Mago: Father of Farming

Winter 2011-2012
Drawing by Toki Oshima.
Drawing by Toki Oshima.

By John Koster

When the vengeful Romans plowed salt into the smoldering ruins of Carthage in 146 B.C., the conquerors left a message that the world gradually forgot: Farming, rather than maritime trade and commerce, had been the real source of strength in the city that once rivaled Rome for control of the Mediterranean and that was eradicated by “ethnic cleansing.” Carthaginians who hadn’t been killed in the siege of Carthage or killed themselves were sold into slavery. Their fields were sown with salt and ritually cursed. The entire literature of the people who invented the phonetic alphabet and taught it to Greece and Rome was consigned to flames – with one major exception: the 28-book treatise on agriculture written by Mago, whom Greeks and Romans alike called “The Father of Farming.”

Other classical writers, such as Theophrastus, had written about agriculture before, and Virgil would famously write The Georgics two centuries after Carthage was destroyed. But the Romans, who hated all things Carthaginian, thought enough of Mago to translate and preserve his 28 books into Latin. Mago’s applied advice had made the Carthaginians celebrated for their production of staple and luxury foods, and had enabled the maritime city to pay off a staggering indemnity even after the Romans destroyed their trade nexus with hostile treaties. (U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stinson called the tentative Morgenthau Plan aimed at the permanent economic destruction of defeated Germany “Carthaginian.”) In the end, farming first saved Carthage from economic destruction and then provoked the city’s military annihilation.

A Safe Harbor and Fertile Soil

Even before Mago wrote about farming, Homer, who described what later became “the island of admirals” as “an island of many goats,” said the future site of Carthage on the north shore of Africa was fertile and promising. “It is by no means a poor country, but capable of yielding any crop in due season … where the vine would never wither, and there is plenty of land level enough for the plow, where farmers could count on cutting a deep crop at every harvest time, for the soil below the surface is exceeding rich. Also it has a safe harbor… at the head of the harbor is a stream of fresh water, running out of a cave in a grove of poplar trees.”

Into the safe harbor in 814 B.C., according to some sources, came Elyssa, fugitive queen of Tyre, whose husband had been murdered by an envious brother. When Elyssa and her Phoenician followers, already experienced sailors and merchants from what is now Lebanon, asked the local Berber people for shelter, they were given food and water but told they could buy only as much land as they could cover with an ox-hide. Elyssa cleverly soaked the ox-hide in water and slit it around the edge in an endless concentric pattern that turned it into a supple thong she was able to stretch around the entire crest of a mountain near the stream and facing the island of goats – an incredible 2-1/2 square miles. The enclosed land purchase became the byrsa – Greek for “ox-hide” – and the trade center of the eastern Mediterranean. The word byrsa later became “purse” in English and “bourse” in French, meaning the Paris stock exchange.

The Carthaginians set up a trade network that included Britain for tin to be made into bronze and Spain for copper and silver. They transported furs, wine and art from places where they were cheap to where they were expensive. They soon grew rich, as their sailors found new markets and their traders dealt with African tribes. Ironically in terms of Roman propaganda, the Greeks described the Carthaginians as scrupulously honest in commerce, although they loved treachery and ambush above all things in war.

About the time that Hanno the Navigator reportedly circumnavigated Africa 2,000 years before Vasco de Gama, around 500 B.C., Mago wrote his treatise on farming. (Hanno’s account, in Greek, also survived the flames – but nothing else did.) Unlike Hanno – both names are almost generic in Carthaginian history – Mago believed that people who wanted to farm should stay close to their own fields.

Focus on Farming

“Anyone who has bought land should sell his town house so that he will have no desire to worship the households of the city rather than those of the country,” Mago wrote as preserved in a Latin translation, respectfully ordered by the Roman Senate. “The man who takes great delight in his city residence will have no need of a country estate.” Mago’s advice, taken to heart even by Romans who hated Carthage, led to the Roman cult of the gentleman farmer familiar to readers of the Latin classics long after Carthage was burned and plowed with salt.

From the days of Mago through the destruction, Carthage was surrounded by two rings of agricultural plantings: The inner ring for olives, fruit trees, grapes and vegetables, and the outer, less dependant on irrigation, for a vast wheat field. Mago also wrote about breeding horses, mules and other farm animals, and beekeeping, vital in the ancient world because fig juice was the only other sweetener. Beeswax was used in art and household work.

The ox was important to the Punic people, and not just for the legend of the byrsa: The first letter in the Phoenician alphabet, aleph, means “ox,” and the capital letter itself is an upside-down ox head. Oxen provided draft animals for plows (the Carthaginians were the first people in history to use iron plows), manure for fields, and hides. Mago urged buyers to select only the best: “They must be young, stocky, sturdy of limb with long horns, darkish and healthy, a wide and wrinkled forehead, hairy ears and black eyes and chops, the nostrils well-opened and turned back, the neck long and muscular, and dewlap full and descending to the knees, the chest well-developed, broad shoulders, the belly big like that of a cow in calf, the flanks long, the loins broad, the back straight and flat or a little depressed in the middle, the buttocks rounded, the legs thick and straight, the hooves large, the tail long and hairy and the hair on the body thick and short, red-brown in color and very soft to the touch.”

Mago also described the technique for turning wheat and barley into flour: “Soak the wheat in plenty of water and then pound it with a pestle, dry it in the sun and put it back under the pestle. The procedure for barley is the same. For 20 parts of barley you need two parts of water.” (The added water may have prevented the mingling of stone grit with flour, a serious dental problem for the Egyptians, who wore down their teeth because of stone grit in bread and cakes.)

Even the hostile Romans loved Carthaginian raisin wine, a specialty beverage sold to Italy in huge quantities. When the Romans captured Carthage, Mago’s recipe fell into their hands and was translated into Latin: “Pick some well-ripened early grapes. Discard any that are mildewed or damaged. Drive forked branches or stakes made of rods tied into bundles into the ground at a distance of about 4 feet apart. Lay reeds across them and spread the grapes out in the sun on top. Cover them at night so that the dew will not moisten them. When they are dried, pick the grapes off stems and put them in a jar or pitcher. Add some unfermented wine, the best you have, until the grapes are just covered. After six days, when the grapes have absorbed it all and are swollen, put them in a basket, put them through the press, and collect the resulting liquid. Next, press the mass, adding fresh unfermented wine made with other grapes which have been left in the sun for three days. Stir it well, and put it through the press. Bottle the liquid of the second press in stoppered jars so it will not turn sour. After 20 or 30 days when the fermentation is over, decant it into fresh vessels. Coat the lids with plaster and cover them with leather.” Raisin wine sounds mildly explosive, like champagne, but the Romans doted on it.

Feeding the Enemy

The prosperity that Carthaginians obtained following Mago’s advice was legendary – and lethal. When a hostile Greek army attempted to attack Carthage by land in 310 B.C., before the wars with Rome, the Greek invaders had no trouble feeding their army, even though the city of Carthage still controlled the sea. “The whole country through which they marched was beautiful and gardens planted with all sorts of fruits and sluices and canals were cut all along for the convenience of water, by which the whole tract was abundantly watered… the country is planted partly with vines and partly with olive trees and furnished likewise with many other fruit trees. In another the fields are pastured for flocks of sheep and herds of cows and oxen, and in the neighboring pens run great breeding herds of mares…”

Desperate Times

What saved Carthage the first time was their humanity to their Libyan serfs, who did most of the actual farm work: The Libyan peasants and African laborers, weighing their rigidly honest Carthaginian overlords against the Greek usurpers, turned on the Greeks and helped defeat them. Carthage was spared for another 150 years.

Carthage was not saved by her war elephants, although the use of elephants as living tanks made Carthaginians famous to Victorian schoolboys. The portions of Mago that described how to domesticate elephants have, unfortunately, been lost, and historians have wondered how the Carthaginians were able to train African elephants, a feat no modern circus has ever mastered: circus elephants are Asian Indian elephants. Part of the secret may be that the Carthaginians used – and used up – a now-extinct breed, the North African elephant, so heavily employed as Punic tanks and victims of the Roman arena that the whole breed disappeared and is known only from fossil evidence today.

Hannibal – another Carthaginian – used 37 elephants for his war on Rome, though only a handful made it over the Alps. His multiple defeats of the Romans in Italy, especially at Cannae, outraged the Romans. When they invaded North Africa to settle up with Carthage, routed the elephants, and avenged their defeats in Italy at Zama, they imposed harsh terms: The defeated Carthaginians lost all their elephants, all their colonies outside Africa, and all but 20 of their warships. But they kept their farmland, and their skills in agriculture enabled them to pay off their huge war indemnity ahead of schedule. When Rome, a nominal ally, asked Carthage for 140,000 bushels of wheat to feed a Roman army fighting north of Greece, the Carthaginians not only found the wheat but offered it as a gift. The indignant Romans insisted on paying for it, and the doom of Carthage was sealed by the Carthaginians’ own success in agriculture.

Cato the Elder, a bitter old man in his 80s, visited Carthage and found a walled city four times the size of Rome, beautified by Greek art and architecture, cleaner than Rome and far more prosperous. Envious, he spoke in the Roman Senate and let some ripe figs fall from his woolen toga: These figs, he said, had been picked just three days ago in a city larger and far richer than Rome: DELENDA EST CARTHAGO – “Carthage must be destroyed!”

The Romans provoked a war and, once victorious, razed the city and sold the survivors into slavery.

Carthage gets bad press from classical historians trained in Greek and Latin. G.P. Baker, writing in 1926 before Hitler came to power, dismisses them as “Semites.” To F.N. Pryce as recently as 1980, the Carthaginians were “bearded Orientals in loose robes, covered with gaudy trinkets, often with great rings of gold hanging from their nostrils, dripping with perfumes, the Carthaginians inspired disgust… to the end they remained hucksters.” Only Charles Van Doren, otherwise a staunch defender of the West, had good to say about them: “Intensely patriotic and fanatic believers in their religion, they were not proselytizers… Essentially they wanted to be left alone to do business with the rest of the world.”

Despite the critics, the Carthaginians were the greatest farmers of antiquity. The fact that they were subjected to what the modern historian Robert L. O’Connell bluntly describes as the most thoroughgoing sort of genocide makes revisionism almost impossible. Only Mago’s books on agricultural – which survive in about 40 fragments – and Hanno’s account of a voyage around all or part of Africa have survived in Greek or Roman translations that continue to tantalize historians. Mago’s books on farming – strictly practical, with none of the theorizing or politicizing of the intact Greek and Roman works – offer a tantalizing glimpse of the greatest commercial farmers in history.

John Koster is the author of Custer Survivor.

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