Free as a Bird: Varro De Re Rustica 3
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Free as a Bird:
Varro De Re Rustica 3

Marcus terentius varro is a most difficult writer to assess. The very high regard in which he was held by the greatest writers of his—or any—time is supported by a fragmentary structure made up of a mass of tantalizing titles, excerpts, and allusions gathered from later authors, the reflection of his Res Divinae in Augustine, the extant books of his De Lingua Latina, and De Re Rustica. The last of these, De Re Rustica, is the only complete work of Varro’s we possess, and therefore on it must be tested all our theories and suppositions about Varro as a writer. Unhappily, the artistic weaknesses of this work seem only too apparent. 1 The subject—managing a villa economy—is not one to readily attract most readers in and of itself, and Varro’s undeniable learnedness is exhibited to us in a narrative full of “hasty remarks, conversational language, rhetorical nostalgia, and, crowning all, the anacoluthons,” all of which muddle his discussion, and produce a prose “style” that defies categorization, if not description. 2

It is truly unsettling, then, that the opening of each of the books of [End Page 427] De Re Rustica presents to us a Varro whose urbane wit and literary skill are much more in accord with our expectations from the immensely learned friend of all the great writers of the late Republic, and particularly from the author of Menippean Satires. Such is the disparity between the charm of the dialogues’ setting and the dry exposition of the factual material, and so indifferently are they linked, that one could suppress the first, as Boissier suggests, 3 without noticeably affecting the second. The result, a learned and somewhat tedious discussion of agriculture, would be understandable: practicality and Cato’s crabbed example would naturally excuse Varro from the higher artistic requirements. Yet the dramatic dialogue suggests that the author intended more than a dry exposition of material—though it is a suggestion which is left unfulfilled and, at first sight, seems to do little more than demonstrate its irrelevance.

My aim in this essay is to suggest that we have been taking Varro at once too seriously, and, paradoxically, not seriously enough. That is, we have been reading De Re Rustica so intently as a (lady-)farmer’s vade mecum—Varro began the project, he says, at the request of his young wife who wanted to know how to manage her new estate (1.1.1–4)—that we have not given its author’s wit and literary subtlety the attention they deserve. The ruthless either/or of academic categorization has misled readers; either Varro is joking, they tend to assume, or he is serious. That he might be both at the same time is an idea that needs more help than we have so far been given. It is my contention that his wit is more carefully wrought, and is reaching toward far more serious matters than the details of how to farm.

If we begin, first, by allowing the possibility that Varro had a purpose beyond packaging some important agricultural information in a decent volume; and if we then proceed by taking the paradoxes of De Re Rustica as being intentional, and therefore having meaning, we may at least open the door to new observations. The genre is defined (or so it seems) immediately by the opening of book 1, the dedication to Fundania; it is a handbook, since that is what Varro’s bride asked for. Yet the dialogue form signals some kind of philosophical genre, taken more or less seriously. We look, therefore, to Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, in which Ischomachus and Socrates discuss farming and, in particular, Ischomachus’ [End Page 428] fifteen-year-old wife’s management of her part of the oikos. 4 Then there is the dramatic framing of the three books, each with a very distinctive and rather unphilosophical setting, and dates that are mutually discordant. 5 This, combined with the enchanting name-play lavished on most of the characters in the dialogue, 6 suggests a comedic influence. The whole mixed bag taken together—handbook, philosophical...