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Green Classics: The Benefits of Accurately Translating Columella

David A. Wallace-Hare

San Diego State University

Rarely in the past have scholars approached Columella’s work, De Re Rustica, with a sense of urgency, nor indeed that of other Roman agronomists. There was no need. With a desperate need to return to cleaner, more sustainable models of animal husbandry and agriculture in a world in decline, this is changing, and that urgency has arrived. With beekeeping especially, we are coming to realize that a return to elements of traditional beekeeping has the capacity to reduce the decline of bees worldwide if implemented on a wide scale. Paying attention to how Columella in book IX of De Re Rustica, our central text for Roman beekeeping, talks about his craft, can help us revive cleaner, more sustainable models for beekeeping. Getting Columella right has never been more pressing.

Notably, Columella was not from Italy but Gades (modern Cádiz) in Roman Baetica, making his agronomy manual the only provincial Roman agricultural text. In fact, many of his injunctions for villa farming are better suited to Baetican contexts. The following paper closely examines contextualization clues present in book IX to demonstrate that Columella’s context affects how we translate his work and thus what we can get out of it.

Among Columella’s recommendations for what bee forage a prospective Roman beekeeper should plant near his hives, rosemary stands out because it was not a common Italian honey component. Columella goes out of his way to say that after the more typical Italian and Greek favourites, rosemary honey takes third place in his opinion (9.4.6). Indeed, rosemary features very prominently in traditional monofloral honeys from eastern Spain (Perez-Arquillué et al. 1994). From a much later beekeeping manual, we learn that in the Aragon region beekeepers kept specialized rosemary fields (romerales) without mixture with beans or other plants. According to the author, people paid the most for honey from places where rosemary abounded (Gil 1621: 1.5). This paper scrutinizes Columella’s list of bee forage plants (9.4.2-7), which represents a particularly thorny issue for translation when context is brought into the picture, but an opportunity as well. This list is compared with other bee forage recommendations in Varro’s agricultural treatise (Res Rusticae 3.16) among several others. It will be seen that Columella’s injunctions are rooted in his context.

Translators of agronomy manuals have an important role to play in a developing outreach arm of the Classics, green classics, attempting to repurpose old tech and agricultural traditions for greener futures. In getting Columella right, we can begin to re-implement some of his bee forage recommendations to new ends. Through strategic transplantation of historic bee forage plants in present environments we have the capacity to heal the future with the past, creating more stable bee-friendly ecosystems imitating periods preceding many of the destructive processes of industrial agricultural and its focus on monoculture crops. Knowledge of past beekeeping processes used in pre-industrial environments sheds great light on defining features of the global decline of bees. The Romans have a surprising role to play in helping reduce that decline.

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