Marcus Terentius Varro

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Marcus Terentius Varro

Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 B.C.) was the greatest Roman scholar and an incredibly prolific writer. It is estimated that he wrote 74 separate works in 620 volumes on all aspects of contemporary learning.

Varro was born at Reate in the Sabine country into a family of some means. He was educated at Rome under L. Aelius Stilo, the first Roman philologist, and at Athens. As a follower of Pompey (against Julius Caesar) in the political struggles of the time, he held several public offices at Rome and carried out other assignments, some military, for his leader. He served under Pompey in the civil war. When he returned to Rome after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C., Caesar, the victor, pardoned him and commissioned him to establish a public library of Greek and Latin literature.

After Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C., Mark Antony put Varro's name on the list of those considered to be enemies of the state. Although his villa was plundered and his library destroyed, Varro escaped death through the intervention of Octavian (later Augustus). Thereafter, Varro spent his remaining years in seclusion, reading and writing.

Wide Range of Subjects

Varro's range of subjects was vast, although only a small number of works are extant. He wrote 150 books of Menippean satire (a mixture of poetry and prose on a variety of topics), plus other satires, poems, and dramatic works; 41 books called Antiquities of Things Human and Divine; Annals; City Affairs; On the Nationality of the Roman People, dealing with the origins of the Romans; On the Life of the Roman People, an outline of Roman civilization; Causes, an investigation into Roman customs; and Logistorici, philosophical essays using historical examples.

Varro also wrote Civil Law; The Seashore, a treatise on geography; works on meteorology; and almanacs for farmers and sailors. He produced books on rhetoric, grammar, poets, poetry, and stage equipment, as well as criticism of the Roman dramatist Plautus. He innovated the illustrated biography. Called Portraits, it contained brief biographical essays on some 700 famous Greeks and Romans, with likenesses of each.

Varro also wrote on agriculture, mathematics, and astronomy. His Subjects for Learning set forth in 9 books a curriculum in the liberal arts, that is, areas of learning in which a free man should be knowledgeable: grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine, and architecture. Antiquities contained 25 books on "matters human" and 16 on "matters divine." The work reflected Varro's immense knowledge of the Roman past. The Church Fathers used it as a rich source of information about official Roman religion.

Menippean Satires

The Menippeae saturae consists of a form of satire that predates that of Lucilius, the first Roman satirist. Varro named his satires after the Greek Menippus of Gadara, a Cynic philosopher of the 3d century B.C. who wrote in a seriocomic style and gave humorous expression to serious views, and whose works were a mixture of prose and poetry. Varro's satires were originally in 150 books, but only fragments remain, totaling some 600 lines and about 90 titles. They aimed to make serious logical discussion palatable to the uneducated reader by blending it with humorous treatment of contemporary society. Two themes run through the satires. One is the absurdity of much of Greek philosophy; the other, the contemporary preoccupation with material luxury, in contrast to the old days, when the Romans were thrifty and self-denying. Various titles indicate something of the spirit of the work: "Who can tell what the late evening will bring?" (on dinner parties); "It's a long trip to escape your relatives"; and "A pot has its limits: on drunkenness." Both Petronius's Satyricon and Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae were influenced by Varro's work.

Latin Language

Of the 25 books of De lingua Latina, books 5-10 survive, although even they are incomplete. After an introduction (book 1), the work was divided into etymology (2-7), inflection (8-13), and syntax (14-25). From the fifth book on, it was dedicated to Cicero, which suggests that it was written no later than 43 B.C. Although the work is dry, pedantic, and often clumsy, it does contain occasional flashes of wit and often accurate etymologies. Moreover, it is a valuable source for quotations from old Latin poets. Books 8-10 set forth the arguments for accepting either the linguistic principle of anomaly or that of analogy. Varro argues in favor of analogy—as did Caesar's work on grammar, which Varro probably influenced. Although Varro's philosophy of language had its limitations, he realized the necessity of getting back to origins in the study of grammar, and he made the subject worthy of notice.

Treatise of Country Life

Varro wrote Res rusticae for his wife, Fundania, in haste, he said, for "if man is a bubble, all the more so is an old man. My eightieth year warns me to pack my bags before I set forth on the journey out of life." However, Varro lived for another 10 years. The treatise is divided into three books, the first on agriculture, the second on cattle, and the third on game and fish preserves. He used dialogue to make it more readable. The spirit of Res rusticae is very Italian and very patriotic. Varro admires the peasantry and exalts country life as honorable as well as useful. The work was a source for Virgil's Georgics.

Varro was a shrewd, practical man rather than a profound one, possessed of an encyclopedic rather than a synthesizing mind. He did try, however, to know all there was to be known, and to pass his knowledge on to his fellow Romans. In fact, he was so committed to conveying information to the uneducated that he wrote résumés of some of his longer works.

Cicero's praise for Varro indicates the value of his labors to Roman learning: "When we were foreigners and wanderers—strangers, as it were, in our own land—your books led us home and made it possible for us at length to learn who we were as Romans and where we lived."

Further Reading

For Varro's place in Roman literature see the background works by J. Wight Duff, A Literary History of Rome, from the Origins to the Close of the Golden Age (1909; 3d ed. 1960) and Roman Satire (1936). □

Varro, Marcus Terentius

views updated May 18 2018


(b. Reate, Italy, 116 B.C.; d. Rome, 27 B.c.)

encyclopdism, polymathy, biology.

Varro, whom Quintilian dubbed “the most learned of he Romans,” came from an obscure equestrian family at Reate in the Sabine country. He studied under the Stoic grammarian L. Aelius Stilo at Rome and with the Academic philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon at Athens. Varro devoted most of his life to public service. From 86 b.c. to 43 b.c., he proceeded through the ranks of the cursus honorum until he reached the office of praetor. During the Civil War he led Pompeian forces in Spain; after the death of Pompey he was pardoned by Caesar. In 47 b.c. Caesar appointed him director of the proposed public library at Rome. Proscribed by Antony in 43 b.c., Varro’s villa and library were seized. Having escaped the death sentence, he devoted the remainder of his life to scholarship.

Varro was the most prolific of all Roman authors, writing more than 620 books under seventy–four different titles. Of these works, only the three books of De re rustica are substantially complete. Books V to X are extant from the twenty–five–book study De lingua Latina. For Varro’s other writings, only fragments are extant. His lost works include the 150 books of the popular Saturae Menippeae, the treatises of the Logistoricon libri LXXVI, the 700 illustrated biographies of famous Greeks and Romans in the Imagines, the Antiquitatum rerum humanarum et divinarum libri XLI, and the highly influential Discipliarum libri IX.

Varro began his agricultural treatise De re rustica when he was eighty years ole. Written in the form of a dialogue, this handbook on husbandry discusses general agricultural practices, domestic cattle, and small livestock–poultry, game birds, bees, and fish. The three books of this study were based on Greek and Latin sources and on Varro’s own agricultural experiences. It presents a comprehensive view of Roam farming techniques.

De lingua Latina is a philological study of the Latin language. In its entirety it contained an examination of etymology, inflections, and syntax. While its etymology is often fanciful, it does contain perceptive comments on early Latin words. The extant portions of this treatise include approximately half of the books on etymology and inflections.

Varro’s most lasting scientific legacy was the orientation he gave to later scholarship. In his lost Disciplinarum libri IX, Varro introduced the Greek encyclopedic tradition into Roman thought. The Disciplinae was an encyclopedia of the liberal arts based on Greek sources. Containing chapters on the traditional Greek trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music), along with sections on medicine and architecture, it was designed to provide a survey of the knowledge needed by a free man. Later scholars deleted medicine and architecture, which became professional studies, and retained the subjects of Varro’s trivium and quadrivium as the basis for medieval education.

Varro’s work popularized both the encyclopedic tradition and the liberal arts. Ultimately, handbook and encyclopedias based on excerpts from the writings of earlier authorities became a fundamental part of Roman scientific thought.


I. Original Works. From antiquity to the present, Varro’s De re rustica has usually appeared with Cato’s agricultural treatise, The editio princeps of Varro’s study was published by Nicolas Jenson at Venice in 1472. Other editions soon followed at Bologna in 1494 and Venice in 1514. Modern editions include those published at Leipzig in 1884 and 1929, and at Cambridge in 1935.

De lingua Latina has also appeared in a number of editions. The date and place of publication of the editio princepts by Pomponius Laetus in unknown. There were a number of fifteenth– and sixteenth–century editions: Rome, 1474; Venice, 1475, 1483, 1492, 1498, 1513; Milan, 1510; and Paris, 1529. There have also been a number of modern editions: Berlin, 1826; Leipzig, 1910; and Cambridge, 1938.

II. Secondary Literature. Accounts of Varro’s life and works may be found in Conrad Cichorius, HistorischeStudien zu Varro (Bonn, 1922), 189–241; Gaston Boissier, Etude sur la vie et ouvrags de M. T. Varron (Paris, 1861); Hellfried Dahlmann, “M. Terentius Varro” in Pauly–Wissowa, Real–Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, supp. vol. VI (1935), 1172–1277; Jens Erik Skydsgaard, Varro the Scholar (Copenhagen, 1968); and William H. Stahl, Roman Science (Madison, Wis., 1962).

Numerous bibliographical references may be found in L’année philologique.

Phillip Drennon Thomas

Marcus Terentius Varro

views updated May 23 2018

Marcus Terentius Varro

116-27 b.c.e.

Statesman, librarian, polymath


Prolific Author. Varro was one of Rome’s most prolific writers, having written some 490 books, of which only two have survived. The rhetorician Quintilian called him “the most learned of the Romans.” His family was a member of the middle, or equestrian, class. Born at Reate in the Sabine region of Italy, he studied in Rome under L. Aelius Stilo, who was a Stoic grammarian, and in Athens under Antiochus of Ascalon, a philosopher at the Academy. Elected to his first government position in 86 B.C.E., he rose in the offices until he became Praetor. He served in Spain in support of Pompey during the Civil War, but Julius Caesar pardoned him after Pompey’s death. In 47 B.C.E. Caesar appointed him as director of a library, but misfortune followed him when he made an enemy with Mark Antony, who proscribed him. His life was spared but much of his property was confiscated. The remainder of his life was given over to scholarship and writing. His range of interests was astonishing, from history and rhetoric, to law and medicine, to architecture and literature. His two extant works are De lingua Latina, on Latin grammar, and De re rustica, on agriculture.


Jens Erik Skydsgaard, Varro the Scholar: Studies in the First Book of Varro’s De re rustica (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1968).

G. J. Toomer, “Nicomachus,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, third edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 1042.

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