You are here

The Antiquities of the Latin Language: Varro's Excavations of the Roman Past

Katharina Volk

My paper considers together Varro's two great works of the early to mid-40s, the Antiquitates rerum diuinarum and the De lingua Latina.  Though ostensibly about quite different subjects—Roman religion and the Latin language—the two works not only show extensive overlaps in content (as when, in ARD, divine names are explained etymologically or, conversely, when a fair amount of the Latin vocabulary discussed in LL turns out to refer to religious sites or institutions), but also exhibit similar methodologies and comparable goals.  In concentrating specifically on the ways in which Varro presents his own enterprise as an intellectual recovery of the past, I aim to interpret and understand the author's scholarly project within the larger cultural context of the late Republic.

                  In both ARD and LL, Varro is on a quest to "uncover" a past that through the passage of time or human neglect has become "covered" up.  To make the point, he programmatically (and playfully) employs forms of the verb ruere: it is the scholar's task to eruere (LL 6.2, 7.2) what has become obrutum (LL 6.2) in a ruina (ARD 2a; LL 7.1).  This kind of archeology is, however, not an antiquarian's disinterested labor of love; it is a beneficium to his fellow citizens (ARD 3), who through Varro's efforts become capable of making practical use of the resources at their hands, be they the Roman gods or the Latin language.  Throughout, Varro stresses the utilitas of his work, which is in line with his general belief that all human institutions are ultimately predicated on what is useful.

                  As Cicero famously put it (Acad. post. 9), Varro made the Romans feel at home in their own city, where they had previously been but strangers, and it is important to note that Varro's scholarship-as-beneficium is directed exclusively at Rome.  Despite its misleadingly inclusive title, the Antiquitates rerum humanarum, as Augustine tells us, dealt only with those humans who happened to be Romans (ARD 5), and the same is true, mutatis mutandis, for ARD (Roman cults) and LL (Latin words for Roman things).  With this narrow cultural focus comes an awareness of the constructedness of Roman instituta, from religion to language: men invent words, institute customs, and even make (some) gods.  Varro is concerned with the man-made, specifically Roman-made throughout (ARD 5), and while he feels that both religious founders and first name-givers could have done a better job, he accepts that as a born-and-bred Roman (ARD test. Bk. 10) who is a member of a vetus populus (ARD 12), he must live with, and explain to other Romans, their culture as it has developed in actuality.

                  Claudia Moatti memorably sums up the intellectual efforts of the late Republic as follows: "for them clarification was worth as much as truth" ("pour eux la clarification valait bien la vérité," La Raison de Rome, Paris 1997, p. 310). Varro may be the best example of this tendency: by working to figuratively unearth the lost past of Rome, he endeavors to clarify the Roman present and thus enable his fellow citizens to become better "users" of the complex structures of their own culture.  As he himself proclaims, this intellectual salvaging of Roman identity places the scholar in the same league—indeed, above—such actual founders and preservers of Rome as Metellus and even Aeneas (ARD 2a).

Session/Panel Title

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

Session/Paper Number

57.4

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy