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Creeping Roots: Varro on Latin Across Time and Space

Adam Gitner

Varro presents Latin as a language of great historical complexity and geographic reach. He distinguishes, for instance, at least three layers of Greek influence that predate the founding of Rome (Pelasgian Greek, Doric brought by Hercules, and Arcadian brought by Evander; Stevens 2006) and identifies significant contributions of loanwords from Rome’s neighbors on the Italic peninsula, notably from Sabellian, Etruscan, and Celtic sources, and from further afield (e.g., “Armenian” tigris). Both his “archaeological” approach to language history and his emphasis on multilingual interaction provide a sharp contrast to the work of Greek scholars on their own language, where history and foreign interaction tend to receive scant attention (Lallot 2011, Nünlist 2012). As a result, Varro gained insights into language that can appear strikingly modern: for instance, in perceiving the action of regular sound change and recognizing loanwords that have been phonologically altered by an intermediary language. At the same time, these innovations in method and approach fully participate in the contemporary cultural scene, drawing on the Roman experience of multilingualism (Adams 2003) and contributing to debates about the nature of Roman identity vis-à-vis Italy and Greece and the nature of Roman imperium (Dench 2005, Wallace-Hadrill 2008). To throw light on these connections, this paper surveys two axes that structure Varro’s representation of Latin in the De Lingua Latina and related fragments—its historical, or diachronic, development and its geographic, or diatopic, relations—and proposes to relate them to their cultural matrix.

                  In its perceptive treatment of the development of Latin, the surviving portions of the De Lingua Latina provide a valuable window on the Roman historical imagination. Integrating antiquarian and philological approaches, Varro reconstructs a language of distinct chronological layers, comprising several waves of Greek influence among other interactions, which he sometimes distinguishes on the basis of phonological criteria (e.g., malum; cf. Collart 1954, p. 205ff.; Pascucci 1979). Historicized in this way, Latin resembles a stratigraphic record,  from and onto which Varro reads the history of Rome and the prehistory of Latin speakers. While Varro’s approach owes much to earlier Greek scholarship, his attention to linguistic history is exceptional among surviving sources in its depth and complexity. Analyzing his references to the development of Latin, I show how these relate to Varro’s Roman milieu, particularly in its treatment of chronology (Feeney 2007) and the slippery relationship between Greek and Roman identity. Through historical reconstruction, Varro presents Latin as both indebted to and independent of Greek, providing a nuanced view of a complex bond as well as a rational basis for linguistic usage (e.g., L. 10.70).

                  Varro’s descriptions of Latin in relation to non-Greek neighboring languages, especially Italic languages, Gallic, and Etruscan, provide another dimension of analysis. While Varro sometimes describes Latin’s relationship to these languages in historical terms, he also resorts to a synchronic mode of analysis. In a revealing comparison (L. 5.74), Varro likens a word shared between Latin and “Sabine” to a tree whose roots straddle the boundary between two fields. Besides illustrating the cross-fertilization between Varro’s agricultural and linguistic knowledge, the image suggests an unusual conception of linguistic interaction. In portraying the intertwined roots of languages on the Italian peninsula, Varro provides an image of Roman rule after the Social War that helps to harmonize some of its tensions, for instance between center and periphery, city and countryside (cf. the twinned roots of cascus, L. 7.28; ursus, L. 5.100; more generally fr. 296 GRF). As with his linguistic archaeology, so too Varro’s linguistic geography of neighboring languages illustrates the cultural context in which he worked as well as his originality within the development of linguistic thought.

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Varro, De Lingua Latina, and Intellectual Culture in the Late Republic

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