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date: 03 December 2020

Terentius Varro, Marcusfree

  • Robert A. Kaster


Varro (according to Petrarch) was “the third great light of Rome”—after Vergil and Cicero—and certainly Rome's greatest scholar. Though the great bulk of his work survives only in fragments, the quotations and paraphrases that those fragments preserve make his influence on subsequent writers evident: much of later Latin literature, from the Aeneid of Vergil down to St. Augustine's City of God, would look very different had they been unable to draw upon his learning. His writings covered nearly every branch of inquiry: history, geography, rhetoric, law, philosophy, music, medicine, architecture, religion, and more.

Updated in this version

Text and bibliography updated to reflect current scholarship. Keywords, summary, and primary texts added.

Marcus Terentius Varro, (116–27 bce), was born at Reate, in the Sabine territory (see sabini) NE of Rome. After studying at Rome with L. Aelius, the first true scholar of Latin literature and antiquities, and at Athens with the Academic philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon, Varro began a public career that brought him to the praetorship and, ultimately, to service on the Pompeian side (see pompeius magnus, c.) in the Civil War. Having received Caesar's clemency after Pharsalus, he was asked to plan and organize the first public library (see libraries) at Rome. But this project went unrealized, and after Caesar's assassination, he was proscribed by Mark Antony, who plundered his property: he escaped to live the rest of his life in scholarly retirement. He had completed 490 books by the start of his 78th year (Gell. 3. 10. 17): 55 titles are known in all, and his œuvre has been estimated to include nearly 75 different works comprising c. 620 books.1


Varro's combination of methodical analysis, vast range, and original learning made him Rome's greatest scholar. His writings covered nearly every branch of inquiry: history (De familiis Troianis; De vita populi Romani, on Roman “social history”; De gente populi Romani, placing Rome's remote past in a Greek context), geography, rhetoric, law (De iure civili lib. XV), philosophy, music, medicine, architecture, literary history (De poetis, De comoediis Plautinis, De scaenicis originibus), religion, agriculture, and language (at least 10 works on this last alone). The achievements of the Augustans and of later authors, in both poetry and prose, are scarcely conceivable without the groundwork that he laid. See also scholarship, ancient, Latin.

Only two of Varro’s works survive substantially:


De lingua Latina, in 25 books, of which books 5–10 are partly extant (5 and 6 entirely). Book 1 provided an introduction; 2–7 dealt with etymology, and the connection between words and the entities they represent; 8–13, with inflectional morphology and the conflict (which Varro probably exaggerated) between “anomalists” and “analogists” (see analogy and anomaly and Crates); 14–25, with syntax and the proper formation of “propositions” (proloquia, a topic derived from Stoic dialectic). Varro dedicated books 2–4 to his quaestor, the subsequent books to Cicero; the work was published before Cicero's death, probably in 43. See also grammar, grammarians, Latin.


De re rustica (3 books: 37 bce), a treatise on farming in dialogue form, intended as an agreeable entertainment for men of Varro's own class. It deals with agriculture in general (book 1), cattle- and sheep-breeding (book 2), and smaller farm-animals (birds, bees, etc.: book 3). The work, which survives entirely and shows some amusing strokes of characterization, reveals very strikingly Varro's fondness for analysing his subjects into their parts, and those parts into their sub-parts: though this analysis is sometimes carried to unhelpful lengths, it also represents a new stage in the logical organization of prose at Rome. See agriculture, Roman and agricultural writers.

Among Varro’s lost works the following are especially noteworthy:


Saturae Menippeae (150 books: prob. 81–67 bce), humorous essays on topics of contemporary vice and folly, mingling verse with prose; Varro professed to imitate the 3rd century. Cynic philosopher Menippus of Gadara. Ninety titles and 600 fragments survive. See Menippean satire.


Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum (41 books: 47 bce). Of the first 25 books, on human (i.e., Roman) antiquities, little is known: the introductory book was followed by four segments of (probably) six books each, on persons (de hominibus: the inhabitants of Italy), places (de locis), times (de temporibus), and things (de rebus). The remaining sixteen books, dedicated to Caesar as pontifex maximus, took up the human construction of the divine: another book of general introduction, then five triads, on priesthoods (27–9), holy places (30–2), holy times (33–5), rites (36–8), and kinds of gods (39–41). Among the lost works of republican prose, the Antiquitates is perhaps the one we most sorely miss.


Logistorici (76 books: 44 bce?), a series of dialogues on various subjects, each taking its name from a noted person: e.g., Marius de fortuna, Tubero de origine humana, Curio de cultu.


Hebdomades vel de imaginibus (15 books: 39 bce), a collection of 700 portraits of celebrated Greeks and Romans, in which each portrait was accompanied by an epigram; the number 7 played an important (if now obscure) role in the work's organization (cf. Gell. 3. 10. 1).


Disciplinae (9 books), a late work surveying the essential terms and principles of the learned “disciplines” that a free man should command: these artes liberales included “grammar,” rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, medicine, and architecture.

Primary Texts

  • Popma, Ausonius van, ed. M. Ter. Varronis De lingua Latina libri, qui supersunt, cum fragmentis eiusdem, accedunt notae Antonii Augustini, Adriani Turnebi, Josephi Scaligeri, et Ausonii Popmae. 2 vols. Zweibrücken, Germany: Ex Typographia Societatis, 1788.
  • Salvadore, Marcello. ed. Supplementum. Hildesheim: Olms, 1999. Fragments previously not assigned to Varro and fragments included in Popma’s edition but neglected by later editors.
  • Terentius Varro, Marcus, and Francesco Semi. M. Terentius Varro. 2: Fragementa operum de grammatica. Venice: Pesenti del Thei, 1965–1966. Earlier editions collected in 8 vols.
De lingua Latina and Grammatical Fragments
  • Collart, Jean, ed. De lingua Latina, livre V. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1954.
  • Dahlmann, Hellfried, ed. Varro de lingua latina Buch VIII, 2nd ed. Berlin: Weidmann, 1966.
  • Duso, Antonella, ed. M. Terenti Varronis De lingua Latina IX. Hildesheim: Olms, 2017.
  • Flobert, Pierre, ed. La langue latine, Livre VI. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1985.
  • Funaioli, Gino. Grammaticae Romanae fragmenta. Leipzig: Teubner, 1907, 179–371.
  • Goetz, Georg, and Fritz Schoell, eds. De lingua latina. Leipzig: Teubner, 1910.
  • Kent, Roland G., trans. On the Latin Language. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951.
  • Riganti, Elisabetta, ed. De lingua Latina: Libro VI. Bologna: P`aton, 1978.
  • Traglia, Antonio, ed. De lingua latina, libro X. Bari: Adriatica Editrice, 1956.
  • Traglia, Antonio, ed. Opere di Marco Terenzio Varrone. Turin: U.T.E.T., 1974.
Res Rusticae
  • Flach, Dieter, ed., Marcus Terentius Varro: Über die Landwirtschaft. Darmstadt, Germany: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006.
  • Goetz, Georg, ed. M. Terenti Varronis rerum rusticarum libri tres. 2nd ed. Leipzig: Teubner, 1929.
  • Guiraud, Charles, ed. Économie rurale. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1985.
  • Heurgon, Jacques, ed. Économie rurale, 4 vols. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1978–1997.
  • Hooper, William Davis, and Ash, Harrison Boyd, trans. On agriculture. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935.
  • Keil, Hellfried, ed. M. Terenti Varronis Rerum rusticarum libri tres. 3 vols. Leipzig: Teubner, 1884–1902.
  • Traglia, Antonio, ed. Opere di Marco Terenzio Varrone. Turin, Itlay: U.T.E.T., 1974.
Saturae Menippeae
  • Astbury, Raymond, ed. M. Terentii Varronis Saturarum Menippearum fragmenta. Leipzig: Teubner, 1985.
  • Cèbe, Jean-Pierre, ed. Varron, Satires ménippées, 13 vols. Rome: École française de Rome, 1972–1999.
  • Krenkel, Werner A., ed. Marcus Terentius Varro: Saturae Menippeae, 4 vols. St. Katharinen, Germany: Scripta Mercaturae, 2002.
  • Bolisani, Ettore, ed. I logistorici Varroniani. Padua: Tipografia del Messaggero, 1937.
  • Cardauns, Burkhart. ed. Antiquitates rerum divinarum. Mainz, Germany: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, 1976 (res divinae only).
  • Mirsch, Paul. Leipziger Studien 5, 1–144. Leipzig: Hirzel, 1882 (res humanae only). Logistorici.
  • Ritschl, Friedrich. Opuscula philologica 3, 352–402. Leipzig: Teubner, 1877.
Historical fragments
  • Cornell, Tim J., ed. The Fragments of the Roman Historians, 1:412–423, 2:836–843, 3:512–517. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Fraccaro, Plinio, ed. Studi Varroniani: De gente populi romani libri IV. Padua, Italy: A. Draghi, 1907.
  • Peter, Hermann, ed. Historicorum Romanorum Reliquiae 2, xxxii–xxxx, 9–25. Leipzig: Teubner, 1906.
  • Pittà, Antonio, ed. De vita populi Romani. Pisa: Pisa University Press, 2015.
  • Riposati, Benedetto, ed. M. Terenti Varronis De vita populi romani. Milan: Società editrice “Vita e pensiero,” 1939.
  • Salvadore, Marcello, ed. De vita populi Romani libri IV. Hildesheim: Olms, 2004.
  • Heidrich, Georg. Der Stil des Varro. Melk, Austria: Selbstverlag des Gymnasiums, 1892.
  • Laughton, E. “Observations on the Style of Varro.” Classical Quarterly 10 (1960), 1–28.
  • Norden, Eduard. Antike Kunstprosa 1. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1909, 194–200.
Special Studies
  • Calboli, Gualtiero, ed. Papers on Grammar. Bologna: CLUEB, 2001. Twelve papers devoted to Varro.
  • Collart, Jean, Varron, grammairien latin. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1954.
  • Dahlmann, Hellfried. Varros Schrift “De poematisund die hellenistisch-römische Poetik. Wiesbaden, Germany: F. Steiner, 1953.
  • Dahlmann, Hellfried. Studien zu Varro “De Poetis.” Mainz, Germany: Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur, 1963.
  • Dahlmann, Hellfried. Varro und die hellenistische Sprachtheorie, 2nd ed. Berlin: Weidmann, 1964.
  • D’Alessandro, Paolo. Varrone e la tradizione metrica antica. Hildesheim: Olms, 2012.
  • Fehling, Detlev. “Varro und die grammatische Lehre von der Analogie und der Flexion.” Glotta 35 (1956): 214–270.
  • Fehling, Detlev. “Varro und die grammatische Lehre von der Analogie und der Flexion.” Glotta 36 (1957): 48–100.
  • Nelsestuen, Grant A. Varro the Agronomist: Political Philosophy, Satire, and Agriculture in the Late Republic. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2015.
  • Piras, Giorgio. Varrone e I poetica verba. Bologna, Italy: Pàtron, 1998.
  • Reverdin, Olivier, ed., Varron. Entretiens sur l'antiquité classique 9. Vandoeuvres-Genève: Fondation Hardt, 1963.
  • Taylor, Daniel J. Declinatio: A Study of the Linguistic Theory of Marcus Terentius Varro Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1974.


  • Riposati, Benedetto, and Aldo Marastoni, Bibliografia Varroniana. Milan: Celuc, 1974.
  • Zetzel, James E. G. “Word and World: Varro and His Contemporaries.” In Critics, Compilers, and Commentators, 31–58. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Zetzel, James E. G. “Grammars and Other Forms of Erudition.” In Critics, Compilers, and Commentators and passim, 325–327. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Life and Works
  • Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Suppl. 6. Hellfried Dahlmann, 1172–1277. Munich: Druckenmüller, 1935.
  • Ax, Wolfram. “Marcus Terentius Varro Reatinus (116–27 v. Chr.).” In Lateinische Lehrer Europas: Fünfzehn Portraits von Varro bis Erasmus von Rotterdam. Edited by W. Ax, 1–21. Cologne: Böhlau, 2005.
  • Boissier, Gaston. Étude sur la vie et les ouvrages de Varron. Paris: Hachette, 1861.
  • Cardauns, Burkhart. Marcus Terentius Varro: Einführung in sein Werk. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter, 2001.
  • Rawson, Elizabeth. Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.