Three great luminaries… (or, ‘how I wrote the book’), Part III

VarroVerse, the second publication: Rome, movement, language, and Varro (2008-2011)

‘Movement and the Linguistic Turn: Reading Varro’s de Lingua Latina’. In Laurence, R. and Newsome, D. J. 2011 (eds.) Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 57-80.


Some might argue that I’ve written these blog posts out of sequence. I say, stories are never linear — they always weave back and forth as they are (re-)read; memory, importantly, has its own teleological momentum. Research, thus, is a curious thing. It flows from eddies to whorls as life and experience seep into, or flood through, my attempts to see how I got from a to z. If I started this series of blog posts again, I might well begin (or end) differently…!

To show up the fractures between story, memory, and chronology, it was back in, oh, 2008 (I think — that, at least, was when I wrote my chapter-abstract/proposal), that my then colleague Ray Laurence, together with one of our then PhD students, David Newsome, had the idea to put together a volume that would set out and explore current thinking on ‘movement’ and its specifically (ancient) Roman and urban qualities.

Ray asked me to contribute something that would draw out the “literary turn”* in scholarship to create something more complex, and in the process, so that I might explore the embodiment of language in experience of place; I was in the wrap-up phase of my Roman Landscape (2010) book already, as readers of my first blog post in this series will know, and was looking for an angle for my next project.

Starting from scratch is not just hard, but impossible — so I tried to think about what had moved me most, frustrated me immensely, forced me to edit hard so as not to overbalance the argument in writing that last book? It was Varro’s de Re Rustica. Tracking the loose ends in Varro’s work had sent me into the indices of de Lingua Latina, and somewhere lodged the idea that I’d found another labyrinth through which to t(h)read.

So here we are back at my Roman Summer with de Lingua Latina, and back where we started. But as I noted in my last blog post, Cultural Memory was an approach still very much part of my frame of reference for the ‘landscape’ work I had been so immersed in. It’s for that reason that I’ve organised these meditations on the order of my VarroVerse research in the present sequence.

What Ray’s invitation offered, it is clear with hindsight, was the chance to focus more specifically on the relationship between language and movement. This had been something I mentally filed away as ’to be considered’ when working on Roman Landscape. ‘Movement and the Linguistic Turn’ allowed me to put it centre stage, and initiated a distinctive and new approach within my thinking.

Hindsight on the chapter…

To begin with, this ‘Movement and the Linguistic Turn’ is much more user-friendly for the non-expert in Varro (I think), and benefitted from genuine dialogue with the editors at every stage. Where it may seem less accessible is in its focus on critical theory — for instance, I introduce the terms langue and parole at the beginning, but also make clear that the chapter will try to fracture some of the traditional boundaries in scholarship on de Lingua Latina (e.g. making the toolkit of language inextricable from the toolkit of citizenship, and ascribing the metaphorical and experiential dynamics of “movement” to both). What I don’t do is rehearse those traditional approaches. At all.

To be fair to myself and to the editors, it would have been unlikely, even in 2011, for there to have been much crossover interest between scholars focused on Varro’s grammatology and those interested in ancient Roman citizenship and identity-politics. But I do in passing note this as evidence of a trait of my own: to avoid head-on confrontation with the purist “linguistic” approach to reading de Lingua Latina; there is an important place for detailed analysis of Varro’s technical expertise, but what I have implicitly (and occasionally and increasingly, more explicitly) been trying to do is to rekindle the Varro who emerges from Cicero’s famous, bitter-sweet characterisation:

Then I [Cicero] commented: ‘Yes, that’s the case, Varro. For when we were in our very own city yet still wandering and straying as if strangers, it was your books, so to speak, that led us home, so that we were at last able to recognise who and where we were.’
Cic. Acad. 1.9

The chapter’s first section tries to capture something of the delightfully visual and practical quality of some of Varro’s metaphors, and his self-insertion into the text; and I took one of the better-known passages (Ling. 5.13) to illustrate my first point of discussion: Varro uses the language of family, the environment, agriculture, and territory to sketch a subtle argument about the dynamic nature of words and their transformative powers when applied to things, actions, and people (2011: 58). Through discussion of this passage I see now that I arrived at something which would continue to bubble through subsequent publications, viz, that ‘the act of speech…equals a purposeful movement towards a destination’ (2011: 58). At the time I suspect that this was something of a throwaway comment; I hadn’t yet had the time or space to think fully through the implications, but it resurfaces very clearly in a later piece, published in 2018.*ª

When Varro says ‘if, when I speak of places, I move from “field” to “an agrarian man”, and arrive at “a farmer”, I still won’t have gone astray’ (Ling. 5.13), we might wonder whether we are seeing a foreshadowing of what he would eventually present (in that text) as a work of his extreme old age, de Re Rustica.

One of the things I eventually found the space to explore in my monograph is the quirky conversations that seem to bounce to and fro between Varro’s agricultural and linguistic studies. We will probably never know the extent to which Varro went back over or edited de Lingua Latina in the last ten or fifteen years of his life, but the two works definitely resonate against one another. Had we not lost almost everything else that Varro wrote, save the fragments, it might be that Varro’s “project” was rather like my own picaresque approach to scholarly endeavour (don’t be derisive! — like dogs and their owners, one grows akin to one’s author(s), and inevitably, finds oneself in them too!).

Where was I? OK, so the volume as a whole was about movement, so it was Varro’s terminology of movement that was my first focus. As I put it then: ‘Varro’s investigation fashions Roman intellectual practice as goal-oriented and structured…Discourse, whether conversational, literary, or rhetorical, takes time. It is through words (that is to say, being understood as discourse) that movement is enriched with Roman meaning…[and] temporality only exists where there is movement, and movement depends on the existence of place and body, and generates action’ (2011: 59). Traditional Senatorial dependence on landholding for wealth and status embedded the practice of agriculture in a nostalgic framework of appropriate “activity”, and the places within which it should happen.

Varro’s examples play upon the very real visibility and significance of agribusiness on a day-to-day basis in metropolitan Rome, but Varro himself was more deeply implicated in the politics of landholding than his status as an intellectual might suggest. He served as a technocrat on Caesar’s Land Commission (59 BCE), a body which was tasked with creating farming communities in Campania for discharged veteran soldiers (and keeping them “there” and out of trouble…). The seizure/distribution/clientelism of land in the first century BCE was a bitterly contested topic, and Cicero had refused to participate in Caesar’s initiative.*º

Where this chapter really starts to move me in a new direction is when I begin to discuss Varro on Analogy (2011: 61). In tune with the concerns of the volume, and very much in sync with the emphases created by Varro’s structure, I chose to trace Varro’s use of terms associated with “running”. This action and its verbal family weaves in and out of Ling. 5-8 before Varro ties it into his exposition of how inflection (and thus ‘the generation of new and evolving meaning’) is central to understanding analogia (2011: 61; Ling. 8.11).

New, old, and new-old bridging propositions (crossing the Tiber).

The rest of the section (‘Mobile Vocabulary’, 2011: 58-66) is concerned with teasing out the fullest implications of the thread linking “running” (undignified, not appropriate for a citizen; yet nonetheless grammatically important) to strolling (imagine moving through the Forum in a toga…), and thence to an acute roundup linking Rome’s particular topography (the River Tiber, an amnes, goes around, like an ambitious politician, who should be ambling thoughtfully through the stages of citizen life, not running, to race up the cursus honorum (the career track of every aspiring Roman leader-in-waiting…).

The puns come thick and fast, and this is one of the unheralded delights of Varro: his work is subtly but hilariously funny, that is, if you appreciate a wry (and very dry) sense of humour. He does make his readers work for it in de Lingua Latina, but then he also wrote at least one volume of satirical verses, a genre which clearly had a more immediate punch for the more impatient audience!

(Not) seeing St. Peter’s through the Aventine keyhole. What the camera “sees” is radically different to what the eye “perceives”, yet the two still collaborate.

Section 2 (‘Framing Movement and Seeing the Sites’; 2011: 66-78) is to my mind, now, less spirited. But it builds solidly on my topographic expertise, and although my monograph would move away from spatial studies for the most part, nonetheless a substantial chapter still explores Varro’s Rome. I began the section by introducing Varro’s discussion of the terminology of vision (Ling. 6.80, 81; 7.12). Varro represents “sight” as the greatest of the five senses; sight, then, is intrinsically linked (through language and effect) with perception, and thence to real-world creativity.

It’s a strikingly modern position, and shows the subtlety and force of Varro’s understanding of the relationship between perspective, taking (up) a position, and what becomes an understanding. Moreover, it demonstrates Varro’s awareness of the contingent and foundational qualities of knowledge when each individual “produces” their own enveloping reality. The tensions between those individual acts of ideation and Rome’s precarious grasp on civil society and even the most basic consensus in the years around the publication of de Lingua Latina make these enquiries all the more urgent and painful.

Whose Forum? Whose Palatine? the radical interventions across millennia have made challenging the seeing through, and seeing with, the different sights.

Varro’s city, as it emerges through this analysis, is a place of gaps, of dislocations in understanding, and of fractures between traditional and contemporary, persisting and contingent, uses of place. Rome’s patriotic heart — the Forum valley and the Capitoline Hill — are defamiliarised through Varro’s archaeological approach to language so that through etymological excavation it becomes possible for the well-equipped citizen (schooled by Varro…) to see through the distortions of time and the deformations of the re-wilded (political) landscape (Ling. 5.5). This evocative description is key to reading subsequent interventions by Varro (e.g. Ling 5.7-8; 6.49), and my discussion takes me through Varro’s explanation of the placial relationship between memory and monuments, and the crucial importance of the infrastructure connecting sites and sights when investigating what shapes communities (2011: 68-72).

Moving in real time between the historical tapestry of networked monuments is thus, in Roland Barthes’ words, ‘the semantic charge given to the city by its history’.** What I do not fully tease out, and would not really tackle head-on until writing the monograph, was how and why Varro ducks the problem of the different “foundational” powers of communities (the “Tribes”) and a unique (and determinative?) territory to produce something remarkable: Rome (2011: 72-73).

There is no easy answer, and my approach in this chapter was to move directly into Varro’s characterisation of Sevenhills Ville (as I call his first foundation) — and his excursus on the relationship between that unprecedented topography and the social organisation that it produced (2011: 73-76).

I will discuss my approach to Varro’s TWO tours of Rome in a subsequent blog-post; in this chapter I focused on his mytho-historical scheme: the Rome one might experience by way of an itinerary taking in the Argei Shrines (2011: 75-76).**ª The Argei, and the connection between these legendary immigrants and Hercules’ wanderings, feature in my monograph; in the present chapter I don’t really pause to think through what their significance might be. In fact it would not be until I began to work seriously upon the monograph that I would really engage in depth with Varro’s Sabine, Reatine identity as a context for his focalisation of Roman origins.

This chapter does see me draw out one early strand in my discovery of this migratory quality in Varro, centred on discussion of the etymology for the Palatine Hill (Ling. 5.53-54). As I observe of his multiplicity of explanations, there is a common emphasis on the role of immigrants; indeed, I conclude, importantly I think, that Varro implicitly makes the dynamic quality of hills as attractive forces into a cornerstone of Roman identity (2011: 74-75).

I still feel proud of that insight, and its alignment with Henri Lefebvre’s comments on directional ‘indicators’, whereby ‘egregious aspects the terrain were associated perhaps with a memory, perhaps with particular actions which they facilitated’, significantly enriches the idea of hills as active generators of Roman community and diversity (2011: 76).**º

In the VarroVerse, monuments require interpreters; their language and “semiotics” having been lost to the depredations of time, and thus even sites within the Forum required exegesis. I don’t discuss Varro’s Lacus Curtius in this chapter because it had already featured extensively in an earlier publication, albeit one focused on Livy(!) but I do make clear the political quality to all topographic writing on the Forum in the light of the planned and accidental transformations to its layout and structures during the first century BCE.§

This conclusion draws my argument towards its concluding focus, in the section called ‘The Scholar and the City, 40s BCE’ (2011: 78-80). If, like me, you enjoy fiction that challenges the boundaries of perception and seeks to defamiliarise in order to deliver otherwise unexpected truths, you may have guessed that this section title plays on China Miéville’s disturbing 2009 novel, The City & the City. There, Miéville constructs a kind of palimpsest in which sight, perception, and ideation work along parallel tracks…until they don’t.

It is such an eerie suite of evocations that produced the impetus for my emphasis on the dislocation of “intellectual” space from late Republican urban networks, and Varro’s efforts to retrain a readership, anxious not to see/read in too much, in the kind of generosity of scholarly freedom that might guide citizens between the different “cities” that made up their contemporary Rome. We don’t know where Varro was undertaking his researches, but we do know (from Suetonius, Iul. 44.2) that he was the intended organising genius for Caesar’s planned public library for Rome.

What I didn’t raise, perhaps because I hadn’t thought through the implications as fully then as I have now, is the extent to which that proposed direction and guardianship of knowledge, contained in one space but representing the pluralism of literary, geographic, political, historical, rhetorical, mathematical, scientific, and so many other entertaining, edifying, and dramatic voices, fed into two key aspects of de Lingua Latina. These, its amalgamation of multiple literary genres and branches of knowledge, and its development of a framework within which consensus becomes meaningful rather than an admission of weakness, become principle motifs in my eventual analysis of the work as a whole.

How I get there, of course, continues to develop across the following publications, leading eventually to the “through-reading” model which guides the detailed analysis given space in my monograph.

The next post in this series will reflect on a chapter that emerged from a hugely collegial and very thought-provoking pair of workshops held in Rome, at the second of which I gave a keynote presentation.


*I have written about these ‘turns’ in critical theory in a 2017 OA (checked 2018-08-07) publication: ‘Aesthetic, Sociological, and Exploitative Attitudes to Landscape in Greco-Roman Literature, Art, and Culture’ (p.6/39).

*ª Blog post to follow…: ‘Varro’s Roman Ways: Metastasis and Etymology’. In Fitzgerald, W. and Spentzou, E. 2011 (eds.) The Production of Space in Latin Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 45-68.

*º See e.g. Varro, Rust. 1.2.10, Cic. Leg. agr.

** Barthes, R. (1997), ‘Semiology and the Urban’. In Leach, N. (ed.), Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. London: Routledge, pp. 166-72 [at 167]. NB the above OA link to was checked 2018-08-12.

**ª Find Livy’s version of the formalisation of many of Rome’s religious practices, here (1.18-22; English translation). Livy, like other subsequent historians, was significantly indebted to the antiquarian expertise of Varro and his scholarly contemporaries.

**º Lefebvre, H. (1991), The Production of Space, trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, p. 192.

§ Unfortunately, my discussion of the Lacus Curtius is not available in OA online format: ‘Rome at a gallop: Livy, on not gazing, jumping, or toppling into the void’. In Larmour, D. H. J. and Spencer, D. 2007 (eds.) The Sites of Rome: Time, Space, Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 61-101.

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