Chapter 2 – Cato Maior: The Art of Growing Asparagus

2000 Years of Latin Prose

· A 21st century Anthology of Latin Prose ·

A Latin anthology for the 21st century

Two thousand years of Latin Prose is a digital anthology of Latin Prose. Here you will be able to find texts from two millennia of gems in Latin. In this second chapter, we will learn about, and read from, Cato Maior's work De Agricultura.

If you want to learn more about the anthology, you will find the preface here.


Chapter 2: Cato Maior


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Life and Works

In this section you will learn about the author's life and works.

(234-149 B.C.)

Cato Maior has gone down in history as the man who ended all of his speeches, no matter the subject, with: 

Ceterum/Praeterea censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.
— Cato Maior

Moreover, I advise that Carthage must be destroyed. (More about this quote further down.)

But Cato Maior was so much more. 


Cato, Marcus Porcius.jpg

He was born Marcus Porcius Cato in Tusculum, Italy but became known as Cato Censorius, Cato Sapiens and Cato Priscus. 

According to the Greek biographer Plutarchos’ (46-120 A.D.) work Cato, Cato was not born Marcus Porcius Cato, but Marcus Porcius Priscus. Cato instead was a name sprung from, according to Plutarchos, the word catus, which was what the Romans called a man who was wise, clear-sighted and prudent. Cato was being called Cato because he possessed these abilities. (Cato, 1)

Later he became known as Cato Maior or Cato the Elder to separate him from his great-grandson, Cato Minor or Cato the Younger, famous for opposing Julius Caesar.

Cato the Elder grew up on his father’s farm in Sabine territory, i.e. northeast of the city of Rome, a property he also inherited. His family had of old been noted for their military service, and Cato was too. However, when not serving, the family – including Cato – were devoted to agriculture. This love of the country was so strong that Cato in between military campaigns returned to his farm, dressed simply and worked the land as any other farmer. 

Hannibal Crossing the Alps by Nicolas Poussin

Hannibal Crossing the Alps by Nicolas Poussin

He had quite the career, both military and political, and fought his first war against none other than the elephant master Hannibal. 

Close to his farm lay the lands of a certain Lucius Valerius Flaccus. Flaccus was a man from one of the noble families of Rome, and he was impressed with Cato’s diligence, military talent, his work as a legal advisor to Sabine citizens as well as his conservatism and promptly encouraged Cato to take up a political career. 

Cato took the advice and followed Flaccus to Rome. Things went well. 

In short: he was a military tribune, became a quaestor, an aedile, praetor, a consul and a censor. 

Cato, who according to Plutarchos (Cato, 1) had reddish hair and grey eyes, was known for his harsh discipline – against himself and others – and for his conservatism. 

He is almost infamous for his opposition to the spread of Greek culture, art and language, a trait that seems a little odd seeing that he was the one who brought Ennius to Rome after having met him in 204 B.C. 

Ennius, as we learnt in the first chapter of 2000 years of Latin Prose, was a man who embraced his Roman Greekness, made a living out of Greek tragedies and teaching Greek in Rome as well as introducing the Greek habit of using hexameter to Latin poetry, changing the Roman epic genre forever. 

We do get a taste of Cato’s distaste of the Greek in a quote from the manual/treatise he wrote for his son Marcus, as found in Plinius Secundus’ (23–79 A.D.) Natural History, in which he warns him about Greek doctors:

[…] quandoque ista gens suas litteras dabit, omnia conrumpet, tum etiam magis, si medicos suos huc mittet. Iurarunt inter se barbaros necare omnis medicina, sed hoc ipsum mercede facient, ut fides iis sit et facile disperdant. Nos quoque dictitant barbaros et spurcius nos quam alios Opicon appellatione foedant. Interdixi tibi de medicis.
— Libri ad Marcum filium, ap. Plinius Nat.Hist. XXIX 7


When that race [i.e. the Greek] gives us its literature it will corrupt all things, and even all the more if it sends hither its physicians. They have conspired together to murder all foreigners with their physic, but this very thing they do for a fee, to gain credit and to destroy us easily. They are also always dubbing us foreigners, and to fling more filth on us than on others they give us the foul nickname of Opici [i.e. and ancient Italian people]. I have forbidden you to have dealings with physicians. (Transl. W. H. S. Jones.)

In his later years, Cato became known for yet another thing – his urging for war against Carthage. As mentioned in the beginning, he supposedly ended every speech in the Senate – no matter what they were about – with the wish for Carthage’s destruction (see more below).

Cato got his wish and Carthage was indeed destroyed in 146 B.C., however, he did not get to see it, as he died three years earlier, in 149 B.C. 


Cato Maior was famous in his time for both his military and political career, but he was also a noted writer. 

Cato, Fresco at Collegio del Cambio in Perugia by Pietro Perugino

Cato, Fresco at Collegio del Cambio in Perugia by Pietro Perugino

He wrote the first Roman history work in Latin prose, and thus one of the first important prose texts in Latin. Before him, Ennius and Naevius had written histories in Latin verse, and Fabius Pictor and Alimentus had written in Greek prose. 

This work, Origines, that originally held 7 books, began with the founding of Rome and her kings and ended in Cato’s own day. Only fragments remain today. 

Cato also wrote poems, a book about soldiery, a collection of sayings, a book for his son, as mentioned above, and of course; speeches. 

There were 150 speeches in Cato’s day, now only fragments from some of them remain. We don’t even know the name or subject of many of the lost ones.

As mentioned, and as well known, Cato Maior supposedly ended a lot of his speeches with the quote: “Ceterum/Praeterea censeo Carthaginem esse delendam”. Truth be told: we do not have this quote from Cato himself, nor from any of his contemporaries. What we have are four authors who wrote about Cato’s habit of saying something of the like:

Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) wrote [Cato] clamaret omni senatu Carthaginem delendam.” in his Natural History (Nat.Hist. xv.20), while Plutarchos, (46–120 A.D.) the Greek biographer wrote: “δοκεῖ δέ μοι καὶ Καρχηδόνα μὴ εἶναι,” i.e. “In my opinion, Carthage must be destroyed.” (Cato, 27). Historian Florus (74–130 A.D.) penned down: "Cato inexpiabili odio delendam esse Carthaginem… pronunciabat." (Epitome of Roman History, I.31), and historian Aurelius Victor (320–390 A.D.) wrote "Carthaginem delendam censuit." (De viris illustribus Romae, 47.8).

The quote that we have become so familiar with has rather been a concoction of these authors made by scholars at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century.

In this episode of 2000 years of Latin Prose, we will however not turn to any fragments of speeches and wonder if this or that speech would have been ended with a desire to destroy Carthage. Instead, we will turn to Cato’s original passion: Agriculture.

About 160 B.C. Cato wrote a work called De Agricultura. De Agricultura, or On Agriculture as it is also known, is a handbook on farming, a practical manual, and gives us valuable insight to Roman rural life as it talks not only about growing crops but includes superstitious practices, working slaves, how to create a vineyard as well as a few recipes.

This is the only one of Cato’s works that survives history in completion. 

Today we shall turn to passage 161 and learn all there is to know about growing asparagus, Roman style.

Written by Amelie Rosengren

Want more?

If you want to know more about Cato Maior and his style and learn more about his works and the fragments we have left, Michael von Albrecht’s A History of Roman Literature: From Livius Andronicus to Boethius is an excellent book.

If you’re interested in the Punic Wars and the time in which Cato lived, there are thousands of books. However, I can recommend Keith C. Sidwell and Peter V. Jones’ book The world of Rome: an introduction to Roman culture. This book gives an introduction to all of Rome, not only the time of Cato, but it is a very good place to start.

In 1860 a German archaeologist and philologist called Henri Jordan put together a book with texts from Cato Maior, in which you can find otherwise hard-to-find fragments gathered together: M. Catonis Praeter librum de re rustica quae extant.


Audio & Video

Click below to read and listen to this passage from Cato's De Agricultura.

Video with English Subtitles


Audio of Latin text


Latin text

Below you will find the original text of the passage in Latin.

De Agricultura, 161.

Asparagus quō modō sērātur. Locum subigere oportet bene, quī habeat ūmōrem—aut locum crassum. Ubi erit subāctus, āreās facitō, ut possīs dextrā sinistrāque sārīre, runcāre, nē calcētur. Cum āreās dēfōrmābis, intervāllum facitō inter āreās sēmipedem lātum in omnēs partēs. Deinde seritō ad līneam, pālō grāna bīna aut terna dēmittitō et eōdem pālō cavum terrā operītō. Deinde suprā āreās stercus spargitō bene. Seritō secundum aequinoctium vernum.

Ubi erit nātum, herbās crēbrō pūrgātō cavētōque nē asparagus ūnā cum herbā vellātur. Quō annō sēveris, satum strāmentīs per hiemem operītō, nē praeūrātur. Deinde prīmō vēre aperītō, sārītō, runcātōque. Post annum tertium, quam sēveris, incenditō vēre prīmō. Deinde nē ante sārueris, quam asparagus nātus erit, nē in sāriendō rādīcēs laedās. Tertiō aut quārtō annō asparagum vellitō ab rādīce. 

Nam sī dēfringēs, stirpēs fīent et intermorientur. Usque licēbit vēllās, dōnicum in sēmen vīderis īre. Sēmen mātūrum fit ad autumnum. Ita, cum sūmpseris sēmen, incenditō, et cum coeperit asparagus nāscī, sārītō et stercorātō. Post annōs octo aut novem, cum iam est vetus, dīgeritō et in quō locō postūrus eris, terram bene subigitō et stercorātō. Deinde fossulās facitō, quō rādīcēs asparagī dēmittās. 

Intervāllum sit nē minus pedēs singulōs inter rādīcēs asparagī. Ēvellitō, sīc circumfoditō, ut facile vellere possīs; cavētō nē frangātur. Stercus ovillum quam plūrimum fac ingerās; id est optimum ad eam rem; aliut stercus herbās creat.

You can download a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF version of this chapter: 2000 Years of Latin Prose: Chapter 2. Cato Maior.

Keywords & commentary

Below you will find some keywords and comments on the text.

Can you think of something to add?

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Keywords & Commentary

These following words are key to understanding the text, if you already know them - great! - if not, make a mental note of them.

ad lineam: in a line

aliut: old form of aliud

bina aut terna: “two or three each”. These are so-called distributive numbers, designating a distributed quantity (“each”). Here two or three grains to be placed in each hole.

donicum: old form of donec (“as long as, while, until”).

Fac ingeras: fac with the present subjuncive is often used as an imperative to give a command.

facito: the so-called future imperative, common in orders refering to the future, as well as precepts, laws.

Intervallum sit ne: This is a iussive subjunctive, which is used to give commands. The negative commands are constructed with ne.

nascor: “grow, be produced”. Cresco (“grow”), on the other hand, denotes only the increase of size, e.g. Arbores hic nascuntur et celeriter crescunt. (“Trees grow here and they grow fast”).

posturus: contracted form of the future participle of pono, positurus.

quo demittas: quo denotes motion towards or into.

secundum: here after

semipedem latum: adjectives designating measures, e.g. latus, longus, altus are constructed with the accusative of measure.

Ubi: the adverb ubi, meaning “where” can also have a temporal meaning “when”. This is the case here.


English Translation

Below you will find an English translation of the text.

De Agricultura, 161.

Method of planting asparagus: Break up thoroughly ground that is moist, or is heavy soil. When it has been broken, lay off beds, so that you may hoe and weed them in both directions without trampling the beds. In laying off the beds, leave a path a half-foot wide between the beds on each side. Then plant along a line, dropping two or three seeds together in a hole made with a stick, and cover with the same stick. After planting, cover the beds thickly with manure; plant after the vernal equinox. 

When the shoots push up, weed often, being careful not to uproot the asparagus with the weed. The year it is planted, cover the bed with straw through the winter, so that it will not be frostbitten. Then in the early spring uncover, hoe, and weed. The third year after planting burn it over in the early spring; after this do not work it before the shoots appear, so as not to injure the roots by hoeing. In the third or fourth year you may pull asparagus from the roots; for if you break it off, sprouts will start and die off. You may continue pulling until you see it going to seed. The seed ripens in autumn; when you have gathered it, burn over the bed, and when the asparagus begins to grow, hoe and manure. After eight or nine years, when it is now old, dig it up, after having thoroughly worked and manured the ground to which you are to transplant it, and made small ditches to receive the roots.

The interval between the roots of the asparagus should be not less than a foot. In digging, loosen the earth around the roots so that you can dig them easily, and be careful not to break them. Cover them very deep with sheep dung; this is the best for this purpose, as other manure produces weeds.


Translated by W. D. Hooper and H. B. Ash (1934).



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