Vetustas, oblivio e crisi d’identità nelle Saturae Menippeae: il risveglio di Varrone in un’altra Roma

Irene Leonardis


By focusing on the fragments of the Menippean Satires, the present paper discusses a recurrent theme of Varro’s works: the contrast between an ideal past and a present of crisis. Struck by the sudden change of Rome's ethics, politics and traditions, the author appears to feel a deep sense of estrangement. The satire Sexagessis, for example, hurls a bitter accusation at the corruption of the City. In Varro’s view, a process of moral degeneration spoiled Rome so severely that this was not recognizable anymore, since it did not resemble the civitas of the ancestors: this was another Rome in which – like the protagonist of the satire – the writer found himself quite unconsciously, as if fallen asleep. A comparison with some passages from De Lingua Latina suggests that in the Sexagessis – as well as in other Menippean Satires like the Sesqueulixes – Varro puts forth the same anthropological interpretation of time perception: the author seems to claim that by breaking the flow of time it is possible to feel and face relevant cultural changes, particularly concerning the metamorphosis of the Urbs. In both satires, this interruption of the normal course of time is achieved through the main characters' mental or physical departure from Rome: they return to their homeland after a sleep of fifty years or a journey of thirty years and, differently from other citizens, they are able to perceive differences.

In some fragments, the complete loss of ancient values apparently leads to a pessimistic attitude towards the future of Rome, considered aeterna until then; however, this loss does not seem to prevent those like Varro who still believe in the mos maiorum from reacting. In fact, numerous fragments insist on the importance of evoking ancient values – of ruminari antiquitates, as the poet puts it. Other fragments remark that if not properly elucidated, such antiquitates appear useless in the eyes of the younger generations. Thus, the present paper argues that Varro imagined some reliable witnesses recalling and illustrating the mores antiqui. These “voices from the past”, which speak for the maiores, are embodied by the Sexagessis, the Sesqueulixes, and Ennius. The satire Manius resorts to one of these voices as well, since it refers to some recently unearthed ancient books. As a whole, the Menippean Satires convey an essentially constructive message. By employing the so-called medium menippeum (which allows to discuss contemporary events and to integrate the antiquitates into a vivid present), Varro seems to plan a “step back towards the future” (as it were): the mos maiorum is indeed presented not only as a cultural background, but mostly as a paradigm to overcome present difficulties and warrant Rome’s future.

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ISSN: 2281-3209                DOI Prefix: 10.7408

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