Varro Will Advise You From The Grave

From Varro’s On Agriculture 1.1

“If I had the time, Fundania, I would write this with more polish than what I now jot down as I am able but I know I must hurry because, as the saying goes, if a person is a bubble, an old man is even more so. Now my eightieth year urges me to collect my bags before I depart from life. This is why, since you have bought land which you and to make profitable by cultivating it well, and you have asked me how I would manage it, I am advising you what is the right thing for you to do, and not only for when I am alive myself, but also after I die. I cannot permit that the Sibyl sang only when she was alive to help men, but she also continued after she died and even for people unknown to her. We are in the habit of returning to her books publicly even after so many years when we need to learn what should be down according to some sign—just so, I cannot abide, while I still live, not doing something which might help my friends and family.”


Otium si essem consecutus, Fundania, commodius tibi haec scriberem, quae nunc, ut potero, exponam cogitans esse properandum, quod, ut dicitur, si est homo bulla, eo magis senex. Annus enim octogesimus admonet me ut sarcinas conligam, antequam proficiscar e vita. Quare, quoniam emisti fundum, quem bene colendo fructuosum cum facere velis, meque ut id mihi habeam curare roges, experiar; et non solum, ut ipse quoad vivam, quid fieri oporteat ut te moneam, sed etiam post mortem. Neque patiar Sibyllam non solum cecinisse quae, dum viveret, prodessent hominibus, sed etiam quae cum perisset ipsa, et id etiam ignotissimis quoque hominibus; ad cuius libros tot annis post publice solemus redire, cum desideramus, quid faciendum sit nobis ex aliquo portento: me, ne dum vivo quidem, necessariis meis quod prosit facere.

Derived from Dico: Dictator, Dictum, Addicted(?)

Varro, De Lingua Latina 6.61-2

“The Latin verb dico has a Greek origin, the Greek verb deiknuô which means “to show”. From this meaning, as well, comes dicare “to show, dedicate” as when Ennus writes: “I say that this circus has six little turning posts.” From this word as well we get iudicare, “to judge” because the ius “right thing” is spoken. And from this we get iudex because the judge speaks the judgment (ius dicat) once he has the authority. From the same place, we have dedicate because the ending comes from speaking (Dicendo) certain words.  Thus when a temple is dedicated by a magistrate it is done by speaking after the pontiff. From dicere, from speaking, is indicium (“information”); from this he declares war (indicit); “has invited people” to a funeral (indixit), he has postponed a day (prodixit), he has submitted a judgment (addixit). From this root as well we have named a dictum (“saying”) from farce and also the adjective dictiosus  (“witty”). From this root we also have dicta, orders given by leaders in a military cample; and we also have dictata, dictation exercises in school. And we also have dictator as leader of the people because he must be called (dici) by the counsel. Some old phrase come from this too such as addici nummo (“to be betrayed for a penny”) or dicis causa “for the sake of judicial precedent” and addictus, to be bound to someone.”


Dico originem habet Graecam, quod Graeci deiknyo. Hinc etiam dicare, ut ait, Ennius:

Dico VI hunc dicare circum metulas.

Hinc iudicare, quod tunc ius dicatur; hinc iudex, quod ius dicat accepta potestate; hinc dedicat, id est quibusdam verbis dicendo finit: sic, enim aedis sacra a magistratu pontifice praeeunte, dicendo dedicatur. Hinc, ab dicendo, indicium; hinc illa: indicit bellum, indixit funus, prodixit diem, addixit iudicium; hinc appellatum dictum in mimo, ac dictiosus; hinc in manipulis castrensibus dicta ab ducibus; hinc dictata in ludo; hinc dictator magister populi, quod is a consule debet dici; hinc antiqua illa addici numo et dicis causa et addictus.

Semantic Change and the Challenges of Linguistics: Varro, On the Latin Language, V.2-3

Varro, On the Latin Language, V 2-3

“…The first part, where we consider why and from where words develop, The Greeks call etymology; the second part is semantics. I will speak of these two categories in the following books together but more sparingly of the second.

These things are often rather obscure because every word that has been used does not still exist; the charge of time has made some forgotten. Moreover, every word that still exists, since it may be subject to misuse (applied incorrectly, for example) may not be wholly the same (since many words are altered by changes in spelling). And not every word has its origin from roots based in our own language. Many words indicate a different thing now from what they used to mean: for example, hostis (“enemy”). For, people who used this word in the past meant a foreigner who followed his own native laws; now when they use it they mean what used to be called perduellem(“enemy”).”

priorem illam partem, ubi cur et unde sint verba scrutantur, Graeci vocant etymologian, illam alteram peri semainomenon. De quibus duabus rebus in his libris promiscue dicam, sed exilius de posteriore.

Quae ideo sunt obscuriora, quod neque omnis impositio verborum exstat, quod vetustas quasdam delevit, nec quae exstat sine mendo omnis imposita, nec quae recte est imposita, cuncta manet (multa enim verba litteris commutatis sunt interpolata), neque omnis origo est nostrae linguae e vernaculis verbis, et multa verba aliud nunc ostendunt, aliud ante significabant, ut hostis: nam tum eo verbo dicebant peregrinum qui suis legibus uteretur, nunc dicunt eum quem tum dicebant perduellem.

Arranged Marriages, Solemn Promises: Etymologies of Spondere

From De Lingua Latina, 6. 69-70

Spondere is to say spondeo,”I promise”, related to sponte, something done willingly—this has the same force as a voluntate, “with personal inclination”. This is why Lucilius writes about the woman from Crete that she came to his bedroom willingly, that she tossed off her clothes of her own desire. Terence intends the same willingness when he says that it is better: “to do something right because of your own correct desire rather than fear of another.”

From the same sponte on which spondere is based, are derived the words despondet  (“he pledges”) and respondet  (“he promises in return, answers”), desponsor  (“promiser”), and sponsa (“promised bride”), and many others that are similar. For one spondet (“solemnly swears”) when he says sponte (“willingly”) spondeo (“I pledge”).  He who has promised (spondidit) is thus a sponsor. He who is by “formal promise” (sponsus) bound to keep a pledge to another person is called a cosponsus.

This is what Naevius is thinking when he says consponsi. If money or a daughter “were promised” (spondebatur) as part of a marriage arrangement, both the money and the girl who was promised (desponsa) would be called sponsa (“pledged”). The money which had been agreed upon under the engagement agreement (sponsu) was called a sponsio (“guarantee”); the man to whom the things were promised would be called a sponsus (“betrothed”) and the day of the agreement would be called “betrothal day” (sponsalis).


Spondere est dicere spondeo, a sponte: nam id idem valet et a voluntate. Itaque Lucilius scribit de Cretaea, cum ad se cubitum venerit sua voluntate, sponte ipsam suapte adductam, ut tunicam et cetera reiceret. Eandem uoluntatem Terentius significat, cum ait satius esse

Sua sponte recte facere quam alieno metu.

Ab eadem sponte, a qua dictum spondere, declinatum despondet et respondet et desponsor et sponsa, item sic alia. Spondet enim qui dicit a sua sponte “spondeo”; qui spopondit, est sponsor; qui idem ut faciat obligatur sponsu, consponsus.

Hoc Naevius significat cum ait “consponsi.” Si spondebatur pecunia aut filia nuptiarum causa, appellabatur et pecunia et quae desponsa erat sponsa; quae pecunia inter se contra sponsu rogata erat, dicta sponsio; cui desponsa quae erat, sponsus; quo die sponsum erat, sponsalis.



Werewolf Week, Augustine Edition, nos quid dicamus?

In discussing tales of Diomedes’ companions being turned into birds, Augustine in De Civitate Dei (City of God) discusses werewolves (18.17, the full text):

“In order to make this seem more likely, Varro reports other fantastic tales concerning the infamous witch Circe, who transformed Odysseus’ companions into beasts, and concerning the Arcadians, who were by chance transformed when they swam across a certain lake in which they were turned into wolves. Then, they lived as wolves in the same region. If they did not eat human flesh, then they would be returned to human form after swimming across the same lake again.

And he also specifies that a certain Demanaetus tasted of the sacrifice which the Arcadians used to make to the Lycaean god, after the child was burned on the altar, and that he transformed into a wolf and, once he became a man again, competing in boxing at the Olympian games and achieved a victory. Varro does not believe for this reason that Pan or Jupiter were given the name “Lykaios” in Arcadia for any other reason than their ability to turn men into wolves, since they did not believe that this could happen except through divine power. As you know, a wolf is called lykos in Greek, and this is where the name Lykaian comes from. Varro adds that the Roman Luperci arose from their own mysteries similarly.

But what can we who talk about these things say about this kind of deceit by the devil’s forces?”

Augustine goes on to object to these tales and discuss Apuleius’ Golden Ass. I started translating this, but it is a bit of a Halloween buzzkill..

No Room For Werewolves in this city...
No Room For Werewolves in this city…

[XVII] Hoc Varro ut astruat, commemorat alia non minus incredibilia de illa maga famosissima Circe, quae socios quoque Vlixis mutauit in bestias, et de Arcadibus, qui sorte ducti tranabant quoddam stagnum atque ibi conuertebantur in lupos et cum similibus feris per illius regionis deserta uiuebant. Si autem carne non uescerentur humana, rursus post nouem annos eodem renatato stagno reformabantur in homines.

Denique etiam nominatim expressit quendam Demaenetum gustasse de sacrificio, quod Arcades immolato puero deo suo Lycaeo facere solerent, et in lupum fuisse mutatum et anno decimo in figuram propriam restitutum pugilatum sese exercuisse et Olympiaco uicisse certamine. Nec idem propter aliud arbitratur historicus in Arcadia tale nomen adfictum Pani Lycaeo et Ioui Lycaeo nisi propter hanc in lupos hominum mutationem, quod eam nisi ui diuina fieri non putarent. Lupus enim Graece *lu/kos dicitur, unde Lycaei nomen apparet inflexum. Romanos etiam Lupercos ex illorum mysteriorum ueluti semine dicit exortos.

Sed de ista tanta ludificatione daemonum nos quid dicamus…

The Connection between Humility and Exhumation: Varro on Earth (Terra) and Soil (Humus)

From Varro’s De Lingua Latina 5.23

Terra (earth) is, the same as humus (soil). Thus, they say that Ennius meant “to the earth” when he said: “they were striking the soil with their elbows”. Because the earth is soil, the man who is dead and covered with earth (terra) is said to be inhumed (humatus).

Based on this correlation, if some Roman is cremated and if his burial place is not covered with clods of earth or if a bone has been excluded for the purification of the family of the dead, the family remains in mourning until the bone or body is covered by soil (humus) for the purpose of purification—the period of time during which, as the priests say, the body is uncovered [or exhumed? Inhumatus]. Also, a man who inclines toward the soil (humus) is called “more humble”; the lowest character is called most humble (humillimus) because the humus (soil) is the lowest thing in the world.”

Terra, ut putant, eadem et humus; ideo Ennium in terram cadentis dicere:
Cubitis pinsibant humum;
et quod terra sit humus, ideo is humatus mortuus, qui terra obrutus; ab eo qui Romanus combustus est, si in sepulcrum, eius abiecta gleba non est aut si os exceptum est mortui ad familiam purgandam, donec in purgando humo est opertum (ut pontifices dicunt, quod inhumatus sit), familia funesta manet. Et dicitur humilior, qui ad humum, demissior, infimus humillimus, quod in mundo infima humus.

Mercenaries and Latency: False Etymologies by the Road-Side with Varro

Varro is a veritable cornucopia of knowledge about Latin linguistics. But, sometimes, he is clearly just making stuff up. Can you spot any nonsense below?

“In the Helmet-Horn Tale* we find “A man who fought for wages [latrocinatus] for Ten years under King Demetrius”

Such men were called mercenaries [latrones] who were at the side [latus] of the king and who were in the custom of carrying a sword at their side [ad latera]. Later they were called ‘bodyguards’ from stipatio [“close-attendance”] and they were contracted for a wage.

For this wage [merces] in Greek is called latron [λάτρον]. But from this use, many of the old poets call soldiers latrones. But today we use the word latrones for highwaymen because they have swords like soldiers or because they are latent [“they lie in hiding”] for the purpose of laying traps.”

In Cornicularia:

Qui regi latrocinatus decem annos Demetrio.

Latrones dicti ab latere, qui circum latera erant regi atque ad latera habebant ferrum, quos postea a stipatione stipatores appellarunt, et qui conducebantur: ea enim merces Graece dicitur latron. Ab eo veteres poetae nonnunquam milites appellant latrones. At nunc viarum obsessores dicuntur latrones, quod item ut milites sunt cum ferro, aut quod latent ad insidias faciendas.