Varro, Marcus Terentius

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

  • About

Varro, Marcus Terentius (116–27 bc) was a prolific Roman writer who wrote on subjects as diverse as grammar, geography, history, law, science, philosophy, and education; the rhetorician Quintilian called him ‘the most learned man among the Romans’ (Institutio oratoria 10. 1. 95). Yet the only one of his works to survive in its entirety is his manual of agriculture, De re rustica. Varro started it in his 80th year and addressed it to his wife, who had bought a farm. Varro was a man of letters, and, unlike cato’s treatise, from which he borrows occasionally, his own is a literary exercise, written in a highly wrought style. De re rustica is full of antiquarian learning as well as practical advice, and Varro often looks back to the time when the inhabitants of Italy were all hard-working honest farmers and there was none of the decadence that prevails among the city dwellers of his day. The treatise is divided into three books, each of which is a dialogue; most of the material on wine comes in the first book. He defines old wine as at least a year old; some wine goes off before that, but some, like falernian, becomes the more valuable the longer it is kept. Varro’s work was used by later writers such as virgil, pliny, columella, and palladius. Varro’s own chief authority, by his own admission, is Mago of carthage, about whom nothing is known and of whose work nothing survives. Among the many Greek authors he mentions as his sources are Aristotle, Xenophon, and Theophrastus.