The Very First Urban Homesteading Book

The urban homesteading shelf at your local bookstore, thanks to the great recession, sure has gotten crowded in recent years. There are many fine volumes now alongside our two books with a great diversity of authors opining on chicken coops, homemade soap and composting. This is a good thing–we need as many voices as possible.

But there’s nothing new here. On a serendipitous trip to the library last week I stumbled across what must be the very first urban homesteading book, Cato and Varro’s De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture) written around 160 BC. Well, it’s really more of a rural homesteading manual, but much of the advice seems familiar.

Looks like Cato the Elder forgot to use sunscreen.

Cato holds the farmer in high esteem,

And when they would praise a worthy man their praise took this form: “good husbandman, good farmer”; one so praised was thought to have received the greatest commendation.

The tips on how to site your rural homestead is exactly as I would suggest:

It should have a good climate, not subject to storms; the soil should be good, and naturally strong. If possible, it should lie at the foot of a mountain and face south; the situation should be healthful, there should be a good supply of laborers, it should be well watered, and near it there should be a flourishing town, or the sea, or a navigable stream, or a good and much traveled road.

Varro’s directions for building a chicken coop and run are pretty much what I followed, complete with netting to keep the hawks out. But I never thought of building a caretaker’s residence into the coop:

In addition there should be a large room for the caretaker to live in, so built that the surrounding walls may be entirely filled with hens’ nests, either built in the wall or firmly attached; for movement is harmful to a sitting hen.

Maybe this will be a new trend in big cities where chickens are hip. Half off the rent in return for living with the chickens!

Should you need to know the exact prayer to Janus, the right point to read the entrails and the precise number of employees you’ll need to run a vineyard, you’ll get that here too. But the best advice is probably this simple and timeless statement: “Be a good neighbor.”

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11 Comments

  1. Very interesting. Along with bursting bookshelves comes with numerous (and many times helpful) YouTube videos from homesteaders and urban farmers/gardeners. It’s a great time for information. (Sometimes you have to sift through it for the best, of course.)

    Re Cato’s advice: I’ll skip reading the entrails, but I’ll practice being a good neighbor. ;) Happy Friday!

  2. In the pre-google age, people had to actually talk to one-another. You think? That would be amazing!

    Clarify, please–by “surrounding walls” does he mean the walls in the caretaker’s quarters, so that he actually lives in the room where hens lay? Or, does he mean that the hens boxes will be on the other sides of the walls surrounding the room? I pray it is the latter.

    • I think he means that the caretaker’s living room is one big nesting box. Not the best arrangement for the caretaker but the Romans weren’t known for their enlightened labor practices.

    • Yes, I was wondering that too. If they’re on the outside of the walls they may just provide some good insulation. Inside? Hmm, well, the rent would have to be reduced a LOT :)

    • Well, you can be sure the caretaker lived a short life, coughing his head off. Rent? If he lived with the chickens and worked, I would say he paid his rent! I was thinking the same thing, that warm chickens in boxes full of straw would make it snug inside during cool weather. Hot weather? Not so much.

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