BMCR 2020.03.25

Varrone, unus scilicet antiquorum hominum: senso del passato e pratica antiquaria

Irene Leonardis, Varrone, unus scilicet antiquorum hominum: senso del passato e pratica antiquaria. Biblioteca di Athenaeum, 62. Bari: Edipuglia, 2019. 273 p.. ISBN 9788872288900 €35,00 (pb).

Irene Leonardis’s monograph tells a traditional tale about Varro as a traditionalist. In the late Republic, or so the story goes, Rome found itself in the grip of a moral and epistemological crisis. Cultural knowledge and mores antiqui used to be preserved by figures of authority among a general consensus of the ruling nobility; now, political turmoil had led to a fracturing of society, and the Romans were in danger of losing both their cultural memory and their moral compass.

Shrewdly diagnosing the crisis and its causes, Varro decided to come to the rescue. The antidote to Rome’s drifting further and further away from its glorious past was antiquarianism: Varro set out to recover as much as possible of the city’s antiquitates, being convinced that earlier strata of Roman civilization represented something closer to a prelapsarian state of nature in sync with cosmic truth. His ultimate purpose was to rescue Rome’s cultural memory and thus bring about the much-needed moral renewal of his countrymen.

These are familiar narratives, as Leonardis (whose bibliography is extensive) is well aware, frequently crediting, among others, Claudia Moatti, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Jan Assmann, and Elisa Romano. Even so, the author sets out once more over these trodden paths in an attempt to arrive at a better and more detailed understanding of what Varro’s antiquarian methodology amounts to. After a short introduction and a concise biographical note, Leonardis makes her case through five chapters, ranging over a wide variety of Varronian works and often proceeding with the help of detailed word studies.

Thus, Chapter 1 focuses on the concept of mos, central to a society as conservative as Rome. Leonardis considers the two rather different Varronian definitions of mos that have come down to us (Serv. Aen. 7.601 and Macr. Sat. 3.8.9), concluding that for Varro, a mos has an intellectual component and must be based on judgment. Ideally, popular consuetudo will then pick up such a “moral guideline” and in due course turn it into a “custom.”

In Chapter 2, Leonardis begins to examine the Roman idea of memory, concluding that memoria is associated with repetition. If such repetition is the organic process by which knowledge is passed on from generation to generation, this is a good thing; however, once that chain is broken, the reproduction of knowledge runs the danger of turning into a mindless and dangerous parroting of information that is no longer understood. In this context, Leonardis provides interesting observations on the verb ruminare/ruminari and its use in Varro and beyond.

Memoria is the topic also of Chapter 3, which focuses on the antiquarian and his method. While in the past, cultural memory was preserved by figures of social authority, its recovery is now up to the individual researcher “alla ‘ricerca’ dell’autorità perduta” (119). Paying once more close attention to the language of Varro’s self-representation, Leonardis concludes that he promotes a genealogical-reconstructive method. Apparently, Varro views the past as “descending” toward the present via a series of “steps”; it is thus the antiquarian’s task to “ascend” via the same steps to the original state, to the extent that this is possible. This is a very attractive reading, though note that the same point was made, apparently independently, in an article by Giorgio Piras in 2017.[1]

Chapter 4, focusing on Varro’s Antiquitates rerum divinarum, is the most original part of the book. Following Peter Van Nuffelen and others, Leonardis argues that for Varro, Roman religious cult in its present state contains hidden truth about the real nature of the gods, whose worship was originally established by wise men with the requisite knowledge; again, it is the task of the antiquarian to ferret out the truth. In this context, Leonardis proposes a new understanding of Varro’s famous theologia tripertita. She cites Augustine’s discussion in Civ. D. 6.6, where Varro is said to have viewed his civil theology as being magis … ex utraque temperatam quam ab utraque separatam (“more tempered with the other two [theologies] than separated from them”). Leonardis wants this to mean that Varro considered the genus civile a holistic reconciliation of all three theologies: research into the institution of civic religion always also makes use of philosophical and mythological accounts of the gods. Reinterpreting Varro’s project in the ARD in this way allows her to claim that all his antiquarian research is by definition not restricted to the mere reconstruction of all-too-human institutions, but has as its goal the higher truth that is the purview of the “natural” theology of the philosophers.

Leonardis’s move will not endear her to scholars who believe that what the theologia tripertita theorizes is the very ability, not only on the part of an antiquarian like Varro but also on that of all Roman religious agents, to keep the three ways of talking about the gods strictly separate. (A surprising omission from her bibliography in this respect is Duncan MacRae’s recent work on late Republican religious scholarship.[2]) It is also doubtful whether Augustine’s report really supports the strong reading Leonardis proposes. The saint is berating his source for failing to investigate the true nature of the divine and ridiculing especially the many mythological elements in Roman cult, citing Varro’s own words to demonstrate the writer’s confusion and lack of intellectual rigor. What Varro appears to be saying is that in researching religious institutions—that is, practicing the genus civile of theology—he will pay attention to all elements of Roman cult, including ones with philosophical or mythological origins or implications. He is not saying that civil theology by definition is an amalgam of the three types.

The fifth and final chapter contains a number of mixed observations and concludes by considering De re rustica. Leonardis argues unsurprisingly that Varro views agriculture as a pursuit that still preserves traces of an original golden age, which are lost in the increasingly urban world of the author and his contemporaries. A short conclusion summarizes the book’s argument. Leonardis points out that more often than not, Varro’s alleged reconstruction of the past is actually a new construction, an invented tradition, as it were: by presenting his idealized Rome of the past, Varro provides his fellow Romans with a paradigm for future regeneration.

Leonardis’s story is well told and has a good chance of convincing readers, especially since it confirms what most of us were already thinking about Varro anyway. But is the story actually true—or is it itself an invented tradition? Varro’s immense œuvre survives largely in fragments, and we have very few passages in which the author openly reflects on his method or motivation. This means that the modern scholar has to become a Varronian antiquarian herself, attempting to track down her author’s opinions in the dark forest of textual ruina. On this quest, she may well end up seeing what is not actually there.

Two of Leonardis’s approaches appear especially questionable. First, in the absence of actual Varronian evidence, she repeatedly relies on later authors, especially Augustine, to the extent of occasionally suggesting that some idea in the later source actually goes back to Varro, even if no such indication is given in the text. Second, Leonardis draws extensively on the Menippean Satires, without considering that curmudgeonly complaints about contemporary mores are a hallmark of the genre that do not necessarily reflect the author’s true opinion. Since, furthermore, most fragments of the Menippeanssurvive in brief snippets from Nonius, we typically have no context and no indication of who the speaker of a given piece of text may be. Basing any larger theory about Varro’s outlook on this uncertain body of evidence is thus problematic.

Many of the views and intentions that Leonardis ascribes to Varro are never explicitly expressed in his surviving œuvre, including that what is older is always better; that the author wishes to bring back antiqui mores; or that Roman religious institutions reflect cosmic truth. In fact, it is possible to use the same corpus and arrive at nearly the opposite picture. On that reading (which happens to be my own),[3] Varro was not a seeker for cosmic truth buried in the ideal past, but instead a civil theologian (antiquarian, linguist, etc.) who rejoiced in the chaotic complexity of the realia of human practices and their multiform developments over time. Rather than aiming to establish an idealized mos, he hewed to the grown consuetudo of the Roman people. Augustine got it right: Varro had no interest in the true nature of the divine; what he cared for were the man-made institutions of Rome.

The polymath from Reate is currently experiencing a welcome scholarly renaissance, with editions, commentaries, monographs, and conference volumes proliferating.[4] The approaches to Varro in these works have varied widely, and vigorous debate is likely to continue. Whether one agrees with her or not, Leonardis’s book is a significant contribution to the discussion.


[1] G. Piras (2017). “Dicam dumtaxat quod est historicon: Varro and/on the Past’. In V. Arena and F. MacGóráin (eds.), Varronian Moments. London: Institute of Classical Studies, 8-20.

[2] D. MacRae (2016). Legible Religion: Books, Gods, and Rituals in Roman Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] See “A Wise Man in an Old Country: Varro, Antiquitates rerum diuinarum and [Plato], Letter 5.” RhM 159 (2016), 429-33 and “Varro and the Disorder of Things.” HSCP 110 (forthcoming 2020).

[4] See esp. D. J. Butterfield (ed.) (2015). Varro varius: The Polymath of the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society (BMCR 2015.08.40); V. Arena and F. MacGóráin (eds.) (2017). Varronian Moments. London: Institute of Classical Studies; A. Rolle (2017). Dall’Oriente a Roma: Cibele, Iside e Serapide nell’opera di Varrone. Pisa: ETS (BMCR 2018.02.38); W. D. C. de Melo (2019). Varro: De lingua Latina. Oxford: Oxford University Press; D. Spencer, (2019). Language and Authority in De Lingua Latina: Varro’s Guide to Being Roman. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.