BMCR 2020.12.18

Varronian moments

, , Varronian moments. Bulletin of the institute of classical studies, 60-2. Oxford; Malden, MA: Wiley, 2017. Pp. ix, 147.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The past decade has seen a resurgence of scholarly interest in the Roman antiquarian Marcus Terentius Varro, and the number of monographs, anthologies and articles dedicated to his work and legacy has grown considerably in the past five years. This is the environment in which Varronian Moments, edited by Valentina Arena and Fiachra Mac Góráin, came into being. It is based on papers given at a 2015 colloquium held at University College London, encompassing eight contributions from different scholars, as well as an introduction by the editors and two indices. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

The editors identify the two overarching themes in the articles. The first is Varro’s use and reconstruction of the past. Giorgio Piras’ contribution, the first in the volume, discusses Varro’s taxonomy of the past and his use of etymology as an antiquarian tool, drawing on material from De Lingua Latina, Res Rusticae and fragments preserved in the works of Censorinus. Piras demonstrates how Varro uses ideas of human history from the Greek philosopher Dicaearchus, who is also central in the next chapter, Grant A. Nelsestuen’s contribution.Nelsestuen discusses the history of Roman farming as presented in Varro’s Res Rusticae. He explores how Varro expands on existing ideas of stages of human existence, and the moral aspects of these stages. Placing these two articles, which are thematically connected, together makes good sense.Duncan MacRae offers a review of Varro’s work on sacral jurisprudence, particularly in fragments of the Antiquitates. Its core argument is sound, but it is torn between two means of argument. The introduction identifies the article as an analysis of Cicero’s praise of Varro in Academica I.9, while the conclusion presents it as an attempt to fill a gap left by Elizabeth Rawson’s Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic (1985, London: Duckworth), a work not mentioned until the very end of the article. Elisabetta Todisco investigates Varro’s writings on the correct way to conduct a session of the senate, both the manual for Pompey and a letter to one Oppianus, both of them lost. In her own words, she attempts to reconstruct Varro’s work through Aulus Gellius’ recounting of them. The resulting article is a sober overview of what we know, without the extrapolation implied in the word ‘reconstruction’. The article by R.M.A. Marshall concerns itself with whether Varro or Atticus was the first to propose the Roman chronology with which every classicist is familiar, but ultimately does something more profound, by illustrating how antiquarianism was not solely a written discipline but one also reliant on interpersonal communication.

The second theme in the volume  is the reception of Varro in late antiquity. This is seen to some extent in MacRae and Todisco, who concentrated on fragments, but comes to the forefront in Daniel Hadas’ and Daniel Vallat’s contributions. Hadas’ contribution concentrates on how Augustine’s engagement with the Antiquitates in The City of God led to the loss of Varro’s magnum opus. Vallat provides another view of Varronian reception in late antiquity by investigating Varro’s appearance in Vergilian commentaries. By exploring a number of key issues about how commentaries were copied, emended and transmitted, Vallat elucidates the role commentaries played (and did not play) in Varro’s afterlife. It is this article, along with Marshall’s contribution, that stands out as the highlight of the volume.

The only paper not easily slotted into these two themes is Wolfgang D.C. de Melo’s contribution, a “typology of errors” based on work that, since the publication of the volume under review, has been presented in his two-volume edition of De Lingua Latina (2019, Oxford: Oxford University Press).

The contents of Varronian Moments are fascinating, which is why it is lamentable that the volume lacks editorial cohesion. The introduction gives an overview of the state of Varronian studies, but its summary of the volume’s content is presented in such vague terms that it is hard to differentiate it from the overview. The introduction starts with the famous passage from Cicero’s Academica I.9 on how Varro’s books have led the Romans home, a quote that appears another two times in the volume. It is quoted in part in the conclusion of Hadas’ article (p. 91), and in full at the beginning of MacRae’s, which includes in-depth discussion of the passage (p. 34). The academic works on Varro that quote this passage probably outweigh the ones that do not, but few, if any, quote it more than once.

There are also issues of a more formal nature. There is no standardisation of Latin quotes. Instead, the volume presents such quotes in at least five different ways. Frequently chapters are not internally consistent. In some footnotes (e.g. p. 14, n. 21), no translation is given. Elsewhere, only a translation is given (pp. 49, 63). In some places, the Latin is given first, followed by the translation (pp. 32, 43, 77). In others, the order is reversed (e.g. p. 144, n. 62). Most commonly, an English translation is given as a block quote, and certain Latin phrases, presumably those the authors or editors see as particularly important, are added in parentheses:

“Now I shall set forth the origins of the indiviudal words (singulorum verborum origines), of which there are four levels of explanation (quattuor explanandi gradus). The lowest (infimus) is that to which even the common folk has come (venit).” (De Lingua Latina V.7, as quoted on p. 17)

This interrupts the reader, making it hard to follow the passage. The fact that only parts of the original are translated also introduces an element of subjectivity that is undesirable.

The treatment of Greek is also uneven, with some quotes left untranslated (e.g. p. 50). In Todisco’s article, the title of Varro’s work on senate proceedings is first given as Commentarius εἰσαγωγικός (pp. 49-50), but then as Commentarius isagogicus(p. 59). In some references to ancient works, such as those to City of God in Hadas’ footnotes, the title of the work is omitted, leaving only book and paragraph numbers (e.g. p. 80, nn.16-19, p. 82, n. 27). Changes in quoted translations are not marked out, leaving the reader uncertain what these adaptions are (e.g. p. 49).

The indices also leave something to be desired. The general index, only two pages long, is more an index of persons, with the only stand-alone entry that is not a name or an authorless work, such as a law, being “etymology”. The only names listed are those of ancient people mentioned in the book. Despite the fact that Marshall’s paper on Varro’s chronology includes many mythical names and de Melo’s paper discusses readings by different modern scholars, none of these are included. The index locorum is more well-made than the general index, but it too seems rushed. Under “Festus, Sextus Pompeius (Lindsay)”, four references are listed, but only two of these are to Festus’ epitome of Verrius Flaccus’ encyclopaedia. The other two are references to Paul the Deacon’s epitome of Festus, a separate work included in the same edition. This could have been avoided simply by listening both works under the often-used term “Paulus-Festus”.

Authors and titles

Valentina Arena and Fiachra Mac Góráin: Foreword
Giorgio Piras: Dicam dumtaxat quod est historicon: Varro and/on the past
Grant A. Nelsestuen: Varro, Dicaearchus, and the history of Roman res rusticae
Duncan MacRae: ‘The laws of the rites and of the priests’: Varro and late Republican Roman sacral jurisprudence
Elisabetta Todisco: Varro’s writings on the senate: a reconstructive hypothesis
R.M.A. Marshall: Varro, Atticus and Annales
Daniel Hadas: St Augustine and the disappearance of Varro
Daniel Vallat: Varro in Virgilian commentaries: transmission in fragments
Wolfgang D.C. de Melo: A typology of errors in Varro and his editors: a close look at selected passages in the De lingua Latina