Marcus Terentius VARRO, called by Cicero and by St. Augustine "the most learned of the Romans," was of an ancient Sabine clan, which had been of consular rank for two centuries. He was ten years senior to Cicero, his intimate friend, who speaks of him always with affection and admiration. Varro was brought up in the old Roman traditions of simple hardihood, and in the best Greek and Latin learning of his age. He served the State on land and sea, was pro-quæstor to Pompey in the wars against the pirates and against Mithridates; joined the aristocratic party in the civil war, and was Pompey's legate in Spain. On the defeat of the Senatorian party, Varro surrendered to Caesar, who received him graciously, and appointed him to superintend the formation of a great public library. He never took part in public affairs again; and, withdrawing into literary seclusion, he succeeded in escaping Anthony's proscription in which he had been included, and died peacefully B.C. 28, in his 89th year.
Varro was the most voluminous as well as the most learned of the Romans, for he had written, he tells us, 490 books; but the full tale seems to be 620 "books" in 74 works. St. Augustine, who cites and praises him often, and whose own arguments as to the ancient theology are largely founded on Varro, tells us "that he read so much, it was a marvel he had any time to write, and wrote more than one can believe any one man could read." His labours were of the most varied kind, and his vast original research in all fields made his writings a complete Roman encyclopedia of practical, historical, philological, and theological learning. His most important works, besides satires and essays, are on agriculture, on the Latin language, and on historical antiquities. The three books on Agriculture are a thoroughly practical and exhaustive account of farming, stock-breeding, and husbandry in all its parts,, most systematically compiled from personal observation and knowledge. The work on Language, with all its inevitable shortcomings, was the most complete and scientific account which the Romans could give of their own tongue.
But the 41 books of Antiquities--human and divine--were the main work of Varro. We know this almost entirely from St. Augustine, who uses it as a text-book of heathen divinity. The author begins with the origin of man, and then treats of the original people of ancient Italy, and finally gives an account of the origin, early history, and chronology of Rome (of which he determined the foundation in the year B.C. 753), and he discusses the political and social institutions of the city from the earliest times. No scientific work of Roman times would have been to us more truly invaluable. It has entirely perished--there is reason to fear by the fanaticism felt in the early ages of Christianity towards the standard manual of heathen theology. In a rude and confused way, Varry seems to have attempted three things which it was reserved for the later ages of modern science to achieve-- (1) the application of concrete science to practical industry, (2) the scientific study of the history of language, (3) a sketch of human evolution from primitive ages under the influence of religious belief.
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|This biography is
reprinted from The New Calendar of Great Men. Ed. Frederic
Harrison. London: Macmillan and Co., 1920.