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The Wondrous Spectacle of Imperial Diversity

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The English poet Matthew Arnold The English poet Matthew Arnold

I take the title from page 76 of this book by King's College London professor William Fitzgerald both for its sparkle, and to highlight the fact the book's title is Variety. Divining the relationship between variety and diversity is one of the key elements in Fitzgerald's argument about how the concepts associated with them were understood in ancient Rome.


Fitzgerald says “as recent translations of varius and varietas with 'diversity' attest, there is a long tradition of positively loaded uses of this concept to be considered.” According to Cicero, varietas “is properly used of uneven colors, but it is transferred to many things.” Among the things he lists are: poem, character, fortune, speech and pleasure. An example of the word varius is given by Horace, who describes the color of a grape “when it begins to ripen and change in color, becoming variegated.”


The author says the word variety “now seems too lightweight a word,” so it has been replaced in modern discourse in such terms as 'cultural diversity.' His thesis is that the rich meaning of variety has been lost, and this book is an attempt to rescue a sense of its importance in the ancient world. “By staying close to the word itself,” he says in the Introduction, “I hope to reveal a distinctive bundling of ideas, values, and issues that remained remarkably stable over a long period of time.”


Fitzgerald ranges widely to examine this bundling. For example, he quotes from Christina Rossetti's poem “Goblin Market” from 1859 and the sixteenth century writer Giambattista Giraldi who employs both related words in the same sentence: “Diversity of actions carries with it variety, which is the spice of delight.” It is this spice that is liberally sprinkled throughout the book.


I cannot do justice here to all the intricate thought patterns examined by the author, so I will just describe one of them. On page 138 he quotes from Seneca, who writes “How much longer must I endure the same?” Fitzgerald says this cry “resonates across ancient philosophy, as the philosopher proves that he has seen through the variety that meets the eye and knows what it all amounts to.” He draws a link between the disillusionment expressed here with an 1867 English poem by Matthew Arnold that features at the beginning of the book.

                       Ah, love, let us be true

                       To one another, for the world, which seems

                       To lie before us like a land of dreams,

                       So various, so beautiful, so new.


Fitzgerald writes this use of the word various “is precisely the opposite of the modern sense of various. A contemporary reader finds it hard to invest enough content or feeling in the word.” It is the very “puzzling richness” of variety that launches the author on this voyage across the millennia to remind us of the “wide-eyed delight” it embodies.


By tackling such an apparently amorphous idea as 'variety', Fitzgerald ran the risk of writing a lot about nothing. Instead, he has written a lot about something, a something that - like a clue in a Sherlock Holmes mystery - has been lying in plain sight. Once the master sleuth perceives the clue, a mystery is unlocked. I therefore recommend this book to linguists, classicists and those who enjoy a good mystery.

Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept (243 pages) is $55 by University of Chicago Press.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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