Lucius Iunius Columella, De Re Rustica XII.3.5-9

woman holding cup Gaudenia Nicene, freedwoman,
wife of Titus Aelius Evangelus, wool merchant
marble sarcophagus relief, 180 CE

The vilica, like her partner (contubernalis) the vilicus, received her title from her position as manager of a villa rustica, a residence with associated farm buildings and land on a country estate owned by another. Cato the Elder (234-149 BCE), in his prose manual on farming (De Agri Cultura, c.160 BCE), lists the pair among the "equipment" needed for an olive farm and a vineyard (De Agri Cultura 10-11); later, in sections 142-3, he speaks to the vilicus about the behavior and duties to be exacted from the vilica (see annotated text at WRW, pp. 130-131). Although his De re rustica, written in prose by Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BCE), survives in its entirety with its first book addressed to his wife Fundania, he only mentions the vilica to say she should be selected from among fellow slaves to bear children to the vilicus, and to disagree with Cato's inclusion of vilici in his list of farm materials (I.17.5-18.4).
The fullest ancient treatment of the vilica and her duties is by Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (4-c.70 CE), in his De Re Rustica, a handbook for owners of family farms and large estates about the principles and methods of farming, horticulture, livestock and slave management. Columella opens his Preface to Book 12 with what for the Greeks and Romans was an originating principle: that human existence was gendered, women being biologically and emotionally configured for indoor activities, men for outdoor, their species united toward a common cause. The vilica is introduced as a surrogate for the latter-day materfamilias who rejected domestic work for luxury and disdained residence away from the city in the villa rustica. In many ways, the vilica’s activities in the farmhouse echo the tasks of a wealthy matrona supervising her urban home, minus her upper-class social obligations. While in Cato’s time the vilica was surely a slave, in the mid-first century CE vilicae could be freedwomen or perhaps freeborn, although Columella observes early in his work that the dominus assigned a contubernalis mulier to partner the vilicus (I.8.5). In describing the appearance and qualities of the vilica, Columella is silent about her legal status: he advises that she be young, attractive, healthy, and for the sake of her mate, free of vices, intelligent, committed to her responsibilities for goods and slaves, and subject to the vilicus’ oversight (XII.1). He charges the vilica with storing goods in their proper places within the villa, organizing them by function and ordering them for use, an effective strategy, he notes, in other contexts. Columella opens the passage below on the duties of the vilica with a quote from Ischomachus' conversation with Socrates in Xenophon's Oeconomicus detailing how he trained his wife to manage his household.
The vilica appears elsewhere in Latin literature, always without a personal name, most frequently in Martial, but also across the centuries in the works of Cicero, Catullus, and Ausonius; surprisingly, the impoverished Juvenal boasts a Tiburtine farm from which his vilica selects quality produce for his table when she is not spinning wool (Saturae 11.64-69). For a description of the iconography of the sarcophagus which illustrates this essay, see Getty: Object Details; about ancient wool combing, see Hand Processing Wool; for a critique of scholarship on the vilica, see Roth in the Bibliography.


This passage is remarkable for its presentation of the vilica’s wide range of assigned duties inside and outside the house, and of her authority over the farm's workers, male stewards and herders. Not only is she expected to be a manager of goods, animals and humans, but to keep accounts of possessions and products as well, suggesting that the vilica had functional literacy and numeracy skills, or acquired them on the job. Nevertheless, her authority is derivative, granted to her by the ancients (see the opening of 3.5: haec nobis antiqui) and by the directives of the male author/master, who dominates, directs, and informs the passage through a series of indirect commands, complementary infinitives, and gerundive phrases. Further, the vilica’s actions are subject to regular supervision by her vilicus, and the occasional inspection of her dominus and matrona. Finally, the comparison of managing the villa to that of governing a city instantiates the masculine voice and places the vilica within the elite male governing perspective in the final sections of the chapter (3.10-11).

XII.3.5Igitur haec nobis antiqui per Ischomachi personam praecepta industriae ac diligentiae tradiderunt, quae nunc nos vilicae demonstramus.
Nec tamen una eius cura esse debebit ut clausa custodiat quae tectis illata receperit, sed subinde recognoscat atque consideret, ne aut supellex vestisve condita situ dilabatur aut fruges aliave utensilia neglegentia desidiaque sua corrumpantur;

XII.3.6pluviis vero diebus vel cum frigoribus aut pruinis mulier sub dio rusticum opus obire non potuerit, link ut ad lanificium reducatur praeparataeque sint et pectitae lanae, quo facilius iusta lanificio persequi atque exigere possit. link
Nihil enim nocebit, si sibi atque actoribus et aliis in honore linkservulis vestis domi confecta fuerit, linkquo minus patrisfamiliae rationes onerentur.

XII.3.7Illud vero etiam in perpetuum custodiendum habebit ut eos qui foris rusticari debebunt, cum iam e villa familia processerit, requirat, ac si quis, ut evenit, curam linkcontubernalis eius intra tectum tergiversans fefellerit, causam desidiae sciscitetur exploretque, utrum adversa valetudine inhibitus restiterit an pigritia delituerit et, si compererit vel simulantem languorem, sine cunctatione in valetudinarium deducat; praestat enim opere fatigatum sub custodia requiescere unum aut alterum diem quam pressum nimio labore veram noxam concipere.

XII.3.8Denique uno loco quam minime oportebit eam consistere.
Neque enim sedentaria linkeius opera est, sed modo ad telam debebit accedere ac si quid melius sciat, docere, si minus, addiscere ab eo qui plus intellegat; modo eos qui cibum familiae link link conficiunt invisere, tum etiam culinam et bubilia nec minus praesepia emundanda curare; valetudinaria quoque, vel si vacent ab inbecillis, identidem aperire et inmunditiis liberare, ut cum res exegerit, bene ordinata et salubria languentibus praebeantur;

XII.3.9promis quoque et cellariis aliquid appendentibus aut metientibus intervenire, nec minus interesse pastoribus in stabulis fructum cogentibus aut fetus ovium aliarumve pecudum subrumantibus; tonsuris vero earum utique interesse et lanas diligenter percipere et vellera ad numerum pecoris recensere; tum insistere atriensibus ut supellectilem exponant et aeramenta detersa nitidentur atque rubigine liberentur, ceteraque, quae refectionem desiderant, fabris concinnanda tradantur.


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