Vergil, political economy and parmesan cheese


Lavinia Maddaluno was Rome Fellow at the BSR in 2017-18. Here she speaks about some of her current research questions on the history of the use of classics in eighteenth-century economic writings.


‘Omnis feret omnia tellus’. This sentence means ‘every land shall bear all fruits’. It appears in Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, and is part of Vergil’s utopian description of a future and autarkic Golden Age, when soil will produce everything, making trade and commercial exchanges unnecessary:

‘Hinc ubi iam firmata virum te fecerit aetas, cedet et ipse mari vector, nec nautica pinus mutabit merces; omnis feret omnia tellus. non rastros patietur humus, non vinea falcem’

‘Next, when now the strength of the years has made thee man, even the trader shall quit the sea, nor shall the ship of pine exchange wares; every land shall bear all fruits. The earth shall not feel the harrow, nor the vine the pruning hook’ (transl. Henry Rushton Fairclough, 1916).

Being an early modern historian and not a classicist, I must say I first encountered this phrase in the negative form of ‘non omnis feret omnia tellus’ when I was completing my PhD thesis on the intersection of science and political economy in the eighteenth-century Duchy of Milan (Cambridge University, 2017).


More specifically, I came across it while reading a book on the production of parmesan cheese written by the first chair in agriculture at Pavia University, the botanist Giuseppe Bayle-Barelle in 1804. I started thinking further about it during my Rome Fellowship at the BSR (2017-2018), especially thanks to the continued exposure to various discussions on classical and archeological themes, something I was admittedly not that familiar with before my BSR sojourn.

But what can the use of this phrase tell us about political economy and, most importantly, why does it appear in a text on cheese?

Trying to answer my research questions, I found out that the negative version of Vergil’s ‘motto’ occurred in plenty of other eighteenth/early nineteenth-century Italian texts on political economy. I continued to enquire, and discovered that a whole history of the appropriations of this phrase in early modern Italian political economy treatises has yet to be written! Below are just some considerations which I hope to expand further and more in depth in article form over the next year or so.

Political economy is a field of investigation whose formal foundation dates back to 1754, in Naples, when the philosopher Antonio Genovesi was entrusted the first chair in economia politica. In short, political economy was about the strategies to produce, preserve, manage and increase the wealth of a state. Debates on political economy in eighteenth-century Europe often polarised, one of the most renowned polarisations being the Physiocracy/Mercantilist divide. Put simply, there was opposition between those political economic schools which claimed that the origin of wealth was to be found in agriculture exclusively, that is, in soil production, and those who instead argued that manufacturing production was also needed to assure the economic competitiveness of a state in the marketplace. It was also about a specific perspective on state intervention, and on the matter of grain trade in particular, with Physiocracy being inclined towards laisser-faire policies, and Mercantilism towards the encouragement of state intervention in the regulation of prices. However, such opposition not only obscured the idea of how wealth is produced, but also reflected a much more complex model of how human beings came to understand nature and the use of natural resources.

The context in which ‘non omnis feret omnia tellus’ kept appearing is that of pro-mercantilist writings which were critical of Physiocracy’s focus on agriculture, as well as of its belief in the universal applicability of political economic models to any state, independently of its geographical, historical, climatic and agricultural features. The use of the motto ‘non omnis feret omnia tellus’ was a way to acknowledge the limits of nature’s material productions, and stress the utopian character of autarky.

This is definitely the case with Bayle-Barelle, who used Vergil to shed light on the failure of Physiocratic models of wealth production, and suggested that states should focus on their economic strengths (and cheese in particular, in the case he is making) and import what they were unable to produce, rather than hold to the motto ‘omnis feret omnia tellus’ in the hope of being totally self-sufficient. Writing under Napoleon, Bayle-Barelle saw parmesan cheese as the epitome of northern Italian agricultural expertise, and a competitive product to exchange on the international market. Why dream of a self-generating and versatile soil or of acclimatizing exotic plants in greenhouses, if we can rely on the export of indigenous and local economic productions such as parmesan and simply import what we cannot produce? Bayle-Barelle was not the only one who appropriated Vergil’s sentence. A few decades earlier, Antonio Genovesi, the founder of political economy, had used it in his Lezioni di Commercio (1769) to shed light on the ‘necessity of commerce’, as opposed to visions of the self-enclosed state. The sentence also appeared in the Dialogues sur le commerce des blés (1770) by Ferdinando Galiani, Neapolitan ambassador in France in the 1760s, as a critical response to the Physiocratic obsession with agriculture as the exclusive origin of wealth. It also became a Republican and patriotic motto, which featured in the periodical Monitore di Roma (1798), in contributions written by the Jacobins Francesco Piranesi (son of the renowned engraver Giovanni Battista) and Giovanni Fiorani to restate the necessity of identifying the true agricultural potential of the short-lived Napoleonic Roman Republic (1798-1799).


F. Piranesi, Monitore di Roma, 4th October 1798, p.39. Sourced from:

At a time when cosmopolitanism has failed and has been replaced by idealistically self-sufficient models of wealth production and autarkic and nationalistic practices of the political, a study of the appropriations of Vergil’s motto in political economy treatises seems to be timely and relevant. Such study would shed light on the history of the use of classics in eighteenth-century economic writings, but also, more broadly, on how eighteenth-century economic thinkers situated the circulation of knowledge and practices of exchange between different cultures at the centre of economic and social development. I will continue this research in autumn 2018 as a Brill Fellow at the Scaliger Institute (Leiden), working on discourses on the import of wind technologies from the Netherlands to northern Italy, as part of a broader histoire croisée of scientific practices and ideas of political economy between Italy and Europe in the early modern period.

Lavinia Maddaluno (Rome Fellow 2017-18)