Coincidentally: The Happy Farmer

I shall always be grateful to the neighbor of my parents who some years ago gave me a copy of Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics. Splendid as were the illustrative plates, they could not overwhelm the verses of the laureled poet whom Cowper, slightly provincially, called the Milton of Rome. The average pedestrian need not haul such a large volume about, for we carry some of Virgil with us daily. Whoever has a one dollar bill will notice inscribed under the little pyramid “Novus Ordo Seclorum” from the Georgics along with, over the eyeball, ” Annuit Coeptis” from the Aeneid. Paranoid personalities with shaky Latin frequently mistranslate the Georgics line as a dark prophecy of some sinister contemporary “new world Order.” The actual case is rather more basic, for the venerable phrase is from the great poet’s ode to farming, and “georgicus” is an adjectival referent to “agricola,” which means farmer.

One of our nation’s two or three finest presidential Latinists, Herbert Hoover, reduced the size of the dollar bill to fit more conveniently in wallets and was accused by demagogues of having devalued it. Franklin Roosevelt did indeed devalue the dollar, but there was little complaint because he did not change the size of the paper. Regularly during breakfast, President Hoover and his wife, Lou, translated passages from Agricola’s De Re Metallica. They also spoke confidentially to each other in Chinese when servants were present. One is unlikely to find so edifying a scene in today’s White House. In his one stab at Latin in a speech, Albert Gore translated “E Pluribus Unum” backward.

The Metallica was written by the German “Father of Mythology,” George Bauer, born in Glachau in Saxony two years after Columbus discovered America. His Latinized name, Georgius Agricola, is glaringly unsuited for a mineralogist. But equally odd is the way four musicians took Agricola for a professional name: Alexander Ackerman (1446-1506), Martin Sohr (1486-1556), and Johann Friedrich (1720-1774), who were German, and the Dutchman Roelof Huysman (1443-1485). The last was, coincidentally with our theme, a classical scholar as well as a musician, but we may know him best today for his painting that included, appropriately enough, farm scenes.

The Protestant schismatic Joannes Agricola (originally Sneider) further complicated the Agricola network by applying his energies at Wittenberg to spread Antinomianism. This dissolute philosophical attitude has nothing to do with agriculture, although Martin Luther (supported by Melancthon) called Joannes Agricola a spreader of fertilizer, or words to that effect. This Sneider Agricola was born and died in the same years that Sohr Agricola was born and died. In 1548, the year that Sneider Agricola helped Julius von Pflug (1499-1564) prepare the “Augsburg Interim,” the farmers of Burma recognized Bayin Naung as their ruler, and Bishop Michael Agricola of Ebo published his Finnish translation of the New Testament.

Von Pflug was the Catholic bishop of Naumber-Zeitz. As a humanist, he was thoroughly read in Tacitus. In his irenic outlook, he was influenced by the lay cardinal Gaspar Contarini, who had been born on the 50th anniversary of the birth of Rodolphus (Roelof Huysman) Agricola. And that was, mirabile dictu, the 1,400th anniversary of the death of Tacitus’s father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, whom Tacitus so admired that he made him the subject of his Agricola, a book precious to Von Pflug. The sonorous cadences of that literature are almost totally ignored now. These days it is a safe assumption that many, if not most, high schools spend more time on driver education than on Tacitus.

As a soldier and politician, Gnaeus Julius Agricola could be called the Lord Townshend of the Roman Empire for his diligence in promoting crop rotation in Britain as part of the “novus ordo seclorum.” Like Townshend, the second Viscount of Rayham (1674-1738), in his zeal for cultivating turnips, Agricola’s agricultural improvements transformed all of Britain save for southern Cymru, where they were rejected by the dolichocephalic Welsh whose intractable instincts repulsed any innovation in their domestic habits.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift supports the opinion that “whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, who would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.” On this basis, Gnaeus Julius Agricola justifies himself well. At least, I hope we have resolved the persistent confusion of Gnaeus Julius Agricola with Georgius (Bauer) Agricola, which muddies so many accounts of Herbert Hoover’s Latinity.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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