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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
De Re Rustica

M. Terentius Varro

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1934

The text is in the public domain.

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On Agriculture

 p. xiv  Introduction

Life and Works of Varro​1

Marcus Terentius Varro (116‑27 B.C.), sometimes called Varro Reatinus to distinguish him from his namesake Varro Atacinus, was born in the Sabine town of Reate,​a probably of a family of equestrian rank. Devoting himself early in life to the study of literature and antiquities, he came under the instruction of the learned antiquarian and philologist, Lucius Aelius Stilo, and later studied at Athens under the Academic philosopher, Antiochus of Ascalon.

In public life Varro was attracted to the Pompeian party, and under the political banner of Pompey he held the offices of tribune, curule aedile, and praetor. He was commissioned by the First Triumvirate, in 59, as a member of the Board of Twenty delegated for the assignment of land grants to veterans in Campania. He served as pro-quaestor of Pompey in Spain, probably against Sertorius in 76. As lieutenant to Pompey in 67 he took part in the war which cleared the Mediterranean of pirates, winning the corona navalis for his personal exploits. He seems also to have served in the same capacity in the last war with Mithridates. In 49 he again commanded Pompeian forces in Spain, though soon forced to surrender to the Caesarians after the desertion of a part of his forces. Pardoned by xvCaesar, he rejoined Pompey in Greece, but played no active part in the remainder of the war. He returned to Rome after the battle of Pharsalus, to receive again the ready forgiveness of Caesar. Shortly thereafter he was commissioned by Caesar to superintend the collection and arrangement of a great library of Greek and Latin literature destined for public use.​2 In the same year he recovered, by Caesar's orders, some of the property which had been seized by Antony after the defeat of the Pompeians, including, it is said, his estate at Casinum. As a mark of gratitude to Caesar he dedicated to him the second part of his Antiquities. With the formation of the Second Triumvirate in 43, Varro again became the victim of Antony. His name appeared on the lists of the proscribed, and much of his property, including his library, was plundered. Barely escaping with his life, through the intervention of Octavianus, he spent the closing years of his long and active career in seclusion, devoting himself to study and writing.

In the field of learning Varro laboured with a diligence equalling, if not surpassing, that of the elder Pliny. The extent and variety of his erudition in nearly all branches of learning won for him the title vir Romanorum eruditissimus.​3 Retaining his keen mental vigour up to the time of his death, in his ninetieth year, he produced an enormous mass of literature. He himself claimed​4 at the beginning of his seventy-eighth year to have written "seventy times seven" books, many of which had been lost xviin the plundering of his library at the time of his proscription. From this statement, taken with Jerome's catalogue and other evidence, Ritschl estimates the number of his separate literary works to have been 74, and the grand total of books as close to 620. Out of this great bulk we possess, apart from some fragments, only six imperfect books on the Latin language and three books on agriculture.

Varro's writings may be grouped roughly under three heads: belles lettres, history and antiquities, and technical treatises on a great variety of subjects. To the first group belong the 150 books of Menippean Satires,​5 medleys in prose and verse in the manner of the dialogues of Menippus of Gadara, Cynic philosopher of the third century B.C. — a work of considerable importance in the history of literature. In the second group may be placed the 15 books of Imagines, consisting of 700 prose biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, each with a eulogy in verse, and a portrait; and the Antiquities in 41 books, dealing with "Things Human" and "Things Divine," a work dedicated in its latter part to Julius Caesar and frequently employed by St. Augustine in his De Civitate Dei. Mention is made, and some titles are given,​6 of treatises on the history of literature, to which we owe the canon of Plautine plays accepted as genuine; of a single collection of 76 books on historical, philosophical, and other subjects; and of less extensive works on biography and political and military history. A number of xviigeographic, legal, and encyclopaedic works come under the third classification. Here, too, belong the 9 books of Disciplines, dealing with music, medicine, rhetoric, and grammar; the Res Rusticae; and the great work On the Latin Language.​7 This work, our first extant Roman treatise on grammar, consisted originally of 25 books in three divisions, dealing with etymology, inflection and syntax. Only Books V‑X survive, and these in somewhat mutilated condition, and with much absurd philology.

The Res Rusticae was begun in Varro's eightieth year, when he was warned that he "must pack his baggage for departure from this life."​8 The work as a whole is addressed to Varro's wife, Fundania, who had just purchased a farm, and was intended as a practical manual on husbandry. Its three books are devoted, respectively, to agriculture proper, domestic cattle, and the smaller stock of the farm, such as poultry, game birds, and bees. Each book, cast in the form of a dialogue, has its own appropriate setting and its own little drama. The names of the speakers are so chosen as to suggest the various topics under discussion, thus affording the author an opportunity for an occasional pun. Harsh and involved in style, its meaning often obscured by syntactical as well as technical difficulties, the treatise contains, nevertheless, a great wealth of information. Its rigidly systematic topical arrangement is lightened by introductory chapters of general interest and by occasional digressions from the technicalities of the subject. Again and again the author indulges his xviiibent for the derivations, in large part fanciful, of Latin words. Although inferior, on the whole, to the more lucid and voluminous work of Columella, who dealt with the same subject in the next century, the treatise was of immense practical value and was often quoted. Virgil undoubtedly derived from Varro much of the technical knowledge displayed in his Georgics; and many of the agricultural and veterinary precepts of the Res Rusticae reappear in Pliny's Natural History, in Columella's agricultural treatise and, through him, in the works of the fourth- writers, Palladius and Vegetius.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Many facts of his life and works are given by Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights. See also K. L. Roth, Über das Leben des M. Terentius Varro, Basel, 1857; G. Boissier, La vie et les ouvrages de Varron,º Paris, 1861; Duff, 330‑40; Teuffel and Schwabe, §§ 164‑69.

2 Suet. Iul., 44.

3 Quint., Inst. Orat., X.1.95.

4 Apud Aul. Gell., N. A., III.10.17.

5 Fragments preserved chiefly by Nonius and edited by Oehler, 1844, and Buecheler, 1904.

6 Aul. Gell., passim.

7 The latest edition of De Lingua Latina is that of Goetz and Schoell, 1910.

8 Res Rust., I.1.1.

Thayer's Note:

a Today's Rieti, which still preserves some of its Roman monuments.

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Page updated: 13 Nov 07