BMCR 2020.10.27

Varron. La langue latine. Tome III. Livre VII

, Varron. La langue latine. Tome III. Livre VII. Collection des universités de France . Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2019. xlviii, 160 p. ISBN9782251014852 €39,00 (pb).

Despite the relatively recent surge of interest in Varro, which in the last few decades has produced several specialised studies on his work, a dedicated edition of book VII of De lingua Latina was still lacking. This gap has now been filled by Pierre Flobert’s excellent edition, which also completes the CUF series of Varro’s etymological books started in 1954 with J. Collart’s edition of book V and continued, by Flobert himself, with book VI in 1985.

The Introduction, in three parts, discusses: (I) the role of book VII in the broader architecture of De lingua Latina, Varro’s views on poetics, and his approach to the analysis of the poetic words; (II) the text of De lingua Latina, its transmission, and main manuscripts; (III) the edition.

The first part begins with some due remarks to contextualise book VII within the whole treatise (“La place du livre VII”; “Le plan du livre VII”), but most valuable is the study on poetry, which spans two sub-sections. First, the reader is invited to reflect on Varro’s selection of poets and the portrait of Rome’s poetic landscape which results from it (“Les poètes cités”), that is, one where the poets of the early Republic (notably Ennius and Plautus) are most prominent, while those of Varro’s time barely figure. Next, under “Les mots poétiques,” comes a careful assessment of the special status of poetic words both within the triad of books on etymologies and with respect to Varro’s theory of the origins of the Latin language. The discussion is enriched by a study of Varro’s doctrine of poetics that justly includes the information discernible from the fragments of the Menippeae and touches on De poematis, and by a review of Varro’s judgment of the individual poets. One might find fault only with the discussion on pp. xvi-xvii, which purports to study the formulae with which Varro expresses etymological derivation (a subject studied by many from a variety of perspectives, with different resulting classifications): the formulae themselves are actually not the focus of the argumentation as much as the fact that some of Varro’s etymologies are explained phonologically, others semantically, and this distinction is not reflected by the formulae consistently. This, however, is only a minor fault about a section that is thorough, excellently balanced, and a real pleasure to read.

The second part, preceding the text and including “Le texte transmis,” “Lacunes,” “Fautes,” and “Les codices descripti,” is concise and compact in form but very full and rich in content—a remarkable achievement, and one that readers will certainly appreciate (although beginners might find it difficult). In less than eleven pages, Flobert manages to cover the history of the transmission of the main manuscript, F (Laurentianus pluteus LI 10), and of its editions, to describe the manuscript’s features, detail the diverse types of mistakes that can be found in it, and also touch on the codices descripti. The account is condensed, but complete, precise, and supplied with copious bibliography. Flobert claims (p. xxvi) to have used—as he already had in his 1985 edition of book VI—ten descripti out of the seventy-odd recognised, the same used by L. Spengel:[1] this choice is given appropriate context and explained with full recognition of the breadth and complexity of the entire stemma. Nevertheless, it must be noted that, in the edition itself, only F is ever mentioned and referred to.

The final part (III), with two sub-sections, contains methodological remarks on the edition (“Le texte édité”) and, under “L’apparat critique,” a list of the cited editions, but also some material which it is somewhat puzzling to find included here: an abridged review of the most recent translations and editions (one must signal the lack of a mention of W. de Melo’s 2019 edition, which, however, came out only months before Flobert’s); commented bibliographical references for further reading on De lingua Latina’s lexicology; and a short summary of the state of the stemma codicum, which repeats the pages xix-xxix.

The text, with facing French translation, is presented in a neat and lucid layout; the reading is also facilitated by the division into thematic sections with headings, which makes it easier to follow the book’s not entirely regular structure. The poetic citations could have been made to stand out more clearly from the main text (perhaps centred, marked by indentation, or italicised) instead of being simply put into quotation marks, but this is not a major issue. The constitutio of the text itself is handled with competence and care: Flobert weighs up every dubious form transmitted by the main manuscript (F) and does not shy away from proposing his own conjectures (also recapped on p. xxviii). Many of these are cosmetic (e.g. restorations of the Greek alphabet for Hellenisms), but some are more substantial: in §21, the correction of the transmitted quasi to Acci confirms the attribution of the following line to the poet; and in §104, the integration of a<cicada> is well supported by philological arguments. Flobert’s method proceeds directly from the transmitted text, rather than relying heavily on the editors and scholars who preceded him: a decision clearly motivated by the editor’s firm command of the Varronian text and not by lack of familiarity with the scholarship. This approach is reflected in the critical apparatus, which is explicitly intended to account for only the changes with respect to F: accordingly, in most cases, the alternative readings proposed by other scholars are not reported. In some instances, however, one feels that at least a mention in the commentary of certain well-known earlier conjectures would have been appropriate. For example, in §10 (transmitted as hoc ut putarent aedem sacram esse templum esse factum quod eqs), Flobert, proposing to correct to templum est factum, comments on Götz & Schöll’s addition <eo videretur> esse factum, but does not mention L. Spengel’s proposal to integrate <et sanctum templum>, which is convincing in light of the purport of the passage, which distinguishes sancta from templa from aedes sacrae.[2] Likewise, in §16 (Delia dôs geminos, id est Apollinem et Dianam, dii quod Titanis Deliadae), a segment clearly corrupted, and restored by Flobert as Deli [Augustinus] deos [Laetus]geminos, id est Apollinem et Dianam, Deli [A. Spengel] quos [Götz & Schöll] Titanis edidit [Flobert], one wonders whether the conjectures by Lachmann (Deliadas geminos) and L. Spengel (Titanis <Deli eos peperit> Deliadae), supported by compelling arguments, do not at least merit being discussed.

Translating the etymological books of De lingua Latina is a challenging task, and book VII makes no exception. Apart from the introduction and conclusion, the main body of the book has a very repetitive structure—indication of the poet or work from which the quotation comes; quotation; analysis of particular words from that quotation—and it is not easy to produce a fluent translation within these limits. But Flobert, clearly aware of this difficulty, is too modest when stating that “la traduction vise à la précision, nullement à l’élégance” (p. xxx): his translation reads smoothly and effortlessly, and even occasionally makes room for some variation while still doing justice to the original rigorous tone. There are only a handful of instances in which I would disagree with Flobert’s interpretation of Varro’s text. In §2, uerba <non> omnia quae habent ἔτυμα possunt dici, “on ne peut pas recourir toujours à des mots pourvus d’une étymologie”: this seems an instance where Varro has made uerba non omnia the subject of the main clause by a syntactic turn, where one would rather expect an impersonal clause (non potest dici) followed by an indirect interrogative, and it is this construction that the translation should reflect: “it is not possible to state the etymology of all words,” or “to say for all words what origin they have.” In §15, anfractum est flexum, “anfractum est la courbe (flexum)”: no neuter noun flexum exists, and here it can only be the adjective flexus -a -um, agreed with anfractum, therefore the translation should be “anfractum means curved”. More importantly, in §32, where Varro details the three aspects that one has to mind when giving an etymology of a word (a quo sit impositum et in quo et quid), I disagree with the translation of the first element as “qui est l’impositeur”. Varro never purports to single out an individual name-giver (unless one reads like that the rex mentioned at the fourth level of the etymological analysis in ling. V 8, but even that would be a focalised theoretical point and not connected to the etymology of any particular word); the two aspects of a quo and in quo rather correspond to the opposition between a qua re and in qua re in V 2, and accordingly should identify, respectively, the phonological derivation and the semantic implications of a word. But apart from these few points, Flobert’s translation is impeccable and confirms once again his profound familiarity with Varro’s text. Moreover, the inclusion of the original Latin word in brackets in those cases when the phonological connection with the etymological explanation becomes indiscernible in the translation frees the reader from the necessity of continuously checking against the Latin text to understand Varro’s reasoning: this allows all readers to profitably consult Varro’s text and follow his philological arguments regardless of their familiarity with Latin. Another point of merit is the translation of the poetic quotations, which is particularly elegant.

To any reader familiar with Flobert’s work, it will come as no surprise that the strongest asset of the commentary is the linguistic analysis. On the one hand, every etymology (or other kind of word-analysis) proposed by Varro is put to the test of modern philology and thoroughly examined from various points of view. On the other hand, the etymologies are also elucidated in light of the coeval scholarly context which produced them, and often contrasted with the explanations given by Festus, so that the reader is able to really appreciate the evolution in linguistic studies through different stages in antiquity. All parts of Flobert’s commentary are supported by a robust bibliography, which is rich, quite diverse in kind—though stronger on the linguistic side—and up to date. One might take issue only with the fact that the contributions referred to in the introduction and commentary are not listed compactly anywhere: the bibliography on pp. xxxv-xliv exclusively lists editions, reference works, and studies that are specifically relevant to De lingua Latina or to certain aspects and themes of book VII. While this arrangement aptly provides a “reading list” of a sort to a newcomer to Varronian studies, who might not necessarily be interested in contributions only tangentially related to De lingua Latina, one regrets the lack of a practical list of all the titles cited in the book.

The edition is completed by various indexes, including a most useful index etymologicus which lists all the words analysed by Varro in the book, with a clear distinction between actual etymological reconstructions (with a phonological base), semantic explanations, and words simply flagged as loanwords.

On the formal side, there is only a typo to signal in the printed Latin text in §94, clepsere dicit, for dixit (the translation correctly renders the perfect).

Discounting the few points that may be questioned, this edition is an exceptional piece of work. It combines thoroughness and conciseness and, most remarkably, it caters for a variety of readers. Those new to Varronian studies will find an easily accessible and carefully restored text, an informative introduction, and a reading list to start from; those more versed in the author will benefit from the analysis of Varro’s poetics and expand their knowledge of linguistic questions posed by the text. With this edition, Flobert has done a great service to a wide range of scholars.


[1] L. Spengel, ed. (1826) M. Terenti Varronis De lingua Latina libri qui supersunt. Berolini: Duckeri et Humboltii.

[2] See the arguments in W. D. C. de Melo, ed. (2019) Varro: De lingua Latina. Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary, Oxford. p. 909.