Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.40

Burkhart Cardauns, Marcus Terentius Varro: Einführung in sein Werk.   Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 2001.  Pp. 87.  ISBN 3-8253-1269-0.  EUR 13.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by William C. Stull, University of Missouri-Columbia (
Word count: 1203 words

"Quid nunc libros perditos enumerem?" This despairing question was asked by Petrarch in the year 1350, in a letter addressed to Varro that constitutes a remarkable meditation on the loss of ancient books and ancient learning. To the Italian humanist, M. Terentius Varro was little more than a great name; his fate was a sad expression of the failure to preserve the classical past. His eager admirer might draw inspiration, and catch an echo of Varro's importance, from the testimony of St. Augustine and Cicero, but the works themselves, the very foundation of his glory, were painfully and paradoxically absent. To be sure, some consolation would arrive on Petrarch's doorstep a few years later, in the form of a substantial piece of De Lingua Latina, copied by Boccaccio's own hand from an exemplar in the abbey at Montecassino. Yet Petrarch's most earnest hope, that the books of Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum might someday come to light, was destined to remain unfulfilled.1 From the 14th century to our own, the study of Varro has always had to make due with fragments and testimonia.

The great merit of Burkhart Cardauns' "introduction" to Varro is that it stays rigorously focused on the surviving texts, such as they are, and largely eschews the speculative reconstruction and Quellenforschung that have played so large a role in the scholarship. Most of the time Cardauns (henceforth, "C.") is also careful not to imprison Varro within preconceived categories, as he allows the unique quality of Varro's mind to emerge from behind the colorless encomia ("Rome's greatest scholar," "the most learned man in antiquity") that have often clouded judgment and substituted for evaluation.

The book, a concise eighty-one pages in total, is divided into nine chapters, most of which contain further subsections. The first and last chapters ("Leben und Werk" and "Nachleben und Würdigung") form a frame for the core material of chapters 2 through 8, which are devoted to summary and discussion of Varro's writings. Exactly one-third of this space is given over to Res Rusticae and De Lingua Latina, in accordance with C.'s expressed desire to favor surviving texts. The Menippean Satires get ten pages, the Antiquitates eleven. Works with fewer fragments receive much quicker and more summary treatment, and the volume ends with a catalogue of Varronian titles, including the famous list given by St. Jerome. As far as organization goes, the book's only shortcoming is the treatment of bibliography. C. provides most of the important references, but these are scattered throughout the text in an inconvenient manner -- some in a general list at the beginning of the volume, some at the opening of each chapter or sub-section, even some in parentheses within the text.2

In his discussions of particular works C. shows consistent good sense. To the copious quotation of Varro's words he adds a mastery of the whole of Varro's oeuvre (or what can be known about it), which means that no single work is discussed in isolation from the rest. Surely this is in general the appropriate way to approach an author who refused to confine himself to any single branch of knowledge. Also noticeable -- and by no means to be taken for granted -- is C.'s enthusiasm for Varro's achievements, and the specificity with which it is grounded. From Quintilian's day onward Varro's literary talent (as opposed to his learning) has usually been dismissed as second-rate or worse, and so it is both pleasant and thought-provoking to watch C. discuss examples of Varro's skill as a narrator (at the conclusion of Res Rusticae 1) and as a wit. The five-page subsection on "dicacitas and hilaritas" in the Res Rusticae is worth singling out in this respect; too little attention has been given to Varro's virtuosity in these realms. C. is right to portray it as more than a matter of a few puns and to connect it to a more general fascination with urbanity in the middle decades of the first century B.C. We would doubtless possess a more rounded view of Varro as an artist had the Menippean Satires survived in greater bulk, but C. does a fine job with what we have of them, again with laudable concentration on actual text and perceptive remarks on the character of Varro's style, this time with special emphasis on the diction of the verse fragments.

The second half of the book shows a bit of slackening, inevitable as C. moves to works that offer fewer sections of text. Here we meet Varro in his best-known role, as diligentissimus investigator antiquitatis (to borrow a phrase from Cicero). Sadly, his legacy to the modern world has been one of obscurity, and C. must often resort to informed conjecture and at points can do little more than list titles. The main weight of discussion falls on the Antiquitates, not a surprising emphasis given C.'s longstanding involvement with this text and with the general subject of Varro's theology.3 The latter topic also happens to be one of the most avidly discussed in Varronian scholarship. C. passes over the controversies about the origin of the theologia tripertita (made famous by Augustine's criticisms in the City of God) and reiterates the view he presented in 1960, viz., that Varro was the first Roman author to use the scheme and that it originated with an unknown Greek writer but not necessarily with Poseidonius or Panaetius, as has been claimed by some of the Quellenforscher. This is a reasonable position, but it by no means represents a consensus. C. might have done more to indicate the contours of disagreement. The larger explication of Varronian theology is careful and good.

C. paints so variegated a picture of Varro's work that some general summary conclusions would have fit in nicely at the end of the volume. In any case, it becomes abundantly clear, as one reads this book, that Varro was not just a passionate accumulator of detail and maker of classifications; he was also devoted to finding connections, to bringing order to the mass of knowledge and experience without sacrificing a sense of the whole. In Varro's works Greek could be combined with Latin, prose with poetry, humor with philosophy, the country with the city, past with present, and the human with the divine. The impulse to unify sets Varro in an interesting contrast to most of his contemporaries (especially Cicero and Caesar), who were busy using their learning to mark out boundaries and lay down rules, whether for the writing of literature or the conduct of life.

It is important, in the ongoing quest for precise knowledge about what the man wrote, not to lose sight of Varro's pragmatic catholicity (the adjective is C.'s, well chosen), and not to forget that "Rome's greatest scholar" was after all an individual consciousness with a distinct voice, still partially preserved in spite of everything, and an historical existence. We may hope that this Einführung, with its substantial quotations of text and pointed concision, will spur its readers -- not least those in English-speaking countries, where Varro languishes -- to return to Varro with an enlarged perspective and a renewed commitment to make sense of what they find, using every critical tool to accomplish the task.


1.   The relevant Petrarchan letters, both of them to be found in the Rerum Familiarium Libri, are 24.6, to Varro lamenting the loss of his works, and 18.4, thanking Boccaccio for De Lingua Latina.
2.   A couple of well-known items in English are, so far as I could see, missing from the bibliography -- in particular E. Rawson, Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic (London, 1985) and A. Momigliano, "The Theological Efforts of the Roman Upper Classes in the First Century B.C." CP 79 (1984): 199-211.
3.   Among other studies C. has produced an edition and commentary for the Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum (Wiesbaden, 1976) and a study of Varro's Logistoricus über die Götterverehrung (Würzburg, 1960).

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:00, Friday, 03 April 2009