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The night before Aeneas set sail from Carthage, Dido, riven with despair, love, and rage, lay awake, set on her own death. Not so the Trojan. He slept easily aboard his ship until Mercury came to him in a dream, chastising him for resting while his betrayed lover plotted gods know what. “Come now, break off your delays,” Mercury urged. “Woman was always a shifting, changeable thing.” Thus persuaded, Aeneas departed, and in the early light the queen fell on her sword. It was a gruesome death, but it had a scenic ending. To free Dido’s soul from her body, Juno sent the messenger Iris, who appeared “trailing a thousand variegated colors shifting against the sun” — a rainbow.

Dido, Queen of Carthage, Abandoned by Aeneas, 1635, by Andrea Sacchi © Scala/White Images/Art Resource, New York City

Dido, Queen of Carthage, Abandoned by Aeneas, 1635, by Andrea Sacchi © Scala/White Images/Art Resource, New York City

In Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept (The University of Chicago Press, $55), William Fitzgerald, a professor of Latin at King’s College London, explains that Virgil used the same word, varius, to describe both fickle woman and abundant nature. Its original meaning was visual, and early recorded usages refer to the mottled color of ripening grapes; this unpatterned pattern, however, was readily applied to other surfaces. Fitzgerald offers the memorable example of Plautus’ Epidicus, in which the titular slave is asked how things go with him. His answer — “varie” — puns on the condition of his back, which has been discolored by whipping, and his fortunes, which rise and fall over the course of the play. Such was comedy, to the Romans.

Varietas, which came from varius, describes internal inconsistency — something at odds with itself — as well as to combinations of miscellaneous elements, such as the moretum, a sludgy peasant breakfast mixed in a pot. (Fitzgerald argues that our contemporary notion of the “melting pot” as a metaphor for assimilation should be revised to take into account what actually happened when the Romans combined herbs and cheese; rather than blending together, the ingredients retained their original characteristics, yielding a varius color.) For some, nature’s overwhelming and plentiful variety was a wonder to be praised, a manifestation of God’s will and artistry that exceeded human reason. Variety could even justify the apparent imperfections of the world: Thomas Aquinas wrote that “a universe containing angels and other things is better than one containing angels only.” Creation’s bounty was a sign of God’s providence, which accommodated the human propensity to boredom — though this inclination was itself a weakness, a cause of restlessness and unhappiness.

Still, variety had compensatory value. Pliny the Younger contented himself with dabbling in many fields because he was not good enough, or so he claimed, to excel in any one. “Epicurus thinks that the highest pleasure is limited to the removal of all pain,” Cicero wrote, “so that pleasure can be varied and distinguished, but it cannot be increased.” Antony found “infinite variety” in Cleopatra; others flitted around. But the poems that Ovid wrote enumerating the many kinds of women he found desirable should not be read as a litany of diverse female charms, or antiquity’s “California Girls.” They were meant instead to show off his prowess as a lover, which was so rapacious as to find satisfaction in all women — shy ones, bold ones, nitpickers. (“There is one woman who finds fault with me as a poet, I want to lift up her leg while she criticizes me.”) In love as in rhetoric, varietas delectat only insofar as it wards off satietas. Mere variation becomes inelegant frippery, and infinity curdles to nausea. A satirist is one who is sated.

Coloured Rhythm: Study for the Film, 1913, by Léopold Survage © The Museum of Modern Art, New York City/Scala/Art Resource, New York City

Coloured Rhythm: Study for the Film, 1913, by Léopold Survage © The Museum of Modern Art, New York City/Scala/Art Resource, New York City

Unlike the tidy totalities of Greek tragedy, varietas is an aesthetic of disunion in action as well as feeling; Cicero celebrated the “varieties of circumstance,” with their power to provoke “surprise and suspense, joy and distress, hope and fear.” For a reader, variety can be a spectacle that overpowers with a deluge of sensuous detail, or an opportunity for, in Fitzgerald’s words, the “sovereign exercise of choice, as the perceiving subject surveys the available profusion, picking and choosing at will.” The critic, confronted with such sublime disarray, usually tries to tie things together — but what if the pieces were left as they are, this and that, one thing after another?

In that spirit of unamalgamated distinctio, consider this final tidbit from Variety, which has no greater meaning than any other, except that I hate to see it left out of the moretum: the evolution of the word desultory. First used to describe “a circus rider leaping from horse to horse,” “desultory” became a way of describing “inconsistent people who change lovers or political allegiance.” Soon after William Cowper deployed it in his 1785 poem “The Task” — which begins with the assertion, more ambivalent than usually acknowledged, that “variety’s the very spice of life” — the word was being used to describe “the random, purposeless activity of the bored,” and was associated with the reading of novels. Now it is found, if it is found at all, only in novels. I don’t know that I have ever heard anyone say it out loud.

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