Italian humanist Pomponius Laetus – the Latinized name for Giulio Pomponio Leto (1425-1498) – edited the first edition of De lingua Latina (1471) by Marcus Terentius Varro for Georg Lauer, the German printer who had settled in Rome. It was the first of Varro’s works to be printed.
Marcus Terentius Varro was born at Reate, north-east of Rome. Following his studies at Rome and Athens, he engaged in a public career that culminated in the service under Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) during the Civil War. After the Pompeian defeat in the battle of Pharsalus, Varro received Caesar’s pardon. He was requested to organize the first public library at Rome. However, he never completed the task. The assassination of Caesar intervened. Varro was sent into exile. His private library was plundered, but he himself escaped. He dedicated the rest of his life to scholarship. In the Noctes Atticae, Aulus Gellius states that Varro, at the age of seventy-eighth, had completed 490 books. In spite of that phenomenal output, only two works survive: a treatise on farming written in dialogue form, De re rustica, and a study on aspects of the etymology, morphology and grammar of the Latin language, De lingua Latina. Dedicated to Cicero, this treatise – of the original twenty-five only books 5 to 10 survive (with considerable gaps) – is of interest not only as a work on linguistics, but also as a source of incidental information on a wide range of subjects. The manuscript of the book was produced at the Benedictine monastery of Montecassino in the last decades of the eleventh century. The same manuscript contained Cicero’s Pro cluentio, and Ad herennium. In 1355, Boccaccio visited Montecassino and obtained a copy of the manuscript which, transcribed in his own hand, he sent to Petrarch. Regrettably, this manuscript is not extant and scholars, including Laetus, had rely on more unreliable copies made in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Laetus had studied in Rome under Lorenzo Valla whom he succeeded in 1457 as Professor of Eloquence in the Gymnasium Romanum. He was the founder of the Academia Romana which was set up in the style of an ancient priestly college. Laetus was styled ‘pontifex maximus’. Members adopted Greek and Latin names and met at his house to discuss the Classics and study the fragments, inscriptions and Roman coins which Laetus had collected. In 1466, he spent some time in Venice. To his dismay, he was arrested and investigated by the Council of Ten (a secretive governing body of the Venetian Republic) on suspicion of having seduced his students. The ardour of poetic praise for some of these young men was frowned upon. Charged with sodomy he was imprisoned. At the same time, in Rome, Pope Paul II ordered an examination of the Academia Romana on suspicion of heresy, republicanism, and paganism. Arrests were made and Laetus was sent back to Rome to be imprisoned, questioned, and tortured. He refused to admit to charges of immorality and infidelity. He was acquitted in the end and resumed teaching at the University of Rome. He is first and foremost remembered as a teacher. Amongst his pupils were many of the most famous scholars of the period and also included Alexander Farnese, later Duke of Parma.