'Variety' Is a Fascinating, Inviting Exploration Into the Concept

by Brett Miller

16 March 2017

Analogous to the elements (i.e., atoms) generating the varied world around us, so too the elements of language can be rearranged to create a vast number of meanings.
cover art

Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept

William Fitzgerald

(University of Chicago Press)
US: Mar 2016

In the introduction to his book, William Fitzgerald relates the bemused looks from colleagues and others upon hearing his answer to the question “What are you working on?” Variety, it seems, isn’t the most exhilarating-sounding of topics. My ears wouldn’t naturally prick up either upon hearing a work in progress about… variety. But it turns out there’s actually a tremendous amount to say about “this most elusive of concepts”. In the hands of Fitzgerald, it turns out also that learning about variety can be an immensely rich and pleasurable experience.

In Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept, Fitzgerald, who is Professor of Latin Language and Literature at King’s College London, explores the concept of variety as it existed in its classical Roman context. Avoiding what would otherwise become too broad an exploration and one where variety would slip into the vast discourse of bigger and other topics, Fitzgerald writes that he intends to “[stay] close to the word itself” in order to “to reveal a distinctive bundling of ideas, values, and issues that [have] remained remarkably stable over time.” It’s a choice the reader can appreciate. Fitzgerald’s exploration of varietas examines the concept from many angles and through the lenses of many thinkers, but the discussion is always focused and always centered on the word. 

In the first chapter, Fitzgerald begins his treatment of varietas by giving us a sense of where the concept of variety stands now compared to the past. Up until recently, variety carried a good deal of weight and depth, “a semantic richness”, which it did in classical times. But our modern understanding and use of the word has lost something. Fitzgerald often likens our modern concept of variety—at least in part—to the experience of a supermarket shopper who is presented with seemingly endless choices. Go back not too long ago, however, and variety carried a much fuller sense.

Fitzgerald illuminates this difference by providing examples from English poetry. In passages from Arnold, Milton, and Pope, we see that the word was used in a way not quite like our modern understanding of the word. For these poets and the tradition behind them, the word had “a range of more specific senses” and was closely associated with topics such as pleasure and politics. In other words, it was more robust and situated in conceptual discourse.

In the same chapter, Fitzgerald explores the etymology and semantic field of varietas. As for the former, we alas lack a sure etymology for varius, though it may be derived from varus, in which case it derives from a word meaning “a pimple or inflamed spot”. Cicero helps put us on more certain ground, where in his De Finibus he writes that “[V]arietas is a Latin word, and it is properly used of uneven (disparibus) colors, but it is transferred to many uneven things: a various poem, a various speech, various character, various fortune[.]” Though indeed a Latin word, varietas has important “Greek tributaries”, among them poikilos and metabolē. Poikilos, a word that will come up quite frequently, carries many similar meanings as varius, but in addition possesses a “positive intellectual sense”, which is absent from its Latin counterpart.

A final thing to note about varietas is what it can do. “[T]here is a verb variare, but a more helpful verb to consider is distinguere…”Again, Cicero is of great help here, along with the unknown author of the ad Herennium, and from both we learn that varietas and distinction often work together. Variety can help distinguish certain elements and thus prevent everything from becoming a homogenous whole.

The above is a much-condensed overview of what Fitzgerald has to say about the word “varietas”. It can be dense stuff, but the reader will quickly become more comfortable with the terminology as varietas is placed in specific contexts. In Chapter 2, for example, Fitzgerald explores four conceptual fields—nature, rhetoric, pleasure and aesthetics, empire and polity—in order to see how varietas functions. Each of these areas, Fitzgerald notes, often blends into each other, with no clear boundaries always between them. But by looking at varietas and how it functions specifically with a certain conceptual domain, we can learn a great deal.

As just one example, Fitzgerald shows that varietas becomes an indispensable complement to copia (abundance). The discussion occurs in the section on rhetoric, and the specific issue is the ideal orator. The orator must have in his possession copia. But as valuable a tool as this is, it must be complemented by varietas in order to avoid both fasitiudium (distaste) and satietas (satiety). The abundance of words and ideas must be expressed in a way that does not tire or dull the audience. The concept of varietas, then, does crucial work in balancing out the style of speech.

In chapter 3 Fitzgerald turns to three authors—Pliny the Younger, Lucretius, and Horace—showing how variety functions specifically in the thought of these three thinkers. It’s the most entertaining chapter of the book, and really illuminates the function(s) that variety can play as well as the value that can be attached to it. In the case of Lucretius and his De Rerum Natura, variety is presented as a splendid and wonderful thing. The Epicurean universe, though composed solely of atoms, is nevertheless capable of generating great variety, and Lucretius’s language—which helps to demonstrate this very thing—is itself full of variety.

Indeed, analogous to the elements (i.e., atoms) generating the varied world around us, so too the elements of language can be rearranged to create a vast number of meanings. Fitzgerald has all sorts of other interesting things to show in this section; and combined with his discussion of varietas in the context of Pliny’s anxieties and the “programmatic pronouncements” of Horace, it makes for a very lively read. 

Chapters 4 and 5 tackle, respectively, how different genres “confront” variety (with an emphasis on satire), and variety and miscellany (with much attention given to Aulus Gellius’s Noctes Atticae). Both these chapters are in some ways the most difficult of the book, but with Fitzgerald’s refreshingly clear academic writing they are still accessible with close reading. And, like the rest of the book, they constantly inform one’s knowledge of varietas in its Roman context while providing an impetus to reflect on our own modern sense of the word. Fitzgerald has written a thoroughly captivating book—one that achieves that rare combination of erudition and pleasant reading.

Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept


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