Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.07.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.07.25

Grant A. Nelsestuen, Varro the Agronomist: Political Philosophy, Satire, and Agriculture in the Late Republic.   Columbus:  Ohio State University Press, 2015.  Pp. xiv, 316.  ISBN 9780814212912.  $69.95.  

Reviewed by Britta Ager, Hobart and William Smith Colleges (

Table of Contents

Grant Nelsestuen’s Varro the Agronomist is an engaging look at Varro’s De Re Rustica in the context of first-century BC scholarly developments and civil upheaval. Nelsestuen’s reading of Varro is fundamentally political and literary, treating him as a political commentator first and farmer second. Agricultural instruction is treated not as Varro’s only goal, but as a medium through which he discusses the political behavior of a Roman elite. Wealthy Romans would in turn benefit from studying agriculture, which Varro tries to make more attractive by polishing it into an appropriate subject for philosophical inquiry.

In the first two chapters of the work, Nelsestuen sets out his argument that the literary flourishes of the De Re Rustica are not merely decorative (the stance of much twentieth-century scholarship, which largely prioritized the RR’s content over its form), but integral to our understanding of the text, a position Nelsestuen shares with a number of scholars since the mid 1990s. Nelsestuen sees Varro as highly conscious of genre issues and willing to deploy, subvert, and ironize them with subtlety, and he suggests that Varro toys with philosophical and satirical tropes in particular in order to comment obliquely on the contemporary social and political situation at Rome. Looking at the RR’s connections with philosophy, particularly Cicero’s works, he points out that while Varro follows certain conventions of contemporary philosophical dialogues, he stages and populates his dialogues so as to encourage political reflection. In contrast to Cicero’s political dialogues set in the countryside in the context of elite otium, Varro’s three agricultural dialogues are presented as impromptu affairs which come about through the meeting of friends on public occasions, mostly in Rome itself—Book 1 is set at the Temple of Tellus during the festival of the Sementivae, Book 2 on the Parilia among Romans living in Epirus, including some who are present in Greece because of military duties, and Book 3 in the Villa Publica during aedilician elections. Varro ties his farming discourse to public life at Rome, suggesting that agriculture is both an everyday concern for his elite interlocutors and intimately connected to the political and social issues of the day. His use of satire is considered in more general terms, such as puns and a focus on food and dining. Here and throughout the book the author shows a cheering willingness to be ambivalent about matters of interpretation subject to personal taste. Is, for instance, Agrius’ recitation of a hangover cure from Cato a joke (RR 1.2.28; p. 27-30)? If so, at whom is the joke aimed—Agrius, Stolo, or all the interlocutors together? Nelsestuen provides a few possible answers, but does not try to force a definitive one. Chapter 2 deals with the genre of agronomy, Varro’s engagement with his agronomical predecessors, and contemporary discourse on the topic. Nelsestuen argues that against the backdrop of 1st-century Roman engagement with Hellenistic philosophy, Varro appears to be trying to refine his rustic topic into a scientia and ars worthy of elite attention, to which end he seeks to define the proper divisions of res rusticae and create an appropriate Latin terminology for it. Varro’s notorious penchant for categorization and definition is a deliberate importation of scholarly anxieties into the genre, and his criticism of predecessors such as Cato and the Sasernas for their uncritical approach highlights the fact that agri cultura was not a stable concept for the Romans yet. Varro attempts to define the proper boundaries of agri cultura, pastio, and pastio villatica, the three topics that comprise res rusticae in the RR. Underlying his definition is an anthropological and historical theory of the development of Roman farmers and their profession from simple subsistence farmers to rich villa owners. Varro’s definition of agri cultura in RR 1 tries to bracket the farmer—an object of political and moral discourse—in order to focus on the science of cultivation, as distinct from the actor.

The following four chapters discuss individual dialogues of the RR. Rather than a comprehensive study of each dialogue, Nelsestuen focuses on programmatic passages within each book. Chapter 3, on RR 1, explores how Varro’s treatment of cultivation evokes Rome’s history of expansion and consolidation in Italy. Subsections deal with the choice of the temple of Tellus as a setting for the dialogue, Varro’s praise of Italy’s unrivaled agricultural fecundity and regional specialties—emphasizing Italy’s internal variety but unity in contradistinction to outside lands—and with the startling conclusion of the dialogue with the host’s assassination, echoing the troubling unrest of the late Republic. Nelsestuen stretches some of the evidence a bit thin; for example, a reader of the RR may or may not have known that a would-be agrarian reformer had once lived on a spot near the temple of Tellus, much less have thought of the anecdote in connection with the dialogue. Overall, however, he draws interesting nuances from Varro’s laus Italiae in RR 1. Chapters 4 and 5 deal with RR 2 and pastio, the rearing of major farm animals. Pastio was excluded from RR 1 on the grounds that it takes place outside the boundaries of agri, and thus cannot be part of agri cultura. Pasturage occurs in farther-flung areas, beyond the farm proper. If in RR 1 the farm and its cultivation offered an allegory for the Roman domination of Italy, its estate, in RR 2, shepherding offers lessons on Rome’s governance of the provinces, its pasturelands. Nelsestuen highlights both the first-century interest in the provinces as areas ripe for agricultural exploitation—hence the presence of Romans like Atticus and Cossinius in Epirus, where they have large estates—and in the ways Varro uses shepherding as a metaphor for military conquest and governance of foreigners. The many tensions in RR 2 between Greece and Rome, tradition and innovation, a humble profession and wealthy interests are also explored. Chapter 6 deals with RR 3, on the topic of pastio villatica, the rearing of small or unusual animals near the villa, mostly for the luxury market. Nelsestuen sees this dialogue as largely commenting on elite behavior, private and public, as pastio villatica both profits from and enables reckless, hedonistic consumption. It entails perils for the farmer as well as the diner, being a form of agriculture the interlocutors consider especially risky, since it can create enormous fortunes undreamed of by their ancestors, but is also an easy way to lose a fortune. Pastio villatica’s troubling status as a nexus of profit and pleasure is made more problematic by the fact that civil turmoil may have made it economically viable in the first place, as contenders for power instituted more days of feasts and public celebrations. The overtly political allegories of Varro and Merula’s aviaries, which have made RR 3 the most-discussed part of the RR, are re-examined in light of this moral, economic, and political approach to pastio villatica. Nelsestuen adduces other, less elaborate, allegories throughout the book, although as he notes it can be hard to distinguish covert political commentary from straightforward farming information in Varro, as with the geese who break their own necks through greed for food (RR 3.10.5). Is this allegory or zoology? It remains unclear. The final chapter evaluates Varro as a political theorist, particularly revisiting his redefinition of agri cultura from an agent-centered activity to one defined by location and goals, and compares it to a contemporary shift in the concept of imperium.

The arguably allegorical geese highlight one of the difficulties of a literary approach to Varro: the sometimes awkward join between the parts of the RR that admit a satirical interpretation and the parts that appear to be straightforward farming instruction. Nelsestuen focuses on passages marked by formal generic characteristics, literary and historical allusions, or allegorical resonances, where the political commentary is a separate layer added to the farming advice, and actually running a farm is a secondary or at least separate concern. By and large, he does not deal with sections of the work where the agricultural suggestions themselves are politically freighted. Many parts of the RR touch on farm security, price fluctuations, cooperation with neighbors, control of slaves, the best types of investments, interactions with other elite landowners, and so forth—topics of potential interest in 37 BC, in a society destabilized by civil and political upheaval. This could furnish another book, but I would have liked to see more consideration of whether Varro’s general political theorizing finds reflection in the specific practical recommendations of the RR. While Nelsestuen does partly approach the topic in his comments on the ethics of production in Book 3, there is more to say about the socio-political perils of farming in the triumviral period in light of Nelsestuen’s own excellent observations on the political concerns of an estate owner. The book deals with what a Roman aristocrat might derive from the RR on the farming of political issues, but what would he learn about the politics of farming? Similarly, what satirical notes are evoked by reading, e.g., Merula and Varro’s descriptions of their aviaries in conjunction with Varro’s comments on bird droppings as manure and the renting out of aviaries (RR 1.38.1-3)? Dedicating slightly more space to this central tension between covert commentary and the overt subject of the RR might have helped the book cohere.

The first, second, and final chapters, which deal with the RR as a whole, are lucid and persuasive. The middle chapters, which treat the individual dialogues, are more of a patchwork, as they become a series of studies of diverse passages or themes within each book of the RR, and the thread of each chapter is at times hard to follow. This is less a reflection of Nelsestuen than Varro, given the rapidly changing topic within each book and the variety of passages under discussion. Nelsestuen includes clear summaries at the end of each chapter, but the central argument of the book is easy to lose sight of. The less linear discussion in this central section can lead Nelsestuen into bold interpretations, which is both a strength and a weakness of the work. While he tries to squeeze too much from the text in places—the attempt to see a reference to Caesar’s dictatorship in sole caldo (RR 3.2.1; p. 178), or cannibalism in characters with avian names eating fowl (p. 182)—in other places thought-provoking suggestions result, as in the discussion of the Italia picta in RR 1 (1.2.1).

The indices collect much useful information, including a list of Cicero and Varro’s dialogues with their settings, characters, and dedicatees; Varro’s citations of other authors; spatial terminology in the RR; and geographical references. Nelsestuen’s nuanced reading of a an idiosyncratic author and attention to intellectual context make this volume a valuable addition to the bibliography on Varro, one which will be of use to both scholars of the Late Republic and of the Roman farming literature.

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