Marcus Terentius Varro Additional Biography


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

Article abstract: Roman scholar{$I[g]Roman Republic;Marcus Terentius Varro[Varro]} Varro contributed to every field of abstract and practical knowledge extant in his day, established the worthiness of intellectual pursuits such as linguistic study and encyclopedism, and left a body of knowledge that, directly or indirectly, has informed and influenced writers and scholars ever since.

Early Life

Marcus Terentius Varro (VAHR-oh) was sometimes called Marcus Terentius Varro Reatinus because he was born in Reate, in the Sabine region of modern Italy. His family, which owned vast estates there, was considered to be of equestrian, or knightly, rank, although certain ancestors had attained noble rank by holding office in the senate. Varro’s parents had the means to obtain for him the best education available at the time. This included a long sojourn in the capital, where he studied under the Stoic Stilo Praeconinus (who taught Cicero ten years later) and afterward a period in Athens, during which he studied philosophy with Antiochus of Ascalon, the academic. Stilo Praeconinus, the first Roman grammarian and philologist, was also a learned historian of Roman antiquity, and under his tutelage Varro soon showed an extraordinary aptitude for these pursuits.

Life’s Work

As a gifted scholar, Varro could have kept himself apart from public life had he so chosen. Until he was nearly seventy, however, he remained deeply involved in both politics and the military. To people of his own era, this was not contradictory, for few of Varro’s contemporaries were inclined to draw a strict boundary between intellectual and public life. Julius Caesar, during his march through the Alps to Gaul, composed a treatise on Latin grammatical inflections that he dedicated to Cicero. Indeed, political leaders such as Cicero and Caesar spent many adult years studying philosophy and ancient history, trying to draw lessons that would help them govern justly and wisely.

Varro’s political and military career was closely allied with that of Pompey the Great. In 76 b.c.e. he served under Pompey in a military campaign against the rebel Quintus Sertorius in Spain. Afterward, Varro entered public office, serving first as tribune (a magistrate of the people with veto power over senate actions), then as curule aedile (roughly, superintendent of public works), and finally as praetor, or judicial officer. In 67, he held a naval command under Pompey in the war against the Cilician pirates, who, for a time, had virtually controlled the Mediterranean Sea. From 66 to 63 Varro served, again under Pompey, in the third war against Mithradates the Great, king of Pontus. From 52 to 48, during the civil war between Pompey and Caesar, Varro commanded two legions for Pompey in Spain. On August 2, 48, two other Pompeian commanders in Spain capitulated to Caesar, and Varro, probably under pressure from his soldiers, was forced to follow suit. Afterward, like Cicero and Cato the Younger, he went to Dyrrachium, a sort of neutral corner, to await the outcome of the Battle of Pharsalus, which decided the entire conflict in Caesar’s favor.

Varro and Caesar had remained on friendly terms during even the bitterest conflict between Caesar and Pompey. In 48 Pompey was murdered by agents of the Egyptian king, and the following year the victorious Caesar pardoned Varro and restored to him lands that had been seized by Marc Antony. Caesar also appointed Varro head of the great public library that was then being planned. Thus began the period of the works and accomplishments for which Varro is best remembered and which earned for him the title (bestowed by Quintilian in the first century c.e.) of “the most learned of Romans.”

A profile of Varro, bearded and wearing a woolen, Greek-style cap, appears on an ancient coin now housed in the Museo Nazionale Romano. Most Roman men did not grow beards, although Greek men did, and Varro may have worn one along with the cap as a sign of his intellectual vocation, which was commonly associated with Greece rather than with Rome. Alternatively, regardless of Varro’s actual appearance, the designer of the coin may have simply portrayed him in this fashion for symbolic purposes.

Varro is remembered, among many other reasons, for compiling in Rome what was to be the first library for public use. He concentrated on three types of prose works: the writings of the antiquarians, treatises by grammarians and philologists (by this time Stilo Praeconinus’s new disciplines had come into their own), and works on practical subjects such as husbandry and domestic economy. His collection served as a kind of stylistic barometer for the times: The Ciceronian style dominated the prose of theoretical works, especially in philosophy, rhetoric, and history, while the sparser, more direct expression of Cato the Censor set the standard for practical treatises. In addition to Latin works in these genres, Varro acquired for his collection many volumes in Greek.

Although he seems generally to have ignored poetry (which was then in temporary eclipse), he is credited with establishing the canon of dramatic verse certifiably written by Plautus—some twenty-one plays, constituting what is called the Fabulae Varronianae—and, according to Aulus Gellius, Varro also wrote literary and dramatic criticism of Plautus.

Varro’s unprecedented collection of books for public use proved of enormous benefit to contemporary scholars. As Rome passed from a republican to an Imperial form of government, interest in Roman antiquity grew rapidly, and there developed a new fraternity of researchers and historians who made whatever use they could of the early records and works by the pioneering annalists of Rome. Before the formation of Varro’s public library—as in Great Britain and the United States at comparable periods of their development—a literary worker had to depend on the generosity of private library owners for a look at such rare works and records.

Though he now was devoted to the pursuits of scholarship and librarianship that were his forte, Varro had one remaining practical challenge to face. In 47, nearly seventy years old, he had retired altogether from political life when he accepted Caesar’s appointment as librarian. Nevertheless, after Caesar was assassinated in 44 b.c.e. and Octavian, Marc Antony, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate, Antony declared Varro an enemy of the state and had him proscribed, that is, banished from the vicinity of Rome. Varro’s home near the capital was destroyed, as was his private library, containing not only thousands of works by other writers but also many of the hundreds of volumes he himself had written up to his seventy-third year, when he was banished. If not for the proscription, with its destructive aftermath—an all-too-common occurrence in that period of Roman...

(The entire section is 2839 words.)