In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Marcus Terentius Varro

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Catalogue of Varro’s Works and Their Transmission
  • Indexes
  • Bibliographies
  • Editions of the Complete Works
  • Mathematics, Music, and Metre
  • Language and Style
  • Influence

Classics Marcus Terentius Varro
David Butterfield
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0161


Marcus Terentius Varro (b. 116–d. 27 BCE) was the most notable polymath of the Roman world. Over the course of his long life, which spanned several of the major events of the late Republic and the birth of the empire, his career brought him to the fore of politics, military service, and (most significantly) scholarship. Educated in Rome by the grammarian L. Aelius Stilo and in Athens by the Platonist Antiochus of Ascalon, Varro produced a remarkably broad spectrum of works that covered almost all areas of intellectual inquiry: history, religion, theology, philosophy, language, literature, metre, music, medicine, geography, agriculture, rhetoric, law, and architecture, all of which were complemented by his own colourful poetic compositions. Not only was Varro’s range of publications enormous, but his scale of output was extraordinary: having declared that he had written 490 books by the age of 78, his subsequent years proved to be among his most productive. Yet, of his vast output, only one work (the three-book De re rustica) survives complete, and the only books that exist intact from any other work (i.e., six of twenty-five books of his monumental De lingua Latina) represent about a fifth of the original treatise. All other works are either represented by small fragments quoted or paraphrased by subsequent ancient authors or entirely lost beyond their title. To piece together the complete picture of Varro’s literary output is therefore inevitably painstaking and tentative and has demanded the formidable labours of generations of scholars ever since Giovanni Boccaccio stumbled across a codex of Varro at Montecassino in 1355; notwithstanding the difficulty of the material, Varronian studies have continued keenly into the 21st century, and significant progress in our understanding of the man and his works proceeds apace. It is now clearer than ever that there are few figures of the ancient world whose study leaves a more vivid and rewarding impression than Varro of Reate.

General Overviews

Varro’s long and eventful life overlapped with several of the figures from the ancient world about whom we know the most (Cicero, Caesar, Pompey, Horace, etc.). However, since so little of Varro’s writings survives, his biography must be reconstructed largely through external sources, in particular via Cicero’s extant correspondence with (and about) him, and the remarks of subsequent figures of Antiquity. The most important details were brought together in Boissier 1875, which remains a useful and thorough survey although many of its specific conclusions have been rejected or refined. All available evidence about Varro’s life, career, and intellectual output was masterfully arranged and deployed in Dahlmann 1935; this account remains indispensable, although it has served as the basis for the markedly shorter summary in Sallmann 2002 (also available in English translation). The most compact introduction to Varro’s life and works is Cardauns 2001, which is concise, lucid, and judicious. A more ambitious attempt to flesh out the chapters of Varro’s tumultuous political career and intellectual endeavours is Della Corte 1970, which makes good reading but should be treated with some caution. Important context regarding Varro’s relationship with the other major intellectual figure of the 1st century BCE, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is provided in Rösch-Binde 1998. Wider context about the development of the scholarly environment in late Republican Rome is given by the invaluable Rawson 1985. Since Varro’s works are so broad in range, and their degree of survival is so variable, multi-author collections of papers can bring together a lot of material in one place: Reverdin 1963 provides excellent context for Varro’s grammatical, linguistic, metrical, and literary-critical writings; the two-volume Congresso Internazionale di Studi Varroniani 1976, a multi-author collection of articles covering the full range of Varro’s life and writings, is an informative and handy companion.

  • Boissier, Gaston. 1875. Étude sur la vie et les ouvrages de M. T. Varron. 2d ed. Paris: L. Hachette.

    The classic study of Varro’s life, first published in 1861, surveying his career, his various writings, and his philosophical and theological beliefs.

  • Cardauns, Burkhart. 2001. Marcus Terentius Varro: Einführung in sein Werk. Heidelberger Studienhefte zur Altertumswissenschaft. Heidelberg, Germany: C. Winter.

    The best available general introduction to Varro, outlining the most important details regarding his biography and what is known of his corpus of writings.

  • Congresso Internazionale di Studi Varroniani. 1976. Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Studi Varroniani. 2 vols. Proceedings of the Congresso Internazionale di Studi Varroniani held in Rieti, Italy, in September 1974. Rieti, Italy: Centro di Studi Varroniani.

    A collection of forty-four articles covering the full spectrum of Varronian studies, including his biography; his corpus of writings; his philosophical, historical, and linguistic doctrines; and his ancient and Renaissance reception. The collection proceeds from a major conference marking the bimillennial anniversary of Varro’s death in 1974.

  • Dahlmann, Hellfried M. 1935. Terentius Varro. Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft. Supplement 6, Abretten bis Thunudromon. Edited by Wilhelm Kroll, 1172–1277. Stuttgart: Metzler.

    The most methodical and detailed account of Varro’s life, scholarly output, and intellectual significance.

  • Della Corte, Francesco. 1970. Varrone, il terzo gran lume romano. 2d ed. Florence: La Nuova Italia.

    A chronological account of Varro’s life, first published in 1954 (Genoa, Italy: Pubblicazioni dell’Istituto Universitario di Magisterio), attempting to reconstruct the major events of his political and literary career. The book’s title derives from Petrarch’s famous praise of the man.

  • Rawson, Elizabeth. 1985. Intellectual life in the late Roman Republic. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    A seminal account of intellectual life in late Republican Rome; although no specific chapter concerns Varro alone, he is a constant presence and is mentioned throughout.

  • Reverdin, Olivier, ed. 1963. Varron: Six exposés et discussions. Entretiens sur l’Antiquité Classique 9. Vandoeuvres-Geneva, Switzerland: Fondation Hardt.

    An important collection of six essays on Varro’s contributions to the fields of linguistic and literary scholarship, each followed by the report of a discussion from the 1962 conference held at the Fondation Hardt.

  • Rösch-Binde, Christiane. 1998. Vom “δεινὸς ἀνήρ” zum “diligentissimus investigator antiquitatis”: Zur Komplexen Beziehung zwischen M. Tullius Cicero und M. Terentius Varro. Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaften. Munich: H. Utz.

    A rich investigation of the complex interaction between Varro and Cicero, particularly as witnessed in their written works and extant correspondence. Publication of the author’s 1997 University of Cologne doctoral thesis.

  • Sallmann, Klaus. 2002. Varro [2]. In Der Neue Pauly. Vol. 12.1, Altertum, Tam–Vel. Edited by Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider, 1130–1144. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler.

    A markedly briefer and notably updated survey on the basis of Dahlmann 1935; also available in English translation in Brill’s New Pauly, Vol. 15, pp. 209–226 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010).

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