Marcus Terentius Varro was born into a plebeian family of equestrian rank in 116 BCE near Reate (mod. Rieti). He studied grammar under L. Aelius Stilo—who also taught Cicero—and later studied in Athens under the Academic philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon.
He led a rather illustrious civil and military career, becoming quaestor, tribune of the plebs, aedile, and praetor, probably in or close to the years in which he was allowed to run. He fought under C. Cosconius in the Third Dalmatian War in 78–77, which saw total Roman domination over Illyria and the Delmatae. He also served with Pompey against Sertorius in Spain and when the Senate gave Pompey command to defeat pirates around the Mediterranean.
After the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BCE, when he returned to Rome, he was tasked by Julius Caesar himself in creating a library in Rome to rival Alexandria.
During this period Varro was most famous for creating, in tandem with Julius Caesar’s reforms to the calendar (and thus the “Julian calendar”), a chronology of Roman events that has since become standard; he coined the term ab urbe condita (“from the founding of the city”) and calculated the founding of Rome by Romulus to the year 753, which has since remained the traditional date for the city’s foundation.
He died in 27 when he was 88 or 89 years old.
Varro’s only extant works are De Rebus Rusticis, an agricultural handbook in three books, and De Lingua Latina, a history and exploration of the Latin language.
The De Re Rustica (also known as the Res Rusticae or De Rebus Rusticis) was an agricultural handbook. His immediate predecessor would have been Cato’s De Agri Cultura, but unlike Cato’s treatise, it is organized according to theme. Book one concerns the cultivation of plants, book two livestock and dogs, and book three is on miscellaneous animals (chicken, bee, fish, and dormice). It was dedicated to his wife, Fundania.
Varro’s De Lingua Latina is even more impressive, twenty-five books covering the Latin language, from its history and etymologies of certain words to grammatical and syntactical usage. Such scholarship was fashionable in the first century BCE, as both Cicero and Caesar, the two greatest figures dominating the first half of the first century, wrote treatises on the subject.
Of this work, only five books survive. Books 5–7 cover unusual words and meanings, while books 8–10 are dedicated to the phenomenon of analogy, i.e. regularity of word derivations, as opposed to anomaly, or irregularities introduced into the language from usage or various sources. Though Varro sides with Caesar’s arguments, the section is nonetheless dedicated to Cicero.
Of the books which do not survive, the first four books were on etymologies (with book one being an introduction); books 11–13 continued the discussion on analogy; books 14–19 were on syntax; and books 20–25 were on stylistics and rhetoric.
There is considerable overlap with other lost works of his, chiefly the De Origine Linguae Latinae (“On the Origin of the Latin Language”) and the De Similitudine Verborum (“On the Similarity of Words”).
Varro also was active in literary criticism. Though he was not the first, he was perhaps the greatest literary scholar of the Roman Republic, and he had much competition. From the time of Accius, literary criticism and rhetorical studies were very popular in Rome, even after the censors closed the popular school of rhetoric headed by Plotius Gallus, the only inexpensive school that non-elites could have afforded. Cicero’s early rhetorical works and the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herenniam date from this era, and so certainly do some of Varro’s works.
Varro’s interest in origins led to a full exposition of early Roman poets and their poetry in the De Poetis (“On the Poets”) and De Poematis (“On Poetry”), as well as the same for the dramatists in De Originibus Scaenicis (“On the Origin of Drama”) and De Scaenicis Actionibus (“On the Plots of Drama”). He also contributed to the canonization of genuine v. spurious texts of Plautus with his Questiones Plautinae (“Plautine Questions”).
Among the most controversial of his lost works are the Saturae Menippeae (“Menippean Satires”). These satires were modeled off the novels written by Menippus, and instead of witty or scathing observations, were instead stories written in prose (often with some poetry intermixed) that lampooned or mocked individuals or societies through allusions. Varro was the first to write this type of satire in Latin, though since they do not survive, it is difficult to judge the resemblance to later works, such as Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis or Apuleius’ Golden Ass.
Beyond these works, the known titles to other works of his include the Antiquitates (“Antiquities”) in 25 books about antiquarian matters (an abridgment was also known in antiquity); De Vita Populi Romani, a “biography” of the Roman people in 4 books; the an autobiography; books on civil law (De Iure Civili); speeches, poems, and “pseudotragedies.”
Varro was quite possibly, in the words of Quintilian, the “most learned of the Romans” and, in the words of H. J. Rose, “the greatest scholar Rome has ever produced;” his output was tremendous. It is of great loss to historians and scholars everywhere that only a very small fraction of his works survives.
Latin: PHI Latin Texts
English: Attalus (De Lingua Latina)
English: Lacus Curtius (De Re Rustica)
- Elizabeth Rawson 1985. Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.