Divus and Deus in Varro and Servius

Hans Dampf has made a series of very interesting and learned comments on a post of mine about an inscription calling Julius Caesar god.  If you haven’t seen these, you probably want to.

In particular he has tracked down and translated two statements by Servius, the 5th century commentator on Vergil, which illuminate the way in which the Latin terms deus (god) and divus (divinity) diverged in meaning as emperors were deified. 

I won’t repost all of Hans’ comments, which can be read there.  But I will repost what he gives from Servius, discussing “deus/dii” against “divus/divi”, as I think it will be of general interest.  The works by Varro etc are lost.

(1) Servius, Ad Ad Aeneidem 12.139 (= Varro, De Lingua Latina fragment 2, edition Goetz-Schoell)

Deus autem vel dea generale nomen est omnibus: nam quod graece δέος, latine timor vocatur, inde deus dictus est, quod omnis religio sit timoris. Varro ad Ciceronem tertio: “ita respondeant cur dicant deos, cum [de] omnibus antiqui dixerint divos”.

Translation: “Deus or dea is the general term for all [gods]. […] Varro to Cicero in the third book [of De lingua Latina]: ‘That is the reply they would give as to why they say dii, when the ancients said divi about them all.’”

(2) Serv. Ad Aen. 5.45 (= Varro fr. 424, Grammaticae Romanae fragmenta, ed. Funaioli)

divum et deorum indifferenter plerumque ponit poeta, quamquam sit discretio, ut deos perpetuos dicamus, divos ex hominibus factos, quasi qui diem obierint; unde divos etiam imperatores vocamus. Sed Varro et Ateius contra sentiunt, dicentes divos perpetuos deos qui propter sui consecrationem timentur, ut sunt dii manes.

Translation: “The poet [Virgil] usually employs ‘of the divi‘ [divum] and ‘of the dii‘ [deorum] indifferently, although there should be a distinction in that we call the immortals dii, whereas divi are created from men, inasmuch as they have ended their days; from which we likewise call [dead] emperors divi. But Varro and Ateius hold the opposite opinion, claiming that divi are eternal, whereas dii are such as are held in honour because they have been deified, such as is the case with the dii manes.

5 Responses to “Divus and Deus in Varro and Servius”


  1. Hans Dampf

    The translations are not by me, but taken from Ittai Gradel’s book. Anyway, thanks for reposting. :)

  2. Hans Dampf

    One comment. You write:

    […] two statements by Servius, the 5th century commentator on Vergil, which illuminate the way in which the Latin terms deus (god) and divus (divinity) diverged in meaning as emperors were deified.

    In order to be etymologically correct, you could have written “deus (“deity”) and divus (“divinity”). But even that could be misleading for some readers, because it still insinuates slightly that there was an inherent difference between the two words, which in fact did not exist: Both terms (Latin and English) mean “god”, the Latin terms exclusively “god”. It’s only the political interpretations and implications that changed the specific sub-meanings of these words in classical times, their utilization in different contexts according to Varro/Ateius and Servius, and in later Christian frameworks, where divus meant “blessed” or “sacred”, e.g. for Christian saints.

  3. Roger Pearse

    Thanks for the clarification.

    Yes, deity for deus is better; but of course every schoolboy learns “god”. (I think I did quite well for a post in a hasty couple of seconds snatched from doing something else!!)

  4. Hans Dampf

    YOU DID! :) It was very kind of you.

  5. Roger Pearse

    Many thanks again for posting these fascinating details!



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