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MARCUS TERENTIUS VARRO (B.C. 116-28) whom Quintilian called "the most learned of the Romans," and Petrarch "il terzo gran lume Romano," ranking him with Cicero and Virgil, probably studied agriculture before he studied any thing else, for he was born on a Sabine farm, and although of a well to do family, was bred in the habits of simplicity and rural industry with which the poets have made that name synonymous. All his life he amused the leisure snatched from his studies with intelligent supervision of the farming of his several estates: and he wrote his treatise Rerum Rusticarum in his eightieth year.[3]

He had his share of active life, but it was as a scholar that he distinguished himself.[4] Belonging to the aristocratic party, he became a friend and supporter of Pompey, and, after holding a naval command under him in the war against the Pirates in B.C. 67, was his legatus in Spain at the beginning of the civil wars and there surrendered to Caesar. He was again on the losing side at the battle of Pharsalia, but was pardoned by Caesar, who selected him to be librarian of the public library he proposed to establish at Rome.[5] From this time Varro eschewed politics and devoted himself to letters, although his troubles were not yet at an end: after the death of Caesar, the ruthless Antony despoiled his villa at Casinum (where Varro had built the aviary described in book Three), and like Cicero he was included in the proscriptions which followed the compact of the triumvirs, but in the end unlike Cicero he escaped and spent his last years peacefully at his villas at Cumae and Tusculum.

His literary activity was astonishing: he wrote at least six hundred books covering a wide range of antiquarian research. St. Augustine, who dearly loved to turn a balanced phrase, says that Varro had read so much that it is difficult to understand when he found time to write, while on the other hand he wrote so much that one can scarcely read all his books. Cicero, who claimed him as an intimate friend, describes (Acad. Ill) what Varro had written before B.C. 46, but he went on producing to the end of his long life, eighteen years later: "For," says Cicero, "while we are sojourners, so to speak, in our own city and wandering about like strangers, your books have conducted us, as it were, home again, so as to enable us at last to recognize who and whence we are. You have discussed the antiquities of our country and the variety of dates and chronology relating to it. You have explained the laws which regulate sacrifices and priests: you have unfolded the customs of the city both in war and peace: you have described the various quarters and districts: you have omitted mentioning none of the names, or kinds, or functions, or causes of divine or human things: you have thrown a flood of light on our poets and altogether on Latin literature and the Latin language: you have yourself composed a poem of varied beauties and elegant in almost every part: and you have in many places touched upon philosophy in a manner sufficient to excite our curiosity, though inadequate to instruct us."

Of Varro's works, beside the Rerum Rusticarum, there have survived only fragments, including a considerable portion of the treatise on the Latin language: the story is that most of his books were deliberately destroyed at the procurement of the Church (something not impossible, as witness the Emperor Theodosius in Corpus Juris Civilis. Cod. Lib. I, tit. I, cap. 3, § I) to conceal St. Augustine's plagiarism from them; yet the De Civitate Dei, which is largely devoted to refuting Varro's pagan theology, is a perennial monument to his fame. St. Augustine says (VI, 2): "Although his elocution has less charm, he is so full of learning and philosophy that ... he instructs the student of facts as much as Cicero delights the student of style."

Varro's treatise on farm management is the best practical book on the subject which has come down to us from antiquity. It has not the spontaneous originality of Cato, nor the detail and suave elegance of Columella. Walter Harte in his Essays on Husbandry (1764) says that Cato writes like an English squire and Varro like a French academician. This is just comment on Cato but it is at once too much and too little to say of Varro: a French academician might be proud of his antiquarian learning, but would balk at his awkward and homely Latin, as indeed one French academician, M. Boissier, has since done. The real merit of Varro's book is that it is the well digested system of an experienced and successful farmer who has seen and practised all that he records.

The authority from which Virgil drew the practical farming lore, for which he has been extolled in all ages, was Varro: indeed, as a farm manual the Georgics go astray only when they depart from Varro. It is worth while to elaborate this point, which Professor Sellar, in his argument for the originality of Virgil, only suggests.[6]

After Philippi the times were ripe for books on agriculture. The Roman world had been divided between Octavian and Antony and there was peace in Italy: men were turning "back to the land."

An agricultural regeneration of Italy was impending, chiefly in viticulture, as Ferrero has pointed out. With far sighted appreciation of the economic advantages of this, Octavian determined to promote the movement, which became one of the completed glories of the Augustan Age, when Horace sang

Tua, Caesar, aetas
Fruges et agris rettulit uberes.

Varro's book appeared in B.C. 37 and during that year Maecenas commissioned Virgil to put into verse the spirit of the times; just as, under similar circumstances, Cromwell pensioned Samuel Hartlib. Such is the co-incidence of the dates that it is not impossible that the Rerum Rusticarum suggested the subject of the Georgics, either to Virgil or to Maecenas.

There is no evidence in the Bucolics that Virgil ever had any practical knowledge of agriculture before he undertook to write the Georgics. His father was, it is true, a farmer, but apparently in a small way and unsuccessful, for he had to eke out a frugal livelihood by keeping bees and serving as the hireling deputy of a viator or constable. This type of farmer persists and may be recognized in any rural community: but the agricultural colleges do not enlist such men into their faculties. So it is possible that Virgil owed little agricultural knowledge to his father's precepts or example. Virgil perhaps had tended his father's flock, as he pictures himself doing under the guise of Tityrus; certainly he spent many hours of youth "patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi" steeping his Celtic soul with the beauty and the melancholy poetry of the Lombard landscape: and so he came to know and to love bird and flower and the external aspects of

wheat and woodland
tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd,

but it does not appear that he ever followed the plough, or, what is more important, ever laid off a ploughgate. As a poet of nature no one was ever better equipped (the highest testimony is that of Tennyson), but when it came to writing poetry around the art of farm management it was necessary for him to turn to books for his facts. He acknowledges (Geo. I, 176) his obligation only to veterum praecepta without naming them, but as M. Gaston Boissier says he was evidently referring to Varro "le plus moderne de tous les anciens."[7] Virgil evidently regarded Varro's treatise as a solid foundation for his poem and he used it freely, just as he drew on Hesiod for literary inspiration, on Lucretius for imaginative philosophy, and on Mago and Cato and the two Sasernas for local colour.

Virgil probably had also the advantage of personal contact with Varro during the seven years he was composing and polishing the Georgics. He spent them largely at Naples (Geo. IV, 563) and Varro was then established in retirement at Cumae: thus they were neighbours, and, although they belonged to different political parties, the young poet must have known and visited the old polymath; there was every reason for him to have taken advantage of the opportunity. Whatever justification there may be for this conjecture, the fact remains that Varro is in the background every where throughout the Georgics, as the "deadly parallel" in the appended note will indicate. This is perhaps the most interesting thing about Varro's treatise: instructive and entertaining as it is to the farmer, in the large sense of the effect of literature on mankind, Virgil gave it wings--the useful cart horse became Pegasus.

As a consequence of the chorus of praise of the Georgics, there have been those, in all ages, who have sneered at Virgil's farming. The first such advocatus diaboli was Seneca, who, writing to Lucilius (Ep. 86) from the farm house of Scipio Africanus, fell foul of the advice (Geo, I, 216) to plant both beans and millet in the spring, saying that he had just seen at the end of June beans gathered and millet sowed on the same day: from which he generalized that Virgil disregarded the truth to turn a graceful verse, and sought rather to delight his reader than to instruct the husbandman. This kind of cheap criticism does not increase our respect for Nero's philosophic minister.[8] Whatever may have been Virgil's mistakes, every farmer of sentiment should thank God that one of the greatest poems in any language contains as much as it does of a sound tradition of the practical side of his art, and here is where Varro is entitled to the appreciation which is always due the schoolmaster of a genius.

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