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The Time, the Place: a Year with Varro

Diana Spencer

 When looking for literary fasti, Ovid’s elegiac six-months is the obvious prize. But look back half a century before Ovid, and Varro’s study De Lingua Latina got there first. Varro’s calendar in de Lingua Latina is striking in its apparent separation of civic from religious time. He sets the gods first: their ‘days’ precede the legal, political schedule (Ling. 6.12-24) and Varro makes no concessions to an audience unsure of how and why the civic and natural years might be storyboarded differently. It is from this premise that the paper commences. ‘In his entire discussion of the fixed festivals Varro mentions only two [the Robigalia and the Vinalia] as being related to the natural year in any way’ (Feeney 2007: 199), and he rarely specifies a month as he proceeds. For Feeney, Varro has no ‘instinctive reflex to conceive of the civil operations and the natural operations as a duet … [and] the opportunity to make a meaningful connection between the state’s calendar and the operations of the natural cycle of the year is not taken up’ (Feeney 2007: 200).

Responding to Feeney, I explore a representative selection of Varro’s high-profile (e.g., Liberalia, Poplifugia) and obscure (e.g., Fordicidia, Angeronalia) festivals, to suggest that a dialogue between natural and civic is less absent than might at first seem the case. Instead, this reading demonstrates how ostentatiously de-coupling the natural from the civic illuminates the expected points of intersection. Thanks to Varro, readers have the tool-kit to run and interrogate ostensibly variant epistemological schemes simultaneously. What results is a new reading of Varro’s fixed festivals in which the oddness of nature’s absence is an exhortation to think about how the two worlds are in dialogue.

Quasi-natural category markers preface and contextualise the world of fixed festivals. Already, Varro’s readers know that the Day-god (‘ab hoc deo dies’, Ling. 6.4) resides in the kind of technocracy that underpins sundials (nature+engineering). Their deep-rooted Italian genealogy is capped at Rome where sun and water combine in the clock set up at the Basilica of Aemilius and Fulvius, some 150 years earlier (cf. Pliny HN 7.212-215). Control over heat, light and moisture, the prerequisites for fertility and growth, is crucial to civilisation, and the opening of Varro’s festal year picks up these resonances. First festival up: the events of the Dies Agonales. Divine Dies draws in a new sun for this new year, and we briefly join the Priest King (uniting religious and political organisation) at the ‘Palace’, to witness a performance that readers should already know recurs proteus-like in the growth-phases of the year: January, March, May, and December. In Ovid’s explanation (Fasti 1.317 ff.), differently nuanced to Varro’s, performance and struggle are central; for Varro, kickstarting the festal calendar, it’s all about the politics and marking how human systems shape the natural world — even for the ram: the leader of the herd is sacrificed by the leader of the state (‘...a principe ciuitatis et princeps gregis immolatur’). The rex in this sense is a manifestation of a more diffuse but ur power, perhaps even of the balancing act necessary to maintain good relations with and between natural forces, ensuring harmony between citizens and universe.

This paper argues that despite what we might call a lost opportunity to articulate a barnstorming position on the politics of calendars and their dialogue with the natural order, Varro is being consistent with the bigger game for his project De Lingua Latina. This is not an information handbook, or an exegesis of how things connect. Instead it is more like a matrix: modelling a series of contexts for understanding and working Latin discourse. For the user, this model poses significant intellectual challenges, but also offers rewards, underscoring the significance of Varro’s project in enriching how time and place (natural and civic) confront one another.

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

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