he who would rightly till the soil must first be made acquainted with the nature of the earth.”

And they are surely right in their assertion (I replied); for he who does not know what the soil is capable of bearing, can hardly know, I fancy, what he has to plant or what to sow.

But he has only to look at his neighbour’s land (he answered), at his crops and trees, in order to learn what the soil can bear and what it cannot.328 After which discovery, it is ill work fighting against heaven. Certainly not by dint of sowing and planting what he himself desires will he meet the needs of life more fully than by planting and sowing what the earth herself rejoices to bear and nourish on her bosom. Or if, as well may be the case, through the idleness of those who occupy it, the land itself cannot display its native faculty,329 it is often possible to derive a truer notion from some neighbouring district that ever you will learn about it from your neighbour’s lips.330 Nay, even though the earth lie waste and barren, it may still declare its nature; since a soil productive of beautiful wild fruits can by careful tending be made to yield fruits of the cultivated kind as beautiful. And on this wise, he who has the barest knowledge331 of the art of tillage can still discern the nature of the soil.

Thank you (I said), Ischomachus, my courage needs no further fanning upon that score. I am bold enough now to believe that no one need abstain from agriculture for fear he will not recognise the nature of the soil. Indeed, I now recall to mind a fact concerning fishermen, how as they ply their business on the seas, not crawling lazily along, nor bringing to, for prospect’s sake, but in the act of scudding past the flying farmsteads,332 these brave mariners have only to set eyes upon crops on land, and they will boldly pronounce opinion on the nature of the soil itself, whether good or bad: this they blame and that they praise. And these opinions for the most part coincide, I notice, with the verdict of the skilful farmer as to quality of soil.333

Isch. At what point shall I begin then, Socrates, to revive your recollection334 of the art of husbandry? since to explain to you the processes employed in husbandry means the statement of a hundred details which you know yourself full well already.

Soc. The first thing I should like to learn, Ischomachus, I think, if only as a point befitting a philosopher, is this: how to proceed and how to work the soil, did I desire to extract the largest crops of wheat and barley.

Isch. Good, then! you are aware that fallow must be broken up in readiness335 for sowing?

Soc. Yes, I am aware of that.

Isch. Well then, supposing we begin to plough our land in winter?

Soc. It would not do. There would be too much mud.

Isch. Well then, what would you say to summer?

Soc. The soil will be too hard in summer for a plough and a pair of oxen to break up.

Isch. It looks as if spring-time were the season to begin this work, then? What do you say?

Soc. I say, one may expect the soil broken up at that season of the year to crumble336 best.

Isch. Yes, and grasses337 turned over at that season, Socrates, serve to supply the soil already with manure; while as they have not shed their seed as yet, they cannot vegetate.338 I am supposing that you recognise a further fact: to form good land, a fallow must be clean and clear of undergrowth and weeds,339 and baked as much as possible by exposure to the sun.340

Soc. Yes, that is quite a proper state of things, I should imagine.

Isch. And to bring about this proper state of things, do you maintain there can be any other better system than that of turning the soil over as many times as possible in summer?

Soc. On the contrary, I know precisely that for either object, whether to bring the weeds and quitch grass to the surface and to wither them by scorching heat, or to expose the earth itself to the sun’s baking rays, there can be nothing better than to plough the soil up with a pair of oxen during mid-day in midsummer.

Isch. And if a gang of men set to, to break and make this fallow with the mattock, it is transparent that their business is to separate the quitch grass from the soil and keep them parted?

Soc. Just so! — to throw the quitch grass down to wither on the surface, and to turn the soil up, so that the crude earth may have its turn of baking.

325 “They term”; in reference to the author of some treatise.

326 Or, “the riddling subtlety of tillage.” See “Mem.” II. iii. 10; Plat. “Symp.” 182 B; “Phileb.” 53 E.

327 Theophr. “De Caus.” ii. 4, 12, mentions Leophanes amongst other writers on agriculture preceding himself.

328 Holden cf. Virg. “Georg.” i. 53; iv. 109. According to the commentator Servius, the poet drew largely upon Xenophon’s treatise.

329 Or, “cannot prove its natural aptitude.”

330 Or, “from a neighbouring mortal.”

331 Or, “a mere empiric in the art of husbandry.”

332 Or, “the flying coastland, fields and farmyards.”

333 Lit. “And indeed the opinions they pronounce about ‘a good soil’ mostly tally with the verdict of the expert farmer.”

334 Or, “begin recalling to your mind.” See Plat. “Meno,” for the doctrine of Anamensis here apparently referred to.

335 Or, “ploughed up.” Cf. Theophr. “Hist. Pl.” iii. i. 6; Dion. Hal. “Ant.” x. 17.

336 kheisthai = laxari, dissolvi, to be most friable, to scatter readily.

337 “Herbage,” whether grass or other plants, “grass,” “clover,” etc; Theophr. “Hist. Pl.” i. 3. 1; Holden, “green crops.”

338 Lit. “and not as yet have shed their seed so as to spring into blade.”

339 Or, “quitch.”

340 Holden cf. Virg. “Georg.” i. 65, coquat; ii. 260, excoquere. So Lucr. vi. 962.


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