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Retelling Rome’s environmental history: Pliny’s Natural History 18 and Columella’s De Re Rustica 1-3

Katherine Beydler

University of Michigan

Scholarship on Pliny and Columella often focuses on their antagonistic relationship as the champions of two different agricultural ideals, mostly based on the hostile comments Pliny makes in Book 18 of the Natural History about the De Re Rustica (Frederiksen 1980, Beagon 1992, Noè 2002). This approach takes for granted how both texts use Roman mytho-historical farming exempla of figures like Cincinnatus, Curius Dentatus, and a generalized group of wise antiqui, to adduce those ideals. The farmer-leaders in Pliny and Columella are not monolithic, fossilized figures used uncritically, but contingent members of carefully constructed environmental discourses. As Matthew Roller (2004, 7) has argued, “The production of exemplary discourse is beset at every turn by instabilities, contradictions, and contestation...different aspects of an action carry divergent value.”

I will analyze how they use exempla about the role of agriculture in society differently to communicate with members of their contemporary worlds, primarily elite estate-holders. The flexibility of the stories associated with the earlier Roman agriculture shows how past landscapes were dynamic participants in the creation of new narratives about land management. Furthermore, although close in time, the two authors are not exact contemporaries. Columella’s text and exempla reflect a Julio-Claudian sensibility, and Pliny’s a Flavian.

Pliny the Elder’s protagonists, presented as civilizers of the Roman environment, are the kings; a narrative account of the establishment of agricultural practice begins with Romulus, appearing as a farmer instead of a shepherd. Throughout Book 18, instead of simply demonstrating upright morality, the examples Pliny uses continue to show how excellent leadership created productive new links between the rural landscape and its urban counterpart. Republican figures who lowered grain prices or gave grain away become heroes, in contrast to those same politicians portrayed as seeking kingship through popularity by authors like Livy. Pliny’s stories forge a positive relationship between the past and the present, with Rome’s successful Mediterranean management the inheritance of its wise first leaders.

Columella’s exempla feature Republican figures whose agricultural practices demonstrated excellent personal and political morality. Throughout the text, however, Columella undermines his offerings of traditional practices by emphasizing their unattainability, a contrast with Pliny, whose stories are hopeful. For example, after praise of Cincinnatus and reference to Cato, Columella warns that the time when achieving such exempla was possible has passed: “If only these recommendations, old but outstanding in morality, which have now passed out of use were able to be achieved now (1.9.14).” This and other comments like it reinforce the irreversibility of changes to production and consumption by the time of Nero. The usual exempla were no longer culturally legible. The text also reinforces the difficulty of applying advice pertinent to Italy to agriculture that had spread over many provinces. An estate-holder cannot even expect to visit his estates regularly; in response to Mago’s instruction that the owner of a country villa should sell his townhouse, Columella writes “This precept, if it were possible to be observed in these times, I wouldn’t change, but now, civil ambition often calls us away and detains us even more often….(DRR 1.1.19).”

I will conclude by comparing each author’s treatment of early Roman traditions, or in some cases, divergent use of the same story. Pliny’s presentation of the leader-as-cultivator and unique inclusion of the kings points toward a proactive justification of Vespasian’s right to reshape the Mediterranean through the redistribution and administration of provincial land. Columella’s negotiation between what he describes as traditional values and the reality of his Rome could be read as part of the same anti-Neronian sentiment that others have seen in Columella (Gowers 2000, Requejo 2017). However, I read it as a response to the changes in Rome’s physical and ideological landscape that had begun decades earlier as well as part of a literary program intended to create authority by emphasizing experimenta over exempla.

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