Marcus Terentius Varro

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Marcus Terentius Varro (left), medieval illustration

Marcus Terentius Varro (* 116 BC in Reate in the Sabinerland , today Rieti ; † 27 BC ) was the most important Roman polyhistor . To distinguish it from the poet Publius Terentius Varro , he is often referred to as "Reatinus" according to his origin. His extraordinarily extensive work was a treasure trove of cultural-historical knowledge for the following generations and had a formative effect on the culture of the Augustan era in particular . Varro was still an important authority in late antiquity ; and Fathers read and quoted his works. Today only a small fraction of his writings have survived.


Varro's parents are unknown; he probably came from a knightly family. His ancestor was probably the consul Gaius Terentius Varro . Reate is only expressly attested as his hometown in a letter from the late antique scholar and politician Quintus Aurelius Symmachus . Augustine erroneously states Rome as the city of birth and residence in childhood. From Varros' writings it can be seen that he had a close relationship with Reate, which he often mentions and where he owned an estate, and with the Sabine country; therefore its origin there is plausible.

Varro studied in Rome and Athens . His teachers included the grammarian and literary historian Lucius Aelius Stilo , with whom Cicero also studied, and the Platonist Antiochus of Askalon , whose classes Varro probably attended around 84/82 in Athens. He was a close friend of Cicero; he was probably a relative of his wife Terentia .

Varro began his civil service career at an early age. He was triumvir capitalis in the second half of the nineties, and quaestor in 86 at the earliest . He held the tribunate (70 at the earliest), the curular aedility and (probably 68) the praetur . In 67 he was the legate of his friend Pompey in the pirate war, for which he was awarded the Corona navalis . In the same position he commanded 49 in Spain , but had to surrender after the surrender of Ilerda Caesar . Although he then rejoined Pompey, he was pardoned by Caesar after the battle of Pharsalus and returned to Rome in 46. There Caesar commissioned him to build a public library, but this project fell victim to the turmoil after Caesar's death. After Caesar's murder, Varro 43 was ostracized by Mark Antony and only barely escaped death. Pardoned by Octavian , Varro lived - until his end in the year 27 literary - on his estate in the Sabine mountains.

Pliny the Elder reports that, at his request, Varro was buried in a clay coffin, “according to the Pythagorean custom”, bedded on leaves of myrtle , olive and black poplar trees. This testamentary decree of Varros shows his close relationship with Roman New Pythagoreanism, which is also evident from a number of utterances in his works.

Conception of agriculture

In contrast to Cato , who is a hundred years older , Varro treats the subject in a more theoretical way: the landlord no longer cultivates his land himself, but rather controls his administrator. Among other things, Varro precisely calculates the labor force of the necessary slaves . He recommends building country houses away from swamps, in which animalia quaedam minuta, quae non possunt oculis consequi (= small animals that cannot be seen with the eyes ) live, which can cause serious diseases when taken in through the mouth and nose.

Varronic count

The calculation of the year of the (legendary) foundation of the city of Rome, the natalis urbis ( birthday of the city of Rome ), comes from Varro . This year refers to the year with the formula ab urbe condita (called "varronic" count). Like many of his contemporaries, Varro assumed that the time of the conquest of Troy by the Greeks had been determined by speculation , which, according to our count, dates back to 1193 BC. BC falls. According to his own statements, he achieved the year the city was founded by introducing a symbolic number: 440 years were considered to be the distance between death and rebirth of an individual in the transmigration of souls . To do this, he relied on astrologers who prepared natal charts. He applied this assumption to cities. Since, according to the Aeneas myth, he saw Rome as the rebirth of the heroic Troy, he calculated the year 753 for the foundation before the beginning of the current calendar. However, the year counting with the reference point of the city's foundation only began to establish itself in late antiquity . Even during the imperial era, the years after the consuls were still counted. In addition, Varro's calculation was controversial, as Cicero noted.


In his work De civitate Dei (On the State of God), the church father Augustine used Varros Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum so often that they could be partially reconstructed from his quotations by modern philology. In these quotes from Varro's work there is also the oldest documented evidence for the term “ natural theology ”. It cannot be said whether he was the first to use the term theologia naturalis . But thanks to the tradition through Augustine, the term has become historically powerful.

Varro relies on stoic sources. He differentiates between the mythical theology created by poets ( genus mythicon ), the theology of the philosophers ( genus physicon ) and the conception of the gods, which is assumed in the context of the state religion ( genus civile ). Varro rejects the poets' fables; he thinks that only the foolish people cling to them. In spite of his disapproval of the philosophical differences of opinion about the nature of the gods, he considers philosophical theology valuable. He advocates the practice of the traditional state religion and believes that it is appropriate to the needs of the people, while much in philosophical theology goes beyond the grasp of the people. In his view, the originally pure worship of the Roman religion was tainted by the influence of poets. With this, Varro places himself in the tradition of the criticism of the poets' dealings with religion that has been common since Plato . Varro emphasizes the legendary, highly revered King of Peace Numa Pompilius as a model of ancient Roman piety . Numa's name was associated in Rome with Pythagoreanism, which Varro held in high esteem, even if educated people like Cicero and Livy pointed out that Numa could not have been a pupil of Pythagoras, as the legend claimed. Varro puts Numa chronologically correct before Pythagoras.


A page of the oldest manuscript by De lingua Latina : Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut. 51.10, fol. 28r (around 1100)

Varro's scholarship spanned a wide variety of fields, and no other Roman could match his productivity. Quintilian called him "the most learned of all Romans". The total number of his works - mostly treatises and dialogues, but also poems - was over 70 in more than 600 "books" (breakdown units). Only the textbook on agriculture in three books ( Rerum rusticarum libri tres ) , written at the age of 80, has been completely preserved . This work was intended to serve as a guide for his wife Fundania, who had bought a villa rustica .

Most of the 25 books in De lingua Latina (On the Latin Language) have been lost; Only books 5–10 (incomplete) and some fragments from the lost books have survived. Almost 600 fragments of the 150 books by Menippi Satires have survived .

The remainder of the work is only known from quotations in the writings of other ancient authors and from a list of works from late ancient times. These include:

Antiquarian works:

  • Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum (Antiquities of human and divine institutions) , a description of Roman cultural history in 41 books dedicated to Caesar
  • De familiis Troianis (About the Trojan families) , a representation of the (alleged) Trojan origins of ancient Roman gentes
  • De gente populi Romani libri IV , a representation of the prehistory of the Roman people (populus Romanus) as an ethnic unit (gens)
  • De vita populi Romani libri IV (Four books on the life of the Roman people) , a history of Roman civilization since the royal era
  • Tribuum liber (book about the tribus )

Linguistic works:

  • De antiquitate litterarum , a book dedicated to the tragedy poet and literary historian Lucius Accius on the history of the alphabet , which is said to have originally consisted of 16 letters and was then gradually expanded
  • De origine linguae Latinae ( On the Origin of the Latin language ) in which Varro under sprachgeschichtlichem aspect of the relationship between the Greek and Latin and other Italic languages dealt
  • De sermone Latino libri V , a script on correct colloquial Latin in five books
  • De similitudine verborum libri III ( On the Similarity of Words ), a treatise on linguistic analogy in three books
  • De utilitate sermonis ( On the usefulness of colloquial language ), which apparently investigated irregularities (anomalies) in the Latin language

Literary works:

  • De actionibus scaenicis libri III , a compilation of Didascalia (list of dramatic performances with details of each)
  • De bibliothecis libri III ( About the libraries ), a history of the book and librarianship in the age of Hellenism , which Varro apparently on different writing materials as papyrus and parchment was received
  • De comoediis Plautinis ( On the Plautinian Comedies ), an investigation into the authenticity of the comedies ascribed to Plautus , which determined the 21 comedies that have survived and are still considered real today to be undoubtedly authentic; in the case of other pieces, Varro considered the authenticity to be possible or clearly denied it
  • De compositione saturarum , a text on the structure of Roman satires
  • De descriptionibus libri III ( About descriptions ); the subject was either the ekphrasis or the doctrine of the stage characters
  • De personis about the masks in tragedy and comedy
  • De poematis libri III ( On the Poetry ), a didactic dialogue on the different genres of Latin poetry in three books
  • De poetis ( About the Poets ), a history of Latin poetry in the form of biographies of Roman poets, beginning with Livy Andronicus
  • De proprietate scriptorum libri III , an examination of the personal stylistic peculiarities of Roman authors (which could also serve as criteria for the authenticity of works ascribed to them)
  • De scaenicis originibus libri III , a Roman theater story in three books
  • Quaestionum Plautinarum libri V ( Plautus questions ), an investigation into difficult words in five books by the comedy writer Plautus

Encyclopedic works:

  • Disciplinarum libri IX ( nine books on the subjects ), a presentation of the seven liberal arts (grammar, dialectics , rhetoric , geometry, arithmetic , astronomy, music) as well as architecture and medicine
  • Hebdomades vel de imaginibus libri XV ( Groups of Seven or About Pictures in 15 Books ), a collection of 700 painted portraits of famous Romans and Greeks, each with an epigram and a short biography


  • Logistoricon libri LXXVI ( 76 treatises ), a collection of monographs ( logistorici ) on questions of philosophy and lifestyle. The name logistoricus was coined by Varro himself; its exact meaning is unclear. Varro's De philosophia is one of the logistorici , in which he treats philosophy as a doctrine of the right way of life.


The genus Varroa Oudemans , 1904 with the varroa mite , which causes the bee disease varroosis, is named after Marcus Terentius Varro. The plant genus Varronia P.Browne from the family of Borage Family (Boraginaceae) is named after him.

Text editions and translations

Complete editions and editions of several works

  • Francesco Semi (Ed.): M. Terentius Varro . Armena, Venezia 1965
    • Vol. 1: De lingua Latina
    • Vol. 2: Fragmenta operum de grammatica, litteris, philosophia, scientiis. Logistoricon libri. Antiques
    • Vol. 3: Saturae Menippeae. De gente populi Romani. De vita populi Romani. Fragmenta operum historicorum
    • Vol. 4: De re rustica. Index nominum, quae apud Varronem reperiuntur
  • Antonio Traglia (Ed.): Opere di Marco Terenzio Varrone . Unione tipografico-editrice torinese, Torino 1974 (reprint 1979), ISBN 88-02-02323-9 (uncritical edition with Italian translation; contains: De lingua Latina , De grammatica librorum reliquiae , Rerum rusticarum libri tres )
  • Marcello Salvadore (Ed.): M. Terenti Varronis Fragmenta omnia quae extant . Olms, Hildesheim 1999ff. (critical edition without translation; published so far :)
    • Part 1: Supplementum . 1999, ISBN 3-487-10877-1 (contains: Fragmenta nova vel praetermissa, Hebdomadum fragmenta, Fragmenta a Nicolao Perotti edita )
    • Part 2: De vita populi Romani libri IV . 2004, ISBN 3-487-12672-9

Antiquitates rerum divinarum

  • Burkhart Cardauns (Ed.): M. Terentius Varro: Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum . 2 volumes (part 1: the fragments , part 2: commentary ), Franz Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden 1976 (critical edition of the fragments; German translation in the commentary part)

De lingua Latina


  • Burkhart Cardauns (ed.): Varros Logistoricus about the worship of gods . Konrad Triltsch Verlag, Würzburg 1960 (critical edition of the fragments with translation and commentary)

Rerum rusticarum libri tres

  • Dieter Flach (ed.): Marcus Terentius Varro: About agriculture . Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2006, ISBN 978-3-534-19069-0 (critical edition with introduction and German translation, but without commentary; revised version of Flax's older three-volume edition of this work with commentary)
  • Dieter Flach (Hrsg.): Marcus Terentius Varro: Talks about agriculture . Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1996–2002 (critical edition with introduction, translation and commentary section; as text edition by Flax's new edition from 2006, but still important because of the commentary section)

Saturae Menippeae

  • Raymond Astbury (Ed.): M. Terentii Varronis saturarum Menippearum fragmenta . 2nd, revised edition, Saur, Munich and Leipzig 2002, ISBN 3-598-71236-7 (critical edition without translation)
  • Werner A. Krenkel (Ed.): Marcus Terentius Varro: Saturae Menippeae . 4 volumes, Scripta Mercaturae Verlag, St. Katharinen 2002, ISBN 3-89590-122-9 (critical edition with German translation and commentary)


Overview representations

  • Michael von Albrecht : History of Roman literature from Andronicus to Boethius and its continued effect . Volume 1. 3rd, improved and expanded edition. De Gruyter, Berlin 2012, ISBN 978-3-11-026525-5 , pp. 498-517
  • Wolfram Ax : Marcus Terentius Varro Reatinus (116-27 BC). In: Wolfram Ax (ed.): Latin teachers in Europe. Fifteen portraits from Varro to Erasmus of Rotterdam. Böhlau, Cologne 2005, ISBN 3-412-14505-X , pp. 1–21
  • Richard Goulet, Yves Lehmann: Varro (Marcus Terentius). In: Richard Goulet (ed.): Dictionnaire des philosophes antiques , Volume 7, CNRS Éditions, Paris 2018, ISBN 978-2-271-09024-9 , pp. 94-133


  • Burkhart Cardauns: Marcus Terentius Varro. Introduction to his work . Winter, Heidelberg 2001, ISBN 978-3-8253-1269-5 .

Investigations on individual subject areas

  • Thomas Baier : Varros' work and effect in the mirror of his contemporaries. From Cicero to Ovid . Franz Steiner, Stuttgart 1997, ISBN 3-515-07022-2 .
  • Yves Lehmann: Varron théorien et philosophe romain . Latomus, Bruxelles 1997, ISBN 2-87031-177-X .
  • Christiane Rösch-Binde: From "δεινὸς ἀνήρ" to "diligentissimus investigator antiquitatis". On the complex relationship between M. Tullius Cicero and M. Terentius Varro . Herbert Utz, Munich 1998, ISBN 3-89675-226-X (thorough investigation of numerous aspects of Varro's life and work)

Web links


  1. On the question of origin, see Yves Lehmann: Varron théorien et philosophe romain , Bruxelles 1997, pp. 33–35, especially p. 33, note 1.
  2. Pliny, Naturalis historia 16,3,7.
  3. Pliny, Naturalis historia 35, 160.
  4. See Yves Lehmann: Varron théorien et philosophe romain , Bruxelles 1997, pp. 299–314; Leonardo Ferrero: Storia del pitagorismo nel mondo romano , 2nd edition, Forlì 2008, pp. 291-304; Burkhart Cardauns: Marcus Terentius Varro , Heidelberg 2001, p. 70f.
  5. Varro, Rerum rusticarum libri tres 1,12.
  6. Cicero, Brutus 72. See Anthony T. Grafton, Noel M. Swerdlow: Technical Chronology and Astrological History in Varro, Censorinus and Others . In: The Classical Quarterly 35, 1985, pp. 454-465; Denis Feeney: Caesar's Calendar , Berkeley 2007, pp. 140 f .; Elias J. Bickerman: Chronology of the Ancient World , 2nd edition, London 1980, pp. 77 f .; Bonnie Blackburn, Leofranc Holford-Strevens: The Oxford Companion to the Year , 2nd corrected edition, Oxford 2003, p. 676.
  7. Wolfgang Speyer : Early Christianity in the ancient radiation field , Tübingen 1989, pp. 416–419.
  8. Markus Peglau: Varro and the alleged writings of Numa Pompilius . In: Andreas Halthoff, Fritz-Heiner Mutschler (ed.): Hortus litterarum antiquarum , Heidelberg 2000, pp. 441-450.
  9. Quintilian, Institutio oratoria 10.1.95 ( online ).
  10. Varro, Rerum rusticarum libri tres 1,1.
  11. Pliny, Naturalis historia 35:11.
  12. On the presumed content of De philosophia and the disputed question of whether this text belongs to the collection of the logistorici or is an independent work, see Thomas Tarver: Varro and the Antiquarianism of Philosophy . In: Jonathan Barnes, Miriam Griffin (eds.): Philosophia Togata II. Plato and Aristotle at Rome , Oxford 1997, pp. 130-164 and Burkhart Cardauns: Marcus Terentius Varro , Heidelberg 2001, pp. 69f.
  13. Anthonie Cornelis Oudemans : Acarologische Aanteekeningen XIII. In: Entomological Reports. Vol. 1, 1904, pp. 169-174, here: p. 169 ( digitized version ).
  14. Lotte Burkhardt: Directory of eponymous plant names - Extended Edition. Part I and II. Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin , Freie Universität Berlin , Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-946292-26-5 , DOI: 10.3372 / epolist2018 .