2000 Years of Latin Prose | History and Literature

Chapter 8 – Varro: How To Harvest Grapes

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Two thou­sand years of Latin Prose is a dig­i­tal anthol­o­gy of Latin Prose. Here you will be able to find texts from two mil­len­nia of gems in Latin. In this eighth chap­ter, we will learn more about Var­ro. We will also read about how to har­vest grapes for wine in a pas­sage from his work De Re Rustica.

If you want to learn more about the anthol­o­gy, you will find the pref­ace here.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this chap­ter: 2000 Years of Latin Prose: Chap­ter 8. Var­ro: How to har­vest grapes.

Life and Works of Marcus Terentius Varro

(116–27 B.C.) 

Mar­cus Ter­en­tius Var­ro was per­haps Rome’s great­est schol­ar and a con­tem­po­rary of Cicero and Cae­sar.

Life of Varro

Mar­cus Ter­en­tius Varro

Var­ro was born in 116 B.C. prob­a­bly in Reate (mod­ern Rieti, Lazio, Italy), where he also owned estates. Due to his birth­place, and, to sep­a­rate him from a slight­ly younger name­sake, the poet Pub­lius Ter­en­tius Var­ro Atac­i­nus (82‑c. 35 B.C.), he some­times referred to as Var­ro Reat­i­nus.

Saint Augus­tine (354–430 A.D.), how­ev­er, did not agree with Varro’s ori­gin being Reate, but insist­ed that he was born and bred in Rome itself: 

“Quod pro­fec­to non auc­tori­tate sua fecit, sed quo­ni­am eos Romae natus et edu­ca­tus in divi­nis rebus invenit. ”

— Augusti­nus, Civ, 4.1

And this he did not on his own author­i­ty, but because, being born and edu­cat­ed at Rome, he found them among the divine things.

Whether or not Augus­tine was right or not, we will nev­er know. What we do know is that Var­ro had a thor­ough edu­ca­tion in Rome and in Athens, with teach­ers such as the gram­mar­i­an Lucius Auelius Sti­lo and philoso­pher Anti­och of Ascalon. 

Var­ro lat­er became involved in pol­i­tics, becom­ing quaestor, tri­bune, and lat­er – although this is uncer­tain – prae­tor and was part of the com­mis­sion charged with exe­cut­ing the agrar­i­an law of Julius Cae­sar, which dis­trib­uted land among the poor. 

Var­ro was also a close friend of Pom­pey, or Pom­peius Mag­nus, and helped him fight pirates in the Mediter­ranean and stood by his side as a senior offi­cer in the civ­il war against Julius Cae­sar. (For more about Cae­sar, see Chap­ter 6 of this anthology.) 

Var­ro, por­trait 18th century.

After the death of Pom­peius Mag­nus, Cae­sar chose to par­don Var­ro and, accord­ing to Sue­to­nius, charged him with the task of orga­niz­ing the pub­lic library that he had planned. Var­ro was to obtain and clas­si­fy Greek and Latin lit­er­a­ture to open the most mag­nif­i­cent pub­lic library pos­si­ble. (See: Sue­to­nius, Div. Iul. 44).

The plans for a library and Var­ro’s par­don came to a bru­tal end in 44 B.C. with Caesar’s assas­si­na­tion. In the after­math, Var­ro was out­lawed by Mar­cus Anto­nius, and his vil­la, includ­ing his pri­vate library, was destroyed. 

Along with his pos­ses­sions, Varro’s life was in jeop­ardy, but it was saved by a friend, gen­er­al, and con­sul Quin­tus Fufius Calenus, who for­tu­nate­ly was on Mar­cus Anto­nius’ good side. 

Once Emper­or Augus­tus came into pow­er, Var­ro gained his pro­tec­tion and spent the rest of his life writ­ing in peace. He died of old age in 27 B.C.

Varro’s works

Var­ro did­n’t just write at the end of his life. He wrote through­out, and it has been esti­mat­ed that he pro­duced more than 74 Latin works (as well as a few Greek) span­ning over more than 600 books. He was a giant in his own time, and he was often referred to as a source for oth­er authors. 

So great did Var­ro’s con­tem­po­raries think of the schol­ar and his writ­ings that when con­sul, sol­dier, poet, and his­to­ri­an Gaius Asinius Pol­lio (75 B.C.-4 A.D.) found­ed a pub­lic library in Rome (not the one Cae­sar had planned), a stat­ue of Var­ro was placed in it. There were many stat­ues in the library, but Varro’s was the only of a liv­ing per­son (See: Plin­ius, Nat Hist. VII.30).

Manuscript of Varro's De Lingua Latina from the 12th century.
Man­u­script of Var­ro’s “De Lin­gua Lati­na“, Bib­liote­ca Medicea Lau­ren­ziana, Flo­rence, Italy Plut. 51.10, Fol. 28R., cir­ca 1100.

Quin­til­ian (c.35‑c.100 A.D.), though not a con­tem­po­rary, even called him vir Romano­rum eru­di­tis­simus, i.e. the most learned of all Romans. (See Quintillian’s Insti­tu­tio Ora­to­ria, lib X.95)

Var­ro com­posed works in many gen­res such as lit­er­ary his­to­ry, rhetoric, phi­los­o­phy, and poet­ry, as well as books con­cern­ing the gen­res of Roman poet­ry, the ori­gin of the Roman peo­ple. He also wrote an illus­trat­ed book about Greek and Roman polit­i­cal life — the first known illus­trat­ed Roman book. Sup­pos­ed­ly this last work had 700 pic­tures of famous Romans and Greeks.

Varro’s per­haps most impor­tant work, though lost to us today, was his Dis­ci­plinae, an ency­clo­pe­dia of the nine lib­er­al arts; gram­mar, dialec­tic, rhetoric, geom­e­try, arith­metic, astron­o­my, music, med­i­cine, and archi­tec­ture. This work became a mod­el for lat­er ency­clo­pe­dists and lay the foun­da­tion for the lat­er defined sev­en clas­si­cal lib­er­al arts. 

Anoth­er essen­tial work, though per­haps less lit­er­ary, was Var­ro’s chronol­o­gy, known as the Var­ron­ian Chronol­o­gy. This chronol­o­gy was a year-by-year time­line of Roman his­to­ry up to Var­ro’s own time based on the sequence of con­suls of the Roman repub­lic. The chronol­o­gy has been proved wrong in sev­er­al cas­es. It was, how­ev­er, inscribed on the Arch of Augus­tus in Rome (the arch no longer stands) and was used as a basis for the Fasti Capi­toli­ni – a list of the chief mag­is­trates from the ear­ly 5th cen­tu­ry B.C. to Emper­or Augus­tus’ time orig­i­nal­ly engraved on mar­ble tablets at the Forum Romanum. These, togeth­er with lat­er his­to­ri­ans such as Livius, large­ly form our knowl­edge of Roman chronology. 

Most of Varro’s enor­mous cor­pus of writ­ings has, as men­tioned, been lost to us. We do have frag­ments from many of them – most­ly pre­served in Aulus Gel­lius (125–180 A.D.) Noctes Atti­cae. 

Varro's De re Rustica from the 16th century.
Var­ro’s “De Re Rus­ti­ca“, Bib­liote­ca Medicea Lau­ren­ziana, Flo­rence, Italy Plut. 51.3, Cir­ca 1500.

There are two of Var­ro’s works from which more has been pre­served from De Re Rus­ti­ca sive Rerum Rus­ti­carum lib­ri III and De Lin­gua Latina. 

De Lin­gua Lati­na was Var­ro’s gram­mat­i­cal work, writ­ten between 47 and 45 B.C. It con­sist­ed orig­i­nal­ly of 25 books, out of which we only have 6 left (books V‑X) how­ev­er, in a poor, gap-filled state. 

De Re Rus­ti­ca, is the only one pre­served in its entire­ty. It is, as the title indi­cates, a work about agri­cul­ture. It is writ­ten in three books where the first one con­cerns agri­cul­ture, the farm­ing of land, the sec­ond cat­tle, and the third one rais­ing small live­stock (birds, bees etc.). 

It is to De Re Rus­ti­ca we shall turn to today’s chap­ter of 2000 years of Latin Prose and read a pas­sage about grapes and wine. 

Further reading and resources

  • You can read more about Var­ro and the civ­il war in Julius Caesar’s Bel­lum Civile, lib. II.17–21. Be aware though, the book is writ­ten by Cae­sar so he might be a lit­tle bit biased.

Audio & Video

Click below to read and lis­ten to a pas­sage from Var­ro’s De Re Rus­ti­ca

Video With English Subtitles

Audio of Latin Text

Latin text

Below you will find the orig­i­nal text of the pas­sage in Latin. 

De Re Rus­ti­ca, lib I. LIV

In vinetis uva cum erit matu­ra, vin­demi­am ita fieri oportet, ut videas, a quo genere uvarum et a quo loco vineti incip­ias leg­ere. Nam et prae­cox et mis­cel­la, quam vocant nigram, mul­to ante coquitur, quo pri­or leg­en­da, et quae pars arbusti ac vineae magis apri­ca, prius debet descen­dere de vite. 

In vin­demia dili­gen­tis uva non solum legi­t­ur sed eti­am elig­i­tur; legi­t­ur ad biben­dum, elig­i­tur ad eden­dum. Itaque lec­ta defer­tur in forum vinar­i­um, unde in dolium inane veni­at; elec­ta in sec­re­tam cor­bu­lam, unde in ollu­las addatur et in dolia ple­na vina­cio­rum con­tru­datur, alia quae in pisci­nam in amphoram picatam descen­dat, alia quae in aream in carnar­i­um escen­dat. Quae cal­catae uvae erunt, earum scopi cum fol­li­culis subi­cien­di sub pre­lum, ut, siq­uid reliqui habeant musti, expri­matur in eun­dem lacum. 

Cum desi­it sub pre­lo fluere, quidam cir­cum­cidunt extrema et rur­sus pre­mu­nt et, rur­sus cum expres­sum, cir­cum­si­ci­um appel­lant ac seor­sum quod expres­sum est ser­vant, quod resip­it fer­rum. Expres­si aci­no­rum fol­li­culi in dolia coni­ci­un­tur, eoque aqua addi­tur; ea vocatur lora, quod lota aci­na, ac pro vino oper­ari­is datur hieme.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this chap­ter: 2000 Years of Latin Prose: Chap­ter 6. Julius Caesar.

Vocabulary & Commentary

These fol­low­ing words are key to under­stand­ing the text, if you already know them — great! — if not, make a men­tal note of them.


vine­tum, ‑i, n. vine­yard. Note that the end­ing -etum com­mon­ly indi­cates that there is a col­lec­tion of a par­tic­u­lar tree or bush. Com­pare e.g. with olive­tum, and querce­tum mean­ing “olive-grove” and “oak-for­est” respectively.

vin­demia, ‑ae, f., vin­tage, har­vest of grapes

quo, adv. where­fore, and therefore

apri­cus, ‑a, um, adj. sun­ny

lego, leg­ere, gath­er, pick

vinacea, ‑orum, n. pl. wine dregs

sco­pus, ‑i, m. stalk

resip­it fer­rum, tastes of iron; in Latin, the taste, or smell some­thing has, is expressed by the accusative with verbs such as olet, resipt, sapit (it smells, it tastes). Anoth­er exam­ple would be hoc vinum pis­cem sapit. (“This wine tastes of fish”)

quod lota aqua, here we have to sup­ply est. In Latin it is very com­mon to leave out forms of esse, when they can be eas­i­ly inferred from the context. 

English translation

Below you will find an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the text. 

On Agri­cul­ture, Book I. LIV

As to vine­yards, the vin­tage should begin when the grapes are ripe; and you must choose the vari­ety of grapes and the part of the vine­yard with which to begin. For the ear­ly grapes, and the hybrids, the so‑called black, ripen much ear­li­er and so must be gath­ered soon­er; and the part of the plan­ta­tion and vine­yard which is sun­nier should have its vines stripped first. 

At the vin­tage the care­ful farmer not only gath­ers but selects his grapes; he gath­ers for drink­ing and selects for eat­ing. So those gath­ered are car­ried to the wine-yard, thence to go into the emp­ty jar; those select­ed are car­ried to a sep­a­rate bas­ket, to be placed thence in small pots and thrust into jars filled with wine dregs, while oth­ers are plunged into the pond in a jar sealed with pitch, and still oth­ers go up to their place in the larder. When the grapes have been trod­den, the stalks and skins should be placed under the press, so that what­ev­er must remains in them may be pressed out into the same vat. 

When the flow ceas­es under the press, some peo­ple trim around the edges of the mass and press again; this sec­ond press­ing is called circumsicium,and the juice is kept sep­a­rate because it tastes of the knife. The pressed grape-skins are turned into jars and water is added; this liq­uid is called lora, from the fact that the skins are washed (lota), and it is issued to the labour­ers in win­ter instead of wine.

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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