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Varro the Pythagorean? An Inquiry into the Quadripartite Category System of De Lingua Latina 5.11-13

Phillip Sidney Horky and Grant Nelsestuen

Durham University and University of Wisconsin Madison

The proposition that Varro can be thought of as a “Pythagorean” is commonly assumed in certain strands of recent scholarship (e.g. Flinterman 2014, Lehmann 1997, Boyancé 1975; cf. Volk 2016: 45).  This claim is ultimately rooted in Pliny the Elder’s enigmatic description (HN 35.160) of Varro being interred “in the Pythagorean way, in leaves of olive, myrtle, and black poplar.”  For those who have taken Pliny’s assertion to be authoritative, the key to understanding Varro, then, is to scour his works for explicit discussions of Pythagoras and implicit references to Pythagorean doctrines and tenets.  What has not usually been wondered, however, is what sort of Pythagorean Varro is supposed to be.  Is he a “Roman” Pythagorean, who embraced intellectual and ritual pursuits like those of Publius Vatinius (Cic. Vat. 14) and Nigidius Figulus (Cic. Ti. 1), or a “Hellenistic” Pythagorean, a sort of epiphenomenon of Antiochus’s eclecticism (as Grilli 1979 holds)? 

This paper questions both of these positions by examining Pythagorean doctrines as they appear in Varro’s writings.  Particular attention will be paid to a controversial passage of De Lingua Latina (5.11-13), in which Varro describes a Pythagorean division of reality (cf. Blank 2012: 285-86).  There, Varro mentions a table of Pythagorean contraries, which are pairs of universal principles (omnium rerum bina), followed by quadripartite primary genera of “body, place, time, action” (corpus, locus, tempus, actio), which collectively form a set of Pythagorean linguistic categories. In order to determine Varro’s purported status as a Pythagorean, we investigate precisely how these two “Pythagorean” descriptors of reality—contrary principles and a quadripartition of categories of primary genera— compare with Hellenistic accounts of Pythagorean metaphysics, along with comparable accounts that could indicate Varro’s potential commitments to Antiocheanism, Stoicism, or Old Academic thought. The answers are surprising. Not only does Varro’s “Pythagorean” quadripartite category system demonstrate no parallels to other contemporary “Pythagorean” category systems, such as those of “Pythagoras” (apud Hippolytus, Adv. Heres. 6.23.1-4) or Pseudo-Archytas (p. 22.6-31 Thesleff), nor yet to “Academic” category systems such as those of Xenocrates, as reported by Andronicus (Fr. 15 Isnardi Parente²), Menaechmus (Procl. in Prim. Eucl. Elem. p. 78.10-13 Friedlein), or Eudorus (Fr. 17 Mazzarelli; see Boys-Stones 2018: 418-36); it also shows no special adherence to Stoic quadripartition of genera (see Long & Sedley 28E and 29C). On the contrary, Varro’s account of Pythagorean categories would appear to be a positive refutation of Stoic ideas, because it mixes corporeals (“body” and “action”) with incorporeals (“time” and “place”) in a totally unique categorical system (cf. Long & Sedley 27D).  Hence, we argue that Varro’s Pythagorean system of reality ignores early Academic ideas and positively rejects Stoic theories of being. The result is a repudiation of Antiocheanism—whether someone imagines Antiocheanism to be primarily Stoic, or Academic, or some blend of the two—and the replacement of it with a special form of “Pythagoreanism” that, perhaps unsurprisingly, obtains no known adherents after Varro’s death.  If Varro is indeed a “Pythagorean,” he is the only one of his kind.

Session/Panel Title

Varro the Philosopher

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