A Roman lesson on the Corona-virus

An unlikely argument in favour of social distancing comes from one of Rome’s greatest scholars, Marcus Terrentius Varo (116 BCE- 27 CE) in the second volume of his book ‘On Agriculture’.

Goats in large herds tend to die easier than smaller ones because of epidemics that spread quickly, writes Varo. Those who don’t take this into consideration, might end up like Gaberius, a Roman soldier who bought 1.000 goats in order to sell them in the city and make large profits. Gaberius’s luck run out very quickly, as he stacked the 1.000 goats together making them prone to infectious diseases. In the end, the Roman lost the whole flock to an epidemic and with it, his investment.

The story of Gaberius is a perfect allegory for our current condition under the COVID-19 pandemic. This allegory can work on two levels.

  • On the one hand it can be taken metaphorically to support social distancing. In this case we would be considered the goats threatened by disease and consequently in need of isolation.
  • On the other hand, we can take the story literally. In this case we can make an argument against the current state of agricultural production, which is creating perfect conditions for the spread of epidemics by speeding up otherwise slow and difficult natural processes through practices like overcrowding. Avian flu, swine flu and a long list of other recent disease originated in animals but were a direct result of human activity.

The extent to which human activity facilitated, unwillingly or not, the development of the new corona-virus, is a question we need to ask ourselves after the crisis is over. Hopefully the answer will lead us towards a greener future where life is placed above a profit-driven economy. But while we are thinking about these issues, let’s stop the disease from spreading, let’s put some physical distance between us for a little while.

Photo by Fernando Gutierrez on Unsplash

An English translation of Varo’s said passage (de re Rustica, II.3.8-10) follows:

What can I say of the health of animals which are never healthy? I can only make one remark: that the head goatherds keep written directions as to the remedies to be used for some of their diseases and for flesh wounds which they frequently receive, as they are always fighting one another with their horns, and as they crop in thorny places. One topic remains — that of number. This is smaller in the goat herd than in the flock, as goats are wanton and scatter widely, while sheep, on the contrary, huddle together and crowd into the same space. Hence in the Ager Gallicus breeders keep numerous herds rather than large ones, because in large herds an epidemic quickly spreads, and this may ruin the owner. A flock of about fifty is considered quite large enough. The experience of the Roman knight, Gaberius, is thought to prove this: He had a place containing 1000 iugera near the city, and hearing from a certain goatherd who drove ten goats to the city that they yielded him a denarius a day per head, he bought 1000 goats, hoping that he would make 1000 denarii a day profit. In which he was sadly mistaken, for within a short time he lost the whole flock by disease. Among the Sallentini, however, and around Casinum, they have herds running as high as 100.


3 thoughts on “A Roman lesson on the Corona-virus

  1. Very interesting remarks. As someone who lives in London I can see that we will be unable to recreate the throbbing world city that we are used to. Social distancing in pubs, clubs, restaurants and theatres is impossible. Perhaps this will prompt an exodus to small towns and villages.

    Liked by 1 person

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