Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.07.19

Dieter Flach, Varro. Über die Landwirtschaft. Texte zur Forschung 87.   Darmstadt:  Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006.  Pp. 352.  ISBN 3-534-19069-6.  €74.90.  

Reviewed by Philipp Brandenburg, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel (
Word count: 1730 words

The only complete work of Varro that fate has preserved through the ages is a short treatise on farming in three books, the De re rustica (RR). This minor and at times irritating booklet has received less interest and attention than the torso of De lingua Latina or the fragmentary remains of other lost works. But the extraordinary subject that Varro deals with makes his small agricultural treatise an interesting bonanza for philologists, archaeologists, and historians. We get a glimpse of Roman everyday life and living conditions on a farm during the first century BC.

The arrangement announced in RR 1.1.11 divides the subject into de agri cultura 'on agriculture', de re pecuaria 'cattle-breeding' and de villaticis pastionibus 'domestic animal breeding'. Each of these divisions is dealt with in one of the three books. Each subject matter is discussed in an artificial dialogue that Varro pretends to have participated in. Book 1 is set between 45 and 37 BC in the temple of Tellus, Book 2 in 67 BC on a farm near Buthroton, and Book 3 in 50 BC in the Villa Publica (cf. Flach 2006: 10-14).

Varro is at his best when it comes to meticulous classifications. So he subdivides the subject of the second book into three times three parts (RR 2.1.12). It begins with smaller herd-animals (sheep, goats, and hogs), then larger herd-animals (cows, donkeys, and horses) and finally service animals (mules, dogs, and -- surprise -- herdsmen). Subdividing each of these parts into nine points results in no fewer than 81 divisions that will never be fully adhered to (cf. RR 2.1.26).1 Occasional digressions, puns on words or on the names of interlocutors, a considerable number of etymologies,2 and reports of exotic oddities add variation, entertainment and a lively touch to the otherwise dull and schematic succession of topics.

Such is the text that has attracted Flach's continuous attention for more than a decade.3 Earlier in the same series Flach published a three-volume bilingual edition under the title Gespräche über die Landwirtschaft (1996; 1997; 2002).4 Since the book under review basically is a condensed, corrected, and updated version of the text and translation inthis earlier work, it seems appropriate to compare these publications with each other in order to clearly point out the progress achieved. For ease of reference I will refer to them as the 'first' and 'second' editions. Insofar as some material from the earlier edition reappears here, this terminology is not wholly inappropriate. But the reader should keep in mind that some other material (namely the philological commentary and the index) is omitted, and Flach nowhere indicates that he wantsthe more recent publication to be understood as a second edition of the earlier work

The first edition comprises three volumes. Each of its volumes is devoted to one of the three books of the Varronian treatise and features an introduction, the Latin text with a critical apparatus, a German translation, and a full-fledged philological commentary, plus a fairly complete bibliography, and a subject index. Flach carefully avoids repetition of material across the volumes. Thus he makes each introduction an independent contribution to our understanding of Varro's life, the contents of the Res rusticae and its textual transmission.

But the most important contribution of this voluminous publication was and will ever be its innovative approach to textual criticism. Flach repeatedly defends the transmitted text against conjectures which previous editors all too eagerly introduced into their text (1996: 77): "Je besser sich ihr Übersetzer auf seinen eigenwilligen, zwischen gestelzter Hochsprache und bäuerlicher Alltagssprache schwankenden Stil einstellt, desto höher wird er den Wert der älteren Textüberlieferung einstufen."5 His success is undeniable. The resulting Latin text is conservative in the best sense of the word. The German translation evidently provides eloquent proof that the Latin text is understandable as Flach prints it, and the commentary adds thoughtful discussion on almost any passage.

But this giant contribution was not the end of Flach's research into Varro. Under the title Über die Landwirtschaft (2006) the massive three-volume edition now reappears shrunk down to a single volume featuring a fresh introduction, text, translation and a bibliography. In the preface, Flach informs us that he has reworked the earlier version with regard to (i) the Latin text,which now is even more conservative than ever before and (ii) the German translation, which was made more sensitive to the Latin original. The new text and the new translation are definitely the most important advantages of this re-edition. The Latin text alone, again accompanied by a major apparatus, would have made a grand monolingual edition.6 It is conceivable that Flach's new edition will become the standard text even outside Germany.

The earlier edition was frequently reviewed, and the reviewers' judgement was generally positive.7 Some of them suggested noteworthy improvements on the already high standard of Flach's publication. So it is astonishing to see that the new edition repeats most of the disadvantages that the reviewers pointed out in the older one. Flach should surely have paid more attention to his reviewers. Their criticism mainly focussed on marginal points, e.g. the fact that text and translation did not appear on facing pages but separately one after the other, that numbers of chapters are not indicated on the top of the pages, or that relevant literature is missing in the bibliography. But all this has remained unchanged in the new edition.

His pedantry in representing the transmitted letters has been questioned by Hamblenne (1999: 432 on RR 2.1.1) and Wenskus (2003: 12), but riddles like g{e}<a>n<e>{a}<o>n{i}um (RR 3.9.18) still challenge the readers' apprehension.

Flach's neglect of reviewers' suggestions is even more astonishing where they are fully in line with his intention to retain the MS tradition wherever possible. Let me list two of the most striking examples: at 2.1.1 Flach (1997: 186) replaces the MSS reading ne by n<is>e on the assumption that Varro never contracts nisi to ni in RR. But Hamblenne (1999: 433) rightly refers to RR 3.1.10 and 3.3.9 where it does occur -- even in Flach's own text (2002: 87. 95; 2006: 144. 151)! Another case in point is 3.2.16 where Diederich (2002: 416) defends the transposition of non printed in earlier editions exactly because it is "die überlieferungsnähere Lösung".8 But Flach nowhere mentions these suggestions.

A similar observation can be made in the German translation. At RR 2.5.1 Wenskus (1998: 219) opted for a causal interpretation of familiaris omnium nostrum, i.e. "weil ...", whereas Flach (2006: 268) still prints his concessive "obwohl". To be sure, this is a matter of interpretation, but "es werden sie getrieben" (instead of "sie werden getrieben") at RR 3.10.3 is clearly clumsy German (Wenskus 2003: 13) and "Entschlackung" ('purge') at 2.11.1 is an anachronism (Wenskus 1998: 219). And although Flach (2006: 309 and 284) has reworked these passages, the stumbling-blocks still remain untouched.

The bibliography still does not name Traglia's translation9 although many reviewers (e.g. Deschamps, Stoll) had noted the absence of this and other relevant literature. But hardly any of their references was inserted in the new bibliography (Flach 2006: 329-338).

Unfortunately, there is no subject index. Its omission is a serious inconvenience, because now readers are forced to consult the triple index of the three-volume edition and then turn to the new edition in order to find the passage they are looking for.

The criticisms mentioned above, however, leave a wrong impression of Flach's work. Its merits are hidden where a superficial reader will hardly ever look for them. Flach's continued philological zest will become apparent only to those who carefully study his text and apparatus. It is a pity that Flach himself is too modest to duly emphasize his achievements. He never mentions explicitly that he has reworked the stemma which underlies his edition. In the first and second volume of the former edition (1996: 82, 1997: 70) the stemma was fairly simple. In the third volume (2002: 84) the stemma was extended to cover more complex interdependencies among the MSS. The Laurentianus 51,2, Laurentianus 51,3, and the Neapolitanus VA8 were added, and the hypothetical hyparchetypus [y] was eliminated. In the new edition Flach (2006: 38-39) has further elaborated the stemma. This time a double stemma is given. One lists those MSS that were used by Giorgio Merlani in compiling the editio princeps (Venice 1472), the other one mainly repeats the stemma of the third volume -- with one exception: the Parisinus Latinus 11213 (h) is introduced here for the first time. The importance of this addition will become obvious as soon as one reads Flach's (2006: 21-22) brief remarks about its contents:

[...] sein unbestreitbares Verdienst [ist], dass er an etlichen Stellen stillschweigend hartnäckige Irrtümer der älteren [...] Textüberlieferung berichtigte, die seine Vorgänger durchweg übersehen hatten. Mehrere seiner vielen richtigen Lesarten finden sich in den jüngeren Handschriften so wenig wie in den älteren. Bemerkenswert oft nehmen sie aber Verbesserungen vorweg, die Heinrich Keil und seine Nachfolger in ihren Textausgaben dem Herausgeber der Editio princeps von 1472 zuschrieben. Diese Fälle häufen sich zu sehr, um auf Zufall beruhen zu können.10

On the one hand, this leads Flach to the conclusion that Merlani consulted h while compiling his principal edition (cf. Flach 2006: 28). On the other hand, the Parisinus Latinus 11213 corroborates readings that Flach had tentatively introduced into the text of his earlier edition.11 This relieves the reader at least of some puzzling riddles like tr{i}<e>c{i}<e>nariae (RR 1.2.7) or ornit<h>o{r}<n>ibus (RR

In sum Flach has spent an enormous amount of time in establishing a firm textual basis for Varro's work. His penetration of the textual transmission is admirable. This by far outweighs any of the disadvantages listed above. Surely a more accessible presentation (text and translation on facing pages, indication of chapters at the top of the page, and a subject index) would have been an asset. Nevertheless, I encourage everybody who intends to work on the Res rusticae to buy and use the new edition. More than ten years of intense and thoughtful research have culminated in it. Flach has shaped our view of Varro in a way that will certainly continue to influence future research for decades to come. The evident improvements on the first edition certainly justify the existence of a book that to a large extent repeats an earlier and more voluminous contribution. It certainly is the best text we have at our disposal.


1.   An even greater zest for classifications is to be found in Varro's De philosophia where philosophical schools are subdivided into 288 sectae which are subsequently conflated down to three actual points-of-view. Cf. Günter Langenberg: M. Terenti Varronis Liber de philosophia. Ausgabe und Erklärung der Fragmente, Cologne 1959, p. 47.
2.   Etymologies are to be found in RR 1.2.1, 1.2.14, 1.7.10, 1.31.3-5, 1.32.2, 1.35.2, 1.48.2, 1.49.2, 1.50.2-3, 1.54.3, 2.1.6-7, 2.1.9, 2.1.11, 2.1.19-20, 2.3.7, 2.4.9, 2.4.17, 2.5.3, 2.5.6, 2.7.8, 2.11.5-6, 2.11.9, 3.7.1, 3.9.17, 3.12.6, 3.16.15.
3.   Flach has already dealt with Roman agricultural literature in his Römische Agrargeschichte, München 1990 (Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 3,9), esp. p. 193-197 on Varro, and together with Peter Kehne and Stefan Link in Bibliographie zur römischen Agrargeschichte, Paderborn 1991.
4.   Dieter Flach: Marcus Terentius Varro. Gespräche über die Landwirtschaft. Buch 1, Darmstadt 1996 (Texte zur Forschung 65), Marcus Terentius Varro. Gespräche über die Landwirtschaft. Buch 2, Darmstadt 1997 (Texte zur Forschung 66), and Marcus Terentius Varro. Gespräche über die Landwirtschaft. Buch 3, Darmstadt 2002 (Texte zur Forschung 67).
5.   "The better the translator adapts himself to his unconventional style that fluctuates between bumptious language and rural everyday language the more he will appreciate the value of the older textual tradition."
6.   A concordance of differences between the Latin text of Flach's two editions would have been helpful. The only difference explicitly announced in the introduction (2006: 15) is RR 3.9.11 where Flach restitutes the MSS reading inanes deleted by Vettori.
7.   Anonymous in HA 27 [105] (1996), 34-35; 28 [111-112] (1997), 150; Wenskus in AAHG 50 (1997), 11-12; 51 (1998), 216-219; 56 (2003), 12-13; Raepsaet in AC 67 (1998), 345; Herrmann in Gymnasium 105 (1998), 347-348; Deschamps in Latomus 57 (1998), 654-655; 62 (2003a), 218-219; REA 105 (2003b), 267-274; Campbell in CR 49 (1999), 71-72; Hamblenne in Latomus58 (1999), 432-433; Marconi in RCCM 42 (2000), 139-141; 44 (2002), 179; Stoll in HZ 276 (2003), 134-135; Diederich in LEC 70 (2002), 415-416; Guiraud in REL 81 (2003), 21-24; Geisler in JACS 178 (1997), 259; 180 (1998), 128; 189 (2003), 197.
8.   Both Goetz an Guiraud read: Reliquis annis omnibus si [non] hanc expectabis summam, spero, non tibi decoquet [non] ornithon.
9.   Traglia, Antonio: Opere di Marco Terenzio Varrone, Torino 1974 (Classici Latini). De re rustica is presented in a bilingual edition with explanatory notes on p. 581-877.
10.   "[...] its undeniable merit [is] that in several instances it tacitly corrected tenacious mistakes of the older textual tradition which its predecessors had completely overlooked. Several of its many correct readings are neither found in the more recent manuscripts nor in the older ones. However, remarkably often they anticipate the improvements which Heinrich Keil and his successors in their editions ascribed to the publisher of the editio princeps from 1472. These cases are too frequent to be based on mere chance."
11.   As far as I could see, Flach refers to h in his apparatus at RR 1.1.9, 1.1.10, 1.2.7, 1.7.6, 1.14.4, 1.17.3, 1.23.6, 1.24.4, 1.40.2, 1.64,, 2.1.1, 2.1.6, 2.1.15, and 2.2.8. Unfortunately, h ends abruptly at RR 2.2.13. Hence we are left without its guidance for the remainder of Varro's treatise.

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