GET A WHIFF OF THE PRESS
The ancient Greeks and Romans had a number of writers on agriculture. Three of them can be singled out because of the volume of their works that are known today. A Greek, Theothrastus, lived in the 4th century B.C. Two Romans, Pliny the Elder and Columella, lived in the 1st century A.D. and wrote extensively on nature and agriculture.
We know very little about Columella (Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella), not even his date of birth or death. Aside from his mentioning various 1st-century people he knew, and that he was born in Gades (now Cadiz in Spain) and seems to have lived a long life, he is a rather blank page. It seems certain he left Roman Spain at an early age and settled in the Italian Peninsula. He also probably served in the Roman army for a time.
Like our modern writers on agriculture, the ancients concentrated on the big cash crops of their day. They speak at great length on wheat, oats, barley, various tree crops and livestock. You have to hunt for the references to the alliums.
One oddity I found was that there are a total of 8 references to onions in Coumella's 12 volumes of On Agriculture, and 7 references to garlic-and 13 to leeks! Were leeks more important then than onions and garlic? Columella (also Pliny) makes no mention of onion or garlic farms, perhaps most were grown in people's yards or on their farms. Leeks produce a lot of seeds per plant; possibly they liked this and preferred to plant the seeds yearly, instead of separating garlic cloves.
After several hundred pages with no allium references, we must go all the way to Vol. VI to find our very first allium reference, this wonderful animal remedy!
A number of other such exotic mixtures are given, with no explanation of how you force these vile concoctions down the nostrils of an enraged bull.
Then no more allium comments until Vol. VIII, and it is on raising peafowl and chickens. Speaking on chicks, we get this expert advice on feeding them:
During the first days they should be fed on barley meal sprinkled with wine and with gruel made from any kind of cereal and allowed to go cold. Then, after a few days, a Tarentine leek cut up small should be added to their diet and soft cheese, etc.
No more mention of alliums is made until Vol. X. A few meaningless lines are given in a long poem. Then he has a calendar for gardeners, and says in the month of February you plant onion and leek seeds, and adds: "for ordinary garlic and African garlic are the last seeds that can be planted at this season." Interestingly, he says leeks and onions should be started in a sunny location and transplanted by the 1st of April. And what is African garlic? The German translation of Lundstrom says it is "either a form of A. sativum or A. nigrum." What is A. nigrum?
Columella then says: the African garlic, which some people call Carthaginian garlic, is of a much greater growth than the ordinary garlic, and about October 1st, before it is planted, will be divided from one head into several.
He also has some advice that sounds quite up-to-date even now:
Apparently great-headed leeks (Elephant garlic) were known then. He tells us:
In Vol. XI we get some advice on raising onions:
Columella gives a number of recipes in Vol. XII, which I will forego, as they seem possibly lethal. But he also has some excellent advice along the way: Ground does not wear out if properly manured. And he advises crop rotation, alternating a grain and a legume, which is exactly what our farmers do today when they alternate soybeans and corn. And the above-mentioned raised beds. He was a smart cookie