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The Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum and the Creation of the Roman National Identity

Isaia Crosson

The surviving fragments of the Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum (ARD) have mostly been interpreted in connection with a political agenda of religious reformation (Della Corte, Koch); in particular, Varro’s original sixteen books, aiming to systematize all aspects of Roman cult, might have constituted the written backbone of Caesar's alleged ambition to reshape religio. The purpose of the reforms, in line with the genus civilis theologiae (Cardauns 6, 7, 9) would have been the following: to favor cohesion amid the ignorant vulgus through the restoration of forgotten practices (Momigliano). However, the impossibility of dating the fragments with accuracy and their peculiar nature have made scholars skeptical about the Varronian programme: the ARD could be read as a work in the tradition of the Greek ἀρχαιολογίαι (Jocelyn) or as an antiquarian survey endowed with Posidonian or Antiochean speculation (Van Nuffelen). In fact, how can a book de sacellis or some etymological conjectures be useful to a statesman?

My paper consists of two parts: first, it argues that whether we date the ARD in the 50's or in the 40's and whether Caesar's plan for reconstituting the mos maiorum was more or less defined, it is wrong to decontextualize Varro's work from the inflamed politics of its time. The preponderant role of theologia civilis (whose preeminence over the other two kinds – mythica et naturalis – is first proclaimed by Varro himself, as Boyancé pointed out) demonstrates that the author had some kind of political agenda: the entire project of the Antiquitates is orchestrated according to the civic function of religion, according to whether religion is useful to the civitas, and if so, how. Since civitates priores sunt quam ea, quae a civitatibus instituta sunt (Cardauns 5), the antiquities of men (ARH) must precede those of the gods; in addition, even in the ARD only the last three books strictly pertain to the gods and their nature, because the worship of such deities depends on the politicians selecting them. Furthermore, Cardauns 2 (and the testimonium of Aug. Civ. 3.17) leaves no doubt about the preoccupation triggering the antiquarian's endeavor: the Roman deities ought to be saved from civium neglegentia and to be preserved in memoria bonorum. These words evoke Cicero's political theory, highly concerned with the identification of good (boni) citizens and rulers (Rep. 2.51).

And yet, if the ARD fulfills a political function, we have to face the issues related to its date of composition, the relationship between Caesar (the dedicatee) and his dedicator and the fragments apparently disconnected from politics. How is it possible to respond to these issues? A new approach, as I set out in the second half of my paper – focusing on what I call a “civically didactic goal” – is the following: Varro’s political contribution in the ARD is to establish the religious identity of the ideal Roman citizens, providing the necessary information for the boni both of his generation and of the generations to come. Varro does so by the same investigative method he resorts to elsewhere: antiquarian collection (Rüpke). It is true that despite the fragmentary nature of the ARD and the multiplicity of its themes a unifying motive can be detected. However, this is neither to illustrate Caesar's reforms, nor to recover the past for the sake of preserving it, nor to demonstrate the philosophical truth hidden behind the gods. Instead, Varro gathers the material his fellow-citizens need in order to be the gubernatores civitatis Cicero hopes for. As far as state cult is concerned, this implies their ability to select the best gods for the public worship and to tailor religion to the welfare of the urbs (Cardauns 10, 20, 21, 32; cf. Aug. Civ. 3.4). If we accept this interpretation, even the fragments concerned with obsolescent rituals and etymology become important from a political perspective: all together they contribute to forge the Roman national identity, later sponsored by the Augustan propaganda.

Session/Panel Title

The Intellectual Legacy of M. Terentius Varro: Varronian Influence on Roman Scholarship and Latin Literary Culture

Session/Paper Number


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