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L. Va'rius Rufus

one of the most distinguished poets of the Augustan age, the companion and friend of Virgil and Horace. By the latter he is placed in the foremost rank among the epic bards, and Quintilian has pronounced that his tragedy of Thyestes might stand a comparison with any production of the Grecian stage.

But notwithstanding the high fame which he enjoyed among his contemporaries, and which was confirmed by the deliberate judgment of succeeding ages, there is scarcely any ancient author of celebrity concerning whose personal history we are more completely ignorant. We cannot determine the date of his birth, nor of his death, nor are we acquainted with any of the leading events of his career. This has arisen partly from the absolute silence of those from whom we might reasonably have hoped to glean some information, partly from the circumstance that he upon no occasion mingled in the business of public life, and partly from the confusion which prevails in MSS. between the names Varius, Varro, and Varus, the last especially being an appellation borne by several remarkable personages both political and literary towards the downfal of the republic, and under the early emperors. If we dismiss mere fanciful conjectures the sum total of our actual knowledge may be expressed in a very few words.

1. We may conclude with certainty that he was senior to Virgil. This seems to be proved by the well-known lines of Horace (Sat. 1.10. 44),

" forte epos acer
Ut nemo Varius ducit : molle atque facetum
Virgilio adnuerunt gaudentes rure Camoenae,"

for from these we may at once infer that Varius had already established his reputation in heroic song while Virgil was known only as a pastoral bard.

2. He enjoyed the friendship of Maecenas from a very early period, since it was to the recommendation of Varius in conjunction with that of Virgil, that Horace was indebted for an introduction to the minister, an event which took place not later than B. C. 39, for we know that the three poets accompanied the great man upon his mission to Brundisium B. C. 38.

3. He was alive subsequent to B. C. 19. This cannot be questioned, if we believe the joint testimony of Hieronymus (Chron. Euseb. Olymp. exe. 4) and Donatus (Vit. Virg. 14.53, 57), who assert that Virgil on his death bed appointed Plotius Tucca and Varius his literary executors, and that they revised the Aeneid, but in obedience to the strict injunctions of its author made no additions.

It has been supposed from a passage of Horace in the Epistle to Augustus (Hor. Ep. 2.1. 247), that Varius was dead at the time when it was published, that is, about B. C. 10, but the words do not warrant the conclusion.


The only works by Varius of which any record has been preserved are :--


Macrobius (Macr. 6.2) informs us that the eighty-eighth line of Virgil's eighth eclogue was borrowed from a poem by Varius, bearing the singular title De Morte. Hence this production must have been written in heroic verse, and it seems highly probable that the chief subject was a lamentation for the death of Julius Caesar on whose glories, John of Salisbury assures us (Policrat. 8.14), the muse of Varius shed a brilliant lustre. Four fragments have been preserved by Macrobius (Macr. 6.1, 2), in all of which Varius had been copied or imitated by Virgil. The longest, extending to six lines, contains a description of a hound couched in highly spirited and sonorous language.


From this Horace, according to the Scholiasts, borrowed the lines inserted by him in the sixteenth Epistle of his first book (27, foll.):
Tene magis salvum populus velit, an populum tu,
Servet in ambiguo, qui consulit et tibi et urbi

No other specimen has been preserved.


The admiration excited by this drama, the last probably of the works of Varius, was so intense that it seems to have overshadowed the renown which he had previously acquired in epic poetry, and this may account for the omission of his name by Quintilian when enumerating those who had excelled in this department. A strange story grew up and was circulated among the mediaeval scholiasts, that Varius was not really the author of the Thyestes, but that he stole it, according to one account (Schol. ad Hor. Ep. 1.4. 4), from Cassius of Parma, according to another from Virgil. (Serv. (ad Virg. Ecl. 3.20; comp. Schol. ad Virg. Ecl. 6.3; Donat. Vit. Virg. 20.81.) Weichert has with much ingenuity devised a theory to account for the manner in which the mistake arose, but it is scarcely worth while to refute a fable which has ever been regarded as ridiculous. No portion of the tragedy has descended to us except a few words, and one sentence quoted by Marius Victorinus (A. G. p. 2503, ed. Putsch.), which critics have in vain endeavoured to mould into verse. It appears from a Codex rescriptus in the royal library of Paris, of which Schneidewin has given an account (Rheinisches Museum, vol. i. p. 106, fol. Neue Folge, 1842), that a MS. of the Thyestes was extant in the eighth century of our era. It is from this Codex that we learn that Rufus was the cognomen of Varius; and it is further stated that the Thyestes was performed after the return of Augustus from the battle of Actium, and that the poet received a million of sesterces (sestertium decies) for it. (Hor. Sat. 1.9. 23, Carm. 1.6, Ar. Poet, 55; Martial, 8.18, Quint. Inst. 10.1.98; Macr. 2.4; Porphyr. ad Horat. Carm. 1.6; Donat. Vit. Virg. 15.56.)

Further Information

Weichert has collected with much industry, and combined with much ingenuity all that can be fixed with certainty, or surmised with probability concerning Varius, but he is obliged to acknowledge that with the exception of the few facts detailed above everything which has been advanced, rests upon simple conjecture. See his essay, " De Lucii Varii et Cassii Parmensis Vita et Carminibus," 8vo. Grim. 1836.


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  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, Book 10, 1.98
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 8.18
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