The Flood of Ogygos in Varro’s Chronography

The biblical flood is the most widespread and most familiar diluvial narrative to our contemporaries. The flood of Deucalion is mostly known by scholars and amateurs – in the noble sense of the word – of classical literature. As for the flood of Ogygos is a chronological marker which scholars have not studied much1.

There are several reasons for the current lack of interest towards the flood of Ogygos. Unlike the Biblical flood and Deucalion, the flood of Ogygos is not narrative. The narrative of an event is the richest and the most direct way to understand what the humanity experiences in an event. But the flood of Ogygos has survived as an event whose issue seems to be exclusively chronographic. It is therefore much more difficult to understand its place in the mental representation of the cosmos in the Antiquity.

The enthusiasm this chronological marker aroused in the Antiquity is not without reason. The central place assigned to him in the tripartite division of time developed by Varro invites the present reader to rediscover the role of the flood of Ogygos in the chronography of the Ancients.

The theory of tripartite division of time by Varro came to us through the De die natali, a little book Censorinus offered in 238 AD to his friend Cerellius on the occasion of his birthday2.

This author (Varro) reported, in fact, three divisions of time: the first, from the appearance of men to the first flood, which, because of the ignorance in which we are, is called “obscure”(adelon); the second, from the first flood to the first Olympiad, is  called “mythical” because of the many fables that are reported, and the third, extending from the first Olympiad to the present, the so-called “historic” because the events which occured are recorded in accurate books3.

Varro proposes a tripartite periodization of time starting from the type of information which the historian can deduce from events. The first period is uncertain (adelon in Greek) because of the ignorance that surrounds it. The second period is mythical because it contains fabulous tales. The third period is historic because the events recorded in the books are true. Varro tries to define the three periods by assigning durations. By nature, the first period cannot be counted. The second period begins with the flood of Ogygos and ends at the first Olympiad.

This second period runs over three periods delimited by two events: four hundred years from the flood of Ogygos to Inachus, eight hundred years from Inachus to the Trojan War and four hundred years from the Trojan War to the first Olympiad. Varro agrees that “although it was the last of the mythical times, this period was the closest to the memory of historians” and may be counted more accurately than the other periods of mythical time. Varro refers to several historians who have attributed to this period variable duration.

It is likely that Varro has used a tripartite periodization to structure the four books of his De Gente Populi Romani. The first book began with the flood of Ogygos and the second book ended with the capture of Troy4.The last book took an end at the moment of the Consulate of Hirtius and Pansa in 43 BC5.

The source of Varro’s tripartite periodization is widely discussed even though its Greek character is attested as Varro uses Greek adjectives to describe the three periods. Today most scholars agree that Varro depends on Castor of Rhodes6. Wether Varro depends on Castor of Rhodes or on another source, it should be noted the great clarity, but also the fundamental originality of his tripartite periodization because the common periodization splits the time between gods and human time. This break takes place either at the time of the Trojan War or at the time of the return of the Heraclides.

Does Varro delineate three periods according to the criterion of accuracy of information? Varro’s explanation reported by Censorinus seems to suggest it: the time goes from the unreliable to the known according to a rate of progress which follows the knowledge man has of past events. As a proof the last events of mythic time are considered more “historical” than the first mythical events.

In fact, the tripartite division of time by Varro can be only understood in the light of his method that Censorinus exposes afterwards:

As for the third age, historians surely disagreed on a few years – six to seven years – but Varro has dissipated the remaining darkness. Thanks to his own sagacity, by comparing the sequence of various cities, counting and calculating eclipses and their intervals by going back; he burst the truth and brought forth light to calculate not only the exact number of years but also the number of days7.

Varro therefore uses astrology to refine its chronological computation8. Varro’s technique points out that the ancient chronograph also uses astrology to date ancient events through the calculation of celestial phenomena and eclipses that have the advantage of providing absolute dates.

Since events are indicated by celestial omens, a reasonable way to find their exact date is calculated from the nearest omen. The procedure may seem more accurate than calculations from unreliable annals and royal lists9. Testimony preserved by Augustine proves that the date of Ogygos retained in the tripartition of the time was based on the manifestation of a celestial event:

From the book of Marcus Varro, entitled, Of the Race of the Roman People, I cite word for word the following instance: There occurred a remarkable celestial portent; for Castor records that, in the brilliant star Venus,called Vesperugo by Plautus, and the lovely Hesperus by Homer, there occurred so strange a prodigy, that it changed its color, size, form, course, which never happened before nor since. Adrastus of Cyzicus, and Dion of Naples, famous mathematicians, said that this occurred in the reign of Ogyges10.

Tarutius, Varro and other astronomers have applied the methods of astrology for historical purposes. It is therefore likely that the choice of Inachus is also based on astronomical considerations. Inachus is synchronized by Ptolemy of Mendes with the flood of Deucalion, the second Greek flood the date of which could be calculated from an eclipse. Varro is particularly influenced by the idea of a renewal of the world. This explains the extraordinary interest in attempts to measure the cosmic cycle shown by the return of all the planets in the same positions11. Loyal to the Pythagorean analogy between macrocosm and microcosm and using astrology to history, Varro aims to show that the law of the new beginning of all things governs beings and societies: “Some astrologers have written that there is a need for men to be reborn, called by the Greeks palingenesis; and thus every four hundred and forty years the same body and the same soul, formerly united in the same old man, come back again in conjunction12.

Is Astrology a safer way to provide absolute dating of historical events? Anthony Grafton and Noel Swerdlow, studying Varro and great philologists of the Renaissance as Joseph Justus Scaliger and Paulus Crusius, show that these two great scholars of the Renaissance, although fans of astrological calculations, have never considered the horoscope as a historical source or even celestial events as portents of earthly events13.Varro, however, considers the relationship between astrology and chronology from another point of view. Astrology is a way for him to associate portenta to historical events. Astrology then puts to light the hidden causes of  the past, present and future history of Rome14.

The influence of the portenta on Varro is so geat that some modern writers have seen the cause that led Varro to write De Gente Populi Romani. Peter Hermann suggests that Varro wrote this work after the appearance of the comet at the time of Caesar’s games and predictions of a new age that it has inspired. According to Peter Hermann, Varro’s work could be based on a temporal frame divided in cycles of 440 years according to the theory of palingenesis reported by Augustine. Another passage reported by Censorinus shows that Varro, like his contemporaries, believed that every century, corresponding to the maximum human life, ended with wonders15. Although the ages determined by Varro do not correspond to the assumption made by Peter Hermann, it is quite possible to interpret the De Gente Populi Romani in the light of the current explanation during the Sidus Iulum16.

The appearance of the comet does not merely mean the inauguration of a new age but the deification of Caesar. Different fragments of his work show how Varro defends deification of leaders due to the invaluable services they have rendered to their people. How can he refer to these deifications without thinking of Caesar? Barely two years after the decree of deification of Caesar, the Roman power is torn between Octavian, who attempts to establish the worship of Caesar and Mark Antony, who is opposed to it. The successful appearance of the comet in the sky ofRomeduring the Games given in July 44 BC gives Octavian right.

The numismatic demonstrates the existence of coins minted in 43 BC showing the sun, the moon and five planets. The idea is in the air since the Julian star appears in the ninth Ecloga which is written after the De Gente Populi Romani.

It would be rash to consider the Julian star as important as the events mentioned in the tripartite division of time. However one point summarizes Varro’s conception of time and history: they are not merely punctuated by events specifically human. Natural events, whose most significant omens are eclipses and floods, print in a sustainable manner the chronological framework of the human history.

  1. Gian Andrea Caduff proposed a chronological and thematic accounts of the flood of Ogygos. Gian Andrea Caduff, Antike Sintflutsagen, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck § Ruprecht, 1986, Hypomnemata, Untersuchungen zur Antike und zu ihrem Nachleben, Heft 82. []
  2. Censorin, le jour natal, Paris, Vrin, 1980, French annoted translation by Guillaume Rocca – Serra. See also Censorinus, The Birthday Book, Holt N. Parker (trans.), Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2007. []
  3. De die natali, 21. []
  4. Augustine, C. G. XVIII, 8:“For Varro begins the book I have already mentioned at this date, and does not propose to himself, as the starting – point from which he may arrive at Roman affairs, anything more ancient than the flood of Ogyges, that is, which happened in the time of Ogygos”. C. G. XVIII, 13:“These fables, easily found in histories containing a true account of events, bring us down to the Trojan war, at which Marcus Varro has closed his second book about the race of the Roman people.” []
  5. Arnobius, Ad Gentes 5, 8:“Varro, that famous Roman, distinguished by the diversity of his learning, and unwearied in his researches in to ancient times, in the first of four books which he has left in writing on the race of the Roman people, shows by careful calculations, that from the time of the deluge, which we mentioned before, down to the consulship of Hirtius and Pansa”. Censorinus, Arnobius and Augustine used to reconstruct the major stages of De Gente Populi Romani. []
  6. Jacques Poucet, Temps mythique et temps historique. Les origines et les premiers siècles de Rome, Gerión, 1987/5, Editorial de la Universidad Complutense de Madrid, pp.69-85. For the Greek influence, p.72. More recently, Wolfram Ax, Dikaiarchs Bios Hellados und Varros De vita populi romani, Rheinischer Merkur, 2000, pp.337-369 and Astrid Möller, Epoch-making Eratosthenes, GRBS, 2005, pp. 245-260. []
  7. De die natali 21, 4. []
  8. Anthony Grafton and Noel Swerdlow, Technical Chronology and Astrological History in Varro, Censorinus and Others, CQ, NewSeries, 1985/2, pp.454-465. []
  9. Grafton-Swerdlow, 1985, pp.460-461. []
  10. Augustine, City of God, 21, 8, Translated by Marcus Dods. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, FirstSeries, Vol.2. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo,NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.). []
  11. Yves Lehmann, Varron théologien et philosophe romain, Bruxelles, Latomus, 1997, Latomus 237, p.78. []
  12. Augustine, C. G. XXII, 28 (Varro, GPR, frg 4 ed Fraccaro). []
  13. Grafton-Swerdlow, 1985, p.465. This does not prevent Crusius to calculate the dates of eclipses from the Olympics (p.462). In the same perspective, see Hermann Peter,Die Epochen in Varros Werk de gente populi romani, RM, 1902, pp.231-251. []
  14. Grafton-Swerdlow, 1985, p.461. []
  15. Censorin, De die natali 17, 5-9: “Because of the ignorance of men, these prodigies are sent by god to men who announced the end of each century.” The context is the description of the rituals of the Etruscans. []
  16. Lily Ross Taylor, Varro’s De gente populi romani, CPh, 1934/3, pp.221-229. []

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