1902 Encyclopedia > Marcus Terentius Varro

Marcus Terentius Varro
Roman polymath and man of letters
(116-27 BC)




MARCUS TERENTIUS VARRO, Roman polymath and man of letters, lived from 116 to 27 B.C. When he was born, the Gracchan agitation had only just been laid to rest, and the year of his death saw the final and formal establish-ment of the empire. Into the changing life of that stirring time Varro entered deeply, and there was no current in thought, culture, literature, and even politics, with which he was not closely in contact. Few have ever so thoroughly combined the pursuit of scholarship and literature with experience of practical affairs. Dionysius of Halicarnassus well described him as the man of widest experience during his age. Nothing is known of Varro's ancestors but that they were natives of the Sabine country, where Varro himself was born in the town of Reate. Here he imbibed in his earlier years a good measure of the hardy simplicity and strong seriousness which the later Romans attributed to the men of the early republic,—characteristics which were supposed to linger in the Sabine land after they had fled from the rest of Italy. The chief teacher of Varro was L. ._Elius Stilo, the first systematic student, critic, and teacher of Latin philology and literature, and of the antiqui-ties of Rome and Italy. We know from Cicero that Varro also studied at Athens, especially under the philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon. It was the aim of this teacher to lead back the Academic school from the scepticism of Arcesilaus and Carneades to the tenets of the early Platon-ists, as he understood them. His opponents, however, declared that he identified Platonism with Stoic dogmatism, and that a very slight change in his views would have con-verted him into a Stoic of the Stoics. When Cicero wrote his Posterior Academics, he introduced Varro as an inter-locutor, and made him expound the views of Antiochus. The influence of Antiochus is most plainly to be traced in the extant remains of Varro's writings, and indirectly in works like the De Civitate Dei of Augustine, which owe much to Varro. In spite of controversial statements to the contrary, the differences between Antiocheanism and Stoicism were great and marked, and it is a serious, though a common, error to treat Varro as an adherent of the Stoic school. The political career of Varro seems to have been late and slow; but he arrived at the praetor-ship, after having been tribune of the people, quaestor, and curule aedile. In politics and war he followed Pompey's lead ; but it is probable that he was discontented with the course on which his leader entered when the first triumvirate was formed, and he may thus have lost his chance of rising to the consulate. He actually ridi-culed the coalition in a work entitled the Three-Headed Monster (TpLxcipavov in the Greek of Appian). He did not, however, refuse to join the commission of twenty by whom the great agrarian scheme of Caesar for the resettlement of Capua and Campania was carried into execution (59 B.C.). Despite the difference between them in politics, Varro and Caesar had literary tastes in common, and were friends in private life. Under Pompey Varro saw much active service : he was attached to Pompey as pro-quaestor, probably during the war against Sertorius in Spain. We next find him, as legate, in command of a fleet which kept the seas between Delos and Sicily, while Pompey was suppressing the pirates, and he even won the "naval crown," a coveted reward of personal prowess. A little later he was legate during the last Mithradatic war. In the conflict between Caesar and the Pompeian party Varro was more than once actively engaged. In his Civil War (ii. 17-20) Caesar tells how Varro, when legate in Spain along with Afranius and Petreius, lost his two legions without striking a blow, because the whole region where he was quartered joined the enemy. Caesar curiously inti-mates that, though Varro did his best for Pompey from a sense of duty, his heart was really with the other leader. Nevertheless he proceeded to Epirus before the battle of Pharsalia, and awaited the result at Dyrrachium in the company of Cicero and Cato. Like Cicero, Varro received harsh treatment from Mark Antony after the Pompeian defeat. Some of his property was actually plundered, but restored at the bidding of Caesar, to whom Varro in gratitude immediately dedicated one of his most important writings. The dictator employed the scholar in aiding him to collect and arrange great stores of Greek and Latin literature for the vast public library which he intended to found. We have glimpses of Varro at this time in the Letters of Cicero. The two, though alike in political inclinations and in their love for literature, were anti-pathetic in their natures,—the one soft in fibre, and vain, richly abundant in expression, and subtly sensitive, the other somewhat harsh, severe, and retiring, solid in learn-ing, and no master of literary form. The impression of Varro's personality which Cicero gives is unattractive enough, but probably on the whole true. The formation of the second triumvirate again plunged Varro into danger. Antony took possession anew of the property he had been compelled to surrender, and inserted Varro's name on the list of the proscribed. His friends, however, afforded him protection. He was able to make peace with the triumvirs, but sacrificed his property and much of his beloved library. He was permitted to spend in quiet study and in writing the last fifteen years of his life. He is said to have died (27 B.C.) almost pen in hand.
Varro was not surpassed in the compass of his writings by any ancient, not even by any one of the later Greek philosophers, to some of whom tradition ascribes a fabulous number of separate works. In a passage quoted by Gellius, Varro himself, when over seventy years of age, estimated the number of "books" he had written at 490 ; but " book" here means, not merely such a work as was not subdivided into portions, but also a portion of a sub-divided work. For example, the Menippean Satires numbered 150, and are all counted separately in Varro's estimate. Jerome made or copied a catalogue of Varro's works wdiich has come down to us in a mutilated form. From this and from other extant materials Ritschl has set down the number of the distinct literary works at 74 and the number of separate "books" at about 620. The later years of the author's life were therefore even more fruitful than the earlier. The complete catalogue may be roughly arranged under three heads,—(1) belles lettres, (2) history and antiquities, (3) technical treatises on philosophy, law, grammar, mathematics, philology, and other subjects.
The first of these three classes no doubt mainly belonged to Varro's earlier life. In poetry he seems to have attempted nothing that was very elaborate, and little of a serious character. His genius tended naturally in the direction of burlesque and satire.


In belles lettres he showed himself throughout, both in matter and form, the pupil and admirer of Lucilius. He wrote satires in the style of his master, and he may be one of those to whom Horace alludes (Sat., i. 10, 47) as having "tried satire in vain." One poetical work probably consisted of short pieces in the style of the more satirical poems of Catullus. It is doubtful whether, as has often been supposed, Varro wrote a philosophical poem somewhat in the style of Lucretius ; if so, it should rather be classed with the prose technical treatises. One curious production was an essay in popular illustrated literature, which was almost unique in ancient times. Its title was Imagines, and it consisted of 700 prose biographies of Greek and Roman celebrities, with a metrical elogium for each, accompanied in each case by a portrait. But the lighter works of Varro have perished almost to the last line, with the exception of numerous fragments of the Menippean Satires. The Menippus whom Varro imitated lived in the first half of the third century B.C., and was born a Phoenician slave. He became a Cynic philosopher, and is a figure familiar to readers of Lucian. He flouted life and all philosophies but the Cynic in light composi-tions, partly in prose and partly in verse. The fragments of Varro's imitations have been frequently collected and edited, most recently by Riese and by Biicheler. The glowing and picturesque account of these fragments given by Mommsen in his History of Rome is known to all students of Roman literature, but few readers could pass from Mommsen's picture to a careful study of the passages themselves wdthout severe disappointment. That the remains exhibit variety and fertility, that there are in them numerous happy strokes of humour and satire, and many felicitous phrases and descriptions, is true, but the art is on the whole heavy, awkward, and forced, and the style rudely archaic and untasteful. The Latin is frequently as rough and uncouth as that of Lucilius. No doubt Varro contemned the Hellenizing innovations by which the hard and rude Latin of his youth was transformed into the polished literary language of the late republican and the Augustan age. The titles of the Menippean Satires are very diverse. Sometimes personal names are chosen, and they range from the gods and demigods to the slaves, from Hercules to Marcipor. Frequently a popular proverb or catchword in Greek or Latin supplies the designation : thus we have as titles "I've got You" ("EX" ce); "You don't Know what Evening is to Bring" (ATescis quid vesper series vehat); " Know Thyself" (TvCidi creavrbv). Occasionally the heading indicates that the writer is flying at some social folly, as in "Old Men are Children for the Second Time" (Ais iraioes oi yipovres) and in the "Bachelor" (Cmlebs). In many satires the philosophers were pounded, as in the "Burial of Menippus" and " Concerning the Sects " (Hepi alpe<rio>v). Each composition seems to have been a genuine medley or "lanx satura": any topic might be introduced which struck the author's fancy at the moment. There are many allusions to persons and events of the day, but political bitterness seems to have been commonly avoided. The whole tone of the writer is that of a "laudator temporis aeti," who can but scoff at all that has come into fashion in his own day. From the numerous citations in later authors it is clear that the Menippean Satires were the most popular of Varro's writings. Not very unlike the Menippean Satires were the Libri Logistorici, or satirical and practical expositions, possibly in dialogue form, of some theme most commonly taken from philosophy on its ethical side. A few fragments in this style have come down to us and a number of titles. These are twofold : that is to say, a personal name is followed by words indicating the subject-matter, as Marius, de. Fortuna, from which the contents may easily be guessed, and Sisenna, de Historia, most likely a dialogue in wdiich the old annal-ist of the name was the chief speaker, and discoursed of the principles on which history should be written. Among the lighter and more popular works may be mentioned twenty-two books of Orations (probably never spoken), some funeral eulogies (Lauda-tiones), some "exhortations" (Suasiones), conceivably of a political character, and an account of the author's own life.
The second section of Varro's works, those on history and antiquities, form to the present day the basis on which a large part of our knowledge of the earlier Roman history, and in particular of Roman constitutional history, ultimately rests. These writings were used as a quarry by the compilers and dilettanti of later times, such as Pliny, Plutarch, Gellius, Festus, Macrobius, and by Christian champions like Tertullian, Arnobius, and Augustine, who did not disdain to seek in heathen literature the means of defending their faith. These men have saved for us a few remains from the great wreck made by time. Judging from what has been casually preserved, if any considerable portion of Varro's labours as anti-quarian and historian were to be now discovered, scholars might find themselves compelled to reconstruct the earlier history of the Roman republic from its very foundations. Varro's greatest pre-decessor in this field of inquiry, the man who turned over the virgin soil, was Cato the Censor. His example, however, seems to have remained unfruitful till the time of Varro's master, Lucius jElius Stilo Prseconinus. From his age to the decay of Roman civilization there were never altogether wanting men devoted to the study of their nation's past; but none ever pursued the task with the advan-tages of Varro's comprehensive learning, his indefatigable industry, and his reverent, yet discriminating regard for the men and the in-stitutions of the earlier ages. The greatest work of this class was that on Antiquities, divided into forty-one books. Of these the first twenty-five were entitled the Antiquities of Hitman Things (Antiquilates Rerum Humanarum), while the remaining sixteen were designated the Antiquities of 1'hings Divine (Antiquilates Rerum Divinarum). The book was the fruit of Varro's later years, in wdiich he gathered together the material laboriously amassed through the period of an ordinary lifetime. The second division of the work was dedicated to Caesar as supreme pontiff. The design was as far-reaching as that of the Natural History of Pliny. The general heads of the exposition in the secular portion of the book were four,—(1) "who the men are who act (qui agant), (2) the places in which they act (ubi), (3) the times at wdiich they act (quando), (4) the results of their action (quid agant)." In the portion relating to divine affairs there were divisions parallel to these four, with a fifth, which dealt wdth the gods in whose honour action in divine affairs is taken. Our knowledge of this great book is to a large ex-tent derived from the works of the early Christian writers, and especi-ally from Augustine's De Civiiate Dei. These lights of the church, as was natural, directed their attention mainly to the portion which treated of the religion of Rome. A glance at the authorities quoted in such a book as Preller's R'omische Mythologie will suffice to show how largely the imperfect indeed, but nevertheless invaluable, in-formation now attainable concerning the older and un-Hellenized forms of Roman and Italian religious rites depends on the citations by Christian authorities from the Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum. It is a great misfortune that no similar series of citations from the secular part of the Antiquitates has come down to us. Most of the other historical and antiquarian writings of Varro were special elaborations of topics wdiich he could not treat wdth sufficient ful-ness and minuteness in the larger book. The treatise on the Genealogy of the Roman People dealt mainly with the relation of Roman chronology to the chronology of Greece and the East. Dates were assigned even to mythological occurrences, because Varro believed in the theory of Euhenierus, that all the beings worshipped as gods had once lived as men. To Varro's researches are due the traditional dates assigned to the era of the kings and to that of the early republic. Minor writings of the same class were the De Vita Populi Romani, apparently a kind of history of Roman civilization ; the De Familiis Trojanis, an account of the families who "came over " with iEneas ; the jUtia (Atria), an explanation of the origin of Roman customs, on which Plutarch drew largely in his Qusestiones Romans ; a Tribuum Liber, used by Festus ; and the constitutional handbook written for the instruction of Pompey when he became consul. Nor must the labsur expended by Varro in the study of literary history be forgotten. His activity in this direction, as in others, took a wide range. One of his greatest achievements was to fix the canon of the genuine plays of Plautus. The " Varronian plays " were the twenty which have come down to us, along with one which has been lost.
The third class of treatises, which we have called technical, was also numerous and very varied. Philosophy, grammar, the history and theory of language, rhetoric, law, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, mensuration, agriculture, naval tactics, were all repre-sented. The only works of this kind which have come down to our days are the De Lingua Latina (in part) and the De Re Rustica. The former originally comprised twenty-five books, three of which (the three succeeding the first) are dedicated to a P. Septimius who had served wdth the author in Spain and the last twenty-one to Cicero. The whole work was divided into three main sections, the first dealing wdth the origin of Latin words, the second with their inflexions and other modifications, the third wdth syntax. The books still preserved (somewhat imperfectly) are those from the fifth to the tenth inclusive. The Latin style is harsh, rugged, and far from lucid. As Mommsen remarks, the clauses of the sentences are often arranged on the thread of the relative pronoun like thrushes on a string. The arrangement of the subject-matter, while pretending to much precision, is often far from logical. The fifth, sixth, and seventh books give Varro's views on the etymology of Latin words. The principles he applies are those wdiich he had learned from the philosophers of the Stoic school,—Chrysippus, Antipater, and others. The study of language as it existed in Varro's day was thoroughly dominated by Stoic influences. Varro's etymologies could be only a priori guesses, but he was well aware of their character, and very clearly states at the outset of the fifth book the hindrances that barred the way to sound knowledge. He was thoroughly alive to the importance of not arguing merely from the forms and meanings of words as they existed in his day, and was fully conscious that language and its mechanism should bo studied historically. The books from the eighth to the tenth in-clusive are devoted to the inflexions of wrords and their other modifications. These Varro classes all under the head of "de-clinatio," wdiich implies a swerving aside from a type. Thus Hereuli from Hercules and manubria from manus are equally regarded as examples of declinatio. Varrò adopts a compromise between the two opposing schools of grammarians, those who held that nature intended the declinaliones of all words of the same class to proceed uniformly (which uniformity was called analogia) and those who deemed that nature aimed at irregularity (anomalia). The matter is treated with considerable confusion of thought. But the facts incidentally cited concerning old Latin, and the state-ments of what had been written and thought about language by Varro's predecessors, are of extreme value to the student of Latin. The other extant prose work, the Be Re. Rustica, is in three books, each of which is in the form of a dialogue, the circumstances and in the main the interlocutors being different for each. The dramatic introductions and a few of the interludes are bright and interesting, and the Latin style, though still awkward and unpolished, is far superior to that of the De Lingua Latina.
A complete collection of the remains of Varrò is still a desideratum. The
fragments of the different treatises have been partially collected in many
separate publications of recent date. The best editions of the De Lingua Latina
are those by C. O. Miiller and by L. Spengel (re-edited by his son in 1S85). The
most recent and best recension of the De Re Rustica is that of Keil (Leipsic,
1884). Of modern scholars Eitschl has deserved best of Varrò. Several papers
in his Opuscula treat of the nature of Varro's works which have not come
down to us. (J- S. R.)









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