BMCR 2020.04.13

Language and authority in De lingua Latina: Varro’s guide to being Roman

, Language and authority in 'De lingua Latina': Varro's guide to being Roman. Wisconsin studies in classics . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2019. 424 p.. ISBN 9780299323202 $119.95.

For those interested in the intellectual milieu of the late Roman Republic, Varro is the one who got away. We have enough evidence of his literary output to take Quintilian at his word when he dubbed Varro the “most learned of the Romans,” but we possess only a small fraction of his writing. The loss of such a tantalizing corpus, combined with the nature of what has survived (fragments, meditations on agriculture, six books of a larger work on etymology and grammar), has produced a kind of scholarly ennui concerning Varro, which has been more focused on lamenting what is missing than analyzing what survives. It is against this tendency to overlook the existing Varronian corpus that Diana Spencer positions her new monograph on Varro’s De Lingua Latina, and in doing so she joins a recent wave of interest in Varro, which attempts to reinsert the polymath into studies of the history, politics, and culture of the Republic’s last generation.[1]

Spencer cites two primary goals for her book (p.250): 1) to illuminate the “literarity” of Varro’s De Lingua Latina, and 2) to tease out the “political and wider socionormative implications of key Varronian interests.” She is mostly successful on both counts. Underlying her goals, Spencer claims, is a problem with how we have been accustomed to read the (relative) paucity of the Varronian corpus still available to us. De Lingua Latina, aside from being incomplete, has been read as a miscellany or encyclopedia and is therefore most often consumed in excerpts and anecdotes. Readers may turn to the textfor Varro’s discussion of a word, event, or cultural phenomenon, but they rarely give the book the same kind of cover-to-cover literary scrutiny applied to works of other genres. Spencer warns that in consuming Varro selectively the reader misses out on readings that become apparent when examining the work as a whole. She calls this activity (reading a work cover-to-cover and thinking about it intra-textually) “through-reading,” and she argues that Varro intended De Lingua Latina to be consumed in this way. According to Spencer, it is only via through-reading that we can appreciate the goal of the work. She suggests that, rather than writing a 25-book opus on etymology and grammar as a retreat from public life during a time of crisis (a familiar classification of intellectual pursuit during the Republic’s last generation), Varro meant De Lingua Latina to be a “timely intervention in the discourse of civics.” (p.36).

The first chapter, “Networking Varro,” grounds the De Lingua Latina firmly in the context of the author’s life and the company he kept. Much of the beginning portion of this chapter engages in a “thought experiment” which suggests some (admittedly) fanciful ways in which we might fill out our knowledge of Varro’s life and times with “productive imaginative biography.” Like T.P. Wiseman, for example, Spencer assumes that Varro’s Sabine identity would have greatly colored his politics. The more valuable portion of the first chapter is Spencer’s introduction of her foundational political reading of De Lingua Latina. Against the existing Ciceronian and Caesarian evidence, which presents Varro as one who “ran with the hare and hunted with the hound,” Spencer claims that De Lingua Latina shows us Varro the centrist. She does this by examining Varro’s position in the late Republic’s debate on the foundations of language and extrapolating it to apply to government. Between competing linguistic philosophies that advocated extremes imposed by top-down arbitration (she cites specifically systems based on the importance of anomalia and analogia) Spencer sees in De Lingua Latina a system that gives the ultimate authority in matters of language to the populus and that prioritizes consensus-building rather than conflict.

In Chapter 2, “Romespeaking,” Spencer shows how she supposes De Lingua Latina communicated and facilitated Varronian political thought. Unlike some of the more famous works of ancient political theory, which are prone to emphasize the importance and authority of a select number of important and capable figures (think especially of Cicero’s De Republica), Spencer argues that Varro saw the community at large as the authoritative actor in the formation and adaptation of the Latin language. This is not to say that members of the community with special knowledge about language—poets, orators, authors of lengthy treatises on obscure etymologies—did not play an important role in the shaping of language; their task was to educate the populus on the roots of Latin and to show them what was possible for the future of the language. This is, Spencer argues, the project of the De Lingua Latina. By “rebooting” Latin at a fundamental level (i.e. etymologically) Varro was simultaneously building consensus in the Roman community through knowledge of words and showing his contemporaries how flexible and adaptable Latin—and thus Roman culture—was. “Romespeak,” the mastery of Latin as a network of symbols, stories, and politics, was the tool that Varro wanted to give his readers.

In Chapter 3, “Inspiring Latin,” Spencer provides a set of readings from De Lingua Latina (the role of poets and the nature of song in book 6, the importance of templa in book 7, the dialogue between beginnings and endings in books 5-7) to show how Varro’s Romespeaking continually inspired Romans to change their language to reflect—and respond to—their community. The poet, who simultaneously holds a mastery over the canonical rules of language and new, colloquial usage, emerges as a particularly important figure for inspiring change. Moving from the page to the rostra, chapter 4, “Oratio and the Read/Write Experience,” deals with the importance of speaking (both oratory and conversation) and reading for Varro’s community of Romespeakers. Varro agrees with Cicero’s advice that public speakers make use of language familiar from popular usage rather than adhere to strict grammatical “correctness.” Spencer argues, however,  that Varro parts with Cicero on the supremacy of oratory in public life and instead sees conversation—give and take—as the most valuable activity for refining discourse. Again, Spencer gives this grammatical reading a populist flavor: leaders can guide and educate, but it is the People that ultimately decides issues of language.

Chapter 5, “As Old as the Hills,” is one of the stronger contributions of the work—a reflection of Spencer’s previous work on issues of space and culture.[2] In it, she shows how Varro’s literary tours of Rome (first through the seven hills and then through the procession of the Argei) emphasize the hybridity of the Roman community. She argues that Varro’s preoccupation with the repeated intrusion of “outsiders” and immigrants (both individuals and groups) into the city’s foundational myths reflects his desire for the community to embrace the changeability of its institutions and to strive for consensus in the face of an increasingly intransigent political climate. When Cicero (frequently referred to by Spencer as Varro’s “ideal reader”) says that Varro’s works led him home after he felt like a visitor in his own city (Acad. 1.9) Spencer suggests that this process moves in both ways. Readers like Cicero should come away from De Lingua Latina with a better understanding of what has made Rome what it is, but also realizing that the process is ongoing and the city (physically and politically) is ever-changing. The final body chapter, “Varro’s Fasti,” does similar work with Varro’s meditations on the calendar and ultimately argues that Varro’s assertion in the De Lingua Latina, that religious time predated civic time (a reversal of his discussion in the Antiquitates), highlights the intertwined nature of the two.

I would echo Spencer’s recommendation to read this work with a text of De Lingua Latina nearby. She uses primarily Kent’s 1951 Loeb, but readers may benefit from consulting De Melo’s new edition (OUP), which was published too late for Spencer to use. Also, Spencer opens her book with a detailed outline of the surviving portion of the text, which is both useful to refer to while reading the monograph and will be a handy reference for those who wish to use Varro as a source.

In approaching De Lingua Latina from so many different angles, Spencer achieves her goal of demonstrating the literary quality of the text. For those who share her interest in subjects like semiotics and space the work will be especially rewarding. Some obstacles, however, bear mention. The writing itself is quite challenging, as Spencer is given to a brand of jargon-rich, opaque prose, which many will find off-putting. Furthermore, important terms are rarely given a thorough and satisfactory definition. More substantively, Spencer’s political reading of the De Lingua Latina rests on tenuous foundations. The idea that Varro’s egalitarian views on language could suggest that his politics had a similarly populist tone has been advanced by others in less depth (most recently by T.P. Wiseman and Valentina Arena),[3] and the prospect of such a connection is certainly tantalizing. Since this reading is at the foundation of this entire monograph, however, it is difficult to escape the obvious challenge, namely that one’s views on matters of linguistic usage and politics can be entirely different. It is certainly intriguing to consider the differences in the nautical metaphors deployed by Cicero in the De Republica (in which the Republic is guided by a capable helmsman) and by Varro in De Lingua Latina (in which the People steer the ship of language), but we should not overlook the fact that they were writing about very different subjects. That is to say, there is an immense difference between recognizing—perhaps even pragmatically—the People’s authority in shaping the contemporary usage of language and advocating that the People be the helmsman of the entire apparatus of the state. Cicero himself admitted that in many instances he “yielded to the People” (e.g. Or. 160) on matters of usage, but we know that such submissions did not extend to his opinions on how the Republic should be governed. It is impossible to know whether Varro’s opinions on language and governance had more in common, and while Spencer’s book explores some intriguing possibilities it is difficult to escape the underlying uncertainty.

These objections, however, should not deter the reader interested in late-republican intellectual life. The challenge Spencer took on—using the Varro we have to think about the Varro we do not—requires speculation. So long as the reader approaches the project willing to indulge the “what-if’s” the reward is a thought-provoking effort that both highlights the complexity of a text long-overlooked and reunites Varro in scholarship with the peers and culture he engaged with in life.


[1] Spencer has already published several articles and chapters on Varro. Spencer herself contributed to Varro Varius (Ed. D. Butterfield. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, 2015), and that same year saw Grant Nelsestuen’s Varro the Agronomist (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2015), which takes on a project similar to Spencer’s but working with De Re Rustica. See also W. De Melo’s new edition of De Lingua Latina (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[2] Most significantly The Sites of Rome: Time, Space, Memory (Eds. D. Larmour and D. Spencer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Roman Landscape: Culture and Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and her contributions to The Routledge Handbook of Identity and the Environment in the Classical and Early Medieval Worlds (Eds. R. Kennedy and M. Jones-Lewis. New York: Routledge, 2015) as well as to The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome (Eds. I. Östenberg, S. Malmberg, and J. Bjørnebye. London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

[3] T. P. Wiseman, Remembering the Roman People (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) and V. Arena, Libertas and the Practice of Politics in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).