Marcus Verrius Flaccus Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman language and literature teacher{$I[g]Roman Republic;Marcus Verrius Flaccus[Verrius]} A onetime slave, Verrius established at Rome an innovative method for the teaching of Latin language and literature and, through his studies of Roman antiquities, contributed to modern understanding of Latin literature and Roman history.

Early Life

The biographer Suetonius supplies the basic biographical information about Marcus Verrius Flaccus (VEHR-ee-uhs FLAK-uhs) in his essay De grammaticis et rhetoribus (c. 120 c.e.; Lives of the Grammarians). This work by Suetonius, a discussion of teachers active in Rome during the last half of the first century b.c.e., includes the statement “Marcus Verrius Flaccus the freedman was especially renowned for his method of teaching.” Nothing of Verrius’s background is known except for his freedman’s status and the probable name of his former master, Marcus Verrius. (Manumitted Roman slaves normally took the first and family names of their former owner.)

The name Verrius points to the region about Naples, where others with precisely the same nomenclature and many of the same family name are known. Scholarly work that Verrius did late in his life for the Roman town of Praeneste (modern Palestrina), however, has suggested to some that Verrius may have had an early connection with this town 23 miles (37 kilometers) southeast of Rome.

Life’s Work

During Verrius’s time, several men of letters with similar backgrounds established private schools in Rome for the instruction of Latin language and literature. These schools normally took children at the age of eleven for several years of training in the reading, recitation, and writing of Latin, while other schoolmasters might also have trained the same students in Greek language and literature. Verrius’s school was notable because he forced his students to compete in writing and recitation, with prizes of rare literary editions for the victors. Verrius thus attracted the attention of the emperor Augustus, who invited Verrius to move his school to the Imperial palace and tutor—at a salary equal to that of a senior administrator—the emperor’s young grandsons, Gaius and Lucius. The appointment of Verrius as Imperial tutor must have occurred between 8 and 11 b.c.e. and is no doubt the reason for Saint Jerome’s assertion that Verrius “flourished” in 8 b.c.e.

Verrius wrote on a variety of subjects. Rerum memoria dignarum (things worth remembering), to judge from references to this work by Pliny the Elder and other ancient scholars, ranged from elephants to Roman religious lore and rituals. Other writings touched on the Etruscans and on Roman traditions. Several important works treated the Latin language: De orthographia (on correct spelling) apparently urged a return to old-fashioned ways of spelling (and pronouncing) Latin words; De obscuris Catonis (obscurities in Cato) explained unusual words in the orations and writings of Cato the Censor (who died in 149 b.c.e.). Verrius’s most influential work was his dictionary, De verborum significatu (on the meaning of words). This work, the first Latin lexicon, was an alphabetical list of Latin words with definitions, etymologies, and frequent quotations of examples of usage drawn from archaic Latin texts (c. 250-100 b.c.e.) otherwise unknown. For example, the dictionary’s entry under quartarios reads:

Romans used to call muleskinners hired on contract “fourth-parters”...

(The entire section is 1472 words.)