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Why Is There So Much Varro in the City of God?

Andrew Horne

University of Chicago

Varro is everywhere in Augustine’s City of God. Two full books (6 and 7) are devoted to poking holes in Varro’s Divine Antiquities, and Augustine cites or engages with Varro in many other places in the work (Civ. 3.4, 3.17, 4.1, 4.9, 4.22, 4.27, 4.31-32, 8.1, 8.5, 8.26, 18.5, 18.9-10, 18.16-17, 18.23, 19.1-4, 19.22, 21.6, 21.8, 22.11). There are, of course, obvious reasons for Varro’s prominence. In the first place, Varro was the textbook for Roman religion. If Augustine wanted to write about Roman paganism, much of his information would naturally come from the Divine Antiquities. Second, it was something of a trope in Latin Christian polemic (Tertullian, Arnobius, Lactantius) to engage with Varro (Burns 2001, 40-43; O’Daly 1999, ch. 3)—to that extent, Augustine was simply following precedent.

I think there is more to be said, however, about Augustine’s intellectual engagement with Varro in the City of God. Given that Augustine spends so much time refuting the ideas, the method, and the theory of the Divine Antiquities, Varro is clearly more than a sourcebook. But what sort of interlocutor is Varro, such that Augustine feels the need to engage with him at such length? Apart from Markus 1996, scholars have essentially not asked this question (see O’Daly 1996, Burns 2001); even Markus’s brief comments focus less on Varro’s ideas than on his cultural significance. My argument, on the contrary, is that Augustine conceives of Varro as a significant opponent: specifically as a via media or compromise theologian whose aim is to mediate between paganism and monotheism through the vehicle of civic religion. This critique is not one that Augustine makes in explicit terms. But consideration of both the inserted quotations from Varro (section 1) and Augustine’s reaction to them (section 2) makes it likely that the via media approach is a primary motivating factor in Augustine’s engagement with his Roman predecessor.

The first part of the paper focuses on Varro, using Augustine’s text to reconstruct his theological profile as a compromise figure. My approach builds on recent work by Van Nuffelen (2010) and Volk (forth.) that considers Varro as a constructive thinker rather than a mere antiquarian. Famously, Varro proposes three theologies (Civ. 6.5, cf. 4.27; Rüpke 2005): the monotheistic religion of the philosophers, the polytheistic religion of the poets—and the civic religion. It is clear that Varro’s main interest is in the civic religion; a glance at the table of contents of the Divine Antiquities will make that clear (Civ. 6.3). My suggestion is that we read Varro’s civic religion as a programmatic via media between two extremes (the point is touched upon but not developed in Fortin 1980, 242). On the one hand, Varro thinks that civic religion avoids the lies and impurities of the poets’ religion (Civ. 6.5): Varro is himself after all a monotheist (Civ. 4.9, 4.31, 7.6, 19.22). But Varro also thinks that civic religion avoids the intellectual obscurantism (Civ. 6.5) and impracticality (Civ. 3.4, 4.27, 4.31) of a purely philosophical religion. Brief consideration of Varro’s allegorical method reinforces this interpretation of the civic theology as a compromise position.

The second half of the paper considers Augustine’s reaction to Varro’s via media theology. Within the City of God, Varro in books 6-7 occupies the middle position between the more straightforward polytheists whom Augustine refutes in books 1-5, and the more rigorously monotheistic Platonists he refutes in books 8-9. Literally and intellectually, Varro is in the middle: he represents an intellectually cogent version of polytheism that would enable it to be reconciled in some measure to a monotheistic system. The problems that Augustine sees with this compromise position are manifold, but they focus around a single overarching objection. Varro represents an elevation of the civitas terrena, in this instance Rome itself, over the truth of the civitas Dei—Varro cares about preserving the customs of a political order more than he does about truth (Civ. 6.2, 6.4, etc.).

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Late Antique Textualities

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