You are here

Varro’s theologia tripertita in Augustus and Augustine

Steven J. Lundy

This paper reconsiders the form and reception of Varro’s theologia tripertita. The conceptual scheme – separating reverence for the gods into natural, mythical, and civic components – is at the core of Varro’s antiquarian-religious project (Cardauns 1978, Rüpke 2005). It is also a target of Augustine’s religious critique in City of God, our main source for the scheme (Civ. Dei 6-7; e.g. Hagendahl 1967, 601-617, Dihle 1996). Augustine’s commentary indicates that Varro’s distinctive appraisal of tria genera theologiae was a key part of its application in Varro’s antiquarian works (O’Daly 2004, 101-9). Hitherto overlooked evidence from Varro’s surviving corpus, however, suggests that Augustine misrepresented its original form and purpose – a misreading which, I suggest, may stem from Varro’s deep influence on contemporary politics and religious culture (Baier 1997). In this paper, I therefore read around Augustine to explore how Varro employed the tria genera as a far-reaching heuristic device, giving evidence for an artful and innovative political philosophy. I then discuss how its exploitation by the Augustan regime in particular skewed the original intent of the scheme, and subsumed the nuance of Varro’s tria genera to the demands of Augustus’ imperial ambition. Varronian philosophy, read through Augustan politics, provided ample fodder for Augustine’s critique in City of God; on its own terms, Varro’s theologia tripertita reveals provocative and inconvenient affinities with Augustine’s politics and theology.

My paper begins with a short critical reappraisal of the tria genera in its wider application to Varro’s intellectual program as a whole. Structural and lexical cues in De Lingua Latina in particular suggest that Varro’s tria genera extended beyond theological considerations: natural, mythical, and civic distinctions can also usefully describe the Roman calendar, for example (LL 6.3-34, cf. Feeney 2007, 196f.), and exponents of each part of the tripartition (philosophers, poets, and the people) also have separate but complementary roles to play in Varro’s linguistic models (e.g. LL 10.74). The often misunderstood function of these distinctions is to identify real-world deficiencies in the “natural” component (of religious practice, of the calendar, of language), which Varro’s antiquarian and linguistic philosophy can then rectify (Rüpke 2005).

This function anticipates the goals of the Augustan religious program (Baier 1997, e.g. 17), and major public monuments of the regime mark their indebtedness to Varro’s specific interpretation of the tria genera: the Ara Pacis, for instance, displays a trifecta of civic, mythical, and natural scenes in its exterior tableaux (cf. Freibergs et al. 1986). Following Varro, Augustus’ exploitation of the tria genera theologiae has a clear overt message: through his mastery and application of philosophical, “natural” knowledge, Augustus’ vision for the res publica coalesces harmoniously with natura. The subtext, however, is unmistakably political, even cynical: it skews Varro’s finely-modulated balance of power between philosophy, literature, and the res publica in favor of ideological manipulation. Correspondingly, Ovid’s own noted use of the tria genera in the Fasti need not be a direct importation of Varronian theology (Green 2002), as much as an ironic commentary on the naturalizing aesthetics and philosophical pretensions of Augustus’ imperial program.

It is really against Augustus’ bombast that Augustine also reacts in City of God, (intentionally?) misreading Varro’s advocacy of philosophy through its subsequent political co-option. As such, Augustine emphasizes the flaws in the “civic” part of the tria genera (Civ. Dei 6.5-7), and reduces Varro’s theology itself to cynical public manipulation. The “civic” component, however, was only incidental to Varro’s real intention: Varro himself would have identified as a natural philosopher, who associated corrosion in the civic sphere with society’s disregard of a transcendent monotheism (cf. O’Daly 2004, 104). There was a good deal more correspondence between Varro’s antiquiarianism and the City of God than Augustine cared to acknowledge.

Session/Panel Title

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

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy