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“Si Homo Est Bulla: Varro’s Roman Cynicism and de Rebus Rusticis”

Sarah Culpepper Stroup

University of Washington

Varro’s de Rebus Rusticis (henceforth dRR) is the most playfully deceptive, preposterously cryptic, uneasily humorous, and disturbingly dystopian text to have made it out of the Republic.  A man deemed the “Most Learned of the Romans” (vir Romanorum eruditissimus, Quint. 10.1.95), Varro is without question among the most literarily influential figures of the final years of the Republic and, in particular, the disastrously dangerous years of the Triumvirate.  And yet, due to the particularly frustrating state of the evidence, of some 600 works attributed to the man, we possess for most merely titles, for some scant fragments, for de Lingua Latina six books out of an original twenty-five, and for de Rebus Rusticis—the whole damned thing.  In the reconstruction of Varro’s intellectual influence and identity—as linguist, as antiquarian, as satirist, as philosopher—we could do worse than starting with the only work to have survived intact.  In this paper, I center the axis of satire and philosophy and argue both that Varro can be considered a political philosopher of Cynic bent, and that dRR is a politico-philosophical satire of the first order.

Varro’s satires were labeled “Menippean” and “Cynic” both during his life and shortly thereafter (Cic. Acad. 1.2; Gellius NA 1.17.4, 2.18.7, 13.31 e.g), and by the late 2nd c, Tertullian refers to him somewhat sneeringly as a “Roman Cynic” (Apol. 14.9).  I therefore begin with a brief survey of what we know of Menippus of Gadara in particular and the influences of Cynic philosophy in Rome in general.  This I follow with a similarly brief review of Kronenberg’s recent article arguing profitably for a Cynical reading of Varro’s ARD (as preserved primarily in Augustine’s Civ. Dei), and suggest that such a reading helps shed light on how we might approach dRR: as a satire not so much of the philosophical dialogue or abstruse pedantry (although there is some of that going on), but of the Roman state as a whole in the early 30s BCE.

I turn then to the bulk of my argument, which is that once we situate dRR in the context of philosophical Cynicism and the satire for which it was known, the work unfolds as one deeply invested in the pointed criticism and calculated undermining of state authority in a rapidly crumbling Republic. I focus most on the introductions to the three books (Book I, for instance, begins with the apparent proverb ut dicitur, si homo est bulla, a nod to the “proverbial” titles of many of the Menippeans and a pronounced wink at the following clause in which Varro likens himself to the Cumaean Sibyl [si… bulla]), but argue more broadly that the work moves from a simplistic, Cynical idealism at the start of Book I to a nightmare of deluded luxury and dangerous hypocrisy by the end of Book III.

The state of the Varronian corpus is, in a sense, a snapshot of our field as a whole: an abundance of scattered clues, and a dearth of valuable evidence.  And so as we endeavor to reconstruct the intellectual life and loudly resounding influence of this doctissimus Romanorum (Sen. Dial. 12.8), and as we focus here on the retrieval of Varro as a philosopher of no small account, I argue that a Cynical reading of dRR can do much to move us on our way.

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Varro the Philosopher

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