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

VarroVerse, the fourth publication: Romespeak(conferences etc., 2010-2015)

‘Varro’s Romespeak: De lingua Latina’. In Butterfield, D. (ed.) Varro Varius: The Polymath of the Roman World, Cambridge Classical Journal Supplement 39. Cambridge, pp. 73-92. ISBN 9780956838148*


With publication for ‘the book’ imminent (a day in May 2019, folks!), I thought it was the ideal moment (a wet, intermittently stormy, Roman day) to begin to chart the later stages of my work towards Language and Authority in De Lingua Latina: Varro’s Guide to Being Roman.

I especially like that the next publication which helped me along the way to beginning the substantial work towards that book was to find a home in a collection called Varro Varius, drawing on papers presented at a conference in Cambridge in 2011, organised by David Butterfield. Surely this will remain forever the ideal title to clothe the very different (methodologically, contextually, intellectually) approaches that my imagined Varro’s generously intellectual embrace encourages? Presenting at this conference added something new to how I conceived Varro, and the scholarly agenda he has inspired, but this conference was in fact one of three which together brought about the arguments I developed in the one publication.

I want to emphasise this because too often, these days, academic life prioritises published ‘output’ as the only excuse for funding participation in conferences and symposia. It becomes ever harder to justify sending scholars to spend a day or two (or three) talking with, bouncing ideas between, and listening to, each other. Yet it is from these encounters that tighter and better nuanced arguments, and original ideas, often emerge most clearly. Often, but not always!

Nonetheless the act of putting ones ideas into the rough-and-tumble of a conference forces one to clarify, to evidence, to scrutinise with a cold eye; and then to listen and evaluate the responses. Sometimes it feels like a waste of time; sometimes connections or ideas are forged which take a year or ten to transform into some new or enhanced piece of research; sometimes the feedback is acute, dynamic, and urges one towards a firmer, sharper conclusion. Even, sometimes, one’s ideas just get a welcome ‘yes, go for it!’; wherever one is in one’s career, the dreaded introspection and self-doubt (and imposter syndrome) can strike. We all need positive and constructive encouragement…


As you’ll know (if you read the earlier posts in this series) 2010 was a busy time. In 2009 I had given a tentative public airing to my thinking on Varro read through the lens of space syntax analysis (Leeds International Classics Seminar), but by 2010 I was really interested in moving away from the topographic focus that had been at the heart of my research for nearly a decade. I wanted to think more about language and cognition, and how these ‘networks’ (ok, space and place remain deeply important to me, even in my metaphorical processes…) and existential schemes for social living, play out in ancient literary thought.

Varro offers something for so much of what gets me out of bed in the morning — here, whilst working on my paper for the first The Moving City conference (and writing separately on Propertius Elegies 4, Suetonius’ Nero, and elite speech in the late Republic, for three different event…in three different countries!), I was also organising my thoughts on what it was that he was up to. This may sound a bit woolly, but I was fumbling about with various ideas to try to get clear in my own mind an underlying tenet for de Lingua Latina.

If, as I firmly believe(d), it was more than a miscellany, more than a handbook, more than a romp through etymology and argument, what was that purpose?*¹ My conclusion led to a coinage which some (readers/reviewers) have loathed, but others have suggested was creative and genius. It’s probably somewhere in between: Romespeak. It was at the 2011 Craven Seminar (University of Cambridge), to which I was invited by the organiser David Butterfield, that I first tested the term’s merits.

I was very daunted by this event — for a start, going back to speak at any one of my (three) almae matres always gives me the heebeejeebees. It’s like going back to the family home: I always feels a regression to the defining age of my inhabitation of the place.  So for Cambridge I am eternally that awkward, shy, displaced, immigrant girl; keen to belong, but never on the inside; somewhere in my early-mid twenties.

Hindsight on the chapter

The process began with a different title: “Authority, Allusion, and Rome-speak” — I was quite uncertain about how the novelty factor of the coinage would work out. What I was trying to emphasise was the dialogic quality of the text; indeed, that even more so than other ostensible “handbooks”, this was a spectacular dramatisation of a scholar, public intellectual, and wit at the height of his game. To try to get this across, I had a mind map as the opening slide in my presentation…

I called this slide ‘Plotting’…

I also focused closely on the “story-telling” qualities of the extant text, highlighting sections which offer a sense of the author speaking in narrative mode: “For there is no trifling darkness in the wood where these are to be captured [captanda] and they leave no well-trodden paths [semitae tritae] to take us to where we want to go. Nor indeed do the tracks lack obstacles which can delay the hunter” (Ling. 5.5). I also wanted to draw out the active agenda Varro was instituting for his audience, through his choice of key primary verbs: “primigenia dicuntur uerba ut lego, scribo, sto, sedeo et cetera” (Ling. 6.37), that is, creating, processing, articulating, inhabiting (by selecting/reading, writing, being at rest in a place (indeed, taking up a position), etc.).

As I went on to stress, just a little later (Ling. 6.42) Varro would argue that the banality of obvious “action” (in my mind, I think of this as Varro on action-heroics…) is superseded by the richer and more culturally nuanced “action” that underpins every important aspect of (elite) citizen existence: when we consider (cogitamus) or turn something over (agitamus) in the mind, action is being performed (the same verb, ago, roots deep within these words). In oratory, Varro finds a similar “performance” quality; thus the action of pleading a case or conducting an augury (signalled by the verb ago for each phrasal term) may seem all talk, yet manifests the most authentically active mode of existence. Varro returns to a variation on this topic when explaining the tripartite nature of speech “ut ea inter se ratione coniuncta sententiam efferent” (“how through a reasoned conjunction of […] words, they yield complex meaning”, Ling. 8.2).

This inquisition into what action means emerges in all sorts of places, and to me, its prevalence, woven in and out of Varro’s conceptualisation of language as power, is central to understanding the text. One might say that it’s summed up in another economically vivid way when readers are given an explanation for “monument” — it’s a kind of prompt to keep returning to the remains of the past, and as much a prompt to think about the vehicles of memory as it is a story or evidence of some long-gone person or event: “quae scripta ac facta memoriae causa monimenta dicta” (“things which are written and done for the sake of ‘memory’ are called ‘monuments’”, Ling 6.49).

I was, however, delighted when the readers reports for Language and Authority in De Lingua Latina emphasised how much the ‘Romespeak‘ coinage added to the argument, and how well it meshed with the overall idea I was experimenting with. Words do indeed have power!


* The volume is not easily available, unless you have library access. There are lots of reviews (again, subscription credentials typically required); one of the most thoughtful and least partial, in my opinion, is by Christopher Smith (Mnemosyne 2017, 70.1: 170-172).

*¹ I tease out these questions more fully in Language and Authority in De Lingua Latina (2019: 8-13).

The featured image for this post is one of a myriad photos that I took at the wonderful ‘Solid Light 2019′ festival, in Rome; we followed the manifestations around the darkening city — here, the Pantheon.

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