BMCR 2016.06.29

Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept

, Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2016. ix, 243. ISBN 9780226299495. $55.00.


For a term that the Oxford Latin Dictionary tentatively derives from ‘pimple’ ( varus, 17), varius turns out to belong to a remarkably interesting and aesthetically pleasing area of discourse. This is one of those wonderful books that take something that has grown familiar and show us why it matters in ways we have forgotten to think about. ‘Variety’ and ‘various’, as Fitzgerald points out, are hardly noticeable in modern English usage. In the affluent, Anglophone West, ‘variety’ is of most interest to the consumer in the supermarket, who desires to exercise choice between different flavours of yoghurt, different types of cheese, and different brands of cereal. When we are discussing anything serious, like the European Union, we wipe our lips and use the word ‘diversity’ instead: thus the official motto of the EU runs in varietate concordia, but in English it becomes ‘United in Diversity’. Fitzgerald wants to show us that the semantic blandness of ‘variety’ is only a recent phenomenon. From ancient Rome to the early twentieth century, varius in Latin and ‘various’ in English retained a semantic richness that has melted away in recent times. The purpose of the book is to chart some of that forgotten territory of meaningful variety.

Chapter 1 on ‘Words and Meanings’ begins with a selection of passages from English poetry from the Renaissance to the twentieth century in which the words ‘various’ and ‘variety’ appear. Arnold, Milton, Blackmore, Norris, Shakespeare, Byron, Pope and MacNeice stand arrayed as witnesses to the communicative power of ‘variety’: they use it when pondering experiences that are moving and powerful, both in this world and beyond it. The point about English having been well made, Fitzgerald turns to the etymology and semantic field of the Latin varius and varietas. Cicero said that varietas is properly used of uneven colours, but has many transferred usages, such as for a poem, speech, character, fortune, or pleasure. Fitzgerald places this in relation to other Latin and Greek terms, especially what varius shares with the Greek poikilos and the way it is used closely with the Latin distinguere. He concludes the chapter by introducing literary topoi in which the concrete meaning of varietas as colourful works together with the abstract idea of a shifty character: the comic slave is varius inside and out, cunning as a character and beaten black-and-blue; Dido exemplifies the character of woman as varium et mutabile semper and bruises her flesh to a variegated colour on her path to self-destruction.

Chapter 2 on ‘Variety’s Contexts’ offers a two-page potted history of ‘variety’, then plunges into an extended discussion of the ideas with which it is most frequently associated. Fitzgerald distinguishes four main themes: (1) Nature’s variety, which can be a delightful spectacle, a baffling marvel, or a troubling mixture of evil and good, ugly and beautiful. It occasions different theological interpretations according to which of these aspects is in view. (2) Variety in rhetoric, where paradoxically varietas not only produces the delightful plenitude of copia, but is also the balm to relieve satiety induced by copia. Rhetorical variety can respond to the needs of a diverse audience, and the creativity of the human wordsmith can be interpreted by analogy with or participation in God’s creativity in nature. (3) Variety as a source of pleasure also becomes a principle of aesthetics. It relieves tedium and so is important in the literary structure of narratives; more positively, it can supply the delightful sensation of being overwhelmed with pleasing variety, or the empowering experience of selecting from a rich spread. Narrative variety is often figured as a journey, since it is constituted by change over time; what Fitzgerald calls ‘anti-synoptic aesthetics’, when the ‘eye cannot settle’ due to encountering an overwhelming diversity, is more often figured through jewels or mosaics. In the aesthetic categories of the eighteenth century, variety’s place remains unstable: it contributes to different kinds of experience, including the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque, and its effect can be good or bad. (4) Variety as a social and political phenomenon is part of the experience of the Roman empire; Fitzgerald observes several instances where imperial diversity is put on display, including Vergil’s shield of Aeneas, the arena in Rome, and Luke’s account of Pentecost. This is an important chapter of Fitzgerald’s book because it grounds the exploration of variety in particular authors, genres and books in the remaining chapters. The four conceptual areas are not intended to be sharply distinguished, but are presented as overlapping dimensions of a complex and interesting discourse, in which the language of variety plays an important role.

Chapter 3 turns to the study of individual authors. Fitzgerald argues that several ancient authors treated ‘variety’ as a significant concept, and indeed a positive value: he singles out Pliny, Lucretius, and Horace for discussion. Pliny the Younger receives the fullest treatment: Pliny deliberately makes his pursuits various because he is self-conscious about his inability to be a good specialist; he uses various styles in his book to appeal to diverse readers; he delights in variety when it comes to villas, the Fons Clitumnus, Pompeius Saturninus, and his own composition of Catullan nugae during his hours of leisure; by contrast his business duties drag on like chains. Pliny’s thematisation of variety spans all the important conceptual areas discussed in the previous chapter. Lucretius engages with variety for different reasons: a fearless Epicurean and no anxious Pliny, he serenely delights in the generous variety of nature that is composed through diverse combinations of atoms, and compares it with the combinations of letters that make up the words of his own text. Dryden, Hopkins and Catullus are introduced as poetic variations on Lucretian varietas. Horace is mentioned more briefly, as he will be important in the following chapters: he foregrounds varietas as a programmatic but problematic stylistic intention in his comments on his own poetry in Odes 4.2, and on poetry in general in Ars Poetica.

Chapter 4 moves from authors to literary forms and the subjectivities associated with them. While the list as such is not a form of literature, there are several literary forms that use lists in different ways: priamel, the rhetorical figure of love as a hunt, satire, panegyric, and the hawker’s cry are discussed. Each of these is shown to create situations in which the author confronts variety, but with different attitudes to it. For example, priamel allows Horace to distinguish himself as a lyric poet from others in their pursuits; Ovid and Propertius vary the form to characterise their experiences of erotic encounter, Ovid with many women, Propertius with the many sides of just one. Satire is the genre of variety and abundance ( varietas and copia) par excellence, but the satirist’s stance is one of satiety: he has had enough; the variety before him characterises humanity as a bunch of inconsistent fools, and flattens into tedious repetitiveness. Fitzgerald shows that although the different rhetorical forms cultivate different attitudes to variety, they also share some characteristic features of listing, such as the author being found both inside and outside the list, and the variety of items paling into sameness in the enumeration.

Chapter 5 brings the study to an end with a discussion of imperial miscellanies in both prose and verse and in different genres. Fitzgerald challenges us to take the miscellanists seriously about their own miscellanism: following A. Barchiesi, he suggests that since the 1970s we have tended to study the classics as part of a quest for the perfect book, and he points out that recent interest in miscellanies too readily falls into that pattern by trying to show that miscellanies too are perfect books in their own way. He wants us to see instead that the miscellanists were earnestly interested in variety, and our task is to find ways of analysing that. He takes a two-pronged approach. First, he explores the miscellanists’ own ways of drawing attention to their literary variety. These include paratextual aspects such as titles; accounts of what their work is not, and of what it does; biographical fictions about how they composed it; and their ways of characterising readers and the reading of miscellanies. Secondly, Fitzgerald contributes his own analysis of the effects of miscellaneity in particular works, especially Gellius’ Attic Nights.

Variety: the Life of a Roman Concept is a welcome and significant contribution to contemporary discussion of aspects of variety and miscellaneity in antiquity. As Fitzgerald points out, there has been a marked growth in study of imperial miscellanism in recent years, but it has not involved detailed attention to the miscellanists’ most explicit source of interest and aesthetic value: variety itself. Variety has been discussed in a different context: namely, the study of ancient aesthetics. However, this has focused on the Greek poikilia rather than the Latin varietas, and is still in its early days.1 Fitzgerald’s exploration of varietas is important both for its excavation of Roman material and for identifying so many significant texts and aspects of variety beyond the miscellany alone. He makes a strong case that varietas marks reflection on a concept whose contours allow some definition, and that this is worth studying in both ancient and modern contexts, and in the relationship between them.

There are some aspects of the book that I find less successful. Fitzgerald expresses a sense of tension with approaches to historical context in two other areas of scholarship: against much contemporary reception history, he assumes that words carry their meanings with them rather than being transformed at each reception; he suggests they are like a ‘form of energy, which finds various outlets in its modern continuations’, therefore he can ‘bounce around from period to period or author to author’ (6). Against those he refers to as ‘historicists’ (inverted commas his), he regards persistence as an important historical fact, which grounds an approach to variety that is not chronologically organised (31). I agree with Fitzgerald that persistence is real, important and interesting (and I think many other historically-minded scholars would too), but it needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed. History is not grounded in the idea that everything changes, but that some things change and some stay the same. We try to differentiate between the two, and to explain. This does not preclude thematic organisation when studying a concept like ‘variety’, but it does preclude ‘bouncing around’ between periods and authors with sparse historical contextualisation or justification for placing them in dialogue with each other. That approach could be effective in constructing a new philosophical theory of variety, but for a book that hopes to show variety’s historical persistence and significance, it lacks necessary discipline. The argument about both the ancient and the modern material is weakened when attention keeps shifting between them. Fitzgerald does in fact find considerable variety in the uses of ‘variety’, both ancient and modern, and this undermines the assertion that differences between periods and authors can be overlooked.

My second point of critique concerns the treatment of ‘variety’ as an object of study. It would clarify the aim and method of the research if the introduction offered a systematic account of the relationship between variety as a word, a concept, a discourse, and an experience. All of these are interwoven in the study; the first two chapters go some way toward distinguishing them, but without an explicit theoretical or methodological grounding. All these dimensions are important and I am grateful that they are treated together, but the burden of thinking through the relationship between them is left with the reader.

Having varied my favourable comments with mottled critique, I hope it remains clear that the present reviewer is delighted at the contribution of this engaging and beautifully presented work.


1. A valuable item of bibliography that came too late for Fitzgerald is Grand-Clément, Adeline, ‘Poikilia,’ in: Pierre Destrée and Penelope Murray (ed.), A Companion to Ancient Aesthetics (Blackwell, 2015) 406-21.