The Secrets Hidden In Poetry: Varro, On the Latin Language VII 1.2

“Even though one adds these devices for the sake of divining the intent of the author, many other things still remain secret. But if poetic form, which has preserved in song many ancient words which still survive, had also preserved why they are, poems would be able to bear more fertile fruit. As in prose so too in poetry not all words can be said to possess their most ancient forms, and there are not many which one can read unless he spends his nights in deep study.”

Cum haec amminicula addas ad eruendum voluntatem impositoris, tamen latent multa. Quod si poetice quae in carminibus servavit multa prisca quae essent, sic etiam cur essent posuisset, fecundius poemata ferrent fructum; sed ut in soluta oratione sic in poematis verba non omnia quae habent etuma possunt dici, neque multa ab eo, quem non erunt in lucubratione litterae prosecutae, multum licet legeret.

A Spurious Etymology for ‘Venus’: Varro, On the Latin Language, Book V, 61-2

“For this reason, everybody, when it is too hot or too moist, will either die or, if it persists, will be sterile. Summer and winter bear witness to this, since in the first, the air is hot and the wheat dries up, while in the other nature does not long to struggle with the rain and the cold to bring new life—instead, it waits for spring. Therefore, the roots of creation are two-fold: fire and water. For this reason there are placed at the threshold during wedding ceremonies since here is where things join and since the fire is male, which the semen is there, and the water is female, since a fetus develops from her moisture and the force of their binding together is Venus. This is why the comic poet says “Venus is his conqueress, do you see this?” not because Venus wants to conquer [vincere] but because she plans to bind [vincire].”

Inde omne corpus, ubi nimius ardor aut humor, aut interit aut, si manet, sterile. Cui testis aestas et hiems, quod in altera aer ardet et spica aret, in altera natura ad nascenda cum imbre et frigore luctare non volt et potius ver expectat. Igitur causa nascendi duplex: ignis et aqua. Ideo ea nuptiis in limine adhibentur, quod coniungitur hic, et mas ignis, quod ibi semen, aqua femina, quod fetus ab eius humore, et horum vinctionis vis Venus.

Hinc comicus:
Huic victrix Venus, videsne haec?
Non quod vincere velit Venus, sed vincire.

Earth : Sky :: Europe : Asia — Varro, On the Latin Language, Book V, 31

“Just as all of nature is divided between the heaven and the earth, so too, reflecting the regions of the sky, the earth is divided into Asia and Europe. Asia is situated near the midday sun and the south wind; Europe lies west near the Dipper and the north wind. Asia is named for the nymph whom the tradition makes the mother of Prometheus with Iapetos. Europe is named for Europa the daughter of Agenor whom, as Manlius writes, a bull forced to emigrate from Phoenicia. There’s an outstanding sculpture in bronze of these two at Tarentum by Pythagoras*”

Ut omnis natura in caelum et terram divisa est, sic caeli regionibus terra in Asiam et Europam. Asia enim iacet ad meridiem et austrum, Europa ad septemtriones et aquilonem. Asia dicta ab nympha, a qua et Iapeto traditur Prometheus. Europa ab Europa Agenoris, quam ex Phoenice, Manlius scribit taurum exportasse, quorum egregiam imaginem ex aere Pythagoras Tarenti

*Not Pythagoras of Samos the Philosopher, but Pythagoras of Rhegium.

Where Did the Lacus Curtius Come From? Varro, On the Latin Language, 148

“In the forum one finds the Lacus Curtius (“Pool of Curtius”), which opinion holds was named for Curtius. But the story about why has three forms: Procilus does not report the same thing which Piso does and Cornelius doesn’t follow it either. Proclius reports that in this place the earth opened wide and this fact was referred by senatorial decree to the haruspices: they responded that the gods of the dead asked for completion of a vow that had been forgotten: a promise to send down the bravest citizen. At that time, a certain Curtius, a brave man, armed, climbed atop his horse, and, after he turned from the temple of Concord, threw himself into the hole with his horse. When that deed was done, the place close and entombed his body divinely: it created a monument to his family.

In his Annales, Piso writes that during the Sabine war that occurred between Romulus and Tatius, a most stout Sabine named Mettius Curtius, at the moment when Romuus brought his men on a charge from higher ground, escaped into a marshy spot which was then what the Forum was because the sewers were built and then retreated to his own men on the Capitoline. Well, Piso records this is how the place got its name.

Cornelius and Lutatius write instead that the place was struck by lightning and as a result was fenced in by a senatorial decree. This was done under the leadership of a Consul named Curtius who was a colleague of Marcus Genucius. For this reason, it was named Lacus Curtius.”


Cornelius et Lutatius scribunt eum locum esse fulguritum et ex S. C. septum esse: id quod factum esset a Curtio consule, cui M. Genucius fuit collega, Curtium appellatum.

In Foro Lacum Curtium a Curtio dictum constat, et de eo triceps historia: nam et Procilius non idem prodidit quod Piso, nec quod is Cornelius secutus. A Procilio relatum in eo loco dehisse terram et id ex S.C. ad haruspices relatum esse; responsum deum Manium postilionem postulare, id est civem fortissimum eo demitti. Tum quendam Curtium virum fortem armatum ascendisse in equum et a Concordia versum cum eo praecipitatum; eo facto locum coisse atque eius corpus divinitus humasse ac reliquisse genti suae monumentum.

Piso in Annalibus scribit Sabino bello, quod fuit Romulo et Tatio, virum fortissimum Mettium Curtium Sabinum, cum Romulus cum suis ex superiore parte impressionem fecisset, in locum palustrem, qui tum fuit in Foro antequam cloacae sunt factae, secessisse atque ad suos in Capitolium recepisse; ab eo lacum Curtium invenisse nomen.

The Etymology of the River Tiber: Varro, On the Latin Language, Book V 30

I am spending this month in Italy with students.  I will be in Rome three or four times. Varro is helping me stock upon anecdotes to give the appearance of erudition….

“There are two traditions about the name of the Tiber. For both Etruria and Latium believe that the river is their own. There have been those who claim that the river was first called the Thebris after a nearby ruler of the Veians. There are authors who report that the early name was changed to honor Tiberinus, the Latin king, after he died there—since, as they claim, this is his burial site.”

Sed de Tiberis nomine anceps historia. Nam et suum Etruria et Latium suum esse credit, quod fuerunt qui ab Thebri vicino regulo Veientum, dixerint appellatum, primo Thebrim. Sunt qui Tiberim priscum nomen Latinum Albulam vocitatum litteris tradiderint, posterius propter Tiberinum regem Latinorum mutatum, quod ibi interierit: nam hoc eius ut tradunt sepulcrum.

The Elements of Life Are Not Unlike The Elements of Language (Varro, On the Latin Language, Book V, 11-12)


Pythagoras of Samos claims that the basic elements of all things are paired—finite and infinite; good and bad; alive and dead, day and night. For this reason, then, two basic elements are motion and set-position; and both split into four parts: what is still or is moved is a body; where it is moved is a place; while it is moved, is a time; what is the character of the movement, an action. The four-part split will be more obvious like this: the body is something like a runner; the stadium is where he runs; the hour is his time; and the running is the action.

For this reason, then, all things can be divided into four parts and these are eternal—since there is never time unless there is motion—even an interruption of motion needs time; nor is there motion without place and body, since the former is the thing that moves and the latter is where it moves; nor is there a lack of action where the body moves. Therefore, location, body, time and action are the four-horse chariot of etymological foundations.

Pythagoras Samius ait omnium rerum initia esse bina ut finitum et infinitum, bonum et malum, vitam et mortem, diem et noctem. Quare item duo status et motus, utrumque quadripertitum: quod stat aut agitatur, corpus, ubi agitatur, locus, dum agitatur, tempus, quod est in agitatu, actio. Quadripertitio magis sic apparebit: corpus est ut cursor, locus stadium qua currit, tempus hora qua currit, actio cursio.

Quare fit, ut ideo fere omnia sint quadripertita et ea aeterna, quod neque unquam tempus, quin fuerit motus: eius enim intervallum tempus; neque motus, ubi non locus et corpus, quod alterum est quod movetur, alterum ubi; neque ubi is agitatus, non actio ibi. Igitur initiorum quadrigae locus et corpus, tempus et action.

On the Difficulty of Poetic Language: Varro, On the Latin Language VII 1.1


“The words of poets are hard to analyze. For often sudden destruction has obscured a different meaning used in prior times or else a word has been changed from the same letters it used when some of them have been taken away and for this reason the intention of the one who used it is unclear. It isn’t necessary though to find fault with those who, in trying to understand a word, add a letter or subtract that one so that what underlies this expression may seem easier. In the same way, so that the eyes may see the unclear work of Myrmecides’ ivory, we place black material behind the sculptures.”


Difficilia sunt explicatu poetarum vocabula. Saepe enim significationem aliquam prioribus temporibus impositam repens ruina operuit, aut verbum quod conditum est e quibus litteris oportet inde post aliqua dempta, sic obscurior fit voluntas impositoris. Non reprehendendum igitur in illis qui in scrutando verbo litteram adiciunt aut demunt, quo facilius quid sub ea voce subsit videri possit: ut enim facilius obscuram operam Myrmecidis ex ebore oculi videant, extrinsecus admovent nigras setas.

On Appreciating a Tree Without Seeing the Roots: Varro, On the Latin Language VII 1.3

“Therefore, when a man has said many things well about the origins of words, it is better to regard him well rather than to find fault with someone who has not been able to contribute anything. This is especially true since the art of etymology claims that it is not possible to find the origin of all words—just as it is not possible to say why a useful medicine is good for healing. Just so, if I do not know about the roots of a tree, I am able still to say that a pear is from a branch and a branch is from a tree whose roots I do not see.”

Igitur de originibus verborum qui multa dixerit commode, potius boni consulendum, quam qui aliquid nequierit reprehendendum, praesertim quom dicat etymologice non omnium verborum posse dici causam, ut qui ac qua re res utilis sit ad medendum medicina; neque si non norim radices arboris, non posse me dicere pirum esse ex ramo, ramum ex arbore, eam ex radicibus quas non video.