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Varro’s Dystopian Rome: Masquerade and Murder in the First Book of De Rebus Rusticis

Sarah Culpepper Stroup

Varro’s de Rebus Rusticis is a tantalizing, troubling, dialogue by any account.  Published between 37 and 27 BCE, dRR is both the only complete work by Rome’s “most learned individual” (Quint. I.O. X.1.95), and one that has resisted cohesive interpretation.  The traditional approach to this text has been to take it at face value, as a straightforward, and dizzyingly encyclopedic, farming manual.  More recently Green (1997; 2012) and Kronenberg (2009) have argued that the work, or at any rate parts of it, is better understood as engaging in philosophical or political allegory.  In this paper, I argue that this dRR does not merely reject its stated “face value” and allegorize the Republic, but indeed unfolds a dystopian, and almost nightmarish, view of Rome—and the Republican dialogue—in the final decades of the first century BCE.   

            This paper departs entirely from the traditionalist approach and is informed rather by what we know about how dialogues, and the dialogic voice, worked in the late Republic (cf. Stroup 2010; 2013), most specifically the traditional use of the beginning and end of the dialogue (or books therein) as coded commentary on the work as a whole.  Further, although I find recent allegorical readings useful, in this paper I offer not an allegory to the work or any part of it so much as a lens through which we might view the work—including its various allegories—as a whole.

            The arguments presented in this paper focus on Book I alone.  I do this not only in the interest of time, but because the “coded commentary” of the Book I informs our reading not only of this book, but indeed of dRR as a whole.  Because of what we know about late Republican dialogues—how they are dedicated, and to whom, and under what circumstances; how the discourses begin, and how they end—we see in these passages not just where and how Varro aligns dRR with its dialogic predecessors, but where and how he inverts and destroys them, and what it is he offers, somewhat ominously, in their stead. 

            I turn first to the introductory sections of the dRR, 1.1 - 1.7.  In these sections, our dialogic expectations are both fulfilled (the first word is resonantly Ciceronian otium) and confounded (the dedicatee appears, impossibly, to be a woman).  What are we to make of this?  It is at 1.3 that Varro tips his hand for the first time: he likens himself to the Cumaean Sibyll, and the three books of dRR to the three Sibylline books that had survived Tarquinius’ stubbornness (a legend indeed relayed by Varro, and recorded by Lactantius, D.I. 1.6).  If the message is not yet clear, we have been put on notice: just as the utterances of the Sibylline books must be carefully interpreted in order to avoid disaster, the books of the dRR are not what they appear to be.  I turn next to the setting (the Aedes Telluris, 2.1) and likely date of the dialogue (January 24th – 26th of 44, as I shall argue, mere months before Caesar’s assassination), as well as the strange cast of suspiciously agricultural characters (Fundanius, Agrasius, Agrius, and the strangely absent host, Fundilius).  Whereas others have argued that Varro’s use of “speaking names” in this work are a matter of lighthearted wordplay, however, I suggest that we are presented rather with the suggestion of a dark Chestertonian masquerade in which “real” Romans are conflated with the objects of their discourse—Mr. Farmer talks of controlling the land; Mr. Field of mastering the field.  The paper concludes with the conclusion of the dialogue—or rather, the point at which we are awoken from our nightmare: for, with the shocking “accidental murder” of the host (I.69.2-4) we are made to realize, in horror, that the dialogue we have been reading had never actually begun.

Session/Panel Title

Judgment and Obligation in Roman Intellectual History

Session/Paper Number

32.2

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