Scholia Reviews ns 10 (2001) 1.

Yves Lehmann, Varron théologien et philosophe romain. Collection Latomus 237. Brussels: Revue d'Études Latines, 1997. Pp. 394. ISBN 2-87031-177-X. BEF2000.00.

Clifford Ando
Department of Classics, University of Southern California (Los Angeles)

Varro has been ill-served by intellectual historians over the last half-century: scholarly attention, such as it has been, has focused almost exclusively on his works on language and literary criticism.[[1]] My hope on receiving this book was that Varro would enjoy the extended treatment that his achievement in other fields so clearly deserves. Lehmann published several interesting articles on Varro in the mid 1980s, and they whetted my appetite for an essay on a grander scale.

Unfortunately, Lehmann does not quite fill the need he has so rightly identified. Among other things, this volume reprints five of his articles in unaltered form, and they seem oddly dated in a field that they helped to shape. This problem is most acute when Lehmann attempts to place Varro in a broader intellectual context: the portraits of Antiochus of Ascalon, Posidonius, and Tyrannio of Amisus are particularly problematic in this regard. What is more, as originally autonomous essays, these chapters remain discrete in their concerns, arguments, and bibliographies.[[2]]

Lehmann divides his work into three parts. After two introductory chapters--one setting forth the themes and topics of his undertaking ('Méthodes et recherches à propos de "Varron théologien et philosophe roman"', pp. 11-19), the other offering an homage to Dumézil for his reading of Varro ('Remarques preliminaries: la science des religions et la rehabilitation de Varron théologien', pp. 21- 30)--Part 1 offers eight chapters on 'l'itinéraire spirituel de Varron.' These concentrate on the formative influence of Varro's Sabine origins; Varro's use of the city/countryside dichotomy in his antiquarian research; 'Varro in an age of anxiety'; possible connections between Varro's career and his literary projects; and Varro's debts to Lucius Aelius Stilo, Accius, Tyrannio of Amisus and Antiochus of Ascalon.[[3]]

The second part, on 'le système théologique de Varron', contains six chapters: the first offers an old-fashioned reading of Varro's life and a traditional dating of the Antiquities; the second essentially defends Wissowa and Dumézil against later writers in their understanding of Varro's distinction between di certi, di incerti, and di praecipui atque selecti; while the third treats a familiar topic, Varro's analysis of the function of idols in religious ritual. The sources of Varro's theologia tripertita are considered in the fourth chapter, which concludes, following Lieberg, that it was theological koinê in philosophical circles by the mid-first century. The tension between Varro's philosophical monotheism and his adherence to traditional cult is treated in the fifth chapter, while the sixth outlines Varro's attitude to eastern cults.[[4]]

The final part of Lehmann's book discusses Varro's philosophical writings, but does not do so with an eye to the reconstruction of doctrine. Rather, Lehmann first offers a reading of the Menippean satires, turns next to Varro's Pythagoreanism, reconstructs the liber de philosophia, and concludes with the question 'le rationalisme Varronien: doctrine ou méthode?'[[5]]

Lehmann's book is more deeply idiosyncratic than this sketch suggests. This is not in itself bad, but it does mean that casual readers--are there casual readers of books on Varro?--will be ill-served by the titles of chapters. Having discussed in Chapter 2 of Part 1 whether Varro's valorization of the countryside has anything to do with philosophical speculation about the ideal life (p. 59), Lehmann led me to expect the fourth chapter of Part 1, 'Action et contemplation chez Varron,' to pursue this problem in detail. It does not. Nor does it treat Varro's thought on otium, or the failure of Roman otium to intersect with the ideal types of lifestyles discussed by Hellenistic ethicists. Rather, Lehmann seeks to connect very specific journeys and offices in Varro's career with information contained in his writings.

This mode of inquiry is problematic, for several reasons, some merely factual. Obviously, to make this kind of argument work, Lehmann needs to know the details of Varro's career and the dates when he wrote. I do not take issue with his reliance on Cichorius-- the data are too meagre to render the problems soluble, but Lehmann might at least have consulted Broughton.[[6]] However, he renders questions of chronology moot by dating virtually all of Varro's output after 47 (p. 120f.). This dating allows Lehmann to situate Varro at the feet of Tyrannio in the late 60s, still eager to learn the study of grammar. But the hunt for 'debts' itself often rests on a biographical fallacy, in which evidence from late in Varro's life becomes evidence of early influences, which are themselves attested only in the same late evidence.

The discontinuities between chapters, whatever their causes, result in several missed opportunities. To take but one complicated example, Lehmann returns four times to Varro's reconstruction of early Roman life. In the second chapter of Part 1 he investigates Varro's analysis of early Roman agriculture in De re rustica and connects it, inter alia, to Peripatetic cultural historiography. It is odd that Lehmann does not there discuss those works of Varro more obviously influenced by Dichaearchus and Theophrastus (and, at some remove, by Democritus), namely, his books De gente populi Romani and De vita populi Romani. This omission is especially curious given that both works reflect, however obliquely, on the nature of early social collectivities (e.g. De gente fr. 17 or De vita frr. 20 or 31 [ed. Semi]).

Moreover, given that Dichaearchus discussed the nature of sacrifice in early Greece, and that Varro's cultural historical writings did likewise for archaic Rome (e.g. De vita fr. 13-23), it is odd that Lehmann draws no explicit connection between the Chapter 2 of Part 1 and, for example, Chapter 3 of Part 2. As that chapter shows, Varro understood early Roman religion to be aniconic, but Lehmann traces Varro's debt for this position to Stoic hostility to anthropomorphism. In the later chapter he shows how Varro attributed the introduction of idols to Tarquin, whom Varro believed to be the son of Demaratus of Corinth. That belief enabled Varro to argue that Tarquin had been initiated into Samothracian mysteries and so had brought to Rome the Greek practice of masking religious knowledge of immaterial realities beneath rituals involving material objects. This interest in Samothracian mysticism, Lehmann posits, came to Varro from Antiochus, a problem Lehmann treats at length in Chapter 4 of Part 1. And none of these chapters is cited and none of their arguments deployed in the fourth chapter of Part 2, where Lehmann concentrates on the history of the Theologia tripertita and discusses Seneca Ep. 90 and Dio Or. 12, but without any consideration of their extensive reflections on the history of religious practices. Varro may indeed have received many of his ideas about cultural and religious history from different sources, but I doubt they existed in his mind in so Balkanized a fashion. I also remain to be persuaded that Varro is best served by so strictly a genealogical approach to intellectual history.

Lehmann does best when reading the Satires. Then long reflection on disparate fragments pays off handsomely, particularly in Chapter 4 of Part 1, where Lehmann's biographical reading of select Satires paradoxically persuades precisely because of its respect for chronological imprecision, and Chapter 7 of Part 1, where Lehmann quite beautifully illustrates Varro's tendency to understand the world through 'un réseau très imbriqué de schèmes quarternaires' (pp. 126ff.) by reference to fragments of De lingua Latina, De re rustica, the Antiquitates, and Satires fr. 335 (Cèbe). Had this volume contained more such insights, its rewards would be handsome.


[[1]] The papers contained in O. Reverdin (ed.), Varron: six exposés et discussions. Entretiens sur l'antiquité classique (Fondation Hardt) 9 (Geneva 1962) or in the Atti del Congresso internazionale di studi varroniani (Rieti 1974) are largely indicative of this wider trend.

[[2]] In n. 18 on p. 121, Lehmann refers to the 1985 publication of an essay reproduced in the present volume, and in n. 1 on p. 171 he announces that he will refer to B. Cardauns' edition of the Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum, as though he had not already cited that edition dozens of times in earlier chapters. With the notable exception of Chapter 2 of Part 2, Lehmann refers almost exclusively to French scholarship. Although he could defend this decision by referring to the distinguished work of Boyancé and Pépin on Varro's theological writings, his readers are ill served by his avoidance of Kidd's edition of Posidonius (1972, 1988, 1989) or the papers in M. Griffin and J. Barnes, Philosophia Togata (Oxford 1989), to name but two significant publications.

[[3]] The chapters are: Chapter 1, 'L'influence du milieu Sabin sur la formation intellectuelle et religieuse de Varron' (pp. 33-50); Chapter 2, 'L'opposition ville/campagne' (pp. 51-66); Chapter 3, 'Varron dans un age d'angoisse' (pp. 67-79); Chapter 4, 'Action et contemplation chez Varron' (pp. 80-95); Chapter 5, 'La dette de Varron à l'égard de son maître Lucius Aelius Stilo' (pp. 96- 106); Chapter 7, 'Tyrannion' (pp. 118-29); Chapter 8, 'Varron à la découverte de la sagesse antiochienne' (pp. 130-53).

[[4]] Chapter 1: 'Religion et politique autour des Antiquités Divines de Varron' (pp. 157-70); Chapter 2, 'La "Tripartion divine" de Varron' (pp. 171-83); Chapter 3, 'Varron et le problème des statues divines' (pp. 184-92); Chapter 4, 'La Theologia Tripertita de Varron' (pp. 193-225); Chapter 5, 'Polythéisme et monothéisme chez Varron' (pp. 226-42); Chapter 6, 'L'attitutde de Varron face aux religions orientales' (pp. 243-59).

[[5]] Chapter 1, 'Varron philosophe dans les Satires Ménippées' (pp. 263-98); Chapter 2, 'La question du Pythagorisme de Varron' (pp 299-314); Chapter 3, 'Le Liber de Philosophia (pp. 315-41); Chapter 4, 'Le rationalisme Varronien: doctrine ou méthode?' (pp. 342-67); Conclusion (pp. 369-74).

[[6]] T.R.S. Broughton, The Magistrates of the Roman Republic (New York 1951-1986).