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Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC – 27 BC), also known as Varro Reatinus to distinguish him from his younger contemporary Varro Atacinus, was a Roman scholar and writer.


Varro was born in or near Reate (now Rietimarker) to a family thought to be of equestrian rank, and always remained close to his roots in the area, owning a large farm in the Reatine plain, probably near Lago di Ripa Sottile, till his old age.

Politically, he supported Pompey, reaching the office of praetor, after having been tribune of the people, quaestor and curule aedile. He was one of the commission of twenty that carried out the great agrarian scheme of Caesar for the resettlement of Capuamarker and Campania (59 BC).

During the civil war he commanded one of Pompey's armies in the Ilerda campaignmarker. He escaped the penalties of being on the losing side in the civil war through two pardons granted by Julius Caesar, before and after the Battle of Pharsalus. Caesar later appointed him to oversee the public library of Rome in 47 BC, but following Caesar's death Mark Antony proscribed him, resulting in the loss of much of his property, including his library. As the Republic gave way to Empire, Varro gained the favour of Augustus, under whose protection he found the security and quiet to devote himself to study and writing.

He studied under the Roman philologist Lucius Aelius Stilo, and later at Athensmarker under the Academic philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon. Varro proved to be a highly productive writer and turned out 74+ Latin works on a variety of topics.

Among his many works, two that stand out for historians, Nine Books of Disciplines and his compilation of the Varronian chronology. His "Nine Books of Disciplines" became a model for later encyclopedists. The most note-worthy portion of the Nine Books of Disciplines is its use of the liberal arts as organizing principles . Varro decided to focus on indentifying nine of these arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, musical theory, medicine, and architecture. Using Varro's list, subsequent writers, defined the seven classical "liberal arts of the medieval schools."

The compilation of the Varronian chronologyan attempt to determine an exact year-by-year timeline of Roman history up to his time. It is based on the traditional sequence of the consuls of the Roman Republic, eked out, where that did not fit, by inserting dictatorial and anarchic years. It has been demonstrated to be somewhat erroneous but has become the widely-accepted standard chronology, in large part because it was inscribed on the arch of Augustusmarker in Rome; though that arch no longer stands, a large portion of the chronology has survived under the name of Fasti Capitolini.


Varro's literary output was very large; Ritschl estimated it at 74 works in some 620 books, of which only one work survives complete, although we possess many fragments of the others, mostly in Gellius' Noctes Atticae.

Called "the most learned of the Romans" by Quintilian ( Inst. Or. X.1.95), Varro was recognized as an important source by many other ancient authors, among them Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Vergil in the Georgics, Columella, Aulus Gellius, Augustine, and Vitruvius, who credits him (VII.Intr.14) with a book on architecture.

From a modern perspective, one noteworthy aspect of Varro's work is his anticipation of microbiology and epidemiology. Varro warned his contemporaries to avoid swamps and marshland, since such areas "breed certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, but which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and cause serious diseases." (R.R. I.12.2)

Extant works

  • De lingua latina libri XXV (or On the Latin Language in 25 Books; of which six survive, partly mutilated)
  • Rerum rusticarum libri III (or Agricultural Topics in Three Books)

Known lost works

  • Saturarum Menippearum libri CL or Menippean Satires in 150 books
  • Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum libri XLI
  • Logistoricon libri LXXVI
  • Hebdomades vel de imaginibus
  • Disciplinarum libri IX

External links

Varro's own writings

Secondary material

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