Varro the Agronomist
Political Philosophy, Satire, and Agriculture in the Late Republic
Grant A. Nelsestuen
Literary Criticism, Ancient & Classical
344 pp. 6x9
$35.95 paper 978-0-8142-5221-5
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“This book provides an original and compelling reading of an important and neglected work of classical Latin literature. The author is attentive to literary, philological, historical, cultural, and economic issues and produces a dazzling interpretation of Res Rusticae in its many contexts. It far surpasses previous work and establishes a model for approaching ‘technical’ writings as works of literature.” —Thomas Habinek, University of Southern California
Some six years after his narrow escape from proscription in 43 BCE, Marcus Terentius Varro, the “most learned” of the Romans, wrote a technical treatise on farming in the form of a satirico-philosophical dialogue. Grant A. Nelsestuen argues that far from simply being just another encyclopedic entry of a seemingly aloof antiquarian or offering an escapist’s retreat into rustication, Varro’s De Re Rustica uses the model of the farm to craft an implicitly political treatise that grapples with multifarious challenges facing the contemporary Roman world.
On one level, Varro’s treatise presents an innovative account of the Roman farm, which rationalizes new agricultural and pastoral opportunities for contemporary elite owners of large-scale estates. But on another level, this bold agronomical vision associates the farm’s different spheres with distinct areas under Roman control, thereby allegorizing Rome’s empire on the model of a farm. Nelsestuen argues that Varro’s treatise thus provides his contemporaries with a model for governing the Roman state, anticipates Augustus’ subsequent transformation of Roman dominion into a coherent territorial state, and offers an ancient theory of imperialism.
Shedding new light on the only completely extant work of a much-celebrated but ill-understood figure, Varro the Agronomist has much to offer to those interested in Latin literature—especially, Cicero and Vergil—as well as on the political dimensions of intellectual life in first-century bce Rome, ancient imperialism, and Roman political philosophy.
Grant A. Nelsestuen is Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.