CJ – Online Review ~ Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean

Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean. By Paul Halstead. Wiley Blackwell, 2014. Pp. ix + 372. Hardcover $102.95. ISBN 978-1-4051-9283-5.

Reviewed by Jean De Groot, The Catholic University of America

Our knowledge of the technology of food production in the classical world comes from artistic and literary references, artifacts, and the archeology of towns and villas. Paul Halstead’s book Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean adds to these sources a fine-grained study of family (or bachelor) farming around the Mediterranean just before and after the Second World War. It is based on oral histories from the elderly, both men and women, compiled since the 1970s. Informants report from a variety of locations around the Mediterranean but mainly in Greece (4-5). Their experience, though relatively recent, extends backward in time insofar as pre-mechanized agricultural tutelage was intergenerational in families and between households. The personalities of his informants, conveyed by Halstead with wit and respect, enliven accounts of the unceasing drudgery of manual labor that constitutes small-scale farming.

Some might be surprised that anything from the twentieth century could shed light on ancient agriculture. The history of agricultural technology, however, has always turned on a few of the five “powers” (Hero of Alexandria)-simple machines, in particular the zeugon, or yoke (balance), and the arotron or plough (wedge). Halstead’s research is part of the broad tradition established by Fernand Braudel’s pioneering work on the longue durée. Although the term has come to mean simply taking a long view or describing grand themes in history, Braudel’s longue durée tracked the constants of geographically situated subsistence culture, which outlive battles and the rise and fall of empires.

Halstead’s research fosters caution concerning expansive hypotheses about cultural change in pre-history (329-330, 336-338). He does not think that significant changes in agricultural technology, like the introduction of draft animals to the plough, can be made the sole drivers of other cultural changes in pre-history, like economic and social inequality (58-61). The evidence available from subsistence and cash crop farmers working without engines or seed catalogues, i.e. Halstead’s twentieth century informants, provides a more nuanced and complex picture of how farmers used different techniques on different terrains all at the same time.

Halstead’s portrait starts with breaking the ground (chapter 2) and proceeds through planting and harvesting (chapter 3) to the threshing floor or stook (a bound stand of sheaves in the field; chapter 4). Each chapter presents a dense account of traditional practices, tools, and environmental constraints in the Mediterranean. To give an example, how many times a field is plowed between plantings depends on the purpose of the field in the next round of planting and in what season it will be planted. Each plowing is in a different direction from the preceding one. Halstead continues:

In March to May, some fallow fields were planted in summer crops (e.g., maize, sesame), and once these were harvested, the fields should be plowed again. The number of plowings grew as Alexis [the informant] warmed to his theme. Other elderly villagers claimed that earlier generations had plowed nine times, citing a false folk etymology for niáma, the word used in many parts of Greece to denote tilled fallow or the first plowing of the fallow period. However exaggerated, these accounts underline the value placed on repeated plowing of fallow-echoed by the Cretan and Cypriot term for tilled fallow (kalourgiá, kalourkâ), which literally means ‘good working.’ (12-13).

Good working made for a cleaner crop, which saved labor in harvesting and could increase yield (335). Careful tilling also carried social benefits-the admiration of one’s neighbors and a reputation for high quality crops. Halstead interweaves diverse themes in each area he treats, creating a more complex picture of basic agriculture than would be possible without these testimonies.

He points out that the “agricultural regime” described in most ancient literary sources reflects experience on large land-holdings (60-61). His modern informants testify, however, to the advantage held even on a small scale by a household well enough off to own oxen, the strongest pull animals, or cattle. Draft animals are for both tilling and carting the crop to safe storage at harvest time. It is possible for the use of draft animals to outstrip human ability to reap the benefits of large-scale planting. Sheer time is a factor in harvesting, a problem ameliorated by having either a large family or hired help (chapter 6).

In his concluding Chapter 7, Halstead evaluates the method of “analogy” to still-existent traditional practices for its contribution to knowledge of ancient culture. He points out that oral tradition shows that Mediterranean farmers understood crop rotation, irrigation, and terracing (chapter 5). They combined reasoning with close observation to become adequate or master farmers. Cost-benefit analysis calculated with the measure of bags, stooks or grains per sheave is part of folk agronomy (344-45).

This book by a seasoned expert makes a substantial contribution to the study of what is “off the grid” of ancient archeology. It is, however, also of value to any scholar of antiquity interested in the context of literate ancient culture. Halstead’s informants raised the same crops mentioned in ancient texts and quite probably in the same terrains and for the same purposes. No one who reads this book can think of Heraclitus’ bitter vetch or Aristotle’s grain ruined on the threshing floor in quite the same way again.


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CJ – Online Review ~ Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica, Book III.

Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica, Book III. Edited with commentary by Gesine Manuwald. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp.x+286. Paperback, $39.99. ISBN 978-1-107-69726-3

Reviewed by Jessica R. Blum, Wabash College

Long on the outskirts of the Classical canon, Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica has, in the last three decades, benefited from renewed interest in Flavian epic and emerged as lively new ground for study. The publication of numerous articles, a Brill’s Companion, and a remarkable number of commentaries (21 since 1980), has significantly advanced the field. In the midst of this wave of scholarship, however, Book 3 has been largely overlooked. Manuwald’s new text with commentary fills this signal gap.

In keeping with the Cambridge Greek and Latin Series, Manuwald brings the Argonautica to a wider audience, with a commentary aimed at graduate and advanced undergraduate students as well as specialists. One of the volume’s most valuable features, therefore, is its presentation of the Argonautica as an archetype of Flavian epic: both commentary and poem offer an accessible and engaging entry point into the field as a whole.

As Manuwald notes, Book 3 particularly lends itself to this project, and she convincingly presents it as a distillation of the poem’s main themes. Two principal episodes may be read separately or together: the Argonauts’ night-battle in Cyzicus, in which they are tragically blown back to friendly shores and unwittingly attack their hosts, and the rape of Hylas in Mysia, which precipitates Hercules’ departure from the expedition. These two sequences exemplify Valerius’ distinctive engagement with, and revision of, traditional material, principally from Apollonius Rhodius and Virgil. Both episodes, furthermore, illuminate key issues for the Argonautica’s interpretation-its representation of the gods and fate, and its characterization of the protagonist Jason. Both introduction and commentary keep these issues to the fore throughout the volume.

The introduction comprises four sections, on poet, poem, Book 3, and text. It begins with a survey of the scant historical evidence for Valerius and summarizes the much-disputed question of the Argonautica’s date of composition. This debate centers on whether Valerius was working primarily under Vespasian, whom he addresses in the proem, or Domitian, who completed the Templum gentis Flaviae to which Valerius may refer at Arg.1.15-6. Manuwald wisely does not offer a definitive answer, but rather-and more importantly-explains its interpretive significance-how the Argonautica’s possible Roman points of reference (e.g. its frequent criticism of tyrant figures) may be read as commenting on contemporary society. She shows how the theme of the Argo’s opening of the seas unifies the poem and informs its historical relevance to the Flavian political program. Addressing the poem’s intended length and degree of completeness, she summarizes the structural evidence for an original eight books, with the final half-book either incomplete at the time of the poet’s death or lost at an early stage of transmission. The text largely agrees with Liberman’s (1997); textual problems and emendations are thoughtfully and thoroughly discussed.

Highlights of Manuwald’s introduction are her discussion of Valerius’ interaction with his poetic models (Section 2.6, and passim) and a detailed outline of Book 3 (Section 3.1). She well shows the correspondences between Book 3’s two episodes and emphasizes their indebtedness to Virgilian models; the text will thereby be readily accessible to students familiar with the Aeneid. This approach likewise addresses one of the Argonautica’s most distinctive features: its pervasive system of multi-level and multi-genre allusion. Valerius’ language and narrative are notoriously elliptical, regularly relying on allusion to supply information and meaning. This poetic technique not only resists straightforward interpretation, but is also partially responsible for the traditional dismissal of Valerius as derivative-a highly Virgilian ‘successor of Virgil’. Manuwald’s focus on engagement rather than imitation demonstrates how this quality produces richness rather than sterility, and so introduces the poem on its own terms.

The introduction draws on Manuwald’s prior scholarship, identifying the knowledge gap between men and gods as a key element of Valerius’ response to the literary tradition and to contemporary Stoic doctrine (Sections 2.4, 2.5). Without access to a divine plan, not only Jason but the reader as well is left uncertain as to the significance of his actions. This interpretation informs the discussion of the place that Valerius’ Jason occupies within a literary tradition that frequently questions his heroic status in comparison to (e.g.) Hercules or pius Aeneas. Book 3 is particularly apt for this inquiry. Jason’s remorse after inadvertently killing his host Cyzicus, and his distress over whether the crew should leave Hercules behind in Mysia, act as litmus tests of his heroic character.

The commentary itself is structured by the two principal episodes (Cyzicus, 1-461, and Hylas, 481-740) and an interlude (the rowing contest). Each section begins with a detailed introduction to its content, major themes, and relevant bibliography. For teachers, a particularly attractive feature of the commentary is the frequent explanation of how discrete sections fit together in structure and theme, which helps the student to move beyond the minutiae of grammar. Detailed explanations of mythological and literary references will provide a welcome starting-point for discussion. Some notes seem oriented more to the undergraduate than the graduate student and pay far more, perhaps inordinate, attention to references to Virgil than those to Apollonius, who most often is noted as a point of contrast.

While the interpretive angle of Manuwald’s commentary will not surprise those familiar with her scholarship on Valerius, this is by no means a limiting factor. The volume is an engaging introduction to the Argonautica, which offers in-depth philological analysis while setting the poem in its literary and historical contexts.

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