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

VarroVerse, the third publication: Varro, and the Red Queen problem… (2010-2015)

‘Urban flux: Varro’s Rome-in-progress’, in The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome. In Östenberg, I., Malmberg, S., and Bjørnebye, J. 2015 (eds.). London: Bloomsbury, pp. 99-110.


In 2010 I received an intriguingly well-timed invitation from Ida Östenberg, Simon Malmberg, and Jonas Bjørnebye — to participate in a workshop entitled “The Moving City”, to be held in Rome in May 2011. In the wake of that event’s success, a second stage was then convened in June 2012, at which I would give a keynote address. From the fruits of the two events would emerge the edited volume The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome.

The publication, of course, was still some way down the road when I wrote my first version of an abstract in Autumn 2010 (when, as my previous blog post in this series makes clear, I was still groping around a little for the big conclusions on all this…). But I was excited to have a real opportunity to test my understanding of how movement fit into Varro’s semiosphere among a group of scholars whose expertise was in urban movement, and whose interests crossed boundaries between literature, history, and material culture. That the workshop was to be hosted by the Swedish and Norwegian Institutes in Rome was a happy addendum.

Whe I started this series of blogposts I described the serendipity of fixing upon Varro’s de Lingua Latina whilst spending much of a summer ensconced in a friend’s Rome apartment. That Pigneto interlude had gone a long way towards confirming my childhood impression of Rome as my natural home turf (see previous blog posts, e.g.  here and here). To travel, to my mind, is to try on (and try out) potential alternative lives and worlds; to explore, but also imaginatively to wander as if inhabiting a new home, and speculatively to conjure up the different selves that might have lived there. It’s something I’ve done instinctively ever since I can remember feeling conscious of ‘home’ as a distinct place.

I remember, as a child, imagining my life unspooling differently had I been born as, or into the circumstances of, select friends, relatives, and acquaintances; hours of my favourite kind of play, as I look back to the 70s, were spent in playing at being very specific different friends, and living their lives anew on their behalves. It helped that the school I went to was strongly international in its catchment, so I had a lot of scope and raw materials for becoming these ‘foreign’, distinctly Other, children, at least in my mind.

Forty or so years later, I can also see that it was also a form of escapism from the uncertainties and inexplicable behaviours of adults.

This may seem to be an eccentric beginning to a research blogpost, but bear with me. When reflecting on what became the leitmotiv for this strand in my developing understanding of Varro I have realised that it was the idea of process and incompletion, and in particular, of the powerful and dynamic quality of progressing towards (rather than reaching) a goal — and experimenting with the different meanings that ensued when words and syntax were challenged as cultural entities through etymology and historical linguistic research.

It was this, rather than the goal itself, that then seemed to me to be especially noteworthy about Varro’s entwining of grammar, syntax, and (urban) infrastructure.

One might think this was simply a retroactive interpretation — in the midst of political radicalisation and the overturning of habits and norms sanctified by ‘tradition’ (mos maiorum), yet also in an era just before a dramatic re-stabilisation of governance and ideology (the development of the Principate, and the Augustan ethos of recuperation of old-school values through a process of transformation), scholarly hindsight allows us to read into Varro a restless disinclination to welcome stasis when the right sort of settlement seemed so far out of reach. This would be an appealing and easy explanation for the perspective I adopted, however unwittingly.

Yet I have observed before that one has a tendency to identify strongly with one’s subject-matter when researching intensively on one author across many years. Here, I think I see in myself something rather more personal than that spurious clarity of hindsight: in fact I think it’s an instance of the murky richness of transference.


From today’s vantage point, therefore, I see instead an eagerness to find a Varro who, like myself, was in that mid-career valley…

As I would go on to argue in my monograph, far from being in retreat from the political shenanigans of his younger days, I now believe that de Lingua Latina makes available a deeply radical vision of something not so different to what tends, a little lazily, to be ascribed a little later to Augustus: a satisfyingly balanced and stable civic model in which newly framed vertical and horizontal dialogues are the constructive forces for a consensual civil society, with language as toolkit and primer for this novel brand of politics. In 2010, however, I myself wasn’t in the right mood to see that angle.

Instead, feeling worn out after a year swallowed by cancer treatment, then feeling a bit on the back foot, and stuck at Senior Lecturer (despite some really supportive mentoring and recognition of my achievements — I don’t want this to sound as if I was being left to stagnate) in terms of the academic cursus honorum, I was applying for some research leave in order to regroup my intellectual faculties, to begin work on a monograph then titled tentatively Varro’s Rome: Translation and Culture in de Lingua Latina, and to think about how best to progress in my own terms. I had just taken on the role of Deputy Director of the University’s College of Arts and Law Graduate School, and this aspect of one possible career trajectory (a drift, as it felt then, towards academic leadership) also needed thinking through.

Inevitably, it suited me to imagine my Varro as confronting comparable challenges…

What actually happened was that instead of receiving one semester’s research leave (semester 2, 2010-11), I made such a compelling case for the excitement of the Varro monograph (as I then conceived it, with a strong focus on ‘reality’ and the urban quality of citizen experience within Varro’s grammatology) that I was offered a full year of research leave for the 2011-12 academic year, with the understanding that I would then return to a leadership role in the College Graduate School. This was transformational. It felt for the first time (after, I should add, some dispiriting, unsuccessful external grant applications had begun to make me doubt my rhetorical skills…) as if someone believed in my vision and was willing to take a chance on some speculative resource to see what I could do.

Thus, as I began to draft my paper for May 2011 I was simultaneously starting to apartment hunt for an affordable but reasonably central base (and somewhere where our dog could come too) for six months in Rome. This would be the litmus test for personal as well as career aspirations — rather than the surface-skating of a fortnight’s annual vacation, or the playing-at-house holiday quality of my solitary Pigneto summer weeks, our whole household planned to decamp for an autumn-to-spring sojourn, complete with utility bills, rain, mundane routines, and loss of local networks.

I was acutely conscious, therefore, as I began to shape my contribution to The Moving City (part 1) that I too was ‘moving city’, and that I was about to bring my decades’ long dreams of another life and of Rome face to face with what might prove to be an unhappy or discomfiting reality. Like so many hopeful immigrants over the millennia, my roads too were all beginning to lead to what the Latin elegiac poet—and younger contemporary of Varro—Tibullus (2.5.23) called the ‘eternal city’, back in the 1st century BCE, and what Varro himself characterised as Sevenhills (where town and topography join forces).

In ‘Urban flux’ I hoped to prove that language, itineraries, and that centripetal trajectory were all already part of Varro’s programme of inquiry, with the city itself as his laboratory.

Hindsight on the chapter

With all this in mind, it’s unsurprising that I began the published chapter with an emphasis on ‘language as the key tool for understanding the Roman experience of reality’ (2015: 99). One of the ways in which the twin workshops were especially valuable in shaping my thinking was in their gathering together of scholars interested in the performative and ritual (or routine) aspects of movement in the city, and I see this shine through my introductory discussion of how one grapples with the idea of something distinctively Roman about citizens and visitors as dynamic actors on a stage set for competing and sometimes contradictory storytelling events.

I don’t think I really nailed the articulation of this idea fully in the chapter, but the range of plays made available by Rome, and through which a generous vision of what Rome signifies can come to light, was at least implicit in the papers delivered at the workshops. It is to the credit of the editors that the the productive heterogeneity of the workshop presentations and discussions became something coherent and robust in the resulting volume. A theme that would become important for me personally, although I didn’t visit it in the published chapter, was the extent to which fluidity and multiversality might lead to their own kind of stability.

It would be this complex of ideas (as I continue to discuss, through this blog post) that eventually brought me around to what was inconceivable to me when I began to explore de Lingua Latina, viz, that the fragmentary and chaotic quality (read against structuralist requirements) of de Lingua Latina’s representation of Roman itineraries gains substance and authority when interpreted against a different kind of infrastructure — people. In particular, citizens who have taken on board Varro’s lessons. Contributions to the workshop(s) by O’Sullivan, Andrews, and Malmberg in particular took root in my mind, and would eventually help me to discover the strength and authority of a humane infrastructure: the flesh and blood of a city and a world-view supported by the sinews of discourse and the foundations of a territory — conceived as ground (terra) shaped into place through endless way-making (iter).

I am reaching towards this conclusion when I observe in the published chapter that ‘Varro’s locational and infrastructural etymologies highlight just how “in progress” and contingent each worldview and aspect of urban experience is’ (2015: 100-101), but it wasn’t quite, at that stage, in my grasp. Nonetheless in emphasising Varro’s focus on language as a process, one through which words bounce away into discourse worlds and the idea of a simple “meaning” linking them to a “thing” or “act”, they are also rushing towards new meaning and plural identities as they become part of acculturated systems of conscious expression.

This led to one of the metaphors I like best in the chapter, where I suggest that Varro “delivers Rome as a living entity, chronologically complex but waiting to wake up and engage in a dialogue, just requiring discourse to power up the experience’ (2015: 101).

In section 1, ‘Structuring the experience’ (2015: 101-104), I think about the encircling (urbs <— orbis) quality of Varro’s city, his interest in walls and boundaries, and the “heritagescape”* which he reads into the topography that produces Rome. There is a Roman exceptionalism to this rhetoric, but whereas territorial exceptionalism has become linked to problematic rhetorics of nationalism and indeed colonialist apologetics, there is something much more complex in Varro’s positionality.

Although I don’t consider the implications in this chapter, the tension, often congratulatory but always a little frictive, between homogenous and heterogeneous readings of what makes Rome tick becomes a major theme in my monograph. There, Sabine, and in particular, Reatine Varro, an insider/outsider figure, becomes central to understanding what seven hills and Sevenhills (Septimontium) represent (Varro, Ling. 5.41).

The focus of section 2 (‘From site to site: The rhythm of the tour’, 2015: 104-109) took me from the repetitive movements that generate way marking and boundaries to the specifics of how Varro made himself the Roman guide ne plus ultra.

A silver denarius (from the early 30s BCE) showing Octavian veiled, ploughing a new foundation for Rome now seems even more pertinent to me [coin image]. In the published chapter I left the illustration (fig. 8.1 in the published volume) slightly forlornly out of the main argument (although with a clear caption implying the contextual significance).*ª What I would emphasise now, returning to the chapter, is the way in which this image speaks to the matter of Roman exceptionalism and in particular how this intersects with the quality of numen associated with city-foundations.

BM coin AN00633002_001
Coin R.6171 © The Trustees of the British Museum. ‘This silver denarius (minted 29-27 BCE), juxtaposes Apollo laureate (obverse) with Octavian (titled IMP.CAESAR), veiled, and driving a plough with a pair of oxen’.

The coin asserts this to be ‘IMP.CAESAR’, and the iconographic design creates these words as ploughed utterances set into and delivered from Octavian’s sacred renewal of the city. Thus in this symbolic renewal of Rome is it also an inscription of himself as victorious military leader and Caesar into the living fabric of the ground from which Rome resurges. A much more powerful illustrative input into my argument than I then gave it credit for.*º

To return, therefore, to section 2 and my assertion of the significance of moving between places as crucial to their understanding as individual sites, we can now see how this visual rhetoric was already becoming embedded in political agenda-setting. Octavian is encouraging the oxen forward, but their pomerial movement will be in a circle, and it is through their connection to the inscriptional assertion, a monumentalisation (in terms of the scale on the coin image, and of the substantial power of coinage as a medium of exchange) of familial and triumphal identity.

The itinerary that I explore relating to Ling. 5.145 centres on key nodes within an urban foundation: ‘the place where people bring together (conferrent) their quarrels, and draw together their debates (controversiae), and to where they carry (ferrent) things which they want to sell (discourse bundled in with cabbages and leeks), they called it a forum (a ‘carry-place’). We are moving toward a space with focal qualities as a point of convergence (a forum), and we are porting ideological and physical burdens (goods and disputes) from the portus – the entrance or ‘harbour’ – even though no actual harbour etymology has been offered’ (2015: 105).

This phase in Varro’s treatment of the quintessential cityscape (which gradually manifests itself as Rome) is one of his most vivid and charming excurses. He takes readers on through the variously ‘quarrelsome’ fora so as to characterise the kinds of business they promote, and how their names reflect these activities. This enables Varro to introduce and develop the theme of heterogeneity and to embed it positively in his Roman urban imaginary — a theme which eventually (in my monograph) would become crucial as my thinking led me to conclude positively on Varro’s language as a model for political realignment.

So perhaps we can see me searching for the beginnings of that insight as I begin to sketch out the idea of Varro’s pragmatic but radical foresight in his interest in the onomatopoeic qualities of the Forum Boooooarium, the intrusion of Sparta and Ionia into his discussion of the Old Macellum, and the greed (and luxury goods — not native?) that characterises trade in the (new) Macellum…juxtaposed with the ‘patriotic’ Forum Romanum.

Movement is significant for my argument as I encourage readers to think about the up/down dynamics of the relationship between the Forum Romanum and the Arx and Capitoline at the western end (and the relationship between this dynamic and Varro’s inclusion of the carcer (gaol) becomes significant in the trajectory towards my monograph), but where the present chapter directs readers is to the Circus Maximus (2015:107-109).

The view towards the carceres… (Circus Maximus, Rome)

I was and still am especially happy with this exegesis of the Circus. It’s an odd passage in Varro, and although his etymology overall is unexceptional (‘it was built for the shows around [circum] the place where the games are held, and because it’s there, around the turning posts, that the procession makes its way and the horses race’. Ling. 5.153),

Varro’s choice of comic dramatist Plautus (Cornicularia) for a quote to emphasise ‘encircling’ movement through which (we can infer) there’s a laugh to be had about racing so hard to cover ground yet ending back where one started starts suddenly, now, to look much more pointedly to the idea of the encircling Pomerium and to the momentous act of ploughing a new but perhaps (in this context) solipsistic city-political into being. Even without reading in the iconography of pomerial encircling by way of Octavianic propaganda (and of course that denarius would not be minted for almost two decades), Varro has some jokes with Circus terminology.

A charioteer, from the walls of Ostia Antica (Caseggiato degli Aurighi). December 2011.

For instance, on the carcer (at once the term for ‘gaol’ and a name for the horses’ starting-gates) I observed that: ‘there is a juicy irony that the Circus (a place which is characterized by running around, or parading through, or even lively debauchery) also has the ultimate stasis point at its ‘prime’ spot: the horses’ starting gates, Varro says, are today (nunc) called the ‘cells’ (carceres). As Varro plausibly suggests, this hints at the horses being held under restraint (coercentur) before they burst out into the notional freedom of the race. These stalls, Varro records, were once (back in the late third century BCE) called the Town (oppidum), via a quote from Naevius. Varro’s comment suggests either that there was a forgetfulness about the ‘Town’ tag, which he wants to remedy by commemorating the historical name, or that the Cells/Town dialogue is one which continues to be meaningful in some way and therefore demands attention’ (2015: 108).

As I went on to argue, the ‘outsider’ quality of the Circus valley was complicated by its importance as part of the story of Rome’s deep relationship with its exceptional site (the valley produced a natural race-track, ready for citizens to enjoy; and — in the mid 40s BCE, ripe for a refurb by Caesar),** and its juxtaposition with parts of the city historically associated with ‘outsiders’ (the Aventine Hill) and foundational civil conflict (again, the Aventine, and one version of the fraternal struggle between Romulus and Remus to get the sign from the gods that one of them should found and rule Rome).

The view from Aventine to Palatine slopes of what once was banked seating in the Circus Maximus. Note the name of the belvedere…

In my concluding section (2015: 109-110) I emphasised this theme of migrancy and difference clearly, and (I still think) successfully drew out the importance of Varro’s solution (as I now see it) to fracturing politics and competitive individualism: many things, apparently in conflict, gain strength and meaning from unification.

What I don’t address (and I’m not convinced, now, that I fully grapple with all its implications in the monograph either…!) is the role of Varro’s use of humour, and one might say sarcasm, in treating the potential of encircling as a productive problem built into the fabric of Roman urban semiotics (as well as central to the practice of everyday life). What goes around comes around, but how does one gain the wisdom to recognise that re-turn, and learn from the process whilst creating new and more satisfactory trajectories of embrace?

My next post on the developing Varroverse will reflect on a chapter which I wrote for a conference specifically on Varro: part of the Craven Seminar series hosted by the University of Cambridge in May 2011.


* On “heritagescape”, see e.g. Garden, M. (2004). The heritagescape: exploring the phenomenon of the heritage site (Doctoral thesis). Available online

*ª A useful overview of the relevant coin collection at the British Museum can be found online.

*º For Ovid’s lovely and poetic account of how Rome was founded on the Parilia Festival, see here for a translation. There are links to primary sources, and a reasonable conspectus of the variety of accounts of Rome’s foundation, here. In my monograph, in the chapter dealing with Varro’s explanation of the festival calendar in Rome, I talk about this complex of issues in detail— so in 2019 I can send you towards my own analysis 🙂

** For a very atmospheric visualisation of a race at the Hippodrome in Constantinople (so not quite the right era, but evocative), see here.

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