Oeconomicus, by Xenophon


You see, Socrates (he said, continuing the conversation), we hold the same opinion, both of us, concerning fallow.

Why, so it seems (I said)— the same opinion.

Isch. But when it comes to sowing, what is your opinion? Can you suggest a better time for sowing than that which the long experience of former generations, combined with that of men now living, recognises as the best? See, so soon as autumn time has come, the faces of all men everywhere turn with a wistful gaze towards high heaven. “When will God moisten the earth,” they ask, “and suffer men to sow their seed?”341

Yes, Ischomachus (I answered), for all mankind must recognise the precept:342 “Sow not on dry soil” (if it can be avoided), being taught wisdom doubtless by the heavy losses they must struggle with who sow before God’s bidding.

Isch. It seems, then, you and I and all mankind hold one opinion on these matters?

Soc. Why, yes; where God himself is teacher, such accord is apt to follow; for instance, all men are agreed, it is better to wear thick clothes343 in winter, if so be they can. We light fires by general consent, provided we have logs to burn.

Yet as regards this very period of seed-time (he made answer), Socrates, we find at once the widest difference of opinion upon one point; as to which is better, the early, or the later,344 or the middle sowing?

Soc. Just so, for neither does God guide the year in one set fashion, but irregularly, now suiting it to early sowing best, and now to middle, and again to later.

Isch. But what, Socrates, is your opinion? Were it better for a man to choose and turn to sole account a single sowing season, be it much he has to sow or be it little? or would you have him begin his sowing with the earliest season, and sow right on continuously until the latest?

And I, in my turn, answered: I should think it best, Ischomachus, to use indifferently the whole sowing season.345 Far better346 to have enough of corn and meal at any moment and from year to year, than first a superfluity and then perhaps a scant supply.

Isch. Then, on this point also, Socrates, you hold a like opinion with myself — the pupil to the teacher; and what is more, the pupil was the first to give it utterance.

So far, so good! (I answered). Is there a subtle art in scattering the seed?

Isch. Let us by all means investigate that point. That the seed must be cast by hand, I presume you know yourself?

Soc. Yes, by the testimony of my eyes.347

Isch. But as to actual scattering, some can scatter evenly, others cannot.348

Soc. Does it not come to this, the hand needs practice (like the fingers of a harp-player) to obey the will?

Isch. Precisely so, but now suppose the soil is light in one part and heavy in another?

Soc. I do not follow; by “light” do you mean weak? and by “heavy” strong?

Isch. Yes, that is what I mean. And the question which I put to you is this: Would you allow both sorts of soil an equal share of seed? or which the larger?349

Soc. The stronger the wine the larger the dose of water to be added, I believe. The stronger, too, the man the heavier the weight we will lay upon his back to carry: or if it is not porterage, but people to support, there still my tenet holds: the broader and more powerful the great man’s shoulders, the more mouths I should assign to him to feed. But perhaps a weak soil, like a lean pack-horse,350 grows stronger the more corn you pour into it. This I look to you to teach me.351

With a laugh, he answered: Once more you are pleased to jest. Yet rest assured of one thing, Socrates: if after you have put seed into the ground, you will await the instant when, while earth is being richly fed from heaven, the fresh green from the hidden seed first springs, and take and turn it back again,352 this sprouting germ will serve as food for earth: as from manure an inborn strength will presently be added to the soil. But if you suffer earth to feed the seed of corn within it and to bring forth fruit in an endless round, at last353 it will be hard for the weakened soil to yield large corn crops, even as a weak sow can hardly rear a large litter of fat pigs.

Soc. I understand you to say, Ischomachus, that the weaker soil must receive a scantier dose of seed?

Isch. Most decidedly I do, and you on your side, Socrates, I understand, give your consent to this opinion in stating your belief that the weaker the shoulders the lighter the burdens to be laid on them.

Soc. But those hoers with their hoes, Ischomachus, tell me for what reason you let them loose354 upon the corn.

Isch. You know, I daresay, that in winter there are heavy rains?355

Soc. To be sure, I do.

Isch. We may suppose, then, that a portion of the corn is buried by these floods beneath a coat of mud and slime, or else that the roots are laid quite bare in places by the torrent. By reason of this same drench, I take it, oftentimes an undergrowth of weeds springs up with the corn and chokes it.

Soc. Yes, all these ills are likely enough to happen.

Isch. Are you not agreed the corn-fields sorely need relief at such a season?

Soc. Assuredly.

Isch. Then what is to be done, in your opinion? How shall we aid the stricken portion lying mud-bedabbled?

Soc. How better than by lifting up and lightening the soil?

Isch. Yes! and that other portion lying naked to the roots and defenceless, how aid it?

Soc. Possibly by mounding up fresh earth about it.356

Isch. And what when the weeds spring up together with the corn and choke it? or when they rob and ruthlessly devour the corn’s proper sustenance, like unserviceable drones357 that rob the working bees of honey, pilfering the good food which they have made and stored away with labour: what must we do?

Soc. In good sooth, there can be nothing for it save to cut out the noisome weed, even as drones are cleared out from the hive.

Isch. You agree there is some show of reason for letting in these gangs of hoers?

Soc. Most true. And now I am turning over in my mind,358 Ischomachus, how grand a thing it is to introduce a simile or such like figure well and aptly. No sooner had you mentioned the word “drones” than I was filled with rage against those miserable weeds, far more than when you merely spoke of weeds and undergrowth.

341 See Dr. Holden’s interesting note at this point: “According to Virgil (‘Georg.’ i. 215), spring is the time,” etc.

342 Or, “it is a maxim held of all men.”

343 Or, “a thick cloak.” See Rich, s.v. Pallium (= imation).

344 See Holden ad loc. Sauppe, “Lex. Xen.,” notes opsimos as Ionic and poet. See also Rutherford, “New Phryn.” p. 124: “First met with in a line of the ‘Iliad’ (ii. 325), opsimos does not appear till late Greek except in the ‘Oeconomicus,’ a disputed work of Xenophon.”

345 Or, “share in the entire period of seed time.” Zeune cf. “Geop.” ii. 14. 8; Mr. Ruskin’s translators, “Bibl. Past.” vol. i.; cf. Eccles. xi. 6.

346 Lit. “according to my tenet,” nomizo.

347 Lit. “Yes, for I have seen it done.”

348 Holden cf. W. Harte, “Essays on Husbandry,” p. 210, 2nd ed., “The main perfection of sowing is to disperse the seeds equally.”

349 See Theophr. “Hist. Pl.” viii. 6. 2; Virg. “Georg.” ii. 275. Holden cf. Adam Dickson, “Husbandry of the Ancients,” vol. ii. 35. 33 f. (Edin. 1788), “Were the poor light land in Britain managed after the manner of the Roman husbandry, it would certainly require much less seed than under its present management.”

350 Or, “lean cattle.”

351 Or, “Will you please answer me that question, teacher?”

352 “If you will plough the seedlings in again.”

353 dia telous . . . es telos, “continually . . . in the end.” See references in Holden’s fifth edition.

354 Cf. “Revenues,” iv. 5.

355 “And melting snows, much water every way.”

356 “Scraping up a barrier of fresh earth about it.”

357 Cf. Shakesp. “Lazy yawning drones,” “Henry V.” I. ii. 204.

358 Or, “I was just this moment pondering the virtue of a happy illustration.” Lit. “what a thing it is to introduce an ‘image’ (tas eikonas) well.” See Plat. “Rep.” 487 E, de eikonos, “in a parable” (Jowett); “Phaed.” 87 B, “a figure”; Aristoph. “Clouds,” 559; Plat. “Phaedr.” 267 C; Aristot. “Rhet.” III. iv. As to the drones, J. J. Hartman, “An. X.” 186, aptly cf. Aristoph. “Wasps,” 1114 f.


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