You are here

Varro and His Influence in the Fourth and Fifth Century Latin West

Michele Renee Salzman

Varro’s vast range of writing and original learning gave him the reputation for being Rome’s greatest scholar in the Augustan age, but his influence lasted well into late antiquity. Today, most scholars state this because his Antiquitates humanarum et divinarum was attacked so forcefully, and hence preserved albeit in fragmentary citations by Augustine in his Civitas dei. Varro’s theology and learning make him the perfect representation of pagan error. But, as this paper will demonstrate, this attack was in part motivated because Varro’s influence had grown and his works were still in circulation in the decades before Augustine’s writing of the Civitas dei between 410-426 CE. Indeed, Varro’s influence and reputation in late fourth century literary circles in Rome is an underappreciated reason why Augustine chose to make Varro the object of his attention.

Varro’s Hebdomades, his famous collection of seven hundred portraits and epigrams of famous men, had something of a renaissance in the late fourth century. As has been shown (see e.g. H. Niquet, Monumenta virtutum titulique Senatorische Selbstdarstellung im spätantike Rom im Spiegel der epigraphischen Denkmäler, 2000), epigrams were again in vogue among senatorial elites, in texts and inscriptions. Indeed, I have argued that the Hebdomades lies behind Symmachus’ intended publication of seven books of Letters, some of which letters included poems in imitation of those in Varro’s Hebdomades. Reference to the Hebdomades by Ausonius (Mosella 310) provides additional support for the reputation of this work.

But as importantly, I would now add, is the survival of collections of Varro’s letters into the fourth and fifth centuries, where they are cited by grammarians. Indeed, Varro’s epistolary corpus, with its satiric elements reminiscent of Lucilian satire, is influential especially for  reading the Letters of Jerome, who sees himself in competition with Varro (Letter 22; and cf. his De Viris Illustribus preface and 54) as I will argue.

Most scholars who consider Varro’s reputation in the fourth and fifth century note as well frequent citation of his de Lingua Latina. My search of the Patrologia Latina database shows  that this is true, for this work is referenced by the fourth and fifth century writers Gaudentius Brixiensis, Dracontius, Jerome, Paulinus , Orosius, Augustine, Prudentius, Zeno, Firmicus Maternus, and Juvencus.  These citations have not, however, been given adequate attention as part of Varro’s reputation, in part because there is the assumption that these authors are citing Varro through the work of earlier grammarians. But even if that is the case – which remains to be demonstrated - the number of these citations and the rising importance of grammarians in late antiquity reinforce my view that there was a renaissance in Varro’s reputation and influence in these years.

In the late fourth and fifth centuries, Varro’s reputation and works traversed geographic and political boundaries.  Not surprisingly, for Jerome as for Augustine, his preeminence as a scholar of secular literature made him a contested figure in the religious and cultural polemics of the age, the pagan counterpart to the prolific Origen. Varro’s influence in late Roman elite circles thus sheds insights on Augustine’s Civitas dei and the degree to which existing modes of literary expression continued to influence Christian education and textual culture.

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