Marcus and Annilio - Chapter 6


Ploughing with oxen is easier

The last traces of the winter’s snow have melted and the fields are covered in yellow flowering cowslips. In the sheep pen, the first new-born lambs are tripping around their mothers on wobbly legs, and the chickens have started laying more eggs again: that’s what Annilio likes best, because she loves eating eggs.

Marcus’ and Annilio’s fathers, Caius Terentius and Ateualus, plan to visit the estate of Gaius Septimius. Gaius Septimius is famous in the region for having the finest cattle, the richest soils, and the most productive fruit trees.

But Marcus’ mother doesn’t believe the half of such stories. As soon as her husband starts praising Gaius Septimius’s wonderful estate, she snorts: “They didn’t invent the wheel either, you know.”

“But one can always learn something new,” answers Marcus’ father. Maybe he’s just looking for an excuse to go out with his friend Ateualus again. And of course his son should also come with them: “Marcus will take over our estate someday. It’s never too early for him to begin learning how to manage the business,” he tells his wife.

“But he’s just a child,” Marcus’ mother protests. “He shouldn’t be spending all his time with grownups.”

“Why, then Annilio can come along too,” answers Marcus’ father gladly. He has come to love Ateualus’ daughter like his own, and he finds that she has a good influence on his shy son.

So they head off together. The path leads from the bay where Marcus and Annilio fished last summer and follows the northern lakeshore to the east. Every once in a while, the riders catch a glimpse of the lake and the distant mountains through the trees. The children are impressed by the size of the lake.

Annilio’s father points across the lake. “Our ancestors used to go to the big island over there when danger threatened. There’s still a large fort standing there with a wall and a moat.”

“That would be a good place to flee, if we’re attacked,” says Marcus’ father with a nod. “But I pray to Bedaius that we never need a place like that.”

His heavy words cast a shadow over the joy of travelling like a cloud covering the sun; the children realise that Caius Terentius is talking seriously.

Marcus’ father sees that he has frightened the children and changes the subject. “Gaius Septimius has so much property around his estate,” he tells them. “You’ve never seen the like.” They have now left the lakeshore and are heading up a hill. Marcus’ father points around them: “All these fields belong to him.”

Near the road, they see a man with a plough pulled by two enormous beasts. Annilio has never seen such huge animals; she almost falls from her horse with surprise.

“Are those oxen?” she asks her father.

“Those are oxen that are specially bred for working the fields,” explains Marcus’ father. Seeing Annilio’s questioning look, he adds: “Breeding means that over decades the strongest bulls are paired with the strongest cows to produce strong calves. The strongest and best of these calves are again paired, and so forth. In the end, you have mighty oxen like these, capable of ploughing big fields with heavy soil.”


The children would like to see the huge oxen close up and run over the freshly ploughed furrows towards them. The closer they come, the more enormous the animals appear. With bellowing snorts, the oxen pull a huge iron ploughshare through the earth behind them.

Annilio is excited to see how the iron plough cuts through the soil. In her village, two strong men work together to plough, with one of them pulling the ploughshare and the other steering. That is hard work. By comparison, these enormous beasts seem to be ploughing the earth effortlessly.

“Ho!” shouts the ploughman to the oxen and they come to a halt. “Come on over here,” he calls to the children.

Annilio cautiously reaches out to stroke one of the oxen on the flank. Its hide is warm and wet and ripples as the animal moves. The ox turns its head to look at her. It has huge soft eyes with long lashes. Suddenly a huge blueish tongue stretches out to lick her face.

„Iiiiih“, she screams.

“He likes you,” laughs the ploughman. “Would you like to try ploughing?” He steps down from the footboard to make room for Annilio. But the girl is much too light to sink the ploughshare into the earth. Even as Marcus climbs on to help her, they don’t have enough weight together. “You see, that’s why I’m doing the work, not you,” says the ploughman and steps back on the plough. “Hey, hey,” he shouts to the oxen, pulling on the reins, and the oxen plod off again.

The children run over the freshly ploughed field to the houses, where their fathers are sitting with the estate owner in his big storage room. Smoked ham and braids of onions hang from the ceiling; large amphorae are standing on the floor. Gaius Septimius is showing off his goods. “Here, I have a supply of fine imported olive oil. And the three amphorae are full of the best red wine from TEURNIA,” he announces proudly.

“And what’s in these?” asks Annilio pointing to a number of man-high earthenware vessels.

Gaius Septimius swells with pride. “Those are dolia filled with seed grain for the next sowing. Rye grows well in these parts.” Marcus’ and Annilios fathers nod appreciatively.

“Grrr!” Something grumbles loudly in the corner where Marcus is standing. All eyes turn to him. “That was just my stomach,” says Marcus blushing. “I’m afraid I’m hungry.”

“Of course, what a poor host I am!” says Gaius Septimius. “My wife has made melomeli for you: quinces cooked in honey. Just go to the kitchen.” Marcus and Annilio don’t have to be told twice.

The lady of the house is waiting in the kitchen with a huge bowl full of the thick golden syrup. She gives them two wooden spoons. “Dig in, you two!” And there’s fresh baked bread to go with it.

It’s sweet and sticky, just the way children like it. What a feast! Marcus and Annilio almost gorge themselves sick. They finally climb into the wagon to their fathers with full tummies. As they’re leaving, Marcus points and shouts:

“Look, the oxen are also getting something good to eat!” The ploughman is just leading the animals to the stables.

Annilio decides that she will have to talk her father into buying two oxen from Gaius Septimius for the village. Some of things the Romans have are really not so bad, no, not at all!

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