When Rome was faced with a grave crisis it turned to the one man thought capable to lead them. Senators thus went to the home of Cincinnatus to offer him the position of magister populi (dictator). They found him in his field, plowing the land as a simple farmer, and when he had succeeded in his duties to Rome, he laid down the instruments of power and returned to his fields. Cincinnatus was a model of the “good citizen,” exemplifing the idealized citizen-soldier even in the American Revolution. The idealized life of a Roman citizen was to live a simple life on a piece of land that was no more than one man could work. The basic unit of land, called an iugerum (240 x 120 feet), was what a man with a team of animals could plow in a single day. Two iugera, approximately one and an half acres of land, was considered the minimum that a man needed to support his family and make a little profit. Two iugera provided enough land for his simple house with a vegetable garden, along with a field of grain, an orchard, and a few grape vines – enough to sustain his family. A typical small Roman farm had five iugera, which is what was given to Roman veterans when a new colony was established. That is, they were provided with the means to make a profit for themselves, and for Rome, in return for the service they had already given to Rome. But it was left to the individual to make something of the land he worked.
The Stoic Epictetus said, “He who is discontented with what he has and what has been granted to him by fortune is a layman in the art of life. But he who bears it nobly, and acts rationally with regard to all that arises from it, deserves to be acknowledged as a good man.”
When applied to a man’s occupation, in particular to farming, Pliny wrote, “Mehercule! the very best plan of all is to let moderation guide our judgment in all things. To cultivate land well is absolutely necessary, . . . indeed, the work is done by the hands of a man’s own family.” A good example of the “good man” making something of what he has is the story related by Pliny [Historia Naturalis 18.8 (41)].
Self-sufficiency, frugality, and moderation in all things are the values of a Roman life, which are reflected in the Religio Romana. Underlying these values is also the sense of duty and service to our families, our country, and to the Gods. While not all of us today are farmers or gardeners, the values of a well-managed life, in the service to others, still guides us and cultivates our spiritual life.