Georgics Book 1, lines 204 - 230

The farmer’s starry calendar

by Virgil

When should a farmer do what? In the twenty-first century, there is no lack of information, but the stars are not much consulted. They are now impossible to see in detail anyway because of light pollution if you live in or near a built-up area, so that very few non-specialists can tell more than one or two stars from one another. Things were different around 30 BCE. Like sailors, farmers needed to know how to be guided by the stars. The night sky may not be much use if you want to time an egg or keep an appointment, but it shows accurately and consistently what point the world has reached in its unchanging yearly cycle. Here, Virgil explains how to time autumn tasks by the stars, then moves on to spring ones before, slightly confusingly, jogging back to the autumn and winter again.

See the illustrated blog post with a star map here.

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Praeterea tam sunt Arcturi sidera nobis
Haedorumque dies servandi et lucidus Anguis,
quam quibus in patriam ventosa per aequora vectis
Pontus et ostriferi fauces temptantur Abydi.
Libra die somnique pares ubi fecerit horas
et medium luci atque umbris iam dividit orbem,
exercete, viri, tauros, serite hordea campis
usque sub extremum brumae intractabilis imbrem;
nec non et lini segetem et Cereale papaver
tempus humo tegere et iamdudum incumbere aratris,
dum sicca tellure licet, dum nubila pendent.
vere fabis satio; tum te quoque, medica, putres
accipiunt sulci et milio venit annua cura,
candidus auratis aperit cum cornibus annum
Taurus et averso cedens Canis occidit astro.
at si triticeam in messem robustaque farra
exercebis humum solisque instabis aristis,
ante tibi Eoae Atlantides abscondantur
Cnosiaque ardentis decedat stella Coronae,
debita quam sulcis committas semina quamque
invitae properes anni spem credere terrae.
multi ante occasum Maiae coepere; sed illos
exspectata seges vanis elusit avenis.
si vero viciamque seres vilemque phaselum
nec Pelusiacae curam aspernabere lentis,
haud obscura cadens mittet tibi signa Bootes:
incipe et ad medias sementem extende pruinas.

We also need to observe the stars of Arcturus, and the days of the Kids and bright Draco, as much as seamen do, sailing home over the windy seas, who take their chances with the ocean and the oyster-rich gulf of Abydos. When Libra has made the hours of the day and of sleep equal , and divided the world between light and darkness, then use your oxen, men, and sow barley until the rains of winter begin to make the ground unworkable; this is the time, too, to get flax and Ceres’ poppies into the ground, and bend over your plough as soon as you can, while the dry ground allows you and the rain hangs fire. But spring is the time to sow kidney beans: then the crumbling tilth is also ready for alfalfa; it is the season to get on with the millet, as Taurus, the snow-white Bull with gilded horns, brings the opening of the year and the dog-star, turning, has set to make way for him. But if you are working the ground for wheat and hardy spelt, and are after only grain, first let the Atlantides be no longer visible in the dawn sky, and the Cretan star of the fiery Crown have set before you commit the seed to the furrow and trust the prospects for the following year to ground which is not yet ready. Many have made a start before the Pleiades have set, to find that the crop they hoped for disappointed them with empty stalks. If you sow vetch and the humble bean, and are not too grand to grow Egyptian lentils, Boötes will send a sign that you can’t miss as it sets: press on, and sow up to the middle of the winter frosts.