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Columella’s Prose Preface: A Paratextual Reading of De Re Rustica Book 10

Victoria Austen-Perry

King's College London

As part of Columella’s wide-ranging agricultural manual, Book 10 of De Re Rustica jumps out at the reader immediately. For here, in comparison to eleven other books written in didactic prose, is a 436-hexameter verse poem dedicated solely to the hortus, a formal and obvious departure from the style and subject matter of the rest of the manual. Why all the fuss about gardens? As Gowers (2000) states, ‘it is not often that artichokes and cucumbers get forced into such lurid focus’. In order to explore Columella’s presentation of the hortus, this paper focuses on the prose preface to Book 10 as a ‘paratext’ to the verse book proper and questions the impact of this framing strategy on our perception of both the garden-as-text and garden space itself.

For Genette (1997), texts generally have features – or paratexts – that surround or extend it (such as a title, illustrations, or a preface) and that enable it to become a book and be presented to its readers. Key to our understanding of the paratext is the double-antithetical reading of ‘para’ (Hillis Miller 1979). This prefix, on the basis of its root association with the preposition ‘per’, does not just imply that something is ‘beside’ or ‘next to’ something else, but also that it can be ‘part of’ that something else (Jansen 2014); and so, by mediating between what is strictly ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of a text, the paratext operates as liminal threshold with the potential to control one’s reading of that text (Lejeune 1975). By focusing on a reading of Book 10 in terms of its margins and edges, this paper thus supports the paratextual approach of Jansen (2014), in that it ‘explores the nature of the relationship between a text’s frame, its centre and its contexts, as well as the ways in which audiences approach and plot this set of relations’.

Through a close reading of the preface, I examine Columella’s stated motivations for writing the book, as well as his comments regarding the garden text’s size and position. My analysis demonstrates how Columella frames his verse experiment in two potentially conflicting ways. On the one hand, Book 10 is portrayed as so substantial that it ‘completes’ the ‘missing’ part of Virgil’s Georgics (georgici carminis omissas partes, pr.3). However, in relation to Columella’s own text, it ‘cannot be the object of attention’ (nullo modo conspici, pr.4) – it relates to the rest of the manual, but it is only a small (pensiunculam, pr. 1) payment, perhaps only some bonus ‘interest’ (faenoris, pr.1) merely ‘tacked on’ (subnecteretur, pr.3) to the other books.

The preface suggests that, even as the subject matter of the ‘fifth Georgic’ that never was, the hortus cannot escape its lowly status. Indeed, Columella does not just emphasise that the garden is small, but, rather, that it is so ‘imperceptible’ (incomprehensibili parvitate, pr.4) it cannot constitute a subject in itself (quasi suis finibus terminata, pr.4). The garden apparently has to be viewed in relation to something else (in this instance, agriculture); and so, although it may be bound by its own limits, these limitations do not constitute a complete separation from that broader network.

The preface, then, in its functional role as a paratext, not only controls our reading of Book 10; but, by articulating the intriguing dynamic between Book 10 and the rest of the text, it also informs us of the ambiguous relationship between gardens and agriculture in Roman thought. In fact, the concept of a paratext, as both part and not part of a text, turns out to be a very useful metaphor for that ambiguity. Book 10 is framed as both part of the De Re Rustica and also a supplement to it, and this, in turn, reflects how gardens are conceptualised as both part of and a supplement to agriculture as whole.

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