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Marcus Terentius Varro

(116 - 27 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Marcus Terentius Varro was probably born in Reate (now Rieti in Italy) in 116 BCE. Called Varro of Reate (Reatinus), unlike the poet Varro of Atax. He was a Roman scholar and writer, and in his political career, he came to the office of praetor. A true erudite is considered one of the best-educated people in the history of ancient Rome.

He was born into a family of equites origin and was closely related to his roots and estate in Reati.

Political career

He was politically associated with Pompey. He came to the position of praetor after becoming people’s tribune, quaestor, edile.

In 67 BCE, as a fleet commander, he participated in battles against pirates, alongside Pompey. He took part in the so-called “commission of twenty” to carry out the agrarian reform program Caesar after the resettlement of the people of Capua and Campania in 59 BCE.

During the civil war (53-48 BCE) he sided with Pompey. In 49 BCE he was a legate and commander of troops in Spain. Among other things, he took part in the battle at Ilerda in 49 BCE. Ultimately he was defeated by Caesar. He was pardoned and ordered to organize a public library in Rome. After Caesar’s death (44 BCE), he avoided proscription by Mark Antony.

During the reign of the emperor, Augusta gained his protection, which gave him good conditions to devote himself to study and writing.

Cultural activities

Plan of the aviary in Casinum. The building was designed and built by Varron.

He was a student of the Roman philologist Lucius Elius Stilo and the Athenian philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon. He is believed to be one of the most educated people in the history of ancient Rome. Historians say that he wrote 74 works in 620 books. Varro’s earliest works include 150 books of the Mennipean Satires named after Mennipos of Gedara, a cynic in the 3rd century BCE They were written mainly in verse and varied with prose. The motto of these satires was: to have as few needs as possible, to renounce possession and not to get involved in public life. His other work, Imagines (Greek Hebdomades), is considered the first Roman book to be illustrated. It contained 700 portraits of people most outstanding in seven areas of creativity (five Greeks and five Romans for each field). Each of the portraits had a short epigram and prosaic text praising the person. Varro also wrote works: historical (“Annales”), geographic (“Ephemeris navalis”, a guide to the sea), historical and moral (“De vita populi Romani”), grammatical and etymological (“De lingua Latina”, “De origine linguae” Latinae “), historical and literary (about poems, about poets, about Plautus, about Plautus’ comedies), as well as works in the field of law, philosophy, ethics, pedagogy, theatre, religion, agriculture. He was also the author of an extensive encyclopedia titled Disciplinarum libri IX and a collection of satires.

The following have survived to our times:

  • dissertation De re rustica (“About the farm”) – textbook of the agricultural economy, valued until modern times; it consists of three books in the form of dialogues, each of which is devoted to a different topic; when writing this treatise, the author used his own experience, literature on the subject and the knowledge of people experienced in this field.
  • extensive excerpts (books V-X remain from the 25 books) of the work on Latin De lingua Latina (“About the Latin language”).
  • excerpts from Menippean satires.
  • as well as smaller remains of other works.

Varro’s lost monumental work Disciplinarum libri IX (“Nine Scientific Books”), which was the first Roman encyclopedia, is the source of the two-tier division of later education and sciences into trivium (grammar, dialectics, rhetoric) and quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, music) for a total of seven liberal arts (septem artes liberales).

Varro also proposed counting the years from the founding of Rome.

He died in 27 BCE.

  • Kazimierz Kumaniecki, Literatura rzymska – okres cyceroński, 1977

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