Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 B.C.) was the greatest Roman scholar and an incredibly prolific writer. It is estimated that he wrote 74 separate works in 620 volumes on all aspects of contemporary learning.
Varro was born at Reate in the Sabine country into a family of some means. He was educated at Rome under L. Aelius Stilo, the first Roman philologist, and at Athens. As a follower of Pompey (against Julius Caesar) in the political struggles of the time, he held several public offices at Rome and carried out other assignments, some military, for his leader. He served under Pompey in the civil war. When he returned to Rome after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C., Caesar, the victor, pardoned him and commissioned him to establish a public library of Greek and Latin literature.
After Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C., Mark Antony put Varro's name on the list of those considered to be enemies of the state. Although his villa was plundered and his library destroyed, Varro escaped death through the intervention of Octavian (later Augustus). Thereafter, Varro spent his remaining years in seclusion, reading and writing.
Varro's range of subjects was vast, although only a small number of works are extant. He wrote 150 books of Menippean satire (a mixture of poetry and prose on a variety of topics), plus other satires, poems, and dramatic works; 41 books called Antiquities of Things Human and Divine; Annals; City Affairs; On the Nationality of the Roman People, dealing with the origins of the Romans; On the Life of the Roman People, an outline of Roman civilization; Causes, an investigation into Roman customs; and Logistorici, philosophical essays using historical examples.
Varro also wrote Civil Law; The Seashore, a treatise on geography; works on meteorology; and almanacs for farmers and sailors. He produced books on rhetoric, grammar, poets, poetry, and stage equipment, as well as criticism of the Roman dramatist Plautus. He innovated the illustrated biography. Called Portraits, it contained brief biographical essays on some 700 famous Greeks and Romans, with likenesses of each.
Varro also wrote on agriculture, mathematics, and astronomy. His Subjects for Learning set forth in 9 books a curriculum in the liberal arts, that is, areas of learning in which a free man should be knowledgeable: grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music, medicine, and architecture. Antiquities contained 25 books on "matters human" and 16 on "matters divine." The work reflected Varro's immense knowledge of the Roman past. The Church Fathers used it as a rich source of information about official Roman religion.
The Menippeae saturae consists of a form of satire that predates that of Lucilius, the first Roman satirist. Varro named his satires after the Greek Menippus of Gadara, a Cynic philosopher of the 3d century B.C. who wrote in a seriocomic style and gave humorous expression to serious views, and whose works were a mixture of prose and poetry. Varro's satires were originally in 150 books, but only fragments remain, totaling some 600 lines and about 90 titles. They aimed to make serious logical discussion palatable to the uneducated reader by blending it with humorous treatment of contemporary society. Two themes run through the satires. One is the absurdity of much of Greek philosophy; the other, the contemporary preoccupation with material luxury, in contrast to the old days, when the Romans were thrifty and self-denying. Various titles indicate something of the spirit of the work: "Who can tell what the late evening will bring?" (on dinner parties); "It's a long trip to escape your relatives"; and "A pot has its limits: on drunkenness." Both Petronius's Satyricon and Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae were influenced by Varro's work.
Of the 25 books of De lingua Latina, books 5-10 survive, although even they are incomplete. After an introduction (book 1), the work was divided into etymology (2-7), inflection (8-13), and syntax (14-25). From the fifth book on, it was dedicated to Cicero, which suggests that it was written no later than 43 B.C. Although the work is dry, pedantic, and often clumsy, it does contain occasional flashes of wit and often accurate etymologies. Moreover, it is a valuable source for quotations from old Latin poets. Books 8-10 set forth the arguments for accepting either the linguistic principle of anomaly or that of analogy. Varro argues in favor of analogy—as did Caesar's work on grammar, which Varro probably influenced. Although Varro's philosophy of language had its limitations, he realized the necessity of getting back to origins in the study of grammar, and he made the subject worthy of notice.
Varro wrote Res rusticae for his wife, Fundania, in haste, he said, for "if man is a bubble, all the more so is an old man. My eightieth year warns me to pack my bags before I set forth on the journey out of life." However, Varro lived for another 10 years. The treatise is divided into three books, the first on agriculture, the second on cattle, and the third on game and fish preserves. He used dialogue to make it more readable. The spirit of Res rusticae is very Italian and very patriotic. Varro admires the peasantry and exalts country life as honorable as well as useful. The work was a source for Virgil's Georgics.
Varro was a shrewd, practical man rather than a profound one, possessed of an encyclopedic rather than a synthesizing mind. He did try, however, to know all there was to be known, and to pass his knowledge on to his fellow Romans. In fact, he was so committed to conveying information to the uneducated that he wrote résumés of some of his longer works.
Cicero's praise for Varro indicates the value of his labors to Roman learning: "When we were foreigners and wanderers—strangers, as it were, in our own land—your books led us home and made it possible for us at length to learn who we were as Romans and where we lived."
For Varro's place in Roman literature see the background works by J. Wight Duff, A Literary History of Rome, from the Origins to the Close of the Golden Age (1909; 3d ed. 1960) and Roman Satire (1936).